I grew up in San Jose, California, in a about as suburban as a neighborhood could possibly be. Vallco Fashion Park was just down the road, and I spent many a weekend afternoon cruising its wide, tiled corridors, checking out the goods at , the Limited, the Gap. In the evenings I drove as fast as I could up Interstate 280, in the Volkswagon Rabbit my sister and I had inherited from our parents, windows open to the dark spring breeze, my heart pounding with lust for something I didn’t understand. Sex? Drugs? World peace? I wanted it all, and from the comfortable perspective of my suburban life, it all seemed possible.
Now I live in Oakland, and things are decidedly grittier, or at least the grit shows in a way it didn’t when I was growing up. I don’t live in the “worst” neighborhood, whatever the hell that means, but I’m not up in the hills, either. At the corner of our block there’s a paint store, a Church’s Chicken, and a donut shop we frequent semi-regularly, exchanging greetings with the knot of dapper 60-something men who gather there to schmooze and drink their coffee.
Past the donut shop is a freeway overpass. Underneath, it creates a gaping gray maw that bisects what used to be a seamless neighborhood. People often sleep there, setting up makeshift encampments bounded by shopping carts stacked high with recyclables. In the early morning, when I take my kids to school, we see these urban campers, bundled into layers of coats and blankets and.
Recently someone set up a full bedroom there under the freeway, a painfully lovely still life: full size mattress on the concrete, covered neatly by a printed blanket folded at the top under a row of pillows; a rug next to the bed placed just so; even a small table for a nightstand. For a while I drove back and forth from my kids’ school to home and vice versa, distressed and amazed at this manifestation ofunder pretty challenging circumstances.
Who doesn’t want a comfortable, tidy bedroom? Although I never saw the person who’d made it, I admired what seemed like his or her indomitability. Let’s just say that order allows for creativity – it’s the base camp from which we can launch into the unknown, whether that’s writing poetry or climbing Mount Everest or having a baby or committing in love to another person — and when there’s no order, much creative energy is lost. That bedroom on the street was a manifestation of order and creativity at the same time.
I don’t claim to understand all the reasons why some of us live on the street and others don’t, and I carry a particular baffled shame about my part in the patterns of injustice all around me. But I wanted to try to just see what this person had made and admire it, to witness to the basic human impulse to make order – rather than turning the effort and the creative expression into something that referred back to me and my guilt.
Of course, the wider world values different kinds of order over others. One morning when we drove by, the bedroom under the overpass was gone — whisked away by the’s bulky pickup.