I was waiting for the 8 near the Needle on a very sunny mid-morning. It was a commuter day, so the stop was crawling with shuffling people in suits craning their necks and straining their eyes to read emails and memos on their smartphones. The octagon-shaped skate shop in the adjacent lot was having a blow-out sale and the aging pioneer was barking about Converse, and Adidas, and Etnies, and Obey, and Element, and Sex Wax.
The bus was late, so I took a position in the shade of the skate shop sign and scarfed down my breakfast bar and chugged my cold, sweet coffee. As I chewed the last bite, I moved towards the solar compacter trash can and deposited my garbage by reaching between two men leaning their elbows on the lid and passing a joint back and forth. The man in the dark-blue Dickies jumpsuit looked Mexican or Native American (probably both), and he was quiet and slit-eyed. The other man looked like Biz Markie and Star Jones mated then abandoned their baby forcing him to become loud and brash just to get the things he needed to survive all those years until he ended up a bedraggled wake-and-bake-r laughing boisterously and cursing randomly on that sunny mid-morning.
I retreated from the acrid-sweet ganj cloud about the trash can and resumed my sign-shaded post. I watched late rush traffic crawl by on Denny, with a soundtrack of benignly dirty jokes spewing from Star Markie. A group of class-cutting teens gathered around the jokester and Dickies and laughed at all the jokes and vainly tried to suck in as much of the pot-cloud as they could before it became too hopelessly mingled with the exhaust fumes billowing up from the gridlock. Markie put on a good show, and then the joint was gone and the bus arrived.
I climbed aboard, showed my transfer, and found a forward-facing seat behind the flex-section. Dickies and Markie got on last, and in that order. Dickies slid past me to a seat in the rear. Markie stopped at the elevated, inward-facing seats to have a conversation with a passenger:
“What are you lookin’ at motha’ fucka’?!” Markie bellowed at a gray-haired, bespectacled man reading a book on his way to work.
A stare. And silence.
“I said,” said Markie,” what the fuck are you lookin’ at?! You betta git yo’ eyes of’a me and go back to that book, motha’ fucka’!”
A stare. And uncomfortable silence.
“Motha’ fucka’!” Markie was turned all the way up then, and he leaned in close. “Git yo’ faggot eyes of’a me. I ain’t no homosexual, motha’ fucka’!”
A stare. And uneasy silence. And a low rumble from the rest of the passengers on the 8 (which runs through boy’s town).
“Hey, man,” Dickies called weakly from the back of the bus. “Let it go, dude. Just come back and sit down, man. It’s cool.”
“What?!” Markie yelled at Dickies, with his gaze still glued to the reader. “This faggot is lookin’ at me like I’m some homosexual. This motha’ fucka’ better git his eyes of’a me. I ain’t no faggot! Stop lookin’ at me!”
A stare. Scared stillness. And silence.
Dickies was up then and dragging Markie to the back of the bus. Markie allowed himself to be begrudgingly led away, but the torrent of slurs, and curses, and homophobia continued at an unsettling pace. Traffic was heavy and the bus moved up the hill incrementally, keeping us trapped inside listening to a new soundtrack of hate and mental illness.
Markie’s cries and rants slowly became less fierce and eventually he put on his headphones. He rapped along side the album at the top of his lungs, rhyming about guns, and drugs, and loose women, and dirty money. His eyes were closed and his head swayed like Stevie Wonder as he dropped p-bombs, and n-bombs, and f-bombs all over the bus.
Finally, we reached the top of the hill and the bus doors swung open and I jumped to get out the back doors. My hat was hung low on my head, and I bumped shoulder to shoulder into someone as we exited. I looked up and stared right at Markie. I looked him in the eyes, licked my lips, winked, and ran like hell to wherever I was going.
On the 49, somewhere between Broadway and the drawbridge:
“So where you headed, bro?” gauges asked flat-billed cap.
“Goin’ to hang with summa my guys,” flat-billed cap answered. “Where you goin’?”
“Petsmart, bro. To get some food for the animals. You guys rompin’ out or what?” gauges replied and asked.
“Nah, man. Just chillin’, tippin, sha-mokin’! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
They sat across the aisle from one another in the row behind me. It was an elevated row, so they felt like they were on top of me. Their conversation parted around me.
“Where you workin’ now?” flat-billed cap wondered about gauges.
“Some shitty job. Been there two years. I wish I could just quite,” he explained.
“Yah, bro. I quite my job a month ago. No wait, two months ago. It’s fuckin’ awesome, bro!” flat-billed cap gloated.
“Sheeiit. That’s fuckin’ it, man. Yeah!” gauges hollered back.
“Yeah, man. you gotta do it,” encouraged flat-billed cap. “Rent kinda sucks though….”
I was tired, and dirty from work – hard work – and a little beer buzzed. I wondered what his terrible job was and why he was so happy to quit his. And I sank down into my seat, and my head lolled with the bumps on Harvard.
“Where do you hang out?” gauges investigated flat-billed cap.
“Downtown man! Clubs! Dancin’, findin’ ladies, gettin’ the E,” he revealed.
“Nice. You know I sell that shit, bro. Good, good stuff. Buzzin!” gauges responded.
“Whhhaaaat? Dude, I know hella people lookin’ every night. It’s dryin’ up out there. Man you could kill it with these people – and I trust ’em. See ’em all the time. Rode with ’em every night, bro!” flat-billed cap exclaimed.
“Yeah, bro. I’m always lookin’ for good outlets,” gauges offered.
“Totally. Let’s talk tomorrow. Maybe hang out, I make the move, you deliver… ‘cuz I ain’t got the front money, but I can go with you so you know your shit’s okay. I wouldn’t fuck around.”
It went on like that for at least three cycles until either I or they got off the bus – I really don’t remember who disembarked first. And just like that, along the course of a simple ride home, I witnessed a friendship and a felony begin.
I had a sideways facing seat on the 44, and I sat looking at a middle-aged woman with table-seasoned-hair and dirt pressed into the wrinkles on her face. In her left hand, she held half a baguette, and with the fingers on her right hand, she pried hard little crumbs from the deepening hollow and tossed them onto the floor. She gazed out the window on the other side of the bus, seemingly waiting for her bird friends to arrive in great numbers and to feast upon the bounty that she laid upon the ground one morsel at a time. But, of course, they didn’t come.
So, she kept pulling at the bread and tossing pieces listlessly until the floor in front of her was a yeasty mess. Then a woman on my side of the bus who sat a few rows ahead of me turned and glared at her as more chunks descended silently to the floor.
“Hey you, stop that!” she yelled across the aisle and above the roar of the engine.
The woman turned her gaze from the scenes passing through the window and fixed a mischievous gaze at her new nemesis. She pulled a large chunk of bread from the barren husk of crust, jutted out her lower lip and let fly the crumb. It followed a spectacular arc over the aisle and pelted the other woman on the right cheek. And then there was silence from both sides.
And then the right hand resumed disemboweling what the left hand held, and the remains fell to the floor without further interruption.
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.