on November 23, 2009
The dead televisions were coming in from all over Oakland, their screens stained and shattered, the green of circuitry panels showing through their split plastic sides. Men hunched into a cold wind blowing off the bay as they pushed their shopping carts up Peralta Street, past the tiny triangle of Fitzgerald Park to Alliance Recycling.
On a normal day, a T.V. could get you some money, but on Wednesday there was a little change-up—nobody on Peralta Street knew why—and Alliance was only taking televisions “on donation.” That means no cash money, just a lightening of one’s burdens, so to speak.
“Nobody wants to drag them all the way back home,” said Canine, a short man standing by the front door.
Canine watches over the door at Alliance, but that’s not his only job. He also has a side business training security dogs for people in his neighborhood—Rottweilers and German Shephards mainly.
“I take a bite out of crime like the police does,” Canine said. “I don’t shoot ‘em, I take a bite out.”
On Wednesday morning he was taking just a little bit of a bite out of peoples’ hopes, breaking the bad news about televisions. But he was there to help them drag their aluminum, glass and plastic into the sorting containers inside. People are always willing to slip him a few bills for helping them out, he said, because they’re weary from the work of gathering and carting in refuse from all over town.
“Some people come here, they be tired,” Canine said. “They always pay me, because that’s what I’m here for.”
Marvel, one of Canine’s co-workers, paced back and forth in a denim mini-skirt, pointing people in the right direction with a permanent grin on her face. She took a quick break from work when a tall, wiry man walked out onto the sidewalk with a fresh roll of bills. The grin turned into a smile when he gave her a hug and slipped some of that green into her hand.
Marvel walked back toward the front door. From afar she appeared to be wearing a white shell necklace, but when she walked closer it became clear that it was actually a tracheal tube extending out from her throat. If you stand within earshot, the sound of her breath passing in and out of that tube is louder than the sound of people unloading their cargo inside, crushing cans and breaking bottle after bottle.
If one asks about the tube, Marvel will smile and tell a horror story. The story would be tough to verify, but it goes like this: The tube hasn’t been there for long and it isn’t permanent. It’s just something she had to get a few months ago, after her man stabbed her in the throat. It happened suddenly, she said, while she was talking. Out of nowhere there was just a blade in her windpipe.
“I didn’t even feel it,” she said.
Then Jordan pulled up, and he had troubles to talk about, too. He parked right in front of the entryway with a television in his passenger seat—no extra money for him either—but luckilyhe had a trunkload of bottles to redeem. As he unloaded them he talked about getting fed up with America and how it still looks down on black folks. Lately he’s been seeing a lot of other races standing in grocery lines with food stamps. Why, Jordan wants to know, isn’t anyone pointing the finger at them?
“Us blacks are only like ten percent of America now,” he said. “Why they still got to treat us like that?”
Sometimes Jordan thinks of moving to Europe, where one can get free college and better health plans, he says. He already drives a European car—a Mercedes, to be exact. On Wednesday his ride was a bit messed up. Some kids stole it at 14th and Aileen, while he was having a beer, and the Mercedes came back to him with two spiderwebbed windshields and the front bumper snapped in half, like a football player’s collarbone. Where were the cops?
Jordan said he hasn’t seen an honest politician in America since Ross Perot. There was a term Perot often used that he liked. What was it? Jorden stopped talking to think for a second.
“My main man was Ross Perot,” he said. “He had a word he liked to use: pilot light. With that little light, that light can start the big blaze.”
Jordan kept talking and Marvel walked across the street, out of the shade and into a warm patch of morning light. She sat down on a red-painted curb and rubbed her bare legs, talking to herself as she closed her eyes and turned her face to the sun. She wore a red T-shirt on her head like a turban, and when she shook that bright cloth around, talking to somebody who wasn’t there, it looked like something lit by a pilot light.
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