Column:Cultures Clash in Quasi-Rural East Oakland J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday April 22, 2005

I don’t think that this is a column with a point to it, though I may not be the best judge. It’s just some observations about life swimming in the multicultural creek that we call East Oakland. 

A year or so ago, two or three Mexican-American men bought the house across the side fence from us. They are construction workers, I believe, because their backyard is stacked with wheelbarrows and shovels and scaffolding and other tools of that trade. At least one of them must also have some background in sound systems as well, I believe, because they have perfected the art of playing music at just that magic, neighbor-friendly level between too-faint-to-appreciate and too-loud-to-stand. On pleasant afternoons you can stand at our kitchen window and follow the melody through the trumpets and the guitars, which disappear from hearing as soon as you walk away from the sink. 

This is a phenomenon not to be taken lightly. Across one of our other fences, we once had neighbors who thought it perfectly acceptable to hire live mariachi bands—complete with amplifiers—for birthdays and other family celebrations. They came with a large family and thus had many occasions to celebrate. The bands also appeared to operate on the inverse of the AM radio broadcast principle—that is, the later it got after sunset, the higher they felt they needed to set the volume in order to be heard. One memorable night they went to three in the morning, and even the closed door of the far closet proved to be no sanctuary. From experience, I can tell you there is nothing quite so eerie as a man’s falsetto “eeeee, ha-ha-haaaaa!” following you into your bedroom late at night. Eventually the music stopped, either because these particular neighbors moved away or developed empathy. This being East Oakland, I would not entirely rule out that it might have been encouraged by things lobbed over the fences from surrounding yards. 

I know that this aversion to certain types of loud music is a racial-cultural-generational thing, all combined together. I can ratchet up the Temptations’ “Get Ready” or Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” or the Isley Brother’s “Twist And Shout” and shout along with them at the top of my lungs while rolling down International in my 1980s-era Toyota hatchback, and it don’t bother me a bit. I can do the same with War’s “City, Country, City” or Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” or, unaccountably, Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” as well (I’m sure it’s a Lone Ranger thing). I find a common, celebratory theme that binds these songs and allows them to be shouted, not merely played (well, there wasn’t much celebratory about “Layla”; that one, I’m afraid, I simply can’t explain). But for a long time rap set my teeth on edge and through much of the ‘90s, I fought a running battle with the volume knob and the three of my daughters who were teenagers during those years. I think my problem with it might have been because the rap they were listening to in back in that day tended to be declaratory rather than celebratory, so that rather than being shouted, it feels like you are being shouted at, at least if you are of the over-40 generation. And the best of it—Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad At Ya,” for example—demanded a mellow volume and a quiet, thoughtful corner of the house to be appreciated. 

Meanwhile, shortly after they moved in, my Mexican-American friends across the side fence commenced building a chicken pen in their backyard, and soon occupied it with a rooster. 

East Oakland was still farm country as recently as the 1940s, and remnants remain. As late as the ‘50s, my grandfather kept a pony in his backyard not far from East 14th and Seminary and in the same decade, near San Leandro Street and 85th, my parents raised chickens, slaughtered and dressed them, and sold them fresh out of a poultry shop. In recent years I continue to see farm animals in our neighborhood including once, walking up to International from the Coliseum BART station, a goat peering out between the slats in a wooden fence from behind someone’s house. And that doesn’t count the goats they set out in the hills along Leona Heights to mow the brush and grass. 

Ponies and goats and food-chickens have nothing on urban roosters, however. If you were raised up on cartoons and “The Real McCoys” and Depression-era novels, you are probably under the impression that roosters get up at first light and crow to announce the coming of dawn and the start of the day. But that is only because in the country, it pretty much stays dark outside all night. In the cities, roosters are more illumination-challenged and will get up at two or four in the morning, for example, to announce the presence of streetlights. Or security lights. Or somebody lighting a cigarette. When my oldest daughter lived in the apartment around the corner, I’m sure she would have shot the neighborhood rooster more than once if she’d had a gun, or scalded him with water boiled in a pot if she could have thrown it that far. Or brained him with the pot, for that matter. 

My mother’s particular bone to pick about our Mexican neighbors’ rooster was not the night crowing, but the smell, of which she had an intimate familiarity, having, as I said, raised chickens with my father for many years. My mother brooded over this intrusion to her nasal sensibilities for several weeks and one afternoon, standing on the back porch and seeing our neighbors across the fence, she confronted them about it. 

“You know, it’s against the law to have a rooster in the city,” she told them in her best grandmother tone. 

“We don’t have any rooster, ma’am,” one of the neighbors answered. 

My mother pointed out to him the evidence of the chicken coop, which she could clearly see from our porch. 

“Oh, yes, we used to have a rooster,” the neighbor explained with a sad look, “but he has died, unfortunately, just in the last few days. So we don’t have him any more.” 

At that moment the rooster, either just waking up or having heard his name called, walked around into the neighbors’ backyard from the side of their house, stretched, flapped his wings, eyed the afternoon sun which was beginning to fall out towards the estuary in the west and, perhaps getting his compass directions confused, commenced to crow. 

There was an awkward silence as our neighbors shuffled their feet under my mother’s withering glare. Then one of the men brightened with a thought, smiled, and clasping his hands together said to one of his housemates, “Look! Stefán! It’s a miracle!” 

No point to it, like I said, just notes from the faultlines of East Oakland, where her multicultures overlap. Bienvenidos, friends, and peace’out, too, if that’s still being said.ª