(with no apologies to Gertrude Stein)
There is a face I look forward to seeing when I come home: that of my Eritrean--or maybe Ethiopean, her English isn't too good and I didn't quite understand the response--next-door neighbor, Adhanet. She often pokes her head out from behind her door as I walk down the hall towards my apartment to see what all that racket is. (It's just me, ma'am, just me and my bicycle.) She's old, a grandmotherly type, and has a pleasant face, with a big, gap-toothed smile and a blue cross tattooed on her forehead. She lives alone too, or at least there's only one bed in her apartment, but my favorite new hobby is trying to figure out how many people come and go from her apartment on a daily basis. There's a woman I think is her daughter and a man I know is that woman's boyfriend. There's a small Ethiopean (or Eritrean) man in a security guard uniform, and a tall woman, a classic Eritrean (or Ethiopian) beauty in a nurse's uniform. There's a man who's always talking on his cell phone, and, in the mornings, a steady stream of mothers dropping off small children for my neighbor to babysit. Sometimes, when Adhanet opens her door to say hi, three or four toddlers slip out from behind her and go sprinting down the hallway as fast as they can. We look at each other, laugh, and chat for a minute until the kids come running back. She may not have much English, but she's always eager to practice it: "Hello! How are you?" I tell her I'm fine and ask how she is. "Good! How are you?" I'm good, and how are the kids. "Good! How are you?" Bored with that conversation in English, I asked a classmate how to do it in Tigrinya, and now we alternate: Hello! Kemei aleki? Sometimes she invites me in for coffee and we play this game in an endless round of smiles and how-are-yous.
There was a street fair the first Saturday I lived in this neighborhood, with the entire ten-block stretch of my neighborhood blocked off to vehicle traffic so that folks could take in song and dance performances. Local businesses set up picnic tables outside, and a classmate and I sat in the sun, ate the fried chicken sandwiches my neighborhood is famous for, and talked about modern reflexes of the proto-Austronesian phoneme /q/.
There are four shelves of books in Spanish in my local public library--child's play, you say: everywhere has books in Spanish, these days. Next to it, though, is an entire shelf of books in Amharic, and, next to it, an entire shelf of books in Tigrinya. Oakland is the second most linguistically diverse city in the country, with over 150 languages spoken in the city. Some days I'm pretty sure I've heard all of them.
There was a worried look on the face of my former institute teacher as he drove me home a few weeks ago: "Are you sure you're safe here?" he asked. "This is a, um, transitional neighborhood." He meant that word negatively, I'm sure, worried by the people loitering on street corners and the proximity to a major metro station, but the transition is exactly what I find so fascinating about the streets surrounding mine: gentrification is on its way, it's clear, but it's only slowly diffusing, leaving the neighborhood a strange patchwork quilt of high-rent and low-rent. In the first two blocks of my bike ride to school, I pass a paint and hardware store, and then a tea shop with a children's play area in the back, perfect for overprotective yuppie parents. Next is a Korean community center, complete with internet cafe and karaoke place, and then another paint and hardware store. The next ten blocks continue the checkerboard pattern: an upscale sushi place and a downscale Ethiopian place. A salon offering haircuts for $10, next to a shop offering gourmet chocolates for $10. A hipster pizza place. A check cashing place. A thrift store. A "recycled materials" store. A Peet's coffee. A laundromat. You get the picture.
There is a black Baptist church on the corner of my street, which is all stained glass and silence on weekdays, but which explodes into gospel-singing hat-wearing worshipping fullness on the Sabbath. There is a dollar store on the other corner staffed by a very friendly Yemeni man who calls me--and, okay, all his customers--habibti, 'my darling,' and comments when I haven't stopped by in a while. There is a homeless guy who stands on my street, usually directly across from my apartment building, all the time; we raise our hands good morning to each other, and I feel safe when he's around. There is a homeless newspaper vendor outside of Walgreens named Kevin, who I greet happily every time I run in for cereal or deodorant or what-have-you. He knows that I'll buy a paper from him, and I know he'll give me his huge smile, and tell me to 'take care.' I feel like I am getting the better end of our bargain. And of course there is my apartment, a small white square studio that I love truly, madly, deeply, unreasonably, mostly for the thrill of seeing my last name on the buzzer outside and remembering that this place is mine and mine alone.
There is a smile on my face every morning as I bike to school, seeing the life of the neighborhood as I pass by. Say what you want, Ms. Stein, but right now, I don't want to live anywhere but here. So there.
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
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