My name is Michael DeWitt. Micky, my friends call me. Lots of mouse jokes growing up, not so much anymore. Jokes or no jokes, it’s all the same to me. My job, one I have held for nearly four years now, is being the greeter at the Northside Community Center in Oakland, California. Our building is on the east side of Telegraph Ave in the area they call Upper Telegraph, just before Ashby Ave and the Berkeley city line. This is the northern end of Oakland, hence “Northside”.
Actually my official title at Northside is Receptionist One. Since I’m the only receptionist it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but whatever. I guess on my vacation days – too few – or my sick days – almost none – when someone else sits in my chair at the desk just inside the front door, they could be called Receptionist Other. The community center is an absolutely wonderful place, people in and out all the time, all kinds of really important classes and support groups and activities going on all the time, from the 7 a.m. day care til the women’s group that meets two nights a week until 9 p.m. I am so lucky to work there because I feel like I’m part of something special, a place that really serves and helps the community, heck, helps the planet. Oakland is a tough town. If you just watch the news you think Oakland is a violent, frightening, unlivable town. The people who live here, who grew up here – and I’m one of them – know better. Yeah, there is violence, too much of it at times, and yes there are parts of town you don’t really want to be visiting late at night. But unlivable? No way. I spent three years in college just outside Boston, and two years up in Portland, OR finishing school and doing an internship, and compared to those places Oakland is just so alive, so filled up with loving, happy, loud, colorful people, I mean walking around the lake, hiking in the hills, sitting at the Mountain View Cemetery and looking over at San Francisco when the sun is going down, the Vietnamese vegetable shops, Jack London Square. And the people, mostly the people. I say you can’t beat it.
So my job at the center is to greet people as they come in, point them in the right direction if they don’t know where they are going, answer the phone and transfer calls or take messages, and – between you and me – do all kinds of things not listed in my written job description, making me, not only in my mind but in the minds of lots of other people who have told me, maybe the most important person in the building. My pay is decent $38,500 a year, I have great Kaiser health benefits, two weeks vacation and a little comp time here and there, and for the most part, I work with fabulous, caring people. So, how lucky am I?
One of the unwritten duties I own as the receptionist/maybe most important person in the building is to be in charge of the lost and found for the center. At Northside the lost and found consists of a big maroon plastic bin, like something you would store towels in up on some shelf. Here the bin is under a counter that runs the length of the wall in back of me. At any given time the counter is covered with books, backpacks, papers that need copying or already copied copies, five or six plants in painted ceramic pots – one of the after-school classes work – and some art work. Under the counter is storage space, right out in plain sight, and this is where the lost and found bin is kept. I would say that two or three times a week someone, usually one of the staff people, will bring me some piece of clothing, or school books, sometimes even jewelry that they found somewhere in the building, and I will make a note on a list I keep on a clipboard, then put whatever it is in the bin. For small pieces of jewelry I first put them in a padded envelope. Usually whoever left something is in the next day, or even later the same day, to get it.
Now here is what I really want to tell you. Two days ago, Tuesday, one of the art teachers, Susan Evans, came up to the front desk just after 8 a.m. and handed me a scarf. She said she had found it in her room, which is used Monday nights for the women’s group, when she got there. The scarf was amazing. Mostly it was a gold color, not shiny, kind of a warm earthy color, like some of the sunsets you see in the fall from up in the cemetery. There was stitching through the cloth, violet and dark green threads, in a kind of pattern I can’t really describe. Not perfect, not like a perfect design. Just really interesting. But the most amazing thing of all is that the cloth felt almost alive to me, almost like it had this tiny buzzing feeling to it. I just held it and stared at it. “Cool, huh?”, said Susan snapping me out of my little trance state. “It sure is,” I said. “It’s so beautiful, I’ll be surprised if someone isn’t in to get it back before nine.”
But I was wrong. After I placed it very carefully in the purple bin I went back to work and forgot about it until I was getting ready to leave around quarter past five. Then I remembered the scarf and for a reason I will never understand, took it out of the bin, put it very carefully in a legal size envelope, put it in my backpack, and took it home, to my apartment down by the lake. And you know what, sometime between when I left and when the night janitor locked up, someone went behind the desk and cleaned out the lost and found bin. Stole the few things that were in there. We hardly ever have anything happen like that at the center, they probably have more thefts at the fancy tennis club up in the Berkeley Hills. But Tuesday night we did.
Wednesday I kept the scarf in the envelope in my desk drawer, and around 4:30 two women walked in the front door and up to the desk. One older, one a lot younger. They turned out to be a mother and daughter – the daughter was the woman who had been in the women’s group Monday night and left the scarf. The older woman asked if someone had turned in a scarf and she described it perfectly. I opened my drawer and took it out of the envelope and gave it to her. “I had heard there was a robbery here Tuesday night,” she said. “Strange this was left behind.” She gave me a long, serious look. All I could think to say was, “Go figure. Lucky I guess.” The woman nodded her head a little and smiled. She opened her purse and took out a business card. She handed me the card and said, “The first visit will be free.” Then both women turned around and went back out through the door.
As they were leaving I looked at the card. “By the Bay Fortune Telling, 5726 Shattuck Ave. Open seven days a week.” The card was printed on gold paper. With green and violet weaving.
I think I’ll head over Saturday and check it out.