On Friday November 13, Al Mayfield sells Street Spirit at his usual spot: the corner of College Avenue and Shafter, in front of Oliveto and Market Hall. Wearing his classic tan corduroy jacket and beige fedora, he plays some soft jazz music from a small speaker and greets people passing by with a warm, “Good morning!” and “How are you doing?”
To spend any amount of time with Al, his optimism is nearly contagious. “A lot of people look at Friday the 13th as bad luck, but for me it’s good luck today,” he says, “Just being here, saying hello, saying goodbye—I’m happy.” A young boy walking by drops his ice cream cone on the pavement just in front of us. “Oops!” Al tells him, and gives an empathetic smile.
It wasn’t always so easy for Al, who is 66 years old, to maintain a positive attitude—especially in the “bad times and terrible times.” But, he shares, “It’s always a blessed day for me here.” He loves selling papers in Rockridge. The baristas at High Wire cafe know his coffee order by heart: Decaf coffee with steamed milk and honey. The local community has always stood up for him when there were challenges. Once someone tried to steal Al’s money from his hat. Al’s customers chased after him to retrieve it. “That made me feel good to know I’m appreciated for being here. I like that,” Al says.
Al’s full name is Aldren. He grew up in West Oakland with his parents and seven siblings—five brothers and two sisters. He and his twin brother, Aldin, were the second oldest. Some of his earliest memories are of getting to open his Christmas gifts early, since his birthday is December 23, just two days before the holiday.
His childhood was fairly normal, full of activity and time with family. At a young age, he developed a fast love for water and the outdoors. When he was little, he would skip rocks in the water. As he got older, his stepgrandfather taught him how to fish. “I caught a lot of fish,” Al recalls, “we would use worms and minnows to fish.”
When Al was in elementary school, he learned how to play the clarinet, which began his lifelong passion for music. Throughout his youth he tried the bass drums, snare drums, bass clarinet, flute, saxophone and oboe. But his favorite instrument remains the clarinet. His face lights up when he recalls his time in the McClymonds High School band. He isn’t able to play clarinet anymore because of his reduced lung function due to diabetes. But he listens to jazz on the radio every day. “It relaxes me,” he says.
In high school, Al became a mentor for middle schoolers. He facilitated outdoor retreats at Camp Tamarack near Tracy. “We were teaching them not to be afraid,” he recalls. “We had a rope tied between two trees and they could ride on a cord. That thing scared me even when I did it!” The trips gave the kids an opportunity to share about their experiences at home. Over a large bonfire the kids opened up, sharing stories of abuse and other mistreatment at home. “Now they’re grown up,” he reflects. “I just hope the best things are happening for them now.”
After graduating high school, Al got a job as a security guard at Jack London Square, and then as a security campus supervisor with the Oakland public school district. In 1974, he enlisted in the army. He served as a supply specialist, first in Virginia and then overseas. Even today, Al’s voice fills with wonder as he remembers seeing the sights in Germany, France and Holland. He shares, ”You know those places you see on a game show when they tell you you win a $10,000 trip? Trips like that didn’t cost me a dime!” While he was in the army, Al met a woman with whom he had two children who live in Ohio today.
He had hoped to serve for twenty years. But family tragedy brought him back home in 1980. One of his brothers was killed in a motorcycle accident, and another brother had died from medical complications. After the funeral, he tried to go back and finish his service, but his grief was too much. “I couldn’t process it,” he recalls. After realizing he would not be able to rejoin the army, Al became involved in the Citizens Neighborhood Assistance Program in Oakland, a nonprofit that was founded by a couple who raised money to distribute food and help pay rent for low-income families. Al met them while they were passing out produce in Oakland. The organization ran bingo games to raise money for the resources they distributed. Al had enjoyed calling Bingo in the army, so he decided to become a Bingo caller for the games. Al worked as a volunteer, but with a good crowd he received tips. He loved socializing with the players.
“Try to grasp hold of the good stuff and be happy about it”
After working with the organization for around four years, Al had to stop. His life as he knew it came to a crashing halt when he and his girlfriend were violently robbed in 1994. After the incident he fell into a coma, and no one believed he would survive. But after seven days he woke up and the doctors rushed him into surgery. They amputated his leg below the knee and placed a plate in his stomach. “It’s a blessing I’m here today,” Al acknowledges. Today he pushes himself slowly in his wheelchair. Recently it’s been even harder for him because he’s losing feeling in his hands due to his diabetes. “I may not move as fast as I used to, but I can still move,” he says.
After being robbed, Al moved in with his mother and sister. But a few years later, in 1998, Al, his mother and his niece had to leave the apartment they were living in because the building ownership changed hands, forcing all residents to move out. With nowhere else to go, his mother and niece went to the women’s shelter and he went to the men’s shelter on Shattuck. Al slept in shelters, under bridges, and on the streets for around one year.
During this period, Al connected with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which offered him resources at their drop-in center on Shattuck. They helped him receive his social security and connected him to their money management program. The program gave him a weekly stipend of around $60 and saved the rest. BFHP also provided clothes from donations. Al ate his breakfasts, lunches and dinners at churches who provided the meals. After around one year, Al had saved enough to get subsidized housing in North Oakland, where he lives today with his brother, Edward.
Al and his brother live well together. They remind each other to take their medications. Occasionally, he visits his kids and grandkids in Ohio. But he would never live in Ohio. “I can’t deal with the snow,” he says, joking that his prosthetic leg would get stuck in the thick winter snow. “I’d be trying to walk in the snow next thing you know, ‘Hey dad! Your leg’s back there!’,” he laughs.
In recent years, Al has also returned to Bingo calling at the Mastick senior center in Alameda.
Raised a Baptist, Al has always believed in God. He misses church now during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Church is in my heart,” he says. He listens to his favorite preacher, T.D. Jakes, on his phone and on TV, whose sermons about being truthful and honest resonate with Al. “Believe in what you say, say what you believe,” Al shares, “I believe that I’m being honest. I believe I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Al has pride in his hometown, and is saddened when he hears of violence. “Oakland is a beautiful town. Oakland has beautiful people,” he says. “Why can’t we all get along without all this BS?” But he believes gratitude and a positive outlook, which has helped him throughout his life, can help make a better future for others too. “Try to grasp hold of the good stuff and be happy about it.”
Street Spirits is a feature in which someone who lives on the street tells us their story.
Simone Rotman is an intern at Youth Spirit Artworks.