You have love on your jacket,” said a man next to me.
I nod and keep staring out the window. He is a foot taller than me. The canvas coat he wears is stained with grease, and he smells like a gutter. Moments earlier, he said he had served in the Army. I’m scared.
We were both riding the 1 back to Berkeley on a sunny afternoon. Earlier that day, I had gone to Oakland to read and wander around alone because no one was back from winter break. For a few bucks in Downtown Oakland, I could get a Banh mi sandwich and artisan coffee. I went there every day for a few weeks, even though I’ve had friends tell me they’ve been robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight a block from the 19th Street BART station. I’ve read about local shootings with blood-spattered graphics in the local paper. I’ve seen police with masks, shields and clubs barricading the streets during protests.
Although Oakland is famous for its routine violence, I would live there if given the chance.
A guy no older than 18 who looks really faded slinks over to the Army man and mutters, “Why are you in my spot? Do you think you’re tough?” Then he pushes him. The standoff begins. Passengers clutch their grocery bags. The people sitting in front try not to look. High school students speculate about who is going to win. While others relocate, I can’t because the combatants are standing between me and the door.
After a little back and forth between the two contenders, they calm down. Oddly enough, I was mildly comforted by the excitement of the high school students. Their excitement made me remember that in high school my friends and I got riled up by fights like this. After my sophomore year, however, I transferred to Chaffey High School, where my chances of going to college were significantly better. The school was unreachable by public transit, so every week day my parents drove my twin brother and I across town until we graduated.
I have a similar privilege now. I live in Berkeley a block away from campus and can bike, bus or BART to Oakland whenever I want. The livelihood of Oaklanders, rich and poor, isn’t a concern for me — the cross-town hipster, the tourist.
Although I hella love Oakland, I am wary of this attitude, common among us affluent college students and ex-San Franciscans. Will we affluent people embrace what we love about Oakland by barricading it off from what we don’t? Will all of us continue commuting long distances by car so that a major portion of our public space remains in the form of roads? To what extent will the city’s growth and prosperity bypass those who were born and raised there?
These questions are concerning, because cities in the East Bay can fund projects such as downtown revitalization that cater to tourists and professionals and not residents of low income. This model of economic development will empower constituencies that don’t value an integrated public transportation network but instead favor semiprivate one we have now.
While generation after generation of kids, such as the high schoolers on the bus, is recruited by gangs, Oakland still has yet to initiate an adequate poverty-alleviating program. Instead, city funds continue to primarily serve middle- and upper-income residents. The new wave of college students and young professionals — the “nouveau riche” — into Oakland will intensify the city’s inequality if services such as affordable and public housing are not secured via public policy.
I am fortunate enough that when I encounter violence, it’s shocking. For the high school students on the bus, such incidents occur so frequently that they seem more like a game. Unfortunately, in a gentrified town, these incidents are used to stigmatize poor people as inherently violent. But both rich and poor wish to avoid such violence.
When the Army guy pacified the fight by commenting on the graffiti’s shadow that spelled out love, I looked into his eyes and saw he was more scared than I was. Clearly, the Army man wanted to get off the bus just as much as I did.
A moment later, one of them suggests he has a weapon. At the next stop, I leap from my seat out the door. Walking away, one of them said, “Man, that nigga’s going to get it,” and he took playful swings at no one in particular.
I was shaken up but glad. Glad that super-faded kid targeted the man in the Army instead of me. And glad that, unlike the other passengers, I had no groceries or job to commute to. That winter, I took my time reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s whirlwind of a novel “The Autumn of the Patriarch” for a class next semester.
I can get off the bus whenever I want.