It hit me when I was pulling into the parking lot at Peet’s Coffee to treat myself after surviving carpooling with three very sullen teenagers facing their second day of school. XM Radio’s “Suite 62” started to play Tony! Toni! Tone!’s soulful hit, “It Never Rains In Southern California,” and it brought back a flood of memories.
Tony! Toni! Tone! was from Oakland.
Once upon a time, I was, too.
No, I wasn’t born in Oakland, but in a way I was. Fresh out of law school in 1990, I landed in – no, made a beeline for – Oakland to begin my life as a Mary Richards-esque independent, working, single woman. In Oakland I had my first apartment by myself, up the hill from the Grand Lake Theater; my first independent single woman car – a deep red 1982 Honda Prelude (that my sister gave me, so maybe I wasn’t all that independent); and my first real job, working for a top law firm making $65,000 a year – more money than my parents combined, more than I could handle well, and Lord knows I didn’t. In Oakland, I felt young and smart and free. Like I had a checkbook drawn on an account of unlimited potential.
My attraction to Oakland, and the San Francisco Bay Area in general, began in my pre-teen years from visiting my cousin there. I had never seen so many upper-middle class blacks in one place in all my life. In my native Sacramento, all I saw was black people struggling. Not starving, mind you, but not thriving, either. Oakland was my first exposure to black intellectuals, to black wealth, to black power, to black success. In Oakland, anything was possible.
Now I’m a derided state worker in a city where I have no friends, where even a revitalized, bustling, clean, attractive downtown – in the capitol of the seventh largest economy in the world, mind you – seems beyond the capabilities of leaders of all races. I feel like I left behind the land of “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it!” for the land of “I don’t think so.”
I miss Oakland. I miss me.
I miss riding BART and seeing young, successful, suited-and-booted black men full of themselves and smelling good.
I miss Peet’s Coffee when it was just a Bay Area thing.
I miss taking the Casual Commute to work (my dad said that if I kept riding with strangers, I was going to end up like Polly Klaas), and the stunning bay views on the bus ride home on AT Transit.
I miss the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
I miss Skates on the Bay, although it’s in Berkeley.
I miss my urban tribe of friends from all walks of life – law, business, education, the arts – all educated, all beautiful souls. They were people I wouldn’t hesitate to cook for, and I don’t cook for many people these days.
I miss the strength of affinity black folks in Oakland feel for their churches. It is stronger than any gang affiliation that routinely makes the mainstream media, but is hardly ever written about.
I miss the Charles Houston Bar Association and the Wiley Manuel Law Foundation.
I miss Marcus Books, although I’ve grown to love Underground Books.
I miss Grand Avenue – the bakeries, the thrift shops, the Grand Theater.
I miss Gertrude Stein’s, although it went out of business a long time ago.
I miss the art deco interior of the Paramount Theater. Not the acoustics, mind you, but the interior.
I miss the local judges of color who would rearrange their schedules to hear kids of all races from Oakland’s public high schools give their moot court arguments as part of the Wiley Manuel Law Foundation’s High School Moot Court competition.
I miss Oakland’s black judges, who mentored a generation of then-young black lawyers such as myself and encouraged us to reach higher than their accomplishments.
I miss the late Cecil Poole, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, for whom I clerked after law school. In particular, I miss watching Judge Poole balance his checkbook on the bench when the lawyers presenting their oral arguments had ceased to engage him, much less persuade him. I miss how he never felt constrained by his race. But black men from Alabama rarely do. That's why I married one.
I miss Piedmont Avenue and Zati’s Restaurant in particular, although I do get back there now and again.
I miss the Rockridge BART station and all the shops around it, especially the Rockridge Bakery.
I miss Jack London Square and Samuel's Gallery, where I learned that art is essential to one's soul, even moreso if you're black.
I miss Yoshi’s and Kimball’s East, which is in Emeryville, but same difference.
I miss going to Alameda just so that I could look at Oakland.
I miss the kind of music lovers Oakland has who can tell you where in the city Earl “Fatha” Hines is buried and that “House of Music” was really a music store, not just the title of a Tony! Toni! Tone! CD.
I miss running around Lake Merritt and dusting middle-aged black men who would first compete with me and then just smile.
I miss Cal students, with their funky wit and funkier clothing and hair styles.
I miss the tiny streets of the Oakland hills, and the large, daring houses perched on the ledges there, all with views of the Bay.
Perhaps the Oakland I miss doesn’t really exist anymore, but I wouldn’t have accomplished all the things I did if I hadn’t lived there at the time of my life when I did. In the time of Oakland’s life and mine when anything was possible.
I miss Oakland. I miss me.