Helicopter rotors rumble in the air like mechanical thunder. Sirens, roaring engines of passing cars, combustion, the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard. Motorcycle engines and sound systems loud enough to set off car alarms. I can hear voices from the neighbor kids occasionally, but there is no other organic sound here. Sometimes I hear birds. This is not one of those times.
A walk through the streets of my east Oakland neighborhood—the first thing I think of is: metal bars. Most of them spiked at the top, most painted black but not all. Gates to parcel off the grid of ownership stand like visible markers of an invisible separation; outside this barrier is a different world. When I walk by and you’re watering the plants or working on your car, we’ll all pretend that the other doesn’t exist. Inside these lines is a private world; everyone intuitively understands the unspoken agreement—these invisible walls are not to be violated.
Wires carve up the sky, hanging like a curtain over the street where I rent a half-dilapidated old house. From the front porch, here on the crest of the hill, you can look out toward the skyline of the bay, and after awhile you won’t even notice those rubber-coated metal cobwebs, like you don’t notice the frame of eye-glasses impinging on your vision. It’s just part of the scene, like the turgid gray air on the horizon in every direction.
Every house is different, and there are hundreds. You can walk for blocks and blocks to the north, south, or west without ever really leaving a residential area. The houses of the Chinese and the southeast Asians are easy to identify—fruit trees, affectionately tended and semi-wild gardens, splashes of colorful plant life that shame the concrete beneath them.
Cars everywhere, parked on every block, on every street. Mid-price range sedans and coupes, crunchy 20-year old Japanese imports, the occasional fancy luxury car, freshly washed, chrome rims gleaming. You can tell which vehicles promise to have Latino owners; well-worn pick up trucks full of yard maintenance and construction tools, a miniature Mexican or Salvadoran or Guatemalan flag hanging from the rearview mirror.
In this city, the cars dance. At every intersection in the neighborhood the asphalt is covered with streaks of tire-rubber. They dance at any time, day or night.
If you head a few blocks west and turn south, you find yourself on a street that dead-ends at the entrance to a park. The last house on the block has a steep stairway leading up from the sidewalk to the front porch, and a woman who appears nearly as old as the city itself lives there. I know this because once when I was passing by, she flagged me down from porch and asked if I would get her mail out of the box that was two-thirds of the way up the steps. Even to descend and return the handful of steps to the mailbox would have been a harrowing and dangerous adventure for someone whose body is crippled and worn by so many decades.
There are rarely many people at the park, especially during the week, during the day. In one distant corner, tucked up against the back fence of a house, there are a couple of tents set up; the park is home to at least a few people. There are two tennis courts, unused except as a place of rest, conversation, or mischief for teens and tent people. The courts are covered in dead leaves and branches shed by the local redwoods and evergreens. A blacktop path winds through the park, beginning at the old woman’s house and winding downhill, through redwoods and park-grass that has already begun to yellow in the summer sun.
The path ends at a main artery, a two lane street with its own exits from two major freeways, and a drawbridge leading to an island, another city. It takes forever for the traffic light to flash the green man when you want to cross this street, because in this artery the citygod gives priority to mechanical blood cells. But your patience will be rewarded when you cross and keep walking. At the end of the block is a court, bordered by apartment buildings. The edges of the court are littered with garbage; car parts, liquor bottles, plastic wrappers, old tires, and every other thing that can wash up on the fringes of a dense urban landscape. The court is a constant host to a few apartment residents who perform mechanical surgery on broken-down vehicles; theses folks smoke cigarettes and look with suspicion on strangers; nobody wants trouble.
A path through wild grass along the court leads to a trail that follows a creek. Just like that, you turn a corner and it’s almost as if you were no longer in the city. Except for all the chainlink and deteriorating wooden fences bordering the other side of the creek, and the rumble of combustion engines, and the gray, and the wires, and the tumors of buildings growing out of the hills in the distance. There’s running water in the creek, buzzing bugs, a few birds, and the occasional feral cat. It took many thousands of years for this creek and her community of swimmers, flyers, runners, and crawlers to come into being; in less than a century, that community has been decimated by concrete infection. And yet the community clings to life with quiet tenacity.
A short walk along the trail will lead you pass a concrete canvass; known only to the local Spray Can crews of midnight marauders, there’s rarely more than a piece or two on the wall, but they are always elaborate, gorgeous works, exploding with color and attitude. Every once in awhile the government Gray Paint crews will remember this place, and spend a few weeks dutifully destroying beautiful art before they forget about it again and move on.
Cross the street, continue on the trail. On the far corner of the next block is a small patio with several folding tables. At least once a week, someone from somewhere brings boxes of bread, fruit, and vegetables and leaves them out on the tables for the locals—a lot of elders, a lot of black and brown and yellow skin tones. Even on the in-between days, when the goodies are gone, you’re likely to see a couple of elders trading stories; an older black man mimes the action of an exciting play from a televised basketball game for a middle-aged Latina.
Cross the street again and enter the Cherry Blossom Tunnel, the length of a two whole blocks where the trail is bordered by cherry trees. In summer the blossoms have long since fallen, but the arcing branches still block out the stun and the sky wires with their maroon leaves. Don’t trip over empty pint bottles of cognac, brandy, and vodka. Dodge the paper shopping bags full of trash, don’t step in abandoned dog shit. A few cats are nibbling at a pile of kibble. They too look on strangers with suspicion. Nobody wants trouble.
Nearly to the end of that second block of Cherry Blossom Tunnel, you’ll come to the temple; a nearly symmetrical circle of eight redwood trees near the edge of the creek. There is a proper way to enter this circle, much like the sycamore grove of Twin Peaks; I know because the Good Folk, the spirits, the gods, the djinn told me, in voices of synchronicity and bird-feather signs. A temple suitable for bodhisattvas, where the King of the Apes comes pray in movement to Guanyin, to heal his sicknesses by running through Taoist exercise routines—Stretch Sinews, Open Bones; Ten Great Heavenly Stems; the choreography and freestyle play of Form-Intention Fist, Eight Trigram Palm, and Supreme Pole Fist.
Then it’s back home, back through the tunnel, cut over to the main artery, past the autobody shop and the liquor store. In need of an old stained mattress, some new used furniture, or possible a busted stereo receiver? It’s an open air flea market here, and no money is required; the only price you pay is your freedom.