Cruising the Oakland Riviera
The memory drifts back slowly, probably altered by the enthusiasms of youth and drugs: I'm sitting on the edge of a rather large, dilapidated boat, tossing wood chips into the surrounding sand. In the boat are four young, good-looking men dressed in bright safety colors. One of them is smoking a cigarette, dreamily staring at the stars; the others are talking in an emphatic 4-o'clock-in-the-morning tone. They're all British; the boat is in the middle of a back yard in Oakland.
The Brits think what's going on is blinding. If you close your eyes, they say, the boat moves -- something in the way the colored lights from the old hotel seep through your eyelids, or the way the music rolls down the hill and bounces off the surrounding fence. Simply blinding. A tall boy in a blinking hat yells "Geronimo" and glides down the modified conveyor belt that leads from the upper patio to the sand pit, riding the industrial rollers like a surfer catching a wave. At the bottom, he drops in the sand and rolls around like an overstimulated puppy. The Brits laugh.
Every floor in the hotel teems with kaleidoscopic people draped in swirling patterns and seductive textures. They dance and kiss and stare into space while the music sends shudders through the floorboards. There is a labyrinth of chill rooms filled with pillows and throw rugs, and a couple of dance floors. Along the hallways, doors open onto tiny rooms filled with beds (these rooms are countless and popular). Psychedelic black-light murals adorn bathroom walls and, just to crystallize the Wonderland essence of the place, patterned lights flash across the ceilings and down the passageways. On one of the many decks I find a quiet place to sit and smell the salt in the air.
"They call this the Jack London Club because I think Jack London used to drink in the bar downstairs," I remember a young man with gem-green eyes saying. "The guy that lives here calls that the Oakland Riviera." The man points toward the estuary, but my gaze is absorbed by the flow of scarlet taillights on the freeway below.
Nearly a decade later, George Dodridge Rowan Jr. laughs and says, "We call it the Oakland Riviera."
After more than 20 years, "Jack London George" is still the owner and primary resident of the infamous hotel that housed the Bay Area's most infamous rave -- Mr. Floppy's Flophouse -- from 1985 until 1992 (when a hip-hop show resulted in a riot that put a stop to the parties).
Rowan now focuses his energies on his primary business -- real estate brokerage -- but music is in his blood and rearing. Rowan's mother, actress Raquel Miller, was a well-known vocal coach in Hollywood and the cultural director for the City of Los Angeles in 1937; she insisted her son take piano and singing lessons, and read poetry, every day. When Rowan began giving tennis lessons as a young adult -- becoming known as "Roman George" -- he treated the footwork as dance steps and played music on the courts. Later, when Rowan facilitated transactions for night-clubs and the Continental Brokerage Co. -- where he was known as "Continental George" -- he would let his commission "roll," getting him in on the ground floor of Oakland's once-famous Omni and, more currently, the Nomad. When the Golden Gate Bridge turned 50 years old, Rowan put together a one-man band and recorded a birthday song that he sent to news agencies around the bay. SF Weekly got hold of a copy; so did the Channel 7 News. Channel 7 ran theirs. Recently, Rowan composed an ode to Oakland: "Have you heard the latest secret around/ Who is the best diversified city to be found/ Land of the Oaks/ Oaktown to a few/ O.K.Land to me/ How 'bout you/ Hay! Hay! Oakland is O.K." Rowan hopes to play the song at the inaugural party of his good friend, Mayor-elect Jerry Brown. The hope is likely to become reality; Rowan is on the entertainment committee.
"I've always gone out of my way to meet celebrities and people of exceptional quality," says Rowan, standing barefoot and shirtless in front of a photo taken of him and Henny "Take my wife, please" Youngman. I have arrived a few minutes early, interrupting Rowan's shower, but the rush of memories is enough to distract him from blow-drying his hair, for a while.
"I used to be head ball boy for the [tennis] Maestro, Frank T. Feltrop," he says, as I look around the drafty add-on living room where the windows are still partially painted from the party days. Then he opens his refrigerator to offer its only contents -- Budweiser in the can -- before continuing: "I was made an admiral in the Royal Fishing Fleet by Joe Tarintino at the Olympic Club and gave Zakiya Hooker her first vocal lesson."
An impromptu hotel tour is led by a once-stray cat named Jackolette who, like Rowan, follows the sun from room to room as it passes through the building. There are still beds in every closet, and the main bar remains breathtaking, with its deep old oak and beautiful expanses of marble and mirror. But for the most part, sunlight does not suit the old place. The carpet looks soggy and worn, the stairs are loose, the boards are cracking, the paint peeling. Wide-eyed boarders and their large pit bulls live in the former brothel rooms upstairs. The sandy volleyball court is covered in grass and dog shit. The old piano, at which Pavarotti once sung, is peeling and covered in stickers. The livery is filled with rubble.