Last night, I was riding my bike home through the side streets of Berkeley, the wind was chilly, there were actually dead leaves blowing around, it felt like fall, and I felt like I was back in Italy again. I spent a summer and two autumns in Italy, and I still wish I could live there full-time. At this point it’s not feasible because I don’t have a job there, wouldn’t make enough, and have spent a lot of time on the West Coast forgetting how to speak Italian. My Italian is now quite pitiful. 

When I bike around Oakland and Berkeley, I move in almost constant fear of getting mugged. I know that while it’s more likely to happen here than other places, it’s still not that likely to happen; but, I have heard horror stories and therefore I move around in fear. Sometimes, I reassure myself by looking around and noting how many people are on the street and could help me were I in distress. And while I think of that, and of Italy, I am reminded of a particular Milan Metro incident from a few years ago. 
I was teaching English at a summer camp in Milan, and it was miserable. It was hot, muggy, and while I liked hearing Italian everyday, my host mom was not a great cook (like my old one had been) and we lived on the outskirts of Milan so I had to take the Metro nearly everywhere. On a crowded Metro car one afternoon, I stood next to a tall, lanky Asian guy in a hoodie, with a briefcase. I was exhausted. I was sweaty. I was near tears because I missed my then-boyfriend and my school kids were horrible (my boss wasn’t much of a help). I was in bad shape. And this Asian man kept brushing up against me. With his hand. Right on my crotch. 
It was so subtle that I wasn’t even sure it was happening on purpose. I just knew that I didn’t like it. I glared at him. It wasn’t that crowded. When a seat opened up, I sat down. He sat down in the seat next to me. His hand was right next to my leg (I had to wear shorts, even in Italy. It was too hot to do otherwise.). I inched away from him. His hand was still too close to my leg. 
When my stop came, I got up and fled. I was through the station, up the stairs and halfway down the street to my apartment when I heard a man calling after me. I ignored him. I was ready to hop in my bed and stay under the covers for the rest of the afternoon. But finally he caught up to me. 
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he demanded, “Why didn’t you scream?” 
I was flustered. I stammered, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” 
“When someone touches you, you yell!” this man told me. “You scream! You were in a crowded place. Why didn’t you help yourself? Next time, you yell. You let everyone know what the man is doing.” 
“Okay,” I choked out, trying not to cry, “Thank you, sir, thank you for letting me know. Next time I’ll do it.” In my just-past-elementary Italian speaking, this was all I could manage at a time like this. 
When he turned around and walked back to the bar he was headed for, I fled once again. Confused. Near tears. Praying the apartment would be empty when I got there so no one would wonder why I was upset. 
Why didn’t that man say something for me, I wondered. Apparently he could tell I was uncomfortable. He could tell I wasn’t okay. I still wonder, but ultimately I know it should have been me that said something. I shouldn’t have stood by idly, letting myself be a victim. 
When I ride around Berkeley and Oakland, I wonder what lesson the man was trying to teach me: to fend for myself, or that people aren’t necessarily going to jump in for me, just because they’re present? Did he have both in mind? Did he not have the nerve to say something on his own, just like me? 

Stories of Oakland

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.