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A tale of two cities

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SEPTEMBER 26, 2014

My encounters with Oakland, for the most part, have consisted of fleeting glimpses from inside BART. Up until a month ago, the city appeared to me in a series of disconnected snapshots — small, old houses, a gathering of ships by a port, the giant gray structure of the Oracle Arena. I experienced Oakland half-asleep, lulled by the train’s dull buzz.

These impressions of the city developed during my visits to San Francisco, where I journeyed with increasing frequency this summer. During the first two years of college, I nestled in the basement of Moffitt and cocooned in the warmth of my comforter. As an incoming third year whose best friend was Netflix, the great city seemed to burst with glamor and culture.

San Francisco is beautiful in June and July. The weather oscillates between an ambiguous overcast and mild sunlight, the cool air sprinkling the city with sophistication. I would trek its steep streets, where I found gems such as Japantown’s Peace Plaza and the murals in the Mission.

But San Francisco is also grey and foreboding. Though I found the adventure I lacked in Berkeley, my heart never stayed in San Francisco. My trips often started outside of the Montgomery BART station, where staunch professionals with briefcases and lost tourists fumbling with Google Maps make their way through a sea of towering buildings. I traveled to busy places such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park, where consumeristic loneliness and distance quietly dismantled my romantic vision of the city. I saw “I <3 San Francisco” magnets and stuffed monkeys wearing Alcatraz prison suits. It looked perfect, but it wasn’t. I found myself physically present, but my mind was always elsewhere, the spirit of the city impenetrable to me.

Summer leaves eventually shrivelled into crisp fall ones. About a month ago, I sat in my friend Tam’s apartment, jamming out to Drake. Tam is my hip, sarcastic, Derrida-quoting friend with whom I share a Taylor Swift “22”-inspired sisterhood. She has three piercings on each ear and wears tapered harem pants that she proudly calls “study pants.”

After eagerly browsing through my Facebook photos, Tam asked me why I’d been going to San Francisco so much. I told her about my excursions, but she sensed my disillusionment.

“So, you know any places that are poppin’ in SF?” I asked. Although we both grew up in the Bay, her knowledge of the area is much more extensive.

“Nah, Oakland’s where it’s at, man,” she said proudly.

“I’ve never been there,” I replied innocently. She stared at me in disbelief, but her incredulity quickly shifted to excitement.

“Go to this creative reuse store with me! It has a bunch of recycled art supplies. We can do DIY projects and be crafty and shit.”

A few days later we caught the 1 bus, which snaked its way down Telegraph to our destination. The store’s outside was modest. It had two signs which read “EAST BAY DEPOT FOR CREATIVE REUSE.” I glimpsed at a rack of dresses, including one with star-speckled puffed blue sleeves and red and white stripes running down the bodice. Next to the rack were scattered figurines atop furniture pieces. I reached for the entrance’s handle.

The store was a behemoth, filled with teachers, artists and deal-hunters. It had a curious smell to it, like an old thrift shop. Near the front of the store, we saw a mountain of wired cages with scraps of green paper in them and a barrel filled to the brim with wooden acorns. Deeper in the store there were shelves filled with half-empty bottles of acrylic paint and boxes of leather, newsprint, fabrics, camera parts, sticker packets, posters and more.

Tam sifted through a box labeled “PHOTO LAUGHS,” sold for eight bucks a pound. She unearthed a picture of two elderly women and flashed it at me. “Let’s grow old together?”

I shrugged, and we both laughed a little. I eyed a tealight candle holder adorned with glittery fall leaves. It was quaint and sweet, just like the maudlin sentiment that overcame me. I ended up buying it.

We continued looking through a stack of paintings and cases filled with toys, letting our imaginations loose. We were children, unfettered by the cult of adulthood and driven simply by our curiosities.

I was mesmerized with the cluttered store. For a place filled with discarded items, it possessed a wholeness and a richness. I loved the very concept of the warehouse, a place where what was ostensibly rummage was not to be wasted, but rather shared and renewed within the community. It emanated a sincere quirk — people came not to show off their pretenses about art and culture, but rather to engage with art. I didn’t feel like a disoriented tourist, merely observing. Rather, I was engaging, feeling, seeing. Digging through bins and shelves of recycled goods, I became cognizant of my own insignificance, my integration into something bigger than myself.

We left an hour later. I had already grown attached to the magic and liveliness of the city — I wanted to see what else it had in store.

A few weeks later, Tam dragged me to the Oakland Art Murmur to visit a few free galleries uptown. We first stopped at the city center. It was a Friday afternoon, hot and listless. But the moment I stepped off the bus, a surge of energy and a steady beat overcame me. Tam, impatient and slightly smartphone illiterate, downloaded nine PDFs of the same map on my phone before leading me to the first exhibit.

After exploring the galleries, we walked past some catering trucks and tents where vendors sold trinkets like spray-painted Disney portraits and dangly earrings. Wandering, we made our way back to the bus stop to go home.

Tam checked her watch. “You wanna go to Lake Merritt? We still have some time.”


A bus ride later, we arrived at the lake. We sat together on a block of concrete, dangling our legs near the water. Skaters, families and joggers made their way past us as the sun started dissipating into rows of blue, purple and pink. The lake gave us a breath of fresh air and a view of calming blue waters, a reprieve from the claustrophobic environment of school. Equipped with cameras, we took pictures and had girl talk. We talked about sad New Yorker pieces about death. The hatred of the patriarchy and stupid boys who broke our hearts. Awkward experiences at sweaty college parties and how much we disliked crowds of people. Maybe it was Oakland, or maybe it wasn’t, but something about sitting there allowed us to lose ourselves in the moment. Facing the lake, our spirits renewed.

Around 7, we waited at a bus stop in front of a banh mi shop for an hour. Finally, our bus arrived, and we quietly shuffled to the back of the bus.

The return home was rocky, the bus jerking us up and down in our seats. Outside our windows, the sky emptied its colors as dusk sunk in.

Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected]

SEPTEMBER 26, 2014