Use Your Good China

At the Rockridge BART Station, there’s a tile mural made by survivors of the Oakland Firestorm of 1991. I went to the dedication and was unexpectedly moved by a firefighter reading a poem (his? someone elses?) about being a stone in the water. I had never considered being a stone in the water, and now, nearly 12 years later, I can’t go through a day without considering being a stone in the water.

There have to be about two thousand tiles there, but I only visit one that I found after reading countless ones memorializing lost pets or honoring brave fire fighters. It’s a simple tile with a message penned by a steady hand with some incendiary wisdom: Use Your Good China.

I can hear the woman’s voice speaking when I read it. She’s not bitter, she’s not laughing: she’s wise. OK. I don’t know what she
sounds like and I’m projecting. If she was bitter, and it was the result of losing the good china she had meticulously saved up until the day of the Oakland Firestorm, that would be completely understandable. If she was laughing I would spontaneously join in. But really, all bets are off between me and this woman. She has the floor and it’s my turn to listen.

I arrived in Oakland the day after the Oakland Firestorm, ready to start my job at the City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Department, a municipal arts council. I sat momentarily in a cubicle pressed into service after a previous disaster, the Loma Prieta earthquake, until the staff assembled to walk over to fire station to begin answering phones.

The phones rang incessantly.

We’d answer them and a person on the other end would begin breaking down. Every few minutes a new photocopy of a map would be placed in front of me with a new perimeter in highlight yellow: the evergrowing, alluvial evacuation area. I’d hang up the phone and it would ring at me again. It all came through the earpiece roasting in my ear: People attempting to find relatives. Children attempting to find pets. Offers of back hoes and garden hoses and bagels and backrubs. The first few times I tried to be thorough. Eventually I saw that the fire station was not going to be the Place for Connected Resources in the well-orchestrated emergency response to a local disaster. The fire station was a Well of Unmitigated Sorrow.

Inside of this dial-up grief, I had tiny, shameful successes: There is really no better way to learn the street names of a new city than to look up 400 addresses to see if they are still being blockaded by police. I can instinctively identify a crank caller within two or three words. My voice contains a smile even when I’m not smiling. A five-minute neck massage really does permit me to work an additional two hours. It’s easy to not attach to the outcome.

Up until this point, I had experienced rather ethereal forms of loss, much more closely aligned with disappointment, bookended (or earboxed) by death, which was so final that I rarely negotiated with it. Hundreds of calls from people who had been whiplashed by loss, and one or two from people who had been miraculously overlooked, and I simply couldn’t see things the same way. Was it all now more precious? More vulnerable? Less stable? Not exactly, and I find myself habitually taking moments for granted to this day. But in listening to these people I had to open my heart, which is really the only good china I possess.

One day it will certainly incinerate in a titanic blaze.

And I will have no regrets to report in my memorializing enamel square.

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