There’s a chair in my room that I normally would be sitting in to write. It has a cool, blue, funky geometric pattern, and I bought it the San Pablo Flea Market, a sprawling wonderland of dust, worn old wood, sun-tinted plastic, and old copies of Ebony from the 1980s with Billy Dee Williams on the cover. I go there looking for whatever thing you expect to find in your own garage: the dusty stuff in cardboard boxes that you forgot you owned. Except we don’t have a garage, so we have the San Pablo Flea Market.
When we built a mini golf course inside the house for Mike’s going-away party I drove four blocks to the flea market in my fat old Buick and found a selection of rusty old mini-golf putters. Where else would they go? There is a plywood fence around the edge of the place, more for show than protection. All of Oakland, where I live, is like this: a vast flatland with abundant land, where you can sprawl all your dusty belongings, outdated technology, scrap you are hoarding for future projects. That’s what my house is like. We also have a hammock and three cats and dogs.
To make the golf course, I bought the putters, some Santa figurines, one of those brown ceramic droopy dogs that say “Gone Fishin,” and some old 45 records for the tees. The guy had the gall to charge me $14 for this crap, but I paid it anyway. Kind of an insurance policy that the San Pablo Flea Market will stay there. It seems that everything easy and cheap and funky always disappears, vaporized by real estate developers who fundamentally do not understand what is valuable in this world.
I think we are all used to seeing comfortable and cheap and weird things chased off by the unstoppable armies of wealth and uniformity. And wealth is always so uninteresting. Wealth demands a kind of conformity that strips away everything else, like a hurricane-force wind strips the land. It seems irresistible in the Bay Area, but it allows us all so many other advantages that it we feel uncomfortably indebted to it. We can’t imagine another way. We wonder if we could survive somewhere else.
The San Pablo Flea Market exists on the residue of that wealth – the sheer volume of material castoff in the frenzy is enough to buoy an entire economy. The place is run by what seems like a family. Since they are African-American I am always shy about asking them if they work there, because I don’t want them to think that I asked them that because they are African-American. Oakland is a racial frontier, somewhat because of gentrification but also because it is the place where race in America emerged from the depths 50 years ago, huge mountains rising out of the sea like a sudden geological event.
It is impossible to have an interaction without racial context, even between white people, alone. Conversation between white strangers is complicated, because there is the butt-sniffing of class, gender, impatience, mood, etc., but also because there is an understood bedrock. We all know who Enya is. We have an appreciation for the films of Wes Anderson. We went to therapy after our parents got divorced. A shared foundation of cultural experiences, assumed anyway.
It predominates when there are a bunch of white people standing around in Trader Joe’s, but it goes underground in an environment of mostly black people. Oakland is an excellent place for white people to experience this, especially the decisions that are forced upon any minority in the reverse social circumstance. Do I “show” as white or black? Do I pretend like I am one of “them”, or one of “us”? Do I admit to white culture, or do I minimize it? How do I make eye contact?
The 72 bus is the one I take in the morning… it picks up on the corner of San Pablo and Stanford streets. I walk past a stunning Oakland springtime on Vallejo and Stanford on the way there – everything can grow here, and everything does. In the morning there’s an “Out of this World Cookies” bakery (the logo is a giant oatmeal raisin shaped like a planet), and a healing center of some sort, from which Boomer women emerge clad in flowing scarves and sandals. It’s the kind of place that white hipsters bemoan as having been ruined by gentrification, and old black people praise because the crime’s gone down.
The 72 stop itself usually has about four or five people; we are starting to get to know each other, or at least get used to each other. I usually stand outside the bus booth unless it’s raining; I don’t like feeling I should have a conversation with other people who are intent on ignoring me anyway.
Among the people waiting in the morning are an on-the-way to work crowd: white and black professionals with earbuds, plugging away at their phones, a newly healed Boomer woman, and a young African American student with the resolute air she has decided she needs. Sometimes there is an old crazy guy – not really sure whether he’s on something, or just driven insane by circumstance. He’s black, which, disturbingly, all the Oakland street people are that I’ve seen so far. He usually is the chattiest person there, taking advantage of a mid-morning captive audience, and most people ignore him. I am usually the only person who returns his comments and questions, because I can’t just ignore another human being talking to me. Everyone else stands there with their sunglasses on, as impassive as an agent from The Matrix.
The 72 buses all have a sticker that says “Bus of the Year 2003”; I have never seen a “Bus of the Year 2004” or 2005 sticker, so I assume that the program was cancelled. Based on the facial expressions of the bus drivers, I can’t imagine they would respond to a motivational program of any sort. But the first couple of times I saw it, the “Bus of the Year 2003” sticker, it definitely raised my expectations. What about this bus made it superior? The seats? Smooth turns around Grand Avenue? Excellent customer service?
Seat choice on a bus always involves dozens if not hundreds of social calculations accomplished at light speed: are there any disabled people? Are there any old people? Are there any people who might be considered old but who would be insulted if you called them old? Are there any window seats? Are there any seats with bags on them? Are there any huge people who I can’t squeeze next to? (AC Transit buses now have one extra-wide seat. I’ve been wondering whether it’s for obese people, but I don’t know.)
Then race, age, and class. Would I rather sit next to an old person or a young person? If I sit next to a white person, Will the black guys think I am avoiding them for racial reasons? Why do only the white people have commuter mugs?
The worst thing about analyzing interactions by race is that it’s completely narcissistic: it assumes that your behavior is so interesting to other people that it is scrutinized and interpreted (or – the great terror of white liberals – misinterpreted as racist.)
The truth is, past a certain point, most people just don’t give a damn. It’s not really about you.