I had a tiny shop in our garage in the flatlands of North Oakland when Ene and I first moved to California in the early nineties after circuitous travels through West Africa, across the United States and into Alaska. I had been deeply inspired by working with the village menusiers of Togo, and was just beginning to find my own language in wood, adapted from my yankee training and informed by living in the joyful spirit unique to ‘traditional’ cultures.
I felt at home in the Oakland flatlands, where slow-cooking oak fires smoked chicken before dawn on a weekend and people took time to stop and gossip on the street. My only power tool was a re-worked band saw, which I only used to re-saw wood I had salvaged from the dump or from drive-by chipper piles on the side of the road. Our neighborhood was densely populated so I did my best to keep quiet, using hand tools for shaping, and steam-bending for forming on weekends, in keeping with the smoky patterns of the neighborhood.
While I waited for my stock material to saturate with steam, I would cook a lunch of fried yams over the fire, spiced with hot peppers from Ene’s garden, and played West African music on the boom box to remind me of our recent time abroad hanging out in gas-lit buvettes.
After a few months of this routine, a neighborhood kid began to appear predictably. He’d scale the plank gate by the sidewalk and hover around while I worked, asking endless questions, showing off his vocal beat-box skills and entertaining me with his comic acrobatics. His name was Samone and he lived in the ‘crack house’ on the corner, sadly lorded over by his ancient Granny. He must have been about ten years old, but possessed a formidable wit and nerve I’ve rarely seen in anyone of any age to this day. Samone volunteered as my apprentice for a few months, before his house was fire-bombed by a local gang and we lost touch. I was assured he was OK but the family moved and were reluctant to extend an address.
During these few poignant months, Samone used the the scrap from my already scrappy material to make things for his beloved Granny. He wanted to make her proud and for her to know that he had the heart and curiosity to take care of things if necessary with his own hands.