The fire arrived as news, like any other news these days: elliptical, and mostly based on rumors circulating on social media. A fire in a warehouse in Oakland, still smoldering when I woke up and opened my laptop and began scrolling through reports. At first it was unclear whether anyone died, but too soon my gut clenched as I understood the reality. Many, many people are gone, and many still missing. And it wasn’t just any warehouse; it was one of the many collective live/work spaces that have been havens for artists and musicians in Oakland for decades. Nearly three decades ago, I became one of those artists.
My family has lived in Oakland for a long time, over a hundred years on my father’s side. But I didn’t fall in love with the city until I returned to it after my first year of college in 1990, in the wake of my father’s death, unmoored and miserable.
I fell in love with Oakland because of Brian. Brian wasn’t from Oakland; Brian was from a shithole town in West Virginia. He was black and gay and had bleached dreadlocks shaved into a mullet, and he cut pounds of potatoes into cubes at a breakfast place my friends went to sometimes. Later I found out he also drew comics that were mostly about penises. Brian spotted me and the cello I’d played for years at the breakfast place one day, and invited me to come play with his friends sometime.
Brian’s friends lived in West Oakland, and West Oakland was a blasted landscape. Housing covenants, redlining, and years of neglect had turned West Oakland into a food desert, a crime-riddled maze of crack houses, housing projects, and poor families just trying to survive. West Oakland is also full of warehouses. Mostly empty and derelict, artists began moving into them as far back as the 1970s. They were dirt-cheap to rent, and you could do anything you wanted inside of them: welding, woodwork, painting. You could build enormous flame-throwing robots that fought one another. You could build fifty-foot-tall dinosaurs out of scrap metal. You could make an ungodly amount of noise on all kinds of instruments, because the cops never came to West Oakland, not even when you called them because someone pried the battery out of your car during band practice and now you couldn’t get home.
Brian’s friends’ warehouse was one of several carved out of an even bigger warehouse. It had no kitchen, just a hot plate and a mini fridge plugged into a power strip leading to some mysterious location. It had no shower, just a tub with tepid grey water. It had no walls upstairs, just windows, and downstairs, it had no windows, just walls. When I plugged my cello’s pickup mike into an amplifier, sparks shot out of the plug. Another time, someone’s amplifier actually exploded. I spent the night there many times, too drunk or high to drive home. In the winter, because there was no heat, Brian’s friend Luke dumpster-dove some space heaters. They were just glowing orange coils with no grates over them. My skirt caught on fire walking by one. We laughed as people threw beer at my legs.
Next door to the warehouse was an abandoned theater, so old it may have once hosted Vaudeville shows. It was capacious and spooky, its seats ripped out, raccoons and rats skittering through its rafters. By now we were a band, and we decided to throw a show in the abandoned theater because the shy, weird guy who lived there said it was okay to try. So we lit the place with candles and flashlights, played music into the early morning, and people paid to come in. I drove my massive hangover to my conservative suburban college the next day, and tried to explain to a friend why I smelled like smoke: because, yet again, my skirt had caught fire, and I showed him the burn hole the size of a fist.
Everything we were doing was stupid and dangerous, we were having the best fucking time, and we were falling in love with one another, and with Oakland. Because, I was realizing, the town where my family willed itself into existence as they fled starvation in Ireland was still a town where people create themselves. When people came to Oakland, they came because they heard it was affordable but also a place where you could be free. They came in search of community that wasn’t available to them in small towns, or red states, or in families that rejected them. In the days before the internet, zines and local free weeklies helped people find out what was happening in Oakland, and as friends of friends ventured here, one at a time, spaces were claimed, networks were built, and other people followed. My friends were all from out of town, because Oakland was cheaper than San Francisco, but you could still be queer or a freaky-smart weird kid in daylight. I sampled every drug that passed through but stopped at the heroin Luke started pumping into his scrawny arms. I slept with so many people I lost count, and worried my way through HIV testing at the free clinic, but that turned out fine so I slept with even more people and even fell in love a couple of times. We fed one another whatever food we had, which wasn’t much, so we were all very skinny with translucent skin, like supermodels.
Later, I joined yet another band, this one with a Nico impersonator, discovered she was trans, the daughter of a Navy captain grudgingly funding her surgeries. She too was a refugee seeking to create herself here. We played nights at Klubstitute, a queer cabaret, where people threw dildos around between sets. I’m straight even though I’ve experimented, but my queer friends didn’t care. They were too busy making art, making family.
I turned 21, then 22. Both bands broke up, the friends got evicted from the warehouse, one of them moved to New Orleans, another went back to Berlin. Brian got too deep into drugs for a while and I lost track of him. I decided to try to take college seriously, and stayed up all night ripping bong hits and writing about Shakespeare in the modified trailer my roommate and I moved into, where the walls sprouted colonies of mold. I graduated, got a real job in publishing but was still broke, applied to grad school, graduated again, went to work for the Poet Laureate, and at a well-regarded literary magazine, and in a famous bookstore in a swank neighborhood. I was still broke, but also beginning to feel like some day I might breathe rarified air.
A decade later, that vision of life disappeared. I was not getting published in the New Yorker or drinking wine with sharp-witted literati. Instead, I was back in warehouses.
Kitchen Sink Magazine, which I started with friends, paid its bills by throwing parties in West Oakland warehouses. I was 33, married, teaching writing to first-year college students. On the night when we first met to begin planning the magazine, a transformer exploded outside of my house. It was just a few months after 9/11 and people screamed and ran in circles. The magazine was made in Oakland, was about Oakland. Most of the people who worked on it are from other places and came here to be queerer, weirder, more fully themselves. Many of them lived in warehouses, and those warehouses were just as rickety as those fourteen years were. The dot com boom was a bust, and most of us were back to being broke. Instead of grabbing at money I chose adjuncting and creating a magazine with friends. I chose things that made no money and were very hard. As it turned out, I rejected breathing rarified air. The friends who made the magazine had hands-on experience with writing for free weeklies and zines, and they pushed and molded my writing into something better.
At the warehouse show in 2005, too many people showed up. Rogue Wave was playing, a Leonard Cohen cover choir called the Conspiracy of Beards was singing, and the space was crammed. Some people dressed as clowns showed up and started smashing plates; maybe the plates were part of the art show, and everything devolved into chaos. I was massively drunk and singing “Bird on the Wire” as my husband drove us home. My friends still talk about that night, over a decade later. We were falling in love with one another that night as we bound ourselves to this absurd, unpredictable, self-made life. Those bonds outlasted the magazine, it’s true. They outlasted every warehouse we threw shows in, all of them shut down by landlords. But art, after all, is ephemeral. It is the breath of ghosts.
Just a year ago, my husband played a gig at a warehouse in West Oakland. Over a hundred musicians, an orchestra, actually, doing tunes from West Side Story in a warehouse called American Steel. Scrap metal sculptures tilted and bent outside, flames from arc welding torches moved in the shadows. I was 44, no longer skinny, looking at the world through thicker and thicker glasses. I’d written four books, quit drinking. And here I was, still finding my tribe in warehouses. I’d even found Brian again: just as weird as ever, but slightly more sober, back home living with his parents. We called each other sister and brother.
My husband played another gig at a different warehouse later last year, one in East Oakland, where artists and musicians had begun to move as West Oakland started to gentrify. Build up a space, inhabit it, fill it with community. Get evicted when the landlord does the numbers. Repeat. West Oakland today has urban farms and spruced-up Victorians. It has working streetlights. Soon enough, it will have luxury condos and probably a Whole Foods. It’s no longer for people who live on the edge. My husband played the gig in East Oakland and didn’t say much about it; it’s another gig, one of many that happen every year. It’s the creative life, and it moves in shadows.
The warehouse that burned down last week was called Ghost Ship. From all accounts, including my husband’s, who played a show there, it was a maze: a labyrinth built from paper and wood, an illegal squat where any number of artists lived because it was cheap and they had room to create. And the manager put on shows to pay the bills.
Something ignited. Thirty-six people died.
Some were found in one another’s arms. Some sent texts to friends and family saying that they loved them, and that they were going to die. Some were trans, some were queer, some were teenagers still in high school. Some were in their twenties, some were in their thirties. Some were students at the college where I teach. Most were artists, musicians, finding their tribe in Oakland, crowding into rooms in Oakland, falling in love with nights in Oakland.
And some of us are thinking, yes, that could have been me, could have been the people I love, although nobody I know is among the dead. Nobody I know, but not nobody I love. Because it was their turn, and because they took their turn I have no choice but to love them and grieve the loss of them and what they were only beginning to become.
This marginal life, this DIY life: in it, they created themselves. We created ourselves. This is why spaces like this matter more than ever now, as gentrification scours the creative life out of Oakland. They were spaces created out of nothing, just walls, floor and roof, and the artists here filled them for decades with community and life, and fought to keep them open and affordable. As cookie cutter towers of condominiums rise throughout the city, the vitality, necessity and promise of greater safety for the inhabitants of spaces like Ghost Ship is crucial. Oakland must maintain its identity as a haven for those who don’t belong anywhere else. Because life on the margins is where you will always find your tribe. In this DIY life, you don’t reach upward and grope your way to success or fame: you reach outward, toward the people around you. You hold the people around you until they become part of you. And you do it in risky spaces because that’s all you can afford, but you also do what you can to make sure those taking their turn will be safer. But there will always be others there, reaching outward, toward you, even in the most dangerous times. Even in the very last moments of our time together.