Remembrances of Oakland’s Past: Chapter Three

by Virginia Brown Keyder

Reading two articles in the mainstream media (one in the New York Times; the other, possibly a rework of a piece in the United Kingdom tabloid, the London Daily Mail) in a single week about crime in Oakland, I am again struck by how unrecognizable the city is from that of my childhood. Childhood: when what you see seems like nature itself, imprinted on your hard disk until something comes along. Then, delete and replace. Having grown up in a time when if someone’s front door was locked, the assumption was that they had gone on a long vacation (some people didn’t even know where the keys to the front door were), it is hard to believe the reports of Oakland today. As children, we walked everywhere in the city free of fear. But, I digress…

A young girl tends to register things female (maybe no longer, but bear with me) – what grown-up women do and how they live, work, and dress. For instance, shopping. You might remember my ‘great aunt’ May from last time. She not only took me to San Francisco by ferry to see Cinerama, but also to downtown Oakland to shop. Again, this is the mid-1950s, when shopping in Oakland meant Capwell’s or Kahn’s, where my grandmother’s unmarried sister Annie worked for forty years behind the lingerie counter. Most single women worked full-time, as far as I could tell. This was a time when all older ladies’ lingerie was what was called ‘champagne-colored’ and shiny (probably silk as polyester was not widely available if at all), and geranium was a popular fragrance (who would want to smell like a geranium today?). Both Capwell’s and Kahn’s had a floor dedicated to ‘ladies who need rest’ because, as we all know but may have forgotten, shopping was a tiring business. It was a floor decked out in pastel shades, mostly pale pink, with fresh flowers, comfortable couches, and non-confrontational lighting. Here, ladies could go and rest for as long as they wished and be served tea and cookies by women in maids’ uniforms (black dresses, white aprons, and collars) for free. Once shoppers had collected themselves, they could venture forth renewed for a robust afternoon of shopping (‘consumption’ was still a respiratory disease; we morphed from citizens to consumers only under Ralph Nader in the late 1960s). So much for shopping.

Another part of our Oakland life was going to Chinatown in San Francisco to eat and wander. My father, who had spent a lot of time in ‘the Orient’ (as we called it) insisted that we learn to use chopsticks at a very young age (he said it was something civilized children had to know how to do). One thing I registered as normal in my child’s mind was older Chinese women on Grant Avenue with bound feet. Foot-binding was not made officially illegal in China until Chairman Mao banned it in 1949, so many older immigrant women still walked around on tiny feet. I saw these women before I knew anything about the practice which was documented in a wonderful novel by Lisa See titled Snow Flower and the Secret Fan about a village where girls’ feet were bound at the age of six, as was customary, which brought the reality of the practice home to me. Seeing these women was confusing to my young self. Did all women’s feet shrink when they got old (my grandmother had gigantic feet, so I quickly discarded this theory), or only the feet of Chinese women? I often think of the multitudes of women who had no choice in the matter of their seriously reduced mobility when I see the body-distorting footwear with six-inch heels and pointed toes that many women voluntarily don today, which also renders them helpless in the face of danger and gives rise to other disabilities.

Editor’s Note: Chapter 1 is here and Chapter 2, here.

VBK is a third-generation Oaklander who attended Lakeview School, Westlake Jr. High, Oakland H.S, Merritt College, and UC Berkeley, before leaving for Montreal to do graduate work in Middle Eastern History and then law. After graduation from McGill Law, she worked in NYC and joined the NY Bar. She married her college sweetheart and moved to Istanbul. She taught various law courses in Istanbul and State University of NY, Binghamton. Virginia regularly commutes between Istanbul and NYC, where her two sons reside.