Strangers

The day of this interview, I took lunch and sat in the café downstairs from work. The café is awful; the items pretty and sweet and pointless. It rained noisily. I sat facing a boiling puddle and listened as close I could to the reporter on the phone. His voice warm and friendly, his questions sent me back through time and memory. 

If you ask the same question each day, you may get a slightly different answer each day. It feels weird explaining myself and my life. As if I could explain anything. Over the years it occurred to me I am now ward and caretaker of memory. A tour guide for the people who raised me who can no longer speak for themselves. I need to be careful with Our Story, because Story changes each time you tell it. I need to use caution talking about myself, my parents, my grandparents—because the only thing anyone will know of them is through me. It’s not enough being a poet and creating art from memory. I also have to be a story stylist in talking about how the poems were written, what’s the truth behind the art.

***

I appeared at the Claremont Branch library last month to read from the book and interview with the librarian whom I count as a friend and who began making circles in the local poetry community back in the 90’s when I did. The reading, conversation went fine.

What rattled me a little was looking up and seeing my old friend from my years at Laney College walk in.  She and I were very close (“I knew and remembered your mom,” among her first words stepping through the door) in the years just before I started regularly attending open mics and writing poems. To see her again stunned me. I’d forgotten how valuable she was to me, much less how many years have passed since even hearing her voice. In the ensuing years I’d lost my parents, my house. My life, really.

In seeing her, her unique name blasted quickly from my mouth as if no time had passed at all.  And I felt proud of myself even remembering her daughter’s name, in grade school back when we met in college. How is she, I asked.

And my friend stopped as before an abyss, and I thought No. No—there’s no way she’s about to say it. But she did. “I knew you were gonna ask after her,” she said. Then she told me: liver, swelling, hospitals, surgeries. Gone now. 23—college age. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Our conversation could go no further and didn’t.

A nicely filled house for the middle of a Saturday afternoon. During the reading, I did poems around my mom’s illness and found myself avoiding my friends eyes. I felt kinda guilty for reading it at all, as if I were a Salt Artist—bring me your open wounds and let me work my magic. But I went there and did it. I read and then sat with the librarian and we interviewed—more Dick Cavett than Larry King. (“It was interesting watching you think,” he said later.)

Afterwards, after questions from the audience and our hour had closed, my college friend came over to me while I was chatting with someone else. I took the book I’d been reading from, removed the flags from it, and handed it to her as if it were her’s and I borrowed it. I didn’t sign it. She took it and left me talking as I watched her walk out the door. I thought of her as we both were in the late 80’s, early 90’s. If I could go back to those years with her right then, I would have.

**

The day the interview went public in the paper, I made a conscious effort to say nothing. I went to work. But no one reads the paper anymore. And I insisted my ego remain at ease, so I drew no one’s attention to it. I also couldn’t bring myself to read it. It might be fake news, I kept joking. But in truth, I’ve re-lived and re-written my story enough. Its fair to say I’m sick of myself.

**

I was wrong. Someone reads the paper.

I sat before work one morning in the Ferry building. I sat at a huge table where at the other end were a half dozen police officers, chatting, drinking coffee. I wrote, or tried to, but was distracted. Due to the presence of the police, a white woman felt comfortable enough to sit facing me across the table. She placed her living dog-accessory on the floor and quickly polished off a bagel. A ferry boat arrived and hemorrhaged a thick crowd of people. The cops eventually walked off and the woman, too, after polishing off the bagel, crumbs, then scooping up her dog. In future, I predict some dogs will be born without legs and their entire spine will be scruff, a natural handle of skin and cartilage allowing them to be carried around easily.

I bowed back over my notebook to write a few more lines and then noticed someone stop in front of me. When I look up, I recognized him. It was a brother whom I worked with years ago, but I’d long ago forgotten his name. I see him most mornings I come here. But I never make time to speak. 

I saw he wore a giant green moustache of mucus. The only spot of color on his face, or upper body at all. Everything else was brown or black. And smooth. It took running into him a few years before I realized he doesn’t grow hair. His eyebrows smooth as his cheek. No shadow of any trace of hair anywhere on his face. This morning, the only obvious thing was his green mustache of mucus which nearly stopped my heart beating.

Because I’m a Virgo. Because germs. Because my own sinus problems. Because Because Because Because…

“I saw you in the paper,” he said. Then: “You out there doing big things,” or something like that. He sat his plastic bag on the table, took out a flyer, then lay the paper on top of what I’d been writing. He described an event, I saw words and a couple of photographs on the sheet, but otherwise couldn’t take in any information. “Something that might interest you,” he said.  It didn’t. He wiped the green bulb away in slight of hand and kept talking. But I was still unnerved. I looked away from him and when I’d looked back he had vanished into thin air—he hadn’t turned or used any exits or walked anywhere. He seemed to’ve just dropped through a vent in the floor.

The cold I’d gotten over last month, returned to me for a week.

**

Is there a poem in this? Or is it Too soon? Is it too soon for these stories to become poems? Is it worth it? Am I missing something? What’s the cooling time before an incident is ready to poem?

**

I was on the bus returning from the supermarket and rang for my stop.  As the bus begins to pull over, I notice an older white man running to meet it, flailing wildly. He catches my attention because his hoodie begins to slip down the back of his head revealing snow white hair dyed blue and braided in cornrows.

As I exit the front door, he has jumped on through the back. This is in Oakland where coming through the backdoor of the bus is unusual. But now I see he has a Chihuahua on a leash. The dog is in a yellow rain-slicker with the hood raised.  The old man has boarded the bus already and then yanks the dogs leash. But the rain-slicker is huge. When the man yanks the leash, the dogs head bangs against the bottom step of the bus with a loud, solid THUMP.

“Shit,” the dog says.  I mean, “Come on,” the old man says.

**

If you left your jacket overnight in a dog pound, would a dog learn to wear it?*

**

*…if it’s a Husky, is the No 1 answer, followed by Border Collie

**

The bookstore reading in the Mission went better than I expected. Eight writers and a packed room on a rainy weeknight. Afterwards, instead of running home, I went to dinner with a relatively new Artist friend. We talked about poetry, our past and movies. I misspoke saying Bertolucci was my favorite director. It’s David Lynch. We had a solid conversation over a good meal. This felt like a promising friendship. It was still a weeknight though and an hour was enough. We walked downstairs to Bart finding still more things to talk about.

I stopped talking and realized the train opposite from us was not pulling out of the station. What people I did see, a kerchiefed millennial, a block-bodied woman with elephant ear sized shopping bags, all turned towards an event out of my eye-line. My friend was facing me and I politely walked past, stepping up to look down the train car. I saw a brother with long dreds standing in the open doorway of the train whipping something out of my sightline with a belt. Vigorous throws with the ferocity of a lion tamer.  His khaki jacket ballooning behind him, his stance at full extension. He seemed to want to slice the train, or some evil thing on it, in half. Two, three, four violent swipes through the air then he turned and began walking my way. I dropped my glance for fear his eyes would burn through me. I didn’t want the man’s attention, approval, or criticism. I stepped back as he quickly galloped up the stairs.

Noise. Yelling. Confusion. The man with the belt having vanished, but there was another brother, more compact. No dreds, all mouth. A hype man for crime. “F–k you,” he screamed. “You’s a racist. Racist mo—erfu–er.”  I turned back towards the car and saw an older white man following slowly off the train. “I’m not racist, brother.” The white man insisted. He was gray haired and dressed mostly in black and wore a wide brimmed cowboy hat. He held his cane crossways before him. A barrier to hold him back. “But I got a knife.” He was loud, but not nasty. “And I’ll use it.” He didn’t curse. He said: “Police have been called,” walking slow and confident after them.  But now it was just the smaller man at the top of the stairs, and the white man in the cowboy hat across from us. “911 has been called.” He announced. His tone angrier than he was, if that’s possible. “Police are on the way Tell them I’m racist. I got something to tell on you.”

The train shut its doors and pulled off for the next station. The shorter man at the top of the stairs dug into the trash bin at the top of the stairs, and threw a empty plastic cup, letting it clumsily ricochet off the stair railing before clattering to a stop on the floor. The white man complemented his weak throw, then said: “I am carrying a knife and will gut you like a fish from stem to stern.”

With both dudes having run off, now it was just the white man in the hat with the cane.  He paced, agitated, “The train got no business leaving if the police are coming.’ He was right. Loud, hot, but still turned towards my friend and me apologizing, if not just acknowledging the noise. “No worries,” said. But there seemed something to worry about. The whole station felt electrified. Every solid thing rattled. People stood quiet and still. My train blared and pulled into the station. I talked my friend into riding with me one, two stations behind this one, just to let the room cool, and in case they stopped running trains for the coming police action. At least he would have a safer place to sit down.

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