I wasn’t the smartest kid in school, all of my classes were remedial up until the tenth grade. That changed when upon my own volition, and the kindness of my now deceased guidance counselor Ms. Liggins, I decided to sign myself up for all advanced placement classes the following school year. I had grown tired of the constant meetings with my mom and teachers about my grades as well as my teachers “dirty looks” during class. My mom (single parent) was always stressing out about my scholastic performance and it used to make me feel bad that she would get so upset. I decided to try to change all of that but little did I know, how fateful a decision that would be. To be blunt, it was simply no less than life changing. The year was 1980 and I was fifteen years old.
Piedmont has always been known as an enclave of the wealthy and had a reputation for containing all that was good in life, so when the opportunity to go to summer school in Piedmont came up, my mom jumped on it. I was less than enthusiastic. At the time we lived in Berkeley, California, which was quite a ways away from Piedmont, and Piedmont High School was located very deep inside the city. Even though I was slated to attend the ninth grade at West Campus (a school that was for all intents and purposes a high school) the very next year, I had trepidations about jumping into the big leagues so fast. Sure, it was just summer school and would last only about three months but having it at a high school? I really did not want to go. Of course, my mom was insistent and given the choice between spending a summer being around her angry that I had refused so great an opportunity well, I chose the lesser of two evils. Nobody could shame me worse than her and make me feel about this tall (pinching fingers together), especially when she got drunk. Piedmont, here I come.
We didn’t have a car so the trip there would have to be made on AC Transit. My mom was a maven at figuring out bus schedules and routes, she actually had all of them in a neat little box that she kept, so it seemed a trivial matter of logistics to her. I, on the other hand, dreaded the thought of riding through unfamiliar and possibly dangerous neighborhoods with who knows what caliber of ruffians as fellow travelers. Back then, picking on kids that were weaker was all the rage among young toughs that rode the bus and the thought of having to go down into Oakland and transfer at “Bully Central” was not appealing at all. Funny how I never seemed to escape being bullied even after becoming and adult as the Gangstalking that I have suffered picked up where the youths left off. Now, it is my own government that has taken up the heavy lifting. That is a story however, that can be read about elsewhere in this blog, I’ll limit this blurb to the more pleasant memories of childhood.
After my mom spent an entire evening diligently calculating all of the transfer points and corresponding times that I would have to be here and there, I was even less enthusiastic than before. Come to find out, in order to get to class on time at 8:30 am I would have to leave at 5:00 am. It was still dark then! I came so close to backing out on the first day but then took one look at my mom’s face and decided to overcome my fear, stepping out the front door into the darkness. It was cold, dark, misty and desolate. The birds were even still sleeping. I felt like such a loser. Not only could I not enjoy my summer like other kids but to add insult to injury, I now had to endure this child abuse. Would life ever get any better? When I finally got to the bus stop three blocks away, I was the only one on the street.
If memory serves me correctly, I first had to catch the 88 which turned off of Sacramento street upon crossing over the Oakland border, and headed down Market street. My transfer point was at West Grand Ave and Market street right at the corner where Toscana’s bakery was. I would have gone my whole life never having understood the familiar maxim “bakers hours” had it not been for this transfer point. I would arrive at West Grand Ave. at about 5:30 am and the first thing that I would smell when the doors of the bus opened (depending on the wind’s direction) was the warm and friendly smell of freshly kneaded sourdough bread being made. It was infinitely comforting and familiar, an olfactory cue that I had reached a waypoint and that safe harbor had been obtained. The smell was so good, it enveloped the entire street like a warm security blanket. It was an affirmation that life did indeed exist at that ungodly hour and that you were not alone in the world. That the day held promise of better things to come.
For the longest time though, I could never figure out how softball sized balls of raw dough would mysteriously make their way out onto the sidewalk. I spent two summers at Piedmont and never once was able to solve the mystery. Then one day, years later, I just happened to be at that same corner at about the same time. I’m standing there waiting for the bus and all of a sudden I hear a door on the side of the old brick bakery swing open. Out of it comes this skinny black dude dressed in an all white baker’s outfit complete with apron and white hat. He is cradling two of those mysterious dough balls, that I would see flattened on the sidewalk, with both hands and giggling like an excited child. He then ran awkwardly past me. Before I could turn around to see where he was going, another man dressed in all white emerged from the doorway with a vengeful grin on his face, he was Latino and seemed a little pissed off. Suddenly, a dough ball whips past my head from behind and hits the man standing in the doorway square in the chest, he doesn’t flinch. Really bewildered now, I turn around to see the skinny black baker cocking his arm for another throw but he hesitates and turns to run away laughing giddily. I then turn back to the man who was just assaulted only to see him very forcefully throw a dough ball that he had concealed somewhere, at the skinny man running away. The throw was wild though, filled with anger and vengeance, it went harmlessly into the middle of the street. By this time the skinny dough ball assailant had made his way around the corner and was now peeking from cover to see where his victim was, huge smile on his face showing bright white teeth that matched his outfit. Then, the skinny guy quickly jumps out from behind the building and throws his last ball of dough at the angry Latino, striking him dead in the lower leg. The Latino tries to move out of the way but is too slow, so he picks up the ball that just hit him and returns it wildly again. This time, he got closer to hitting his mark but the skinny baker ducked away and escaped being breaded. As suddenly as the whole scene began it was over and the two returned to the bakery promising victory over each other the next time. Funny how life reveals it’s mysteries in it’s own time and way.
At the intersection of West Grand and Market street is where I would usually meet up with one or two of my classmates who like me, were from the other side of town. We didn’t know each other at first but after seeing one another in class, we would strike up a conversation on the bus. There was an Asian girl and a boy whom I believe was from Ethiopia. Both FOB. We kind of like clung to each other since we were the only poor kids going to the school. The ride itself was scenic but long, the girl was very talkative however, I would run out of conversation half way up. Besides, I was too busy taking in the ambiance of the hilly neighborhoods, it was like entering into Shangri-La.
I would look at all of the shops along Piedmont Avenue and think to myself, “one day, I’m going to live up here and shop at these shops…”. Well, suffice it to say THAT never happened, the closest I came to patronizing any of those businesses was taking my mom to Fenton’s Creamery, my ex-wife to the hot tubs and going with a friend to the movie theater. I’ve had my fill of Piedmont now. One thing I was surprised by though, was that the high school had a rather large and well stocked convenience store at it’s roundabout circular entrance. The prices were really cheap! Much less expensive than any other stores I had ever been to. I later learned that wealthy people usually get the best prices since they have the ability to go and shop anywhere they like. Go figure huh? The Asian couple that owned the store were always very nice, after all, whats not to be happy about when you’re doing anything in Piedmont.
We would get a half hour lunch that we could optionally turn into an hour, and often did. I would go up to the convenience store and just marvel at all the stuff they had. It was fun to watch the other kids pile into the store as well since they were always happy and bought lots of expensive drinks and snacks. They acted a little snobby but it was okay because, they had every right to be as far as I was concerned. I wished that I was them. After getting my snacks (usually double of everything for the price) I would go find a place to hide on campus since I was too intimidated to make any friends. The only trouble was, there was no where to hide. The library was closed as well as any other significant buildings there. I tried sitting in the lecture hall once but that just made me even more conspicuous. Eventually I learned that I could catch the bus if I stretched my lunch into an hour, and go down to Piedmont Avenue, buy something quick and catch another bus back just in time. Sometimes I would be late but no one said a thing. That was an additional truism that I learned, when you are in advanced placement classes with all rich kids, teachers don’t crack the whip at all. There was one time however, that a girl whom I had a secret crush on because her personality was so fun and outgoing, started coming in a half our to an hour late. Mr. Garvey did not address her directly but rather admonished the entire class in a very elaborate and tactful way that taking a two hour lunch was pushing the boundaries of acceptability. The girl kind of slumped down in her seat and was subdued for the rest of the class, she also seem a little miffed. When Mr. Garvey left the room for something outside she actually made a disparaging remark about him that fell on deaf ears. I thought she got way more upset than she should have, especially since he didn’t point her out directly, but she really took it hard. I thought a little less of her after that and took her down off of her pedestal.
Arriving at school was like attending the opening of a premier or something, it is hard for me to describe to you just what a full on production it was. You see, kids that have money seem to put a lot of emphasis on having fun and communing with their friends. Life seemed to be a big party and care free celebration for them, there was no hint of stress, vice or malice. Everything was free and easy. So when these rich kids came to school it was like a show. First of all, they were driven to school by their parents in very, very expensive cars, no buses for them. I’m talking about cars that had gulf wing doors, collector cars like the Avante and Shelby Ford Cobra. No common BMW’s or Mercedes up there no, no. Rolls Royces yes, Maserati’s yes, I even saw an Excalibur once too. I had never seen so many exotic cars in one place! I would be agog every time I got off the bus. Second, when these kids got out of the cars they did so with flair and panache. “Hi Jody, I really had fun at your soirée last night! I can’t wait until next time!” or “my parents are going skiing next week, why don’t you come along?” They would be laughing and calling to each other in very easy and self-assured tones. Their clothes were always nice too, styles that were subdued but very high in quality made with fabrics that screamed money. I didn’t know it at the time but they probably shopped at Barney’s, Bloomingdales and other high end stores of the like. Probably wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Macy’s. I would say that their style was Preppy. To get a better idea of how it felt, just think of the opening scenes of Beverly Hills 90210, The City and the other show that it spun off from whose title I have forgotten. “The Hills” maybe? It was just like that everyday. Watching those kids arrive production style actually made me feel good and uplifted, only to come crashing down when it came time to go home. I was usually the last kid standing anywhere around, the only kid waiting for a bus that took forever.
The classrooms at Piedmont High were built exactly like college lecture halls, at least the one that I was in. From the bottom of the lecture floor where the teacher’s desk was the room sloped upward in a terraced fashion, all the way to the back. The only window in the room was at the back and it was from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Outside, you could see Ivy and either large fir, pine or redwood trees. A really bucolic setting. I remember that for the first whole week I wondered, “are we really supposed to learn Algebra in here?” the atmosphere was so relaxed and lovely. That notion quickly vanished however, when Mr. Garvey (our Algebra teacher who liked to hum The Doors) gave out our first homework assignment by the tonnage. I didn’t actually know then that university classrooms were built the same way since I had never been in one before. I just thought it was one more thing that the wealthy experienced and I did not. The kids in Piedmont however, were surely benefiting from both nurture AND nature in being prepared for future academic success. They would have experienced high school in lecture halls that were built exactly as they could be found at UC Berkeley, Stanford or Davis.
One thing that I discovered when I enrolled in AP (Advanced Placement) classes, which also held true at Piedmont High, was that everything about the kids in those classes was so much “more”. Their attitudes were fantastic, there was none of the vestigial clouds that poverty casts. Everything about them was jovial, bright, intelligent and full of humor and fun. I felt like I had escaped from a world of oppressed slaves into the king’s chambers and had somehow been mistaken for one of his children. Probably the same experience that Moses had in Egypt only he didn’t actually know that he was in fact, a former slave. I was ruined for life, spoiled now that I had seen how the other side lived. I never wanted to go back to the remedial world again, no, not even for a visit. I wanted to be around rich people now, if for no other reason than their minds seemed to be absolutely unencumbered with the toils of survival. They were upbeat, intelligent, very funny and seemingly full of all good things. All the things that made life worth living and enjoyable. Classwork never seemed a burden because it was just so interesting to listen to the banter exchanged back and forth between them. The kidding they engaged in, the way they talked about their lives. They knew that I was not one of them but I never got the feeling that I was not welcome had I anything to contribute. I did not though, I could speak of nothing except for that which I knew, which was dismal and depressing. I stayed silent for the entire time that I was there, content just to observe and bask in the atmosphere of easiness that surrounded.
Eventually, my grades deteriorated as usual and I was threatened with being kicked out. I took the same course twice for two summers in a row, getting shown the door midway through the second summer. I was not depressed because I had failed academically though. I was however, truly depressed that I would no longer get to eavesdrop on the lives of those happy rich white kids. Where I came from there was nothing like that, nothing like what they experienced and it felt good just to be in their company. For those three and a half hours I could imagine myself to be one of them, that one day I would in fact, be one of them. The things that you dream of when you are a kid. The saddest day for me was being told by Mr. Garvey that with my grades being what they were, he could no longer give me any credit for the course. I was more than welcome to stay however, and he encouraged me to do the same, but somehow it just seemed to be one more affirmation that I didn’t belong. Besides, after the first summer I was tired of the long commute, my one friend (the Asian girl) had since passed the summer before and was no longer there, the new rich kids didn’t seem as fun as the first crew and I had seen everything before. Even the cars weren’t as flashy this time. I’m sure that it wasn’t me, I know that the second summer was just not the same as the very first one was. I’m Absolutely positive. No, something was missing and it had made the second summer a disappointment from the beginning. I had had enough, I would drop out and bid farewell to my time in the sun.