Incident On Market Street
Writer’s comment: Writing about a personal experience can be frightening. “Who will care what has happened in my uneventful life?” the pessimist in us might ask. Perhaps it’s the emotional scars from Show and Tell in the third grade, when we brought in our toothpick-studded avocado pits that failed to sprout in a glass of water, while the popular kid flaunted a moon rock given to him by his astronaut dad. We hate to come across as dull, yet we need to tell our stories to help ourselves and others make sense of our world. The experience I wrote about for English 103A kept me up a few nights pondering why people often fail to act, even when their consciences scream that they should.
Instructor’s comment: Writing a reflective paper early in the quarter can be a way for students to realize that their own experience is, in fact, a valuable source of meaning and interest. Concurrently, we study the work of writers who render ideas and events with great vividness, and we talk about ways to achieve immediacy in our own writing. Nathan Hitzeman’s “Incident on Market Street” pulls these strains together with exceptional success; the experience he recounts is remarkable in itself, and he reports it with great skill. Of course, I can’t claim that he actually learned how to do this in my class. Nathan is a talented writer, and all his essays in 103A were splendid; I merely provided their “occasions.” I am pleased that one of his pieces now has a wider audience.
—Sondra Reid, English Department
When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to San Francisco a lot to skateboard. That year I had fallen in love with that little piece of wood with four wheels that let you zoom and swerve and jump over obstacles. I usually went skateboarding with three other guys—Kurt, my best friend; Kurt’s brother Happy, who would do anything short of paying us to hang out with older guys; and Steve, a short guy with a buzz cut who always had us laughing. We lived fifteen miles away from the city, but we went skateboarding there whenever we could. Kurt had just turned sixteen, and if we could find a parking space big enough for his mom’s station wagon, we were set for the day, for once we parked, our skateboards would maneuver us neatly through the crisscrossed streets and sidewalks. Faces flashed out briefly as we glided through the masses. People moved like ants in procession, punctuated by a flow of cars at the intersections. Drivers always frowned at us because we weaved around them, showing off our cat-like balance, our ability to keep a smooth momentum over the offset blocks of cement. We would skateboard through all parts of the city—Chinatown, North Beach, and even the dilapidated Tenderloin (an area my mom always told me to avoid). We always ended up at the Embarcadero where the other skateboarders hung out and compared tricks, like how to ride your board down a handrail. Happy almost jeopardized his future ability to have kids trying that one.
San Francisco was a world of its own, far different from the mundane suburb where I lived. In the city, every block brought a new surprise—a Korean selling carved dragons, a kite-flier flying a giant experimental kite at Pier 39, or a hobo at Fisherman’s Wharf salvaging a few tunes off of a beat-up six-string guitar. The nationalities changed from block to block, too. Almost in minutes you went from Japantown with its sushi to Chinatown, where you could buy fireworks and Chinese yo-yo’s, or to the Mission District, where Latinos showed off their ’64 Impalas with their hydraulics and loud bass speakers.
We also observed the disparity of wealth in the city. San Francisco is small in area for its population, and I was always surprised at how close the ghettos are to the rich areas. (The houses are all gummed together and you wonder if someone could run across rooftops from one end of town to the other, or live up there—perhaps a character like Calvino’s “Baron in the Trees,” but with rooftops). For instance, the run-down Fillmore District lies right down the street from the tall, lush Victorian houses of Pacific Heights. Union Square, where upper-middle-class women with styled hair and long legs shop, lies just a couple of streets away from Geary, where women with even longer legs and longer, frizzier hair wait on the corners for customers. I thought San Francisco had to be the most fascinating place on earth.
However, one day something happened that changed my appreciation for the city. The day was sunny and a wind seemed to whip off of the bay like foam from a tall glass of root beer. We had just been kicked out of the subways for trying to sneak through the fare gates, so we rode aimlessly down Market Street on our skateboards, looking for something to do. We moaned when Steve said he was hungry. Steve never had money, and this meant that we would have to buy something for him out of our pocket change. Pooling our pittances into a larger pittance, we bought a couple of cheeseburgers at Burger King and went outside to eat them. The sun felt nice, and I soon forgot about the money I had lent Steve. These kinds of days were meant for friends to share, and I was looking forward to a long day of skateboarding. I felt happy to be alive. I even gave a homeless guy my leftover change, thinking I had done my good deed for the day.
We had not been sitting down for long when the peace of that afternoon was broken by a commotion that arose nearby. The city is naturally loud, always filled with the humdrum of lots of people talking at once. Once in a while you hear a few flourishes from a sax drift lazily down the street or someone shouting for a cab, but it is all usually just a mesh of noise—a sort of monotone one can get lost in like the sound of ocean breakers. Two voices were dominating this part of Market Street just now, however, and people were starting to gather around to listen to the argument. The noise was coming from a drunk man who kept yelling “fag!” in front of a lady. At first I was puzzled, but then I saw that the lady had a mustache and bulging, hairy legs not well concealed by his pink nylons.
I had not seen too many transvestites before and none that were as colorfully dressed as this man. He was wearing black high heels, pink hose, a bright red jumper with handprints painted on the rear, and a halter top under a leather jacket. The two features that gave him away were his facial hair, which you could not see from the side because of his black wig, and his incredible build.
“I ain’t no fag, you drunk,” he said, aware of the people gathering around and appearing a little self-conscious.
“You’re a fruit-cake! Don’t tell me ya ain’t no fag. Get the hell back to Castro Street with all the other fags. Or better yet, why don’t all of you fags go to an island somewhere where you can hump and not make the rest of us sick!” These words were coming from a man with gray hair who was holding a beer and trying to keep his balance, but with little success. I was shocked by his appearance even more than I was by that of the transvestite. He looked like someone’s grandpa who had given a few too many pints of blood. His face was emaciated, his cheeks were caved in, and his remaining teeth jutted out yellow and dismal. His body swayed like a blade of grass in the slight breeze. I looked at his torn pants and mustard-colored shirt and wondered how long it had been since the skin under the dirt and grease had seen the light of day. I thought of Pig Pen in the Peanuts cartoons who walked around in his own cloud of dust. But there was nothing comical about this guy. His eyes bulged out from his drawn-back skin. They were bloodshot and violent, the eyes of someone looking at an inner hell and cursing the devil that brought them there. The rest of him just looked pitiful, like a corpse already starting to rot.
“I ain’t no fag, you drunk,” the other guy said, looking even more agitated and stepping still closer to the bum. “Just because I dress this way doesn’t mean I’m gay! Don’t you know that, you stupid wino?” He pushed the drunk just a bit, and the drunk did not even brace himself. All the drugs and drinking had reduced him to taut skin over bones, and when the guy pushed him, the drunk fell on the ground like a puppet whose strings had broken. I could not believe how insubstantial he was, how easily he had fallen. He was utterly helpless against the cross-dressed man, whose dress and purse in no way hindered the strength of his muscled arms. When the drunk fell on his rear, a slight gasp escaped from the people around the scene. I looked around, amazed at how many people were watching now. A businesswoman was standing across from me, an attaché case in her hand. She looked revolted. A Chinese woman selling flowers was watching, too, and as she watched, someone on a bike flew behind her and snatched a bouquet. Some sailors across the street were snickering and whispering to each other. My friend Kurt was mesmerized, watching these two strange people go at it. Happy looked scared, as though he wanted to go home. Listening to the name-calling and hateful remarks erupt from these two, I knew it had to be stopped. The drunk guy was no match for the transvestite, but he would not shut up for his own good.
Where was a policeman when you needed one? They always appeared when we tried to skateboard in a private parking garage or when we defiled handrails with our sliding tricks. And why were all these people so passive? Could not someone come forward and say “knock it off, you two”? I could feel danger surfacing by the look of the guy in the dress. His hands were knotted, and he stood still as if trying to hold himself back from launching an all-out assault. Luckily, though, what little sense the bum still had seemed to kick in after the push. He stood up slowly, somehow having protected his beer rather than his body. He actually was quiet for a moment, but his eyes were beaming out hate and his few crooked teeth were clenched in a grimace. He had the helpless and defiant look of a downed wildebeest waiting in agony as the lions already devour him alive.
“That’s right, you’d better shut up, you alcoholic son-sa-bitch,” said the transvestite, now appearing to loosen his fists and turning around to walk away. I let out a short sigh. It was going to be okay, I thought. The tension was diffusing. The sailors across the street were walking away now, figuring the show was over. The transvestite walked to the curb. Ten yards away, then fifteen yards, and soon to be out of sight, I hoped, so we could get on with our day.
Then, before that gentle hum of conversation could replace the silence, before voices could drown away the awkwardness of the temporary rift in time that had just occurred, the drunk muttered, “You’re still a fag, though.” It wasn’t loud, but in that moment of silence before everyone had reentered their independent worlds, that last insult was clearly heard by the transvestite. He stopped and turned around. Before I knew what had happened, the man in the dress was right in front of the bum again. He did not say anything; he just walked right up to the drunk and pushed him. The drunk did not try to crouch or get away. He just stood there with the still and insubstantial stance of a cardboard cut-out, his eyes glazed and looking right through space into some other dimension.
Then he flew backwards, his legs buckling under him like twigs, and I heard the crash of his beer bottle on the sidewalk, followed by the crack of his skull as it hit the hard, slick concrete. I have never heard anything make a thud like that since.
Nor have I since seen a person killed.
No one stayed around for very long. The cops arrived and later an ambulance, but the show was over and onlookers went back to their respective lives. A few people made the sign of the cross. One woman looked as though she was about to cry, but she turned away before I could see the tears.
I’ve heard stories about people being stabbed, where the victim screams and no one comes to help even though there are people everywhere who know exactly what is taking place.
These stories always make me wonder about human nature and the present state of our society. It seems that the more people come together in one place, the less responsible any one of them feels for anyone else. Everyone wants their own rights and an indisputable space in which to eke out some bit of life for themselves, but space is scarce in San Francisco. Bums fight to sleep in their entryways, their life-sustaining niches out of the cold gusts that blow 7-11 Slurpee cups and paper bags along the street. Houses are all crammed together, with iron gates barring their doorways. This is my bit of space, everything seems to protest. Perhaps we feel the need to shout out like the drunk man because of a need to assert our space, our meaning, our fear.
I also have come to see San Francisco’s celebrated diversity in a different way. While appearing to be a rich cultural stew to the visitor, it may be a bitter broth to the people who live there, with everyone sure that it is some other group that is making the taste unpleasant for the rest of them.
“It’s the damn homeless. Why don’t they get a job?”
“It’s those gang-banging teenage thugs. Don’t their parents know how to keep them in line?”
“It’s all those foreigners coming over to exploit our wealth. Why can’t they even speak English if they want to be Americans?”
We stand around watching what can be fixed, scared to make a difference and relieved to see that the people fighting in the circle on Market Street are not us. At least, not today.