On Sunday I attended my friend Jernae’s fourteenth birthday party. It was held at the Martin Luther King Pool, located at Bayview Playground on Third Street in Hunter’s Point. Behind a chain link fence, her mother and relatives had dragged a portable barbecue across a grassy field and cooked up a pile of ribs and wings. They covered a picnic table with enormous square pans filled with potato salad, coleslaw, deviled eggs and macaroni and cheese. Paper plates overflowed with chips and dip, pickles and pork rinds. Coolers sat on the ground, packed with soda pop and ice tea.
Each young party guest brought with them 50 cents, and when the pool opened they all ran inside and jumped into the shallow end. There they yelled and screamed and splashed at each other along with dozens of other kids, all crammed behind the rope that divided them from the rest of the facility. Nervous, serious lifeguards paced up and down along the cement apron while three quarters of the clear blue chlorinated pool water lay calm, empty and undisturbed, reserved for those who knew how to swim.
I couldn’t help but contrast this coming of age party to the bat mitzvah I had attended the year before. It was held at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, a beautiful old venue which was ornately refurbished to resemble the site of Cinderella’s ball, a New York City debutante’s coming out party, and a scene from a Roman orgy. There, over 100 well-dressed guests lined up at the open bar and later were formally seated at small linen covered tables where we dined on filet mignon, seared salmon, perfectly grilled baby vegetables and champagne while listening to classical music. After dinner, a fully orchestrated blues band, whose members knew the words and music spanning a multitude of generations, cajoled everyone onto the dance floor where we wiggled and swayed, attempting pathetic interpretations of the Twist, the Pony and the Cool Jerk. It was a far cry from the scratchy boom box playing the latest mumbled rap lyrics on the picnic table at Bayview Playground.
It might be easy to dismiss that bat mitzvah as over the top, bordering on ostentatious, except that it wasn’t. It was fun and tasteful and the occasion so joyous and celebratory, so full of meaning and hope and good intentions that even thinking about it now makes me smile. I want every little girl to have a party like that. Hell, I want a party like that myself, where the community that surrounds me—my friends, my parents, their friends and congregation—promises to look after and guide me, support me in my endeavors, turn me around should I go down the wrong path. I want a full-on blues band to play the Oldies But Goodies. I want a crowd of people to lift me in a chair above their heads and rap ancient lyrics while spinning me around and clapping. I want to blow out 52 candles on a gourmet chocolate cake and share it with everyone.
Back in Hunter’s Point, Jernae’s mother lit 14 candles on a fluffy white Safeway sheet cake that had pastel pink, yellow and blue roses gracing the top. We all sang “Happy Birthday,” which then transcended into a modern rendition that I was unfamiliar with, but it had a good, hip swinging beat. Jernae blew out the candles and made a wish. I made one too: a silent pledge of support and a hope that every kid across the Bay Area, from Hunter’s Point to Sea Cliff, from West Oakland to Woodside, from East Palo Alto to Mill Valley, will have a birthday party like those I attended at the Great American Music Hall and Martin Luther King Pool, where family members and friends promise to love and guide their children toward a future that is bright, beautiful and full of positive, buoyant possibility.›