"Watch this," he said. He pushed a button clipped to his pants pocket and the warehouse gate slid open perfectly timed to our approach. It was past midnight and Peralta was deserted. He steered the rickshaw, with me still in back, through the gate and into the parking lot, past the bus with a mural of a 1970s sunrise: Something Something Commun was written on the side in bubble letters.
The shop was sprawling huge in every direction. In the front room there were two antique locomotive engines. The gay couple we had an hour before met driving the station wagon with the rhino horn hood ornament, they were there, working. The floor was littered with enormous machinery, train-sized bits of engine. There was everywhere nameless things with gear-teeth and blow torches and purple lights. Walking through all of this, I imagined a conversation with the rickshaw driver, which, upon later confirmation, I discovered we had not had. And here I am, two days post, contemplating his mental health.
Several barbed wire fences and a death-defying ladder climb later, we peeked our eyes up over the vertex of the 16th Street station roof. “That’s Oakland,” he said. And it was and glorious. By this time I was halfway tripping. Lights were doing interesting things, being much longer vertically than they should be, depending how wide I opened my eyes. The Bay Bridge, outlined in red polka dots, kept going and going on repeat going and going on repeat across the black water. “You know where you are?” Like he knew it was important to me that I get my bearings in this strange place, even though I hadn’t said a thing. “Emeryville is that way.” He pointed into the night.
Where we were standing was once the end of the line for the Western Pacific Rail Road. The building must have been magnificent in its day. The tracks are gone now and the negative space left behind them has been filled in with rain water, creating canals in which float sandbars of homeless trash. Rickety plywood bridges connect the quays. We took long-exposure pictures of the graffiti on the walls and compared notes of our favorite street artists in the area.
From the roof he pointed south to a vast parking lot with a fleet of white postal trucks. They paved over 20 bars and nightclubs on 7th Street to build that mail depot. This train station has been closed less than 30 years, but it could have been ten thousand. We could have been in a petrified forest. No trains, no bars: that was the end of jazz in West Oakland.
He said we couldn’t go up over the peak of the roof because of the guards on stake-out duty in the hotel across the street. “We’re being watched.” I wondered if this was a paranoid delusion of his, but I wasn’t going to test it. The guards keep an eye on the old station, make sure kids aren’t up on the roof painting, getting into trouble. So instead we laid down on this incredible pitch. I thought prickly thoughts, increasing my friction so I wouldn’t slide down or give him any wrong ideas. He seemed geckolike unaffected by all of this, by gravity and me. I was relieved but didn’t know how to tell him so without feeling awkward. Really, he was carrying the awkward for both of us and doing it almost flawlessly. I should have said thank you, but instead I just listened. Those huge tubes coming up from the roof, he explained, you used to be able to go down in them. You could crawl down and be inside the station. Real marble floors, he said.
As we walked back he told me, “I have this incredible urge to pick you up and carry you.” I demurred. “I just feel this need to prove to you that I can do it and …” and his words trailed off like they often had over the course of the night. The way he talked about his impulses, I could tell that he’d been through intensive therapy. Someone had explicitly taught him about slowing down and noticing your body’s reactions. Maybe he’d done DBT. Borderline, or schizophrenic, I thought. When we walked across the empty fields of West Oakland, I briefly wondered if he was going to kill me and leave my body behind a tagged up jersey barrier. But I decided he’d already had his fair chance and that he was probably just in this for the adventure, like me. “I’ll take you home,” he said.
I found a picture of him, the rickshaw driver, on the internet the next day. It was from the same night, but it must have been taken just minutes before I asked him for a ride. He looks bored, disconnected from the rest of the bike party crowd. He has no idea that I am walking a few blocks away and that our paths are about to cross. At this point, he knows a lot about welding and the history of Oakland, he knows a little bit about algebra and street art, but he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know me yet.
(oakland bike party by loscheiner)