But after Harris returned to Oakland, he became more enmeshed than ever as Harris and Almena agreed that Harris would live at Satya Yuga rent-free in exchange for helping out. From then on, at Ghost Ship, Harris was on call 24 hours a day unclogging toilets, mopping, mediating tenant disputes, collecting rent money (and then taking that rent to the bank so that Almena didn’t blow it). He also communicated with the building’s landlords, Chor and Kai Ng, who owned some 10 buildings in Oakland, including a Vietnamese restaurant, a bakery and a grocery. Still, Almena’s verbal abuse continued and, Harris says, “I would just kind of keep my mouth shut and take it.”
He believed this was the path of deepest compassion. Anger, destruction and addiction came from pain — a dynamic Harris understood well from his own father, who turned up with no place to go at Harris’s first college apartment. In the warehouse, if Almena was acting paranoid and fuming, Harris just dropped whatever he was doing to carry some ridiculous pile of junk from Almena’s van to the yard or carry that same ridiculous pile of junk from the yard to the dumpster. He figured, if he just did what Almena said, maybe Almena would calm down, find his banjo, settle into one of the many threadbare couches upstairs and fall asleep for the first time in days. When Almena was really bad off, gnashing and foaming at the mouth, Harris told me, he would cook for him, bring him cigarettes and speak to him sweetly.
The year 2016 appeared to be the start of a brighter future. Almena had his kids back. Harris says that Almena bestowed on him the title of “creative director,” which Harris liked. Still, in mid-November, Harris flew to New York to explore “doing the bicoastal thing.” Some part of him knew that he needed to leave. Yet while in Brooklyn, for the first time in his life, Harris felt homesick — homesick for Satya Yuga. “I had a nest, a place to go back to,” he said. “As far as stability goes, I hadn’t really had that.”
At the warehouse, on Thanksgiving, Almena roasted a couple of turkeys. Harris cooked vegan dumplings. Kelber contributed cranberry sauce. A handful of stragglers from the greater Oakland underground art scene showed up uninvited — they knew they would feel welcome there. In the big open room on the second floor, “we gathered as many chairs as we could,” Harris said. A drum circle formed. Part of the hope on offer in the warehouse, as Swan Vega, an events bartender who lived at Ghost Ship, described it, was “that family love can unite people where you don’t actually need to be punitive. Doesn’t that sound like a pipe dream?”
The next day Harris started cleaning. A few weeks earlier, a music promoter reached out to Harris to see if Ghost Ship was available to host a show on Dec. 2. The lineup would be a bunch of aggressively out-there electronic music acts, headlined by the pulsing, psychedelic synth sounds of Golden Donna. In preparation for the show, Harris scrubbed the overused bathrooms. He shoved the couches to the perimeter of Almena’s living room. He placed the cowboy hat on the Garuda’s head in the way he knew Almena liked. Then on the Friday night of the party, Harris showered, pulled on a black sweater, bought a burrito and sat on a stool inside the warehouse’s front door.
Admission was $10 before 11 p.m., $15 after, though given that this was an Oakland warehouse party, it was also Notaflof — no one turned away for lack of funds. Almena was not home. A condition of Almena’s children returning to live with the family, according to Allison, was that they not be at the warehouse during parties, so Almena, Allison and the children had decamped to a hotel. (Children and Family Services declined to comment.) Most of Harris’s fellow Satya Yugans did not attend the show, either. Many were out. Some were in their studios, making art. Others were trying to sleep or flirting with dates. By 11:15 p.m. about 100 guests had arrived and walked up the eclectic art project of a staircase. Harris’s friend Micah Danemayer, 28, an electronic musician, was D.J.-ing images that night onto a large projection screen. Danemayer was another big, tender misfit who had found what he took to calling his “mutant family” in Oakland’s underground art scene. Danemayer had a real family in Boston who loved him: a father who put money in his bank account when his son’s funds ran low, a mother who sent starving-artist care packages consisting of brownies, a grocery-store gift card and a pack of socks. Just the day before, in love for the first time, Danemayer moved in with his girlfriend, Jennifer Mendiola, who was studying for her doctorate in health psychology. His stuff sat in his new home’s hallway in plastic storage crates.
On the second floor, a woman sat at a table offering $5 bang trims. Another woman was painting people’s nails. One guest, Em B, 33, a poet who worked in a coffee shop and traded Kurt Vonnegut quotes with her father, texted her wife back home: “Oh my God, this place is a trip. I can’t wait to tell you about it.” Cash Askew, 22, a much-beloved trans femme guitarist, chatted with Feral Pines, 29, another trans musician who almost always dressed in a tank top, black leather shorts, boots and a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament necklace. Michela Gregory, 20, a San Francisco State University student, stayed close to her boyfriend, Alex Vega, then 22, who earlier that night parked his silver Mazda Miata at the San Bruno BART stop. On the way out of her parents’ house that evening, Gregory told her father, “Dad, I’m going to spend the night with Alex.” “I love you,” her father called out as she stepped through the door. “I love you, too,” Gregory said.