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A Mugging, (A Girl) & Some Ponderings

“Hold still, sir. Just hold still.”

In that fleeting moment that would leave its mark forever, there was a respect. A deep, raw, visceral, mutual, unexpected respect. Unexpected, but perhaps not surprising…if examined closely. In those long seconds, we recognized in each other’s eyes the immutable trademarks of a life defined in part by the complete lack of sugar on reality’s crust.


I had set out that evening because of a girl. The story of the girl is another story entirely, though it does bear telling and may be told at a later date. For now, suffice to say that about six years earlier, during a previous chapter of my life, the girl had opened my eyes to the kind of love I deserve with a partner, while simultaneously (and without awareness or intention) shredding my confidence that I would ever experience it — with her or anyone else.

I had to see her again.

But that is a different story, remember?

I had just graduated from law school in Austin. I finished the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam at 6pm one day not too long after graduation festivities ended, and at 9am the next morning I hopped a plane for San Francisco.

The Bay was, and will always be, a parallel home to me. Now, ten years later, I’m still happy with the decision I made to return to my roots in Vermont. But even today, as I did then, I still endeavor to take yearly jaunts westward to reunite with that 20-year-old, vibrant, thirsty, and blissfully naive version of myself, which was drawn out in full relief by the Bay.

If you are one of my fellow unicorns whose internal currents flow both to the commonsense serenity of the green mountains and to the je ne sais quoi of the Bay Area, you can fathom: not quite 18, solid Vermont upbringing, parched for what the world has to offer. Teleport to Berkeley, California.

That boy was who the girl initially did her work on. But again, I digress.

I’m fortunate enough to have a friend who has a very nice guest room in a very nice condo in a very nice area in the heart of San Francisco. When it’s time for my “fix” of the Bay each year, this friend is always graciously willing to let me invade her space for a week or so. Her place is comfortable and familiar, and it’s a wonderful home base for my periodic sojourns.

When I set out on the evening in question, I set out from this friend’s place — near the Giants stadium. The plan was to stroll down the Embarcadero, catch BART, pop under the Bay on the train, hop off at 12th Street-Oakland, meander down Broadway (the main drag in downtown OAK), and meet the girl at Jack London Square.

I left my friend’s condo around 8pm.

I had lived in Berkeley for five years, then moved over to San Francisco for another year after college. When an unacquainted listener hears mention of the “San Francisco Bay Area,” the listener may conjure images of peace, love, hippies, Google, pot, and disgusting amounts of money.

But the reality is that the raw and unapologetically complex diversity that harmoniously defines the Bay—diversity in culture, geography, socio-economics, philosophy, climate — is impossible to capture with words. To truly understand, the newcomer must be transported in rapid succession from the paradigmatic hippie haven of Telegraph Avenue, to the unspeakable wealth of Pacific Heights, to the world’s best (and tiniest) taquerias at 24th & Mission, to the hard streets of West Oakland, to the stunning vistas and eucalyptus groves of the Berkeley Hills, to the breathtakingly majestic Marin Headlands, and so on.

My thirsty young Vermont mind about burst with excitement and incredulity when I first relocated to this fairy tale universe.

Source: Bay Area Rapid Transit

I came to intimately know and love an impressive amount of the Bay’s microcultures during my time there. But I never spent much time in Oakland.

So, when I exited the BART elevator and found myself on Broadway around 9pm that night, it was not an experience I was extremely familiar with. Nonetheless, I was unencumbered by fear. This was who I was. (Or who I used to be?) For years, it had been my comfort zone: flitting about the Bay on public transportation, doing my thing.

12th Street-Oakland BART elevator. Source: Google Street View

Of course, I had always known Oakland’s reputation for crime. But I had never felt it in my bones.

When I lived in the Bay, my youthful inability to fear or distrust people without reason was genuine and absolute. It defined me. Irrational fear had never been modeled for me growing up, and so I lived multiple decades without understanding it. And, miraculously, the absence of it never irreparably burned me.

By the time I had lived more life, finished law school, and wound up in downtown Oakland that evening, I had not completely lost that meta fearlessness. Indeed, I still grasp at it today, not wholly unsuccessfully. But I now understand how precious that untainted innocence was.

As was my usual habit when I was on the move, I switched my power wheelchair into a higher speed and set off towards my destination. My iPhone was in my lap, blaring a playlist into my brain through my iconic Apple earbuds.

I crossed Broadway, hung a right, and headed down the opposite side of the street. Jack London Square was just a few blocks ahead, at the end of the thoroughfare. (Actually, it was twelve blocks ahead, but I wasn’t counting.) Jack London is the main tourist attraction in Oakland, butting up against the Oakland Inner Harbor which carries ferries in and out.

I was not in a big hurry and I was enjoying my journey, so I had my chair set to the speed of a brisk walk rather than “high speed.” The street was clean and well-lit, and I was passing large banks and corporate office buildings (now buttoned up for the night), which seemed indicative of the well-to-do financial district of any downtown metropolis. I was not going down any dark alleys and I was nowhere near the infamous West Oakland (where everybody knew the real trouble was).

Photo by Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group

Nothing amiss could happen here, in the city center, under the streetlights!

I was rolling along, savoring the East Bay air, absorbing the moment. And contemplating. What was I doing? The girl represented a gone-by track in the “Self and Intimacy” album of my life. The track had been equal parts necessary and excruciating; confusing and fulfilling; traumatic and enriching. But whatever it had been, it had been. Why was I going back?

My contemplations were interrupted by hair follicles. On the back of my neck. Before my eyes or my ears were able to confirm, I knew. I was being followed.

And I knew immediately what was about to transpire…in general terms, anyway. It’s difficult to explain why I knew. Being victimized was not something I was familiar with.

But I knew.

Two of them. Weaving in zigzags twenty feet back, observing, assessing, weighing, planning. Long strides to keep up with me. An opportunity had presented itself.

Kids. 14? 17? Dark hoodies.

Cars zipping past on Broadway. A homeless person or two, unconscious, in sleeping bags in front door nooks of closed shops. Even another pedestrian or two, sharing the wide city sidewalk, myopically enveloped in their own universes.

Downtown was not abustle, but it was not dead, either.

Half a block? Less? I’m not sure exactly how long it took for me to complete my analysis and act on my decision — but it was not long. My instincts are deft concerning matters of human nature and survival. My reflexes are laser. Give me time to think, and I’m screwed. Make me act now, and I’ll hit the bullseye every time.

I was not going to switch my chair into overdrive and outrun them like the roadrunner. To switch into high gear I would have had to stop, take my hand off my joystick, and fumble around for several long seconds to bump a toggle switch. Then try to speed off amidst some sort of struggle which surely would have already ensued? Obviously pointless. And dumb.

What’s more, by taking that route I would have made myself even more vulnerable. On multiple levels. Relinquishing control of my joystick would have made me a sitting duck. But more importantly, in doing so, I would have exhibited to my pursuers the full glory of my unique body mechanics. The uncontrolled movements. The contorted facial expressions and the increasingly crazed exertion of energy as I struggled with the controls.

The delectable aroma of fear emanating from me in that moment would have been palpable.

With my left hand locked into my joystick and my crazy right arm tucked under my armrest to secure it from flailing, I was in control of my body. I had to keep it that way.

I also knew I could not allow them to make the first move. I didn’t know what their designs were, but I knew they intended to carry them out. And in that moment I believed it would be worse for me if their designs were carried out on a moving target.

Let’s get this over with…

With resolve, I slowed down, turned around to face them and stopped. My hand never left my joystick, my mind did not go blank, and if I had fear it was adequately tempered by adrenaline and my own variety of survivalism.

One of them was about ten feet in front of me. He was surprised, I think, to be suddenly looking me dead in the eye. His friend was to my left, the same distance away, his eyes darting between me and his compatriot.

But I never allowed the compatriot’s eyes to leave mine.

We sat in that moment, the three of us, for what seemed an eternity. I had changed the game on them. I had deprived them of the element of surprise and deflated the predator/prey dynamic to some degree.

But I believe I did something more.

With every passing second that the compatriot’s eyes were locked with mine, it became more difficult for each of us to deny that the other was human.

I’m no bleeding heart. I don’t make a habit out of reflexively offering the other cheek. Those tendencies often find their root in over-simplified or abstract pity, or in the selfish need to feel “above” or “better than.” These defense mechanisms ring hollow to me.

To indulge the lover of cliches, we all have shit cards in our hand. You play yours; I’ll play mine.

But I am a voracious student of humans. People intrigue me. What makes you get out of bed in the morning? Why are you who you are? Why is the person you think you are so different from the person you actually are? Where exactly does nature end and nurture begin?…(it’s different for everyone).

It’s fascinating shit. But it’s deeper than that for me, on two fronts. First, it’s genetic. Studying, understanding, and reveling in all facets of the human psyche — on a completely raw level, without any adulterations of formal psychology or other professional censorships — has defined my Mom’s side of the family for generations. Throughout my childhood, my Mom and her brothers and cousins constantly exercised my mind (and my giggle muscles) with colorfully off-color stories of quirky, complex, and utterly human people from their past.

Some of those stories may even have been true!

For two, though, we go back to the simple and dull mechanics of my day-to-day existence. I don’t eat, get dressed, relieve myself, go to bed, or argue to the judge on an average Tuesday without the assistance of others.

Ever since I first began hiring attendants when I moved away from home nineteen years ago, I have always done all the recruiting, hiring, managing, and firing myself. I choose not to subject myself to the rules, the compromises, and the uncertainties that come with relying on a home care agency.

There certainly are compromises and uncertainties that come with doing everything myself, too — say nothing about how much work it takes to keep the machine chugging! But these are realities of my own making…my own to create, my own to mold, my own to manage. Every attendant-user has different priorities and different realities, but for me the sum of these variables has always landed in the “self-managed” end of the spectrum.

I estimate that over the past nineteen years, I have employed between three hundred and five hundred people as attendants. I should go through old payroll spreadsheets in Excel sometime and count. Through college and law school I mostly hired students to help me out. Schedules and availability would change by semester, which caused the count to tick up quickly.

But even now, I consistently maintain a staff of seven to ten: one person for weekday mornings, another for weekends, a few for evenings, one for meal prep, one for work, etc.

So, if I was not a good reader of people by now, there’d be something wrong. More to the point, if I was not a good reader of people, I’d be screwed. You don’t give someone a key to your place and say “Come get me out of bed tomorrow morning. I’ll be alone in my apartment stuck in bed until you get me up” unless you’re pretty certain that person is a solid human.

His right hand was in the pocket of his hoodie, half-heartedly suggesting he was holding a gun. His preliminary mutterings may have suggested the same.

But now, there we sat, in that moment, eyes deadlocked.

I did not say a word to him. There was nothing to say; this was his ballgame. And in trying to communicate with him verbally — with my unique cadence and accent — I would have revealed vulnerabilities to him that I did not need to reveal in that moment.

Besides, I was communicating just fine without words.

The eternity had to end.

“Hold still, sir. Just hold still.”

It was a command. But the words and their inflection took me aback. The formality of “sir” was surprising enough. Not the salutation I would have expected under the circumstances.

But there was something more. An ache. A plea? A subtle reflexive tell of his own fear that could not be repressed?

Whatever else, there was a respect.

His friend was growing increasingly uncomfortable. The pair had embarked on this together, but now he had become the third wheel. I had placed his partner in the driver’s seat, and both of them understood this. Each realized the other understood it too.

The driver also knew he was obligated to fulfill the mission. Aborting was not an option.

I will never know whether the phone in my lap had been the sole target all along, or whether the possibilities were endless when the pursuit first began. But now, the phone was the easiest way out — for all of us.

The surface tension finally broke.

The driver lunged and snatched the phone off my leg.

Then, they were gone.

Two seconds? Five? Paralysis. And total blankness.

Snap! I was still in downtown Oakland, sitting in my chair on Broadway, alone, 9:30pm. I was hunched forward slightly, staring at the corner of the building they had disappeared behind. Earphones were still in my ears (now blaring nothing), lonely cord dangling to the ground.

First thought: Hide the damn earphones, NOW! They had surely been the neon lights on the open invitation. I yanked them out of my ears and stuffed them under my leg.

Second thought: Get back to the BART elevator, get underground, and get back to San Francisco.

And I did.

Phoneless, I was incommunicado. No immediate relaying of events to anyone. No informing the girl I’d be standing her up. No lifeline should any other unanticipated events befall. Just me and the world, each more raw to me in that moment than ever.

The journey back to my friend’s place was uneventful. At least I think it was. That part is mostly foggy. I have only one snapshot, a perception of a moment in time. In San Francisco, speeding down the Embarcadero, peacefully refreshing breeze on my face, racing under the Bay Bridge towards safety.

My hostess was home when I arrived, along with my travel mate — a guy who will always be a pseudo brother to me. I had not thought I would need his company on my mission tonight.

I relayed my story. My San Francisco friend was not surprised. After all, I had decided to roll the streets of Oakland, after dark, by myself, with an iPhone on my lap. My other sidekick was a bit more impressed with the tale, but he couldn’t find much sympathy either.

They knew me.

They poured me a drink. A tall one. That was all the sympathy I needed.

Author. Right: Photo of painting by Alejandro Gonzalez, friend of author

A Mugging, (A Girl) & Some Ponderings was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Unbidden Love

A 3 year old boy with dangling sunglasses is suspended high above his uncle holding him up with outstretched arms.
Author’s photo of grandson and his uncle

A boy arrives being;

Un-expectedly unexpected;

Un-hinged humour,

Un-mitigated milestones,

Un-simply special,

Un-targeted transformations,

Un-riveted to rank

Un-cannily cunning,

Un-sought semblances,

Un-listed from legacies,

Un-pitched out of the park,

Un-destined dynasties,

Un-trounced tears,

Un-relinquished rage

Un-fractured fragility

Un-pitiable presence,

Un-bridled belonging,

Un-wittingly witty,

Un-postured pride,

Un-jilted joy,

Un-contingent caring,

Un-relative rarity

Un-egotistical ethic,

Un-bidden best,

Abiding unbidden is due every child.

Unbidden Love was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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