Vitality Fountain

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I can’t remember the last time that the Vitality Fountain had water in it. On this particular Thursday there were bottle caps caught in the grates and a dried gasoline stain near the base of it, the sculpture’s copper patina peeling back in white patches. The fountain is a piece of Modernist stalagmite at the far corner of Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, ringed by Vietnamese sandwich shops and commuter cafes. It’s a stone’s throw from City Hall, and small clusters of white men in ill-fitting suits carry stacks of papers between the buildings. At lunchtime, local workers fill the nearby rows of benches, eating salads out of Tupperware, studiously ignoring the drunks passed out nearby.

Lorelle Ashley sat on the ledge of the fountain with his hands folded into a tent, idly watching me fidget with the settings on my camera. “I’m determined to do a lot of things,” he said. “I wanted to be a veterinarian, a doctor. I don’t like losing—it’s just like being hungry.” Ashley is participating in a 90-day job placement program run by Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), an Oakland non-profit that works with homeless and low-income residents to help them find employment and live self-sufficiently.  Today he paints apartment buildings and picks up maintenance and janitorial work.

He and the men in his program are looking for more opportunities, he says. “There are people [who are] 30 years old and never had a job in their life,” he said. “They’re trying to cope with doing the right thing right now.”

It was hot, bright and quiet. A sunburned homeless man in a Soviet cap limped past the roundabout, talking to the sidewalk; an elderly woman with an underbite and James Brown hair shouldered past him with her cane. Everyone was taking a moment between shifts. A brisk woman named Heidi said she runs training sessions that advise non-profits on how to incorporate disabled adults into their volunteer workforce. “I think everybody needs to feel useful,” she said. A civil engineer who didn’t give his name said he is designing the suicide nets on the Golden Gate Bridge. His team won the project after an extensive bidding process, he said, and it’s challenging work.

The hardest part about building a suicide net is the bounce factor, said the engineer. “It shouldn’t be so springy that they can just jump off the net,” he said as he ate his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “They’ll fall from a height of twenty feet. It won’t be a soft landing—they’ll be stunned. Then a truck will come and pick them up.” He never expected to build something like this. But it’s an honor to work on such a signature structure in the Bay Area, he said, and it’s important work.

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