Many people’s negative stereotypes of Oakland as a “dangerous place” stem from biased perceptions of East Oakland. The Earl Warren Institute wrote that “Drug dealing in general, and the dealing of crack cocaine in particular in the 1980s, resulted in elevated rates of violent crime, causing Oakland to consistently be listed as one of America’s most crime-ridden cities.”
And yet, despite its being an area that Brittani Sensabaugh wrote people to this day “don’t go to and consider ugly, ghetto,” East Oakland also teaches many of its residents that “in the midst of when shit is fucked up, there is beauty.”
“There are so many people that taught me how to be revolutionary, the balance of struggle and beauty. It taught me that without the lows, there’s not going to be any highs. It taught me so much,” she writes.
In the 1950s and ’60s, neighborhoods here remained predominantly white. It wasn’t until the years after that this began to change, with more people of color beginning to move in to shift the demographic.
In recent decades, the black population has been steadily declining while the Latinx and Asian (primarily Cambodian, Laotian, and Chinese) populations have increased.
A snapshot from my time there:
A Latina mother pushes her kid daughter—who has big brown eyes and wears her auburn hair up in a high ponytail— on a plastic pink tricycle with large white wheels. The two of them cross the street, onto a sidewalk that’s closed due to massive construction. Signs and yellow tape are set up around what looks like a giant crater— or like some hulking carnivorous animal has taken a massive bite out of the street.
The girl eyes the crater with hesitant curiosity, while her mom seems to assign little importance to it, scooting the two of them around it nonchalantly.
Across the street several people await their food in front of a taco truck, of which there are many in these neighborhoods. A car speeds down the road at close to 40 miles per hour, perhaps transporting a wife in labor, perhaps showing off while believing himself to be above the law, perhaps fueled by the need to prove his dominance and that he is here and he is alive and he is a man.
I misread a sign that says Diamond Food Clinic as “Diamond Poop Clinic.” Police cars cluster on multiple corners, lights flashing, writing (I imagine) speeding tickets and stopping robberies and racially profiling.
Passengers range from artists to bankers to cleaning ladies. The youngest, at eight months old, sleeps soundly in her basket for most of the ride. Both she and her mom–who lays back with her head against the seat, eyes closed– are tired, having spent their day under the sun at the Oakland Zoo.
As we weave through the streets of East Oakland, passenger Sean* says his girlfriend loves Oakland and defends the city to anyone who speaks ill of it.
“A lot of times it’s people who haven’t even been, who do that,” he points out. “What’s with people hating on places they’ve never gone to?”
Another passenger shares juicy tidbits from his job at a private airport— including that Miley Cyrus was “really sweet,” and that the CEO of Wells Fargo only liked red and green M&Ms ( “So someone actually went through a bag and picked out those two specific colors for him”).
#Road Thoughts: Those small lovely moments of passenger empathy
A common scenario in certain neighborhoods of East Oakland and San Leandro is a passenger and I will be driving down a narrow residential road—one with barely enough space for two-way traffic. A car approaches from the opposite direction, forcing me to reduce my speed significantly– or sometimes even stop altogether.
I try to do this as close to the side of the road as I can. Still, the driver in the oncoming traffic sometimes responds to my inconvenient presence by speeding huffily past me, or swerving dramatically to signal their displeasure.
This time when the driver responded like that, passenger Marshall* chimed in (validatingly), “What does he expect you to do??” It was another comforting and unanticipated moment of passenger empathy. These seemingly small gestures mean a lot, passengers! They help me feel seen and less alone.
A former rideshare guy on how driving Lyft is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book
Anyone remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books from the ’90s?
Here’s an excerpt from one: “If you decide to look at the corpse, turn to page 88. If you think you should tell Nada it’s time to talk to Mr. Hatama about the bizarre events, turn to page 124.” Another: “To take Mac’s soda along with you, risking teeth-rotting, caffeine headaches, and messy, sticky bike wrecks, turn to page 18. Also, it will probably make you wet your bed. To take Micah’s delicious, all-natural Fruit Shoot and drink with no mess on your way to help Brad, turn to page 27.” LOL.
Driving Lyft feels like a 3D, real-life game of Choose Your Own Adventure, where accepting a request from Leon is like turning to page 24 where you’ll brave the traffic of downtown San Francisco, while accepting one from Marsha is like flipping to 100 where the city scenes will change to farmland on an hours long journey.
Passenger Damon* (who used to be a Lyft driver) and I discuss this during our ride.
“It’s like a video game!” he remarks excitedly. “You’re like, ‘who am I gonna get next, what level am I gona make it to? Lake world, score 50, next hood over, less than 10, boondocks, score 100 dollars.”
I understand what he means. Like in a video game, with Lyft and Uber there are also “points” to be collected at the end of every mission (in the form of money and tips). Also like in a video game, every ride leads you to the possibility of traversing new territory—be it the citified East Oakland level, the “verdant green hills of Dublin” course, or the beach one.
There’s a simultaneous thrill in the unknown and anticipatory element that feels similar to what Ashton Kutcher’s character might have felt in Butterfly Effect— knowing that saying yes or no to any one request will inform the entire sequence of rides to follow. For example, accepting a request from Ryan to Livermore will result in a completely different line-up of riders and scenery than accepting one from Jenny to San Francisco would have.
This dilemma is especially present when requests from both the Lyft and Uber apps come in at the same time, forcing you to quickly weigh the pros and cons between each before the ten second window of decision-making closes.
Though he drives trucks now across the country as his prime source of income, Damon says he wants to get back into Lyft driving.
“Choose my own hours again. But I also want to be a firefighter,” he expresses.
Adding, with a chuckle: “Only problem with that is I like smoking weed too much!”
Bigger Passenger Story: protecting our minds against the Internet’s superfluity of biased chatter
“Most of America just eats up what’s been served to them. They eat it up like they eat McDonalds.”
Minutes earlier Gerard* had entered the car wearing a beanie and a snow jacket. He had just gotten off work as “the on-call guy” at triple A—smelling (pleasantly) like root beer and mints.
Though he’s worked there for about eight months, and likes it (“You meet lots of people; there’s never a boring moment”), he’s ready for something new. Social justice is his real passion–he one day hopes to attend law school— but meeting his survival needs has temporarily kept him from pursuing that.
Gerard didn’t attend college, but he does a lot of his own reading and educates himself to the extent that he can. He does acknowledge, though, that the superfluity of biased chatter abounding on the Internet (social media in particular) has it dark sides.
“Even though it allows more access, that includes access to the crap. Not all the information people are getting is legit.”
Searchlights are clicked on in his eyes when he says this. He leans slightly forward too, placing his arm over the shoulder belt the way I used to do when I was a kid because I didn’t like the way it restrained my torso (since we weren’t driving on freeways, he wasn’t being a total masochist).
Two take-aways from our ride: one, that formal educations and credentials (while they should be available to everyone regardless of the circumstances we’re born into) aren’t necessary precursors for living a thoughtful life. The Alain de Botton quote that comes to mind is, “wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax, nor does an audience benefit from being wearied.”
Two, confirmation bias can lead us to latch on to any information that supports our pre-existing views, regardless of its source. From there on we may construct our arguments based off cursory observations, speculation, and incomplete information. Social media algorithms are adept at exploiting this impulse within us.
In Gerard’s mind (and mine as well), this is why it’s important to unplug occasionally. If we want a society of thinkers as opposed to blind zealots, we must be prepared to question what we’re taking in.
Gerard describes it as “resisting the urge to just take the first thing you hear and run with it.”
Don’t watch only one or two Youtube videos then say you’ve done your research. Seek to read, watch, engage, and consume widely. Consult multiple sources; let things sit; allow new information and theories to marinate in your mind before arriving at a final decision about them. Often it takes time for the pieces to assemble themselves before the full picture can be revealed.
Keep the walls between pre-held convictions and new information firm but also porous. Beliefs should always remain open to expansion, revision, and accommodation.
As Timothy Leary put it: “Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities; the political, the religious, the educational authorities, who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, ‘informing’, forming in our minds their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness; chaotic, confused, vulnerability to inform yourself.”
*Thanks for reading! Follow us on Instagram @lyft_tales