This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community. Go to www.oaklandeffect.com for updates on his reporting and www.insidebayarea.com/oakland-hotspot for updates from the Oakland Hotspot.
Two boys walked into John W. Silver's ice cream shop on International Boulevard recently, seeking a respite from the midday heat. Silver and his son, Joe, stood behind the counter. Eventually they got to talking and Joe asked one of the boys what he wanted to be.
"A thug," the boy said.
Joe was nonplused. "You know," he said eventually, "the smartest criminals out there are the ones who finish school. They're the ones running things." He went quiet, and the boy just looked at him.
"Not that I want that for you," Joe said. "I don't."
"I ain't afraid of anyone," the boy said. And Joe immediately responded, "Oh, I know, I know, I didn't say you were a punk."
The door clanged as a few more customers walked in.
"I'm just saying, you know, I hope you finish your education and do something good with it is all; I think you can do that."
These kinds of exchanges happen every day at John's Ice Cream shop. It's located right across the street from a school. Silver, the owner, considers himself a sort of mentor to the kids who come in, day after day.
"You'd be surprised at all the personal problems they have, and what they say to me," John told me recently, when I stopped by for a single scoop of chocolate chip, in a cup, for $1.25. "A lot of these kids are just looking for somebody to help them."
Silver told me a story. A few years ago he used to have a couple of regular customers, two white ladies, sisters, who would come to the shop two or three times a week and stay for several hours, just chatting. One day, while the ladies were there, two boys came in one morning. It turned out that neither of the boys had eaten breakfast that morning, so Silver gave them each a hot dog and some cocoa. Once they were done eating, he took the boys in the backroom. The two sisters looked on, curious. A while later Silver and the two boys emerged.
"What were you doing back there?" the ladies asked.
"Getting them to brush their teeth," Silver said.
Silver says the kids in this part of East Oakland, on the southern edge of the Hotspot, face the same litany of problems familiar to all of us: drugs, poverty, bad parenting, poor schools.
One day, as he sat behind the counter, a boy wearing a mask came in. The boy was just joking around, but Silver was incensed.
"Do you know how easy it would be for you to get killed like that?" Silver asked him, "Around here, you wear a mask like that and someone's liable to shoot you. I didn't because I know this kid, but someone else might have."
As we were chatting, a gaggle of school kids walked in. Silver began doling out ice creams and candies, popping behind the glass wall to scoop out items from the vast selection of Hubba Bubba Squeeze Pops and Now & Laters. There were Caramel Apple Tops and Gummy Bears, Skittles and Sour Patch, Air Heads and Watermelon Wedge Pops, Bottle Pops and Blow Pops and Sweet n Sour Pops.
Silver handed out the candies, and each time made sure to deliver the goods into the hands of the kids instead of pushing his goods across the table at them. Each time he did, he said, "There you go, sir" or "You're welcome, ma'am." And always, at the end, "See you tomorrow."
Eventually a woman with her two kids came in. She didn't speak English but her boy did, and he ordered an ice cream. When the boy went to pay he tossed the money at Silver across the counter.
"Hey," Silver said, "give it to me right. I didn't throw my ice cream at you." Duly chastised, the boy picked up his money and politely handed it to Silver.
After they'd gone, Silver said, "He probably gets more teaching from me than he does from her. I always pass the food to their hands. It brings them a little closer to you. It doesn't feel like they're an animal, you know. With children, it's the little things that matter."
Sometimes, he told me, the kids have no families at all. Maybe they live with an aunt, an uncle, or some friend for a while. He has heard of kids as young as 10 and 12 getting busted for carrying guns at school. He used to attend PTA meetings, but now he's 78 and doesn't go so much anymore.
"Every year it's harder to communicate with parents," he said. "These kids are raising themselves, and they don't have any discipline."
Silver's son, Joe, works at the shop three times a week. One day about a year ago Joe helped organize with the schools an agreement whereby girls staying late at school could stop by the ice cream store to wait for their rides or for the bus. He didn't want them waiting in the street, afraid they'd get attacked.
For John and Joe, the work of connecting with the neighborhood kids is never done. They see them everyday, and everyday they try to keep the connective tissue of their relationships alive. It's not easy. Sometimes kids disappear, move away, or worse.
But the little store carries on. It sells only the good, sweet things: candy, ice cream, milkshakes, cookies and comfort.
"I see myself as a guardian for these kids," said John, as the door bell rang again and another swarm of giggling children entered the shop.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.