West Oakland Roadside Attraction


Here’s a set of pictures that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while. Last fall, some creative folks–artists and performers and super-capable do-it-yourselfers–created a sort of carnival on a vacant lot in West Oakland. I had heard about it from a reporter of ours who did a little story on it, then Kate spotted a piece about it in one of the local papers. So late one afternoon in November, we drove over there–10 or 15 minutes from home–to see what was up.

The attraction was called Peralta Junction, and involved a sideshow, a calliope, a life-size version of the game Mouse Trap (a performance that happened well after sunset, and my pictures didn’t turn out well), and local artisans selling a range of old-timey clothing and other modern-antique wares. It was really fun.

Here’s the slideshow, below, mostly featuring the guy who did the sideshow act. He hammered a butter knife into one of his nostrils. He passed his body through a tennis racket. He lay on a bed of nails while a second bed of nails was placed on his chest and someone from the crowd stood on it. I don’t know the performer’s name and wish I did–it was a funny and thoroughly engaging show.



In West Oakland for a news story yesterday (our state senator was promoting her bill to create a statewide mattress recycling system–there are a lot of them left on the streets there), the strong secondary attraction was the graffiti wall running south from 25th and Willow streets. This is a small detail. But a good one.

‘Good Morning, BART Riders’

I’m sitting at the forward end of the car, the last coach on the train, riding backward, on my way to work late Tuesday morning. The door from the next car opens, and a voice says, “Go on–get in there.” A girl of 12 or so and a woman maybe in her 30s come through the door and walk down the aisle, then stop about a third of the way through the car. The woman starts up, and I realize immediately I’ve heard her spiel before.

“Good morning, BART riders,” she declaims. “My daughter and I have been homeless for two and a half months because I am a victim of domestic violence. We’re getting put out of our shelter at 11 a.m. My daughter hasn’t even eaten today. I have a hearing today at 2 o’clock, and I’m trying to raise forty-three ninety-nine for food and a place to stay.”

That’s it. The number catches my attention: $43.99. It’s part of the hustle–a number that’s supposed to be more persuasive for being so oddly specific. I’ve closed my eyes because I don’t want to see what happens next, whether or not anyone forks over some money. When I encountered the mom and daughter a few months ago on BART, I thought the girl looked stricken, humiliated.

The train pulls into the West Oakland station, and the pair get off. Most people in the car are sitting alone with their thoughts about what they’ve just seen. Several people sitting near the door discuss it.

“She does that all of the time,” a man says. “Every day. It’s a good scam.”

“But her poor daughter has to go through that every day,” the woman across the aisle says. A second man: “Her baby should be in school.”

“They use them kids,” the first man says, “they use them kids as a lure. It’s a good scam. She’s probably got more money on her than you have in you bank account. Yeah, she’s got a stash on her somewhere. She’s probably over on the other side right now getting on another train.”

Detailing, West Oakland Style



Tom went to a friend’s birthday party in West Oakland last night. Locally, saying "West Oakland" or "East Oakland" can be code for "mostly poor and mostly crime-ridden." The plan was for Tom to spend the night at his friend’s place; Kate and I were OK with that since he wasn’t going to be abroad in the neighborhood, which, frankly, can be dangerous at night.

The phone rang about 1:30 in the morning. I don’t like middle-of-the-night calls simply because they’re usually wrong numbers or bad news. I had been asleep and wasn’t able to get to the phone before our voicemail kicked in, but I wasn’t assuming the worst: Tom’s always been great about checking in with us when his plans change, and he knows we’d rather he wake us up is something’s going on that we ought to know. I called our voicemail, and there was a message from him: His friend had come out of his house to find Tom’s car, parked on the street in front, fairly seriously vandalized: smashed windshield, smashed passenger’s-side window, and crushed-in roof — apparently someone had climbed on the car and jumped up and down on it.

I listened to the message, and before I could call Tom he called back. He was pretty upset, but he was handling things pretty well: He and his buddies had pushed the roof back out, and he had already thought through calling the police and the insurance company. I was pretty calm, for me — just angry over the wanton destruction involved, really; the important thing was that Tom and his friends were all OK.

Later on, Tom called the police; in Oakland, the cops apparently don’t bother to send anyone out for cases like these, and they took the report over the phone. Then he and a friend drove the car to her house so he could park in her gated driveway — it was only a matter of time until some passerby started impromptu salvage operations on the car’s interior. Kate and I drove down to meet him there — the scene above. Looking the car over, it looked like all the damage came from one person — the same footprints were all over the roof and on a couple of windows that he apparently tried and failed to break. I drove the car the slow way back to Berkeley. I thought maybe I’d get some reaction from people on the street — "Hey, what happened to your car?" — and I had a good line ready: "Just got it detailed!"   

Now, I just feel bad for Tom. He and some of his friends have grown attached to it during their trips to concerts, and he calls it the "Machine Messiah." It’s just sad to see your wheels trashed. But he says, "The Machine Messiah will roll on."