Friday night out

Limping along in an increasingly unrecognizable Oakland

Photo by Michael Emono on Unsplash

I read earlier today that sugar is poison. I read yesterday that supplements are poison. My daughter is reading out loud from the dining room table that DDT “breakdown products” are found in 60% of heavy cream samples and 42% of kale greens, and that girls exposed to DDT before puberty are five times more likely to develop breast cancer than those who are not.

In the car before coming into the house, I read yet another article about the mass extinction unfolding around us. A scientific report released this week said scientists are finally breaking out of their shells of restraint, crying loud and clear that capitalism isn’t working out, folks. Raping the planet isn’t working any more. We’re at the end of the line.

Reading articles on my phone in the car, parked outside of my house. Because that’s my brave new world now — addicted to my phone. It’s true. I am addicted. I know it. It’s appalling and strange.

Several weeks ago, I bought tickets for me and my daughter to see Ubuntu Theater’s Romeo and Juliet. But this afternoon, my daughter begged off so she can study for her IB (International Baccalaureate) tests at Berkeley High next week.

I have shingles. Today and yesterday were the most painful days yet, after more than three weeks of suffering from this irritating and bizarre ailment — chicken pox revived. My nerves are on fire, and I’m limping around like an old woman. It’s super fun.

Yesterday, walking helped me. Today, not so much. I limped and whimpered and whimpered and limped. Still, we went a long way, me and Daisy, because sitting in the living room chair isn’t better. Lying on my bed isn’t better. Everything hurts.

I kept waiting for the pain to ease up. After six blocks, it really hadn’t. It occurred to me I should take deep breaths. When I remembered, I did that. I didn’t remember very often.

I looked critically at the houses we passed, ruefully noted the For Sale signs, knowing already their price. We’re above MacArthur so these modest bungalows are likely listed for $800,000. If they follow the recent pattern around here, they’ll sell within a week of listing, for $100,000 over-asking to all-cash buyers.

Daisy and I went quite far, slowly. Pain has a way of changing one’s perception of time. In my old life, our pace would have made me uneasy (this isn’t exercise! walk faster! move! it’s a work day! It’s not yet 5! hurry back! get back to work!). This time, I didn’t care. It was all I could do to focus on reducing the impact of each step. I emoted a lot. I made little sounds constantly. Whimpers and groans. Maybe I swore some too.

When I got home, I drew a bath. I sprinkled baking soda into the water. I turned on the electric kettle for tea. The bath was ready before the tea water. I waited. Then, I poured my tea. I poured some milk into a second glass so the tea could steep unmolested. I brought everything to the bathtub. I brought a book of short stories by Lu Xun. I brought my phone, which is never a good idea. It’s all I can do to keep my eyes on paper. I DID read a Lu Xun story though. So, that’s good.

I stayed in the bath a long time. Counter-intuitively, the bath helps the shingles. I have no idea why. In fact, I don’t feel the nerve pain at all in the bath. When I so much as raise my belly out of the water, however, needle-like pain resumes. It seems to be the air itself that attacks me. It makes no sense, I know.

At a little past 6 p.m., I wrested myself up, struggled to my feet. I turned on the shower and washed my hair.

Getting dressed, I took deep breaths and moved slowly. I chose the least offensive underwear — the softest cotton, the least restrictive elastic — and carefully pulled it on, wincing and whimpering. I found a black cotton wrap dress in the closet and grabbed the closest sweater. I chose two mismatched white socks and struggled to get them on my feet. I found a scarf that matched reasonably well and tugged a jean jacket off a hanger. I brushed on mascara, filled in my eyebrows, and applied some lipstick and blush.

I left. I drove to the theater to watch Romeo and Juliet, crying out every time I hit a bump in the road, as pain rippled across my torso.

I drove through west Oakland to get there, critically observing the buildings I passed. Row after row of dolled-up Victorians, shockingly beautiful in several coats of pastel.

I found myself on Mandela Parkway. A median strip has been built on the vast, wide street that was an industrial wasteland a few years ago. A jogging path, benches, trees, golden gravel, now occupy the middle of the street. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. It’s alienating.

I located the address three minutes before the play was to begin, but there was no theater there. I pulled up the email attached to my tickets and called the number. Oops. I was at the wrong address.

“That must have been for a different play,” said the woman on the other side of the line. She kindly agreed to send me tickets for another day.

I said, acidly, “Why did your email list an address on Mandela Parkway?” She couldn’t answer that.

Discouraged and restless, I returned to my car. I drove listlessly toward home. But I didn’t feel like going home. I’d made an effort to go out. Now I was out, and the evening light was tawny. Was I really going to go home half an hour later? It felt lame. I stopped at Grand Lake Kitchen at the top of Lake Merritt for dinner — a mistake. Not in my budget. Something I should never do.

Getting to the restaurant from my car was punishing. I felt exposed and vulnerable crossing the street. I had a pork chop, which was delicious, and read an essay by Sarah Orne Jewett (in a book!). Getting off the bar stool after dinner took my breath away. When I tried to bear weight, my right hip threatened to give way.

I hobbled across the street and eased into my car. I was going to go home, but then remembered my friend Irving was running his comedy show in Oakland. Irving and I had toyed with dating over the years. I felt sad, sick, weak, and vulnerable. I thought it would be nice to go see Irving’s show. To get a little sympathy. To laugh a little.

I did go. Irving seemed happy to see me. His shoulders looked a little broader than I remembered.

I did laugh. Halfway through the show, I noticed the inflamed ganglia was reaching into new places, bringing pain to my right breast and chest for the first time. Before this evening, the pain had been confined to my right belly and groin where it had throbbed and exploded at random intervals. Still, I laughed through that, even though at one point, I did have to lean against the leather back of the booth to catch my breath and collapse a little.

After the show, I waited for the room to empty. I rose, carefully, stiffly, trying not to grimace. I approached Irving… who proceeded to thank me for coming.

“I have to clean up here now, so…”

It’s okay, Irving. I’m going.

“I hope you feel better soon,” Irving said.

“You wouldn’t believe how it feels,” I said.

He didn’t inquire, but I barreled on anyway.

“It feels like crushed glass under my skin.”

His eyes went blank. He looked like he was doing all he could to not shrink back. I left feeling sorry for myself.

Leaving the comedy club, I noticed a big building on the corner covered with textured black fabric that flapped in the wind. Scaffolding spidered off the facade. I leaned forward and peered up through the windshield, trying to remember what the building used to be. I was filled with foreboding. A black man crossed the street. He looked at me through the glass, and I thought his gaze was accusatory.

I felt responsible. I felt like part of the problem. One of the comics in the show said, “I have to admit, I feel a little nervous right now. This is the whitest room I been in in a long time… and I’m in Oakland.” He was right. It was the whitest room I’d ever seen at that club too. Or in that part of Oakland.

Every fifth building in Oakland now is being re-vamped, and to quite a high style. I learned today the old Traveler’s Hotel in Chinatown was emptied, that the tenement rooms for the less fortunate are now being rented at prices that can only be afforded by tech bros and their ilk.

We were supposed to be excited by Oakland’s revitalization. We waited a long time for it. I remember several false starts in my childhood. Oakland would get her wits together, launch some kind of program meant to revitalize the city, and it would fail. When our mayor, Jerry Brown, began his efforts to do the same, most of us were excited.

My friend Jen used to say, “I just can’t wait ‘till the Laurel gets nicer.”

Nicer is here now, and it’s on a tear. Peerless Coffee just opened a new store up the hill. We’ve been waiting a long time for this.

Am I excited? Am I pleased? I’m not. I’m afraid. It’s disorienting to the extreme. The city is changing so fast. I can’t remember what was here before. Whole sections of the city are being razed and rebuilt. Some of the facades are so chi-chi, they’re alienating. I see facades more appropriate to Las Vegas than Oakland. I miss Oakland’s grit, to be honest.

I’m afraid we will lose our soul, our history, our population. I’m afraid of what it will mean to have hordes of people here who never knew the old Oakland, who know little to nothing about our history. I’m afraid we’ll look like any other city. I don’t want Banana Republics in all the neighborhoods or foodie joints with fancy $15 cocktails on every corner.

Last week, at a work lunch, a colleague mentioned he lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, a formerly vibrant Latino neighborhood that I had grown up with. I said, “Wow, you’ve really seen the changes then.”

He said, “Not really. We just moved from Canada two years ago.” Then, he glanced around the table as if for affirmation, laughed ruefully, and said, “In my opinion, it can’t happen fast enough.”

“It” of course is gentrification.

For years, our closest commercial district was filled with dozens of hair salons, barbers, nail salons, and baptist churches. For years, I “couldn’t wait” till the baptist church in the old theater closed so we could have a theater again. Well, the baptist church did close. A developer razed the 1930s theater and built condos. I wonder what the rents are.

When I worked at Kaiser Permanente years ago, I loved to venture out for lunch. I’d traipse the streets, delighted by the random places and scenes I encountered. My friend Jonathan didn’t like working in Oakland. He missed downtown San Francisco. He thought downtown Oakland was junky, depressing.

I want it back. I want the narrow Jamaican restaurant that used to be here, run by a stooped old woman. I want the random Afghan place with atonal lute music spilling from the open door. The cavernous Nepalese place with the bare light bulb. The plethora of languages you used to hear every time you walked around the lake.

I’m home now. I’m safe inside. My daughter brought me a little dish of garlic cloves she had roasted in the oven. Soft piano jazz plays from her laptop. My son’s cat is stationed at my left elbow, on the arm of the living room chair.

We are safe inside. Shingles will leave. It’s got to. It’s just a matter of time. The city will survive. It will evolve. Some of us will remember how she was, when there was only potential. We’ll soldier on, the city, me, all of us, maintaining our dignity as best we can in the vicissitudes of change.