One of the reasons I’m trying to get a podcast launched, and one of the reasons that I do my HONY-esque @buddhahollah on Instagram, is to force myself to get out of the house and into my community to meet the people in my world, which is currently Oakland, California. This accomplishes, in theory, a number of things: it keeps me off social media, where all I do is read shitty stories about our shitty world; it gets me out of my hermithouse and keeps from wallowing in my own funk; and it allows me to meet people whose perspectives and lives are vastly different than mine. My podcast and #buddhahollah subjects have had wildly different experiences than this white girl who spent her formative middle-class years in conservative Texas and then spent her twenties and thirties hanging out mostly with white, college-educated, middle-class liberals in San Francisco.
I do this because I want to see that while I might be in pain and while I might be depressed, perhaps my struggle has been comparatively easy compared to someone who has spent most of their life living on the street or living in a wheelchair or who is facing terminal cancer. I do this because I can recognize that it gets dangerously easy to lie in my comfy bed wallowing in my own story and how I’m coping with my life as a result of the challenges that have been thrown at me. And when I do that, it also becomes dangerously easy to stay in that bed and believe that my story is immutable, to shrug and say “Oh well, this is the hand I’ve been dealt…what the fuck am I gonna do? Guess this is my shitty-ass life, such as it is now.”
I do this because it affords me greater empathy and allows me to understand that people may be in the situations they’re in because they may not have access to the things I had access to or have had the advantages I had. And when I can open my eyes to that, it allows me a kindness towards others that I didn’t previously have.
Prior to living in Oakland, I lived in San Francisco for 16 years, never in “the good neighborhoods” either. This was pre Tech Boom 2.0. There were still plenty of un-gentrified neighborhoods, and I spent 16 years taking the buses that ran in, out, and through these neighborhoods.
MUNI (aka the San Francisco Municipal Railway) is my ‘Nam, people. I’ve seen things on those buses that I will never unsee. I’m not afraid to say that MUNI, more than any other single influence, turned me into a hard and callous human being. I saw a passed-out drunk, who had pissed himself, fall out of seat into the aisle of the bus, and as the bus made its way down one of SF’s infamous hills, the drunk (and all of his urine) slowly slid down the aisle past all of us as we (barely) looked up from our phones until he arrived with a dull thud at the driver’s ticket machine, and the driver had no choice but to drag him off the bus and prop him up in a bus stop and unceremoniously leave him there. I’ve seen vomiting, shitting, pissing, hooking, hustling, jerking, sucking, snorting, injecting, and smoking within the confines of those wheels. There’s always some crazy bitch yelling about Jesus in the middle of it all, and I wonder how in the fuck she can talk about His Only Son when it is clear that God has forsaken all of us who are stuck on these tin shitboxes. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there is no God on a MUNI bus, for fuck’s sake.
Anyway, I digress. Part of my current journey is to undo my MUNI scars. I need to be less angry and less mistrusting. I need to engage more. But it’s so hard to do when you live in an urban setting, especially when that setting is Oakland, which gets a bad rap that isn’t always undeserved, though often overinflated. It can bite you in the ass. Even your best intentions can go awry. You want to believe that “deep down, people really are good,” but you’ve seen too much to buy it. You know that if you give people an inch, they will take a mile, every goddamned time.
And that brings me to today. I was sitting outside my coffeeshop having a smoke, and a young woman came up and just started talking to me. I was struck by it because who does that? Yes, I understand that if you’re reading this in the Midwest where people still take food to their sick neighbors or a small southern town where people say “Bless his little cotton socks,” this makes me sound callous as fuck. But in Oakland, you don’t just walk up and talk to randoms unless you are mentally unstable, having a heart attack, or asking for a cigarette or money. And this fresh-faced ingénue appeared to be doing none of that.
Who does that? I thought again. Then I remembered: normal, not-jaded people. She was very young, a student. And as she annoyingly chattered away, I immediately thought about how to get rid of her, and then I remembered that I’m trying to engage, so I made an active decision to start talking to this very chipper, very Pollyanna-ish girl. She was very earnest, and I’ll be damned if we weren’t actually having a pleasant conversation, when all of the sudden she busts out with “So yesterday I was robbed at gunpoint!” She said it in the same upbeat cadence that she’d said everything else up to that point. Her eyes may have widened slightly, but if anything, her smile got even bigger. She continued, “Yeah, but I didn’t have anything but my textbooks on me so he didn’t really get anything. It was all caught on camera, so if he gets sent to prison, I hope he’s happy that he didn’t get any money and he’s stuck reading my boring textbooks!”
And the old, bitter, jaded, cynical me thought: “Well there you go. You try and turn over a new leaf and let your guard down and it only serves to reaffirm what you already knew: that the world is a terrifying and shitty place full of people ready to shove a gun in your face. Fuck me.”
And as an addendum to this, as I was relaying this story to patrons at our bar, I was regaled with not one, but two stories of how two of them had recently also been held up at gunpoint within a block of the bar in the last couple of weeks.
What’s the answer? I’m trying, y’all, I really am. I don’t want to be a hermit. I don’t want to retreat into some weird cabin in the woods. Hell, I don’t even like nature. But it’s hard not to feel like the clock is ticking on my inevitable mugging/carjacking/car theft. I was mugged twice within sight of my front door when I lived in San Francisco, but that was over 15 years ago. I guess I’m overdue. One of the dudes who’d gotten recently held up showed me the new Taser he’d bought after his encounter with a sawed-off shotgun; it looks like a cell phone so you can pull it out, and it looks like you’re handing your mugger your phone, but then you hit him with 100 volts of pain. With my luck, I’d be carrying that shit in my front pocket and Tase my own vadge into a sad pile of charred ashes.
But I guess that is my only answer for now. I’m certainly not gonna walk around Oakland staring goofily up at the sky, tripping over my shoelaces, carrying a backpack full of electronics, waiting for someone to shove a gun in my face. I’m now the person who locks all my car doors, carries my pepper spray in my hand (not my purse) at all times (even broad daylight), and stands with my back up against a building when outside having a cigarette so I can only be approached from one direction. Every time I hear about a new mugging M.O., I file it away in my brain and make note of it so I can add it to my little arsenal of preparedness. “Oh now people are reaching in open car windows and stealing purses off of passenger seats? Okay, I will now wrap the straps of my bag around the console of my car. Oh now people are punching you in the face if you refuse to give them a cigarette? I guess I now have to take my pepper spray with me when I go outside for a smoke. Okay.” It’s just the nature of the beast, I guess.
By the way, it’s no coincidence that pig latin for “beast” is “East Bay.”