Nostalgia: A story about freedom
I was just released from prison. They let me out of San Quentin and it was the first time since 1992 that I felt the breeze come off the shores of San Francisco Bay on the right side of the barbed wire fence. I needed to go back to Oakland. All I knew was Oakland. On the way out, a CO gave me a blue plastic card with the word “clipper” written on it. He said there was $20.00 on the card and told me to “get the fuck out of Marin, and stay out.” There was a bus stop not far from the entrance of the prison, I stood at the bus stop and waited for something to happen. I was alone. The wind felt good. I liked the wind. It was an overcast day. I liked overcast. I liked rain. My cell had a window. During hard torrential rains, I could hear the water hit the window and it reminded me that there was a world outside of these walls. These cells. That prison.
A bus eventually pulled up. I got on, showed the bus driver my blue card and began to walk toward the back of the bus. “Excuse me, sir,” he said. I looked back at him. “What?” “You have to tap the card on the scanner.” I walked back toward the front of the bus and asked “can you show me?” I handed him my blue card, he tapped it on the scanner and handed it back to me. “Is this bus going to Oakland?” I asked. He looked at me with indifference and said “no, this bus is going to the San Rafael transit terminal, from there you’ll be able to get on the 40, that will take you to the El Cerrito BART Station.” He handed me back my bus card and I walked past a few rows of empty seats. I sat down and leaned my head against the window and enjoyed the ride. I saw Mt. Tam. It was gorgeous. Freedom had a way of enhancing beauty. Water became bluer, trees greener, air sweeter. The bus went over the bridge. The Richmond-San Rafael bridge crosses just south of the San Pablo Strait — a narrowing of the water separates San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. They all looked the same to me. Beautiful. I saw the cranes in West Oakland and they looked exactly as they did in the ’90s. Oakland’s skyline was just as I left it. Perfect. San Francisco’s buildings got taller, though. I expected that. San Francisco was a city meant to sit eye level with the sky because its head always seemed to be in the clouds. Some things don’t change, even if skylines do. The strange nauseous feeling that used to sit in the pit of my stomach as a kid when crossing this bridge wasn’t there anymore. I loved this weirdly constructed bridge now. The thing looked like it could collapse on you at any moment, but I’d be happy to go, I died a free man. But the bridge didn’t collapse. We made it to the El Cerrito Del Norte station and I got off the bus. BART used to be disgusting, It was still dirty, but in the ’90s, a lot of the BART stations, even in the nice areas, were filled with beggars and hustlers. To my surprise, the station was empty. I was greeted by the stench of piss and nobody at all. I looked at the schedule and it had been expanded. The trains went to Antioch in the furthest edges of the East Bay and San Jose to the south. It didn’t matter, I just wanted to get back to Oakland. I asked the station agent how to use the blue card, and, like the bus, I tapped the blue card on the scanner and the little reddish-orange barriers that were shaped like shark fins opened up.
The trains were just as loud as they were in the ’90s, maybe even louder. Eventually the train came and I got on. I wanted to visit a library in West Oakland. I never read recreationally when I was a young man, but as I’ve learned, the universe is about balance. When I was young, I felt like I could do anything. The secret in youth’s allure is energy and its Achilles heel is inexperience. To be God, as man can understand it, must be someone with a youthful body, but a mind guided by a soul that has lived many times and found that there isn’t glamor in the well promoted mistakes of the mislead… Or so I would assume.
I discovered the joy of the written word inside of prison. Books filled holes inside of my heart that television couldn’t dream of reaching. Holes that I didn’t even know were there. Every book is a film if you have the inclination to be a director. And during my time behind bars, I was nothing short of prolific. The pages turned and if stacked flatly on top of each other, would exceed the height of the highest guard tower in the world. They’d be looking for me on the yard, but their well-trained riflemen could never find me. I was already above them. I was reaching for the sky, the stars, the universe. I was the scientist who crunched the numbers, the astronaut in the suit and I was the spaceship built for beyond. I was NASA and he was just an employee of the California Department of Corrections. He may have gotten to leave the prison everyday, but he’d never left the planet…
The train was relatively empty. Just me and a few drunks who had nowhere else to be. We stopped at MacArthur and a few more people, respectable types, got on. They had slender laptops and form fitting jeans. They looked like they had to go to San Francisco to do something important. Or maybe they were like me, ex cons on their way to a library. There was really no way of knowing. The judgmental among us are the unreliable narrators of life. Everyone had a story, and you can’t critique a book you haven’t read.
The tunnels screeched just like they did when I was a young man and then I heard it: “WEST OAKLAND, WEST OAKLAND STATION. THIS IS THE LAST OAKLAND STOP. NEXT STOP: EMBARCADERO. THIS IS AN SFO-MILLBRAE BOUND TRAIN.” I took a deep breath and got off the train. It was wonderful. I used my little blue card to exit the station. Things were the same, yet very different. West Oakland was historically black Oakland, and there was still plenty of black folk around, but there were other types of people, too; the types I encountered on the train — the slender laptop crowd, they were here now, too. And kids with pink hair and tattoos. But not like the tattoos in San Quentin. These were different. I saw a slender white girl who was bald wearing black boots, shorts, a tank top with the word “FUCK” on her forearm in capitalized block letters. These types have always found a way for themselves in San Francisco, but they were historically more cautious in Oakland, things change. I wasn’t bitter.
Speaking of change, the Acorn Projects looked fancy. They looked like those condominiums you’d see people with good jobs live in on TV. I was actually somewhat nervous to walk past them, but the new look helped quell my anxiety. These were low rise and designed to appear unthreatening. I couldn’t tell you if the new sanitized look was justified, I hadn’t walked past these since the early ’90s, but it was hard to envision crack being sold in a place that I could see Martha Stewart living in. I walked past the apartments without incident. Oakland had gotten calmer, that was for sure. Well, at least on those few blocks. Once I got further down Adeline Street, Oakland started to look like Oakland again. Old Victorian housing blocked from the street by black wrought iron fences, burglar bars on windows worn by rust and graffiti painted sporadically as far as the eye could see. I was feeling that euphoric feeling. You know, the one brought on by old memories in familiar places? That thing called Nostalgia. Yes, I was nostalgic.
I spotted a man jogging in the distance. He was heading towards me. He was wearing shorts well above his knee. He had a fanny pack on. The fanny pack said “Supreme” on it. I was bewildered by the choice of the word “supreme.” Especially to embroider on a fanny pack. The fanny pack jogger man wasn’t paying attention and ran right into me. He looked at me with anger in his eyes and said “watch where you’re fucking goin’, man!” I punched him directly in his mouth. He fell onto his back. I stomped his head in. I stomped and stomped and stomped again. His front teeth appeared to be broken. I kneeled down and held his nostrils shut with my thumb and index finger. I covered his mouth tightly with the palm of my hand and watched the terror in his eyes as he swallowed his broken teeth… Well, that’s what I visualized myself doing, but I controlled my anger, forced a smile and said “my bad, man.” He jogged by without responding. I’m glad I held back. Who knows? He may have whipped my ass and made me swallow my teeth. To be completely honest, that was the most aggressively I’ve seen someone in a fanny pack behave in my life. Maybe he knew something I didn’t. Maybe he knew I wanted to go to a library, not back to a penitentiary.
I walked a few more blocks and there it was: Oakland Public Library: West Oakland Branch. I entered the building and it smelled like old books. What a pleasant smell! Only the librarian and I were there. I approached her and pulled out a list of all the books that were banned in the California State prison system that I had found interesting. The list was rather large. Close to 100 books in total. I handed her the list and said “I want to read these.” She looked up at me and said “all of them, why?
I smiled and replied “because I’m free.”