A Night in Oakland/Oakland’s Wild Vortexes

Jacob Kahn

I had been working the late shift at the bookstore I help manage, called Wolfman Books. We have been in downtown Oakland for four years, on this kind of rambunctious, forgotten one-way street just around the corner from city hall and Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza. Beyond the storefront (or, really, inside it), we are also a small press, event space, residency program, and community arts hub. We host hundreds of events a year, publish books and a quarterly magazine, and hopefully give off grossly welcoming “Bay Area vibes.” I picture us as some sort of strange, bubbly artery right next to the heart. Our front window proclaims, “A Wild Vortex of Books Flying Right At You.”

I don’t remember if we had an event at the store that night. We host lots of readings, talks, music shows, community meetings, and workshops, and somewhat embarrassingly the nights, great as they are, tend to blur together. But isn’t that what’s great about art in a vibrant community? It forms a sort of tapestry, a living wall of impressions and conversations that feed off each other and grow into each other, trees that grow from other trees, nests into other nests, something like that. Some of the things that it might have been: a release party for an Afrofuturist community newspaper, a poetry reading, a live taping for a podcast about Oakland history, a mixed-media writing workshop, a queer skate night and zine release — all these things happened around that time.

Or it might’ve just been me, hanging out late at the shop, reading or watching baseball on my laptop. Either way, eventually my friend Jenny came by and knocked on the window. She asked if she could use the bathroom. Of course! We offer that too. She said she was headed to Betti Ono Gallery afterward, so the two of us strolled there, the whole block and a half, together.

I didn’t realize it was First Friday until Jenny said something like “I’ve never been to First Friday” or “Isn’t First Friday funny,” but shit was popping off. Usually I avoid these kinds of fairs, but tonight I was feeling it, I was in the mood. Spill me in the streets; kick me like a can. In the block and a half, I’d already seen clutches of well-dressed and overly dressed and astoundingly dressed night-goers, folks winging beer out of coolers and cooking bacon-wrapped hotdogs on little carts, artists with canvases on easels spray-painting right there, and that amazing thing where someone drives around in their vintage car with all the doors open, playing loud music and making slow right turns. It’s so smooth, I love that shit. I remember people doing it downtown the first time the Warriors won the NBA finals in 2015. Driving up and down Telegraph with all doors open playing E-40. Everybody say warriors. WA-REE-ERS!

Betti Ono was packed, and we slid in like a pair of dice. Lukaza was the first person I saw, and I went up to her and said, “Hey, congrats!” We work on the Wolfman magazine, New Life Quarterly, together. We’re gradually becoming friends too. She had some work up in the exhibit — bright-yellow paper covered with affirmative scrolling text, and the neckline of a T-shirt also cut in yellow paper, yellow on yellow, the piece called “As Bright As Yellow” — and the exhibit was called “Black Women Over Breathing” and was pretty stunning, a comprehensive array of black female artists, I think most, if not all, from Oakland. I walked around and got some water and wine, and Jenny and I pointed at the art and said things to each other. Eventually Jenny found a corner to stand in. Me, I like to stand between the bodies, in the middle of a crowd. At one point I ran into Christian and his friend, who said she had just gone to the Janet Jackson concert last weekend. Christian, who’s a filmmaker and former Wolfman artist in residence, asked, “Was it lit?” Her answer: “duh!”

When Jenny’s friends who she was originally planning to meet there finally showed up, they left, and I went around the corner to Pro Arts Gallery for a minute. A DJ in the passageway where Pro Arts is tucked was absolutely blasting remixed reggae. Right in front of the speakers, some older folks were sitting on the sort of cart you might see being drawn by a horse, just smiling and nodding along. Inside Pro Arts, a child orbited the gallery enveloped in a full-body cloak wrapped with Christmas lights. As part of this roving performance art piece, the kid had a manila envelope stuck to the cloak, literally taped right over the heart. I wasn’t sure what it was for, but people were stuffing little pieces of paper in it. Prayers maybe? Now I was really getting into the vortex. Oakland can be so strange.

I swam up Telegraph as most people streamed down. They were coming from the First Friday festival, which closes off the streets for vendors and artists and performances above Grand. People were bouncing down the street to whatever beat was coming from the nearest bar or car or random personal speaker attached to someone’s hip. I kept running into artists and writers I knew from the store and elsewhere, all of us out there carousing, breathing life into each other, joking together on sidewalks, joining up with impromptu poetry readings, having brief ardent conversations, and poking our heads in galleries. I walked past vintage cars and people hanging out next to them and bicyclists doing epic wheelies for entire blocks. I felt a swoon of excitement. The night was inside me, all around, around all of me. I felt soft, I had gills, and dark high water gushed through. Sometimes in Oakland all I want to do is yell “OAK-LAND!” at the top of my lungs. The vortex feels that good.