MJ Dub
Courtesy of Marrion Johnson

IN THE TOWN follows Miles, a struggling yet aspiring radio producer and lover of weed, as he balances friendship, purpose and community in Oakland’s vibrant and heavily politicized queer community of color. Here’s part one:

The green and gold wooden clock above Zeba’s oven had an awkward ticking pattern. Sometimes on beat, sometimes off. Miles always noticed it when he was high, which was more often than not. The kitchen held the only available seating space in Zeba’s apartment. It wasn’t small at all. But littered with feline and human objects dispersed throughout the oversized studio.

“I got the good stuff this time,” Miles exclaimed upon entering Zeba’s crib and sitting at the enormous kitchen table. “Three, two, one,” he said, counting down the seconds until the clock’s next off-beat tick.

Yassss. Green crack? My favorite weed,” Zeba delighted upon greeting Miles with a kiss on the cheek.

“Yup. You know it, guv’na.” Zeba chuckled at Miles’ failed attempt at a British Hackney accent, and responded with the rhetorical “who are you?” Miles gave a Kanye shrug in reply.

It was Sunday afternoon, and the bus ride over, coupled with a special weekend Trap playlist, helped to wake Miles up. He spent an uncharacteristically late evening out in San Francisco, bar hopping with his best friend, Juan. Though he used to love escaping to the Castro, Miles could no longer bear the presence of the gay district’s oblivious white population, and usually found every excuse in the book to avoid the city. However, it was Juan’s birthday, so he caved in.

“How was last night? I didn’t think you’d make it over this morning, my love,” Zeba inquired.

For the past six months, Zeba and Miles had spent nearly every Sunday together traversing across Oakland’s vibrant neighborhoods, and this one would be no exception.

“I almost didn’t. SF was actually decent. But girl, can you believe they didn’t play not one Future song?” he raged, while packing his oversized, penis-shaped bowl.

Yikes. You were in San Francisco, after all, love,” Zeba replied in her nonchalant hippy disposition. She managed a bookstore café in West Oakland that specialized in Black literature. Miles hardly ever found Zeba across the Bay Bridge. Way too many white people.

“You know I’m going home to Chicago to see my family tomorrow, right?” Miles asked.

“Yes, baby, what’s up?” Zeba said with motherly care after taking her first hit of green crack.

“I was thinking. You know how I’ve been wanting to get a nose ring for like ever, right? Well yesterday, while I was making out with this cute Latino guy in the city—I’ll tell you later,” Miles forewarned with a chuckle.

“Right, haha, continue,” said Zeba.

“He had the dopest nose ring. It was red and purple and shiny and hoopy. And I was like: ‘this is totally me!’ I should totes get my nose pierced. Plus, it’ll be the perfect surprise for my family when I see them!” Miles grew more excited with each newly rising thought. The weed was kicking in, so everything he said sounded like brilliance.

Lawl,” Zeba chuckled at Miles’ exuberant reaction. “I’m glad someone is excited. I just had the most awful interaction with my neighbor.”

Zeba’s east Oakland neighborhood was rapidly changing. She vaguely remembered the days of Black folks washing cars in their driveways, playing games in the street, and greeting one another with ease from their porches. Now that Oakland was the newest yuppie getaway, her neighborhood was flooded by wypipo (read: white people). And she couldn’t bear it.

“What happened?” Miles inquired.

“Girl. This white man actually threatened to make a noise complaint to the police over Jungly’s meows,” Zeba sighed while making two bowls of Frosted Flakes, her and Miles’ favorite munchies snack.

“That’s beyond dumb. And reckless. People who threaten Black folks with the police clearly don’t watch the news,” Miles responded frustratedly while nearly devouring his bowl of cereal.

“Right. Anyway, obvi I’m in a mood,” Zeba sighed between bites. “I haven’t left the house all morning.”

“Well, I might have the perfect remedy for your temporary depression,” Miles’ smile grew wide. “You should come with me to get my nose pierced!”

Zeba didn’t seem convinced. She usually loved an afternoon excursion, but Miles could tell this neighbor had her energy all the way off.

“Will you? Pleaseeeee,” Miles pleaded with exaggerated puppy dog eyes.

Suuure,” Zeba giggled as she reluctantly gave in. “Oh, before I forget, you got this in the mail yesterday,” Zeba said as she handed Miles a letter.

It was another bill. Miles had recently come upon hard times. He quit his job in the spring to pursue his dream of becoming a public radio producer. While in between permanent homes, he had his mail sent to Zeba’s place.

“Ugh, just what I need. I feel like all I do is spend the little money I have trying to stay afloat,” Miles complained just before taking a hefty sip from a jug of water. He could feel the anxiety rising. Though his regular disposition was quite relaxed, these financial issues were a big source of frustration.

“I know baby. At least you’re working some now so you have money coming in, right? Maybe we should wait to get the nose ring if you can’t afford it,” Zeba reasoned.

Miles knew she wasn’t sold on the idea. “No! I need to feel control over something. And if not my body, then what? I’m getting a nose ring. Today,” Miles insisted.

His mind was made up. Sure, he could wait until he had more money to spend. But he honestly didn’t know when that would be. And if quitting his job taught him anything, it was to live in the moment and do the things that made him happy. This was one of them.

“I feel you, boo.” Zeba didn’t require any further persuasion. “But wait. I just remembered—today is Sunday. You know everything in Oakland is closed on Sundays,” Zeba reminded Miles.

She was right. Oakland was great. Practically the best city on earth in Miles and Zeba’s opinions. Beautiful Lake Merritt for weekend picnics, a palpable feeling of Black and Brown solidarity in the air, and movement organizers constantly challenging the patriarchy.

However, Oakland had one major flaw. Well, really a slight annoyance. Legit 70 percent of stores closed on Sundays and Mondays. And it frustrated most Oakland transplants to no end. “Like, how y’all expect to make any money when I can’t even get brunch on a Sunday?” Miles would normally ponder in the most gentrifying of tones before checking himself for such an irritating yuppyism.

“Good point! I didn’t even think about that,” Miles said as he furiously whipped out his cell phone to begin researching stores.

Zeba was right. Most of the shops in Oakland were closed. And he wasn’t going into San Francisco. Miles didn’t have enough energy to deal with that many wypipo two days in a row. Plus, it was already 3pm, so the commute alone would be a risky waste of time.

“There is Berkeley, my dear” added Zeba, attempting to reason with Miles, but he wouldn’t have it.

Miles hadn’t crossed the Berkeley city limit since he quit his job at Berkeley Speaks, a nonprofit aimed at raising young people’s voices through media. Miles still couldn’t believe he spent an entire year surrounded by white Berkeley liberals who all too well understood white privilege yet struggled to see their own roles in perpetuating oppression. Needless to say, he grew tired of their constant micro-aggressions, and bounced before the company fundraiser, not to be seen in Berkeley since.

“Obviously Berkeley isn’t happening. Besides, I’ve already looked up some of their shops. Only three are open today and they’re all charging like $60 or more just for a nose piercing. Not even a ring. No dice,” Miles decided.

Zeba begrudgingly sighed in agreement. Those prices were too expensive.

“Okay, there’s one shop in East Oakland that’s open and not ridiculously priced!” Miles delighted.

Wundaful. Hit me wit dem deets,” Zeba replied in her southern ghetto girl accent.

She and Miles often engaged in what they called AAVE Wars, when they’d compete to see who could give the most accurate response in African American Vernacular English. Zeba was winning, having a natural leg up being from North Carolina and unabashedly delighting in all things Black and southern.

“Damn, you stay ready,” Miles chuckled, unable to give an AAVE reply just yet.

“Stay ready, don’t gotta get ready, young blood,” Zeba boasted.

“Anyway,” Miles rolled his eyes in amusement, “it’s called Juelz, haha, and it’s in the Fruitvale not far from my cribo. Let’s do it!”

“Bet, but let’s finish this bowl first,” Zeba reasoned, passing Miles the weed.

“That goes without saying, my dear,” Miles replied as he took one last hit.

Marrion Johnson is a Black, queer storyteller and communications strategist based out of Oakland, California. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Marrion uses storytelling to speak to the complex realities facing Black communities, including displacement, queer and trans identities and Black joy. Marrion has called Oakland home for two years now, but Chicago will always be where his heart is.