When I was a young man and very poor, I lived in West Oakland, a neighborhood of rundown Victorian houses on the flatlands east of San Francisco Bay, down by the Port. It doesn’t matter how I came to be there: in brief, I had nowhere else to go.
This was years after the factories had left Oakland, when crack was like a plague, and long before the technology boom brought software and life-sciences companies, a new population that was middle class and ethnically varied, and developers who built lofts and restaurants for the new residents. When I lived in West Oakland, on the street where the Black Panther Huey Newton was shot as he left a crack house one bleary morning, few of us had regular jobs; the town was mostly African-American; and, of course, no one had health insurance. When we got sick, we went to the emergency room of Highland Hospital in East Oakland.
Once, a feral cat bit through the tendon in my right wrist. When my arm swelled alarmingly, Kenny D– (who paid for his habit repairing Chester Street’s cars) drove me to Highland. I waited hours to be seen, more to be admitted. I wasn’t impatient; there were others in worse shape. A young man, maybe 15 years old, had been shot in the leg and was handcuffed to a gurney, a kind of bloody, swollen diaper attached to his leg. He waited, too, while a fat, bored cop dozed beside him. I was delirious by the time I got a bed and antibiotics. I spent two weeks in Highland.
On another occasion, I noticed that the side of my neck was strangely deformed. Again, I went to the emergency room of Highland. They scheduled a biopsy. The lump was a tumor, but the harried doctors were uncertain: was it malignant? Weeks of ineffectual diagnosis followed. What was strangest of all (and what I don’t understand now) was that I wouldn’t say or couldn’t remember the genetic condition that caused the tumor, which I had known about all my life. I was dazed by poverty and misfortune.
I lived in West Oakland after I had a job and the money to leave, fixed by some obscure spirit of loyalty. This time in my life made the strongest possible impression; I have never forgotten it, nor ever gotten over it. Oakland was my education in sympathy, and it formed what political feelings I possess. But my experiences there were never directly reflected in any of the magazines I have edited, which have been concerned solely with technology and science.