From Chapter Three
The World Begins to Open
Even though I did this whole traffic boy thing in grammar school, I had also at a very early age internalized the idea that arbitrary authority wasn’t deserving of respect. I had gotten from my parents a strong sense that you should not have to follow people who required unthinking obedience—the drill sergeant or the military dictator being the embodiment of that. I don’t know if they ever articulated it exactly that way, but that was sort of a general value or outlook that I got.
I remember we had this math teacher in junior high who kept three of us after class one time, because we were joking around in class. He started reading us the riot act, and one of the kids started laughing out of nervousness. The teacher yelled, “You think that’s funny?” He grabbed the kid by the throat and started choking him and almost pushed him out this second story window. So that kind of arbitrary, dictatorial authority was something that I hated from early on. It was against everything that I thought was worth anything and should be respected.
I had also internalized from my parents and from my father in particular that the Constitution provided you with certain rights, and you should stand up for them. If people tried to take away your rights, you should resist that. So, in my own mind, with a lot of these teachers, that’s what I was doing. They were exercising arbitrary authority, insisting on their way in the classroom, and not willing to be flexible or to bend. That’s overwhelmingly the way the teachers taught in the ’50s, so I had a lot of conflict with them.
But one time, when I was thirteen, I applied what I had learned from my dad—and got in big trouble with my parents for doing so. I had been down at the park and I was coming home, riding my bike. I took a shortcut that ran by my old grammar school. It wasn’t actually on the school property, it was a public sidewalk, or a kind of a paved path between two streets, right next to the school. A couple of my friends were hanging around my old grammar school, so I stopped and started messing around with them. One of the things we liked to do was to climb up on the roof of the cafeteria of the grammar school. But we knew that you weren’t supposed to do that, that you’d get chased off of it. So we took our shoes off and threw them up on the roof, and then climbed up—ostensibly to retrieve our shoes. It was about five o’clock and the only person there was the janitor. Understandably, as I look back on it now, he was freaked out that we were up on the roof. First of all we could get hurt, and second he could be held liable. So, he’s yelling at us to get off the roof, and we’re saying we have to get our shoes, because somebody threw our shoes up here! But he kept insisting we come down. The more he insisted that we come down, the more we refused to come down. Finally he said, “I’m gonna call the police if you don’t come down right away,” and at that point we did come down off the roof.
Well, he had called the cops and a cop showed up. By that time my friends had split, but I had decided to stand my ground. I was standing on this pathway, which was adjacent to the school grounds but was not technically school property. So the cop comes and he starts giving me all this trouble. He says, “You know you can’t be up on the roof.” And I answered, “Well, I got down off the roof. I had to go get my shoes, but I got down off the roof.” Then he noticed that I didn’t have my shoes on, and he said, “What’s the matter with you, you don’t even wear shoes?”—and he started insulting me and told me to go home. But I said, “You can’t tell me to go home. You can tell me to get off the school property, but you can’t tell me to go home, this is public property, I can do what I want, you can’t make me go home.” He argued with me a while longer and then got in his car and took off.
At that point I started riding my bike home. I was about halfway home when I see my dad driving down toward me. And he sees me and pulls over. I get off my bike and I go running up to the car, and I say, “Dad, dad, a cop can’t make me go home if I’m on public property, he can’t tell me what to do, can he?” “You better get on your bike and go home,” said my dad. So then I knew I was in big shit. I go home and we go through the whole story, and I’m insisting, “Okay, I shouldn’t have been on the roof, but I got off the roof, and I was on public property, and I was standing up for my rights, and this cop had no right to tell me to go home.”
And then it turned out that the worst part of this is that what really bothered my parents was that they were embarrassed in front of all the neighbors in their nice neat middle class neighborhood—a policeman had come to their door to tell them their son was doing something wrong. And all the neighbors must have figured out that something like that was happening. Here was my dad, with his stature as a lawyer, having a policeman come to his door to tell him his son was doing something wrong. On top of that, this cop tells him, “Well, you know, we’re used to getting this kind of attitude from kids in west Berkeley”—in other words, in the ghetto—“but we’re not used to seeing that from kids around here.”
Instead of standing up for me, my parents were embarrassed and actually coerced me into writing a letter of apology to this cop. I held out and held out, but it was gonna be hell for me in the house if I didn’t. So they finally made me write this letter of apology. And here what I was doing was standing up. At that point I frankly had pride in being associated with kids from west Berkeley, because I felt that they must know how to stand up for their rights then—I felt like I was being cast into good company. But, at the time, my parents were just horrified. That really made me feel terrible, and lowered them in my estimation, because I felt like: “What hypocrites!” They taught me all this stuff—how did I know to stand up for my rights? How did I know to tell this cop that I had a constitutional right to go where I wanted, and he could tell me not to be on school property but he couldn’t tell me I had to go home when I was on public property? I knew that from my parents, and in particular my dad, all the legal training that I’d gotten, just by listening to him tell stories, but also talking with him about the constitution and everything. And here they were turning on me when I stood up for this. So that was kind of a traumatic experience. On the other hand, it was an experience that stood me in good stead for the rest of my life, really.
As I said, for a while this really dropped my parents in my estimation. But I will give them credit that later on they recognized they were wrong and criticized themselves. My dad, with great chagrin but also with a certain amount of pride in having learned better, would always tell this story from the point of view of how screwed up he was in taking this position. It was years before they finally recognized that I was right and they were wrong, but they did finally recognize it.
From Chapter Four
Street Corner Symphonies
I had this friend Sam. Actually I knew him before high school, because I went to a church in Berkeley where his father worked as the custodian and he would come around and help his father sometimes. Then, when I went to high school, he was a little bit ahead of me but we became friends and then we became part of a singing group.
Sam had this one characteristic: when he was eating, he didn’t want anybody to say anything to him. It was just leave him alone and let him eat. I don’t care who it was or what the circumstances were. That was just Sam, you just knew you should stay away from him then, because he didn’t want to talk, he wanted to eat. So one day, I had forgotten to bring my lunch money, and I was really hungry by lunch. I couldn’t pay for anything in the cafeteria or the snack shack, or anything. I was walking all around looking for some friend to loan me some money. So first I went over to Sam and I knew that I was violating his big rule, but I couldn’t help it. I went over and I said, “Sam.” “Leave me alone, man, leave me alone.” I said “Sam, I’m really hungry.” “Leave me alone, I’m eating lunch.” So I just finally gave up there, but I started walking all around looking for someone to loan me some money or give me something to eat or something.
Finally, I saw this guy who had a plateful of food. What particularly stuck out to me was that he had two pieces of cornbread on his tray. And that just seemed so unfair, because I was so hungry and he had not one, but two pieces of cornbread! I just sat down at the table, across from him, and stared for a long time at his plate. He kept looking at me, like “what’s this motherfucker staring at me for?” I just kept staring at his tray. And finally I said, “Hey man, can I have one of your pieces of cornbread?” “No, man, get the fuck out of here.” I said, “Please man, I’m really hungry, I forgot my lunch money. Can I please have a piece of cornbread?” “No man, get the fuck out of here.” I don’t know what came over me—maybe it was just the hunger—but without thinking, I reached over and grabbed one of the pieces of cornbread. He kicked his chair back, jumped up and got ready to fight. So I didn’t have any choice, I jumped up too. He stared at me for a long time—a long time. And then he finally said, “Aw man, go ahead.” So I took the piece of cornbread. Then after that, Sam, who had looked up from his eating long enough to see all this, came over to me—again it was one of these things—and he said, “Man, that was Leo Wofford, you don’t know what you just got away with.” But I was just so hungry, and I guess Leo figured, “oh this crazy white boy, he must really be hungry,” so he just let it go.
Sam lived in East Oakland, but he went to school in Berkeley. A few times I went out to his house—he lived right where East Oakland abutted against San Leandro, and it was like in the south. There was this creek and a fence right outside of 98th Avenue in East Oakland, and if you were Black you did not go on the other side of the fence into San Leandro or these racist mobs would come after you. Sam lived right at the border there.
A few times Sam took me to places and events out in East Oakland. One time we went to this housing project which was kind of laid out in concentric circles, with a row of apartments, arranged in a circle, and then another circle inside that, and then another one. And at the very center was the playground, where there was a basketball court. When we got there, there were some guys getting ready to play ball—I recognized a couple of them who ran track for Castlemont High—so I went over and got in the game. Well, at a certain point, one of these track guys and I got into a face-off—we had been guarding each other, and sometimes bumping and pushing each other, and then it just about got to the point of a fight. Everybody else stood back and gave us room, but after we stared at each other for a while, it didn’t go any further, and we just got back to the game. But, as this was happening, I noticed that Sam, who had been watching at the edge of the court, was turning and walking away.
Another time, Sam and I went to a basketball game between Castlemont and Berkeley High. The game was at Castlemont, but I didn’t have any sense, so I kept yelling shit at the Castlemont players. Their star player was a guy named Fred “Sweetie” Davis, and at one point he got knocked to the floor by a guy on our team. So, I stood up and yelled, “How does it feel to be the one on the floor, Sweetie?” Sam had been trying to get me to stop acting the fool and shut up, and when this happened, he just got up and walked away, like “I don’t know this crazy white boy.” So, sometimes, without meaning to, I put Sam in some very difficult situations.
Sam was a really good singer. So one day I went to him and I asked: “Hey, Sam, you want to start a group?” He thought about it for a while, and then he got back to me and said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” Sam had a cousin named George who played piano, and George could also sing. So Sam said, “Let’s get George in the group.” And there was this other guy, Felton, who was one of the few Black kids who had gone to junior high school where I did. So I went and asked him if he wanted to be part of it, and Felton said “Yeah.” And then I asked Randy, this white kid who’d been part of this impromptu singing group with John and me in our last year in junior high school.
So the five of us—three Black, two white—formed a group. We figured out pretty quickly that Sam should sing lead, at least on most of the songs, and then the others of us took our parts. You have to have a bass, and that was Felton. We had to have a baritone, and that was Randy. Then you had to have a second tenor, which was the lower-range tenor, and that was George. And the first tenor was me. We had this whole thing worked out. Sometimes we practiced at George’s house, because he had a piano in his house, and sometimes we’d go to my house, because we also had a piano. We’d spend three or four hours a lot of days just practicing, working on our music. And we’d sing anywhere we could get together to sing—this was part of a whole thing where people would get together, sometimes in formal groups and sometimes just with whoever was around at the time, and sing everywhere: in the locker rooms before and after gym class, in the hallways and stairways at school, and out on the street corners.
Eventually, Randy left the group and then Odell—Odell who claimed I’d “stepped on his dogs” way back on our first day of school— replaced him. When Odell replaced Randy I reminded him of that run-in we had, and he didn’t even remember it. But he did get a big laugh out of my telling the story. Odell used to write songs—I’d see him out in the hallway: “Hey, Odell, what are you doing, how come you’re not in class?” “I’m writing some songs, man.” We’d practice and we’d try to get gigs, wanting to get paid and get known a little bit.
We had to come up with a name for the group. There was already the Cadillacs, and the Impalas, so we became the Continentals. Now we’d also been rehearsing at the rec center at Live Oak, because they had a piano in there. The director of the rec center heard us and said, “Hey, I like your sound, would you guys be willing to play for this dance we’re having?” We answered, “Yeah, are you gonna pay us?” And he said, “Well, we have a tight budget, but I could pay you something.” So then we all got together and said, “How about a hundred bucks?” He came back with, “How about 25?” We looked at each other and said, “Okay.” ‘Cause any money was good then.
We rehearsed a lot for this, and we came there that night ready to do this Heartbeats’ song, “You’re a Thousand Miles Away,” and some other tunes. As we were about to go in the rec center, this friend of Sam’s who had been playing basketball was coming over to get a drink of water. And he said, “Sam, what are you doing here?” Sam said, “We’re gonna sing for this dance.” “You can’t sing, Sam.” “Yeah I can, man.” So before we could go in to perform for the dance, we had to have a sing-off between Sam and his friend—they both did a Spaniels song, and after a couple of verses the other guy threw in the towel, because Sam could really sing.
Another time my younger sister got us a gig performing at their ninth-grade dance. The other guys in the group said, “Okay man, this is your sister’s thing,” so they let me sing lead on one song—I think it was called “Oh Happy Day.” And that was a lot of fun.
Some of the white parents just couldn’t relate to this music at all. And with some there was a whole racist element in it, because it was the influence of Black culture working its way “into the mainstream.” But a lot of the white youth were taking it up and were really into it, as exemplified by my older sister’s junior high school class voting “WPLJ” as their favorite song. I think Richard Pryor made this point in one of his routines—when it’s just Black people doing something, then maybe they can contain it, but when it starts spilling over among the white youth, then “Oh dear, everything’s getting out of control.” So there was that sort of shit, and there was a general thing among the racist and backward white kids, where listening to this music and getting into this culture was part of a whole package of “things you didn’t do.” They would give you shit for that, but it was just part of a whole package of everything they were down on, and all the things they’d give you shit for.
Besides singing doo-wop, I was in the glee club in school. When I was a senior, the glee club teacher talked me and three other guys—two of us Black, two of us white—into doing a barbershop quartet song for the talent show. And we did it—with our own little touch to it. Another time, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I went to a Giants baseball game. Right before the game starts they always have the national anthem, and I was still somewhat patriotic—I wasn’t super-patriotic, but I still thought this was a good country overall, even though I was very angry about discrimination and segregation and racism and all that. So we all stood up for the anthem and, for whatever reason, I started singing along. The song finished and this woman in front of me turned around and said, “You know, you have a beautiful voice.” I’ve often thought back on the irony of that.
But it wasn’t very long before I quit singing that. Later, when I would go to ball games and they would play the national anthem, I would stand up and sing, as loudly as I could, a version that someone I knew had made up: “Oh, oh Un-cle Sam, get out of Vietnam. Get out, get out, get out of Vietnam...”