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Memorial Day Riff In Downtown Oakland

Because today is a holiday,
I'm walking all over Oakland,
the place about which Getrude Stein said,
'There isn't any there there, '

and I even came across that very quote
in a book over lunch, right here in Oakland—
a lot of those little coincidences lately—

but there is a 'here' here, and armed
with my digital camera in one hand,
my silver harmonica in the other,
I aim to prove it and maybe I'll
celebrate some of the city's rhythms, too.

At first I'm taking pictures of every flowering
tree on the streets behind Lake Merrit,
bougainvillea and a stand of banana trees,
some unknown tropical plant with a jungle trunk
like an elephant that has lamprey eels attached,
the pythecanthicus about to open,

and more pictures, of the mysterious fresco
above the columns of the Scottish Rite Temple,
and all the 'there' around Lake Merrit
with its strung colored lights and distant hills
that feel as much like Italy as California.

Then I turn a corner
and suddenly Italy's gone,
except for the rundown part of Rome
near the train station
where I saw a guy
shooting up once while he sat
on an ancient, wooden staircase,

and the heat here in downtown Oakland
is shooting back from the asphalt now
and from the sidewalk that sparkles
like a preschooler poured
glitter there when it was wet,
but that heat's still a merry heat
that still hasn't gone over 80 yet this year.

Now, silver camera still in my right hand,
there's nothing to shoot any more
because I don't care to take
depression-era photos
of stark signs saying HOTEL,

but in my left hand, my $5 Blues Band harp
is starting to call my name, and I play
'They Tried To Tell Us We're Too Young'
and 'In The Still Of The Night' as I walk, and then

as I turn a corner, I see a very dark-skinned
man in shades motioning and he says,
'Hey, come over here and play with us! '
and he waves me into a small parking lot
with BB King blaring from a boombox on a chair
beside a baby carriage that has a big teddy bear in it!

Not wanting to disappoint the man,
I start to play, and I'm lucky, old BB's
playin' in the key of C, and I jam
as though I play with bands all the time,

it's fun, if you're in the right key
almost anything works,
and I make a note there seems to be
enough universal truth in that thought
to practically get a person through life.

A tall, skinny old dark-skinned man
in overalls and shades comes over then
and starts rummaging behind the teddy bear
in the carriage, and after a whole two minutes or so,

pulls out a wooden recorder, nice wood,
about as skinny as he looks, and starts
playin' Coltrane-like riffs, and I let go
of whatever inhibition
I'm still holdin' onto,

and this uptight white guy
is suddenly a jazz musician
with the brothers and a few sisters
standin' around their cooler
of beer and cheerin' us on,

and this is a holiday,
which means Holy Day, I realize
the same way I realized only today
that 'Amateur' means
'what you do for Love',

and I thank you, my harmonica,
for being my passport and translator
to the wide world, and I swear with you two
silver wands in my hands and this book bag
slung over my shoulder,

I'm about ready to just set off
and start walkin' around the world

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Pablo Neruda

If You Forget Me

Comments (1)

A fun story/rumination, Max. I like the image, 'the sidewalk that sparkles like a preschooler poured glitter there when it was wet.' I'm still trying to imagine what Coltrane would sound like on a recorder!