My father told me about his younger days when he worked at a day care center and was broke. He had to sustain himself on graham crackers and peanut butter and milk, the snacks they set aside for the preschoolers.
He told me this as if he was a victim.
He lived in a trailer next to his brother’s house in LA. His brother’s wife didn’t like him. My dad had to piss and shit in the bushes because she wouldn’t let him use the bathroom in the house.
Hearing this reminded me of my Oakland days.
I hadn’t spoken with my father in a few years. When I was nineteen I had my dad thrown in jail for an altercation he had with my sister. I hated the police and still do but they were the only ones who could get him to stop. My mom, little sister, and little brother moved to New York and I moved to Oakland to play drums in a punk band.
I had $500 that my grandmother gave me for giving my car to my cousin before I moved. I thought that was a huge amount of money. I took a Greyhound bus down from Seattle. Arriving in Oakland I slept on a friend’s couch and watched them snort cocaine and speed while listening to punk records. Cocaine was not something I did at nineteen. My money dwindled down to $300 and I found a room in a warehouse off San Leandro for $300. I paid the money and was dead broke.
My father was incommunicado, off in Brazil trying to save the rainforest and my mother was on the east coast struggling her way through a master’s degree while supporting my brother and sister. I wasn’t going to worry my grandmother. She was the only person I could have asked for money. I grinned and bared it.
My room was bare. I had a mattress and a concrete floor, my clothes folded on a white bed sheet, also on the floor. I had a beat-up Turkish rug that looked like it’d survived a fire. I had a little TV with rabbit ear antennae that managed to pick up one station, Telemundo, so I’d watch Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis overdubbed in Spanish.
I sustained myself on one carne asada taco a day. It cost one dollar from a truck parked a couple blocks away. I would pay with a handful of change. Those tacos kept me alive. God that daily taco was good. I chewed it gingerly, slowly, in order to appreciate every morsel.
Back in my clammy room, I could smell the Mexican family’s cooking next door and my stomach would twist and turn. I rifled through my roommates cupboards and found some stale tortillas and the remnants of a jar of peanut butter. I smeared the peanut butter on the stale tortillas and staved off the hunger for a while.
A car slowed down on International Blvd. trying to pick me up thinking I was a young male hustler. A few weeks later I got chased by kids with baseball bats down by the train tracks in Fruitvale. A few months later off Adeline St. in North Oakland I saw a drive-by shooting, BAM BAM BAM RAT A TAT TAT TAT. I heard the ricocheting of bullets, just like the sounds in an old Western. I hit the pavement.
On my way back from a job interview I jumped the turnstiles on the BART train to avoid paying. A big black security guard chased me. I kicked the emergency exit doors open and the alarm sounded like a lost night phantom as I ran and ran.
I got a job as a customer service agent answering telephones. That last week without pay my stomach turned concave. I would steal apples from co-workers’ brown paper lunch bags in the break room refrigerator. On the way home little black kids would lift up their shirts to show me the handguns stuffed into their waistbands.
“Motherfucker. Cracker. White Bread.”
They pointed their fingers at me like pistols and blew off the imaginary smoke. I stared them in the eyes.
I heard stories. One story was about a white woman jogging with her yellow labrador retriever in West Oakland. When her dog took a shit, she put her hand inside of a plastic bag and bent down to pick it up. An older black man began to shout at her scornfully.
“Girl, what you doin’? This ain’t no Berkeley! This Oakland! You leave that shit right there! Ain’t no Berkeley,” he muttered again to himself.
I heard stories about a part of Oakland called dogtown, where giant wild mutts ran free and would snap at your legs if you rode your bike too close.
I heard a story about a crackhead who stole a couple’s TV set. He climbed in through their living room window and unplugged the TV while they were watching him incredulously, seated on their couch. He lifted the blinds and climbed right back out the window, TV in hand. The couple was in shock, they were just paralyzed. They couldn’t stop the fearless crackhead from making his broad-daylight theft. I wasn’t shocked by too much anymore.
I heard another story of a large punk rocker, a big bald white man from Louisiana riding his bicycle. A black kid tried to force him off of his bike, trying to steal it. He grabbed the kid in a headlock and pedaled at top speed. He said to the youngster,
“One of us is going to the hospital kid, and I’ll tell you one thing, it ain’t gonna be me.”
On the way to the liquor store, I saw a few kids rip off an ice cream man. They threw down a handful of change and ran off laughing, strawberry and chocolate and vanilla cones in hand.
At the liquor store, a man was trying to bargain for credit.
“Come on man, I pay you next time. You know I’m good for it.”
The turban-wearing Indian liquor store clerk yelled back.
“No, you say this last time, no good, you no come in store anymore.”
The black customer continued,
“Man, I know you ain’t no Al Qaeda. We cool. I pay you next time.”
He walked out without paying, bottle in hand.
On the street the man had uncapped his bottle and was talking to his friend.
“Man, you know how it is. First in America you had the Indians. They done got killed off. Then you had the Irish and the Italians. Nobody liked them back in the day. Then you had the slaves. Then you had the Chinese building the railroads. Black people done got profiled ‘til now. Now it’s the A-rabs. It’s they turn. Now it’s THEY turn. I’m happy the poh-lice aren’t racially profiling my ass. Profile THEY ass. The A-rabs.”
I wondered to myself what would have happened if abolitionists had taken up his personal philosophy of, “Now it’s their turn.”
Sometimes when I did my laundry I would go to a black Muslim bakery on San Pablo to get a fish sandwich. The five-dollar sandwich was one of the few luxuries I offered myself besides carne asada burritos or six packs of beer after payday. On the wall were slave shackles from the 1800s with a sign that read, “Never forget.”
“How can I help you sir,” the man working there asked. He bore a resemblance to a young Malcolm X with 1960s spectacles, bowtie and cropped hair. He put extra emphasis on the word “sir,” as if I was one of those former slaveholders he wasn’t forgetting about.
“I’ll have a fish sandwich please.”
“That will be five dollars SIR. Anything else I can get for you SIR.”
“No, that will be it.”
“Your order will be ready in about five minutes SIR.”
In the back of the bakery a group of school kids prayed to Allah on floor mats. I sat down and waited for my sandwich while enduring some scornful looks from other customers. After a few bad-vibe trips to the fish sandwich place I stopped going.
They evicted everyone in our building in North Oakland. They were tearing it down to build new condos. It was the beginning of the gentrification up on the border with Emeryville. I moved with a friend into his van behind the Oak’s Club, a twenty-four-hour casino off San Pablo. We peed in the bushes and slept in the van. At night before bed we’d brush our teeth in the Oak’s Club bathroom. Sometimes we’d park at the Berkeley Marina and in the morning a gorgeous sunrise would shine upon the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco Bay in all of its glory. Chipmunks would exit their caves and frolic amongst the rocks. We called them “sea munks.” I would stand atop the rocks in my boxer shorts and yell,
“I am king of the sea munks!”
Sometimes gay guys would try and cruise us.
“Have you guys ever heard of Aquatic Park,” was their code-question for “Do you want to suck me off in the bushes?”
We didn’t know any code-questions. We were just young kids trying to make our way in the world. When my dad told me the story about him eating preschoolers’ graham crackers for lunch I thought, “Dad, you don’t know shit.”
Justin Maurer is a writer and musician from Los Angeles. He's known as the wild frontman of Clorox Girls as well as fronting many other musical projects. His first book Don’t Take Your Life (Future Tense Books) was published in 2006. His new chapbook of stories Seventeen Television (Vol. 1 Brooklyn) is now available. To pay the bills, he most recently worked as an American Sign Language interpreter, Hollywood tour bus driver and dental supply salesman as well as a freelance writer and contributor to various publications. He is presently failing to option his first feature screenplay Pulling Teeth to Hollywood. He sings for the punk/60s pop band L.A. Drugz and plays guitar in punk/glam band Maniac. One of his songs, “Outside Place,” was featured in Hollywood film, The Lifeguard (2013). Maurer’s writing and criticism has appeared in L.A. Record, Color Magazine, The Rumpus, Faster Times, Vice Spain, Maximumrocknroll, Razorcake, and Vol 1. Brooklyn. He is trying to avoid a tractor-beam-like pull into the lucrative field of dental supply sales. He lives and writes in East Hollywood when not being interrupted by his girl and/or his dog. See more of his music and writing here: www.justin-maurer.com.