The Bay Bridge is 10 lanes of airborne freeway, touching down briefly on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, then taking to air again. At its eastern end, on the Mud Flats in Emeryville, stands a kind of unofficial public sculpture garden. Citizens come down to the estuary on a dry day to build large-scale monuments out of driftwood and tidal flotsam, to celebrate a birthday or a political cause, or simply to provide some whimsy for the freeway. About 40 sculptures rise out of the estuarial mud, comic and strange -- a stegosaurus, a rocket ship, a giant wheelchair, a Japanese temple labeled Hiroshima.
So on one shore of the bay is the Oz-like skyline of San Francisco -- Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid, the refrigerator-like bank buildings, the huge antenna on Twin Peaks -- and on the other is Oakland, beginning here at the Mud Flats, native and extemporaneous, rambunctious, a land of California bungalows and down-home music and art.
Even downtown, Oakland is a homey city, without the canyons and skyscrapers of bigger towns. Smaller, hand-detailed brick buildings still outnumber the high rises, and the streets are sunny and open. The city doesn't seem to hold the visitor at a distance. Though the Bay Bridge has a toll, you pay in only one direction -- going into San Francisco. Going to Oakland is free.
One recent Saturday I went across the bridge with a friend who had just arrived from Texas, and who knew enough about the Bay Area to turn on the radio as soon as she got in the car. "Can you get Oakland on this thing?" she asked. Oakland is, among other things, a city of music, especially black American music: jazz, blues, gospel.
I found the FM jazz station and proposed that we forgo Fisherman's Wharf and head for Oakland -- my usual habit, anyway. San Francisco -- prettier, colder -- is where I reside, but funkier Oakland is where I actually go -- at least on weekends. We decided to stay over in Oakland, to look at the art and get something to eat, then go to the music clubs and see how late we could stay up.
In the afternoon light blazing into Oakland from a sun halfway across the Pacific, we crossed the bridge into Emeryville and its environs, a flat industrial area around the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. This is a dock and warehouse neighborhood where many of the artists from San Francisco have moved in recent years.
Though these artists may be daring in their work, there is another sense in which they are the avant-garde. In East Bay real estate they are the shock troops of urban homesteading, moving into the industrial/residential areas where they can still afford the large spaces and long views they need for their work. In the Bay Area, they have gone to the East Bay -- Oakland and beyond is called the East Bay, though nobody calls San Francisco the West Bay -- to the narrow strip between the water and the freeway, where they share the neighborhood with the big rigs and the dockside cargo-loading cranes that look like huge toy horses.
They've refurbished old canneries and paint factories, established galleries and influenced the East Bay's two art museums, the Oakland Museum and the University Art Museum in Berkeley. In May, an open studio tour in the East Bay shows off 500 studios.
Some artists have turned their streets into showplaces. John Abduljaami is one of them. Abduljaami and his family live on Ettie Street, a short block on the edge of West Oakland. Just over the back fence is the freeway, and the neighborhood is strangely varied: The harbor's nearby, and the next block consists of a huge stack of orange sea containers waiting to be placed on ships. Still, the place feels as if it's far out in the country. In fact, John keeps chickens here, some of them tophatters and leghorns -- big, smart birds, egg-hiders.
Abduljaami moved to Ettie Street in part because the neighbors wouldn't complain about his art-making. He likes to get up about 7 and begin chopping on trunks of black walnut, some weighing thousands of pounds, which he collects with his truck, a Ford from the '50s with "Wooden Wonderland" painted in orange on the doors. He works by hand, using an axe and a hammer and chisel to make figures, animals or whole scenes in single blocks of wood, which he then paints in bright colors.
In one piece, a mother holds three infant sons as they scramble for her breasts; in another a Mexican family, recently arrived, stands clustered and bewildered at the border. The man has killed one of his fighting cocks to sell, and it dangles from his large hand. There are perhaps 20 of these large works on the small front lawn (one has taken over the corner, 50 feet down the block) and on the porch and in the house they are everywhere -- long black faces, bears, fantastic birds and serpents.
Abduljaami describes himself as an "everyday artist." He makes images of all kinds of people, "anything," he says, "that comes to mind -- because in America, that's what's here." His work, he says, is positive -- not the "high, polished, everything-right view of art," but evidence of "enthusiasm and promise, and of America still being real."
Ten blocks away, in the Produce District where the sidewalks are often blocked by crates of lettuce and asparagus, Squeak Carnwath has her studio. She was born in 1947 as Shirley -- though that name is long gone. Called "Squeak" by her parents, she is Squeak on everything now, including her driver's license and her paintings, which hang in San Francisco's blue-chip gallery, Fuller Goldeen.
She lives with her husband, Gary Knecht, and an Airedale, Brillo, on the upper floor of a warehouse building that is a short walk from the historical port of Oakland, terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. The studio is large, wood-floored and without interior walls, the furniture defining the "rooms" of the space: Squeak's painting area, Gary's office (he is an architect), the living room and kitchen.
Outside the large windows on the eastern wall is the freeway called the Nimitz, the cars rushing by 50 yards away and at eye level, their wheels obscured beneath the guardrails. Beyond the freeway are sunny palm trees and the oddly various architecture of downtown Oakland. The rush sounds rather like waves beating the sand, and Squeak calls the scene "our ocean view."
A reviewer of Carnwath's paintings wrote that their surfaces "are remarkable both for their intensity and for their range," and her figures rise out of these dense surfaces, as much pure paint as rendered scene. In "Pink Creatures," a pair of lovers embraces above a rectangle containing strange things -- a snake shape and a wishbone shape -- while a comical dog stands at the edge of the picture, its tail erect.
By the time we left the studio it was dark, and we went to find our dinner. There are in Oakland several of the new "California cuisine" restaurants, like the Broadway Terrace Cafe' or the Bay Wolf -- expensive, acclaimed by the food critics and usually close to Oakland's border with gourmandising Berkeley. We went in the other direction, toward Hayward, to find the old California cuisine at Taqueria Morelia, where the two of us could dine for $10 and have a drink at the other half of the establishment, the Talk of the Town cantina.
Actually, the food critics have stumbled over this place in the past, and loved it, but Taqueria Morelia remains so unassuming that no one but the neighbors can find it. We started with the house specialty -- quesadillas (fried, folded tortillas with cheese filling) with salsa cruda -- and went on to chorizo (sausage) burritos and carnitas (shredded meat).
The place itself is simple. We were "veintinueve." When you hear your number, you go up and get your food -- a fast-food concept in fine cuisine. Some kids were manning the video "turbos" in the corner. The wall above the counter was covered with business cards, and the wall opposite with community notices. It's a family place, unpretentious, and the food is excellent.
Adjoining the restaurant is the Talk of the Town bar, marked "No Nin os" and "The Finest in Cocktails." Inside it's dark and neighborly, an age away from fern bars. There's a mariachi band on Friday nights, but this was Saturday and we were going to Eli's. We didn't have the blues, but we wanted to hear some.
Eli's Mile High is a club on Grove, a street renamed last year for Martin Luther King Jr. and now called Martin Luther King Grove Street. Eli's is a consensus of blues. It's an old, famous club in the East Bay, dating from the '40s, when blacks began to move to Oakland in large numbers, seeking work in the naval shipyards during the war.
The blues came with them, the down-home Mississippi John Lee Hooker variety and the urban blues of players like B.B. King. These and others came to Eli's, which is not called the Mile High for nothing. "Be sure you get enough wine or beer under your belt," announced J. J. Malone, Rhythm Rocker guitarist at Eli's, "so you'll be comfortable."
J.J. and the Rhythm Rockers did a dynamite "Stagger Lee," among other numbers, for the mixed East Bay audience -- the neighborhood crowd, students from Berkeley, artists from Emeryville.
The headliner was a young guitar player named Joe Walker, fresh from a tour of Europe, where American blues has a wide and enthusiastic audience. Walker came on about midnight, ripping out clean, tight riffs between the verses. "Come see me early in the morning, baby," he sang. " 'Bout the break of day." It was early in the morning, and by the middle of the set, everybody was dancing with everybody.
Finally we tore ourselves away, hoping to catch the last set at Escovedo's, a jazz club owned by drummer Pete Escovedo, whose group, the Latin Jazz Allstars, was playing that evening. Latin Jazz puts the rhythm out front, and the Allstars do that literally, lining up three drummers and the vibe player on the front of the stage. Pete and his sons Juan and Peter Michael were playing bongos, congas, snares, cymbals, cowbells and about 15 other drums, and Roger Glenn was filling in on vibes, doubling on flute. The other players, the horns, bass, guitar and piano, provided the top for this layered wall of percussion and syncopation. It is very hot jazz, and the dance floors were jammed.
Pete Escovedo is one of the Bay Area's leading lights in jazz, and grew up not far from the club in West Oakland. One wall of the place is given over to trophy cases containing Escovedo's gold records, including one with the rock-oriented group Santana, and other mementoes of his various honors. Escovedo is, among other things, father to the lately famous Sheila E.
It's another family place in Oakland, albeit an extraordinary family. That night, Escovedo and his sons romped through numbers by Cal Tjader, Tito Puente and others, the music perfectly mixed and tightly rehearsed. The club is plush and new, and one senses that Escovedo wouldn't have to play there if he didn't want to. He obviously does.
When it was closing time, the crowd dispersed in a lingering way from the Oakland street. We didn't want to go home either and drove around awhile, looking at the city's architecture in the middle of the night -- which is actually a pretty good time to look, with the buildings dramatically lit and the streets empty.
Oakland's Paramount Theatre is handsome art deco, among the best in the West, its interior a genuine fantasy palace now housing the Oakland Symphony. The city, spared to some extent from the growth boom of recent years, has kept intact many other architectural wonders, including the green terra cotta moderne I. Magnin Building, the white City Hall with its topknot-like clock, the Julia Morgan YWCA. We tooled around awhile, through the deserted streets, down to the luminous, still-at-work harbor.
In the morning in Oakland, the sun comes up brightly. The fog doesn't usually reach this far inland, and without a rank of tall buildings to block the sky, Oakland is a blast of light in the Pacific-scrubbed air. The shadows are dark and sharp-edged.
Still on the beat of the weekend, we got up early, dressed up and went out to find a diner and a gospel choir.
Breakfast is a better meal out than dinner, as a rule, and Oakland has a couple of terrific diners where the '50s meet Julia Child head-on at breakfast. Bette's Oceanview -- which doesn't overlook the ocean -- is a terrific Berkeley entry in this category. Mama's Royal Cafe', where we went, is a shade funkier, though, and this was our weekend for funk.
Mama's has gone through several incarnations. It seems to have begun its life, ages ago, as a Chinese restaurant, probably in red. Now it's an extraordinary diner, with green Chinese trimmings, serving pork chops and eggs with homemade cinnamon rolls, fresh asparagus and a delight called Eggs McMama, huevos rancheros. The place has Berkeley touches -- a Matt Groening "Life in Hell" cartoon on the mirror behind the counter, a hand-lettered sign reading "Checks and Plastic Money Cheerfully Not Accepted."
The Love Center Church is the only one I know that posts a pop record review outside. Tramaine Hawkins, daughter of the church's minister, is knocking down the critics with her new record "Fall Down (Spirit of Love)," which one critic describes as "techno-funk," writing also that he is unsure whether the power of the singer is spiritual or sexual. If he'd gone to the Love Center Church, he'd know.
It isn't "techno-funk" for one thing, it's gospel. Tramaine's been singing in the choir here her whole life, singing "Wonder-Working Power" and "Walking up the King's Highway." In the Love Center service, the music is nearly continuous, the various speakers as much singing their sermons as saying them.
The speaking itself is highly spontaneous, personally directed to the audience and turning on the spirit of the moment. The choir stands at the back of the stage or altar, splendidly attired in robes, and the music is loud and sweet. The chorus does not act like a chorus -- they are a group of individuals possessed together by their song, some of them raising their arms in praise, others practically dancing.
In fact, the choir acts just like the audience, which is not acting like an audience but shouting encouragement to the speakers and singing in harmony. "The choir's not in the loft today," said the pastor, "the choir's all over the church." All this in a beautiful renovated theater, pale aqua and pale orange down to the choir's robes, and wired for good sound.
When we came out of the church into the bright sunshine, the crowd flashing in bright silk and florals and black velvet, we were in Oakland, on a street of shops called MacArthur Boulevard. Every one of the shops had somebody's first name on the sign: Louise's Pancakes, Guy's Drugs, Laurel's Multique, Paul's Aquarium, Merle's Hilltop Tavern. We were headed back across the bridge, but we'd been to Oakland, and we were on a first-name basis with the world. bybio James Paul is the author of "Brimstone," an electronic novel just published by Synapse.