Here is a story that has been stewing for a while. I first watched it from street level and then, after retreating to balcony-safety, from a bird’s eye view. I took some notes and then set them aside to simmer. I let the memories of the interaction evaporate until all I have left are the few words I jotted down in the immediate aftermath.
Here are my un-edited notes:
justified being dirty and homeless,
4000 dollar bills in a safe somewhere,
black shirt with a garbage bag full of
cans white girl, black girl, sling-blade
black man with a white glove with a
hole in it, “she al ready beat me to
the can and she told me not to come
back here, so i told her no bpdy tells
me where not to come back to.
“ill taze that motherfucka, you can go
now white bitch ill be fine”, “and he’ll
And here is a story:
“You see, I have 4000 dollar bills in a safe in my secret house,” explained a hefty homeless man to some mortified old people sitting on the bus stop bench. “I’m rich, and it’s all cans. I got mine a nickel at a time.”
He had one arm buried so deep inside a trash can that his head rested on the edge of the cylinder and he flailed his other arm about pointing with a white-gloved hand to make particular emphasi-i. The elders scooted down the bench away from the frothing digger, but he kept right on telling his version of things.
“She already beat me to the can and she told me not to come back here, so I told her nobody tells me where not to come back to,” he explained further.
Meanwhile, down the street, a woman was sitting in the passenger seat of an old Camaro with the door slung open and her right leg kicked out onto the side-walk. She was agitated and fiddling furiously with her phone.
“I’ll taze that motherfucka, next time!” the sitting woman said to another who was standing near the car.
“Yeah and he’ll deserve it,” the standing woman feigned. “Are you gonna be okay?”
“Huh, yeah. You can go now white bitch, I’ll be fine.”
So the standing woman sighed and walked quickly away, as most of the action had subsided. But she still lamented what had happened. She couldn’t believe how it escalated so quickly. She recalled the events, searching for answers.
First, she came around the corner and saw a large man carrying an impossible load of can-laden trash bags across his shoulders. He had on a tattered black shirt that was odorous, but not overwhelming. He dropped his load near a trash bin at the bus stop and started digging around for more cans.
A young woman approached from the other direction. She leaned her head back and took the last swigs from a can of Coke as she walked up. The man held his hand out for the can, but the girl looked back in disgust and threw the can into the street.
“Go run into traffic and get it,” she told him. “You smell like shit.”
He reached out and grabbed her wrist as she turned to walk away.
“First of all, you shouldn’t litter,” he said as he held on tight. “And second, you should be nicer to people.”
And then he let her go and went back to digging. She stayed frozen for a moment, and then the rage erupted. She commenced to flail about and run in small circles screaming obscenities at the homeless man and the on-lookers and right in the face of the standing woman. She hollered that her arm was broken, and screamed that she had been assaulted.
The woman rushed the homeless man and beat on his shoulders with her fists and got a hold of one of his trash bags and tore it apart sending cans cascading into the street. Drivers swerved out of the way and honked their horns and waved middle fingers.
The girl bent down and picked up a can and held it to throw it.
“Fuck you, motherfucka! Get away from me!” she screamed as she let the can fly.
It hit the homeless man in the face and made a small cut on his cheek. He bled and then stood straight up, unfurling his mass before the then shadowed young woman. She bent down, to get another can, but he shoved her over and held out a white-gloved hand. He wagged a finger right in her face.
“You can’t tell me where to go,” he said. “I didn’t do nothing to you and you made me bleed. Leave me alone.”
And he turned away and began to clean up the mess. The young woman got to her feet and backed away, making nasty words and vague threats as she retreated. And the standing woman followed to make sure everything was alright.
I sat on a lava-stone wall one day soaking in some sunshine, when a woman set down an egg crate nearby and plopped her fat bottom on top and started selling the People’s Spirit. She lit a cigarette and the smoked drifted on the wind past the tip of my nose as her shrill calls pierced my eardrums.
“Have a people’s spirit today?” she called out in a measured cadence to each and every passer-by.
Most kept their heads down to pretend avoidance-s, and a few offered generic rejection of the woman’s pleas. One man, a middle-aged white in smart black slacks and a tight shirt and no hair by design, took a wide berth, presumably to avoid catching the down-on-your-luck plague. But he gave the most definite and direct answer.
“Never,” he said making prolonged eye contact.
I sat on the wall maybe seven minutes and saw almost fifty people walk by, and each was offered the chance at a People’s Spirit. No one bought a copy. And in time I got up and left.
I didn’t buy one either.
Thursday morning started gray and cold and my walk was brisk and early. I got to work and found things just in order as I had left them the night before. And the day was begun with no bumps or turns, though the overcast sky hung low and dampened my spirits.
Before long, computer problems popped up. We found, to our dismay, that we couldn’t accept payment, save for metal and paper. And then, that our smart machines weren’t so smart at all, because they couldn’t figure out how to talk amongst themselves. I called a man in front of a screen somewhere far away, and I put the machines to sleep and clicked them back to life and took all their vital signs just as he instructed. But they stayed dumb, so we agreed to meet on the phone again later and circumvent the breakdown in the meantime.
I retreated to the back to shovel ale and soda into the shelves, and in time rushed back to the floor when the lunch-hour hit. I dove onto the scene without hesitation and had a full section in hand in no time. The slam was full on and I worked a sweat weaving among the tables and dropping plates three at a time. The crush diminished as folks ate their fill and when the checks came through the tips came pouring in. I collected a handful of dollars and coins and dropped them in the jar without looking.
But the coins clattered on top of the case and the dollars fluttered silently down to rest. A long haired vagrant, a semi-resident of the neighborhood, absconded with our hard earned cash right under our noses, right in the midst of the rush.
And on his heels, came a veteran of some foreign war and more recently a nearby prison. And he just wanted to sit and tell his story. But the diners were wary and his leaning in made them nervous. So I stepped in between and kept my cool as his erupted into fury and he inched closer and closer until I was sure I should probably duck soon. I held my ground and my tone as phone calls were being made inside and the specter of another cell broke his will to orate from our soap-box.
The diners thanked me for my courage and offered small applause for my troubles. The man wandered on as I collected the praise and the coppers never did show up. But the afternoon flowed on and soon I was done. I am home and safe now, and away from the world and the crazies. But I am fearful of the moon tonight.
I was walking along the lake, heading into a strong westerly wind that smelled like the Pacific. A golden man riding a golden bicycle and towing a golden wagon came rolling towards me. He wore a flaky golden helmet and maintained a wide, Stevie Wonder smile as he pedaled. There was a boom-box playing in has wagon, but the wind and the clash of the guitars washed into each other as we passed.
I nodded and he smiled wider, and then he was behind me, and on his way. The wind relaxed and the music settled down and I heard a familiar line fading into the distance: “Its the end of the world and we know it. Its the end of the world and we know it. Its the end of the world as we know it….”
But I felt just fine and dandy.
This is happening as I type: There are two bums in the parking lot across the street in various stages of police custody. They are being arrested for three reasons: their high level of public drunkenness, their out-ward hostility, and because I called the coppers.
I had been sitting on the couch catching up with important things late at night, when the rumbly-est of scuffles broke out in the street. I ignored it at first, but it grew louder and more distracting. And it seemed very close. I went to the balcony and peeked my head over the side.
There were two bums sprawled out on the ground all grappled up over one another. And there was a third, a woman with grey, knappy hair. She landed sharp toe kicks to the head and shoulders of the man in a headlock who flailed with a knife. The other man held the knif-er tight with his arms and legs, and landed quick rabbit punches to the knif-er’s temple. They all shouted incoherently as the tusslers rolled from the sidewalk and into the street.
The knif-er seemed menacing with a blade but his thrusts were weak and aimless. Still, he managed to sink the knife into the holder’s leg once or twice amidst all the twisting and turning, and the holder howled in pain and the knif-er broke free and stumbled across the road. He made it to the median but forgot to pick up his feet and the knif-er fell face first into the opposite lanes.
They made a slow dance across the empty street, shouting insults and profanities at each other. The woman sank to the curb and fell into a bottle of gin while she wailed at the assail-ers. The men found each other in the middle of the parking lot and were briefly tangled again. But soon the holder rose and limped away and the the knif-er lay crumpled in a compact space.
Then the cops came with their spotlights and sirens and guns drawn. And the men were subdued and loaded into ambulances and paddy wagons. And the woman was left drinking gin on the curb until she puked and passed out in the gutter. And Oakland is safer tonight, that the drunkards have been plucked from their prowling.
I busted out the back door of my apartment building and spilled onto the sidewalk with squint-y sunshine eyes. It took a few moments for the glaring white to fade back into clear colors and shapes, but then I saw a dark-haired girl with a large Cheshire-smile moving down the sidewalk towards me. She was pulling an old, wooden vanity behind her and the little metal wheels made a horrible sound as they scraped sideways along the pavement.
I walked by her in a fog, but I let my neck crane as I watched her go and considered helping her. I decided not to stop and help or to say anything encouraging or to offer any advice. Instead, I dodged through traffic and crossed the street. When I reached the other side of the road, I turned again and saw her carrying the vanity against her thighs. She was shuffling along and nodding off help from a number of suitors waiting at the bus-stop. I turned away then, and went about the business of my errand.
After some time, I returned to the street and crossed back to the sidewalk outside my apartment. I went to the back door again, but this time found the girl piled in a heap atop the crumbled vanity and shattered mirror. There was blood everywhere and her body looked cold already. I paused as I stepped over her on my way to the door and caught her reflection in a piece of broken mirror. And I remember that she looked beautiful despite everything.
I had walked a long way on a very hot day, so I stopped at a gas station to grab a drink. I pulled open the door and made my way to the soda cooler. I selected a Sprite and took the bottle to the counter. The attendant finished typing something into his phone and he turned his attention to me.
“Is that all you need today?” he asked.
“Uh. yeah,’ I said. “Just need to…”
“Hi, you’re handsome,” he interjected.
“Um, yeah, just that.”
“Okay. One-ninety-two,” he smiled.
I handed him a few bills, and he gave me my change.
“Thanks,” I said.
“It was nice to see you in here today. G’bye,” and we waved a furl with his fingers.
“Yeah, later,” I said as I grabbed the soda and went back out along my way through the hot afternoon.
It was a day to die for in mid-March. The sun was shining and a warm zephyr rustled the leaves. I walked along the lake, admiring the groups of people gathered to revel in the day – joint smokers hanging near their car trunks, hipster guys with messy haircuts and their gals with baggy blouses camped near bikes, and Latino family reunions circled around smoking grills. I was just trotting along with a smile on my face when I first heard the screams.
I saw two uniformed officers bent over an old black woman writhing in a sleeping bag. She seemed on the verge of losing her mind and the coppers desperately wanted to keep the situation under control.
“Okay, settle down,” one copper soothed.
“Fuck you! Ohhh, no, no, noooooo! Awwwwwww,” cried the woman struggling in the bag.
“When is the last time you took your meds? Did you take your meds today?” the other copper questioned.
“No, I didn’t take my meds! They make me slow!” cried the woman.
“Okay ma’am, settle down, then. Let’s get you to the hospital and get you all right,” one copper soothed, again.
And the two coppers bent down and crammed the woman into the sack and quickly worked to twist up the ends. And when she was stuck in there, they heaved her between their shoulders and left her slung behind them. And she hollered and wailed for mercy and for pity until they shoved her into the back seat of the cruiser.
The coppers took her away, then, and nobody cried out for anything.
I was sitting in the back of the 57 bus when a group of teenagers boarded. They paid their fares and moved towards the back in a torrent, surrounding me. A fat one sat in the seat ahead of me with a box of cheese fries. The teen scarfed down the fries in a few large handfuls, spraying greasy crumbs all over the ground. There was a sign on the window next to the hungry hippo that read: “No eating or drinking on the bus. Violators subject to a $500 fine. ” But it was routinely ignored with each bite.
When the bus stopped, the litter-bug got up and hit the button to open the back door and tossed the empty carton onto the grass next to the side-walk. An older man sitting a few seats ahead of us got up an looked with disbelief at the litter-bug. He stormed up to the front of the bus as it careened between lanes. He grumbled something at the bus driver, but the engine drowned out the specifics and I couldn’t make out the briefing. But the driver waved off the tattler and he marched back to the litter-bug and shoved his finger in the kid’s face.
He said: “If I ever see you throw something off the bus again, I’ll make sure the driver throws your ass off like the piece of trash you are!”
And then he hit the button and walked back to the front of the bus to wait for his stop. The litter-bug turned to his friends and told them what happened.
The litter-bug said in a high-pitched voice : “That santa-clause mother-fucker told me he’d throw me off the bus for some bull-shit! What?!”
And then the bus stopped and the man got off and the litter-bug hit the button to open the back door and tossed some paper onto the grass. The santa-clause mother-fucker reached through the door and pulled the litter-bug to the ground. He pounded his boot into the teen’s back a few times and left the kid twitching in the grass.
The man walked away quickly, but not in a hurry, and all of us on the bus looked on, waiting quietly for our stops.
It looked like cascading snow, beautifully tumbling towards the earth on a cold winter’s night. But it was simply a deluge of dandruff drifting downwards from the back-lit mane of a middle-aged man headbanging to punk rock in a loud, over-crowded bar. His scalp must have been a red, blistery, cracked and mangled thing based on the sheer volume of skin and follicles floating in the air. No body c0uld endure that amount of attrition without grave consequences. But he leaned in towards the drummer and pounded his head forward and back with one knee bent and his foot planted on the top step leading to the stage.
The head-banger was in a full lunge as his back foot had slipped slowly away across the dusty tile and he held his arms out to maintain a rickety balance. His hair rose up weightlessly and flapped back down like a set of wings expelling a load of grey bits each time he bobbed.
The drummer crashed his cymbals and ripped the air with powerful, arcing arms sending sound-waves and sonic-rays through the pulsing air. The song built and climbed to the tune of a lone guitarist playing ever more frantically to echo the increasing desperation in his cracking voice. The drummer wailed on the base drum with both feet and his greased hair slapped wildly about his head. Clouds of dandruff welled up and engulfed the stage and went swirling around in long curls and sudden bursts. It shook in the air while the guitar-player screamed into the microphone: ” Rock n’ Roll! Rock n’ Roll! Rock n’ Roll! Sex in a hotel!”
He sang those words over and over again until it was the only sound left. And then the lights went out on the band and the sea of bits went dark.