Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bad Neighborhood Blues

The scary night tour of Richmond brought back memories of the summer before last, when I was looking for my first teaching job.

Some people have a lot of job hunting luck, and self confidence. Those people are not me. I was desperate to get something, anything, and I went mildly berkserk while looking for a gig. I essentially applied to anything that seemed as though an English preliminary credential qualified you for it, and I went to any (almost) any interview I could schedule. My range was any place I could get to in about two hours by transit.

Obviously, especially if you're me, this leads to some interesting times. The one interview I turned down was at a place where they wanted a teacher's aide for severely emotionally disturbed kids. We got to the part where the woman on the phone said 'and you'll be asked to assist in forcibly restraining students who are a danger to themselves or others..." and I said, in my sweetest voice "Honey, I think you have the wrong woman."

But I interviewed twice at the school for students with Aspergers. I interviewed in Castro Valley. I interviewed in Union City. I interviewed in Oakland and San Francisco, and Antioch and San Mateo. I interviewed at private schools, public schools and charter schools. I got treated like scum--typically--at a Jewish day school, and asked how I would deal with it if gang warfare broke out in my classroom.

The neighborhood was always a wild card. I got one interview at a place that was in a neighborhood I'd avoided like the plague when attending college nearby, but time had morphed it into a pleasant working-class neighborhood with flowerbeds in front of houses. I got off BART at stops I'd never heard of. I experienced the racist bus service that exists in the suburbs outside the inner Bay Area (the buses run seldom, the buses do not go convenient places, the buses look like hell, and white people do not ride them. I think people were slightly afraid of me. I looked insane, with my interview suits, and my TransitInfo printouts.)

I shlepped to Moraga. I shlepped to places I couldn't find on the map. But I only failed to get to one interview.

East Oakland.

It was for a summer school job for a new charter school. They did explain it was an urban neighborhood. They did explain that the students were disadvantaged, and lived locally. But hell, that didn't tell me anything. People in education talk like that any time the school is urban, and the kids' parents aren't defense attorneys.

So I mapped out my route on TransitInfo, and I went. First, I took BART to the Oakland Coliseum. After that it got interesting.

I caught the bus from the Coliseum. We went through a swamp (OK, just marshes by the bay), and then through some corporate villages, and then we hit an iffy residential neighborhood, and after that it just got worse. And worse. And worse.

Finally, I was let off on a stretch of highway, with a half-mile walk still to go. I examined the neighborhood to one side of the freeway.

First I found a gate in the wall alongside it, and walked in. I got about half a block in, maybe a quarter, and looked around.

Dead lawns. Burnt-out cars. Boarded up windows. Fences around each lawn. And, at about ten thirty in the morning on a Wednesday, grown men standing around in the street talking loudly to each other and screaming with laughter, apparently with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Me: medium-sized zaftig San Franciscan in black business suit, having heart attack. Retreat!

I walked down the highway a little more, and reached a large intersection where there was a gas station of a brand I didn't recognize on one corner. The wall ended. I peered down the street. Maybe I wasn't actually supposed to go that way. I am notoriously bad at reading maps.

There was a teenage boy sitting at the corner, so I asked him. He jumped. I mean, the kid looked scared. He gave me an incredulous stare--how the hell did a medium-sized zaftig San Franciscan in a business suit get here, and was she really there, or was he having a nervous breakdown? He did, however, confirm that my understanding of the directions was accurate.

I'm sort of iffy about telling this story since it's basically a story about a white girl being frightened of a black neighborhood, and I am enough of a creature of my college years (circa 1991-1995, the salad days of identity politics) to be afraid this sounds bad. But really. This was not urban, this was post-apocalyptic. I am not that much of a wimp. I interviewed in a really wide range of neighborhoods, and was happy in most of them. But this was a very bad location, and I looked like no one in my line of sight, neither in dress nor face. I stood out. A lot. In a place where you want to be invisible.

OK. Reality check time. No way in hell am I doing this every morning for six weeks. They would have to have a close relative or very good friend hostage at this school to get me to walk down there. So I cross the street to the gas station and ask the guy behind the counter to call me a cab. He is behind bulletproof glass, and isn't real friendly. He also tells me that I can call from the payphone outside.

I don't really want to go outside, but I do. I call a cab. They sound friendly until I give the address. Then they say it will be fifteen to twenty minutes, but I am not quite that naive. I understand that no cab will be coming. Ever.

Welcome to the 'hood.

I wait, and consider options. There is a bus stop nearby, so I figure I'll see if the cab does arrive, if not, wait for bus, do not panic.

After about ten minutes of waiting, a man in his sixties comes over and asks if I need a lift somewhere. He looks very pleasant, has a Ford pickup, and speaks to me kindly--I'm tempted. But a lifetime of not getting into cars with strange men prevails, and I tell him I'm fine. Clearly, this is a lie. He pretends to accept it.

Then Super Shuttle showed up. Super Shuttle is a local SF operation that drives you from your house to the airport. While the shuttle was gassing up, I asked if, for the standard fee, I could be taken to the nearest BART station. Or the airport. Wherever. No dice. They can't do pickups.

And then the bus arrived.

Unluckily, it was the SAME bus I'd ridden in on. The bus driver looked at me with some concern. "Did you get to where you were going, honey?" she asked.

"I found what I was looking for," I said.

My friend Niamh, who occcasionally posts here, suggests that the bus driver thought I was a high-priced call girl. Respectfully, she's nuts. If I was a high-priced call girl, I would not be wearing a suit from Mervyns, and I would not by TAKING THE BUS to East Oakland. I would have a car, if I were a high-priced call girl. And clothes from, say, Ann Taylor.

So I got home, called the school, and lied through my teeth. I said I had an urgent family crisis, and was not able to make, it, and that I was terribly sorry. I think the guy I contacted understood perfectly well what had happened. I never heard from the school again.


MUST Gum Addict said...

I used to live in San Jose. I'm reading about your trip and it brings back interesting memories. I used to take a bus up to Fremont and then take the BART to the Coliseum to AIR BART to the airport all the time.

I also have plenty of stories of trying to drive to meetings in and around Oakland and Berkeley and share your unpleasant surprises.

Sometimes I miss the Bay Area, sometimes I don't. I do get the chance to visit often on business and it's nice to be there though.

Datingmaster, Jerusalem said...

what a drama!
anyway come over and talk about love within a frum marriage

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


And to think that people are scared of harmless, only slightly-sketchy-looking Upper Manhattan!

Ann Þø said...

Sure your friend is correct,

Do you think that the hi price (actually it is a fee or a rental payment) girlie girl would take her car in that area.

No you go low profile on a bus.

ps: i like your writing.

question: I need to hear more about polygamy.

I seen it and it ain.t wort than serial marriage.!

Ann Þ



Can I gossip about you in my blog.?

Ann Þ