Mam, I have to admit, I was watching you. You probably didn’t notice me sitting across from you on the AC Transit bus leaving the Oakland Coliseum. It was a warm day and I was sweating, glad to have gotten a seat. I’d just come from SF where I’d taken part in a rally for housing rights. So many evictions across the bay in San Francisco. You’re probably aware of the situation but one can’t assume. But if you are aware of what’s going on, you know exactly how bad it is. But there you sat, and my eyes somehow fell on you as if there was no other place for them to fall—on this day or any other day.
Your face was a story—a book, a battlefield, a poem, a song, a season—all held in your two eyes that somehow warmed the bus. Your eyes slid over towards the front of the bus—a familiar face. “Clarence” you called out, your eyes warm in the familiarity of a face that held recognition of story and history. Clarence came by and sat down. How you doin’? You said, your eyes drawing me in. And Clarence said, “I’m heading to my old lady’s place”. And you continued to speak and you looked at Clarence and ran a gentle hand through his hair. “I’m older than you and look at all that gray hair you got” you said, as Clarence leaned away, laughing.
You continued to talk and I couldn’t hear much of it because of the bus engine. But I heard you say, “I don’t give no man no money. The only man I give money to is my son and he’s in college. He’s gonna be a doctor.” And the bus jerked a bit, causing a young woman to lose her balance. Clarence steadied the woman’s arm and helped her regain her balance. “Thank you” the woman said.
And you were firmly in your seat, maybe carrying 20 or so extra pounds but no doubt, the weight of a life survived and endured beyond anything I can begin to imagine. And I looked at your eyes as they melted into the moment. And in that moment you became my aunt and Clarence became my uncle. And the bus became the living room, and the barbershop and the kitchen—a place that we could be who we are.
And I see the black faces all around me on the bus—a mural of faces and skin and eyes and teeth—bright and alive with the glisten of lives reflected off the skin of the river of life, a mural that moves across space and into the soul through the eyes of the woman sitting across from me. And through my own eyes I see a black community; maybe lifelong Oakland folk or exiled black folk from San Francisco via eviction. It is a community that has been lost in SF. The evicted eyes, heart, spirit—the broken landscape under the skin that is the whole of San Francisco. A community decimated by San Francisco, a city that never deserved it.
Oakland, thank God you haven’t lost your soul. Thank God that the black community is there—that the black laughter, black fire, black feeling is there. And while some people would say that Oakland is violent, that people there shoot each other etc., I’m thankful that the people I see are real, they are people that say good morning to you on the street, and acknowledge your presence with a nod. I know it isn’t a perfect place, but it acknowledgement is a form of respect and I can’t remember the last time I was acknowledged in San Francisco except for the transit fare inspectors and other bullies like them who appear to enjoy their work. Thank God for the woman on the bus. Thank God for the woman with the smiling eyes.
(c) 2014 Tony Robles