Oakland? A Very Short Memoir

by Stephen Vincent

"There, there!" said Gertrude.
"No, No," said Alice.
"There is no there, there?" asked Gertrude.
"What is 'hole' is sometimes 'whole', if but for the looking," finished Alice.

Je confesse! I lived in Oakland from February to June, 1971. I was then a young poet and my own reasons were simple or maybe, even, complex. I grew up in Richmond. Oakland is the Capital of Richmond, Vallejo and Pittsburg - each of the other and smaller East bay industrial port towns made large during World War II, remaining so up until the seventies, at which time most of the large industries began to withdraw. Unlike San Francisco's cosmopolitan reputation, or Berkeley with it's University population, each of these smaller towns are/were predominantly southern and southwestern working class, with large "poor white" and black populations. I once visited Selma, Alabama and thought I was in another version of Richmond. However, to be fair, Richmond was not entirely bereft of "high culture" aspirations. Up into the fifties the high school remained a strong magnet for UC Berkeley; the Art Center was well known for its ambitious shows of new and contemporary artists. In 1962, I remember being knocked out, caught visually totally off-guard there in a gallery space filled with several of Jasper Johns' series of American Flag paintings. Walter DeMaria ­ the eventual creator of The Lightening Field ­ was my "Y" camp cabin counselor and an upper-classman at Richmond High School.

Oakland, however, always had a sense of style that was part City and part not. Even in the relatively new Oakland Museum - which, in its modest way, is actually one of the architectural wonders of the West - the staff, behind the desks, was pure Oakland, with barely a whiff of Ivy League privilege. Yes, Oakland was/is a very classy version of Richmond. I wanted to get a fuller sense what that really meant before moving back into the City where I was then teaching creative writing and Humanities classes at the Art Institute. In fact my spring classes included one called, "Post War Poetry and Painting in the Bay Area."

Oakland - dating back to the post-1906 earthquake exodus from San Francisco - had the historical reputation of up-in-the-hills real wealth. In fact, the town became one of the primary centers of turn of the Century California's Arts & Crafts movement which created a history of cultural assets and developments, including the fanciful zoo, a modern arts museum, Mills College, California College of Arts & Crafts, the Society of Six (the Region's first modernist painters) Isadora Duncan's school of dance, renowned architects of beautiful homes and institutions, for example, Julia Morgan, whose works were supported by small, crafted oriented factories. (Think, for example, painted ceramics, or tiles for porches, stairways and fireplaces.) Originally it's new inhabitants envisioned its hills and neighborhoods as the re-creation of Arcadia.

By the Thirties, its lower flatlands with the railroad terminal and port became renown as the home of wealthy industry and blue collar jobs. Kaiser was king - builders of the Hoover Dam, the World War II Richmond Shipyards - among much, much more, Kaiser Industries was the town's major cultural benefactor, as well as the area's probably largest working class employer. Kaiser's high rise home office building sat on the edge of Lake Merritt, a stones throw from City Hall, the downtown, and offices of the arch conservative Oakland Tribune. Oakland - which is part of Alameda County - was then the career building site for Edwin Meese and several other Republicans who - starting in 1976 - became prominent, reactionary figures in President Ronald Reagan's Administration. Oakland was very hardball underneath. It was no surprise that the City would spawn the birth of the Black Panther Party.

However, I didn't move to Oakland for culture capital "C", nor to be in the grip of its conservative politics. I lived on Stow Street, in a studio apartment, a couple blocks up a hill from the eastside of the Lake. In truth I wanted to live in Oakland to be close to a kind of style - to eat at those still fifties' era diners where the white waitresses all had the highest blond bouffants I have ever seen, "Fresno bouffants", (I think that's what they were called). I wanted to hear the country accents, black and white, and the music coming from both sides of a racial divide (Buck Owens on one, Josh White and lots of black Blues the other), and to see people still driving soup't up fifties and sixties cars. That part of me was probably homesick for something deeply present ­ an "up south" in the Richmond in the Fifties. My older brother - proud owner of a royal blue, 1953 Chevrolet Coupe with 28 coats of lacquer outside and inside, soft baby-blue, tuck & roll Tijuana crafted leather upholstery - courted Lucy, the runner-up for Miss Oakland in 1958. If I remember she had a blond bouffant, not to forget to mention an eye-full of cleavage, too.

In actuality, Oakland in 1970, when I think about it, was much closer to the entire country's cultural and political heat. At that time everything had a black riff. National consciousness was focused on either the rural South - Atlanta, Mississippi and Alabama - or the racially mixed, big northern industrial towns, say Detroit and Chicago. Oakland possessed a local sense of both. Race was on everyone's mind, infusing speech, music, the shape of politics. The Black Panthers - Huey Newton was by then living in a tower apartment overlooking the Lake - and the music, Motown (Aretha, the Supremes, etc.), Tina & Ike, Ray Charles, and, locally, Sly & The Family Stone, and Tower of Power and so many others were banging and melodizing in everybody's ears. The dichotomies of Oakland were a microcosm of the country. Much more on target, it was almost more fashionable to be in Oakland rather than in San Francisco. The City's bedrock Irish, Italian, and Chinese folks, its then still large new Central American population, the aura of Latin Catholicism, did not ring the same bells, nor quite yet fit the black and white cultural scope.

Except for Nanos Valoritis, the Greek via Paris Surrealist - who taught at San Francisco State - few poets then lived in Oakland. Ishmael Reed - if he had yet arrived - had not made Oakland, or what hip blacks called "Jump City" into a multi-cultural literary project. Omit Ishmael from Oakland today and expect weird, paranoid voodoo to track you into both your previous and your next life, to say nothing of off-spring and kin! I would not meet Ishmael until later in the early-Seventies when poetry in San Francisco, including new and diverse ethnic voices - Jessica Hagedorn, Ntozake Shange, Thulani Davis, Roberta Vargas, Alejandro Murgia and Victor Hernandez Cruz ­ would begin to reshape the City's cultural shape, an important fact often ignored in the histories of the emergence and power of the slightly later, still young Language poets.

But absolutely no scene in 1970 Oakland - at least one that was readily evident. Sitting on a bench on the edge of Lake Merritt could be mighty lonely, especially if you were looking for a familiar face, be it poet or artist. In fact that spring, while teaching the class on Bay Area poetry and art - an experience that had me devouring volumes of Rexroth, Jeffers, Everson, Duncan, Spicer, Adam, Whalen, Snyder, Welch et al - it was also starkly evident that none of the work had any resonance with or location in Oakland. The City was a poetry zero zone. As a poet, it was hard to get a grip on a place that seemed to have no contemporary or recent ancestry off of which my work could bounce.

But that's not to say there wasn't poetry in Oakland once, or there was not the possibility of more!

Joaquin Miller, an internationally famous late nineteenth century poet - "Song of the Sierras" - lived up in the Oakland hills in a house with a separate writing studio located off what is now Miller Drive. Then considered California's first poet laureate, he is a terrible poet, but his repetitiously sublime evocations of wilderness led to success in the East and Europe. Actually his novel, Years Among the Modocs, is a wonderful depiction of the 1860's Indian wars around Mt. Shasta. In a way, Miller's early western life style created the tradition-preamble for the later mountain living legends and poems of Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder.

During my six months in Oakland, I was involved with a woman whose father owned a jazz and rock & roll record shop downtown on 13th & Franklin. In the fifties and early sixties, I learned from her that Juanita Miller, his infamous daughter, poet, silent movie actress, and contemporary of Isadora Duncan, still lived in the main house. As a movie actress, one of her famous hours occurred in Virginia City where, as the story has it, in the early Twenties she was starring in, I believe, a Western. It was noon. Juanita was early on into astrology. At lunch she climbed up and spread herself out - limb to limb- in the crown of a tree. When the Director called her to get back to work, she called down that she would not be back on set until she had finished having "intercourse with the sun."

Later, in her eighties, and living in her father's house, Juanita would host visiting groups of boy and girl Scouts, as well as school groups. She would first talk in the main house about the life and romantic exploits of her once famous father. A charming host, she would then take the Scouts into her father's cabin where he lay in bed, propped up on his elbow, writing a poem in one of his journals. Joaquin, of course, was faux, a dressed up plaster-of-Paris mannequin. There in the Oakland hills, Juanita had created her own theme park for California's first poet laureate. Jaunita's and Joaquin's names. by the way. both bear an Anglo respect for the Californios, ironically the first California colonialists. Peralta was the family name of the Mexican family with the land grant that extended from San Jose up the East Bay into Berkeley. The University of California was to have been named "Peralta" until some of the University's Anglo Christians elevated Bishop Berkeley's imperial pronouncement "westward the way of Empire" into a "he's our boy" nominal coup. It was not until the Seventies that Oakland named "Peralta" to one of its new community colleges.

Actually one of my favorite stories and one to do with a name of a now famous song with its origins in Oakland. Hudie Ledbetter, the singer, known in his lifetime as "Leadbelly" had an aunt who lived in Oakland. Once in the Thirties, he was on his way by train to Hollywood for a recording session. He got off the train in Oakland to visit and have dinner with his aunt. When it was time to leave and catch the night train down the coast, she let him out the front door on to the porch; he gave her a hug and said, "Goodnight, Irene."

When he got down to the bottom of the stairs, he looked up and said, "Irene, I reckon the next year hear that, it will be on record."

A black man, Jim Battle, from Shreveport, Louisiana told me that story in the early sixties in Richmond where I had a summer job as a City gardener. That was way back at the start of the Folk Music revival and the rediscovery of Leadbelly's music of which I was an enormous fan. Battle also said he had courted Leadbelly's sister, in fact "Watched Hudie crack one of several guitars over the head of a night club patron because he wouldn't take shit off anybody." When Battle told me that I trusted his authority and still totally believe the "Good Night, Irene," story, though I have never heard or read it anywhere else. Leadbelly's commitment performing his art ­ going as far as to sacrifice an instrument to protect it ­ also made a deep impression.

It's strange how writing about Oakland keeps bringing up stories and associations, ones that I find much more interesting than anything that happened to me while I lived there so shortly. Just now ­ when I was about 10 or 11 years old - I can remember seeing "The African Queen" at the Paramount Theater in 1952. Inside that dark, Art Deco monument - probably one of the most beautiful theaters in the West ­ watching Bogart and Hepburn afloat on their boat going down and stopping to swim in the Nile, I will never forget the dark leaches intractably attached to Hepburn's legs while Bogart applied and rubbed white baking powder to her flesh, trying his best to release the creatures back into the river.

The Paramount Theater, in my experience, it seems, has always been host to real African Queens. I saw the Labelle Sisters - dressed as black leather butterflies - tear up the audience about 1975, and then Nina Simone, who gave her last Bay Area concert there just a couple of years back. I can never forget her response to the woman fan who yelled out from far back in the audience, "Nina, I love you. You saved my life."

"If I did that, honey, you owe me a lot of money."

I am also happy to report ­ unlike thirty years ago - poetry, with readings and new presses and many, many poets is more than ever before thriving in Oakland. There, Gertrude!