I was on the corner of West Macarthur and Telegraph when I was kidnapped. There was some kind of rivalry over drugs and money that led to these circumstances. The details are still unclear to me. I do remember the neon lights from the Doggie Diner, a hamburger stand that used to overlook the ho-track. I can still hear the cacophony of sounds that emerged from that street corner. The voices of whores cat-calling johns and the ever present reality of junk sickness that lingered in the air.
My mother and I were on our way from the hotel where we lived to get dinner when we were attacked. We were attacked with such precision, that before my mother even hit the ground, I was thrown in the back seat of a car and the door slammed shut. The back seat of that Cadillac seemed huge and when the door closed it was like I was in a vacuum. All that was visible at the time were two huge black men beating my mother under those neon lights of the outdoor hamburger stand. I was witness to this violence. I could see them swinging, kicking, screaming, but from the backseat of the car all I heard was a deafening silence.
I was taken to a two story Victorian house, near the Macarthur Maze freeway structure. The house was surrounded by chain link fence. I was made to sleep in a huge bed, with some fat ass black woman. Her house smelled of grease and there was junk piled up above my head everywhere. We would eat in the morning and at night (fried eggs and grits). It took me years to stop relating grits to this scenario. Despite my circumstance, I believe she meant me no harm. I did what I was told, and nothing else. I was paralyzed with fear. I never shed a tear the whole time I was there. This may be where I learned to stuff my feelings.
It is crazy when you think about it, you can force your feelings down or try to cover yourself with pompous ego. Still the truth has to come out. At this point it started to come out in my dreams. I would dream of being with my mother. In my dreams I would feel the safety a child feels in his mother’s arms. She used to always say to me, “I asked God for a little boy and he gave me you.” Then I would fucking wake up in the bed with the fat ass bitch who smelled. I was eight years old and I was kept in this house for three weeks.
The day that Nana came to get me, I remember walking out the front door. It was night and the cold night air felt refreshing on my face. I could see the light from Papa’s light blue ‘64 Riviera in the middle of the street. I walked to the car very slowly, as if any sudden moves might cause the car to disappear. My body began to weigh a million tons but still I put one foot in front of the other. The fat black lady and Nana were talking. I could see Nana was saying something when I walked up. I started to cry for the first time in weeks. I could feel it coming out in a purging of emotions. The fat black lady tried to wipe my face, but Nana grabbed me, said something mean and put me in the back seat as Papa waited in the driver’s seat. Nana got in the front and she was pissed. I tried to keep my crying down as I did not want to piss anyone off. I thought to myself, why was Nana so mean to fat lady? Why is she so mad? I hope Nana is not mad at me. My grandparents took me to their home and put me to bed. I continued to cry throughout the night.
I was alone for the first time in a long time. It was me and my fear, all alone in my grandparents’ house. I knew they were in the next room and I even knew I was safe, but I could not shake the fear. As a matter of fact, at that age I could not even identify it as feeling, it was just how I felt constantly. Feeling.
I understand my trauma like this: I was a child who people failed to protect. This created a fear-based thinking in my core. My circumstances may be very dramatic but the universal feeling of fear is something most people can identify with. One solution to my fears today is to talk about them with others, not just what happened to make me fearful but how fear is a universal feeling no matter what has happened to you. As a child, if you ever felt that the people who were supposed to protect you failed, then you may know fear. There is a solution to fear, it is unity. In the process of communication we find that fear is just an illusion and the illusions must be smashed.
It is pretty funny to me how many people I know have asked me not to use their last name in my blog and in the case my therapist, I will just call him Doctor Do the Right Thing.
Dr. Do the Right Thing is a very stoic gentleman. He is a no nonsense kind of guy. Older, not old. When you walk into his office it is adorned with masks he has collected from all over Africa. The masks have a huge psychological effect on me, but that’s another story.
My early memories start around the corner of Ashby and Sacramento. This area comes to mind for a few reasons. One is that this is where the cops gunned down Floyd Blacksheir, an extended part of my street family. I remember him mostly because we went down to identify the body. I stayed in the hallway of the Oakland Morgue but my Mom gave me a graphic enough picture of him laid out on the table riddled with bullets.
The other is the Northwest corner of Ashby and Sacramento. This was three city blocks of full on ghetto life circa 1975. There were pool-halls, barbershops and at least five liquor stores inside of this three block area. This place filled me with fear. Drunks, junkies, loud-ass hookers and I grew to know this place as home.
We lived on Woolsey. My mom had to be nineteen and my uncle fifteen. They were kids and I was a baby, the same age as my son, three years old. I remember my uncle like it was yesterday with his long black hair, wifebeater T-shirt, polyester pants and platform boots. He drove a lowered step-side Chevy truck with costume flames on the sides. My mom was half his size and she wore one of those fur jackets that looked like she killed a litter of rabbits and sewed them together.
I remember seeing my uncle use his gun on a man in our studio apartment. The way that gun echoed in the small apartment made an imprint on my mind that left me sensitive to the sound of gunplay today.
I remember being wrapped in a blanket in the middle of the night by my uncle. I remember feeling momentary comfort in his arms as we ran down to the street where I saw my mom and her friends, two young prostitutes, standing in a phone booth. It was the middle of the night and my grandmother showed up to get me. Why? I don’t know.
I remember when my mom would leave the house. It was like a game. I would say, “Where you going?” and she would say, “To see a man about a horse.” I would say, “Get me a pony,” and she would laugh. Horse is seventies slang for heroin.
The city of Berkeley bulldozed that whole area near the corner of Sacramento and Ashby, did their best to wipe it off the face of the earth. But it is still there, seared into my mind. I know the ghosts, I hear their violence in their silence. All that is left of them is a row of low income housing, a couple of liquor stores and the B.A.T.S methadone clinic. Now there’s the Biofuel Oasis.
So why write this shit down? What is the point? I have a son who never has to know my demons first hand. My wife and I lie in bed with him sometimes just holding him and loving him. We believe as a family that love is an action that you show each other by touch. I also believe that this is the action of safety, a safety that I seldom knew as a child. A safety that can carve healthy neural pathways into my son’s mind. I can not think my way out of this labyrinth I call my mind, I have to be guided by right action. Right now the right action is as Doctor Do the Right Thing says, “Let’s put your life down in chapters so we can get a clear picture.” This is chapter: You Need Therapy.
I love people who know pain. I ran a night club on 6th Street for five years. In case you don’t know, this is the heart of the Tenderloin, one of the most infamous neighborhoods in California. One time I was standing in the alley with my homey Chris. He did the sound at the club and was the best man in my wedding. The sun was setting on 6th Street and the streets were about to come alive with pure debauchery. I was very much at home among the crackhead transvestite hookers and D-boys. I knew many of them from county jail and various drug rehab programs we had been in together.
Chris and I were smoking cigarettes and contemplating the long night ahead of us. From the very back of Jessie Alley, next to the club, walked a man who had covered himself in a blanket. This was not too strange because there was a whole camp of homeless people living at the end of the alley so we just went about what we were doing and so did he. Directly across the street from us sat a woman on a stoop almost as if she were on her knees. In one fluid motion, the man who emerged from the alley slowly walked up to the lady on the stoop and opened his blanket, swallowing her up beneath it in what seemed almost a crackhead Blackula monster movie scenario. Then she started blowing him under the blanket with such voracity that his eyes started to bulge out of his head and his bottom jaw pushed out to the point that we could see all the details of his face from across the street even though we were in a dark alley. As fast as it started, it was over. The ferocious bobbing from underneath the blanket slowed to a sporadic spastic motion. Then with the same speed as he consumed the lady with his blanket, so he left her but returned to that slow pace, dragging his feet as if he had not a care in the world. Chris and I looked at each other like what the fuck? Then I was like shit, I gots to get me one of those blankets. And we laughed. What else can you do when you witness such an event?
I could go on and on about the crazy things I saw in those days but the most amazing thing to come out of all that shit was this photo project. We had an old carnival-style photo booth in the club. While I would wait for daytime deliveries, I started asking people from the neighborhood if I could take a picture of them. They would come in, have a beer, chat and sit in the photo booth. For a couple of flashes of light, the day’s grind went away and all that was left was a smile, a captured moment of childlike innocence. I have collected hundreds of these photos and I have always cherished them because they encourage me to smile no matter how hard things feel. This has offered me the ability to love the people around me for who they are on the inside. I believe that my photo booth project shines through the hardships and dilemmas of our human experience to see the smile. The photo booth was able to catch that one moment of their humanity.