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TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 11

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Danny and Cindy Try to Work Things Out

“Do you love him?” Cindy’s mother had asked. The question bewildered her. Cindy wasn’t sure she even believed in love. She understood simpler things, like respect, admiration, obedience, affection and loyalty; indeed, her mother displayed those qualities towards Dr. Wu and he, to a lesser extent, towards her.

But love? In Tina Turner’s words, what’s love got to do with it? Did Mrs. Wu “love” Dr. Wu? Like all children, Cindy found it impossible to imagine that her parents had ever been young, driven by physical instincts and passions. It was possible that the Wu’s had developed something called “love” over time, a bond impervious to outside forces, made stronger through mutual tenacity. Was that the sense Mrs. Wu meant when she tearfully asked Cindy if she loved Danny?

It all required too much thinking.

She had a date with Danny that evening. They’d have a drink at Playa Bar, then walk up to the Grand Lake Theater for the new Avengers movie. She got there first, found a spot at the bar; he arrived a short time later. She saw him come in, look around, then beam when he spotted her looking at him. He kissed her gaily on the mouth: young lovers, still in the throes of excitement and glamor. He’d have a gimlet. She wanted only sparking water with lime.

Playa was very noisy; they didn’t talk much. Afterward, they turned right up Grand towards the theatre. Cindy had wondered when to bring up the topic: later, or sooner? There was no sense in postponing it.

“My parents aren’t happy about me seeing you.”

Danny was startled. “Really? I thought your dad liked me.”

“It’s not a question of liking you or not liking you. He probably does like you. You’re very likeable. But you’re not Chinese.”

Danny stopped walking. “Wow” is all he could say.

“I know. It’s so stupid. But it’s the way they were raised. They always figured I’d marry an ethnic Chinese and give them ethnic Chinese grandbabies.”

“They seem so progressive in so many ways.”

“Oh, they are. They contribute to Greenpeace and the ACLU. Dad still has an Obama-Biden sticker on his Volvo. But in this particular matter, they’re super-conservative. No one in our extended family has ever married outside the race, except for my cousin Alix, and look what happened to her.”

“What?”

“She married a white guy she met in college. It lasted for less than a year. They went through an ugly divorce. All the grandparents and aunties said, ‘See, we told you.’”

“So, because a cousin of yours made a bad marriage, that means that no one else in your family should ever get together with a white person?”

“When you put it that way, it sounds absurd. And it is. But, yeah, that’s basically how they think.”

Danny pointed to a park bench. “Look, let’s ditch the movie and talk this through.” It was a warm evening, not yet dark; a golden honey glow suffused the land. On the great lawn sweeping down to the Lake, people sprawled on the grass. Dogs ran and played. Joggers pushing baby carriages chugged down the path. Beneath the pergola an elderly group of Chinese men and women did tai chi. People in skiffs glided soundlessly on the water. Pelicans and shrieking gulls searched for a final snack for the night. Danny gazed across the Lake, to the apartments, churches and houses spilling up the hill: Oakland’s Riviera was very beautiful.

They sat quietly for a few minutes, then both began to talk at the same time.

Danny: “The thing is—”

Cindy: “Look, I—”

And they laughed. “You go first,” Cindy said. Danny took a deep breath. “I don’t want to be the cause of friction between you and your parents. You know I like you. A lot. We have fun together. I don’t know where this is going, and I don’t need to know. I just want to see you. But this thing with your parents is obviously troubling you.”

She nodded. “They’re being so unfair.” Danny couldn’t argue with that.

“You know what I’d like to do?” he asked. “Move in together. You’re 25 years old and capable of making your own decisions.”

“But how could we do that? You sleep on a couch with two roommates. I barely make enough at Lyft to get by.”

“We could always move to, like, Montana.” Cindy glared at him. “Just kidding!” he said. “Damn these frigging rents in Oakland.”

“I was reading where the average one-bedroom is now close to $3,000.” She was thinking. “You make good money. I could always drive more.”

“You’re already driving like, what? Eleven hours a day. You’re exhausted every time I see you. What are you gonna do, drive eighteen hours a day?”

“No, you’re right. I could get a job. A real job, with benefits. Even if it paid just $3,000 a month, we might be able to make it work.”

“What could you do?”

“I dunno. My degree is in art.” Cindy had gone to California College of the Arts, majoring in painting. “Not exactly a lot of demand these days for artists.”

It was the same conversation thousands of young couples were having in Oakland and throughout the Bay Area: How to find someplace affordable to live. But, as everybody was finding out, solutions were woefully scarce. Danny’s fingers found Cindy’s on the bench’s wooden planks where they rested. They intertwined. In silence, holding hands, subsumed in the golden, slumbering light, they gazed at the thousands of windows across the lake, each gaudily reflecting the western sun, and thought: we will never look out from those windows as our homes. And they despaired.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 10

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Devon’s Ambition

Devon knew exactly what he wanted to be: The next Barack Obama. Young, gifted and Black, he saw the world around him, and the endless possibilities it contained, and believed he could obtain them through sheer determination and talent. People had always been drawn to him. He had that effect, and knew it. He had learned how to put it to his advantage.

Sure, he’d sowed some wild oats. So had Obama. People didn’t care about that, as long as you admitted it, cleaned up your act, and moved on. Hell, Trump had showed you didn’t even have to move on for people to give you a pass.

Someone he’d once dated told Devon that he was a narcissist. “You divide people into two camps, Devon: those who can help you, whom you care about, and everybody else, whom you don’t.” The words cut. But, Devon told himself (and he was always having this internal conversation), it wasn’t true that he was just out for the main chance. He truly wanted to help people. The thing was, he couldn’t help anyone until he had power, and the kind of power he needed was political.

After his community organizing years in the Western Addition, he was as plugged into the Bay Area’s liberal activist community as anyone could be. Through the grapevine, he heard that a job was available in Mayor Schaaf’s office in Oakland: neighborhood outreach coordinator. His name had been floated. Salary, healthcare, vacation time, pension plan, the works. He was perpetually broke; community organizing wasn’t exactly a lucrative career. He interviewed. Schaaf liked him and offered him the job. He took it. Devon moved to Oakland, to a one-bedroom on Sixteenth, off Webster.

He was a hit. Everybody was dazzled by the new kid in town. He threw off sparks like a blowtorch, brilliant, mesmerizing, volcanic. His rise was fast: outreach coordinator, office manager, and then, within a year, Schaaf’s Chief of Staff. She appointed him to various boards, where he made further connections. He had the personal phone numbers of everyone who counted in California Democratic politics: the Clintons, Obama, Newson, Kamala, Swalwell, Schiff—curiously, not Feinstein. He was a glad hander and an incredibly hard worker–clearly a comer. People wanted to be his friend. Yet they wondered about him. He lived alone, and didn’t seem to have a private life, or at least one that anybody knew about. Was he gay? Straight? Bi? Such speculation is common in the water-cooler chit-chat of politics.

He decided to run for City Council when the incumbent chose not to, after having been implicated in one scandal too many. Schaaf promised to help; she threw the weight of her considerable political machine behind him. He was running against two other plausible candidates, and six implausible ones. Devon had no great interest in the grind of local issues: potholes, mosquito abatement, zoning, garbage contracts. He had his eyes on bigger prizes. But he had to start somewhere.

Mayor Schaaf helped him to secure a large space—1,200 square feet, ground level windows—in the old I. Magnin building, on Broadway, for his campaign headquarters. With her assistance, he raised $75,000 for his campaign, a respectable figure for an Oakland City Council candidate’s first run. The pundits said he was the early favorite.

He came in to headquarters early one afternoon. His secretary/interference runner/barrista, Hedda, greeted him and nodded toward his small office. “You have a volunteer to interview.”

Devon saw the volunteer through the doorway. She was a knockout. That was one of the things he liked about politics. You were always meeting interesting people. Devon enjoyed interesting people. He straightened his shirt collar and entered his office.

“Devon Camber,” he said, flashing the thousand-watt smile and extending his hand. The volunteer rose. She was tall for a woman. There was something about her, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something…

“Hello, Devon. Franklin Wilkerson. Only these days, I go by the name Flambé.”

Devon was thunderstruck. “Franklin? Holy cow, Is that you?” He backed away to get a better look. He seemed for once to be at a loss for words. Flambé just stood there, grinning.

 “My oh my,” the candidate said, “you have changed.”

“So,” Flambé interjected, “have you.”

It didn’t take Devon two minutes to hire Flambé. He was genuinely glad to see her again. More importantly, she checked off two big boxes in voter demographics: Black and LGBTQ. His chief opponent for the office was gay; Devon’s support in that community—which any Oakland pol needs–needed shoring up, and “T” was even better than “G.” Hedda got the non-disclosure forms. Flambé signed. Then Devon asked Flambé if she’d had lunch.

“As a matter of fact, no. And I’m starving.”

Devon took her elbow and steered her toward the street. “I’ve got the perfect place. New sushi joint on Telegraph. I seem to recall you like sushi.”

“I adore,” Flambé purred, “a California roll.”


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 9

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Devon Comes Back Into Flambé’s Life

Flambé’s dog walking business turned out to be a big success. Oakland seemed to have hundreds of dogs on each block. Their owners worked all day and didn’t want to keep Poochie confined in their apartments until they finally made it home, via congested freeways or packed BART trains, at the end of the workday, often after the sun had set. When these owners met Flambé, they were instantly attracted to her smile and affectionate nature. Her transsexualism was, if anything, a plus in liberal Oakland. Most of the time, she had a waiting list for clients.

Flambé was good with the animals. They obeyed her; her natural sweetness was appealing. No dog had ever harassed or insulted her for being different. When she showed love to her dogs, they loved her back. It was good being with them. She would walk them in Lakeside Park, or, occasionally, if she could get a ride from Nick or Danny, take the brood up into the East Bay Hills, where they would run free on the fire trails.

She’d never been particularly political, despite her views on housing. All politicians, it seemed to Flambé, were basically the same: hustlers who made cheap promises to the voters, promises they had no way or intention of keeping. Bush, Obama, Hillary, Trump, Newsom, Sanders, Harris, what were they to Flambé? Just famous people on T.V.

One day, one of her dog-walking clients asked whom she was voting for in the upcoming City Council election. Flambé, who had never registered much less voted in her life, had no response. The client, a young videographer, said she should check out the website of one of the candidates running in District 3, which the Adams Point neighborhood where Flambé, Nick and Danny lived. Not wanting to be impolite, even though she had no intention of going to the website, Flambé said, Sure, what was the URL? DevonCamber4Council.com, her client replied.

Flambé nearly did a spit take. Camber had been Devon’s last name. She hadn’t seen her former idol for years, ever since Devon had split San Francisco to go grad school at Stanford, on a scholarship. And now, he was running for City Council?

As soon as she got home Flambé opened her MacBook Air (which Nick had paid for) and looked at the website. There he was: Devon. Eight or nine years older, but still wickedly handsome. In one photo, he was dressed in a neat, fitted dark suit and tie. In another, leaning against a building in jeans and a tight T-shirt, more muscled than Flambé remembered him. Flambé read up on his biography. After graduating Stanford with an M.A. in public policy, Devon had become a community organizer, working in the Western Addition to register voters, getting immigrants to lawyers who would protect their rights, lobbying for more funding for inner-city libraries, daycare centers and anti-violence activities. He’d been successful: S.F. Magazine had named him a “Rising Star” in 2017. Now, Devon had moved to Oakland, a protegé of Mayor Schaaf, and was running for the Council.

There was a link on the website. “Interested in volunteering to help Devon? Click here.” Flambé thought for a moment. She clicked. This, she said to herself, will be interesting.

* * *

Less than 24 hours later someone from Devon’s campaign replied. Would Ms. Wilkerson care to come into campaign headquarters for a brief interview? Flambé dressed herself carefully: a Bishop-Sleeve V-neck silk dress with a blue-and-pink floral print, a tan-colored linen sweater with big shell buttons, a chic fringed cashmere scarf tossed around her shoulders. Looking over the shoe collection, she chose a pair of braided cork Espadrilles, on this mild October day. A single strand of cultured pearls on her neck complete the ensemble. When she looked at herself in the full-length mirror, she liked what she saw. Devon Camber, here I come.

What was Flambé’s thinking? She was living with Nick. They were still considered a couple. But the space between them had grown. They still had sex, but not as often, and never at night, as they had used to, but only quickly, in the morning. Flambé was faithful, and thought Nick was, too, but there was no denying it: they had drifted apart. Now, the idea of seeing Devon again stirred something deep inside her. On the walk to his headquarters, only a few blocks away on Franklin, she thought to herself, Calm down, girl. Don’t get your hopes up. But she did, anyway.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 8

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CINDY AND HER PARENTS HAVE A LITTLE CHAT

Dr. Wu’s attitude towards Danny had changed when Danny went from being his patient to his daughter’s apparent boyfriend. He and Mrs. Wu—Lucille—came from old-fashioned, conservative people, ethnic Han. Both had assumed their only child, Cindy, would marry a pure Chinese man and have pure-blood babies. Now, this Danny Eagleton was upsetting their plans.

Cindy, at 24, still lived with her parents in their large, gabled home, in a leafy Oakland neighborhood near the Piedmont border. On the day after Danny was brought to the hospital, she came home from her Lyft job at dusk., after taking a customer to Oakland Airport. She’d been driving for eleven straight hours, and was exhausted.

She knew something was up as soon as she came into the foyer. Her parents were waiting, Dr. Wu erect and alert in his big stuffed chair, Lucille small and fragile, with a tight frown, on the edge of the sofa.

“Cindy, your mother and I would like to talk with you,” Dr. Wu began. “Have a seat, please.” Cindy took a side chair, covered in red-and-black chintz. On the coffee table were trays of cookies and other dainties.

“Have a pineapple bun, dear. Your favorite, from Tao Fung,” Mrs. Wu suggested, lifting a plate of the golden pastries and offering it to her daughter.

“No thank you, ma,” Cindy replied. Whatever it was that was happening, she wanted to get it over with, not prolong the ordeal with pastries and chit-chat.

“I met the young man you are seeing,” Dr. Wu declared, peremptorily. It caught Cindy off-guard. She recalled mentioning seeing someone new to her parents.

“What? Do you mean Danny? How did you meet him?”

Dr. Wu explained. Cindy was shocked, and concerned. “Oh, my God,” she cried, leaping from her chair. “How is he?”

“He’s fine,” Dr. Wu explained. “Or he will be, once the wound heals. A slight concussion. We’ll keep an eye on him for a few months. But that’s not what your mother and I want to talk to you about.”

Cindy’s gaze shifted to her mother. Mrs. Wu wrung a silk handkerchief as though it were a lizard she was trying to strangle. She was obviously upset. Yet she and Dr. Wu, by prior arrangement, had decided that she would be the one to deliver the initial message.

“Cindy, you are our only daughter,” she began. “You know how your father and I wanted to give you brothers and sisters. But the Good Lord decided otherwise.

“We want only the best for you: to be happy, to have a good marriage with many children, to be successful. But never in the history of either of our families—the Wu’s or mine, the Lee’s—has anyone ever married a Westerner.”

Mrs. Wu let the meaning of that sink in. Cindy blinked. “No one is talking about marriage,” she said. “Danny and I are just friends.”

“Such things evolve. These friendships, unguarded, often lead to marriage. I know the signs. I was young once, too.”

Cindy’s mind was spinning. She was a dutiful girl, respectful of her parents, indeed all elders, aware of the conservative Confucian culture that had bound her ancestors for millennia. But this wasn’t China in the year 1815, or 1915. They lived in America in 2019. She had been born right here in Oakland; so for that matter had been her parents. Their Chinese traditions, beautiful as they might be, had no choice but to change in a diverse, eclectic America.

Her parents were watching her. She had to say something, to justify herself and ease their worries. So she just opened her mouth and the words tumbled out.

“Look, Mother and Father, I’m not getting married to anyone anytime soon. I don’t want to. It’s not even in my mind. Besides, when I do get married—and I want to, someday—what difference does it make who I marry, as long as he’s a good man, and we love each other? Even in China, for centuries it was forbidden for a Han to marry outside the clan. But today, Han can marry Manchu, or Hui, or Yao. The tradition loosens, and changes. You can’t just freeze yourself in time.”

Mr. and Mrs. Wu glanced at each other. Then Mrs. Wu turned back to Cindy. Her eyes were moist and shining. “Do you,” she asked, in a tremulous voice, “love him?”

The question surprised and confused Cindy. She hadn’t thought about Danny in those terms. What was she supposed to say? She looked from father to mother, and back again, while they waited for an answer. From the next room came the tick-tock-tick of the grandfather clock.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 7

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Franklin Becomes Flambé

Moira led Franklin into the Promised Land. Where Devon had been his John the Baptist, Moira was his Savior. Slowly, expertly, she coaxed out the woman in him. He would consciously practice how he walked, the way he held his hands, the square of his shoulders or the arch of an eyebrow. He never again sat in a chair with his feet spread; instead, he learned the delicate, graceful way ladies cross their legs. He studied Hollywood stars: Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn. Moira taught him the art of applying cosmetics. Within three months, she’d helped him make an appointment with an electrolysist, to remove his chest, facial and leg hair. She took him to the second-hand stores out in The Avenues and along Fillmore, where fashionable women’s clothing could be found, at reasonable prices. Gradually, in phases, Franklin was making the transition to Flambé.

He needed a new name, Moira had told Franklin one night, as they lay in her big bed. Moira, before becoming a woman, had been Marvin Wallinsky. A transsexual’s name, she explained, should be based on the person’s soul, although it also could derive from the old name. Franklin gave it much thought. Then he remembered a time when his cousin Nelson, a chef, had prepared, for the family’s Easter dinner, a delicious dessert, bananas flambé. Franklin had loved the name, so French and romantic, and which suggested flames of passion. Then, too, Flambé began with the same letter as his first name, Franklin, and ended with the same two letters as the first two letters of his middle name, Bernard. When he told Moira he was now Flambé, she clapped her hands exultantly, and then corrected him.

“You’re not Flambé,” she said. “You are Miss Flambé.”

* * *

The physical change from male to female was considerably more difficult to achieve than the mere surface metamorphosis of makeup, wigs and cross-dressing. Moira explained the process. It was a long one, but there was a midway point of no return that every transsexual inevitably reached: the distinction between pre-op and post-op.

Many male cross-dressers are content to live their lives as women without resorting to the permanent solution of surgery. And there were different phases of surgical or medical transition. A man might simply take the hormone estrogen. Some might move to breast enhancement, and even plastic surgery, to soften the contours of the face. Only a small percentage of transsexuals or cross-dressers graduates to the ultimate: sex reassignment surgery, which involves dissecting the penis, throwing away most of the insides but preserving the urethra, and then turning the penile sheath, with its exquisitely sensitive nerve receptors, inside out, and inserting it back into the body, to become a “neo-vagina.”

Moira had completed all but the final step (which she was never to get around to before her death). Flambé, she explained, would eventually have to make all these decisions, but, she cautioned, he should not hurry. These were life-changing choices that must not be rushed, or entered into without the deepest reflection.

By now, Flambé was 26. She’d graduated State with a degree in psychology and was working for the San Francisco Department of Public Health as an information specialist. The pay wasn’t great, so she remained living at home with her mom, JoAnne. And that was a definite headache.

Flambé had kept her female life a secret from her mother as long as possible, but when she started applying makeup, painting her fingernails and wearing skirts, it was no longer possible to hide her other self. JoAnne, predictably, was very angry. The two of them had always had a close relationship, but now, JoAnne couldn’t suppress her bitter disappointment, and Flambé couldn’t conceal her annoyance at JoAnne’s constant disapproval. One night, they had a big fight.

“I can’t go ‘round the neighborhood anymore without someone asking what’s up with you. Mr. Brown, at the barbershop, wonders why you don’t come in anymore. Bishop Washington says he’s praying for you but he don’t know what’s got into you. I tell you, Franklin, you’re making it awful hard on me.”

“Please don’t call me Franklin, momma. I’m Flambé.”

“You ain’t nothin’ but Franklin and that’s all you’ll ever be! Boy, what is wrong in your head? Why you doin’ this to me?”

“I’m not doing anything to you. You’re doing it to yourself. I wish you’d just accept me the way I am.”

“How I’m supposed to accept that”? JoAnne asked, looking at her son as if he were an axe murderer. “God made you a man. Act like a man! Wear some damned pants! Jesus is cryin’ for you, Franklin, sheddin’ holy tears.”

Things got so bad that Flambé avoided being home as much as she could. One night, after carousing on Folsom Street, she returned around midnight, only to find the living room crowded with people: JoAnne, Bishop Washington, Mr. Brown the barber, his Uncles Bill and Amos, his Aunt Beatrice, and a pale, sickly-looking bald stranger, Dr. Arthur, who explained that this was a Christian Intervention and these people who loved Franklin had gathered to try and persuade him to get help for his sickness, praise the Lord.

That’s all it took. Flambé threw some things into a suitcase and stalked out. He had nowhere to go. He walked to Buena Vista Park and spent the night—a cold, foggy one—sleeping fitfully on a bench. The next day, figuring he’d be on the streets for a while, and disliking San Francisco’s chill, he took BART to Oakland, on the sunny side of the Bay–he might as well be warm. There, he began a six-month period of homelessness, which ended only when he met Nicholas Claudio Huff—Nick–who befriended him, took him in, cleaned him up, and loved him.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 6

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Flambé’s Story, So Far

Flambé—Franklin Bernard Wilkerson—who was born in 1984, grew up in public housing in San Francisco’s Western Addition. His mom, JoAnne, was a housecleaner, and supplemented her income with a modest SSI stipend of $100 a month, to which she was entitled because of a blind left eye. There was no father, or, rather, Franklin had a father, but JoAnne didn’t know or much care where he was.

They struggled financially, but their Western Addition neighborhood was tightly-knit, a village where people took care of each other, despite the violence that often plagued it. The Sweet Honey of Jesus A.M.E. Church, where JoAnne was a dedicated parishioner, provided additional support. Little Franklin in fact had found himself in the Choir at the age of eight, with a ringing, pitch-perfect Soprano people said came from Heaven.

In the neighborhood, he’d always been “that way.” The other boys called him sissy, but let him be, because he was sweet. He was a loner, often losing himself in fantasies of being an archeologist as he wandered the groves of Buena Vista Park, finding “treasures”: a crushed beer can became the remnants of an emperor’s crown, a sparkly rock the pendant that had hung from a priestess’s neck.

Franklin became sexually active at 12, intermittently for the first few years, then with increasing relish. By 2002, when he was eighteen and a freshman at San Francisco State, he was familiar with many of the haunts in San Francisco where a young man finds pleasure with his own.

Franklin knew of, but was too young to have been greatly impacted by, the AIDS crisis. Over the years, he’d gotten himself tested for the virus, always with negative results. This miracle, he attributed to God. He was a religious man, his mother’s son, and always had a Bible by his bedside.

In the second half of his freshman year, he’d met a senior, Devon, a computer science major, to whom he became greatly attached. Devon was a man of the world, or so it seemed to Franklin’s eager eyes. Equally adept at break dancing, throwing clay, track and field, knowing his wines, or reciting the poetry of Langston Hughes, Devon was a Renaissance Man.

Franklin always felt something disquieting inside himself. Just what it was, he did not know, except that it concerned his very essence. He knew he was not really male, but he obviously wasn’t female, either. He’d been aware of this contradiction ever since he could remember, and knew he dare not tell anyone, especially his devout mother, JoAnne. There had always been a few men in the neighborhood who also were “that way,” to judge by how they walked, or dressed and spoke. Reggie, from Fillmore Street, for instance: everybody knew he was Reginald Shinwell, the son of Doris and Ray Shinwell (who was a cop), but Reggie told people to call him “Rayon,” and would go about in women’s clothes.

It never occurred to Franklin that he might have something in common with Rayon. He was too isolated in his own reality, too cut off from San Francisco’s pervasive gay and drag cultures despite his furtive explorations, too straddled between clashing worlds in which it was impossible to find a foothold—until Devon.

Devon was Franklin’s doorway to the world beyond the Western Addition, beyond SFSU’s stultifying commuter culture. The glamor, the excitement, the fulfillment and drama Franklin had always sensed suddenly became available. He loved being with Devon, absolutely adored their time together, so, on that hot June night, a Saturday, when Devon told him they were going to a great bar, Franklin was thrilled.

The temperature had hit 101 degrees, a record for the date. Franklin spent most of the afternoon in Buena Vista Park, reading hip hop magazines, listening to music on his Walkman, or just lazing on the grass, face to the sun, feeling the heat pervade and relax his body as he smoked a joint. Devon picked him up that night in his T Bird at 10:30. As Devon drove across town—Golden Gate to Tenth, south below Market toward Howard–Franklin lowered the window on the passenger side and smelled the smells of the tropical city: spices, jasmine, barbecue, asphalt, human sweat—heard the babbled voices of a dozen cultures–music spilling from every bar and car: rock, salsa, hip hop, blues, jazz, Sinatra, classical. The night breeze cooled his skin. Devon found a parking spot, and led Franklin down an alley to the club and bar called, suggestively, The Headquarters.

Years later, Franklin, now Flambé, would recall that night as his “Ascension,” the allusion to the Biblical prophet Isaiah deliberate and informed. Although Moira was long since dead, a victim of AIDS, she was one of his Stations of the Cross. In fact, wherever Franklin/Flambé lived for the rest of her life, she kept a photo of Moira, in a frame of pink and turquoise cloisonée, beside her bed, next to her Bible, in a sort of shrine.


TALES OF THE TOWN Part 5

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Danny Ends Up in the Hospital

Sometime after midnight on a Tuesday night in October, a five-story building development under construction on 27th Street, slated to be a mix of residential condos and retail, went up in flames.

The neighborhood was shaken out of its sleep by the wailing sirens of fire engines and police cars. By daybreak, it was clear that the building was a total wreck. Nearly a year under construction, it had been reduced to rubble in hours.

It was the fifth local construction project to be destroyed by fire. The first four had been determined by the authorities to have been arsons. This one probably was as well. Over the next few days, Oaklanders seemed torn down the middle in sentiment. Some were glad that another project they viewed as wicked gentrification had been stopped in its tracks. Others were appalled. Oakland needed more housing, they argued; burning it down only made the situation worse. Yes, their opponents said, we do need more housing, but not million-dollar condos. We need below-market rate apartments for our artists, teachers, cops, waiters, retail clerks, office workers, street cleaners.

Danny, Nick and Flambé typified the various attitudes. Nick, assuming that the project had been deliberately torched, praised the perpetrators. “They’re civic heroes, dudes,” he told Flambé and Danny a few days after the fire. They were sitting around the kitchen table, strewn with empty pizza boxes and beer bottles. Flambé took the joint Danny passed her and asked, “How can you call them heroes? Somebody could have died. If you ask me, the real heroes are the first responders.”

“You just like cops and firemen ‘cuz they wear uniforms,” Nick grinned.

“That’s not true!” Flambé said. “Well, maybe a little. But they save lives and property, instead of destroying them.”

Danny listened. In his own mind, he wasn’t sure what to think. Housing had never been an issue for him. He could afford what he could afford. But after being back in Oakland for less than three months, Danny had been shocked to discover how divisive the housing problem had become.

Many of his old friends, and even some of his co-workers at Creava, were having trouble paying their rent. Practically none of them could afford the down payment on a house. Most had given up on the American Dream of home ownership, at least during this part of their lives. They were sharing flats, and considered themselves lucky to have a room of their own. Two people Danny knew were actually living in rented closets. Creava had ongoing problems of employee retention, as talented engineers and coders—many of them making more than $100,000 a year–were forced out of Oakland, to lower-rent areas like Chico, Vallejo and Fairfield.

“Oakland used to be a working class town,” Nick was saying. “Folks could afford to live here. It wasn’t like San Francisco, or Marin, or the Peninsula. That’s the Oakland I want, not all these chi-chi condos with a bunch of Millennial bozos who don’t know shit about our town.”

Flambé wasn’t buying it. “You can’t stop progress. You want to make time stand still, but it never does. Change is inevitable—and while it can be disruptive, it’s usually for the good.”

“’For the good’? I can’t believe you’re saying that, Flambé.” Nick had something of the unreconstructed Leftie in him. His parents had been hippie socialists. He’d been born in a commune, where the wealth was shared equally, and in his time had been a huge supporter of leftwing causes, like gay marriage. A devoted Bernie Sanders follower in the 2016 presidential election, he still believed in the Vermont Independent. “These damned developers,” he told Flambé, “want to turn Oakland into Mar-a-Lago by the Bay.”

“That’s a bit of an exaggeration,” Flambé responded. “You’re always saying Oakland should build its own low-cost housing. But that takes money, and the city’s broke! With the new condos and retail, Oakland’s tax base will improve, and the city can use the extra money to help the homeless.”

All three of them were getting pretty high by now, and Nick’s and Flambé’s tempers were rising. Nick had noticed a few times how they seemed to rub each other the wrong way on occasion. Little things could cause sparks, like a sinkful of dirty dishes or Flambé’s persistent lack of money.

Nick decided he needed some fresh air; he wasn’t into a political debate. Excusing himself, he went out to Perkins and headed down the hill, towards Grand. He was in a bad mood: feeling sorry for himself, pissed at Nick and Flambé for their petty arguments, annoyed with himself.

He hadn’t consciously decided to go to Playa, but force of habit carried him there. The bar was mobbed. Between the weed and the beer, Danny was already pretty stoned, but he decided to get a gimlet anyway. Elbowing his way to the bar, he downed his first in a minute. Then he ordered a second—and a third—and a fourth. Around midnight, he stumbled out the door, disoriented, dizzy and with double vision. He managed to weave uncertainly across Grand without getting hit by a car, found Perkins—barely–and got halfway up the block when something strong and heavy came down on his head. All went dark.

* * *

“He’s got multiple contusions, and we put in six stiches, just above his right ear. And he’s got a pretty good concussion,” said Dr. Erwin Wu, holding an x-ray of Danny’s clobbered skull against the light. “But he should be okay. We’ll keep him here for a couple days.”

A passerby had found Danny sprawled between the sidewalk and the gutter, blood trickling out of his head. The good Samaritan called 9-1-1; they’d brought him to the Kaiser emergency room. The unconscious man had no identity papers on him, his wallet having been stolen. The next morning, he had regained consciousness, told the Kaiser staff his name and Nick’s phone number, and informed them that his medical insurance was from Kaiser. A nurse phoned Nick at work; he left Pandora immediately, picked up Flambé at home, and rushed to the hospital.

Now, Nick, Flambé and Dr. Wu were at Danny’s bedside. Danny was in pain, but in good spirits, considering the situation. Nick would call the credit card companies and have Danny’s VISA and MasterCard canceled. Flambé fluttered around Danny like a nurse on a battlefield, holding up water for him to drink, dabbing a towel on his brow, straightening his pillow. Danny got to calling her Flambé Nightingale.

Dr. Wu explained the antibiotics and painkillers he had prescribed for Danny. “Go easy on the OxyContin,” he warned his patient. “You don’t want to get addicted.” He told Danny he’d be back to see him later that afternoon. As he turned to leave, Danny had a sudden thought. Cindy’s last name was Wu. He figured Wu was a pretty common Chinese name, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

“Hey, Dr. Wu, you wouldn’t be related to a young lady named Cindy, would you?”

Dr. Wu’s eyebrows shot up. “My daughter is Cindy.” It was a small world. Dr. Wu stayed behind for a few minutes as Danny explained that he’d been seeing Cindy.

“Yes, she told me she had a new friend, but she didn’t go into detail. Mrs. Wu and I will have to have you to dinner sometime, after you’re better.”

“That would be nice,” Danny replied, shaking Dr. Wu’s hand. After Dr. Wu left, the three roommates chatted for a while, but Danny grew tired, and Nick and Flambé said they should probably be going. Nick had to get back to Pandora, and Flambé, who had decided to make a little extra money as a dog walker, needed to start advertising her new service on social media.

Danny lowered his bed to the “sleep” position and closed his eyes. Trying to ignore the pain in his head, he drifted off to Dreamland. 


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