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TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 23

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Flambé Learns About Vaginas from a New Friend

Flambé wanted a vagina. She always had—the thought of it, the vision, was never far from her mind. Until recently, she’d been able to live without, a lacuna that always needed fulfillment, like hunger, but that was manageable.

Yet for the last several weeks, she had become more and more obsessed with her “situation,” as she phrased it to herself. Maybe it was because of hew new relationship with Devon. Her penis still functioned quite well, thank you. Devon enjoyed it, and Flambé even masturbated every once in a while. But as much of an old friend as her penis was, it also came to represent for Flambé an invasion, a part of her body that didn’t belong, like a hernia.

It was a topic she dare not speak of with anyone: not with Nick, certainly (given how delicate things were between them), and not with Devon, obviously. She sometimes wished she had a psychotherapist to talk with, but therapy cost money, and Flambé as usual was short of cash, despite the relative success of her dog-walking business.

There was, in Oakland and the greater East Bay, a well-organized trans community, centered mainly around the bar scene. Flambé had never considered herself part of it. She was, if anything, a lone wolf in life, going her own way, prompted by her own instincts and desires, not a “joiner.” And yet, as she pondered her situation, she realized that others had experienced the same things. She wanted the vagina; she could not afford the vagina; perhaps there were ways to go about it she was unaware of. So, with this emerging attitude, Flambé went to her first meeting of the East Bay Transgender Alliance, held in an old storefront in the Fruitvale District.

About a dozen people were there. They sat in rickety folding chairs in a circle. Apparently most of them knew each other; Flambé was the new girl. After introducing herself, she settled in, and quietly inspected the others. One caught her attention: at first, Flambé had thought she was Moira, her long-dead mentor into the world of cross-dressing. Separated at birth? After the meeting, when coffee and donuts were served, Flambé approached her. Her name was Esther.

She was very pretty, in a gamin way, short and petite, with elfin eyes and a wry smile. Many male-to-female trans people choose long hair, often accented with wigs or falls; not Esther, who wore her auburn hair close-cropped, like Mia Farrow in her Frank Sinatra days. Also, unlike many trans women, Esther’s clothes were more of the businesswoman than the drag queen: a smart, pinstriped navy blue skirt and jacket, white silk blouse, a single strand of white pearls around her neck. She was not very buxom, but yet possessed an undeniable femininity. Flambé decided she liked this woman.

They traded phone numbers. Esther lived in the Cleveland Heights neighborhood, in what used to be called China Hill before that name became politically incorrect. Flambé texted her a few days later. “Hi there, it’s Flambé, we met at the Alliance thing, wonder if you want to get 2gether 4 coffee or something.” Esther did. They met up by the Pergola. It was a nice day. They decided to take a stroll around Lake Merritt.

The two women hit it off well. Esther was white and Jewish, in stark contrast to Flambé, but aside from those differences, they shared many things in common. Esther, who at 37 was a few years older than Flambé, had begun her trans journey earlier. A clerk in a law office, she was now fully transitioned, entirely comfortable with her identity; the “Evan” she’d been until the age of 25 had been dead and buried for a long time. Flambé admired Esther’s self-control and poise. Had Flambé met her in any other capacity, she decided, she would not have guessed she had not been born a woman.

Which led Flambé to pose the ultimate question. They had walked to the south end of the Lake, to Lake Merritt Boulevard. “Look,” Flambé temporized, “I know we only just met, but I feel close to you—”

“I feel close to you, too,” Esther replied.

“So I hope you won’t take this the wrong way. Let me know if I’m prying, okay? Because I don’t mean to. I’d never intrude into your—”

“Yes, I’ve had the surgery.”

Flambé stopped walking. “What did you say?”

“I’m post-op.” Esther was very kind about it. “I know that’s what you want to know. It’s what many transitioning women want to know about me, and every one of them has trouble getting it out. So don’t worry about it, or be embarrassed. I had the surgery ten years ago. Do you want to talk about it?”

Flambé was thrilled. She’d never had “that conversation” before with anyone, not even with Moira. Her knowledge of the procedure came entirely from websites she’d found through Google. She had so many questions—not only about the financial aspects, but medical ones and personal and intimate ones. Never had she found anyone she could trust enough to ask, and now, here was Esther: smart, kind, experienced, and willing to answer any question she might have, no matter how silly. In fact, as Esther quickly reminded her, “There are no silly questions, Flambé. Ask away!”


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 21

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“They Certainly Don’t Deserve to Die”

“It’s a tragic case, but really fairly straightforward.” Dr. Wu was riffling through Duquene’s medical file, while Rosey listened and took the occasional note. “A single gunshot wound, more or less right between the eyes. Instant death.”

“What kind of health was he in?” Rosie asked. “I mean, besides the shooting.”

“Poor.” Dr. Wu’s eye scanned the chart: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, probably endemic cardiovascular disease. “Evidence of malnutrition. He tested positive for hepatitis B. And while we don’t do dental forensics, one look inside his mouth showed extensive periodontitis. I doubt if he had another two years, at most.”

“Did you see him the next morning? I mean, when he had sobered up?”

“I did.”

“How would you characterize his mood, his state of mind?”

“He was anxious to get discharged. He said he’d been in and out of hospitals many times, and he didn’t like them.”

“Did he indicate any particular concerns about returning to the streets? For example, did he say anything about enemies, or threats, or anything that he was afraid of?”

Dr. Wu tapped his fingers together. “I’m afraid not. Not that I recall, anyway. He said he’d been on the streets for so many years that it was the only place he felt safe.”

The interview was yielding precious little information, Rosey decided. He stood, gave Dr. Wu his card. “Thank you, doctor. Look: if anything else occurs to you, give me a call, okay?”

Dr. Wu also stood, took the card, then offered his right hand for a shake. “I will, Detective. Umm, are there any leads? I mean, this is connected to the serial killings, isn’t it?”

“I’m not really at liberty to go into details, doctor, but I can tell you we’ve elevated this to a Status One investigation.. Our highest.”

Dr. Wu let Rosey’s hand go. “Well, that’s good to hear. It’s a shame, really. These people have done nothing wrong; it’s not their fault they’ve fallen on hard times. They certainly don’t deserve to die. Good luck, Detective.”

Rosey stopped in the hospital cafeteria for a quick lunch and coffee: tuna sandwich, cole slaw, fries (terrible for his weight. His wife, Ceci, he knew, would kill him, but they were so delicious). He brought out the little drawing pad he always carried; Rosey was a great doodler. His scribblings, of cartoon animals, helped steady his racing mind, and enabled him to focus his thoughts when they threatened to run out of control. In some weird way he didn’t understand, the doodles allowed his unconscious mind to connect things that his conscious mind was unable to—a helpful talent for an investigator often working with seemingly unrelated bits of evidence. Someone once said Rosey Brown’s doodles had solved more homicides than the National Crime Database. It wasn’t true, of course, but it made Rosey smile.

He got back to his office, on Washington Street, where he found multiple messages awaiting him. Among them was one from the new City Councilmember, Devon Camber, asking for a meeting. Rosey hadn’t yet met Camber, whose district he lived outside, but he was certainly aware of the young politician’s rising political star. He emailed the Councilmember back. Sure, they could get together. How about a drink after work that evening? Rosey had a little bar he liked, not far from City Hall: the Five10, on Fifteenth Street. Great pizza, kind of a dive, good beer. Devon emailed back instantly. He knew the place; he went there himself. They set a meeting time for 6:30.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 20

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Oakland Police Begin Their Search for the Killer

No official informed the public about the first body, Duquene’s. Nor did the police, District Attorney or Mayor’s office inform them of the second, third, fourth or fifth bodies. They all had names: Duncan Ailsworth, Robert Massey, Charles Wilkinson, Antwan Finch.

There were however a few old timers in the OPD who began to have suspicions when body #3, Massey, was found. Like the others, it was male, probably homeless, with few if any local ties. All the men had been killed in similar fashion: a gunshot through the head. Local journalists who specialized in crime reporting heard, through the grapevine, that OPD was looking into the possibility that a serial killer—rare in Oakland—was preying on homeless men. One reporter got an off-duty cop to tell him, off-the-record, about it, while they were drinking beer in a sports bar. This reporter worked for KTVU-TV. He told his boss, the news editor for the 5 o’clock news. That evening, one of the station’s on-air reporters, Rob Roth, broke the story this way:

“Oakland Police are now more or less convinced that the deaths of these five homeless men are not a coincidence. Although they warn these cases are just beginning to be investigated, they feel that all the victims may have met their deaths at the hands of the same person or persons.”

The news sent shock waves throughout Oakland, and beyond. Homeless advocates were appalled and demanded that the police apprehend the killer immediately. Some suggested that the City had no interest in stopping a killer preying on homeless men; had the victims been, say, wealthy white people in the Hills, Schaaf would be pouring millions into the search for the criminal. A defensive Schaaf had to hold a news conference. With the police chief and Alameda County District Attorney beside her, she reassured doubters that Oakland would leave “no stone unturned” in seeking and identifying the murderer.

Yet the murders continued. By late Spring, four months after Duquene’s body had been found, the number of victims totaled twelve. All of their bodies were found in one of three general locales: Jack London Square, Lake Merritt and West Oakland. America took notice: 60 Minutes came out, the NBC Nightly News, even Fox (which implied that the murderer might be a dark-skinned foreigner, possibly Islamic). This theory seemed dashed when it was learned that the eighth victim, one Ali Rasheed Mohammed, had been Muslim. The Council on American-Islamic Relations became involved, and called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate his murder as a possible hate crime.

Devon Camber followed all this with great interest. As the candidate, now sitting councilmember, who had talked the most about homelessness, he was a natural target of reporters and interest groups working on homeless issues. Did he have any theories, they wanted to know? Did he feel the police were working the case with enough diligence? What more could Oakland do to protect its unhoused citizens? To these questions, Devon had no concrete answers, but since he had to sound as if he did, he gave vague generalities. Yes, Oakland must do more. No, he had no theories, except that there was too much hatred. He was sure the police could be working harder, although he in no way meant to criticize the fine men and women of OPD. And, yes, he would do anything within his power, as both an elected official and a citizen of his beloved Oakland, to help the police apprehend the killer.

* * *

Roosevelt Wilson Brown—“Rosey”—was a Homicide Detective in the Oakland Police Department, a 19-year veteran of the force. Married, a father of four, youth minister in the Third Baptist Church, avid Warriors fan, Rosey had escaped the tarnish heaped on some of his colleagues in the Riders scandal. He was well-liked, admired by most who knew him, trusted by management and rank-and-file, and—for the purposes of the homeless killings—as perfervid to get to the bottom of the case as any cop could be.

Police Chief Kirkpatrick put Rosey in charge of the investigation, although she warned him she did not have the budget to give him extra funds or additional staff: he would have to work within existing departmental means.

He started with basic forensic theory. There was only one killer; there almost always was, in cases of multiple or serial homicides. The killer was likely to be a white male: most serial killers were. He probably lived in, or near, the neighborhoods where the crimes were committed; serial killers usually do. There was no evidence that sexual gratification played a role in his crimes, nor was there evidence that the killer had acted on a spree. No: each murder had been deliberately and carefully carried out. The killer may not have literally stalked his victims, but he had displayed a pattern of aforethought and care, as well as opportunism.

Rosey began by assembling all known information on the dead men, which was little enough. Several were impossible to trace: their fingerprints were not recorded anywhere, nor was any identifying information about them ever found, either on their persons or in what were purported to be their tents. Others—and this seemed to form a pattern—had arrived in Oakland from other places, but their families had been out of touch with them for years. A few actually had relatives or associates with whom they had communicated, more or less recently. Rosey decided to begin his probe by interviewing all known contacts with the deceased men. Often enough, as homicide detectives knew all too well, murderers turned out to have known their victims.

He began, logically enough, with victim #1: William James Duquene, the man who had been found drunk and passed out in the rainstorm and then brought to Kaiser. His admitting physician had been Dr. Edwin Wu. Rosey phoned the doctor, asking if he could stop by to ask him a few questions, including about Duquene’s medical history. Yes, of course, Dr. Wu replied. They met in the doctor’s office, at the Oakland Medical Center, on Broadway.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 19

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In the Age of Trump, Dr. Wu Wanders the Streets

Danny was feeling justifiably annoyed.

His life had sucked lately. First there was the mugging, from the effects of which he still occasionally had dizzy spells and headaches. Then there was the incident with the tent and the theft of his and Cindy’s belongings. At Creava, he’d hit multiple snags writing “Game of Bones.” And now, he was dealing with a pregnant girlfriend.

He and Cindy had taken the lease on the Castro Valley bungalow. They went to Home Depot and Bed Bath & Beyond and shopped for homely items: toilet paper, vacuum cleaner bags, a dishrack, toothpaste, towels, deodorant. Cindy bought a nosegay of roses and white lilies for the kitchen table. They stocked up on provisions at Safeway; Danny picked up a bottle of Prosecco, to toast their new life.

“And the new life inside me,” Cindy reminded him.

Danny had mixed feelings about that, but he knew that now was not the time to express them. “To the new life inside you,” he repeated.

“Our baby.”

He wasn’t ready to have a child. Not even close. Money was tight. Time was tight. He was naturally or instinctively set against the notion of having children, at least during this phase of his life. But then, he would look at Cindy, and she seemed so ecstatic at being pregnant, as though her entire life until now had been merely a series of steps preparatory to being a mom. He did not want to rob her of that joy; he did not want to have a child; he was caught in a dilemma.

For herself, Cindy had no doubts about the rightness of this step. In a way it filled the vacuum caused by her leaving her parents’ home and the rift that had created between them. She was normally a family-oriented person; Chinese culture in particular is close-knit and discourages arguments and separation. The troubles with her parents had caused her grave doubt and sadness. Now, having a baby growing inside her compensated to a great extent for that pain. She had lost one family; she would gain another, transferring the devotional side of her nature from Dr. and Mrs. Wu to the developing child and, of course, to Danny.

She lay in bed that night, awake as Danny slept beside her, thinking about her baby and talking to it. “Are you a little girl or a little boy?” she asked, cupping her abdomen in her palms and imagining vibrations passing to the fetus and from it to her mind. She didn’t care about the child’s sex. As an only daughter, she had often wished she’d had siblings, brothers and sisters in whom to confide, with whom to play and share privacies, comrades to be with instead of the alone-ness that actually had marked her youth. She told herself that this baby would be merely the first she’d have with Danny.

In this hopeful and expansive mood, she emailed her mother a few days later.

“Dear mom, I hope you and daddy are well. Danny and I are living in a little house in Castro Valley. There’s a garden. I’m going to plant tomatoes, peas and zucchini this weekend. Danny sends his”—at first, she wrote “love,” then deleted it and substituted the less emotional “regards.” “I know that you’ve been hurt by what has happened. I have been, too. But you must know that I love Danny. I hope that someday you can love him too and accept him into our family. Oh, and there’s one more thing. I’m pregnant. You’re going to be a grandma. Love, Cindy”

When Gladys Wu read this, she felt like breaking down into tears, but oddly, a cold stolidity overtook her. Her eyes stung, but remained dry. She re-read the words on her computer: “I’m pregnant.” And again. “I’m pregnant.” They refused to register. Her little girl—the pudgy six-year old who loved pinafores and Justin Timberlake, who made cupcakes in the kitchen and went to church festivals, who climbed the plum tree in the backyard and collected beetles—how could this child be with child?

She would have to tell her husband. Edwin, she knew, would explode. He had a temper, the infamous Wu rage that often boiled just below the surface. He was meticulous, precise, orderly in his habits—this made him a good physician and administrator. But he also possessed a judgmental streak that sometimes alarmed her. Once, finding a small encampment of three tents only a block from their home, the Doctor had gone ballistic, calling the police, the Mayor’s office, his city council member, demanding the eyesore be removed. It was.

He came home from work that evening, in a sour mood. He often was silent and bitter after a long day at Kaiser. He seldom told her any details; she stopped asking. His complaints all melted into each other: one patient was eating herself to death, another refused to take her medications, a third was addicted to drugs, a fourth sexually promiscuous, a fifth unwashed and malodorous, a sixth hypochondriacal. etc. etc. All of his patients irritated him. And yet, his performance reviews always spoke glowingly of his diagnostic skills, his bedside manner. He scored highly in patient evaluations. It took all of his carefully-controlled skills to hide the rage inside.

The had dinner, then coffee. Dr. Wu allowed himself a rare second brandy. The night was cold; he lit a fire, then set himself down in his armchair, with the day’s Chronicle. Mrs. Wu saw no point in beating around the bush.

“Edwin,” she began, “our daughter is pregnant.”

They fought that night, bitterly. In short: Mrs. Wu was sympathetic, Dr. Wu outraged. He would cut her out of his will, out of his life. She would reach out to her only daughter, inside whose womb lived her coming grandchild. Dr. Wu said no: no contact, no sympathy, they would just have to learn to be without her and consider themselves childless; anyway, they could get a dog. Mrs. Wu was appalled. This is our daughter! This is our grandchild! He: “I have no daughter.” He flung the Chronicle into the flames, as if by incinerating it he was obliterating the irritant in his own life. The paper flared in a burst of orange and gold.

He slept fitfully in the guest bedroom that night. About 2 a.m., tormented, his mind racing, he slipped into a sweatsuit and sneakers, and drove the Volvo with no particular destination in mind, just away, south and west, finding himself on the 980, then the Nimitz, getting off at Jack London Square. He parked in the deserted produce district. The streets were empty at this hour, except for the occasional shopping cart person, his life’s possessions heaped inside. Some of these people snarled when they saw him. As the eastern sky began to glow with dawn Dr. Wu wandered on foot, over railway tracks, under the freeway, past the clotted miasma of dirty tents mashed into each other, piles of rotting garbage, rats underfoot, squirmings and incoherent mumblings issuing from dark shadows, a Boschian dystopia of mayhem and insanity. Dr. Wu realized, on some feeble, semi-conscious level, that it was crazy to blame these lost souls for his problems. And yet, in the Age of Trump, he did.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 18

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Devon Wins

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, Devon Camber was overwhelmingly elected to the City Council from Oakland’s District 4.

There was a big party that night at his campaign headquarters. Rainbow-colored balloons dropped. Music blared: Beyoncé, local favorite Babyloaf, old Motown. Liquor flowed freely. Five hundred people munched on pizza, sushi, egg rolls, all donated by restaurants that believed in Devon Camber and were glad to contribute to his cause. The new council member, impeccable in tailored jeans and a tucked-in blue dress shirt open at the neck, made the rounds, high-fiving friends and supporters, conferring privately with a few, generously patting others on the back and flashing the thousand-watt smile. In the rear of the hall, in the shadows, Flambé stood alone, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in her manicured hand.

Nick too was there—he’d volunteered for Devon’s campaign, more as a favor to Flambé than any particular devotion to the candidate. He’d even hosted a “meet Devon Camber” party at the apartment. Nick made his way to Flambé’s side.

“You look lonely.”

“I’m not. Just happy.”

“I’m happy for you.” They both looked to Devon: larger than life, at the peak of his success, debonair, powerful, and it was all just beginning.

“I sometimes wonder,” Flambé said, “what he really wants.”

“To be President?” It had the form of a question, but wasn’t, really. Nick’s mind wandered over some of the Democratic Presidents he’d been aware of in his 28 years. Clinton—Obama—both must have shown the same ambition as this young, aggressively charming achiever. Both had climbed to the top. Nick had once run into Gavin Newsom at some public event, when the latter was San Francisco’s Mayor, and thought: “He’s in a hurry.” Devon reminded him of a younger Newsom.

Devon, in his victory speech, proclaimed his top priority now that he was in city government: homelessness and the high cost of housing. “For too long, this city and its leaders have had big things to say about the housing crisis, but have done little if anything to deal with it,” he said, in Kennedy-esque tones, to great applause. “I am as tired as you of the encampments, the people sleeping in bus stops and storefronts. I am determined to solve this problem in the city of Oakland, and protect human rights.”

Just what he specifically meant, he did not spell out. Perhaps he had some ideas; perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he thought that, over time, the ideas would come or, alternatively, the need for them would go away. It is in the nature of politicians to stall, to play for time. Besides, even before he was sworn in to his new office, Devon was already looking beyond the Oakland City Council, to the Mayor’s Office; and beyond that, to—where? Governor, Senator, there was no limit. He might have to do a stint in some insignificant office, like Lieutenant-Governor: look how Newsom had used that to launch a governorship that already had put him in the national spotlight.

Still, Devon understood that he must not get ahead of himself. He had first to succeed as a councilmember. And the measure of his success, he knew, was to be perceived as tackling the homeless problem. The media would demand it; his constituents would demand it. He could not fudge a solution: the number of bodies in the streets would be the final arbiter of whether or not he kept his promises.

Two weeks later Devon was sworn in. His new office, in City Hall, had his name on the door, in gold-leaf:

CITY COUNCIL MEMBER DEVON CAMBER

He sat himself at his new desk and looked out the window at Frank Ogawa Plaza below, at City Center across the way, at a few makeshift tents on the expansive lawn. Later, he reminded himself, there was a reception for the new Council members, to be held in Mayor Schaaf’s office.

Two days later, a Wednesday, a body was found: a 47-year old white male, apparently homeless, sprawled beside a pile of trash next to a ragged tent, under a Nimitz overpass, west of Chinatown. The man had been shot in the head, between the eyes, and had died instantly, according to the Coroner. There was no suspect, no motive, just a dead body nobody much cared about.

But he had a name: William James Duquene. They knew that from the hospital bracelet he wore around his left wrist. It showed he had recently been brought to the emergency room at Kaiser and treated, after being found drunk and unconscious in a pouring rain. He had spent the night in the hospital and was released the next morning. The examining physician was Dr. Edwin Wu.


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