I lived in Oakland, CA once upon a time. I did this christian-y program that had me there for a little under a year. I rarely talk about it for numerous reasons. Mostly I miss it: I miss the friends I made, I miss the job I had. There are few people who I think would care to sit and listen to me as the dam breaks. I am also terrified of re-enforcing negative stereotypes, that I am often silenced; don’t want white people to misunderstand and misconstrue.
But I think it is time to start telling. I will start with a small person I met. She was a 5 year old girl, named Tamara. She lived a few houses down from our duplex. She had an older cousin who lived with her named Dante, in 4th grade, and a younger brother, Calvin who was under 2.
Tamara: a perfect, silly, little girl. I saw her butt crack often. Not that I should talk, but her pants barely stayed up. We tied a brightly colored soft scarf through her belt loops to keep them up. It kinda worked. We had dance parties. She showed up at the door of our duplex and asked for a banana or yogurt, or an apple. She would get pink yogurt on her chin, it would drip on her shirt. Her water glass would end up sticky.
Her eyes were brown and sparkled brightly. She smelled sweet and her hair was spongey-soft. We would rip up cereal boxes and then paint with glitter and glue on the back of them. She asked questions that were so deep they scared me, and she taught me profound spiritual truths about faith and illustrated for me the basics of Jesus.
My roommates and I were very close to her and her cousin and brother. Their parents were young and struggled, and their grandmother was overwhelmed and overworked. We eventually made it a habit to invite them over once a week for dinner and we would eat and pray and talk…with these little people that we loved so much. Sometimes Calvin’s diaper sagged and he played alone all day. We saw him outside playing as we walked to work, and he was still there when we came home. We brought diapers and wipes home and we would change him so his baby soft skin would not get a rash or irritated. We would always walk the kids over to their house to inform their parent or sitter where they were. But sometimes we were met with apathy, sometimes grief, sometimes they had so much weight on their shoulders that the whereabouts of a 2 year old were out of their heads. Sometimes Calvin smelled like pot. Tamara was holding her uncles hand when he had been shot. Dante shyly hid that he could barely read.
But when they were in our homes we loved them and they loved us. And we were the most ridiculous looking family ever known to man. Hands down. A jock that stood at 6”4’, 2 gorgeous blonde women, an indian guy, a tall geek with strawberry blond dread locks, and a mexican (looking) girl, with three black children. And let me tell you- I think we were all in love with it. We ate grilled cheese one night, pancakes another.
One night a week everyone in our home would gather for a bible study, and the kids knew that they could not come over to play while we did that. It was grown-up time. But Tamara would knock on the door; looking cute, and pathetic, and lonely. I am glad I did not have to turn her away. I refused to answer the door and look at her sweet face.
One day we were playing in the driveway of our duplex and Calvin looked up at me, reached his arms up and puckered his lips. I thought, what the hell, and gave him a wet 2 year old kiss. A few times as I was coming home from work, he would see me on the sidewalk and he would break out in to a run, arms out wide, to embrace me. It was delightful and heartbreaking at once. I felt his love and I loved him back, but I knew it would not last. I would go home in a years time and he would play alone on the street again.
The moment that fucked me over the most was when Calvin was playing with one of my male roommates (who adored Calvin deeply) and Calvin looked up at him brightly, like his sister but with longer eyelashes, and said, “Dada!”
My roommate and I made eye contact, laughed, felt embarrassed, and ignored it. We did not talk about this incident; because if we had it would have broken our hearts into a million bits. This young baby’s proclamation had summed up so much; the closeness of all our bonds was genuine and powerful. But we were leaving soon, and this college-aged guy could not be his father. In a few months this baby recognized the love and family he wanted and assumed that this guy must be a dad, his dad.
Our assignment had us in Oakland for a year, and we knew we would leave soon, ripping universe-sized holes in their little tiny hearts (that had already been broken too many times). But we were lucky as hell. They moved out and left the neighborhood before we did. They left us. My heart shattered. I am so glad they were the ones to leave.