BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA — From his post at the edge of the bus-shelter bench, James Anderson spotted the two police patrol cars heading slowly towards him and snapped briskly to attention, or at least as briskly as humanly possible for a 53-year-old man with a bad back. He reached for his cane and struggled unsteadily to his feet, shielding his eyes from the vehicle’s blinding head beams.
Hauling everything they owned in two grocery carts, Anderson and his three teenage children had put in a good 12 hours in their trek from Silicon Valley’s northern edge en route to the Promised Land, Berkeley, which was still another 14 miles away as the crow flies. Fueled only by a 20-piece Chicken McNuggets divided unevenly among the four of them, they were bone-tired by nightfall, and had decided to settle down for the evening in the Bay Area suburb of San Leandro.
It was two days before Christmas, 2014.
The sleeping arrangements were strategic, almost militaristic. James and his oldest child, 18-year-old Khalid, would man the perimeter – bus benches were preferable to park benches since they’re typically canopied and located at well-lit intersections – flanking the youngest, 13-year old Malik, and his big sister, Malika, who’d just celebrated her 15th birthday a few weeks before. “My baby girl sleeps next to me,” James insisted, “always by me.”
Uneasy since they’d been evicted from their Union City motel earlier that day, James viewed the wee hours of the morning as a sentinel might regard the graveyard shift at a watchtower, getting only a few winks here and there to keep an eye out for trouble – ”I’ll sleep when we get where we need to be; if I was gonna drop, I was gonna drop,” he would say later to describe his approach – and he and Malika were still awake when the two patrol cars materialized like a hallucination from the blue-black of a winter’s night.
Both would acknowledge later that they were a bit apprehensive in that moment. For months, cable and network television newscasts back at the motel had been preoccupied with the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager named Michael Brown in a St. Louis suburb, and the videotaped strangulation of a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, by a lynch mob of New York City cops, simply for selling loose cigarettes.
Concerned that police might accuse him and the kids of stealing the two grocery carts they’d found abandoned on the streets, James had earlier in the day tried, unsuccessfully, to pry the nameplate from one of the shopping carts. The cold night air seemed pregnant with menace as the San Leandro police officers unfurled from separate patrol cars.
“Good evening, officers,” James said, as disarmingly as he could, before proceeding to explain the situation to the patrolmen. But before he could finish, one of the officers held his hand up to interrupt.
“We’re not here to hassle you, sir, “ he said. “Someone saw you here and called it in because they were worried about you. We just wanted to know if you needed anything?”
Poor but proud, James thanked the officers but told them that they were fine; they just needed a little rest.
The officers, however, would have none of it. “Wait here,” said one. “We’ll be right back.”
Climbing back into their police cars, they sped off, returning a few minutes later with a coffee and three hot chocolates from Starbucks, and a 12-pack of tacos from Taco Bell. It was an unusually cold winter in Northern California, and the officers asked James to take the kids to the nearby Starbucks to eat and wait for the officers to return. Again, they raced off, and returned an hour later with four sleeping bags. Discreetly slipping $100 into James’ hand, one officer hugged James, followed by the other, and as they returned to their patrol vehicles, they both wished him and the kids a happy holiday.
From home to motel to bus shelter: the forces behind the fall
The Anderson family Christmas three years ago was the product of the 2008 global financial meltdown. While the recession that followed is often compared to the Great Depression, African-Americans in actuality had not had it so bad since the 1873 stock market crash wiped out the Freedman’s bank. Similar to the most recent downturn, that meltdown was also triggered by easy credit, and bad investments in an overheated real estate market.
What often goes unsaid in the media’s accounting of the subprime mortgage scandal is that banks swindled black and brown borrowers with fraudulent loans at rates that were exponentially higher than those offered to Whites. And while lenders were largely made whole, their victims, overwhelmingly, were not. A 2016 study by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Corporation For Economic Development found that the typical black household in the U.S. will need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their white counterparts hold today.
Consequently, the U.S. today is experiencing a binary, best-of-times, worst-of-times narrative, in which finance capital, like the pharaohs of old, feasts on the land’s finest wines, meats and cheeses, while families like the Andersons strike out on a long journey, looking for a better life.
James Anderson was born in San Francisco’s storied Fillmore neighborhood, known as the “Harlem of the West” — a showcase for entertainers and public figures as diverse as Etta James and Malcolm X. James’ birth also coincided with an effort by the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority to raze thousands of “blighted” homes in the neighborhood, forcing nearly 10,000 mostly black households to relocate, just as it had the Japanese a generation before, and transforming Geary Street into an eight-lane monstrosity that sealed off the Fillmore from whiter and wealthier Pacific Heights.
“They told us they were just going to make some improvements and we could come back when everything was ready,” said Anderson. “We never got the call to come back. “
Working as a municipal bus driver in 1996, a few months after Khalid’s birth, James drove over some railroad tracks and a searing pain thundered through his entire body from the base of his skull to the heels of his feet. He tried surgery and rehab to repair the three ruptured discs but nothing took.
Medically retired and unable to work, James had only a monthly SSI check to support a wife and three children in the most expensive metropolitan area in the country. The Andersons were evicted from their suburban Oakland apartment in October of 2014 when their landlord raised the rent. Estranged from his wife, James moved the kids to a Union City motel near her job, where the four of them squeezed into a single room that cost $400 per week.
That endured for two months. James’ wife had been helping pay for the motel but decided, abruptly, to stop just days before Christmas unless he relinquished custody of their children. Believing that her lifestyle had grown increasingly volatile, James told her, essentially, that if she wanted to kill her fool self, she could go right ahead, but the kids stayed with him.
That meant no more room at the inn — or, more accurately, the Islander Motel on the border of Union City and Hayward — with only two days left before Christmas. Checkout was at 11 a.m. and so, in the morning, James had the kids stuff everything that would fit – crockpot, an electric skillet, shoes, clothes, everything – into two suitcases and a green duffel bag for the journey to Berkeley, a college town that James remembered from his youth as the hub of Bay Area liberalism, and a place relatively hospitable to the homeless. Already thinking ahead, Malika days earlier had spotted a discarded shopping cart lying on its side in a shallow ditch along a nearby frontage road and made a mental note that it might come in handy should they need to relocate. She and Malik ran to retrieve it, wiping it down with some of their clothes that they couldn’t manage to squeeze in the luggage.
And then, some time before noon, the Anderson family headed north.
James had $20 in his pocket.
This far by faith
“Can I buy you a coffee?”
James was a bit startled by the middle-aged white woman who approached him – in broad daylight no less – as the family trudged up a major thoroughfare, Hesperian Boulevard, in Hayward. They had only left their hotel hours earlier.
“Uh, no, I’m okay, thank you,” James said. But much like the two police officers in San Leandro later that day, the woman simply wouldn’t entertain the notion. With her well-coiffed hair and natty attire, Malika sized her up as a professional, perhaps in the growing tech sector that was again firing on all cylinders by late 2014. The woman returned minutes later with a steaming cup of coffee, and clasped James’ hand in both of hers as she handed him the Starbucks cup, discreetly slipping him two $20 bills.
“Can I hug you?” she asked and no sooner had James gotten the word out of his mouth, she had pulled his towering 6-foot-3 inch frame close to hers for an embrace so deep and sincere that the kids started to wonder if they wouldn’t need a crowbar to extricate their father.
As they continued on, a pickup truck approached not three minutes later.
“Can I help you?” the man asked.
Unsure of his meaning, James politely replied that they were okay. Undeterred, the man stepped from the car, handed James two $20 bills, and wished them well.
“We never asked anybody for anything,” James said. “Some of it was people saying ‘we’re so glad to see a father with his kids doing this,’ and some people just wanted a hug or to wish us well. But we got a lot of help. I hadn’t counted on that.”
The only asset the Andersons had, he said, was each other. Of all his children, James says that Malika’s antenna is the most sensitive; she would know almost immediately when her father’s mood had darkened, and she would just encourage him, reassure him that they would be okay as long as they stuck together, or engage him in banalities such as wondering aloud about the odd green flash of light that flickered in the night sky, whether it was a flare or a UFO.
And James would return the favor when he felt the kids’ energy ebb. One night, with the family hunkered down on a bus bench, an Asian man walked by and James pretended to greet him in Chinese with a nonsensical “phong chow yong fat” that cracked the kids up with raucous laughter. The man smiled as he walked by, Malika would say later, and seemed to understand that the greeting wasn’t intended as a racist taunt.
By midday on Christmas Eve, the Andersons had reached Emeryville and were closing in on Oakland just south of Berkeley. The only food available was the chips and sodas they managed to round up from an off-brand convenience store. As if on cue, food began to just appear out of thin air: motorists dropped off sandwiches and drinks, and homeowners who lived within view of Telegraph Avenue began pouring out of their homes to deliver big platters of food. One woman even delivered a plate of her jambalaya.
The family arrived at Wall Peace Park in downtown Berkeley on Christmas Day with nearly $300 in donations.
Berkeley was no longer the accommodating college town that James remembered, however. Indeed the police harassed the Andersons almost daily and it would be more than two months before the family could get into a shelter.
Still, the family has done remarkably well, considering. Both Malik and Malika are honor-roll students at one of the better area high schools and Khalid has enrolled in college courses. At the homeless shelter, Malika will often wake her brother for school by playing tunes from The Sound of Music, one of her favorite movies.
“I tell them all the time,” James Anderson said 18 months after their ordeal, “that we’re going to get through this, that we’re going to be okay. And we will. I really and truly believe that. The only thing I need them to do is believe it as well.
Because when you get right down to it, what choice do we have?”