Sunday, June 30, 2013

Seeing It Coming

I picked them up in the bus stop at 11th just past Folsom: a big athletic black man and a thin white man, both in their late 20's. They climbed into the back seat. The white guy sat behind me. If I'd gotten a better look at him, I never would've let them in the cab. He had the pasty skin, pimples and fixed, superior stare of a meth addict.

"26th & Folsom!" The black guy commanded.

"'You mean," I said quietly. "Would I please take you to 26th & Folsom."

They glanced at each other. The white dude giggled.

"Yeah. Right. Of course. P-l-e-a-s-e," the black dude said with a smile. "Definitely please. Sorry for my rudeness."

"No problem," I said as I started heading toward Harrison. Polite or not, I didn't like their vibe. If I took the logical route of Harrison to 26th and then a right to Folsom, I'd have to pass through a housing project. A few years earlier the street had been a cul-de-sac. A cross-country trucker had once made a wrong turn onto 26th and been beaten and robbed before he had a chance to back up. The city had since removed the barrier blocking the street but the area was still a war zone.

It was a quiet Thursday night. We drove down Harrison to 16th Street in silence. I'd forgotten about Treat - a two-block alley that cuts off at a diagonal to 18th and Folsom. It's in a warehouse district that's usually deserted but there was some kind of party at one of the offices.  In order to avoid the project I veered onto Treat, took it to 18th and turned left onto Folsom.

Just afterwards, the black man leaned forward, put his elbows on the back of the seat and held out his hand with a big friendly smile.

"Sorry we got off on the wrong foot," he said. "I'm Jerry. That's my partner Frank."

I shook his hand and nodded to Frank in the mirror.

"Sorry I can't shake your hand Frank," I said, "I'm driving."

"No problem," Frank said with a thin smile and his frozen stare.

"People just don't understand the shit you have to put up with," Jerry said.

"Well, I - "

"No - you don't have to tell me. They're rude to ya, they talk to ya like dirt, they don't say please, they shout into their cellphones next to your ear. They have sex behind ya, they treat you just like a nigger."

"That's not a word I'd use."

Jerry broke out laughing.

"Of course not. You're one of those liberals. I could tell that right away. I'll bet you marched with Martin Luther King."

"I didn't march with him," I said with a laugh. "But I did go to his funeral."

"I knew it!" Jerry said laughing. "Knew it. You were one of those hippie drop-outs. Fightin' for  equality, rock and roll and freedom - especially free love."

"That tuned out to be an illusion."

"Ain't that just the truth," Jerry laughed, "and here you are doing a - no, I won't say it. I'll be PC. Here you are doing an African American's job being treated just like just you had black skin."

"Except, " I said, "I don't have to wear the skin home."

"You got that right!" Jerry exclaimed laughing. "You got that right! - But the worst thing is they rob ya. I'm mean, it's hard to believe. It's not like you're B of A. You're just some guy tying to make a livin'... supporting your wife and kids ... and some low-life sticks a gun to your head and threatens to blow it off! ... And, that's exactly what they did the other night to that poor fucker in Oakland. You hear about that?

"Yeah - I heard about it."

We passed a bus dropping just after 25th. Its route would take it down Folsom to make a right on 26th. I pulled over at the corner of 26th and stopped in a way that blocked off the bus's route.

"You need to take a left," Jerry snapped.

"What happened to 'Please?'"

Jerry turned his head away and reached for something in his jacket.

I opened my door slightly and slide out, landing on my shoulder and going into a tuck and roll. I heard Jerry shout,


I looked up just as the bus arrived. The driver started honking his horn and flashing his high-beams exposing Jerry pointing his gun and spinning wildly around looking for me. I'd left the car in gear. It hit a tree at about 5 mph - just fast enough to flip Jerry into the front seat where he left a little blood on my dash. He and Frank jumped out and started running - away from the projects that they'd wanted me to turn into. Although they were sprinting, they stayed low and close to the bushes, so they'd be hard to spot.

The bus driver kept flashing his lights and honking his horn as if the cab would magically move by itself.