24th and alabama

by tobias crabtree

the flight from denver to san francisco is maybe 2 hours. this time an easy trip. my brother dropped me without a hitch and gustavo picked me up. i don’t think i waited 5 minutes at any point which is amazing, i’m usually the fella that gets searched in every line under the sun. i must have that look. you know, sketchy, dark beard, longish hair, questionable attire, and then the fact that i really don’t like all the hubbub involved with security…it all adds up to me being the guy with every single belonging laid out on the floor and someone asking me what’s this?

it’s pinon pine sap.

oh yeah? pine sap huh?


what’s it for?

umm, i make it into salve.

salve huh? salve for what?

so you can imagine the line of reasoning, or lack thereof, when that is just one of many strange items in my bags and my distaste for being asked to explain why i am me to people who don’t really care. if it could be avoided, i would, but it’s required in these free, united states. required.  free, but required. uh huh, i got it.

but skip all that. i landed and no hitch and now i am with gustavo, my good friend and he has to finish out his day of running the work on a construction site near the mission. san francisco, california, one of my favorite towns. i greet the boys on the job, i know them all. gus informs me that there’s a couple hours of work left so i elect to walk to philz coffee which is maybe 4 or 5 blocks away. i splurged and bought the new yorker mag at the airport and was reading about the new pope. it’s a real interesting article and i was into grabbing a strong cup of joe and reading about this fella who is causing such a ruckus in rome, this pope fella. so, with the pope on my mind (i don’t think i’ve ever even thought about a pope before this guy, i think i’d like to have a whiskey with this one…you know, i’d have the whiskey and he’d just hang out and chat.) i walk away from the job site. up alabama, almost to 24th. i walk by some fella with his hat pulled low. it’s about 3:30 p.m i suppose. i hear the guy growl at me and i catch the last few words, “give me some money.” i look at him over my left shoulder and tell him that was not the way to ask, that he should be more friendly.   — now these next few seconds are important, they are a switch, they are full of convening events, they are a register of two lives meeting for just a minute on a street corner in a city —  a quick shuffle of feet and i turn back around. the man, maybe 50 years old, is hard faced and there are dark  circles under his eyes, he is within a couple feet of me. when i turn he stops. i look at his hand, half hidden in his coat sleeve and see the knife. it’s a two-sided fixed-blade shank, about 4 inches long. i’ve had a similar knife and it’s maker affectionately named it the ‘stiff kiss’. i become acutely aware of several things at once. first, we are too close together. i jump backwards with two big steps and bounce into a parked car. he comes forward a step and holds the knife out and says “money”,  through his teeth. i hear words coming out of my mouth. 

“no man, it don’t work like that.”

i feint a jump towards  him and raise my hands. he jumps back a bit. it’s all very quick. there’s nothing else in the world. just us.  i look quickly for the curb, i’m choosing a direction to run. i say again, “this ain’t the way, it doesn’t work like that…”

someone shouts for me to watch out, that he had a knife, that he was crazy. the man with the wild eyes is not coming forward. two more steps and i am around the corner. there are at least 10 people around now and looking. an old black man smiles at me and says, “nice one.”

so i left the corner and couldn’t help but watch over both shoulders.  you know that feeling you get when someone tells you about something that you don’t want to think about? like stepping on a cactus? or running a needle under a finger nail? well, my kidneys kind of felt sensitive as i thought about what if i wouldn’t have heard him coming up behind me? what if he had been quieter? what if i was walking and all of a sudden i had a knife in my kidney?

life is a thread, strung out over a length of time. it winds around all the maybe’s and what if’s.

since this happened yesterday, i’ve had some time to reflect. i went to the coffee shop directly after it had happened and i got a coffee. i sat for 10 minutes with the new yorker open and realized that, in 10 minutes, i had not read a word nor had i had a sip of coffee. i was reliving the moments before while i pretended to do something else. i thought about the condition of that man. i remember now that there was a strange whistle as he breathed. i remember his pants were filthy. he wore old brown shoes that were black from soot on the toes. what were his thoughts moments before? what motivated him? i think he was pretty damn poor. he was desperate. when i said those words, “it don’t work like that”, he definitely heard me. there was a moment of confusion and then re-decision.  while he was thinking of trying to get what he could,  i was thinking of escape.

my goodness, how sharp a knife looks in someone’s hand with bad intentions.

i haven’t told too many folks about it. i told the fellas on the job. i told sarah and pete. that’s it. but i wanna say this: i don’t blame the desperate for being desperate. it’s a heavy place to live. pete wondered to me about whether that might change the course of that fellas life or whether he will continue on.  i don’t know. i don’t want that guy to stab someone. i also don’t want him to suffer. i mean this, i don’t like it that he was suffering. 20 years ago i would have been thinking on ways to kick his ass but now i just want him to not be doing that. so i guess i don’t want him to be desperate.

on and on and on this path. we are all walking. we are making decisions for our own good, or bad for that matter. we live inside our own worlds. some never think deeper than the veneer our society creates to keep us looking good. people post pictures on line of their ripped abs or their chiseled booty and swear “you too can look like me!” we have super shiny teeth!  we got what we need, so that’s good enough, right? and i’m as guilty of all of this as anyone. but this thing that happened. it reminds me to be aware. not just aware of sharp objects from behind, but of everything. it reminds me of the fragile and ephemeral nature of our life. it reminds me to look around me and not ignore the sadness on the faces of my species. i will think more on this thing and i will grow. and tomorrow i will move among the masses and i will pay attention to condition and i will do what i think will make things be, at least a little, better. i am convinced that it is possible to be a strong jawed man with a compassionate heart.

i am watching the sun set as i tap out the last of these words. i am thinking that i’m glad that happened to me and not my mom or my friend or my brother. i am thinking that the waves were looking good and that i need to surf soon. nothing like the ocean to straighten things out. so that’s the plan, go to the ocean.

over and out.