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.
Healthy Mama saysOctober 1, 2014 at 4:13 am
Von saysOctober 1, 2014 at 4:43 am
Oakland really gets a bad rap (rep?) because of the people.
Thank you, Carla, for writing this.
Mary saysOctober 1, 2014 at 5:11 am
I think it is because people do not slow down and really get to know our town.
Thank you for slowing and sharing.
Jennifer FIsher saysOctober 1, 2014 at 4:58 am
Bet that was one of the best taps on the shoulder evah!
misszippy saysOctober 1, 2014 at 5:06 am
Fantastic story, here. I love that Melvin has an address now and love that you’ve become his friend. Everyone has a story to tell–thank you for sharing some of his.
And I was nodding my head about moving to a new place, not loving it at first, and then finding that it really is the right fit for you. I’ve had the same experience here over the years.
lindsay Cotter saysOctober 1, 2014 at 5:09 am
i want to tell you that you give people hope. And Melvin does too. Keep being you! keep that focus. Thank you! <3 you and your <3!!
Christine @ Love, Life, Surf saysOctober 1, 2014 at 8:30 am
Yes. Ditto to what Lindsay said – you give people hope.
Maureen saysOctober 1, 2014 at 5:25 am
Thank you for sharing this story! I love that you are an Oakland advocate…too many people have the wrong perception of what Oakland is like.
Jody - Fit at 56 saysOctober 1, 2014 at 5:32 am
Such a wonderful & learning story! It does make me want to know more about him.. love that you embrace all people!
Rebecca @ Strength and Sunshine saysOctober 1, 2014 at 6:08 am
This is wonderful Carla!
Michelle Smiles saysOctober 1, 2014 at 6:57 am
I hope Melvin keeps the apartment and does well.
And you rock – you see him in a way few people would.
Carrie (This Fit Chick) saysOctober 1, 2014 at 6:57 am
What a beautiful story! You are such an open and loving person 🙂
Sam saysOctober 1, 2014 at 7:01 am
This post made my eyes well up.
Alan Ali saysOctober 1, 2014 at 7:41 am
Love the post…. Love you too friend!
Valerie Oman saysOctober 1, 2014 at 7:49 am
I love this! I don’t remember who told me this, but back in college someone told me the most important thing you can do for someone who is homeless or otherwise disadvantaged is to SEE and HEAR them. So even in the years I didn’t have money or anything else to give, I tried to make eye contact instead of avoiding folks as I’d walk by. It wasn’t much, but I like to think if we all did a few small things every day, it would add up to a mountain of change and help. Just having someone look you in the eye when most ignore you – and you feel invisible, I’d guess – must help.
Erin @ Her Heartland Soul saysOctober 1, 2014 at 9:00 am
Good for Melvin! I hope life is looking up for him!
Bonnie saysOctober 1, 2014 at 9:38 am
In so many ways, this post makes me hang my head (the coffee shop man, the reality so many face, the troubles of our “system” not being able to help people) and smile so huge (your friendship, his new hope, his outlook on life)… Thanks for sharing this, Carla. 🙂
Sandra Laflamme saysOctober 1, 2014 at 11:01 am
so important to stop an take the time to talk to people . . . you never know what you might find. I loved this post. . . thank you for sharing it.
Katrina saysOctober 1, 2014 at 11:19 am
Omg I love you. You are such a genuine and open person and I know I’ve been guilty of being the opposite. I put on MY blinders and walk past homeless people because I’ve been jilted by a few in the past (getting my money and then driving off in a car they didn’t say they had) but have found myself even this morning (go figure) turning and saying good morning. I have to be open and respect we are ALL people, Melvin is amazing with such a spirit! HUGS
Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table saysOctober 1, 2014 at 11:31 am
What a neat story… it’s all to easy to dehumanize people or ignore situations we think could be tough/too sad. I bet you oftentimes made Melvin’s day.
Heidi @BananaBuzzbomb saysOctober 1, 2014 at 11:33 am
Thank you for sharing this story. Wishing Melvin the best and props to you for being a leg up when someone needed it.
Angela Norton Tyler saysOctober 1, 2014 at 2:31 pm
I grew up in Oakland, and it warms my heart to read how much you have come to love my hometown! It often gets a bad rap, but I am hopeful that things are changing!
Brittany @ Barr & Table saysOctober 1, 2014 at 4:43 pm
I just love this. Oakland is definitely an interesting place but we’re getting more accustomed 🙂
Marste saysOctober 1, 2014 at 6:06 pm
Aaaaaand now I’m crying. What a great story. And I hope things go well for Melvin. Tell him people who’ve never met him are rooting for him. <3
GiGi Eats saysOctober 1, 2014 at 7:15 pm
Everyone has a story to tell, those who choose to listen truly are certainly in for some extraordinary life lessons. I wish more people would take a minute to realize that there is a world out there, outside of their own brains.
Erin saysOctober 1, 2014 at 8:49 pm
Amazing that you’ve been able to cultivate this relationship with Mr. Melvin. As someone who works for “the system,” these stories are the ones that reiterate why I do what I do. No, I cannot reach everyone, but I can damn near try! Glad to hear Mr. Melvin now has an apartment; sending good vibes his way for continued good things to happen in his life.
jules saysOctober 1, 2014 at 8:54 pm
Funny but I didn’t read a vagueness at all. I read honest truth of having a friend that lives that lifestyle. They let very few in and yes most prefer being treated as a human not less than. Because they are not. Which is sad. Very sad. I have several “melvin” friends myself and worry too. I too give gift cards or homemade cookies but every chance I can a smile and an ear and a simple have a nice day and look them in the eyes
Susan saysOctober 1, 2014 at 10:57 pm
I must meet Melvin! So glad for his new home. And: I want to see a LOT MORE POSTS with the tag “Oakland love.”
Tami@NutmegNotebook saysOctober 2, 2014 at 5:11 am
Thank you for sharing this story. We see so many homeless or street people here in CA and it’s easy to just walk by and not acknowledge them. Please keep us posted on how he is doing.
Taylor @ LiftingRevolution saysOctober 2, 2014 at 6:17 am
What a beautiful spirit. Thanks for sharing this story. Im sure you had a huge hand in helping Melvin have the confidence to keep trying, I am sure not many people stop to talk and ask how he is. awesome.
Michelle @ Running with Attitude saysOctober 2, 2014 at 6:40 am
Everyone has a story to tell – thanks for sharing a piece of Melvin’s.
Geosomin saysOctober 2, 2014 at 7:27 am
Stories like this restore my faith in people and the kindness of strangers. There are so many stories behind the people we meet every day. Someone I know who works with homeless people dressed down to look homeless and hung out on the street for a day to try and get a feel for how people are treated when they’re on the street and she said she was horrified at how some people behaved. I’m so glad he can remain positive through all this. It’s people like you that tip the balance back into the good side 🙂
Heather saysOctober 3, 2014 at 1:08 pm
Great story about Melvin. Good luck to him and he’ll be in my prayers.
Renee @ Bendiful Blog saysOctober 6, 2014 at 8:16 am
I love that you left out the details as that is his story to tell! And it sounds like it will be one tale. I find as a blogger so often I rush to tell a story and sometimes have to stop and think WAIT is this my story to tell? Especially for my son, I want to leave the pages for him to write his own story.
P.Sarah saysOctober 21, 2014 at 9:57 pm
Great story! I actually admire Melvin. good luck to him!