The Summer of 2015, I often walked around Lake Merritt to buy groceries. The last segment of my journey took me under an freeway overpass. It was an enormous shadow made of pillars and concrete. Over my shoulder, water sparkled underneath a blue sky. Yards away, in front of me, I saw a dark silhouette against the summer's bright sunlight and recognized A--'s slow, deliberate gait.
"Hey!" I shouted, and waved.
A---- had been on my mind for days. The space between us closed. We'd met five weeks ago, at the Oakland Whole Foods. She's a graduate of Brown's M.F.A. program, a published poet, and educator. A---- identified as black, Native American and a survivor.
"I had to drink a bottle of vodka to get out of bed this morning," she'd said. I glanced up, at the clock over the eating area, and saw that it was 8:30 a.m.
Close up, I saw her eyes. They were bewitching, a sea green color that lured sailors to their deaths and inspired poems.
"How are you?" I asked.
"Everything," she said, wearily. "Is worse."
"Gentrification," she said. "People - of a certain phenotype feeling like they need to display their power over other people of a different phenotype."
I knew what A--- was talking about. In Whole Foods, she'd described the police brutality and gentrification of her Adams Point neighborhood as simultaneously occurring events.
The more white people poured into the area, the more cops showed up. White people from San Francisco looking for affordable rent in the East Bay, Black people being pushed out of their neighborhoods.
Gentrification or real estate speculation?
Then as now, I said nothing because I knew that, in this instance, whatever I might have said about race or racism or history would be irrelevant to her.
The only facts that I could speak to with any authority was that we stood at the mid point of a freeway overpass in Oakland and that it was a bright, sunny summer day.
The underpass was a parallel reality, a vast stretch of shadow that ran under the freeway in perpetuity. I took this route because I loved the overhead roar: the sound represented velocity.
Right then, A---- walked away.
I called out, and told her about a letter that I'd written petitioning for financial aid, how I'd used her advice and successfully managed to get funded.
"Just like you told me to," I said. "I - "
"Don't say that!" she laughed. "Not out here."
"I can't believe I got it," I said, wondering who she was worried about hearing our conversation. We were alone except for a stream of cars that passed, drivers sealed off behind the closed glass windows.
"Of course you got it, baby, they're making money off of you."
A Black man ran by. He held an Walkman and earphones. I recognized him from the corner gas station beside a freeway off ramp and where he detailed cars under a giant blue umbrella. He moved swiftly, feet almost not touching the ground, like Hermes.
"Hey!" she said, her body pulling away from mine and moving towards him. "I've been looking for you!"
"I gotta go!" he said, head half turned over his shoulder.
"Can I go with you?" A---- asked.
"Nope," he said. "I need my personal time!"
"But I got you half a sandwich," she shouted but he kept running, slipped out of the darkness and into the sunlight. "He's a Gemini."
"Your book of poetry is amazing," I said. "Did you write it at Brown?"
"Brown had nothing to do with that book," she snapped. "I went to Brown with that manuscript."
"But - "
"I was reading Tristan and Shandy when I was four."
"Wow," I said. "Still they only take four people a year."
"I was their affirmative action baby," she said.
A----'s dress was beautiful, a knee length black cotton shift dress that hung on her slim, brown shoulders, the bottom edge decorated with a spray of embroidered flowers. The thread caught the light. Pink, yellow, red, green, white.
I thought about what I might say: Can I - should I - would I - you let me give you - But I said nothing. Anything I offered or said would sound like another white person's empty bribe.
"Okay well bye," I said, turned and left the tunnel. The bright, July light made my eyes seize up. I walked to a coffee shop and read an article in the New York Times about academic research into twenty generations of American slavery following Bacon's Rebellion in 1676.
Apparently, America was not the first country to have perpetrated slavery, but we were the first civilization to have done it with such exquisite precision.
Reading comments that radiated incoherent rage, denial and subterfuge, I was both given pause and disoriented. All I could think was, 'Are white people really this stupid?'
I watched a man outside gather signatures. Democracy in action. I thought about moments when I've allowed my consciousness to open up to the reality of race and racism in American. I am always destabilized.
Possibly because I don't labor under the delusion that what I have suffered as a Queer bears any relationship with the central actors in our nation's never ending tragedy. My pain is not never will be the same yet whenever I open that vein the pain of our collective grotesquerie that flows is sharp as razor blades drawn up and down my skin.
Whitney Houston's voice interrupted my thoughts.
"Didn't we have it all... "
She'd performed that song in Saratoga Springs. In the YouTube clip, she's at the beginning of her life and near the end of a four and a half minute set. It's winter yet sweat beads cover her face.
One gloved hand on the microphone, she raised her free arm, brought down her other gloved hand, and quieted the orchestra. She paused, and looked into the audience, her lips turning up into something like a smile. Her brown eyes widened and pulsed.
Beauty, her face was graced with infinite tenderness and wisdom and forgiveness, the sum of which as it turns out isn't sustainably embodied by mortals, even those who are pop stars.
I thought about A---- and how her smile lit up the dark tunnel, a dazzling confection of brains, poetry and verve. Our parting embrace was brief. When we touched, she flinched and withdrew.
I'd failed to find the right words. But my failure was not mine alone. It was something I shared, a collective decay of the rotten social body, hung and nailed to a broken cross.
How was it that I'd survived the AIDS epidemic and recognized that police brutality was a crisis, too. But there was no pill in the pipeline, no quick fix, no cure.
Yet that crisis was all around us, in the air, everywhere if you cared to open your eyes or look. And if you looked that was another problem.
Because were an entire nation of people to have looked, and seen and felt, that would cause mass psychosis and required immediate suicide of the entire white race.
I didn't sleep that night, and I wondered if that's our fate. To be up all night, eyes closed but awake.
My inner vision's a movie screen upon which our nightmarish history plays.
I'm bitten by mosquitos that buzz right before they bite, and suck blood. I cannot stop itching. The pain is unbearable.
"Gentrification ... " A---- said. "People - of a, ah, certain phenotype feeling like they need to display their power over other people of a different phenotype."
I laid on my back, palms together and prayed.
I was not hopeful that my prayers would ever be answered, perhaps another symptom of my own psychosis. I fell out of bed, and get on my knees and pray for the grace and absolution that will finally someday wipe away this sin.