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Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Let's see...

last report the Charbonnets (Mother, Marjorie, Betty and baby Lottie) had just arrived at the Oakland 16th Street railroad station and piled into Papa George's Model T for the trip to our new home. It actually turned out not to be ours, at all, but his and Aunt Vivian's, and Uncle Lloyd's, and Papa's third wife , Louise's. As I recall, it was really a tiny house set in a huge expanse of meadow and had only 3 small bedrooms, so I'm not sure how we all managed, but not unlike the way that other immigrants to the Golden State handled that, I suppose.

There was Papa's vegetable garden taking up some of the space, and -- about a block away (with nothing in between) was very German Mr. Mueller's dairy farm where he kept a large herd of black and white cows that were pastured just outside our house. Papa bartered vegetables for milk with the Muellers. Sometimes I got to help carry the zucchini and corn and string beans, and whatever else was ready, and watch Mrs. Mueller at the churn.

To the west there were two railroad tracks, Southern and Western Pacific, separated by wetlands and endless miles of cattails and willows. The swamplands ran uninterrupted for miles ending at the Bay. At the end of the wetlands, across a two-lane highway were the two hangars of the just developing Oakland Airport. There was one hangar and a flight school, I believe.

On the land where Papa George's little house stood there is now a huge Iron Foundry. Across the road there is a network of highways that interface at just that point and then divide and go to the Oakland International Airport, the highly developed Hegenberger Road commercial and office park developments, and the Oakland Coliseum, home of the Oakland Raiders. Not sure just what Mr. Mueller's dairy disappeared under, but there are few signs that it ever existed.

There is an effort by local environmentalists to reinstate the wetlands in some of that area, and I've had a recent opportunity to stand on the deck of the Martin Luther King Ecology Center that overlooks the new nature sanctuary that joins the Oakland estuary -- right there on the lands where I caught frogs and butterflies lo those many years ago. Where we "smoked" cattails and where salamanders, dragonflies, and all sorts of crawly creatures were collected and brought home in jelly jars to satisfy my curiosity, insatiable even then. Where we so often saw hobos with their worldly possessions tied on a stick carried across their shoulders, following the tracks to wherever they would take them. It was the depression era, and we didn't look on these men as sinister, only interesting, and to be invited home to sit on the back porch to share whatever might be left over from the night before. Mother was never fearful of them, as I recall. We loved the stories from those willing to share. It was a different time, surely.

This may come from the time when baby sister, Lottie, about 4-years old and her little friend, David, from across the road wandered off and got lost out in the wetlands. The entire neighborhood had been mobilized and spent hours in the search. I remember -- just about sundown -- a lone figure of a ragged man with Lottie asleep on his shoulder and her little friend, walking at his side. The jubilation! The gratefulness to this stranger who'd found them and was proceeding down the tracks until someone claimed them, I suppose. I don't seem to remember seeing policemen. I guess communities took care of their own. Don't know... .I do recall that David's father belonged to something called the House Of David, and wore a long beard. That day there were other bearded men out searching. Not sure I'd ever seen beards except on Santa Claus 'til then.

We must have been very poor. And, in some strange way, that is not what I remember. My world was nicely peopled with extended family. I weeded the garden with Papa George and got to choose the dinner vegetables that one of the female grownups prepared each day on the huge old wood stove that served to both feed and keep us warm. I don't recall chopping the wood, but the job of stacking the box in the kitchen fell to us children. We also got to earn 25 cents for giving Papa his rare hair cuts (he was bald with only a few wisps to trim), and it was always an honor to be chosen. Here, as in Ma-Mair's house in New Orleans, in California there was the kerosene stove that sat in the middle of the room in winter.

The best of times were those after holiday parties had been staged at the Oakland Athletic Club where Papa was a waiter. We'd be allowed to wait up for him to come home, no matter how late, and he would arrived like some jolly Santa with pockets bulging with whistles and horns, and balloons, paper hats and party foods for days!

And the times when our uncles Herman, Lloyd, and Frederick would depart on their railroad run, and the grownups would walk with us out to the wetlands to stand beside the Southern Pacific tracks to wait for their train to go by. They'd stand on the platform at the end of the train and toss out ice cream, packages of butter wrapped in towels and sheets (an occasional gray blanket), or meats from the diner. It was a little like catching items from the floats at Mardi Gras, I suppose, and certainly not seen as a bad thing. Since the conductor (white) was often seen standing beside our "tosser," and obviously approving, it was sheer delight! But that's a child's memory, of course. Maybe these were my earliest recollections of corporate power vs. the proletariat.

At some later time -- after Dad joined us on the West Coast -- the five of us Charbonnets left Papa George's and rented a tiny house just behind his, on the next street, where we lived until I was about ten, I believe. Over those years we watched from a distance as the airport slowly added hangars; watched the Bay fill in until what the grownups called "Depression Beach" that was a strip of sandy shore near the hangars -- began to disappear. I wonder how we all survived those days when I remember that raw sewage was being pumped into the Bay at that time, probably untreated. The odors on some days were almost unbearable. I suppose it had to do with the protective antibodies we'd built up over time, the kind that insure against all but the toughest bacteria! That may be why I've been so remarkably healthy all these years (smile). It really does cause one to wonder... .

My best friend grandfather, Papa George, whose best friend was his brother-in-law, Daddy Joe. These two old friends played Penny-Ante and Pinochle every Saturday night of their lives and went to watch the Negro baseball teams every Sunday during the season. I did both with Papa, riding with him in the stalwart Model T. that was durable but failing in the later years. I sat beside him -- ever ready to slide into the driver's seat when she'd die at the stop signs and have to be cranked. He would remove his coat -- jump out with the crank, I would sit and push the spark ( a little lever attached to the steering column) when signaled, stop and start all the way across town from 75th Avenue to 29th Street or then to San Pablo Park in Berkeley for the games. We were a pretty good team, actually, and always managed to get there and even in those early years I developed a sense of being capable, much-needed, and useful. Papa always treated me as an equal -- and I was, at least in handling our transportation problems. Don't recall ever being either embarrassed or impatient at such times, but the stalled times were simply part of the adventure and Papa's constant patter and sometimes ribald stories were such fun. Not sure that my mother would have approved, had she known, but these were private conversations that I knew were to be kept so.

Aunt Vivian (mother's younger sister) and Papa George were the first to recognize the emerging young woman, Betty, I think. Certainly long before my parents did. It occurs to me that one of the irreplaceable advantages of being in closely-woven extended families is that they allow the complexity of a child's personality to unfold in a more balanced kind of way. Children being separated into "markets" and "peer communities" robs them of something that those of us born at an earlier time more fully enjoyed. Maybe gangs are just another form of surrogate families, created by young people to fill the void.

Maybe there's a clue here to that disillusioned and disaffected world of the isolated young who are dying on our streets even as I write ... hadn't thought of this before. Maybe a clue. I'm painfully aware of how fearful adults are of even their own adolescents, these days, and of how lonely that must be ...

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