“Telegraph Avenue” is set in Oakland and Berkeley, but it was born in Los Angeles, on Oct. 3, 1995, the day Judge Lance Ito unsealed the O. J. Simpson verdict and made it known to the world.
To the extent that I felt anything about the case before the verdict was announced, it was only that it seemed pretty obvious Simpson was guilty and should go to jail for the rest of his life. When I heard the news from the courthouse, I was shocked but not really surprised. I was married to a defense lawyer at the time (I am still married to her, only now she writes books). I knew that the prosecution, like the defense, had one job to do, and if it did it poorly, then it ought to lose the case. Then my wife called from a federal courthouse in Downtown L.A., where she worked. “We’re watching from our windows,” she told me. “People are dancing in the street.”
That surprised me. I turned on the television and saw scenes of the apparent jubilation of L.A.’s black community, and it caught me completely off guard. I say “apparent jubilation” because I was aware that all I knew about the response of black people to the verdict was what I could see on my television screen. There were no black people living on my block of Orange Drive, in Hancock Park. At that time I had one black friend. It wasn’t as if I were going to call him up and ask him if he was jubilant.
Michael Chabon, 14, in 1977.
I knew enough about television and its portrayal of black people — its portrayal of everything — not to accept prima facie the implication that all black people were delighted to see O. J. get off. But it was clear that many black people were, at least, prepared to seem delighted in front of the television cameras. And that surprised me. It surprised a lot of white people. And the more that white people like me, in the days that followed, expressed the surprise they felt at the sight of people dancing in the streets because a man who obviously murdered his wife escaped justice, the sadder I became.
This sadness had little to do, God forgive me, with the victims. It was not because of the miscarriage of justice or the way such public celebration suggested the degree to which black people felt estranged from, and brutalized by, the criminal-justice system and wanted, at the very least, some kind of crude recompense for the acquittal of the men who had beaten Rodney King three and a half years earlier. I was sad because I knew that my astonishment at the public celebration, like the astonishment of any astonished white person under the circumstances, was indexed directly to the absence of black people in my life. It was the blinking indicator on my dashboard, letting me know that my connection to the lives and feelings of black people had been cut.
In the fall of 1969, when I was 6, my family moved to Columbia, Md. Columbia was a new town, a planned community, a City of the Future built ex nihilo in the middle of what had been tobacco country, about 30 miles from Washington. It was avowedly utopian in its aims, transformative in its ambitions. It featured large, well-tended swaths of public open space, schools without classrooms, accessible public transportation, a single ecumenical worship center shared by all faiths, streets named for the works of great poets and novelists. Most wondrously of all, this particular City of the Future was integrated.
I had known very few black people up to then, and I had no real consciousness of race apart from what I derived from television and movies and half-understood adult conversation on the subject, not all of it enlightened. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated; cities on fire; Angela Davis’s Montgolfier hairstyle; Curt Flood’s upsetting white baseball fat cats; my grandmother’s cryptic warnings when she took me walking through her Washington neighborhood; Sammy Davis Jr.’s crooning “Mr. Bojangles” on “The Flip Wilson Show.”
One day early in my first fall in Columbia, starting first grade, I found myself placed next to a little black kid. His name was Darius, and I just sat there, marveling at him, undergoing that classic — indeed trite — little-white-kid moment of First Contact. Darius’s hair was dense, buoyant and lustrous, his pupils hidden in the deep brown irises of his eyes. But what amazed me most of all were his hands. The skin on their backs was an intense, complex hue that held elements of brown and a luminous purple. And when Darius turned his hands over — when he permitted me to turn them over myself — the skin of his palms was as pink as my own. Along the outer edges of each hand, and across the inside of each wrist ran a mysterious frontier between pink and brown that I patrolled with the tip of a finger. It felt as if some deep explanation, the answer to some question I could not even begin to pose, lay concealed in the pink palms of his hand and the way they contrasted with the brown of the backs.
As I came to understand it, as a child, the idea of building the new town of Columbia was to make life better in America. One way the people who built Columbia saw fit to do that was to give white people and black people the chance to engage in the radical activity of living next door to one another, unrolling sleeping bags in the den for one another’s children, swimming in public pool water that had been equally tainted with the urine of those same freely mingling kids, touching one another’s hands, allowing them to be touched. On the street where I grew up, there were more black families than white. I tackled, head-faked, ate dinner with, teased, admired, quarreled with, lusted after, learned to dance from, had crushes on, watched television and eventually drank beer with black girls and boys from the time I was 6 until the day I left for college.
The success of this dream, dreamed originally by James Rouse, may be open to debate, but from the day I turned over the mystery of Darius’s palm, I was plunged into intimacy with black people, with all the unreserve and boldness of Rouse’s and my own small, visionary heart.
I was taught by black teachers alongside black children from diverse backgrounds — poor and middle class, Southern and Northern, country and ghetto, Army brats and the children of black lawyers and doctors — that the battle for civil rights was a shining part of American history, very much on the model of the Second World War. A terrible conflict had consumed the efforts of people I considered to be my personal heroes, and then the good guys had won. For proof of this, I needed to look no further than my best friends, my neighbors, my favorite teachers, so many of whom were black. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Charles Drew: in the City of the Future, in 1970, a young Jewish boy could look at the lives of these people and feel connected to them, indebted to them — in a very real way, descended from them. Because if there was one salient fact about the black history that I learned, from the lips of black teachers, as a boy growing up in Columbia, Md., it was this: Black history was my history too. Black music was my music, and black art was my art, and the struggles and the sufferings of black heroes were undertaken not just for the sake of their fellow African-Americans but for my sake, and for the good of us all.
When I left the City of the Future to attend college in Pittsburgh, I began the journey that eventually landed me at last in the capital of the eternal American present: Los Angeles. And on that morning of the Simpson verdict, I discovered, to my shame, to my absolute wonder and horror, that in the course of that journey I had, somehow, become a racist. To qualify as a racist you don’t have to go to the extreme of slurring, stereotyping or discriminating against people of another race. All you have to do, as I realized on that autumn morning in 1995, is feel completely disconnected from them. All you have to do is look at those people in a kind of almost scientific surprise, as I looked at the African-Americans I passed in the streets of L.A. in the days after the Simpson verdict, and realize you have been passing them by in just this way, for months, for years at a time. They were here all along, thinking what they think now, believing what they now believe, and somehow you failed to notice.
That was the source of the sadness I felt when I turned on the television and watched black Los Angeles exult: the sudden, bitter awareness of my own failure, of my own blindness, of the apartheid of consciousness under whose laws I had gradually come to live, of the distance that separated the man in Los Angeles, around whom 100,000 humans could suddenly materialize, from the boy in Columbia, the son of Tubman and Drew and Rosa Parks.
A couple of years went by, and my wife and I moved up to the East Bay, to a brown-shingled house near the Berkeley-Oakland line. For the first time in years I found myself right at the heart of yet another would-be utopia, living significant portions of every day among people of color. Brokeland — my name for the seam, the joint, the ragged fringe along which Berkeley and Oakland stalk each other like a couple of cats, shoulder to shoulder, flank against flank, tails intercoiling. A land of D.I.Y. Fourierists and urban foragers, amateurs of satori, bliss gardeners and self-theorists and mystics whose visions were recorded on their skins with needles and ink. A collective of hermits, whose fierce, at times cranky attachment to their own individual development was matched by only their yearning for fellowship, for a kind of collective fulfillment, in a permanent cycle of community and schism that launched a thousand ashrams, synagogues, dojos and schools of cuisine.
I tended to encounter my fellow yearning hermits primarily in one variety of a certain style of quirky, small business in which Brokeland abounded, shops that specialized in some kind of merchandise about which it was easy to become obsessed — vacuum-tube stereo amplifiers, say, or avant-garde knitting supplies or black-and-white milkshakes — places with long counters and extra chairs to pull up for an hour’s conversation with the owner or your fellows in solitude. Of all these nonalcoholic taverns of the soul, these unofficial clubhouses of the oddball and outré, the purest, to my mind, were, and remain, the used-record stores. Berigan’s, dba Brown, Groove Yard, Dave’s, they come and go — but there are always a few of them around, cramped and dusty or tidy and well ordered, owned and staffed by doomed heroes of fandom.
One day, not long after moving to the East Bay, I walked into one of those used-vinyl soul taverns, just on the Oakland side of the city line. There was a big black dude working the counter and a little white guy carrying in boxes from the back. The morning’s customers had arranged themselves at the front counter — old, young, black, white and brown, Jews and gentiles, a dentist, a guy out of work — theorizing, opining, tearing off woof tickets. Hanging together.
I didn’t kid myself that these guys were united in perfect brotherhood. They had not bound up the nation’s racial wounds or invented a better America. Nobody was asking for or granting forgiveness or reparations for slavery. They were just shooting the breeze, passing the time, talking about something they loved: vintage vinyl. In a little pocket of the big world, for a little hour. Soon they would go their very separate ways, into their discontinuous and disunited lives, in the hills and in the flatlands, to Section 8 housing and to pristine Eichlers. But for the moment, for once, for the first time in years, flipping through the bins, inhaling the time-heavy perfume of moldering LPs, I was where I had wanted to be all along. I had found a place where at least a trace of what I lost on that journey from Columbia to Ito-land, the dream I had believed in, the closeness I once knew, could be found. I was home.
Not long after that, the shop went out of business — it is in the nature of Utopia to go out of business — and it has never really quite been replaced. And so, once again, as in “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” as in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” I found myself obliged, and eager, to recreate through fiction, through storytelling and prose, the lost utopia that never quite happened, that I never quite knew, that I have never since forgotten and that I have been losing, and longing for, all my life.