I pull up to the Third and Pine island stop, outside McDonalds. We're in the vortex, the nerve center. Every major city has an intersection like this, but few are as colorfully and ferociously egalitarian. Class and status groups rub shoulders an onion-skin hairsbreadth from each other, a melting pot bubbling high, just this side of boiling over.... You feel as if the intersection is so stuffed with humanity it can hardly contain all it carries on its stage. The scattered crowds jaywalk with aplomb, and somehow this is oddly appropriate: isn't this after all the human organism unrestrained, unfettered, a swimming morass of stories and lives, and how could all that be held back by something as artless as a colored light?
You have the commuters, dressed for the office, the market, or outdoor labor, adding a sense of purpose to the undulating horde. Tourists alongside amble and sashay, stargazing in their fanny packs and visors, short-sleeved eddies in a stream of locals. Canvassers fight to get a word in edgewise, using friendliness or guilt; thumpers and witnesses vie for attention, preaching their brand of judgment. Figures on the ground all the while, with scraps and guarded eyes, they were like you once.
The police presence highlights the more explicitly nefarious chicanery, but happening simultaneously are more discreet shenanigans– look for the high-class call girls, once an hour or every two hours, passing through the crowd to that elegant side doorway you've never noticed before, each time with a new client.
Right over here, where we are, is the infamous southeast corner. It's a 24-hour institution, the fellows who hang around. Some aren't even interested in drugs, but ah yes, some so definitely are. Supplies and demand wax and wane continuously all day, with various illegal goods and services becoming available at different times. The hoodlums, dealers, dopers, users, laggers, burnouts, hopheads, pushers, Sampsons, cookers, daddies, fences, hangers-on; aspiring deliquents with their heads in the clouds, people doing things in the shadowy recesses I've never even thought of. Faces in the dark like Francis Bacon. You're reminded of the diabolical corners of a Bosch or a Gustave Dore.
Some call Third and Pine the Blade; others the Hive; or simply McDonalds, giving that innocuous company name completely new meaning. I call it the Center of the Universe. That there aren't serious crimes happening constantly here is a testament to all the people. The Scientologists are more likely to interrupt your day than the hardened– and usually fairly distracted– folks at the corner.
Then there are the homeless and low-income, not to be confused with the buyers and sellers. If those were the will-nots, these are the have-nots, and though they might be indistinguishable visually, or may once have very well been the same, their aims couldn't be more opposed. The grammar of these lives is different. Let us not prejudge these folks trying to get a leg up in life, rushing for buses to appointments and interviews, meeting their case managers, their minds trafficking in the whirlwind blur of waiting lists, shelters, social service calls, deadlines and dwindling dollar amounts, work release programs.... Their hustle is the harder one, with higher stakes.
Tonight a boisterous group of African-American men is in the island stop shelter, huddled around playing dice, their culture's answer to a cluster of old Chinese surrounding a game of Mahjong. I tap the horn and one steps out of the road and back on to the sidewalk, consumed in the game. Another steps onboard, still enthralled, yelling through the windows, "That ain't money! Those are coins! Are you serious?"
I'm pulling slowly forward, preparing for the famous left turn on Third. This has to be done at a snail's pace. I love it. The bus in slow motion as people dash out, wander out, saunter– the speed and alternating paces of a dream.
You're enormous but precise, slower than walking speed, a blue whale in a school of fish as the crowd swims past. Everybody's watching. There are surprisingly few deaths each year at this, the jaywalking capital of the world. Because you expect it. Behind me now people are shouting on the McDonalds corner. I ignore it, thinking I'm no Looky-Loo, but wait, it's building to a crescendo, people shrieking, clumps of groups glancing at each other. Are they yelling at me?
Then, louder than ever, I hear, "WASSUP! AY! AY!"
I turn my head all the way back. We're in the middle of the intersection, inching forward, starting to turn the wheel.
That's not a brawl breaking out. It's Sho Luv, hollering a warm hello at me, overwhelmed with goodwill. Absolutely beaming. Next to him are a couple other brothas, one watching me and smiling.
From the bus window I extend my arm, bellowing, "HEYYY! HOW'S IT GOING? MISTER SHO LUV!"
I think he said, "Sho Luv in da house!" Those gold teeth flashing brighter than ever, reflecting off the sodum vapor lamps, blowing up the orange night.
"Iss a pleasure!" I howl.
"Das mah boyee!" I hear him hollering into the night, as I drive away.
What stayed with me most about the interaction was not Sho Luv himself, but that young man next to him, his friend or whoever it was, the kid who was watching. He was unsure what was going on, curious as to my response, and then thrilled at my excitement. I saw the man just long enough to see the smile forming on his face. What a beautiful light. Two different worlds met in that greeting, and instead of a collision, he saw a warm glow. His world got a little bigger in that moment.