It was one of my first visits to Northern California. Still in high school, I had wandered up thru Marin, Mendocino and Humboldt counties; I'd seen redwoods and the amazing rugged coast for the first time, slept in the Ukiah post office to get out of the rain, visited one of my best friends at his cool Sonoma State college pad in the wilds of outer Sebastopol, checked out Humboldt State and Arcata as a possible next school, even been whistled at by some local Cloverdale girls who were either really desperate or just mocking my long hair. In other words, young adventure.
I was On The Road, an aspiring Dharma Bum, having read Kerouac, Kesey, all of them. In other words, I was an easy mark.
A black kid even younger than I came walking right towards me, looking me in the eye. Even a rube like myself knew this was unusual — nobody else on the street would make eye contact — and I looked back at him.
He marched up, said something like “Hey, Brother” — and took a swing at my face. But I was ready for him and stepped quick into him, his blow going wide, and hit him at least twice, hard, in the face and gut. He went down, hard, right under my feet.
A year of karate lessons seemed to have paid off for just a second — until it turned out that he had a few colleagues behind me. I felt a hard blow on the side of my head and maybe another to my torso on the other side, and it was my turn to fall. My pack dragged me down faster and my head hit the concrete. Then the blows started to land, to my face, legs, wherever.
Instinctively, I crossed my legs, not wanting to get hit down there, and pulled my arms up over my face and closed my eyes. Blows kept coming though and I felt hands in my pockets. And then a voice, like that of a child, urging “Cut him! Cut him!”
Don’t listen to him, I thought; take my wallet and anything else, you want, hit and kick me all you want, but no knives, please. And a few more blows and then they were gone. So was my pack, wallet, everything. I lay there on the sidewalk for a minute, taking a breath, and opened my eyes.
It seemed even darker than the gathering dusk and fog would predict. People kept walking by, as if I were not there. I pulled myself up into a sitting position and felt my face; blood on my hands, raw skin. My nose was pouring a bit of the red stuff too. But I did not seem to have been stabbed or sliced, at least. I slowly got up to stand, and felt the rush of fear and energy that can follow anything so severe. And then the thought: Now what?
Slowly starting to walk, I came to the next corner and looked up: the street sign was blurred, and doubled. I felt the bit lump on the right side of my head and figured, maybe a concussion. But again, now what? I walked back towards downtown, looking for a cop, anyone with authority. I could not even read street signs as everything was blurry. Once the shock and rush faded, I realized I was scared. But not scared enough to find a pay phone and call my parents, collect; that was still too much to consider.
I was on my own.
I don’t recall how I found it, but there was a door to a small police station. Inside was a sterile room and a thick plastic or glass window with a hole in it, and behind that sat a cop, head down, reading.
“Hello,” I said, and he looked up briefly, then looked back down. “What you
want?” he mumbled into his desk. “I got mugged and have nothing left, I’m from out of town…” He didn’t look up, just said, “Sorry, nothing we can do.” I just stared at him for a moment. “But…do you know anyplace I can go just for tonight? I can go to the bank in the morning…” He still did not look up, and just repeated “Sorry.”
I stood there a moment more, watching him read what looked like a comic book. I was not going back out into the streets, now very dark. So I just walked over to the corner and plopped down against the wall, sitting on the dirty tile floor. This time he looked up. “You can’t sit there!,” he said. I said nothing, just shut my eyes. “Hey! You can’t sit there!” I ignored him. I heard some swearing and then he let me alone, to drift into uneasy quiet.
But soon somebody was gently shaking my shoulder, and saying “Wake up, are you all right?” It was a middle-aged man in civilian clothes. “I am a minister, the police called me to come talk to you.” I painfully and slowly sat up, blinking. “What happened?” he asked me, and I told him.
“Well, like the policeman said, you can’t sleep here, so come with me,” he said. I stood up unsteadily and looked over at the cop behind the window, who still would not look my way. What could I do? I went out with him. There was a slightly beat-up sedan parked in front, and he opened the door and let me into the passenger seat. “Maybe we should to look for the guys who mugged you, I might know them,” he said. I told him that was unlikely and thought that it seemed even more unlikely that we could find them in this big, and now dark, city. Then we just sat there quietly.
“Tell me again, are you OK?” he asked. I told him I could not quite see straight and that my head and body hurt already but that I figured I’d be OK. “Well, I think we better have you looked at anyway” he replied, and started his car.
We went only a few blocks, it seemed, parked in an alley, and he escorted me into a funky clinic, a single room with sheet partitions hanging down. An orderly took me into one of the spaces and I laid down on a gurney. I heard voices humming around me and drifted back off a bit, until I heard a voice, looked up, and saw a pretty face looking down at me.
“Hi, I’m Dr. ____,” she said. “What happened?” I told her, and she set about checking me out, waving fingers in front of my eyes to follow and poking around my torso. She was wearing a white coat and a stethoscope like a real doctor but looked not that much older than me. I later figured she was probably a medical resident, doing time in this inner-city public clinic. I wanted her to take me home but did not say anything. She cleaned up some of the cuts and scrapes on my face and hands — that stung — and then stood, jotting on a clipboard, when we heard a guy being brought into the space next to us.
“A bunch of white guys beat me up!” said a young voice. I couldn’t believe it. I swung my legs over and before Dr. Foxy could say anything, pulled the sheet back, and there he was, my new friend from the street. He looked at me, his nose disfigured and bloody, and his eyes got very big. We just stared for a second and the orderly with him and my MD pulled the sheet back closed.
“That was one of them,” I said, and she cut in, “Well, even I figured that out.” She took my elbow and gently escorted me back out to my Minister protector. “He’s likely got a mild concussion but he should be all right,” she told him, as if I was a child. I did not really want to leave, in fact I thought I might like to go back in and see my young nemesis up close, but Mr. Minister took my arm, said thanks, and out we went, back into the night.
He took me to a very funky high-rise gritty hotel, stopping at the front desk where they obviously knew him, and we rode about ten floors up, where he let me into a single room with a sink and toilet. I don’t recall where it was, either in the Tenderloin or South of Market, but it was very, very different from what I had grown up with in affluent suburban coastal Orange County. The wallpaper was peeling and stained and so was the carpet; it all stank and there was just one little window with bars on it, looking out into an air shaft. It wasn’t very romantic in any Kerouacian sort of way, that’s for sure. I just stood there taking it all in, and then Mr. Minister said he would leave me there and I would have to leave and fend for myself in the morning. I asked for his address and said I would send him something in thanks, but he said it was OK, just to lock the door and not go back out into the streets until morning. No problem there. I hit the hard bed and passed out in my rumpled, blood stained clothes.
In the morning, head throbbing, I stood and looked into the stained mirror. Big black scab on my forehead, blood caked below my nose, a few scrapes. I looked terrible, but like I might live. A thought, illuminating, terrifying, came to me as I stood there over the cracked gray sink, staring at myself: Wow, some people live here, like this, for real. A morning of fighting bank lackeys for $20 from my lifelong savings account so I could ride the bus back south was in front of me, but I knew I’d make it. And that I’d have a story to tell. I did not yet know that I would have a knee-jerk survivalist racist fear reaction to young black males for some time, but I’d get over that too. And hopefully I might even learn something from the past twelve hours; at a minimum, that I was one lucky punk.