Eating Outside the Bubble

After the difficult events in Ferguson, there's been a slate of stories in national media about how de facto segregation still rules life for most of us, still, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education. Our kids, most of them, go to school with other kids who look just like them, even though the United States has never been more racially diverse. And as adults, we self-segregate in neighborhoods where we deal pretty much only with people who look like ourselves. “On average,” Robert P. Jones says in The Atlantic, “white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in a low-level way. I live in Oakland, California, a city with a sizable African-American population (especially compared to California’s), though it’s been declining. Still, I have only a single African-American neighbor in my entire block. But I live in North Oakland, in a neighborhood that used to be largely black, after a massive freeway cut through the area in the 1960s and a lot of white residents fled.

When my husband and I bought our house, nine years ago, there were still a few African-American-owned businesses hanging on along Telegraph Avenue, but they’re mostly all gone now. The fried fish place closed a few years back; same with a clothing boutique called Kick’n It. The nail and hair-braiding salon was evicted just last year. One barbershop is holding on.

One night, not long after we bought our house, an African-American woman knocked on the door—she said her aunt used to live in this house and she’d lost touch with her. Did we know where she’d moved? (We didn’t.) After that, I thought of the circa-1947 Oakland-built range that came with the house in a different way, wondered what had been cooked there and about the hands that had scrubbed it clean.

Yesterday I thought, The only way I can get out of my own white bubble is to push through the walls of it, so I drove to South Berkeley. Now, Berkeley’s racial demographic is overwhelmingly white, but most of its 10-percent African-American population lives at the southern edge of town, where it borders Oakland. For a couple of years now, I’ve passed a tiny soul food spot on Sacramento Street called The Bootstrapper—barrel smoker on the sidewalk, banner strung across the façade—in a quiet commercial strip. I always wondered why I never stopped.

The Bootstrapper’s been around for five years (it had an earlier incarnation in the 1990s). It’s pretty much off the map for people like me, a community of compulsive sharers. I found no review on Chowhound, and only about 20 on Yelp (one reviewer calls it “sketch”; another mentions up front that it’s in the “hood”; a lot seem to have checked it out after buying a Groupon). The only media mention I can find is from a story about a shooting that happened at the liquor store a couple doors up. Outside its neighborhood, the Bootstrapper is basically invisible.

Seal Lolis, the owner, tells me it’s been quiet since the flare-up of shootings two years ago. “A little too quiet,” he says, by which I think he means that business is a struggle. It’s midafternoon, school’s just out, and there’s a group of five African-American high school boys ordering a single cheeseburger and looking on Facebook. Another guy comes in to ask if the peach cobbler is fresh and leaves without buying a piece.

I ask Lolis what to order. He directs me to the Hot August Special, three wings, three pieces of catfish, potato salad or fries, and a Shasta soda for $7.99.

In truth it’s pretty good. The wings are greaseless and crisp at the points and ridges. The cornmeal batter clings to the articulated gnarls of catfish pieces like a bodysuit. The potato salad’s pickle-relish is sweet and flawless.

“Is it mostly people from right around here who come in?” I ask Lolis before I go. “You get many white guys like me?” I feel stupid for asking that—my white bubble is showing pretty hard—but Lolis is too nice to make me feel like an idiot. “Oh yes,” he says, “we get all kinds of people.” Ouch.

Breaking through bubbles is something you have to work at, but it’s the only way to be a citizen in the most active expression of the word. I vow to try.

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