BACK IN THE 70s, the Symbionese Liberation Army used their San Francisco, South of Market apartment1 to play Marxist-Hippie-terrorist war games - i.e. maneuvers through the kitchen, push-ups in the living room, and reactionary, re-education sessions in the closets.
Sometimes the use of a house is so extraordinary that this use transforms an otherwise ordinary building. I was flabbergasted by such a house in Oakland. I interviewed the neighbors and learned the house is owned by a Ms. Williams, to whom I wrote and suggested perhaps the possibility that we could meet and talk about her house.
Ms. Williams has employed the entire façade of her house as a forum for free speech. In black paint, she has lettered strange, vicious diatribes all singularly directed at her next-door neighbors: Arabs who run a typical convenience store, and who sell liquor, beer, pork rinds and other stuff that they would never themselves consume. Ms. Williams’ verse is paranoid and extreme. "Animalistic, Diabolic, Demonic, Arabic Terrorists Stop Dumping Dead, Diseased Rats in this House." "Arabic Terrorists Stop Invading Our Privacy with Hidden Cameras which is Unlawful." "Arabic Terrorists You Do Not Own Me. I Do Not Belong To You. We Were Emancipated From Slavery on 1-1-1863."
Ms. Williams answered my letter with a telephone call. She said she would think about my proposal to meet and my offer to write about her house and her "problem with the neighbors." She said she would need to consult with the elders of her church before granting an interview, a rule I secretly imagined imposed on Ms. Williams by well meaning members of her community who eagerly sought to protect her from ridicule from unscrupulous journalists. I gave up any real hope of being granted a "Ms. Williams and her House of Hate" exclusive but a few weeks later paid her a visit.
She is polite, courteous and completely psychotic. This young, fifty-year-old grandmother invited me, a white guy, into her house. I was thinking/hoping merely that we might talk on her porch, but I appreciated the invitation. The inside was neat and Spartanly furnished. She apologized for not vacuuming before my unannounced visit. "I couldn’t vacuum" she said, "It’s those Arabs. They stole my vacuum cleaner." Later she told me they (the Arabs) were successful in a daring, nighttime burglary of her grandchild’s sneakers. The convenience and usefulness of such a bogey man or bogey population was not lost to me. I wondered if I could blame my lack of a reasonable, well-paying job on the Arabs. Maybe they were the cause for my failure to do my laundry so far this month.
Ms. Williams’ scapegoating vision is a bizarre hybrid of jingoistic, State Department propaganda - the sort of typical "Saddam Hussein is a modern day Hilter" - and the legitimate concerns, underrepresented in the mass media, of certain members of African American communities who are distressed that their neighborhoods are thoroughly pockmarked with liquor stores. Careful study of the Rodney King riots (claims Mike Davis in his piece "LA was Just the Beginning: Urban Revolt in the United States") reveals that the riots were more of an ordered, orchestrated campaign waged largely against Korean-owned corner stores, than mêlée.
Are the war-pigs, William Jefferson Clinton or George Bush, culpable for Ms. Williams’ fear of her neighbors? Is her hate a by-product of the Gulf War? Or is the banking industry that has traditionally refused to offer business loans to African-Americans wishing to enterprise out of America’s urban blight responsible? "She’s just crazy," offered the man working at the convenience store, "and I’m not Arab anyway. I am from Palestine!" He assured me that being from Palestine was different from being "Arabian." "The guy who owned the store before me, now he was an Arab."
Another, a black woman about Ms. Williams age, related a popular neighborhood myth, dismissing it as she told it. "Some people say she [Ms. Williams] was in love with the original Arab owner, but he spurned her affection. So she is a vengeful woman, but I do not believe that she was ever in love, just crazy." True or not, I liked this theory. It gave some tragic elegance to this otherwise irrational, sordid use of a façade.
America is hardly some melting pot. America is more like a mixed salad, racially diverse but racially separate. Here I was a white man in a black woman’s house chatting about Arabs and I considered it an adventure.
Ms. Williams graciously yet firmly parried my eventual request for an interview. She replied that she did not wish to be interviewed by me. She said it, loud paper, was too small. She had called the FBI and written to the Chronicle. Ms. Williams had called for the big guns. While interview-less, I had a new friend of sorts and a slice of real life irony, richer than any I could have constructed fictionally: the name of the liquor store run by the Arabs, the "United Market."
1. The Symbionese Liberation Army had use of several apartments in Oakland and San Francisco which they referred to as "safehouses" though "smelly commune" might be more appropriate. Their South of Market flat, the one where they "held" Patty Hearst, is now above a restaurant on Folsom called Julies Supper Club across the street now from, surprise-surprise, a coffee shop/Laundromat named BrainWashed.