1,400 Words About Oakland Inspired by “Sorry To Bother You”

Oakland has this way of getting on my mind. It doesn’t take much – a breeze, a sound, a Warriors championship, and then it’s all I can think about. Put a full-length movie set deep in The Town in front of me and I’m gonna get caught way the hell up for a while.

The new Boots Riley film Sorry To Bother You got under my skin from the moment I heard about it. I’ve been ready and waiting to see what he did as an Oakland based filmmaker. But no amount of anticipation could have prepared me for how intensely evocative his film would be. What made my connection to the movie feel so strong was that it wasn’t just set in places my partner and I had visited, it was set in places we were, continuously, over long periods of time. Places we knew intimately and deeply.

The memories were fully alive for me watching the characters hang out at the galleries on Webster and 15thSt., the office buildings further up Harrison toward The Lake, and of course the Layover (I can still taste the too-many fresh greyhounds followed by half pints of hefeweizen to wind down countless long, dancey nights there). There are ways you know a place just by being familiar with it, and then there are ways that you become a place and it becomes you.

Oakland was a place where we lost a lot – health, mobility, potential, belief. But it was also where we reconstructed our sense of the world and our position in it. It was where we started over, from smoldering cinders, and it was never lost on us that the city itself, our specific neighborhood, was also in a simultaneous state of tearing down and rebuilding.img_5744

We moved to downtown Oakland in 2011. We lived there during the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, blocks away from the epicenter of Oakland’s uprisings. Our apartment was perched directly on the axis of so many marches and protests that it felt like we were in the center of the world in constant revolt. We couldn’t go outside for a lot of it because on those same streets a man on a motorcycle had run me down and broken my body. So we listened, we watched from our windows, we let the sound of protest be our bellwether of the world outside while I recovered inside. As my body healed, we got to spend more time out there, in The Town. By then a lot of the heat had subsided, but we still had a lot of catching up to do.

We walked, at first with a wheelchair, then crutches, then just a pronounced limp. Laps around the block, laps around The Lake. And during those journeys we forged our community. Me and Autobono and our Oakland. We met people who came out of their shops when they saw us to cheer us on. To encourage us, and tell us stories about their own recoveries from injuries past.

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One of those people is one of my favorite artists. A man who works under the name Omiiroo. In those early days of our life in Oakland, Omiiroo had a gallery on 14thand Webster. He worked in this magically transient style – painting the walls of his gallery over and over, each time with a different vision of Africa. His paintings were multimedia representations of these ever-changing ideas about Africa, using words, paint, collage formed into the shape of the continent itself. Taken individually the paintings were complex, nuanced, inspiring, educational, beautiful and painful and indicting. Individually. But taken all together, they also represented the ephemeral way we understand anything at all, how our impressions of things shift and change and are replaced and are renewed and still somehow remain haunted by all their former iterations.

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We were so lucky that this extremely transitional time in our own lives involved daily visits to see Omiiroo’s work, to see what he changed, what he kept the same. The excitement and sorrow we felt every time we came by and saw the walls blank again, so sad to see the last piece erased, so dearly looking forward to seeing what he did next. He would come out of the gallery and talk to us about art and music and my busted leg. We came to feel so close to him…and then one day he was gone.

The neighborhood was in flux in so many ways. Oakland is in equal parts the roughest, most brutal, and most beautiful and loving place I’ve ever lived. Bullets regularly flew by our windows from the right, but you could look out to the left and watch the sun set on Lake Merritt or see people actively and vigorously standing up to defend human rights. On one side of us creative spaces were being shut down and dispersed, on the other they were consolidating a few blocks away around 15th and Harrison.

After he left his original gallery, Omiiroo ended up moving even closer to us, his new space butting up against the back of our building, and reopened his gallery just as active as he’d ever been. Flanked by the Naming Gallery and Mary Weather, Burnt Oak and Lequivive, our little block became a gathering place for art walks and street parties, openings and performances. It was pretty amazing, and our friend Omiiroo was an anchor in the center of it all. He hosted workshops and community meetings and flea markets where local artisans could showcase their work. He was a presence, a force.img_5256

We kept walking. On Sundays, when most of our neighbors were asleep, Eugene and I would walk the Lake, check in on the ducks and geese and punkass seagulls. If you’re a morning person, you know what a fucking treat it is to walk around a city when no one’s out. Often on those quiet mornings the first person we’d run into was Omiiroo. We’d duck into his shop and he’d make us pour over coffee which would take a while, so we got to just hang out and chat with him and check out his latest work while the water slowly filtered through. I can’t overstate how sweet those mornings were, sipping coffee in the hush of a neighborhood that just hours before had been a riot of music and conflict and expression.img_6158

Boots Riley was also a fixture in the neighborhood. I was familiar with him from his work in The Coup, so I recognized him when he was hanging out at the galleries, and I think he had a studio in one of the discrete little mixed use buildings around the corner. Our community was so fertile and prolific and close, so it made sense to see Omiiroo’s work featured prominently in Riley’s directorial debut. Like, of course, it’s our home, all our friends are here.

I feel like we describe a lot of art, especially films, as love letters to places, but STBY is a love letter to not just Oakland, but specifically to that 5 or 10 block radius we know as Uptown, Oaksterdam, Downtown, Home. All of the scenes were in places we recognized and were intimately familiar with. The music was made by local artists – The Coup, Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards. And the art was made by our friend and neighbor, Omiiroo. I high key got emotional when I saw his giant collages of Africa featured on the screen.

Even thinking about it now, the layers of meaning – the meaning inherent in the collages themselves and the significance of featuring that artist, from that neighborhood – blows me away, tears me down, rebuilds me on the spot.

The film is a fucking knockout completely separate from its setting, it’s weird and fun and punk as hell and terrifying and allegorical and challenging and buoyant and in a lot of ways felt like it was speaking directly to me – it’s so deeply rooted in one of my favorite places in the world, and it actually quotes one of my favorite monologues from my favorite movie in the world. There’s plenty in the film for everyone, and I’m dying to know how the movie would look to someone who didn’t feel such a strong connection to the setting. I wonder what you would see that I missed, what you might not notice that seems like the world to me. But I can’t stop being in awe of how deeply and abidingly Oakland it is. So Oakland, so personal, so true.img_5192

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Resolution

I started reading the Best American Essays 2013 yesterday. I usually hate these things and only read them mainly to confirm my suspicion that the same stories keep getting told over and over. But I have to say that so far the first three essays of this edition have been refreshingly interesting and inspiring. In fact the third one resonated with me so much that I’ve decided to make it my first post of 2014. The quote below is from Richard Schmitt’s “Sometimes a Romantic Notion”, and it sums up exactly what has inhibited my writing for most of my life – not the fear of failure or success or whatever, or even lack of time or resources or support (although I’ve never had much of any of these), but something even more strange and probably unique to fiction writers, and possibly “romantic”.

As a writer, I spent years hiding and denying my connection to the circus because I had the romantic notion that fiction writers simply made things up out of thin air or their intrinsic, God-given genius. An idea, I see now, about as crazy as running away to join the circus.

It’s fantastic to see someone else name the thing I’ve struggled so hard to define, and while he’s referring to time spent in an actual circus, the metaphor still applies – we all come from circuses (and by “all” I mean all us interesting people) – but some of us, for various reasons, are reluctant to draw from that rich, seething soil. I have long shared the weird (and inaccurate) notion that good writing is supposed to come from someplace foreign, that it had to be entirely made up in order to be of value, so I’ve avoided telling all my best stories, the easy stories, the ones that are constantly on the tip of my tongue, just trying to keep them from blocking the really, really good and unique and original stories  that I might possibly invent from scratch. But I’m finally realizing that it’s taken more effort to suppress my own crazy circus full of stories than it would have to just write them down. So that leads to my biggest and most cherished resolution for the year: in my writing, I’m going to do my best to come home to the circus, and stop trying to run away to the normal. I’ll be sharing it here. Happy New Year!