Before I arrived in Oakland, I knew precisely two things about this city:
- Moneyball is based on the true story about Bill Butler and the Oakland Athletics.
- Oakland is located near the Bay Area.
Sam visited some of family members in the Oakland area when he was younger, and all he had to say was “It’s a little rougher than San Fran.” This insight, combined with the two pieces of information I’d gathered during other parts of my life, was the extent of my knowledge about Oakland.
One of my coworker’s long-time friends lives in Oakland, and I was invited to tag along and crash with him before our conference started on Monday morning. We flew out Friday evening and touched down in the San Francisco airport just in time to see the sunset. Despite the 2-hour time change and the fact that I would’ve normally been in bed at this time back in Chicago, I was so excited to start exploring that I didn’t feel the least bit sleepy.
Even so, it was something else that really woke me up when we finally arrived at my coworker’s friend’s place. For one, the house was a little questionable. And filled with drug paraphernalia. And hadn’t been cleaned in, oh, maybe a few months (years?). And also, ants. ANTS EVERYWHERE. The good news is that there was a dog in the house, and he was adorable. I focused all my energy on petting the dog so I wouldn’t have to think about anything else (because I was thinking about pretty much everything that was dirty and filthy and disgusting, since they were all present in this house).
We were shown a room upstairs, deemed the guest room. There was a mattress on the ground with a ruffled fitted sheet, three pillows with mismatched pillowcases. Instead of sheets, there was a single fleece blanket, which appeared to be thrown onto the bed by its last user and landed in the corner. The mattress was encircled by a myriad of things: boxes, a desk, an old Guns & Roses framed poster, an amp, two keyboards stacked haphazardly on top of each other, an almost-full carton of Marlboros.
My coworker mentioned to his friend that we would need separate sleeping arrangements, and his friend offered up one of the four couches downstairs. I bit my lip and tried to not look as off-balance and terrified as I felt. In my head, I was weighing my options: Should I ask to take the bed? Is the bed dirtier than the couches downstairs? Are the couches safe to sleep on, anyway? Maybe I should just find an airbnb right this very second and take the financial hit.
Luckily, my coworker made the decision for me and volunteered to take a couch downstairs. My mind sighed a breath of relief, but it wasn’t exactly complete relief. It was like trying to choose between walking on coals or walking through fire: both options were pretty awful, but I had to do one or the other.
We dropped our stuff in the “guest room” and headed out into the night, accompanied by the dog. I felt slightly disorientated, not knowing anything about Oakland or where we were going, but I trusted our host. He led us to a sausage and beer restaurant. We sat outside eating our late dinner and sneaking french fries to the dog. I enjoyed being out in the fresh air (and a few whiffs of pot in the breeze) after feeling cooped-up on the airplane for the past few hours. If nothing else, it meant I wasn’t sleeping in that godforsaken bed. Eventually, though, we headed back towards the house.
It was a little after midnight as I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, counting the ants all over the tub, sink, walls, and floor. I took two of the pillows downstairs to my coworker on the couch and snagged the least-questionable-looking blanket for myself before bidding him good night and ascending the stairs. When I made it back into my room, I assessed the situation.
A single desk lamp, which sat on the floor at the foot of the bed, provided the only illumination. There were two windows, but the one nearest the bed was jammed open. I tried desperately to close it for about five minutes but couldn’t get it shut. Since it appeared someone just slept in my bed the night before, I thought it might be best to flip the pillowcase on my remaining pillow to the other side. Bad idea. Once I took the pillowcase off and saw the state of the pillow, I said under my breath, “F*** this.”
Working quickly (and a bit passive-aggressively), I wedged the un-pillowcased pillow into the gap of the open window to block some of the noise coming in from outside. From my suitcase I pulled out some clothes and my camping stuff sack, making a quick makeshift pillow. Lastly, I zipped up all my belongings and tried to get them as far away from the few ants I saw roaming lazily around the dark corner of the room. Turning off the light, I pulled the two fleece blankets up over my body (careful not to get them too close to my face). I lay as still as possible in the bed so I wouldn’t occupy any more of the bed than necessary.
Whatever kind of mental voodoo I used to fool myself into sleeping, it worked: I awoke around 5 a.m. PST in precisely the same position that I fell asleep. My neck and shoulders were stiff from not moving all night, but I was alive. God almighty, I was alive. And God almighty, it was way too early to be awake, even if I was alive. I forced my eyes back close and woke again around 7 a.m. PST, which seemed like a more human-ish time to wake up.
I spent some time reading and looking up spots to visit in SF before showering (mindful of my ant friends and knowing I was only going to be clean until I exited the shower). As expected, I was still the only one awake, so I went outside to the patio and took refuge in one of the hammocks hanging from the trees.
After reading for about a half hour in a totally blissed-out California state-of-mind, a kid about my age with sagging jeans and long hair joined me on the deck. He must be one of the roommates, I correctly assumed. We acknowledged one another, and even though I expected to not have anything in common with this guy, we got to talking and I found myself deeply engaged in conversation within minutes. He pulled out a blunt and started smoking it while we chatted, but I didn’t mind. I knew this was something I better get used to while staying here, so I was doing my best to get used to it.
My coworker and his friend woke up and joined us in the backyard. It was decided that food was in order, so we strolled a mile or so away to an awesome breakfast joint. They make this delicious Nutella-banana-stuffed French Toast that’s deep-fried. It was unreal. I opted for an egg breakfast sandwich with super-fresh California avocados (be still, my beating heart) and it kept me full all day. We walked back to the house, and my coworker and I packed up for a day in San Francisco.
I know I sound really anti-drug in this post. To be honest, drugs aren’t my thing. But I’m not against other people making their own choices and doing what they want to do. I don’t judge people who do their own thing, and I hope I’m not judged for choosing not to participate.
The great thing about these guys and spending time in Oakland was that I wasn’t judged for not participating. On the contrary, being in Oakland was a surreal experience in a lot of ways because I didn’t feel ridiculed, looked-down upon, or somehow judged for things that may or not be out of my control. I felt really at peace with the guys I was staying with, even though I’d never met them prior staying with them.
Later that night, after a full day of hiking San Francisco, the housemates had a bonfire and invited some friends over. I spoke with a whole bunch of different people and learned about what brought them to the Bay Area. Many were from other parts of California, but even more of them were from the Midwest. I felt comfortable discussing all sorts of things with them, despite the fact that were were pretty much all strangers, and I had a really fantastic time.
We hung out around the bonfire while blaring house music remixes (literally mixed at the house by one of the roommates) and chatted. Eventually we started playing this game that involved standing a dollar bill up on its end long-ways and trying to pick it up with only your mouth…and one foot on the floor. A couple of us tried it multiple times, and after nearly 45 minutes of attempting this, I finally won! I was so excited! Since it was a nearly-impossible task, we opted to other variations: only both hands on the ground; one hand and one foot on the ground; one hand on the ground but held up by friends; no hands on the ground and trying to reach it from the hammock.
Next thing I knew, everyone was wearing some form of a onesie outfit, and I decided that it was about time to head to bed. I made my way back upstairs to my grungy bedroom, started doing some readings, and was disturbed only once by a guy in a dinosaur onesie who jumped into my bed wanting a hug, because he was a Hug-a-saurus Rex. I obliged, he left, and I turned off the light and went to bed.
When I woke up on Sunday morning (my neck only slightly less stiff thanks to my makeshift pillow), I decided I hadn’t given Oakland a fair chance. Yes, I’d spent the last 36 hours being fairly uncomfortable, but isn’t that what life’s all about? Being pushed just a little outside my bubble, pursuing a state of active uncomfortableness, growing and learning from experiences that I’ve not had before? Of course it is.
So, I figured I should see Oakland the way I like exploring: running.
Even though everyone else was still passed-out from staying up until 5 a.m. (not surprising, considering it was only 7 a.m.), I laced up my running shoes and snuck out of the house. I planned on doing about four miles, per my marathon training schedule, but I quickly fell in love with the streets of Old Oakland and the trail around Lake Merritt and did a little over six miles. Even though I looked at a map quickly before I left and figured out the best way to get to Lake Merritt, once I was running on the empty Sunday morning streets, I found Oakland incredibly easy to navigate. I made it a good ways around the lake, turned around, and then started weaving my way downtown for a bit. It was a beautiful city, and I loved getting to see it on my own.
Later that morning, another one of our coworkers landed in SF to join us for the conference. He met up with us at the house, and the three of us went out to dinner in Oakland’s Chinatown. We had no idea what we were doing or what to order, really, but it was an awesome experience. Chinese food rarely disappoints, and sinking so deeply into Chinese culture made it all the more memorable. After lunch, we picked our things up and headed up the coast to Berkeley. More on that later.
But for now, let me just say that Oakland was a real wild card in a lot of ways. I had no idea what to expect and was entirely out of my comfort zone when I first arrived. By the time I’d left, though, I felt like I had a lifetime of new experiences in less than 48 hours. If circumstances ever bring me back to the humble city of Oakland, I’ll be glad. Thanks, Oakland, for widening my horizons. I owe ya one.