The first line of Welcome to Oakland, Eric Miles Williamson’s sequel to East Bay Grease (see review here) sets the theme: “I’m always happiest when I live in a dump, and I’ve lived in some serious shitholes.” And Williamson’s narrator, T-Bird Murphy (who was also the narrator of Williamson’s East Bay Grease), is not being metaphoric when he refers to living in a dump. Throughout much of this book, T-Bird, now a twice-divorced man, is looking back at the period when he worked as a garbage man, literally living in one of Oakland’s city dumps, sleeping at night in his garbage truck parked at the dump.
And T-Bird is not being sarcastic when he says he’s “happiest” living in a dump. At some point between the end of East Bay Grease and the opening of Welcome to Oakland, T-Bird actually made it out of the Oakland ghetto all the way to a white-collar job and a house in the suburbs, but chose to return to the ghetto. He talks about the misery he felt when he tried living in the cold, unnatural environment of the suburbs, and his overwhelming disdain for the suburban way of life.
I got married. I cleaned up and went white-collar, wore t-shirts with collars and pussy brown shoes with tassels like I was some fairy, gained fifty pounds and became a fatass like my new neighbors…
They made me want to puke, the pleat-slacked tassel-shoed satin-sheet penny-loafer alligator shirt clean-shaven Gold’s Gym American Express SUV blowjob at the strip joint Starbuck’s BMW crystal rocks glasses gas fireplace bottled water wine with a cork Heineken hot tub mowed lawn entertainment center waterbed fancy cracker twenty-dollar haircut mall-shopping black sock clipped fingernail nose-hair trimmed contact lens wearing mail-order catalog easy-listening ski slope Hawaii Holiday Inn flower garden brand name grocery fresh veggie only pussies, and their bitches squatted like fat bitch turkeys in their McMansions, inbred retarded poodles yapping and pissing on the Italian marble tiles…
So, T-Bird returns to his old Oakland neighborhood, where he finds himself surrounded by the same violence, horror, and despair that he described in East Bay Grease. You’d think he’d be depressed, even suicidal, about it, but he’s not.
Everywhere I looked I saw misery, destitution, hopelessness, rage, filth. Everywhere but in my soul. Somehow I hadn’t been touched, not in a way that could shake my unalterable faith and optimism. I knew somehow that humanity wasn’t as ugly as the humanity I’d seen. I knew that the festering rot and swamp of the hearts of man was not its natural condition but was born of disillusion, that the cannibal rending of man from man was a consequence, not a cause, was the desperate reaction of hearts shorn and devoured raw and still a-pumping.
Williamson’s experiences in suburbia have changed the way he views the Oakland ghettos. The stories he tells in Welcome to Oakland are still filled with horror and grief, but there’s also more laughter and a sense of communal victory. In Welcome to Oakland, T-Bird comes to recognize how much the neighborhood people help each other through difficulties. Whereas in East Bay Grease, anything that started to go right would inevitably turn into something painful, the opposite happens in Welcome to Oakland—painful experiences become successes. After T-Bird’s rant about how despicable rich people are—and his definition of rich is pretty much fat white guys who wear suits (including T-Bird himself for a period of his life)—he spends the rest of the book explaining why the poor, despite their ignorance, their addictions, and their tendencies toward violence, are in many ways finer human beings than the upper classes.
One story, told early in the novel, goes back to when T-Bird was twelve years old. A rotten neighbor, FatDaddy Slattern– the one “rich” guy on his street (he owned a toilet seat factory)–tricked T-Bird into doing a lot of yard work for him. FatDaddy considers himself superior to his poorer neighbors. He doesn’t socialize with the other men in the neighborhood, never stops in at Dick’s, the neighborhood bar where the locals hang out evenings drinking and blowing off steam. When word goes around the neighborhood about how FatDaddy Slattern exploited the kid, the entire neighborhood comes to T-Bird’s aid. FatDaddy gets his payback and is run out of the neighborhood.
Whereas we saw T-Bird as an emotionally isolated and bullied kid in East Bay Grease, in Welcome to Oakland, T-Bird has real friends, and he tells story after story about the things they did to help him, and each other, when any of them were in real trouble.
Reading Williamson’s Welcome to Oakland is like sitting in a working class bar and listening to the stories the regulars tell each other. T-Bird as an adult reminds me of the men I knew at the Oakland Post Office, where I worked as a letter carrier for twenty years. The employees were mostly black, but there were also a lot of Hispanics and Asians working there, and most of the employees were locals who’d been born and raised in Oakland. In many of the small carrier stations that existed back then, the morning talk was way on the raunchy side, crazy stories told as we cased our mail for the day’s deliveries.
One of the things I learned from these conversations was that most mailmen not only preferred to work in the rougher neighborhoods, but also chose to live on these routes they delivered. At first, it made no sense to me. The job paid well enough for any letter carrier to get into a “nice” neighborhood, but the longtime regulars, who could use their seniority to get whatever routes opened up, usually chose the ghetto routes. They wanted to deliver the routes where they grew up, where they knew everybody and everybody knew them.
Another reason they wanted the ghetto routes was that the richer a neighborhood, the more mail each house gets, which means the more mail you have to hump around: more bills, more advertising, more catalogs, more magazines, more parcels. But what was worse was that, out in the better neighborhoods (in Oakland, that meant the hills), any human being you saw on your route treated you like a servant. The rich always expected special treatment. They wanted their parcels brought around to the back door, or delivered to a neighbor down the street. When you serve the rich, you spend so much extra time lugging crap up and down stairs and knocking on doors and waiting for people to get money for CODs, or find their glasses, or ask you idiotic questions about who the certified letter is from and what happens if they don’t sign it. And there’s no extra pay for this work. You throw out your back and hustle all day just to finish on time, apparently because serving the rich is such a privilege.
On the ghetto routes, by contrast, mail comes two days a month—social security check day, and welfare check day. Other than those days, a ghetto route is a nice stroll with very little weight on your back. On top of that, if you live on the route where you deliver mail, you can go home for your breaks and your lunch. You can take a nap if you finish early (and you finish early just about every day), and unlike in the rich neighborhoods, nobody would dream of ratting you out because your jeep was parked unattended for an hour or two. Not only that, but the guy at the diner gives you free coffee. In the ghetto neighborhoods, you’re treated with respect.
Throughout Welcome to Oakland, T-Bird often speaks directly to the reader, talking the wisdom of the streets. Here’s a conversation he has with a “little rich bitch who never had to worry about a thing in her sheltered pampered cable TV life except deciding which college her dentist parents were going to pay for her to attend…”:
“I’m trying to work things out from my childhood.”
“Get over it,” I said.
“You’re just in denial,” she said. “You’re ignoring your problems, the issues you should be working through. That you don’t acknowledge the problem is proof of the problem.”
“Get over it,” I said.
That’s what I said and that’s what I say now. Get the fuck over it.
For you rich fuckers having existential crises, I’ve got a recommendation: Get a fucking job.
Poor people don’t see shrinks.
They get a fucking job.
And that’s what you should do, you fuck. Build a fucking pyramid. You won’t need a shrink to help you with your angst and dread. You’ll need a bath, a meal, and a fucking beer.
Eric Miles Williamson continually cuts between joy and grief in his stories, heightening the emotional impact of both. He creates characters that you find yourself thinking about long after you’ve finished one of his novels, as if they were your own friends and family. And he spills sentences out of his head and heart that start your mind racing, much like Henry Miller—a writer to whom he’s often compared—at his finest.
Although Welcome to Oakland stands alone as a novel in its own right, I’d advise readers to start with Williamson’s East Bay Grease, as your enjoyment of Welcome to Oakland will be increased and the logic of his life decisions better understood if you first meet T-Bird Murphy as a child.
Get Welcome to Oakland at Amazon
Get East Bay Grease at Amazon