You’ve probably heard about the tragic fire in Oakland that took the lives of 36 young adults. It is a terrible loss of life; I can’t even imagine the horrendous suffering of the loved ones. To lose a child or sibling or best friend so suddenly and traumatically is a painful cross to bear.
There are so many tragic elements to this fire — the loss of life being the most obvious one. But there are a multitude of victims (and villains) to go around.
For one, why are all these young people living in such unsafe environs? According to a former tenant, there is no heat; the place is infested with bugs and rodents; and there’s no place to even cook. How did the landlords get away with renting these slum conditions for so many years; after a multitude of complaints, why didn’t the city shut the place down?
One reason the young people signed on to the dotted line to live in a filthy slum is the severe lack of affordable housing around here. Though the Bay Area touts itself as a liberal haven, no one, aside from the very rich, can afford to live here. These days, a tiny fixer upper in a sketchy neighborhood will elicit bids of a million dollars and upwards. And rents are also through the roof.
But what troubles me isn’t just that the kids couldn’t afford a decent place to live. It’s: why did they stay here? What is it about this area that made them throw caution to the wind and set down roots? Why didn’t they go to other desirable cities, such as Portland or Minneapolis? Or a more compelling question: why didn’t they go back home?
Surely what they found around here couldn’t have met their expectations of the iconic Berkeley. Rather than a warm and welcoming atmosphere, they instead confronted an aggressive, crime-ridden area. But, I suppose, rather than change their beliefs about Berkeley, Oakland, etc. they decided that the hazardous conditions was somehow worth the enormous cost that they were paying — financially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For some very unfortunate souls, this cost meant their very lives.
But most of the people who perished at the Ghost Ship (a very apt name for the slum) weren’t living there. They were coming for the big party scene, the techno music, and the free booze, drugs, and sex.
I wish that I knew a bit about these young people — what brought them there, for instance, and why. I imagine that for some, like the teenager who died, it may have been their first time. Others were probably seasoned ravers—- maybe initiating some of the novices into the frenzied scene.
I also wonder about their parents — did any of them ever warn their kids about these kinds of manic events? Did the mom or dad tell them not to attend large gatherings in unsafe environments? Or did the parents — like so many parents around here — just tell them to enjoy their youth and have fun? (an exceedingly unwise message to send your child, regardless of his age).
And other tragic elements of the fire: the unstable, addicted husband and wife who rented out rooms to the young people. The couple are a nightmare in and of itself.
Apparently, the wife was a nice girl from a nice family in Portland, Oregon, who, like so many other nice girls, came to Berkeley seeking cool experiences. She connected with an apparently horrendous man who exerted a Svengali spell over her — and so many other people. Apparently, they live a drug-soaked life.
While worried family and friends tried to rescue the young woman, Micah, and help her successfully complete drug rehab, her husband had other plans. He kept enticing her to leave with him, which she did over and over again.
I saw pictures of the pair when they were first together. She was a lovely young woman, with blonde hair, blue eyes, and perfect, chiseled features. But in the most recent Facebook picture, she looks dead, her good looks long gone, with a blank and vacant stare.
She, like so many other young women, came here unaccompanied, hooked up with a dangerous man, and has paid the price in a good life gone very bad. She reminds me of the young Weather Underground women, also once sporting beauty and talent, who ended up emaciated wastelands — many of them dying tragically as well.
The tragedies don’t end there. There are also the landlords’ three children, so severely neglected that the authorities removed them from their care. Tragically, they were returned to the Ghost Ship hellhole before too long.
There these little tykes were filthy, malnourished, and infested with lice. The children wandered around aimlessly, observing young people, high as kites, having orgies. In one incident, a babysitter found the three year old chewing on a condom.
All of this horror is emblematic of not just parenting problems or drug issues or even housing code violations. It is emblematic of Berkeley and Oakland itself.
The warehouse was a deathtrap; we can all agree on this. But this region is a deathtrap in and of itself, just like all radical left ideology and practices. The soul stealing all around me is not confined to a rare fire.
It starts when young adults come out here seeking adventure. They find themselves pressured to experiment and do things that they don’t want to do and wouldn’t have done in their wildest imaginations. Many connect with bad men or women.
And some of them get stuck here, like Micah —- getting themselves into such bad trouble that they can’t get themselves out. Some never do.
But what makes this area a death trap isn’t just the crime-ridden streets or the irresponsible sex and drugs. What is most profoundly deadly is the lack of faith. The Bay Area is the most atheistic one in the country. Tragedy inevitably results when people abandon God.
Because only in God is there any hope — not in politics or gurus or marinating one’s brain in ecstasy, alcohol, and marijuana. And there are very few signs of life, or hope, in this very, very bereft area.
However, there are moments when the Light of God still glimmers. I was moved while hearing of a note that someone left on the impromptu Oakland memorial. The note read: “I’m praying for you — that you got out of there alive.”
What this note communicated to me is that people know. Whoever wrote this note — no matter how pierced and tattooed, how mesmerized by rave music and frenetic dancing: this person knows: that when the going gets terrifying and desperate, we reach for God.
We all know on some level, no matter how much we kid ourselves, that God exists and is preeminent. We can lie to ourselves that there is no God; that humans are cosmic mistakes; and that the unborn babe in the womb isn’t stitched together with the artistry and love of God. But we all know.
I pray that more and more people come to realize how deadly life is without God. I pray that people start waking up, now, not later. As the Ghost Ship disaster illustrates, the lives of our children depend on it.