In the Mix

Battle of the Machines

Going Geek on the Polo Field


    Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Just look at the Oakland Junkyard Dogs, a scrappy team that plays polo on Segways. Instead of horses, these guys ride personal mobility assistance devices, those futuristic machines usually seen traveling in pods at popular tourist sites.
    Think expensive stand-up scooters (priced up to $5,000)—without the gas. These vehicles run on an electric motor with gyroscopes and computer boards. You lean forward to go forward, and back to go backwards. They turn on a dime at a top speed of about 13 mph. It’s a phenomenon of man and metal melded into a lean, mean fighting machine.
    “It’s the first of the future death sports,” laughs Steve Steinberg, co-owner of Segway of Oakland. Played like polo in four eight-minute segments called chukkers, the game is won by the team with the most goals at the end. But getting those goals isn’t so easy, as I can attest. On a recent Sunday, I was asked to fill in for a no-show on the opposing team, the Silicon Valley Aftershocks. With mallets and metal flying across the field, it was all I could do to stay upright and out of the way.
    “The game can get pretty heated,” says Drew Foster, one of the younger Dogs players. “You can battle on these things.” And indeed he has battled—with one of the richest men on Earth, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak. “A lot of people go after him, ’cause, hey, it’s your chance to whoop up on a billionaire,” laughs Foster. But, he says, Woz is no wimp. In one exhibition game a Junkyard Dog ran into the Apple icon’s Segway and Woz went flying. “He broke a fender and cut his hand open,” says Foster, “and he kept playing. He bled over everyone’s machines.”
    There’s no doubt Wozniak is one of the driving forces behind the game. His Silicon Valley team, the Aftershocks, is hosting this year’s Woz Challenge Cup, slated for July 20–22 in the Bay Area. Last year’s inaugural tournament was held in New Zealand, and teams from around the world came to play. Even China has a team, started by action star Jackie Chan.
    Oakland has its own celebrity in Victor Miller. In his mid-60s and the oldest player on the Dogs, Miller wrote the screenplay (or should I say SCREAM play) for Friday the 13th. When he played goalie, his team wanted to buy him a hockey mask like the one his character, Jason, wore during his killing spree. Not surprisingly, Miller switched positions.
    One thing these guys have in common is their fun-loving spirit—and total absence of ego. They’re grown men playing polo on funny-looking machines and they know it. “It’s geek city,” says Miller, “but you’ve got to love it.”


—By Ginny Prior

Where to See
To watch a Segway Polo match near you, check these Web sites: www.segwayhtpolo.com, www.segwayoffroad.com, www.bayareaseg.com

OAKLAND MADE

My Delicious Career


    It was a dried Bing cherry at the Berkeley Farmers Market that did it. Peter Brydon put it in his mouth, chewed, and immediately his mind flipped back to his senior high school year. That was when his family moved from Chicago to a tiny town in Iowa. “It’s really difficult to move in your senior year,” he told me as we shared a spicy Mayan hot chocolate truffle, one of many exotic flavors he has developed and sells, along with slab chocolate, chocolate-dipped marshmallows and intriguingly flavored chocolate-covered caramels (including Fleur de Sel and chocolate liquor) at the Grand Lake Farmers Market on Saturdays.
    “My single good Iowa memory,” he says, “was discovering farm stalls with fresh  cherries.” This led to a passion for chocolate-covered cherries. And when he ate the Berkeley Bing, he just knew: “I have to learn how to cover these cherries with chocolate.”
    Brydon started studying chocolate as a hobby and spent three years experimenting.  He knew his 28-year career as a printer—the last nine working for Charles Schwab—was winding down and that at some point he would be laid off. While toying with the delicious idea that maybe he could substitute the artisanship of chocolate making for the long-gone craftsmanship of lithography, his chocolate palate was developing along with his expertise.
    Finally, the Berkeley father of two teenagers enrolled in an online course in chocolate making that gave him a business plan as well as a diploma. He followed this with a week of intensive hands-on training with an organic chocolatier on Bowen Island near Vancouver, Canada. Then he interned one day a week at Serendipity Chocolates in Oakland, where he and his wife, Laurie, now work nights making the Barlovento Chocolates (www.barloventochocolates.com; 510-529-1641) they sell at the Oakland market Saturdays and all week at Lulu Rae Confections, 6311 College Ave.
    The cherry on the top? By the time he was officially laid off, in January 2007, Brydon had already been wooing farmers market customers with his single-source Venezuela chocolate—and truffle flavors such as cardamom with honey, and tarragon with passion fruit-for a month.

—By Wanda Hennig

IN THE SCENE

Rising Sunny-Side Up

   
    This definition is emblazoned across the coffee-cup sleeves at the Guerilla Cafe on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. It is an apt description of this cozy, diner-style art-and-breakfast bistro that breaks away from the traditional style and function of north Berkeley’s high-profile Gourmet Ghetto eateries.
    In the location long familiar to Berkeleyites as Smokey Joe’s Vegetarian Cafe, the cafe now sports an artist-activist motif, thanks to co-owners and artists Andrea Ali, Afro-Buddha designer Rachel Konte and Keba Konte. Images of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are silhouetted on one wall, and Black Panther–associated “Burn Baby Burn” hot sauce sits on every table. Instead of numbers, the order placards bear stylized images of such icons as James Baldwin, Assata Shakur and Bruce Lee, with biographies on the reverse side for patrons to read while waiting for their food. They are all Guerilla reminders of the ongoing struggles of disenfranchised Africans, Latin Americans, Asians and others—the cafe’s way of educating without alienating.
    DJs play the most elucidating music from the worlds of jazz, reggae, soul, hip-hop and global music Tuesdays through Thursdays, with live music on Saturdays. Guerilla, which marked its one-year anniversary in May, serves organic, French-pressed coffee from Oakland’s Blue Bottle. The menu offers a daily waffle made from ingredients like yam or buckwheat, a daily vegetarian panini and a small but far-reaching selection of organic, local and free-range fare.
    This old-world diner with coming-world spirit boasts a beautiful clientele of artists, activists, retired teachers and bright-eyed students. With its logo of a gorilla dressed as a guerilla in wrap-around shades and beret, the cafe is thoroughly styled as a neo-bohemian urban enclave in the midst of war, a place for freedom fighters resisting oppressive regimes to commiserate, make their plans over a poached-egg breakfast and rise up, sunny-side up. Guerilla Cafe, 1620 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 845-2233, www.guerillacafe.com.    
                                              
—By D. Scot Miller


Homegrown Asset


    Tucked into the margins of a quiet Rockridge neighborhood, a beautiful kid-friendly park and greenbelt has emerged in what was a forgotten expanse of asphalt near an overpass, run through by a concrete viaduct. The skinny, three-block-long park, which follows the path of Temescal Creek, was originally an overgrown area behind the neighbors’ back fences. But now, thanks to a coalition of local residents, it is a landscaped meandering walk alongside the creek bed, with large play structures at either end that crawl with kids on weekends, and a broad grassy field with adjacent basketball courts.
    Anchored by Hardy Park at one end, where the Highway 24 overpass crosses Claremont Avenue, and winding southwest past the Department of Motor Vehicles to end at a small pocket park and play structure at Claremont near the intersection with Telegraph Avenue, FROG Park gets its name from the Friends of the Rockridge Temescal Greenbelt neighborhood group that formed in the late 1990s. The group raised money from the community and the city, and installed the first play structures in 2001. But the greenbelt, which followed the spine of the creek, took longer.
    After five years of negotiating with neighborhood groups and the city over such details as how the pathway would be configured and whether the eucalyptus trees (which make the surrounding soil slightly toxic to plants) should be kept, the final $2.5 million greenbelt and two linked parks opened in October 2006 with an official celebration.
    The park uses natural grasses, ivy and Australian creepers that are easy to maintain and can coexist with the eucalyptus, says Barnali Ghosh, one of the park’s landscape architects at MIG Inc., who counts as her real clients the urban kids who will be playing there. “Access to natural elements, which children don’t often have in cities—that’s the real positive part of it,” she says.
    The park’s greenbelt winds past the bustling Temescal Farmers Market, held in the DMV parking lot every Sunday, and the area now shows no hint of its red-light past, which included the renowned Pussycat porn theater.
    “It’s a great feeling,” says FROG founder Theresa Nelson. “This was a sad, neglected part of the neighborhood, and after countless hours of fundraising and negotiating and community meetings, we have this incredible asset. A community-built, homegrown, phenomenal asset.”            
    Find out more about FROG Park at www.frogpark.org.

—By Jeff Swenerton


BULK DOWN


    Old couch weighing you down? Three-legged desk calling to you at night? Garage turned into an obstacle course? If you’ve got Big Garbage, Waste Management’s got answers. The city’s Bulky Pickup Program will let you schedule a team to come by and take away your old stuff for free once a year, no questions asked. The program is intended to keep people from finding their own, innovative methods of disposal, while ensuring that recyclables and toxic materials don’t find their way to the dump.
    This by-appointment, individual-household program replaces the old pre-scheduled neighborhood cleanup program, which was discontinued in 2004 after abuse by out-of-neighborhooders who illegally dumped trash and hazardous junk, overwhelming the residents’ own material, says Becky Dowdakin, recycling program supervisor for Oakland’s Public Works Agency. Plus, it’s easier to recycle under You Call, We Haul. “Since switching to the appointment-style service, the program’s recycling rate has increased by more than 30 percent,” she says.
    Here’s how it works: If you live in a single-family house (or a building with up to four units), you get one bulky pickup a year. Call the number below to set up a scheduled pickup date. The day before your date, set out your garbage on the curb, separated into three groups: large recyclable items (including big appliances, TVs, computer monitors, tires and mattresses), other recyclables (yard trimmings, wood, scrap metal and cardboard) and nonrecyclable biggies (couches, small appliances, painted wood, odd tchotchkes). A couple of trucks come by and haul it away—freeing up your time to grab a beer, head out to the garage and decide what you’re going to do with all that extra space.
    Residents can schedule pickup any time February through December by calling (510) 613-8710. Information about all of Oakland’s waste and recycling programs can be found at www.oaklandrecycles.com.

—By Jeff Swenerton


ABOUT A PING-PONG PLAYER


    Shashin Shodhan is a man on a mission. He wants to change people’s perception of ping-pong from that of a non-athletic after-school pastime to that of a physically intense battle of the wills. “You don’t just stand in one place and flick the wrist a little bit,” says Shodhan, one of the nation’s best table tennis players and an Olympic hopeful for the 2008 games in Beijing.
    There are a few table tennis hotbeds in this country, and the Bay Area is one of them, which Shodhan attributes to the large population of immigrants from Asian countries that follow table tennis the way Americans follow baseball. Shodhan was 5 when his father introduced him to the sport in their native India. After his family moved to Fremont in 1984, Shodhan joined a club and started entering tournaments. He didn’t mind putting in hours of practice and went on to win 15 national junior titles. By the time he started college at Cal in 1996, he was rated high enough to pursue a spot on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team. Shodhan finished seventh at the trials and earned an alternate slot on the doubles squad.
    Shodhan, 28, now fulfills what he calls his “table tennis obligation” by competing in the Northern California Table Tennis League, which he founded two years ago. Olympians Michael Hyatt and Khoa Nguyen and U.S. national team member Barney Reed Jr. have all participated. Last season’s MVP was former top-ranked junior Freddie Gabriel, who played for the undefeated league champion Oakland Lions. In addition to his coaching and clinics, Shodhan manages the league’s Web site (www.norcaltabletennis.com), where you can find recaps of the matches, player bios and
a schedule of upcoming tournaments. Shodhan would like to see his league go national, and he hopes more sponsors will sign on. “I want to use the league as a vehicle to allow kids to continue playing,” he says.
    To increase his chances of making the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, Shodhan plans to hire a practice partner to prepare for the first stage of the trials in January. He looks forward to the five-hour practices. “To be successful at something you really have to have a passion for it. I’m pretty sure this is my passion.”                

 —By Sarah Thurmond


You're an Oaklander if...

… You went on field trips to the Oakland Public Museum.


    Until 1967, East Bay school kids got all googlY-eyed staring at giant ostrich eggs and obsidian arrowheads in the bewildering jumble of exotic anthropology, ornithology and ethnography exhibits throughout the Italianate Victorian mansion now known as the Camron-Stanford House. That year, the Oakland Public Museum, founded in 1910 as the first teaching museum west of the Mississippi River, shut its doors to the public, and its collections were moved a few blocks away to the Oakland Museum of California, which opened in 1969. The original museum was part of an early-20th-century
urban-beautification movement led by Oakland Mayor Frank Mott. Lakeside Park was created when the city bought up private residences around Lake Merritt and removed all but the former home of Stanford University founder Josiah Stanford, a house built in 1876 by William and Alice Camron. Today, the restored house offers guided tours 11 a.m.–4 p.m. on the second and third Wednesdays of the month and 1 p.m.–5 p.m. on the third Sundays.    

—By Derk Richardson


DIALOGUES

Todd Walker

Youth Football Coach


    TODD WALKER IS AN URBAN COACH WHO TAKES HIS ROLE AS A MENTOR SERIOUSLY. Dead seriously. With his young charges caught up in a culture of street violence, he’s seen too many funerals. That’s why he takes his Berkeley Cougars—youth-league football players, ages 6–14—on a preseason tour they’ll never forget: to East Oakland’s Whitted-Williams Funeral Home.

It reminds me of the movie Scared Straight! Is that the goal—to scare them?
    It really is to make them think. I was losing a lot of kids to street violence and one day a parent called and wanted me to talk to her son. I said, “I’ll take him to the mortuary and set him down with the funeral director.” Then other parents started calling.

But guns and violence are such a big part of pop culture today. How do you make your message stand out?
    I tell them straight up: If you die this way, you die dumb. It ain’t cool. Everyone is walking around the funeral home with your picture on their T-shirts—but you’re dead.
 
And you back up your talk with some powerful visuals.
    I tell them they have to touch inside the casket. That right there is so powerful—because when they go to a funeral there are two or three hundred people there. Here, there ain’t no showing off. It gets to them. It makes them think. When they leave, I make them go home and hug whoever their guardian is—the parent of the house.

And you can reach even the toughest, street-hardened kids?
    I had one boy who was trying to be Mr. Hardcore. He said he could kill somebody. But when he went into the casket room he had a whole different attitude. He called me a week later and said he wanted to join the Job Corps. He was scared.

What do you tell your players about staying alive on the streets?

    A lot of it is judging situations. If you see somebody arguing, you don’t get involved; you get away from it. A lot of the kids have real bad tempers. That’s really what the mortuary is for. I tell them, if a body is in here, they didn’t listen to somebody or they were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The gym or the sports field used to be kind of a safe haven for troubled kids. Is that still true?
    It’s different than 10 years ago. Then it was an outlet. Now, they don’t go to school; they don’t go to class, so they can’t play sports. A lot of them end up in jail. Now the kids can’t even go to the gyms ’cause there are people out there trying to kill them. 

—By Ginny Prior