Esmé-Michelle Watkins

How to Wage Some Unholy War

If the landlord cuts off the hot water on New Years Day, you can shower at the 24-Hour Fitness on Van Ness early in the morning, depending on who is working the door. Remember: this is the busiest day of the year for gyms across the city, all of which will take extra measures to enhance security. This means the bald security guard will be there, the old guy who works mornings with an omega symbol tattooed on his wrist. Don’t let him intimidate you—he’s just a casual racist. Plenty of patrons heard him call you a high yellow bitch the last time he caught you sneaking in without a membership. The Twitter storm you fueled as a consequence was enough for him to receive a stern warning. Given the he-said-she-said nature of the encounter, the incident wasn’t grounds for termination, but it was enough for management to tell him to look the other way when you sneak in. Yes, you will be evicted if you fail to seek help from the San Francisco Tenant’s Union and cannot come up with this month’s rent—this danger is imminent. But for the present moment, you are the queen of the Twitterverse with a free shower pass. 

            When you finish, walk carefully around the scattering of bodies sleeping inside the service entries of businesses along Van Ness, but don’t count yourself among the homeless yet. Instead, lift a copy of Back to Black when you get to Amoeba Records on Polk Street. Listen carefully: there is only one way to process to track number nine, “Some Unholy War.” Take the advice offered in the song full stop. Go home and lie down on your kitchen floor and replay the track. If the kitchen is too dirty, the bedroom floor will do. Adjust the nobs on the radio until you successfully slow down the tempo—the song should transform into a ballad after a few tries. Close your eyes and press repeat. Play it twice more and memorize the words on the last pass. Resist the urge to obsess over the fact that you haven’t written in months, that you feel extraordinary pressure to produce a manuscript of novel length, to take a job in any field other than writing that pays a decent wage, so that you won’t fear losing your apartment each month. According to the stale fortune cookies you cracked open last night, you will finish writing a book this year. This is your year. Only it doesn’t feel like anyone’s year yet because the early morning hours of New Years Day feel too new to be believed and your jean pockets are so well worn, they are thin as tracing paper. Repeat the mantra to yourself anyway. This is your year.

        The more you listen to the track, the more you think of loving someone as fatuously as the song commands. Reflect on the rhetorical lyric that asks who you write for. Even though you can’t picture a particular person or crowd, don’t let your mind wander. Create a space for the question in your journal and imagine yourself as a person with answers, someone who marches into the Tenant’s Union and reports the landlord for cutting off the utilities, someone who writes and writes and cuts herself over unanswerable questions.

When They Heard About Oscar

They walk nine deep across two city blocks towards the Powell Street Metro Station, a handful of teenage boys. The previous evening, they’d come from Oakland to the Embarcadero and wrestled their way through a large crowd to watch fireworks on the waterfront on New Year’s Eve. Afterward, they’d stayed out all night in the Fillmore, crashing house parties they weren’t invited to, only now making their way home in the early morning hours. They stomp around in puddles, gutter water turning the edges of their jeans a deep indigo. Once they reach the station, they elbow and shove their way to the front of the line on the escalator and take turns hopping the turnstile. The squares—older folks who grow tomatoes and avocados in urban, backyard gardens, and say things to each other like “quite lovely” about wine and food—turn away and clutch their belongings to their chests. The gesture does not go without confrontation. “You scared?” The oldest boy asks a silver-haired man again and again and louder each time until the man cuts his eyes at the group of them, his scowl big enough to carry all of Oakland.

       Out on the platform, the boys split into two groups and howl battle rhymes at each other. The tallest of the group shakes his dark dreads loose from a tattered rubber band and steps into the center of the huddle, his arms extended on either side. He doesn’t want it to get too heated. There are plenty of plain-clothes officers ready to spring out of a quiet corner to slap cuffs on boys like them for less. When their train arrives, they sit and become window percussionists, pounding out beats with their palms and fists.  They stretch their t-shirts over their knees, mindful not to let anyone step on their white sneakers. The cuffs of their jeans dry out on the train, but to be sure, the jeans are cheap—the kind sold three for twenty dollars at the Ashby Street swap meet, the kind that transfers dark blue pigment to their socks, shins, and ankles.

      There are few passengers on the train at this time of morning on a holiday weekend. The boys bore quickly. They rise and stagger single file to the next car as the train begins its passage through the Transbay Tube. The three and a half mile tunnel runs through the bay between San Francisco and Oakland at a depth so low, the boys’ chests tighten involuntarily, and their ears pulse from increased atmospheric pressure. Still, they keep moving and shout out to each other about some girl’s this, and another girl’s that; but mostly, despite the chatter, they speak to each other like strangers. They don’t speak of the night before, their hopes and fears for the New Year. How the soiled fabric on the train seats carries the briny scent of vomit. How some of them will go home, and no one will be there to greet them or worry that they’ve been away all night. How they refer to each other using nicknames because they can’t be sure who is listening. How some of them have been shuffled back and forth between relatives, thrust out of their grandmothers’ apartments when they did not respond to discipline or threats from truancy officers. How these rejections form a slow growing cancerous mound eating at them by degrees each day.

        A small, red-haired woman balances her body against a pole and opens the San Francisco Chronicle. She does not notice two boys standing behind her, quietly reading over her shoulder: “Unarmed Black Man Shot by Police in Subway Station.” The details are scant and contradictory. Some witnesses confirmed the young victim was cooperative with police before the shooting. Others claimed he was a resistant thug rightfully subdued with a knee to the neck. In grainy photographs, the victim lay lifeless on the platform, his thin brown arms handcuffed behind his back. His mother had been tearful, when interviewed—choked up with grief. Investigators released the young victim’s name but were careful to withhold the officer’s. It would be leaked to the press later that day: “Officer Johannes Mehserle Kills Oscar Grant III.”       

         Before the red-haired woman finishes the story, one of the boys, the smallest, whispers to her: “You’re a little far from North Berkeley, aren’t you, snow bunny?” He draws an imaginary line on the floor with his toe. A moment of silence stretches between them. The woman sucks her teeth and holds his gaze for a time. When she opens her mouth to say something, other boys flank her, blocking her path. She closes her mouth and folds the newspaper under a thin, freckled arm. She slides through the semi-circle of boys, a stiff gait all the way to the opposite end of the train car. They do not follow her with their eyes. Instead, they jam fingers inside their ears to relieve the pressure as the train exits the Transbay Tube into Oakland. They say nothing as silver sunlight streams through the windows, into the bay beyond.

Author Statement

I once heard E-40 say something to the effect of “first the Bay Area, then the world.” I can’t find the lie in that sentiment. These somewhat connected stories arose out of a profound love for the Bay, as well as an internal dialogue with a new America I often struggle to understand. When I think of the Sacred Americas, I find myself orbiting New Years’ Day 2009—which, for me, was somewhat of a harbinger of the America we have become. I was living on the edge of Nob Hill in San Francisco at that time, and will never forget waking up to news that a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer “accidentally” shot Oscar Grant. The backdrop to Oscar’s murder was the beginning stages of a tech boom, which materialized from the ashes of the mortgage crisis, wherein unscrupulous loan officers swindled black grandmothers out of their homes in Hunter’s Point. The byproduct of this loss and growth, arguably, was an influx of outsiders and capital that drove up real estate values and inversely affected many communities—most acutely, artists and families of color—who soon found themselves priced out of the city. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and others followed Oscar.  Rancor and duplicity emerged from our national dialogue around the intersections of race, money, and privilege.  For its part, Oakland grieved and roused resistance. Some say it reclaimed its position as a leader in counter-culture, that it is responsible for the birth of new social activists the world over. How, in many ways, the Bay foretold today’s America.

Esmé-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in BostonReviewIndiana ReviewWord RiotVoices de la Luna and elsewhere. She has worked on the editorial staff at Apogee and Blackberry: A Magazine, and is the recipient of fellowships from the Jacob P. Waletzky Fund, Callaloo, Kimbilio, and Columbia University. You can find more of her writing at