I'll still be damned if I'll die in Oakland

Thumbnail image for al-martinez-photo.jpgI wrote a travel book a few years ago called "I'll be Damned If I'll Die in Oakland," the idea being that there is probably no more unlikely a place in the universe to spend eternity than the city once described as having no there there.

Sure as hell if I died in Oakland I would be buried there to avoid the cost of shipping me elsewhere and that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, would be an indignity up with which I would not put.

Bury me out on a lone prairie or shoot me into eternal orbit with the ashes of Timothy Leary, but spare me the embarrassment of leaving this world and being planted like a rotting rhododendron near the Estuary or by the brackish waters of Lake Merritt or even near my favorite old downtown bar called the Hollow Leg.

Just don't let Crazy Mary's curse prevail.

It's this way. I am not here today to trash the town in which I was born although it may seem that way. I am here, in fact, being filmed for a proposed documentary, scratching through painful memories to feed to the sound boom. Probing the past, however, has me thinking of my mother. Her name was Mary, which was OK, except that she also named both of her daughters Mary; Mary One and Mary Two. I don't know why. But for my father, she might have named me Mary too. The kids on the block called her Crazy Mary because she was always hollering at them to get off the porch or stay out of the yard.

About my mother's curs. I was a thief as a kid but not a very good one at that. I was forever being caught stealing comic books from Sylvester's Pharmacy, trinkets from Birdie's Five and Dime and Portuguese sausages that hung in the windows of Tony Silva's Meats, buzzing with flies.

What upset her most, however, was my being apprehended stealing from Hester's Artificial Flowers. Hester, being a dear, dear friend of Crazy Mary, dragged me home by the ear, a mode of transportation not uncommon in those days. My mother called the cops in a rage and said she wanted me taken to Alcatraz Prison. The officer explained that Alcatraz was for long-term Federal prisoners and that I, alas, did not qualify.

When he left shaking his head, mom screamed that I was no good even as a crook and I would amount to nothing. I would spend my life as a bum faking blindness with a dog named Nobody and die on a street corner in the shabbiest part of downtown Oakland.

Being here today for the documentary renews the overwhelming memory of my dear old mother's curse, but I am determined to avoid it. Although laden with various diseases of age, I refuse to die and be interred in this funny little town. I am therefore asking passersby that should I collapse in the street, drag me to El Cerrito, roll me to Hayward or drive me to Pinole where a man can rest in peace without the humiliation of lying forever under the ground of, shudder, Oakland. Even L.A. would do, but I prefer Topanga.

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