The Neighborhood

Fantastic Negrito on the cover of the East Bay ExpressI love when I run into news (good news) about people I know. I don’t know why–it just seems really thrilling to pick up a weekly paper and see someone I know on the cover or featured in a story inside. It gives me a feeling that people around me are doing amazing things all the time, and I love feeling like that. 

This morning, I walked past the stack of East Bay Express newspapers in the coffee shop where I was writing, and I  recognized the person on the cover:  Xavier Dphrepaulezz, the musician known as Fantastic Negrito. Fantasic Negrito has a practice space and art gallery in the same building where I and my gang of small lady ninjas hold our late-night workouts. 

I took a picture to post on Facebook. In my caption, I called Xavier my neighbor.  When I wrote about Fantastic Negrito before, I also called him my neighbor, and a few of my friends asked for clarification. He’s not your real neighbor, right? He’s your neighbor in your training space. They weren’t trying to be picky or strict sticklers for the truth, just trying to get a mental picture of who this person was and how I knew him. But I think there was also a bit of an implication that I was being misleading, that he wasn’t my real neighbor. Real neighbors live where you live, not work where you work or play music where you exercise. 

So for my picture of the East Bay Express cover, I thought about modifying the word “neighbor” for my caption. I could say “basement neighbor” (since our training space is in/called the basement), though Fantastic Negrito is not in the basement but way up above us, on the much snazzier second floor. Or I could say, “training space neighbor.” 

Giving it some thought, I decided on just “neighbor.” First of all, Jack London Square, where our workout space is located, is only two miles from my apartment near Lake Merritt. I ride my bike there most nights. While I wouldn’t call it my neighborhood in most situations, it does in many ways feel like my neighborhood, a spot on the map of my life, a place that feels almost in sight of where I live. 

But more than that, I realized that a neighbor of my basement space is really just a neighbor, and that is because the space is part of my home. That’s a really amazing thing to realize. 

We’ve been training in the space for a little more than two years. We first rented it when our kickboxing school closed. At the time, it felt, to me, like the world was ending. There was no other school that would be comparable to the curriculum or excellence of our school. What would we do? 

A few of the women from the school got together to devise a plan of action. We didn’t know what we would do, but we knew we wanted to stick together as training partners. All of us had trained in martial arts for about a decade. We wondered: could we lead our own training? And if so, where would we do it? The idea of a park came up, but I hate working out outside, and we would have to bring any gear we wanted, which would mean we would have to drive there rather than bike or take public transportation. I advocated hard for a dedicated space–an indoor space. 

But getting that set up was a ton of work. We spent a month visiting different locations, sending each other pictures, working out how much we could afford and how much room we needed and where we could all get to, transportation-wise. 

foundry space
foundry space

One of our favorite spaces we looked at was advertised as “convenient hobby space.” When we wrote to the owner, he wrote back: “We have an old foundry with lots of nooks and crannies.” When we visited (after looking up what a foundry was), it turned out to be a GIANT abandoned factory-type building, about a square block in size, on an unpopulated side street. We went in through an enormous roll-up door, through a street-sized hallway between buildings, into a warehouse space that had all kinds of people sawing and drilling things, plus tons of antique furniture stacked everywhere. We went upstairs in a small industrial elevator, and into a wonderful dusty space full of weird junk, with high ceilings and a lovely giant window and a dirty wood floor littered with rusty nails. 

The guy told us that if we wanted the space, he’d help us clean it out and install anything we needed, such as electrical outlets. 

We loved that space, and thought we might take it. It seemed crazy badass to train in a giant abandoned foundry, if not a bit intimidating (we tried to imagine what it would be like in there at night, the endless echoing space, the possibility of a quarter mile between us and anyone else). 

Before we made a decision about that space, we looked at one more. It was in a basement, the same price as the foundry, a similar size but in a small warehouse instead of a giant one, on a well-traveled street rather than an abandoned one. 

empty basement space
basement space

This was it: our new space. 

Getting it ready was exciting but stressful. The air, walls and floor were thick with dust; it made us cough just to walk around in there. We put on gloves and masks and swept, vacuumed, mopped, until it was all clean. 

Training there felt odd at first. It feels really different to work out in a new area, especially one that doesn’t have the feel of a workout space yet. We figured out some tiring but safe drills to start out with, because we weren’t used to the concrete floors yet, with their giant cracks and irregular surfaces. 

cleaning the basement

It only took us a few weeks to feel completely at home in our new training space. The smell of our sweat and hard work got into the air, the shapes of our feet pressed into the wrestling mats, and it became home. We bought more equipment, and had lots donated to us: weights, pads, mats, heavy bags. 

Now, over two years later, our space feels like a full-service gym. We have enough equipment down there that one of our worries is, if we have to leave someday, where will we put all this stuff? It’s not an ad-hoc any more, not a temporary make-do kind of space. It’s our training spot, our second home, the space we do our hardest work. And the people around us, for better or for worse, aren’t just our sort-of neighbors, but our real, true neighbors. Like any type of neighbors, some of them are awesome, some are annoying, some are downright crazy, and some of them are famous! 

DB gang

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