Summer break without a break

The San Francisco Chronicle | August 8, 2004

By Leslie Guttman

Maurice Williams, 19, future U.S. congressman if he has it his way, says life is a 24-hour job, and after growing up in two of the Bay Area’s forgotten neighborhoods, East and West Oakland, he craves a life of success and stability — and says nothing will stop him from getting it.

He is close to $10,000 in debt with student loans after his first year at college in Alabama. For him it is summer break without a break, for he has been working at Sears in the hardware department to make enough money to help him return to school and realize his dream of entering politics.

I met Williams through a friend who thought I might want to write about how determined he is to succeed. When I meet him, though, he doesn’t want sympathy or empathy, to be seen as a "Stand and Deliver" character. He just wants to talk about his life, which has not been easy. Maybe he would be having a better time of it if neighborhoods like his got a fair shake. Or if his family had been able to help him pay for college. But neither has happened.

He says he wants me to know how much he loves and respects his mom and dad, despite everything that has gone on. The facts are these: His dad left when he was 3, after cheating on his mom, Williams says. For the next five years, Williams, his mom and his two sisters, along with seven cousins, struggled to keep it all together. One of the many places they lived was a rat-infested residential hotel.

At 12, Williams went to live with his dad, in part because he couldn’t handle seeing his mom stay with a boyfriend who mistreated her. But at his dad’s, he felt second to his step-mom. So he couch-surfed at relatives’ homes. "I’ve never been without," he says, "but I don’t like living day to day. I hate it."

Williams is medium height, quiet yet steely. From 5 years old on, he says, he surveyed life outside his window and decided he would not drink, smoke or do drugs because in not doing so he would cut his chances of failing at life, prey to fruitless distraction. He would overcome the economic inequity facing him by studying and taking advantage of every opportunity. He would not gangbang. He would not be satisfied with hustling at the Coliseum for money during Grateful Dead concerts and Warriors games like his cousins. "I’d set myself up to achieve."

So life up to now has been go, go, go: At Oakland High School there was football, track, French club, student government and more. His senior year, the Oakland Athletic League chose him as an all-league running back. In high school and also in June, he interned at state Sen. Don Perata’s office. At Stillman College, he was vice president of his dorm hall association, worked on the yearbook, did work-study and more. He plans to play a leading role in Stillman student government. He shows me a photo album of his trip to Paris, which the Oakland High French club paid for with the help of a grant. He says he thought the Eiffel Tower was just so-so, but the Arc de Triomphe — now that’s a monument. In one photo he stands by himself on the top of it, looking out over Paris as if he is looking out over his life.

When Williams got accepted to Stillman, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., he wasn’t excited because he had never let himself get his hopes up in the first place. That’s just the way he is about everything, he says, so he won’t get let down. Although he has been awarded grants and financial aid, it has not been enough to cover the $14,000-a-year tuition. He arrived first semester with $160 in his pocket, second semester with $20. When he couldn’t afford books for some classes, he’d either go to the library or borrow from friends. This year, he’ll have a $300 fraternity scholarship for books. At $9 an hour, the Sears job will net a couple thousand, but it will go fast.

Yet Williams is a mix of pragmatist, optimist, realist and dreamer, and, as Brazilian author Paulo Coelho says, the universe conspires to help the dreamer. He has an unshakable faith that somehow things will always work out financially and otherwise — his life arranged by a divine hand. Like how a job making a wedding video came up just in time to earn him $250 for a Greyhound ticket home this summer. And how his mom, whom he hadn’t seen in more than two years and didn’t know day-to-day what she was up to, serendipitously boarded that Greyhound in Monroe, La., where she now lives; they got to spend the rest of the trip back to Oakland together. Mysterious stuff like that is always happening to him.

"When I look back at my life and all the things that I wanted, I might not have necessarily got them, but I got everything I needed … " he says. His focus right now is also figuring out how to help his two younger sisters prepare for college.

Williams says America isn’t the land of the free when poverty slashes and burns through neighborhoods like his, and some murders aren’t even in the newspaper anymore because it’s just another killing in a crummy part of Oakland — who cares? In Alabama, however, he misses the ethnic diversity of his hometown, which he loves and doesn’t-love the way you love and don’t-love your family. At his all-black college, he finds it frustrating how reluctant his fellow students are to mix with other races, and he wants to set up events with the University of Alabama to do so. One of his favorite lines is from a documentary when Malcolm X was asked what black people can do to succeed and replied: "The price of freedom is death."

"The price of freedom for me was to leave Oakland," Williams says. His biggest regret in life is that he never got to play Pop Warner football because his family didn’t have the money. He can barely stand to think about it.

Williams wants two things in life: One, to go into politics to change the lives of people living in poverty and violence; and two, a marriage and family that makes him feel as loved as his late grandfather, Thomas Bolton, did. Bolton, who died in 1994, was a quiet family man who liked to sit in his favorite chair by the window and listen to jazz and drink Gilbey’s Gin straight. Whenever Williams came over to Bolton’s place in West Oakland, there was always a dish of hard candy on the coffee table and a bucket of black walnut ice cream in the freezer for him. Bolton always had money. He always had something.

"I want a family. I want to get married. My career will never come before those things. Even if I become president of the United States, that wouldn’t come before my family," he says. He dreams about holding office, varied dreams about serving locally, about the California Legislature, Congress and ultimately the Oval Office.

Perata says he has never seen a kid with more charisma or focus, a leader if he ever saw one. They met about two years ago when Perata was out with his nonprofit one weekend painting the bleachers at Oakland High. Working alongside Williams, Perata learned of his will and his goals, and offered him a job on the spot. "Here’s a kid who could have become embittered or could have gone in the wrong direction for any number of reasons," says Perata. "He’s really made his own luck."

Ever since kindergarten, Williams says, "I have always been my own person. I don’t like taking orders from anyone. I like to be in a leadership position. People come to college to be shaped and molded — I didn’t." Also, he adds, "Culture wants me to dress a certain way, to act a certain way. I don’t have to wear big, fat chains or talk a certain way to be part of our culture."

He is working on a public service announcement for his college’s access channel to get out the vote in November. He can’t believe how apathetic some of his classmates can be about voting. He worries about our country. "To question anything in America today means you’re called a liberal. One thing that should never stop occurring, no matter how old you are, is the right to be a critical thinker. That’s what God gave us a mind for."

As we head toward his cousin’s house in West Oakland, where he is living for the summer, we drive by the rec center where he’s going to apply for a second job, and the place where his grandfather lived. His grandfather gave him the nickname "Rollercoaster" for the wild way he ran through sprinklers as a little boy. The night before he left for college last year, Williams took a walk late to go look at his grandfather’s house one more time. The sprinklers were on in front. Williams took it as a sign that all would be well, and ran through them.Leslie Guttman is an editor on The Chronicle news desks.