Rambo Summer by Sean Labrador y Manzano


January 17, 2015

From South Shore, amazed at the progress of the new bike lane, reducing Shoreline Avenue by half, we bike the 4 miles to Alameda Point, to where the U.S.S. Hornet (CV-12) berths, a floating museum dedicated to its combat and peace time service. T stops, pulls out his iPhone, snaps away at the area of Crab Cove, high tide, behind Paden School, amazed he did not know this was here, then back in the saddle where two blocks later cutting through Encinal High School where I tell him toilet paper is why the school mascot, the A-4 Skyhawk, is high off the ground. I think of the very few JROTC cadets, avoiding P.E., who actually entered service, enlisted or officer. Very few. Very naïve. Very under-sized. Those who cannot take orders, the dress code, the stifling uniform, the work conditions, often combative, the physical fitness, often humiliating, the persistent scrutiny, often homophobic and misogynistic, the base pay, not really worth sacrificing life for presidential doctrine, in this case, Reagan’s followed by Bush I. How many of my classmates before entering our first year in high school were motivated by Maverick’s overcoming the loss of Goose to famed MIG killer in Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986). I think to Google their names or find them on Facebook or Linkedin. How often did I ride these streets in my gull-winged Huffy patrolling with a wingman. We cut past the school cafeteria and I want to yell out “Talk to me Goose!” to see how my son responds, an inherited wing-wave. How often did we pace the A-7 Corsairs attached to the Firebirds (VA-304), descending rooftop level, practicing their landings, leaving us in the dust. Did those pilots in turn imagine dropping napalm? Hence the fog of war, hence friendly fire, hence collateral damage, hence our cynicism. No, I was inspired to be a naval aviator by way of Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). Zach Mayo, tattooed, shoulder-length hair, lived in Olongapo with a reluctant father after his mother’s suicide. I had more in common with Richard Gere’s chip, crusty enlisted Robert Loggia, than Tom Cruise’s chip, phantom pilot father shot down during the Vietnam War. Between the two films is privilege. Further, it’s a choice between Debra Winger’s stuck working class wood pulp mill Polish versus Kelly McGillis’ polished glass shattering astrophysicist blonde. One wanting marriage to a naval aviator solution to poverty. The other, a trophy to the ace who impresses the most.

We push along Oriskany Avenue and beyond the public storage where my library, a third of which was the entire Play and Poetry stock of Kevin Patrick Books, gathers in wine and beer boxes. The Hornet’s radio shack rises above reconciled warehouses of light industrial and the barren reality, the toxic soup beneath that failed to nurture Biotech Island and Silicon Island.

I have taken my son to two films that would have inspired me to serve if I were at his age. The air combat fatality of Joe “Lightning” Little played by David Oyelowo in Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails (2012) gave him nightmares. The kids in the theater were asking why are the Germans the enemy? Why are the black pilots discriminated? Why are these people fighting? I would have relished the cockpit, the self-sacrifice, the death wish. F-22 Raptors defending Earth against invading Formics in Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (2013) would have also lent to romantic heroism. Children with a talent for tactics. For my son, I prefaced this is a film about the state’s fear of the unknown, the tendency to react with violence, and the tool of its violence-children. My war film, war history, war biography, war toy, military models, and sniffing glue began early. I’m glad he was not as informed. Not as desensitized. Would he have felt conflicted watching the repeated killings of Asian soldiers, their demonization, their caricature even when presented as allies?

My classmates, did they in their second year of JROTC sing the Mickey Mouse song marching in formation, shortly after Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket? Could they see themselves leaving the burnt husk of a city? A city trampled by them. Did they ever continue desiring service as a career in their third, fourth years, then post graduation? Jillian’s at the Metreon, our class reunion—10 years, waiting for college friends, a planned rescue from a cohort I thought would be distant unrelatable, my cue to see The Matrix because my favorite Marxist professor, Collen Lye, raved about it in the Reading Postcoloniality in Asian American Literature seminar. In a graduating class of about 250, of the 60 attending for billiards and beer, I was the only veteran-I think—and would have traced their employment if such things as Linkedin or Facebook existed. How awfully pleasant it was for them to play soldier in safe and sanitized simulations. Yes, enough of being the dutiful colonial subject, the expected janissaries, at least you rode helicopters in high school, at least we fulfilled our parents’ dreams and not become plain fodder. But dreaming nonetheless. We, or I, interrogate negritude and the spectrum by which Asians are identified and pandered agency.

M-I-C-K-E-Y. M-O-U-S-E. My company sure droned at Great Lakes Great Mistakes, similarly shouldering mops for rifles, though the blizzards of 1993-94 muffled our humor. All the caution and I still joined after a year of college. As I remember 071, a third of my company was black, mainly from the South, barely passing high school, choosing structure than the lack of inner city safety net when athletic scholarships were scarce. The military was hauntingly unavoidable, especially after images of dead, naked, American soldiers, which eventually set the tone for Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001).

Make “Love Not War”—I was introduced to Berkeley that year when Joker became my conscience, cutting school with my sister’s boyfriend, also a Navy brat, much later to be husband, and there diminished my applications to Harvard or Purdue or Reed where a degree in nuclear science would lead me to develop next generation Peacekeeper or Trident at Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore Lab–the Naval Academy long out of focus by then. My vision loss I will get to in a moment. So when I eventually signed on, I intended to be a war correspondent as well and write for the Stars & Stripes and wear the crow’s feet as was my nature.

My son is 10. I was 10 when my (step)father, a West Virginian Scot-Welsh of coal miners, a redneck in all its endearment, Donald Sutherland with Robert Mitchum voice, was assigned Master Chief leading Ship Services—convenience stores, barbershops, and laundry, aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson (CVN-70), then the newest nuke carrier, homeported at NAS Alameda, joining the Enterprise (CVN-65). My first visit, Dad’s department heads watched Fraggle Rock, and the men looked twice at his brown boy. In the Vinson’s 1984-85 WESTPAC cruise book, I see the men descending in rank below him, the fathers of my classmates. Mixed-race Asian/Pacific is more common, rather more physically marked, and the usual looks, always unsettling, guessed an adoption. The classmates are more forgiving. More vocal.

Having lived in Guam and Hawai’i earlier that year, I was quite sheltered from overt mainland phobias. Of course the rotation every two years of servicemen and women at any military post taught the individual tolerance, or will reveal the individual’s intolerance. Alameda was my lesson in racism outside of tourism, the cruising for and the performance of brown bodies, the presumed reservation of beaches for itinerant whiteness, the aggressive claiming of sand, the dreaded dredged façade resurfacing the postcard coastal, the unstable aggregate, the shifty dominant gaze, a persistent mastery in the phantasmatic, and in hospitality, where Grandma Mary laundered between nauseating rising shadows and rents the absentee landlord’s linens, at least in the tide, washed the territorial pissings and circle jerks, a recuperation from its presence. Remember, Asian bodies dominate Hawai’i (and I say this in regards to the imported labor, to the economic refugees, to the sojourners, to the generations before tourism), brown bodies dominate Hawai’i, so coming to America, minoritization was difficult.

The National Historic and California Historic Landmark is tied at the same pier as was the Vinson. I tell T about the Battlestar Galactica by way of Star Trek. The former unfamiliar and the latter somewhat strange, a pop culture figment. Within a few weeks settling in to his new post, Dad, solicited a nickname for the carrier that can rival the Enterprise’s “Starship.” Obviously, I insisted, the “Battlestar” and it stuck. T was not as impressed that I am in the lore of another carrier, bigger and more powerful than the World War II relic. Though, I was glad he did not immediately share my fascination for war machines, the destructive capability, the industrial complex that built them. Perhaps, the long lesson on the Defense Budget and corporate war profiteering at Occupy Port of Oakland had really taken root, disgusted by the pie chart I drew in the air, and the crumbs for Education, the diminishing returns when my college tuition invested in a single tank-busting missile. I mean we hoisted together the sign, “Schools Not Bombs.”

We locked our bikes beneath the gangplank. The Hornet’s gangplank much like the Vinson’s, galvanized and sharp. The U.S.S. Port Royal (CG-47), the last gangplank I crossed, my ticket to Pearl Harbor, however my contract deliberately shortened, and after an Atlantic storm suddenly swamping the Chesapeake revealing slight leadership potential, I left behind, but a Plankowner regardless. Had I stayed in for a pension, I would be retired by now—perhaps with my own mortgage, a new car, starting college, and money in the bank. The gray paint like any and all warships, the slow rehabilitation from corrosion, the aging volunteer crewing the Quarterdeck, the time warp leaving dry land, the ambient 1MC mustering Boy Scouts from onboard classes to lunch in Hangar Bay 2. I stumble with my permission to come aboard. The Quarterdeck’s similar feel, less guarded now, less official. Museum self-guided tour headsets borrowed after the cashier remarked about the health of my long black hair—a crux in my brief Navy stint; I complimented hers.

When T and I saw Boy Scouts, some in shorts, others in switchback pants, geeky and awkward, follow their noses to hot dogs and hamburgers, I asked if he recognizes any friends, thinking they were Boy Scouts from Alameda. He said some, though quickly, and I dreaded his answer, maybe he will want to join a troop, join its church, learn to salute, subscribe to very white washed Boy’s Life, be conflicted with the homophobia, become manic for patches, and yet those patches themselves measure so many forms of knowledge. In the military, patches, or ribbons, suggested participation in state violence, often with bittersweet results. I was in the Scouts for camping and outdoor survival skills, only. Patches, I resisted.

The video orientation of Hornet’s brief history and museum offerings informed the obvious, though fascinating to a 10-year old not Navy brat, denied of war toys or replicas, allowed for the retelling of his maternal great grandfather’s connection to the Philippines, the Lingayen Gulf landings in 1945. A Gunnery Officer on the troop ship U.S.S. Sumter (APA-52), T’s great grandfather help land army troops on the beaches of San Fabian, two towns west of Binalonan, my mother’s town, in Pangasinan—she was 7, hiding in caves, waiting for MacArthur’s return. The Hornet most likely provided air support for these troop landings as did the many carriers of Task Force 38. T is the only child to express the great grandfather’s red hair. Must be the Illokano-Spanish-Chinese that complements the Dutch by way of Iowa. He self-identifies as white, but in summer, I remind him, that as he warms in to narra tones, he is all mine, yet not near the mahogany of his cousins. The cousins born to what my step father found repulsive, the same mixed raced couple, my sister and her high school sweetheart, who showed me Berkeley, and its promised alternatives.

As we explore the other hangar bays, the Boy Scouts were identifiably from Orinda. Not Alameda. My guard kicked in. I was surrounded by forces taking for granted, privilege. The uniform demanding respect, a uniform preparing for those in authority, a uniform to normalize the persistence of uniforms either forged by state or corporate governance, a uniform that feigns paramilitary. The Sea Scouts in digital Navy blue camouflage marched in tight quarters further aft. M-I-C-K-E-Y. M-O-U-S-E. Left-face avoiding patrons attracted to the vending machines.

The War on Terror, the Wars succeeding the War on Terror, then there’s Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, Iran, Nigeria, Gaza, West Bank, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Philippines, etc—and I see a new crop. Most would not survive real urgent brutal emasculating feminizing boot camp, a mockery or parody of endless war, the bait and switch. PTSD begins here. Alas, serve and write a book about service and a Hollywood deal.

I was a Boy Scout, there was not that much diversity–any DIVERSITY–in Boy Scout troops on the other side of the Oakland Hills. So I was surprised to see the many awkward and lean Chinese and South Asian kids making what seemed half that troop. Meaning they were not Pilipino—meaning this Boy Scout troop of noticeable Chinese and South Asian could not be from Alameda—meaning Pilipinos in Orinda would surprise me—meaning I was bothered by this racial slippage—meaning I was bothered how privilege solves some racial boundaries—meaning I was contemplating Pilipino flight to the suburbs to Contra Costa County—meaning I was remembering a sudden brawl eerily similar to a black and white photograph capturing Soviet and Chinese soldiers in a 1950s border skirmish—meaning my feelings back then as a perpetual Tenderfoot are still strong. Back then, my NAS Alameda-chartered Boy Scout troop met on Mt. Diablo a troop solidly monochromatic—from Pleasanton, might as well be from Orinda. We were rappelling Sentinel Rock when they arrived. Pleasanton, very white, very rosy, had contempt for us, we had contempt for them. Pleasanton had clearly expensive gear, we had military surplus. Our Eagle Scouts wore Doc Martens instead of hiking boots and wore their The Cure tour tshirts more flagrantly than the uniform. Our runt, Rainbow had a nonstandard bandana tied around his forehead—more proto-Lost Boys Frog Brother than the then current Special Forces drifter, Rambo. Frogger, no relation to Rainbow, was swimming in his larger uniform. Mike, the lead altar boy above me at the base chapel, was quite the model Scout, braces, unremarkable at school, the white leader of an all Pilipino patrol. We were clearly The Bad News scouts, out of our element, and our Scout Master, just another Morris Buttermaker/Walter Mathau.

Our Scout Master arranged a game of capture the flag for the next afternoon, the last activity before returning to base. The evening, we decided to do a reconnaissance in force, to survey the arrangement of tents, to determine points of entry and egress. Pleasanton anticipated our approach, in the darkness, threw stones where they expected us to be hiding.

In the serious game of Capture-the-Flag, losing the pennant defines humiliation, defines a lack of pride, defensive impotence, reckless team spirit. Winning means seizing the opponent’s pennant, meaning seizing the offensive initiative, meaning eluding contact or capture with the defending forces. We were not going to play that kind of game. We were expected to touch, tag opponents out, and hold prisoners, defend the Hill. We relocated our tents to higher ground, posted sentries beneath live oak. Quiet for 30 minutes, and whether we understood or not appreciated the rolling green hills, not the noxious harbor, plate metal of warships, the corrugated steel, the barbed wire, the division between military and civilian, the acridity of ubiquitous lubricant and solvent, of jet fuel, and the subtle buzz, we attributed to radiation or circulating high frequency pulse. Pleasanton was anticipating our attack, but we were not going to draw First Blood (1982), so we enjoyed the lull, the grassy breeze different from San Francisco Bay mudswept, the rustling from canyons diffused through chaparral, not turbines testing, foghorns between ships, the occasional klaxon drills. We could have yelled Wolverines! but Red Dawn (1984) was old news like the fear of car bombs penetrating lightly defended Gates long gone, or Reagan-blundered thermonuclear war, we meditated on our inner-Rambo, Part II.

The enemy exploited our respite sooner than we thought, jumped our lines as expected, allowed to seize the flag, the blonde runner surrounded by blonde flankers descended the slope, a straight line to their camp, we broke out of slumber, reluctant to give chase, more so irritated to lose the peace of the hills, and an energy swelled in us, vengeful, predatorial, a trot gave way to wolfpack speed, we stared at one another fiercely, nodded tacit directions and swooped the flankers, drove them into the ground, punched them when they complained about rule violation. The flag runner now fearing for his safety, “Why are you doing this?” As if he would ever understand my motive—slammed in to the hillside.

Rambo should evaluate his exposure to Agent Orange. Maybe in his fifth installment, cancer gets the better of him and not a Mexican cartel but he goes out fighting. My education in war films, especially the narratives of the misunderstood Vietnam Veteran has always been an attempt to understand Dad, maybe my biological father, my uncles, the men they served with, joined in that distance, joined in their abiding obedience to General Orders and foreign policy whim.

When not at camp, I spent my weekends at the San Leandro rifle range “qualifying” on the AR-15, squirrel carcasses littered the 100 yards. Radioman Phil Courier of Lakes Charles, Louisiana, the source of many bootleg VHS films as I suspected, was my surrogate stepfather when Dad was on 3-month or 8-month deployment, and in this case WESTPAC. He fit Dad’s description of race relations in West Virginia. The fish pulled from the Kanawha River were offered to black folks like him. To the left, he was our next-door neighbor in our assigned North Housing enlisted family townhouse complex, and to the left of him was perhaps the hottest Pinay in high school, but with a gangbanger boyfriend—the same girl, who compelled a long line at our Class Reunion at Jillian’s, boy’s who were too afraid to say hi to her, now men, offering hugs. Our neighbors to the right were memorable in two ways. The husband, a First Class, got busted when dogs at the Main Gate sniffed cocaine during a random search. His very skinny wife would often interrupt my struggle with the community lawn mover’s chord and yank the chord alive. First Class, seems to live up to Dad’s expectation of the general fate of Black’s in the Navy.

From the Hornet’s deck, the Boy Scouts muster before the carrier’s island, class next in the bridge. I try to make out residual features in the Orinda Scout Masters and the chaperoning parents. Were they once the scouts of Mt. Diablo. While I lived here in this hard scrabble, this potential ground zero, they nestled and secluded. I can barely make out North Housing, still standing and boarded up. A cancer plume prevents development. The Superfund insufficient and lagging. The water below is poison but today visitors come to Alameda Point for the wineries, distillery, and brewery, or this Gray Ghost. A retarded Oakland skyline beyond. T snaps away at San Francisco, the menacing Rincon leading the explosion in rent, fingering all those crossing the Bay Bridge, will the tech corridor finally rear its constriction here? The island has become such valued property, even levels of toxicity can be mitigated on legal paper—just do not dig any new foundation further than need to, do not grow a garden, do not provide enough backyard space that attracts a family to raise its Victory. I guide T’s photographic eye to what I am seeing, a punctum in this ghost city within a city. Today, that punctum is that 6-plex I shared with Radioman and his stories of concealing rifles in his Suburban because he needed to defend himself when driving through particular California towns. Today, that punctum is the house where my intransigent white Dad could not be my intransigent white Dad because of his love for deployment, and because of his love for deployment, my black surrogate father filled a role, showing me how to navigate a white world, to see the world through rifle sights, to breathe between, to see myself differently in the white mirror, the struggle with a presumed unreachable whiteness, searching in films, that vet, whether villain or antihero, war weary drifter and lost sailor nonetheless, who didn’t know how to return home. In this process, I reloaded and spent magazines, I lost my 20/20 vision, constant battery of my eyes because I refused to wear protective glasses at the rifle range, and with blurred vision, a military future, the academy, marksmanship, sniper school. Was it a vision worth losing? To not have blood on my hands.

Perhaps these Scouts will be engineering new aircraft, new WMDs, new fuels, new software, writing the million lines of Terminator code, because the money is there. Perhaps these are kids investing in defense industries, more drones, more warheads, more surveillance, more armor, more ships, more environmental waste. Perhaps these are the kids with trust funds and portfolios benefiting from the War on Terror. Perhaps these are the kids who would send other kids to war, to die for natural resources, who will decide what countries to sell or sell out, what regimes to buy or buy out. Or perhaps, real estate; enough said. But then they could just be as mediocre and care not for shaping world events. “So why am I doing this?” getting my hands dirty, realizing the adversarial division between? Because you do not struggle with whiteness! About being accepted. About being seen as white. Didn’t my fathers serve for the privilege? Now, the Boy Scouts of Orinda are here and I am displaced, no, that moment in Mt. Diablo displaced, and I feel they have won, or is it my guilt less so, and I feel safe for my son, that he does not understand punctum, to see the colliding feelings surfacing.

About the Author: Sean Labrador y Manzano lives on the island off the coast of Oakland and imagines snorkeling or canoeing every day in his birthplace of Hawai’i. He edits the print journal Conversations at the Wartime Café; founder of Mixer 2.0, an M.F.A. reading series held every third Thursday of the month at the Cat Club in San Francisco; and curated the recent symposium From Trauma to Catharsis: Performing the Asian Avant-Garde. With collaborators Dillon Westbrook and Robert Woodcock, he performs as Jose Rizal in the ninety-minute jazz choreo-poem, “Das Kapital, Volume 4, Elimination of the Industrial Phase and the Accumulation of Debt.”

Conquistadors: On the End of Oakland

 By Kaya Oakes 

Luis Maria Peralta arrived in Alta California as a member of the Spanish-led de Anza expedition in 1776. After pursuing a group of Native Americans through the San Joaquin valley and eventually massacring them, he was awarded with the Rancho San Antonio land grant. That grant spread over the cities now known as San Leandro, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley, and Oakland. Luis never lived on his land, choosing instead to stay ensconced in what is now San Jose, but his sons and daughters fanned out across the Peralta grant, asserting themselves onto territory previously occupied by the Ohlone tribe. Before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo threw the ownership of the land into dispute, it became a sprawling squat. Natives, Spanish-born Californios and immigrants lived in uneasy tension. Among the houses built by Peralta’s children, only a few remain standing after the 1868 earthquake on the Hayward Fault ripped a seam through Alta California. But the Peralta sons stayed put in Oakland: in Fruitvale, in West Oakland, and in Temescal.

My paternal great-grandparents arrived in Oakland some time in the late 1800s. Forced out of Ireland, they inched their way across America, eventually winding up in West Oakland, back then an enclave of lace curtain and shanty Irish elbowing up against Italians, and eventually, working-class African Americans. My grandfather’s family followed the now-underground stream of Temescal Creek from cheap flat to cheap flat, until my father was born in 1938, prematurely, to older parents who’d thought they were barren. At this point they moved to West Street, near the intersection that now bears a plaque indicating the location of the first Black Panther Party meeting. My father went to Sacred Heart School on 40th Street, now a dying Catholic parish attached to a Spanish-immersion charter school run by an overworked nun.

In 1960, at a meeting of the Newman Club in Berkeley (a social group for Catholic students at Cal, which later became a parish), my father, who had left the Catholic men’s college he was attending in nearby Moraga, met a young woman from Montana who’d recently transferred to Berkeley. My mother was bored out of her mind by her own small town Catholic college, and came to California, like so many before her, in search of something wider. Two years later, they married and moved to Howe Street, near Piedmont Avenue. Three years later, with three small children crowding their apartment, they bought a shedding, badly wired 1908 house on the edge of Rockridge, then a neighborhood of Italian and Portuguese immigrants. They paid twenty thousand dollars for the house, and it sent them into debt for decades. Several drunken Irish guys, my father’s drinking buddies at McNally’s bar on College, fell off the roof after being hired to “repair” it. The basement flooded with regularity, and we were only allowed to plug in two appliances at once lest we cause the power to go out. That house is now worth just under a million dollars. My grandparents and my father are dead, and my mother now finds herself the matriarch of a neighborhood that looks nothing like the one she arrived in as a young school teacher with children in her arms.

What I mean to say is this: the other day, I drove through Temescal, the neighborhood I lived in for a good decade, after I left college and came home to Oakland. In the early 90s, my neighbors were Eritreans and broke lesbian couples. My neighbors were skate punks and elderly Black ladies who cultivated rose gardens. My neighbors were Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong. My neighbors were from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Chile, Venezuela. My neighbors were Christians, Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, Copts. And I drove through Temescal the other day, and everyone, every single person was white. With the same beard, the same bangs, the same plaid, the same Prius, the same goddamned straw hat, the same baby stroller, the same smugness of having discovered the new neighborhood, the one nobody knew about, the one that was their secret which they would shortly blab about all over the style section of the New York Times, in a feature which actually mentioned $300 jeans as something aspirational, which included a single paragraph about the displacement of 50% of Oakland’s black population within the last decade.

What I mean to say is this: in November of last year my landlord sold the house I’d lived in for seven years, down by San Pablo and Adeline, in an area where one house is Emeryville and the one next to it Oakland, and he put it on the market for $600K. Across the street is a Mexican family with three adult children living at home because they cannot afford to move out due to the rise in Oakland rent, which has shot up to an average of $2500 a month. I am currently in exile, living in the hills above El Cerrito, which is basically a two mile strip mall. Should I desire to spend my life moving between Bed Bath and Beyond and a series of Safeways, I can do that in El Cerrito. What I can’t do is feel like everything I grew up believing in—multiculturalism as praxis, working-class values, staying put in the city you grew up in, walking the same streets my father did—isn’t vanishing in increments.

Temescal was always going to be the next to go. The gentrification of Rockridge, which began in earnest with the opening of the Rockridge Market Hall in the 90s, meant that more modest upper middle class folks couldn’t afford to buy one of Rockridge’s stately craftsman homes, so savvy real estate agents came up with a plan. They re-labeled Temescal as “Lower Rockridge” and slapped it on For Sale signs. Then came the Priuses, then came the organic almond milk, then came the restaurants where the entrees cost more than most families spend on groceries for three meals. Then came the white kids, working as servers in those restaurants. Then came the people from San Francisco and Marin, fighting over parking spaces. Then went the idea of a neighborhood being a place where people root themselves.

I am in the parking lot of the Walgreen’s in Temescal just before Christmas. A homeless woman is moving though the lot, staggering, weaving, you understand. She’s asking people for money, and they’re getting into their cars. She’s asking me for money and my hands are full of shopping bags, so I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t put them down and dig out a $5 bill, which I do, and she bursts into tears because no one will speak to her. No one will look her in the eye. And because I make breakfast at an overnight shelter for homeless mothers and have heard this story again and again, I take her in my arms and let her cry. All around us, people get into their cars.

It is easy to turn away from poverty because poverty reeks. It is easy to ignore history because history is inconvenient: all those dead Native Americans, all those Oscar Grants, all those strivers and failures, all of that money performing its steady act of erasure.

When I talk about white people you may want to point out that I am white. The sunburn I get when walking even halfway around the loop that encircles Lake Merritt (if you are new to Oakland, and perhaps you are, you may not be aware that it is not really a lake but an estuary, and a man-made one; also, it is full of dead bodies) is testimony to that. My family brought struggle and poverty to America, but not melanin. When I talk about white people I mean the deliberate erasure of a history that includes poor white people and working-class white people alongside people of color. The erasure of the Oakland I grew up in is the erasure not just of race, but of class. 40% of Oakland lives below the poverty line. It has one of the highest rates of robberies in the nation. But where is that in the news? Poor people are funneled out of one part of town, and then another, and then another, and where do they go? Private security patrols drive through Rockridge. Temescal recently completed a crowd-funded campaign to hire its own private security, from a company that prides itself on having cars that are easily mistaken for the OPD. Meanwhile, the city does little to provide community centers, after school programs, or any sustained support for the young. This is what I mean by erasure. People without money are being erased.

The house where I live now sits at the top of a steep hill above Richmond. It is always windy, a wind that moans up from the Bay. There are no trees, only a peeling palm in a neighbor’s yard that looks like it has a disease. Down the hill, the Chevron refinery glows at night, plumes of smoke rising up from the cylindrical tanks. Just a few years ago, it exploded, and thousands of working poor and middle class people rushed to the ER, unable to breathe. All over Richmond, Chevron has posted billboards testifying that “Chevron Cares.” Enough to choke the people who live here. The bearded and banged people have not discovered Richmond; there is one coffee shop, a 20 minute drive, and it closes at 3PM. In exile, my view is of a refinery killing thousands of people slowly with cancer and asthma, and the wind sends the garbage skittering down the street. The rent, it must be said, is much cheaper.

It took a writer as gifted as Rebecca Solnit to make people care that the Google Bus was killing the San Francisco she loved. Can I persuade you that Oakland, as cousin-ish as it has always been in comparison to San Francisco, is also losing its soul? Perhaps not. Maybe my rhetoric here is off, and I should stop lobbing grenades and tell you instead about walking over the long hill of 51st street to the all night Payless, where you could always find something bizarre on the shelves, like a fishing pole, or the ceramic dragon that still sits on my desk years after I shoplifted it. On the other side of that hill was the home of the guy who’s been my friend for nearly 30 years. In the graveyard at the top of that hill are my grandparents, my father, and his older brother, dead as an infant, buried under a tombstone the size of a shoebox lid. Maybe you’d be convinced there was an Oakland decades and decades back if you’d driven in a beater over to the Merritt Bakery late at night for waffles. Or we could talk about Bif’s diner on Broadway, where punk kids razzed the elderly waitresses, the days when downtown was so empty and creepy you’d never expect to find a band playing in an out-of-the way bar, but I was in that band, playing for three old Vietnamese guys and two comic-book-reading nerds from the comic shop where I worked. Or junior high at Claremont Middle School with Mister Puente, and his talk about La Raza and his bell-bottom jeans. The summers of Festival at the Lake, standing with thousands of Ethiopians listening to Aster Aweke, plumes of pot smoke in the air; evenings of cooking up last-chance produce from the market on Telegraph and 48th into curries so hot we couldn’t eat them but that was all we could afford; afternoons outside of Royal Coffee reading books in the rain, under an awning; the certain slant of light that hits Oakland like no other place in the world and reveals that yes, much of it is ugly, but also, much of it is home.

Okay, but also the bad shit. Yes, there was that. Cars broken into and stolen over and over, bags snatched, being driven around in the back of a cop car looking for the thief with the cop repeatedly asking why I lived in this neighborhood (“because I was born here”), a friend raped in her apartment, another friend stabbed, another shot. My mother taught for decades in the Oakland schools; she’d lock her purse in the trunk of her car and her own students would crowbar it out. Drugs that were fun that turned, for some of us, into drugs that stopped our heart. If we lived, we stayed (“because I was born here”). Or some of us left, and years later, came home. Oakland was ours because San Francisco was always for people who had just a bit more money, more hustle, who just had more. If you were from Oakland, San Francisco was mostly where you went to buy clothes.

It is easy to ignore history when a town is a town, and not a city, even though half a million people live there.

It is easy to ignore history when it looks like the Ohlone. Like Dr. William Watts, an African American doctor who opened a hospital for Black patients turned away from other hospitals. Or like the tens of thousands of poor people who streamed into the town to work in the canneries and shipyards. Like the Braceros from Mexico. The 1946 General Strike. The Black Panther Party. El Movimento in the Fruitvale. Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean immigrants. Too $hort selling tapes out of his trunk at the Laney Flea Market. That smell that comes off of the lake, which is not a lake, on a hot day. It’s easy to make that disappear.

It is hard to say this. Perhaps I am part of the problem. Some friends started a magazine ten years ago. Yes, I confess: I was involved. We threw parties in Oakland warehouses to pay the printer’s bills, and people came. And articles were written in newspapers, “hey, something is happening in Oakland.” More people came. Then some friends opened art galleries, it turned into a thing on First Fridays, more people came. And a sense of alarm began to creep in, well, at least for me. There were too many people walking around and treating us like an exotic species, people making art in Oakland. Who knew. When in fact it had been happening for decades. When in fact we had no idea what we were doing, but people liked it, and they latched on.

It is hard to say that the neighborhood where we used to meet and lay out the magazine pages is now called “Uptown” and has condos that start at five hundred thousand dollars and yes, I am going to write that number out.

It is hard to say that the magazine died in fights and stress and acrimony, and that the boxes of it we had stored in a friend’s attic were destroyed when his landlord decided to renovate the apartment, because the rent in the neighborhood was going up.

Now Oakland makes lists. Hot cities, happening cities, cool cities, conquerable cities. When the landlord sold our house, we went to a series of open rentals and found ourselves crowded into kitchens, filling out applications alongside dozens and dozens of people, each of them looking anxious, trying to catch the landlord’s eye. And most of them were saying, well, we looked and looked in San Francisco. And we were saying “I was born here” and, as it turned out, that did not mean we deserved to live there. Beyond the Ohlone, who does?

It is hard to say that the place you live is built on a history of conquistadors and of their erasure of those who came before. But that is where we live. That is America and that is California, and that is Oakland. The new conquistadors do not ride in on horses with nostrils flaring and sweat pearling their flanks. They arrive in cars that whisper, and the disease they bring is called privilege. And the natives flee, and watch, waiting, from the tops of the hills.


Kaya Oakes is the author of Radical Reinvention (Counterpoint Press, 2012), Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture (Henry Holt, 2009), and a poetry collection, Telegraph (Pavement Saw, 2007). Her fourth book, about faith, doubt, and non-believers, is forthcoming from Orbis Books in 2015. She is a contributing writer and editor at the website Killing the Buddha, and her writing about faith and feminism regularly appears in many magazines. She teaches writing at UC Berkeley. 






Broseph Joe Brody, Reality, and Virgil: A Descent into Wrestling

written by Joel Bahr

     On the first Friday of every month, about half a mile from Jack London Square, hundreds of people line up around the block, submit to pat downs, cram into a dark, sweaty, metal venue to watch half-naked men pretend to hurt each other. It’s called Hoodslam—an independent wrestling show—and every month grown men and women turn up for it to lose their fucking minds.
     The inside of the Oakland Metro Operahouse has vaulted wooden ceilings, three bars, and bathrooms without mirrors. I come into the show half-drunk and shell out a couple of crumpled singles for a plastic cup of PBR while I try to figure out what exactly I’m in for.
     Truth be told, I was one of the 15 American boys who didn’t watch some incarnation of WWE (then WWF) as a kid, and I actively tried to stay away from the older guys who wore black Undertaker shirts on the playground. I don’t get it. It isn’t real, I would think to myself before going back to playing baseball and minding my parents. Yeah, I was that kid. With the single overhead light spilling down onto the black mat, I am very keenly aware of how out of place I feel. The crowd is thick around the ring, and there’s a steady push in my back as more people file in.
     I drink half the beer very quickly and nod my head to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” More bodies come through the front door and the pulse in the room quickens. Fans that are close enough slap their palms on the mat in unison. Someone holds up a sign reading Welcome to BROakland. One person fires up a joint, and then five others do too. A band[1] on the corner of the stage screams out an intro that I only get pieces of. Drink some beers, smoke some weed, get fucked up it’s HOOD-SLAM. Don’t bring your fucking kids! HOOD-SLAM.
     A man appears in the ring in a cut off and white-framed sunglasses. He’s got thick, meaty arms, a close haircut, and a bottle of bourbon in his hand as he climbs the ropes and hams for the roaring crowd. This is Broseph Joe Brody, the voice of Hoodslam. He pours whiskey in the open mouths of fans on the other side of the ring, and then takes a pull for himself. Hands high above his head, he spits out the booze and lets the shouts from the fans soak a little before sitting down behind a table on stage and turning on his microphone.
     “Oh, hey bro!” he yells with a grin and then launches into the run-down of the show.
     It’s hot and loud, but Brody’s delivery is smooth, and despite myself, I’m excited. The first match pits Street Fighter’s Ryu against Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero. They pull punches, take dives, bulge their eyes in the face of pretend pain, occasionally sprinkling in elements of magic from the video games. Ryu charges a hadouken; Sub-Zero counters by “freezing” Ryu with blue silly string. Scorpion pops up from the crowd and mixes it up in the ring. It’s good fun, and it only gets better the more I think about it.
     “This is the realest shit in the history of real,” says Brody as Sub-Zero is freezing the Street Fighter hero. It’s a throw-away line, one that should get buried in all the rest of the commentary, but it resonates. It’s tongue in cheek, but there’s truth in it too. A new kind of reality emerges in the fantasy. We all agree that silly sting can immobilize, that punches are landing, that arms are about to be snapped, and once we all begin to collectively pretend, the airy world of shadow pain begins to stiffen. It all starts to matter.
     Scorpion ends up pinning Sub-Zero and Ryu, winning a match he wasn’t billed for. Brody is appropriately stunned, but regains enough poise to lead us further down the undercard. After Ryu and Sub-Zero comes the “Super Barrio Brother” Jesus Kruze and “Ultragirl” Brittany Wonder. Then a giant banana and the “Dark Noche” Bat Manuel. Then the Stoner Brothers Rick Scott and Scott Rick, then Doc Atrocity and his minions—the list goes on and on, and I fall deeper through the looking glass.
     After a while it all runs together for me—the whole experience melting into sound and light and screams. We all start moving together, the crowd, and the wrestlers, and the show. It becomes clear to me that we’re all in on it, that we always have been. We believe because it’s more fun that way, because there’s a charm in pretending.
     On the Hoodslam website they tell you not to bring your fucking kids. And they’re right, you shouldn’t. But not because of the violence, or the Fuck the Fans! Chant, or Broseph Joe Brody leaning over the ropes, pouring bourbon in thirsty, expectant mouths between bouts—you don’t bring your fucking kids because sooner or later you are one yourself. You don’t bring your fucking kids because before the end of the night you’re not going to be adult enough to take care of them.
     Despite the booze, and the Fuck the Fans!, and the metal, it’s play, and everyone loves it because it is precisely that. We lose ourselves in the noise, the way smoke hangs in light, and the fantasy—the incredible notion that if we all believe that this is real then it might actually be. Our eyes follow light and sound, it’s sleight of hand, beautiful and garish, but we never blink.
     We’re three hours removed from Ryu and Sub-Zero by now, and most of the crowd has wandered out. Somehow the show goes on. The last match of the night pairs Virgil Flynn, the “Best Athlete in the East Bay,” with B-Boy in a showdown between Northern and Southern California for Flynn’s title and a small, gold fanny-pack.
     Virgil, the hometown favorite, is taut, his body made of twisted wire. He’s quick, and flexible, and strong, and for half an hour he and B-Boy throw each other around the ring, cling to ropes, cast desperate eyes up to ceiling. I’m close enough now to see their mouths move while they grapple, whispering to each other what comes next.
     I don’t know any of the names of the moves that I’m seeing, but eventually B-Boy is on his back in the center of the ring and Virgil is climbing up the ropes, one by one, higher and higher into the air. We all know what will happen next. Virgil spreads his arms out wide, and yells with anticipation and belief. This is real. I look at him at the top of the ropes, chest heaving, face locked in faux-anguish, fingers flaring off of his open palms, and I know that I’m going with him as he launches himself into the air. I’ll follow him through the fantasy to our new reality. I’ll follow him this month, and the month after that, and the month after that.


[1]   The Hoodslam Band, as they’re formally known, change their name from month to month, each time a different incarnation of the same dirty joke: Urethra Franklin, Dusty Loads, the Seattle SeaCocks, Bare Naked Labia…You get the idea.

Joel Bahr is a contributing editor for The East Bay Review and a writer living in Oakland.