USC Interactive Media Application: Graduate Writing Sample - Category I
A two-page character profile of a person, real or fictional, whom you consider to be truly unique. Describe this person in terms of appearance, social background and psychological attitude. What makes the person interesting?
Oliver Wright is my neighbor, he lives across the street from me. We live in a valley; my house sits at the bottom, near a creek, and his house sits up on the hill overlooking my house. I met him when I first moved in, in 1998. We didn't talk much. Early on, a friend of my girlfriend's was a little stoned and backed his car into Oliver's car; that set our relationship off on a bad footing. But he was always fairly chatty. I bought him a gift certificate for a Jazz club/sushi joint in Oakland and the day I gave it to him happened to be his birthday; that thawed things out a bit.
Oliver is just past 65 years old, a little older than my Mom. He's the first person of that generation I've spent any meaningful time with who is African-American. Slender, he carries his spindly limbs slowly, almost delicately. He wears glasses, sports a mustache with a little more black in it than his head of frosty white woolen hair, which is usually topped by some kind of hat.
I learned about Oliver over the course of a few chats. He'd ring my doorbell, to ask when I was going to deal with my weed-choked front yard. Or he'd have a technical question- "can you sell these TVs I got on your computer?" Oliver is like me, in that he tends to save old stuff. Three old barber chairs sit just inside the garage at the top of his driveway, where he sits surveying the neighborhood. There's a bunch of old televisions, from people in the neighborhood looking to get rid of them. Furniture, tools, squares of carpet. He and I once discussed a plan to sew the carpet squares together into an eclectic patchwork carpet. He has shelves and drawers filled with tools and ointments; we dismantled a rusted garden pruner I had and regreased it.
Oliver's house boasts a manicured arrangement of grass surrounded by stones and larger flora. He looks after his yard, from his window high above the street. He sees if people come by, and he sees if they leave anything behind. One time Oliver shared his technique for dealing with neighbors who let their dogs poop on his lawn. If they leave crap on his grass, he shovels it on to a paper plate and leaves it on their porch. He laughed when he told me this; some folks have even stopped walking their dogs on his side of the street.
This May, I brought over my video camera, sat in a barber chair and interviewed Oliver. I told him I had to write a profile of someone for graduate school and I wanted to use it as a chance to get to know him better. I already knew that he was from Louisiana, that his Mom and Dad had worked for the Southern Pacific rail. This day, I got more context: "When black people migrated from the south, I think people in Mississippi went to Chicago, people in Louisiana came to California." His Mom left Louisiana around 1940. Finally, a few years later, his Dad realized she wasn't coming back and joined them out here in West Oakland.
Another time, as we sat in the two tall-backed blue chairs in my home/office across the street, Oliver told me that his Dad used to make a big pot of stew at the beginning of the week, and eat it all the days after that. Oliver has been generous with food - one time he showed up at my front door with fresh homemade beef stew without knowing that I was home sick. He cooks a seafood bouillabaisse with his wife Patricia and shares with me some shrimp and a crab leg too. He gets tamales from neighbors, and homemade Philippine eggrolls. My phone rings - "Hey Justin, it's Oliver - come on over, I got some food I wanna give you." He loves food, he loves places that serve odd meats - like rabbit or goat or quail or sand dab, stuff you don't find on most menus.
I've been traveling a lot during the last few years, and Oliver's always been willing to look after my place. He'll take in the mail, check the doors are closed and locked, poke his head in and make sure nothing's the matter. Recently I think he discovered I have cable TV, and "Murder She Wrote" - I came home early from a long trip and found him sitting on the couch eating pork chops and watching "Matlock". I didn't mind, except that his pork chops smelled so damn good, even after he left.
Sitting in his garage, Oliver looks through his glasses out the garage door as he remembered taking his kids from Oakland to San Francisco to hear performers like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. "You could go to the Fillmore West for three bucks and I think the kids got in free. And they were free once they got in because no one would hurt a kid in those days." Oliver sits up and shifts forward in his chair, soon returning to his contemplative slouch. "Hell, by 10:30, 11 o'clock the little ones would be asleep, and the older ones would try to stay awake because they thought they were going to miss something. But it was always nice, there was apple juice for kids, and there was play areas for kids where you didn't bother them. [Concert promoter] Bill Graham had it goin' on.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Oliver lived in Eugene, Oregon and worked as a DJ on KLCC. Four hours a day, five days a week: "This is Mrs. Wright's son Oliver, coming to you in the Emerald Empire, with Jazz like you like it." Oliver moved up to Oregon after a friend playing with the Raiders football team had been practicing up there. "I remember once visiting there, I was there for two weeks and I saw one black person in two weeks." He holds a single thin finger up, "And he was working on the highway." But everyone in the town was real friendly, he recalls. Oliver waxes nostalgic when he talks about the community in Oregon. He was a single dad then, with three young boys. And there were community centers, places for them to play. Police who would find a neighbor boy drunk and just bring him home. People leaving their doors open. A slow place of life.
Oliver talks about wanting to return there, to be near his granddaughter and live amidst more relaxed people. He talks in a measured, low voice, I can see how he made a good DJ. His body is relaxed, a low posture, an even gaze, but always active - shifting about, using his hands, kicking his leg out when he laughs. Using plain language, hand gestures and punctuating most stories with dry laughter, Oliver talks about a lot of things, which is why I like talking to him - he's a good storyteller.
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