I write perfect stories. The problem is, they are all in my head. I can talk to myself for hours, weaving stories and creating what feel to me like gleaming sentences and hearty paragraphs loaded with meaning, laughs, tears, emotion, sanctity, universal experience, a sympathetic and humorous voice that will make people giggle despite an inner sadness and tartness….
Then I walk to my computer, and it vanishes. Even now, as I write this, my perfect story about Oakland is gone.
I recently moved to Oakland. I work in a warehouse in a cruddy, trash-ridden (and I mean literal pieces of trash) area of town. I stick to Berkeley. I stick to the Berkeley Hills. I have been to downtown Oakland three times, and for one of them, I didn’t get out of my car. I wasn’t scared to, but there was no need. I was just passing by to pick someone up. The second time, I walked straight into the rock gym after debating what hour the parking meter stopped needing to be fed, and walked straight out afterward and drove home to my comfy bed to rest sore arm muscles.
The third time, I ventured. I went to MUA, had a vodka-grapefruit, and it was beautiful. I watched people play drums, spray-paint artwork in the street, taste pastries and South American sandwiches, and a soft chilly breeze swept through under the sun and I knew I had landed in a special place.
Less than 24 hours later I stood in downtown San Francisco, working a trade show on a Saturday, listening to a story. A peculiar story. “When I was younger,” this woman, this stranger, told me, “I lived in downtown Oakland. My brother and I were 4 and 6. My aunt lived two miles away, and one day she called my mother and said, ‘do you know where your kids are?’
‘Yes,’ my mother told her. They’re playing in the backyard.’
‘No,’ my aunt countered, ‘Go and look.’
Sure enough, we weren’t there. We were at my aunt’s, in her backyard. When I was 4, and my brother was 6, he took my hand, and we walked down the street in Oakland in the late afternoon, for two miles, and we made it. Can you believe that? Kids would never be able to do that today.”
I had been terrified this woman was going to tell me a horror story. I had been terrified she would be teaching us a lesson about walking down the streets of Oakland, even as adults.
She didn’t produce the blatant horror I had been inspecting. But, she did tell a horror story. One about cities deteriorating, becoming crime-ridden and drug-ridden, a place that isn’t safe for children to play and wander. I was struck. It seemed different than the city I saw last night, different than the one I had seen the second time and the first time. What kind of place is this, I asked myself. Where have I arrived? It seemed so close to home – to Trenton, where I worked just a few short months ago, and yet so far from what this other city on the Bay is supposed to be.
I felt the emotional shock of a story involving two kids walking around Oakland by themselves, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t create a written story of it, not even in my head. That sympathetic humor – my favorite part – was missing. I’m still searching for it.