Too Close to Home

Posted by Fe Bongolan


Fe Bongolan takes a break from discussing the U.S. primary season to talk about something closer to home; namely, the aftermath of a racially inflamed event that had her downstairs neighbor, Brandon (an African American assistant professor at UC Berkeley), shaking on the phone recently.

I digress from writing on national politics and the heat of the primary races to talk about matters close to home.

It was our last dress rehearsal for my recent show at Southside Theater in San Francisco’s Fort Mason. As we were putting costumes and cast refreshments away, I got a phone call from my downstairs neighbor, Brandon. His voice was quaking.


Brandon is a young, bright African-American scholar who is an assistant professor in queer literature at UC Berkeley. He was one of the first people I met when I moved into the apartment above him in our sunny duplex Edwardian home in the Elmwood District. Elmwood is an affluent neighborhood on the border between North Oakland and South Berkeley. It’s close to College Avenue and the Rockridge District. Elmwood is the district you want to live in due to its close proximity to BART (public transportation), grocery stores and trendy shops.

Grad students like Brandon flock here because it’s quiet. It’s a neighborhood of older African-American homeowners, young white professionals and their families, and students transitioning from grad school into the workplace.

Brandon and I adopted each other. Both my niece and nephew have moved on to their jobs and are building their adult lives. I have become Brandon’s surrogate mom, and have gotten to know his other roommates well. I’ve taught Brandon how to cook oxtails and paella, and we’ve baked apple pies together. Always making a bit too much for myself — I found Brandon and his roommates a welcome audience for my cooking and companionship. I think they like the steadying influence of a strong maternal energy nearby. My place is another home for them. They are good kids who I feel safe with knowing they’re around.

When I got a call from Brandon at 10:30 pm on a Thursday night, my heart tightened. The quivering in his voice asking me “if I knew what happened” filled my heart with a faint feeling of dread. I sat down on the steps outside the theater, girding myself to listen.

“I was in the bathroom, and I heard a pounding on the door. Then a crashing of glass from the front door. I could hear a group of people breaking into the house. I thought, ‘they’re breaking in and they’re going to kill me.’ I locked the bathroom door and crawled out the window to escape. Luckily I found the pipes running down the side of the building that gave me some footing. I held onto them as long as I could, then fell onto the easement.”

He continued, a tremble in his voice. “There were eight police in the house, they found me and pinned me down with a foot on my back. I could not move. I had to keep breathing to stay calm, as my parents instructed me to do. Two had clubs and another a gun pointed at me. I thought I was going to die right then and there.”

The police asked him about a former roommate whose girlfriend was implicated in a sting operation aimed towards a third — an illicit dealer in pot. Just before they left, they finally gave Brandon the warrant. Knowing both of those young women, I couldn’t imagine how this could get so far and go so violently.

When I got home, I invited Brandon up to my place, which was untouched thanks to his clearing me from having any knowledge of the alleged “illegal” activity. I had no idea what was going on. I took out two shot glasses and my three-quarters full bottle of gold tequila and we sat down to debrief.

He seemed calmer, and I was glad that I was there. It took three tequila shots to get him to completely relax and able to get to sleep. It took two shots for me to calm down myself. He recounted everything that happened, and with his literary mind the description was harrowing.

Face down on the ground, he was surrounded by cops who — with just the right amount of hair-trigger motivation and the thrill of a “collar” from a big bust — could have ended his life right then and there. Neighbors who we all knew were watching. And apparently the police were watching this house — our house — for months.

Fortunately one of our neighbors — the owner of the apartment building next door — called our landlady to tell her what was going on. She came in due time, attesting to Brandon’s legal tenancy, thus corroborating his story. Being a smart lady from Boston and a former head of the building inspection department, she started assessing the damage caused to her property, mulling the bill she would present to the city, and perhaps other actions stemming from racially motivated police brutality.

Brandon experienced what happened to professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009 while trying to enter his own home in Boston: harassment by police. Thank God it did not escalate to where he could have been dead due to a series of blunders caused by utter stupidity, hot-headed thinking, the adrenaline-driven rush of having so much weaponry at your fingertips, and an alarming willingness to jump on anything and anyone suspicious. Particularly if that someone is black.

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It was another moment in time for Black Lives Matter and it happened at my home. My heart still aches because of it. But it reminded me of how important it is to be open to your neighbors, to establish community and care about what happens to you and around you.

Talking over the fence with the apartment owner next door, I thanked him for giving our landlady the heads up. I promised him that if I see similar bullshit happening to him next door that we’d be just as aware and involved as he was for Brandon.

The downstairs front door is still boarded up and our landlady is putting time into the carpentry repairs for damage that a gang of eight police officers can inflict on a home.

This weekend, I’ve set aside some time to make dinner for Brandon and two of his other roommates. It’s been my promise to him long before the police break-in. I’m going to put every last bit of love that I can into this meal, making it something to enjoy, savor and remember, hopefully blotting out the stain of violence that disrupted our lives last month. Time is precious. So is life and living it. For some of us in this country, the wolves so often meander too close to home.

Posted in Welcome on | 15 comments
Fe Bongolan

About Fe Bongolan

Planet Waves writer Fe Bongolan lives in Oakland, California. Her column, "Fe-911," has been featured on Planet Waves since 2008. As an actor and dramaturge, Fe is a core member of Cultural Odyssey's "The Medea Project -- Theater for Incarcerated Women," producing work that empowers the voices of all women in trouble, from ex-offenders, women with HIV-AIDS, to young girls and women at risk. A Planet Waves fan from almost the beginning of Eric's astrology career, Fe is a public sector employee who describes herself as a "mystical public servant." When it comes to art, culture and politics, she loves reading between the lines.

15 thoughts on “Too Close to Home

  1. aWord

    I will say it here and now, we are still wondering if my daughter’s murder had to do with her being patsy-ed by authorities. A “cleaner” kid there never was. But being a 20something grad-student dressed in black was enough for them to assign cause of death etc without investigation–nothing but a clown parade of absurdity meant to satisfy the necessary paperwork and get her off their desk/s.
    There is an undertow in your story, “Knowing both of those young women, I couldn’t imagine how this could get so far and go so violently.”
    One does have to wonder……what is going on.

    1. Fe BongolanFe Bongolan Post author


      No words can express how sad and how terrible it has to be for you to experience the frustration re: the unknown circumstances of the loss of your daughter. Is there any closure coming from authorities? What is happening on that front?

      1. aWord

        It’s a “cold case”. The authorities covered their ineptness (which eradicated evidence). They investigated themselves. How far can that be expected to go? The holes in the investigation are as gaping as the cliffs in the Marin Headlands.
        Thank you for asking Fe. A good investigative reporter (and forensic anthropologist) in the Bay Area would be awesome. We should have turned this into a media story 9 months ago when the time was ripe to locate people who may have seen something; it was precisely what the authorities did not want.

  2. Fe BongolanFe Bongolan Post author

    aWord, Amy:

    I am going to be fine. The aftermath of trauma is what we’re handling, and from the looks of things Brandon seems well, though I am not sure what form PTSD might take.

    For awhile he’s been overly cautious. I think out of necessity the body holds on to a survival mechanism such as that. He’s relaxed a little bit, but I stay alert to make sure he’s on even keel.

    1. aWord

      Trauma changes us, to be sure. Brandon is lucky to have you there, Fe. Thank you from my heart to yours for that….for being that person there for someone else. You wear it well.

  3. Barbara Koehler

    So sorry for your neighbor’s and therefore your experience Fe, something that is becoming all too common. I’ve experienced the surrogate mother role with youngish neighbors as well, and although I don’t cook for them, I do take them to lunch once in a while and to the grocery often. There is an exchange of something, call it energy I guess, between generations that calls up ancient bonds in times of trouble. I dare say Ceres’ symbolism comes to mind in her many forms.

    She was part of the preponderance of Pisces planets (say that fast 3 times!) in the March 8 solar eclipse, only 3 degrees from the event itself and in an exact trine with Juno in Scorpio, and in a tight square with Saturn in Sagittarius as well. All those planets in Pisces were opposite Jupiter in Virgo and square Saturn which speaks to the societal and cultural conditions represented by the Saturn-Jupiter cycle. I’m going with Brandon (asst. professor) as Jupiter, hypothetically in this case, and the emotionally charged police gang as symbolized by Saturn-square eclipsed Sun + Moon, Ceres, Chiron, supported by Neptune and Mercury also in Pisces at the time of the solar eclipse. In other words your experience – or Brandon’s experience as told to you – I believe is a manifestation of that eclipse energy and purpose.

    Without the usual play-by-play I’m prone to, there was a Boomerang pattern in that eclipse chart, that being made up of an additional planet (or more) to a Yod pattern. In this case the Yod was made up of the sextile between Uranus (shock) to Pallas (strategy) both quincunx Jupiter (apex of Yod needing to adjust) who was opposite eclipsed Sun-Moon-Chiron-Ceres (you).

    The point opposite the apex of yods completes a Boomerang and always bears the brunt of all the compiled energy of the Yod. So what does the Boomerang do with all that energy? Well, in this case she nurtures; through comforting Brandon and then makes use of the experience, a teachable moment, to disseminate (Pisces, tequila) the lessons learned.

    As I noted above, at the time of the solar eclipse on March 8, Ceres was exactly trine Juno who not only is a partner but also is often a defender of the disenfranchised, which Brandon seems to have been in this instance. Now this may seem like a stretch, but the Universe is terribly clever in its use of symbols (and time doesn’t exist in Universal experience), and this solar eclipse Pluto in Capricorn was sextile Juno in Scorpio. When Venus-met-Sun in their famous 2012 occultation they were in Gemini (15+ degrees to be exact) so this is one of those Across Time events; another Yod is/was created and expressed at the time of (and through) the March 8th solar eclipse.

    Since the 2012 Venus-occult-Sun is indicative of a long-term effect on the world, this kind of setup won’t be unique during the next 100 years or so, but it will be rare. Because 2012 Venus-Sun in Gemini would oppose the 2016 solar eclipse Saturn in Sagittarius, and if the theory holds, eclipse Saturn is the Boomerang-over-time release point. If Saturn symbolizes the strong arm of the government, the Police in this case, then how will that work out?

    How about values, a Venus thing? If Pluto transforms and was sextile Juno who defends the disenfranchised, and together they (shall we say) goaded the 2012 Venus-Sun impulse, who then targeted the March eclipse’s Saturn with all that combined energy, it seems likely that the Police Department of the San Francisco/Berkeley/Elmwood district would star in some media coverage (Venus and Sun were in Gemini after all) that would not be favorable. Change would ensue.

    These two yods then are intertwined and not stand-alone, although they could act alone. Look at Ceres in the Aries Equinox chart, conjunct the South Node and Chiron. She will spend 3 months (’til the Summer Solstice), she and Chiron, promoting change in society that refuses to tolerate such practices.

    Look at the lunar eclipse on March 23 and see Ceres and Chiron and the south node all square the U.S. Sibly chart’s Mars at 21+ Gemini. This is an emotionally (lunar) charged message. This time Juno in Scorpio retrograde is trine Venus in Pisces exactly, and Venus is only 3 degrees past Neptune who is conjunct the U.S. Sibly chart’s natal Child-Nessus-Ceres and they square the U.S. natal Uranus in Gemini.

    That degree where the U.S. Uranus is found is where the Pluto-Neptune conjunction took place in 1891 that initiated the present cycle which we are in. We experience things like your story here and see them as isolated events, but in fact they are part of an ongoing and all encompassing call for transformation in the human race.

    All over the world, all the time, stuff like this is happening to individuals and the human response is to share the experience with others who then join forces (consciously or unconsciously) in such a way that the combined reactions create a force that provokes change in the status quo. On one level it is the Saturn-Jupiter culture/society challenge to grow and evolve. On a higher level it is all of humanity going through the changes of ending violence, inequality and many more polarized and ingrained behaviors. Thank you for aiding this movement Fe, we are all one. :)

  4. Fe BongolanFe Bongolan Post author


    The event happened in that potent mid-week tween the two eclipses on March 17th. Brandon is a Virgo. My Ascendant moved over from the last second of Taurus into Gemini on March 8th. Are you feeling me, sister?

    I’ve also posted this blog at Daily Kos, and its on the “Recommended” list. Next up for our theater company is a new piece on trauma from our first days and years as infants, and now this as full grown adults.

    The word that comes to mind for me in my dramaturgical hat, handling this theme of trauma is the Japanese art form of kintsugi, finding beauty and peace in the wholeness of a being, with all their flaws and scars caused by living on earth. But that’s me living in an ideal world. There’s so much justice to be administered evenly throughout this unfair, unbalanced system. Justice comes first in the journey for beauty and peace.

  5. Edith Miller

    Heartfelt virtual hugs all round. As one who grew up in Southern Africa, Please share my – what can one say? – love, support, compassion … The heartfelt ache that injustice brings. My heart goes out to Brandon and all like him. Justice may come before beauty, as you say, but the very crafting of justice IS beauty. And all we who chose to be so, are part of crafting that better world. So may it be …

    1. Fe BongolanFe Bongolan Post author


      Your comment inspires so much to say in response. The best I can offer is that your comment “…the very crafting of justice IS beauty” is going to be my new byline wherever I can place it. Thank you for your thoughts.

      At our Sunday dinner coming this weekend, I’m going to print out and read the comments from the Planet Waves blog and the same post I posted on Daily Kos to Brandon and company. The comments alone are medicine, not just for Brandon, but for all of us. Sweet Honey in the Rock says: “We who believe in Freedom cannot rest.” Time to heal with courage and strength.

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