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The International Writers Magazine
: Dreamscapes Fiction

Black/White, Oakland/Davis
David Tavernier

I am thirteen, and as I walk down College Avenue past Chime's market, watching a green and white A/C Transit bus drone down the street, the scent of the ubiquitous fear in Oakland enters my nose. In the chill morning when the yellow sun causes your skin to go all pins and needles, black bums troll the streets in dirty sweatshirts, dark woolen caps, soiled pants and shoddy black shoes. Snot freezes on their runny noses.

Up ahead is the Rockridge BART station, a dark place where the sidewalk turns into cobbled stone, and where, over to the left and right, there are two vast parking lots packed with cars stashed by morning commuters. Underneath, walking back and forth along the sidewalk by the bus stop, is one of those bums. I can smell the dirt caked on his bathless body, and I can hear him singing an old fashioned tune under his breath. His misty breath curls smokey gray from his mouth in the midnight atmosphere under the BART overpass.

As soon as I see him I become apprehensive, afraid to pass him by. I think about crossing over to the other side of the sidewalk, because I remember the time -- it must have been only weeks ago -- that a black man looking much like him, in soiled dark attire, stole my lunch as I walked to Claremont Middle School.
The man had followed me, walking quicker and quicker with his longer legs so that I would either have to run away, or stop and face him. He'd been enormous, and with his stilt-like legs could have outrun me -- even malnourished as he must have been. So I had stopped, and turned, and looked him in the eye. His black face was beardless, so he must have had a razor somewhere. His eyes were sunken from insomnia. His ears were large and ungainly, and I couldn't see into his nostrils because of the way he leaned his face downward to look directly into mine. His lips were full, dark red, but also disgusting because I could already tell what they were going to say when they opened. A piece of chicken adhered to the frosty skin on one of his cheeks, so I looked at that instead, thankful that he'd eaten recently, and must not've been very mad.
"Empty out yer pockets and gimme yer wallet kid," he had said.
"I don't have a wallet," I'd said, still looking at the frozen chicken, "I'm only thirteen and my parents don't give me much allowance anyway." I grip the crumpled end of my brown paper lunchbag. My mother had stuffed it with food and left it on the butcherblock in the kitchen this morning.
"Them lemme see yer lunch," he'd said, snatching it from me and opening the crumpled end to look inside. I could see his dark irises and pupils scanning the contents, his eyebrows raising with pleasure when he'd seen something he liked.
"You gots yogurt, graham crackers, and a Handisnack. I don' care about this other shit, but Handisnacks is good man, so I'm gonna break you fer'it. You don't tell nobody, 'kay?"
"That's not yogurt. My mom usually puts nuts, or Cheerios -- or a mixture of both -- in an empty yogurt container for me," I had said. Even though it was irrelevant, and knew he didn't care, I'd corrected him by force of habit.
"Whatever man, take this shit and don't tell nobody. You be here every day wit' a Handisnack."
I had decided to run the next time I saw him -- and never eat another Handisnack until I knew he wouldn't "break me for my shit" again.

Now, walking toward the black bum at the bus-stop, I begin to wonder: would people in the street stop if I ran away from him, screaming for dear life? I remember the scene by the wayside of Claremont, how that tall black man had arrested me by the side of the road, and afterward, had walked off with my Handisnack. How he had leaned in, had spoken softly so that he wouldn't be heard very well by passers by. Even though I hadn't made a move to run, the situation must have appeared odd from the moving sedans, odd from the view of the Lucky's parkinglot across the street, odd from the surrounding shop windows. It must have looked suspicious, when he snatched my brown lunchbag from my hands and began rifling through it hastily. And yet no one did anything. Had one person watching thought of doing anything? Did they all turn their eyes away indifferently, rather than watch?

If not a soul had stopped to help that day, outside in the light, then none will stop to help me today in the midnight under the overpass. I tighten my face, and ball my hands in my sweatshirt. I pull my grey hood over my head, and stare downward. My backpack wobbles behind me, as I quicken my pace, anxious to get past the bum waiting for his bus. My heart is beating quickly and I can smell his heightening stench. I know that if I look to my left, he'll be there waiting for me by the green bench. But I don't want to look because I'm afraid that if I do, I'll see the whites of his eyes staring back into mine. Yet I'm afraid that if I don't, he'll startle me by calling out from behind, "Come back 'ere and empty out yo' pockets son."
As I pass, I release a sigh of hot white air, and my brow becomes limp with relief. Why do I have to do this every morning?

In Oakland, every tinted window has a gun waiting behind it. Drive-bys hang like a tense flavor in the air. You can taste the bursts of flame, the lead, and the smoke. You can hear the screeching tires. And a car back-firing unexpectedly -- bam! -- will have you diving every which way on the ground for cover. It's the same with hands stuffed into jacket pockets -- you don't know what they're holding, but you expect the worst. It's the same with the dark silhouette's of people loitering in an alley -- you don't enter.
I want to find that bum again, the one who mugged me for my lunch. I want him to try it again, because I've thought and thought about what happened, and I've decided I want to tell him off straight to his face.
"What right have you got to take my lunch?" I want to say. "What right? Do you think it's right to do this? You think it's right to steal a young boy's lunch in the morning? What would your mother say if she knew you were stealing some kid's lunch for a living when you grew up? Why don't you get a job and buy a Handisnack of your own? Leave me and my stuff alone. I'm not going to give it to you. My Handisnack is mine, not yours. Do you think that what you're doing is justified?"

As I enter between the gap in the chain-link fence into the school-yard, I can hear riotous voices chanting, far and to the left. A clump of boys is yelling by the gym -- they're surrounding someone, calling him names and raising their fists. I move closer, and I see a white face -- John -- trapped in a sea of black. They chant, and push him, yelling all the while. I wonder if anyone has sent for a teacher or supervisor. I wonder what'll happen to John in that pack of wild animals.
"Black power! Black power! Black power!" they all yell together, and then their voices fall into an incomprehensible muddle. "Black power! Black power! Black power!" rises again from the huddle.
And then, in the jumble of insults and screams and derogatory nicknames, I pick out a single voice speaking fast and furious, "The white man is responsible. He made slavery, an' then he made Jim Crow, an' then he made poverty. But it'all comes back ta' slavery in the beginnin'. Let me tell ye' somethin' son. The black man is gonna rise up and fuck ya' for what ya' done. He's strong and powerful even if he's got no money. He's got arms more powerful then yours and he's taller and quicker. Ye' time is gonna be over soon mother fucker."

I'm afraid for John, as it seems no one will come, and the riot is becoming uncontrollable. Their mouths spray him with spit, and their voices howl and yell. Until finally, they find a sense of unity. They find a chant that suits them all and it begins to carry from black face to black face. They say it in a whining screech, high and eerie, rocking from one syllable to the other of the easily recognizable two syllable phrase. "White Boy. White Boy. White Boy. White Boy. White Boy. White Boy. White Boy..."
John stares silently at them all. His nose is bleeding. His face is bruised. Finally a teacher comes running out -- tie flapping in the wind and cold -- to put an end to the morning's mess.

Now, I'm twenty one, in the quiet town of Davis. As I walk up through the tunnel on Richard's Boulevard, the sounds of a party float down from one of the houses lying on 1st Street above. A group of three freshmen jaywalk across the street. They're all in jeans and t-shirts -- not metro-sexual by any means. They're grunge, but their grunge is a gaudy show. One wears a yellow t-shirt, and I can see him the clearest. He is the first to talk in their loud -- and rude -- conversation.
"Dude, Josh's girlfriend is kinda spoiled. She's fucked up cause she won't give him sex unless he eats out her pussy. What the fuck is that? I mean, usually I'm down for that kind of shit, but around here? Around here there's too many hot ass women to be stoopin' to that shit."
"Damn straight, too many fish in the sea around here to be compromisin' with bitches."
"Too many fish in the sea. There's fuckin much fine ass girls in Davis. What the fuck's he staying with that bitch for? Fuck'er. Get another bitch who sucks his dick, right?"
"Hell yeah. See yah guys. I'm gonna ride home. Haha," he tips over on his bike, "I'm drunk as fuck man."
"Haha. See yah."
"Yeah. See yah."

I spit three grape seeds into a clump of bushes. Overhead, the bass of the speakers blasting, and the combined small-talk of twenty or thirty voices is a traveling rumble. On the balcony, I see the orange circle of a cigarette tip fire and fade with someone's breath, the plume of smoke rising in dark. I begin walking closer, and can see a red strobe-light flashing through the door. Groups of talking revelers pass in and out. Their sound waves, disturbing the air, travel over to me as I quicken my pace, tossing my plastic container of grapes into a nearby garbage can.

The sounds of the party are like a sixty second record, repeating themselves again and again. A great "thump!" sounds from the house, and then a girl squeals with simultaneous surprise and delight. Someone with a deep voice screams something incomprehensible into the air. I have the faint urge to enter. I want to walk up the open steps and inside. I want to see what is making the girls squeal every thirty seconds. I want to know what makes the loud guy scream at the top of his lungs in a juvenile tongue, way past the age when that kind of baby gibberish becomes inappropriate.
As I cross the street, a Lexus of four roars past me. Out of one window, a beer can comes flying, hits me, rattles at my feet. I only have time to glimpse a livid face, drooling at the corner of its mouth, yelling ecstatically, "Go home! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!"

Now I don't want to know what's inside the house that plays like a sixty second record of bass beats, screaming shouts, thumps, and squeals of delight. I already know what is inside. So I walk past, and as I round the corner of the block, memories of Oakland come back into my mind. Suddenly, something focuses into clarity about what happened to me ten years ago, in my youth. Something true -- a truth! -- had come flying to me in that beer can.
There is something vicious about the town of Davis, with its neatly trimmed hedges and perfectly paved roads. There is something petty and vicious about the Davis youth who spend their nights in debauchery, and cuss at their sex lives, and drive through the street throwing -- littering -- beer cans.
Now I know that when I looked into the black bum's eyes after he snatched my lunchbag, that I was staring into the grim face of poverty. That the ambiance of terror in Oakland is the ambiance of the poverty-stricken lower class. That the hate in the eyes of the black boys surrounding John, and the blood running from his nose, was not a result of his color and theirs. How do I know?
Because after that beer can hit me in the chest, I wanted to run after that Lexus of four, chanting into their window, in the same high pitched, rhythmical tone, "White Boy. White Boy. White Boy. White Boy. White Boy. White Boy..."
© David Tavernier October 2004
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