Have you ever noticed how hard it is to remember how a dream began? You're always already in the middle of a situation. That's how this circumstance felt. A moment ago I was standing in the plaza at Fifth and Jackson, waiting for my bus to arrive and my shift to commence. I'd exchanged a hello with Ali, one of the regulars you can always find lounging about the area. Things were placid. How did we get from that to this? I'd barely been here five minutes. Where did this strange angry boy come from? Why was he being so loud? For that matter, the man he was yelling at– where did he come from?
A late-adolescent youngster in a beanie, hoodie, dreadlocks, baggy sagging jeans, and clean oversized sweatshirt was roaring at an older man, attempting to rob the fellow.
"You got me some money? You got some money for me, nigger?"
He was a loose cannon. The forty-something white man on the recieving end of these comments gave off the vibe of being no less streetsmart than his current sparring partner, and he acted more annoyed than frightened. He took a step or two away as he spoke, in a tone suggesting the idea was preposterous: "No, I don't got money, man!"
"Nigger I don't give a fuck nigger, do you have some money, nigger? You know what money is?"
"Yeah, I know what money is."
"[Unintelligible] some for me then, nigger! If you got some money, nigger, I want some mothafuckin' money, nigger!"
Ali and I were a few feet away from them. I was standing, as were the robber and robbee, and Ali was seated on the landscaping. I hoped our mere proximity was accomplishing something in terms of deescalating possible violence. I was mostly wondering how best to balance intervention with deescalation, but I also found myself reflecting on the young thief.
To what degree did he realize how snugly he fit into the easiest, worst, ugliest stereotypes about young black men and how they behave? His actions, manner and dress seemed nothing if not entirely borrowed, a shameless pastiche lifted from some overused manual of clichés, which probably felt as empowering as they were self-destructive. A line echoed in my mind, a memory of an older black man speaking to a black youngster in a situation different but similar to this one: "man, you an embarrassment to your people."
"I'm friends with him, dude," the white man said from his scruffy leather jacket, gesturing toward Ali.
"I don't give a fuck if you friends with him!" Not true, and I could see it. The boy was being forced to reevaluate the situation: this white guy is friends with this black guy whom I don't know, and I also just became outnumbered. But I can't show that. "I want some mothafuckin' money, nigger! You know what money is, nigger?"
"Yeah, I know what money is. I was tryna talk to this guy."
It was turning into an argument instead of a mugging. Great. My bus had just arrived, and I went over to greet the driver. Ali yelled farewell to me, and I set myself up in the seat, closing the front doors and pulling a few feet forward, to the red light.
Again as in a dream, the young loose cannon was now just outside my bus, knocking on the glass of the front doors. His attitude on the sidewalk didn't exactly give a good first impression, and I considered leaving the doors closed. But. The light's red. He could stand in front of the bus to block it. Maybe he's armed.
I had a thought: my customer service skills are stronger than this glass.
This is what we do. I opened the doors and positively radiated welcoming energy toward him. Make it genuine, and beam it out. My safety and that of my passengers depended on it. I leaned forward and tilted my head with an upward nod and a smile.
"Hey, how's it goin'?"
"Do me a favor, man," he said, amiably.
"Yeah yeah for sure, what's up?"
"My shit is worn out. C'ai get transfer? C'ai get two transfers?"
"There you go, I'm gonna give you two, how's that sound?"
"Sound like I'm [unintelligible]." I could tell by his tone he meant some sort of thanks.
"Texas. Office!" I had no idea what those words referred to, but the timbre of his voice and body language explained it all: gestures of respect and appreciation, mutual acknowledgment. I replied accordingly.
"Alright, take care now! Good holiday!"
"You have a good holidays too!" he exclaimed with a grin, stepping off the bus. I closed the doors and took the green light, moving forward and reflecting further.
There is goodness in every last person on this planet.
How I love watching it come alive!