In Michelle Carter’s San Francisco State workshop entitled “Writing in the Public Context,” we are to develop a project that requires us to step out of our daily routines and do something we wouldn’t normally do.
For example, we might sit weekly in the same seat at the Oakland airport and watch what goes on around us. We can volunteer at a nursing home or rehab center, attend a Log Cabin Republican meeting, or take up sky diving. We are not to do anything dangerous, but at the same time we should take a few non-threatening risks, by going somewhere physically or mentally that is unfamiliar.
Each week we are to report to the class about our findings. Eventually we are to go further and deeper into our subject matter to mine the material and, in the end, to discover things about ourselves and the world around us.
I decided to hang out at the barbecue joint where my husband’s attendant works part-time. My plan was to sit and observe and then report back to my classmates what I had learned. A barbecue restaurant on San Pablo Avenue is not a place I would normally patronize, but when I walked down there with Willie several weeks ago I discovered that there was no table service. Customers stroll in, order, wait, and then leave. It’s a serious, no-nonsense take-out establishment, not the kind of eatery that emphasizes atmosphere or leisurely dining service. Food arrives at the counter packaged in Styrofoam and plastic or covered in paper and foil.
I had to change my strategy. Instead of observing where Willie works, I would file reports on my walk with him. The two-mile hike that meanders southwest from my house in North Oakland to the edge of Emeryville takes about 30 minutes, plenty of time for me to get into trouble.
But Willie is doing his best to keep me in line. We start by turning left at 54th and then cutting over to West Street. At 40th we turn right, then left onto Market until it temporarily dead ends at the freeway. From there it’s only a block to San Pablo Avenue and Doug’s B.B.Q.
I’ve driven most of the route before but walking it with Willie is a different experience altogether. He insists on staying streetside, protecting me from falling off the curb and into the gutter. He says hello to everyone we pass by and in return we receive good wishes and blessings. On the way to Doug’s we pass six churches and several nail and hair braiding salons. We also pass a bright yellow Mexican restaurant and a car wash that offers barbecue, sodas and recorded music under colorful flapping plastic flags.
Last Friday we stopped at the Fair Deal Meat Company, a place I’d never been before. While Willie ordered sliced American cheese and cooked ham, I peered inside long refrigerated display cases that held pig’s feet, ham hocks, rabbit, and quail. The proprietor insisted that I try some head cheese, and when I demurred he wrapped up a slice and instructed me to eat it later.
Willie and I walked around the corner to Doug’s where I met his bosses and co-workers. Then I headed back home, exactly the way Willie and I had come, passing by 37th Street Baptist Church, Hot Dog’s B.B.Q., R A Carwash, Lyna’s Nails and Kinks Hair Salon.
When I got home I unwrapped the head cheese from its wax paper package and took a small bite. It was hot and spicy and if I hadn’t known what it was composed of, I might have consumed all of it. But something about pig’s brains got in the way of my enjoyment and I rewrapped it and put it in the refrigerator.
I have 12 more weeks of class, I reasoned, before I have to do the full-on, out-of-body experience. Maybe I’ll get my hair done at Kinks, wash a few cars at R A’s, or flip some burgers at Hot Dog’s. At any rate, I’ve got some time to think about it. n