I smile each time I walk past this sign.
The husband shared recently how much he’s seen me change since we moved to Oakland.
“In the 21 years Ive known you (!) the only other time Ive seen you change so noticeably is when you moved to Guatemala. You left Texas as Carla, took on the role of new (temporarily single) mom in a country where you didn’t speak the language and nothing was the same as it was in Austin. You returned so much stronger.”
I’ve thought about this remark a lot since he shared it in marriage counseling (a post for a different day).
Whether I initially liked it here or not I’ve grown to love everysingleaspect of my OAKtown neighborhood.
I’ve pushed through what I’d initially seen as dirty, crowded and not-Austin and become one of the fiercest advocates of Oakland-living around.
Sure I like the walk-ability.
Yes, I’ve grown accustomed to the weather (I still wanna title my Bay Area memoir My Year in Oakland: Or how I learned to wear corduroy in the summer.)
Yet the thing I love above all are the Oakland people.
diverse. quirky. brazen. liberal. accepting.
I thought I knew diverse and open -minded—and then I moved here.
Everything I love about Oakland and its inhabitants is embodied by my friend, Melvin.
We’ve had our conversations for close to two years now and yet, try as I might, I cannot recall how we met.
I do remember, no matter how many times I walked by where he stood during my first few weeks in town, he never asked me for money.
I think our convos were sparked by my freak-flag…
Somehow we started talking.
At first just awkward chit-chat as I passed by on my way to work.
And then we exchanged names and surface-life stories.
He told me about bouncing from foster care placement to foster case placement until he finally aged out of the system.
I told him about moving from Texas to Oakland and how crazy different it was here (he couldn’t believe anyone would wanna live in the Texas heat.).
One morning I arrived moments after a less compassionate Oaklandite called him the N-word, told him to get a job and headed into Starbucks for his morning coffee.
Less than being angry, Melvin seemed resigned.
“I can’t do anything.” He shrugged. “Of course I want to go in there and hit him—but where would that get me?”
My friend Melvin.
Melvin never asked me for money so I began anonymously leaving him gift cards at restaurants where I knew they often let him use the restroom.
“How are you really??” I’d ask him at the start of our conversations.
His responses were always version of this:
“I’m just fine. You stop and talk. I’ve got my blinders on to the ugly stuff. I’m good. I’m going to make it!”
At one point about six months ago Melvin ran across the street to where I was walking, grabbed my shoulders and said:
“I’m in a hurry but I had to tell you. I have a job interview! I got a cell phone and I have an interview and I’m feeling really positive.”
I didn’t see Melvin for over a week after that.
I hoped he’d gotten the job and just moved on—but a few days later I found him back in the same place.
“I didn’t get the job,” he shared. “No address no job.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
I’m aware of how much I have, I’m grateful, and I’m so sorry felt pretty small.
I wracked my brain for a way to help and I came up empty.
Melvin was making use of all the Oakland resources.
He’d point out other homeless to me, tell me stories about how “crazy” (his word) they were and how he didn’t think they’d make it on the streets.
He’d tell me how he knew to appreciate the small stuff and how all the people who rushed past him and rushed through life were missing out.
It’s all about seeing and being grateful for what I have. Because of that I know I’ll be alright.
This post has languished unfinished in my drafts because there was recently another stretch of a few weeks where I didn’t see Melvin at all.
Not for the first time I realized I had absolutely no way of checking to see if he were OK.
Yesterday, as I walked to the coffee shop to work, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was Melvin.
“Ive been looking for you!!” I said. “I’ve been worried about you.”
He gave me a look as if to say you’re crazy. I’ve told you I’m always going to be fine!
And then he smiled.
“I have a studio apartment now, but I’ll still see you around.”
Edited to say: Although Melvin gave me permission to write this post I’ve left out many personal pieces of his story as it’s not my tale to tell. Upon rereading this it does feel the…terseness? vagueblogging? lends and air of superficiality to the tale. You’ll have that.