February 12, 2003

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Oakland stroke
Danyel Smith moved to New York years ago, but her richly detailed first novel, More like Wrestling, shows she remembers her old hometown.

By J.H. Tompkins

ROMAN EMPEROR MARCUS Aurelius noted that the art of living owed more to wrestling than to dancing, an observation that gave Danyel Smith, former editor in chief of Vibe magazine, the title of her first novel, More like Wrestling. The emperor's words go down easy, but experience is the real teacher, and Smith's book, set in late-1980s Oakland, looks at the steps and missteps of two sisters, Paige and Pinch, estranged from their mother and, in some ways, themselves. Pinch, a loner, is two years younger than Paige, who sleepwalks through a world increasingly awash in the easy money and easy answers of the drug trade. Their friends deal, hooked by the empowering rush of risk and money that they soon pay for in blood. Paige and Pinch struggle (and occasionally refuse) to grow up, facing off – wrestling – with friends, family, and each other in the process.

Smith, who moved to New York from Oakland in the early '90s, began writing during the late '80s, covering hip-hop from the inside, when the scene was hopeful, angry, and full of promise. Oakland became Oaktown, a hip-hop stronghold, and a generation of b-boys polarized the city much like the Black Panther Party did two decades earlier. Oakland gave hip-hop artists like Too $hort, Digital Underground, Paris, the Coup, and Tupac Shakur; community leaders like DJ Davey D; and an army of upbeat, informed fans. It was also mixed up with drug money, and when Oaktown became Coketown, even the deaf could hear the Panthers' death rattle, echoing down through the years.

More like Wrestling's young men and women have vague plans for the future they're only too glad to exchange for life in and around the drug trade. Behind their cars, cash, clothes, and makeup, their insecurities threaten to mushroom out of control in a nonstop game of hide-and-seek that's all about attitude, at least until the wrestling starts in earnest, winner take all. Daily life floats on a sea of rationalization, and flight is a fix-all option to suit any situation. Perhaps it's in the water; Pinch remembers running down a driveway at age seven and telling her sister that for her, joy meant not looking back.

Oakland on her mind

Writers move to New York to prove themselves all the time, but I can still remember my surprise when Smith, whose sensibility and style is uniquely linked to Oakland, announced her plans to relocate. Her career proves the wisdom of that move, but it was satisfying to read More like Wrestling and discover that she hasn't left the past far behind. She offers an intricately detailed portrait of Oakland, and if her characters are under wraps, afraid to go forward, afraid to stand still, the landscape itself offers hope: the string of lights around Lake Merritt; the lush greenery of the Oakland hills; the girls' apartment in a fake Victorian they call "pseudo"; the winding blacktop and beautiful views from the cliffs bordering Highway 1. Smith's California has promise in its soil.

While a succession of politicians have promised miracles in Oakland, More like Wrestling's modest, unpretentious city feels like the real, miracle-free item, shaped by waves of newcomers, most of them poor and nonwhite. The black community dates back to World War II, when thousands of hopeful refugees from the Jim Crow South moved to California to work in the shipyards. They poured into town and stayed, work or no work, forming a community that is today crucial to the city's economic, social, and cultural life.

Oakland's poverty is a fact of life, like the substandard housing, the high unemployment and murder rates, and the battered school system. Ill-conceived plans and election-year bluster are business as usual. But even civic leaders desperate for a success story won't touch the city's very real contributions to American culture, because they lie outside the mainstream. During the '60s, Oakland spawned the Black Panther Party, whose exposure of racist hypocrisy and police violence was international news and is still remembered despite its flawed leaders and tedious rhetoric and a hateful, frightened media.

Two decades later, hip-hop received a predictably harsh reception; the activities of black youth tend to spike the official fear levels. Hip-hop concerts were banned, and if police harassment of black youth has a long history, hip-hop was a red flag inspiring excess. In one well-known incident, a pre-superstar Shakur, whose mother was a Panther, was arrested for defying the police while crossing a street in downtown Oakland.

Once upon a time

A decade ago I edited Smith's Bay Guardian column, What Time It Is. We had occasion to talk, and one day, referring to G.C. Cameron's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," from the 1975 movie Cooley High, she told me, "I can't listen to that song. I've heard it played at too many funerals."

I liked Boyz II Men's 1991 version of "So Hard," but I heard it on the radio, not in the graveyard; Oakland's murder epidemic was unique to the world of young black men. "So Hard" was soul music, straight from the '60s, and maybe, I thought, people hoped the sweet harmonies of another era could turn back time. Hip-hop, on the other hand, was hard, as, I suppose, were some of its dead soldiers – before they died, anyway. The world that killed them was just down my block, a million miles away, although I had a valid claim to Oakland. Hip-hop was everywhere; I discovered Too $hort and fell for his music, hard. "Eight woofers in the trunk beating down your block," he rapped about window-rattling subsonic bass you could feel before you heard the music, so loud you'd think the dead might get up and dance.

They didn't, of course, because when the killing started, young men – not Hollywood gangsters or rap heroes but people you knew – were found stuffed in car trunks, pushed from cars into the underbrush lining Redwood Road, shot down on street corners. They were dead and stayed that way, the last scene in a simple morality play made to order for the Reagan years. And it didn't help that hip-hop responded with misguided defiance, embracing gun violence and murder and sacrificing its own in the process.

Early hip-hop writers like Smith were fierce advocates of the music, whose pro-black spirit was seen as a weapon against the ravages of Reaganism. It was part of something bigger, or so it seemed, and pumping it up felt like an act of rebellion. Despite what came later, the 1980s were a hopeful time: hip-hop was empowering, allowing the best of a generation to come out. That the worst was also rearing its head was something few people wanted to talk about. Smith did, and as her editor, I marveled as she sorted through her feelings about the world in which she lived, daring to be vulnerable. She allowed readers to peer through doors they didn't know existed – looking back, I don't know how to measure the courage it took for her to open up. I do know I haven't seen anything like it since.

Reading More like Wrestling, I remembered an installment of her column called "Situation Number Ten," about the pleasures and possibilities of nightlife back in the day. She wrote about a club where young men flashed rolls of bills, and dealers entered like royalty, trailed by their posses and a string of pretty girls. People partied like there was no tomorrow, which was always possible in those days. Cocaine money fueled the party, and it was fun, even though it triggered the killings that followed. Look at me, Smith told her readers, I'm talking about those days with the dealing and the murders like they were so great and I miss them. But, she explained – only Smith would write something like this – the thing was, that was the only time she'd seen young black men with money.

That was years ago, and if Smith remembers the lure of drug money and the web of complicity surrounding it, More like Wrestling ignores the comforts in order to spill a few for the dead. "Life is a jam-packed hell," Paige was told as a child. "After that, it's an empty hell." That may be so, Smith allows, but what's the point in running away when a person can get behind the wheel, take control, and drive into the future? Forget about dancing; life is hard work, and things don't always work out. Marcus Aurelius gave that to Smith, and in More like Wrestling she returns to her old hometown to spread the word.

Danyel Smith reads Feb. 19, 7 p.m., A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, 601 Van Ness, S.F. Free. 441-6670; Feb. 21, 6 p.m., Cody's Books, 1730 Fourth St., Berk. Free. (510) 559-9500; Feb. 25, 7 p.m., Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Free. (415) 927-0960; Feb. 27, 7 p.m., Marcus Books, 3900 MLK Jr. Way, Oakl. Free. (510) 652-2344.