A Death in the Playground
The misery of class warfare draws sympathy. Right up until the shooting starts.
“Eugene? You around? I need to talk to you.”
My guts told me this was wrong. Maybe not so much wrong but wrong for me. It was his use of the word “need” that got me. No one should ever need to talk to me. Unless we’re blood related. And if we’re not blood related, and this is not directly about a positive turn of fortune for me? The enthusiasm flags.
But his need wasn’t clear and so, in the hurly burly of modern living, I waited. Returned his call when I could deal with whatever heavy he was going to bring me. A girlfriend who walked. A job that was lost. Anything. Everything. I called back when I could deal and deal I would if he’d pick up. But he didn’t.
Months went by. And because time heals all, my guard fell and the rhythm returned to our lives. So much so that when we finally were in the same place at the same time, I opened up the conversation again. Call it due diligence.
“Yeah. You called me before. What was that about?”
If you’ve read Fight, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass Kicking But Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking, you might remember exactly where this is going as it ultimately went into a chapter, Chapter 13, called “I Killed a Man.”
“Well I killed a man.”
The man in question was out celebrating his birthday and his come-up in life. He had spent time in San Quentin but had turned things around. Become somewhat of a local celebrity chef. After a night of fun and frivolity he stopped his car, letting it idle curbside, while his music blasted. It was after midnight. He was smoking a cigarette when my dude, awakened from slumber, came downstairs to ask him if he could turn the music down. Or maybe move it along.
“Then I see the police pull a yellow sheet over him and I’m thinking ‘this doesn’t look good.’”
The entreaty was standard. He had to get up to work early. It was late. The celebrating chef ignored him. Then…a regretful moment.
My dude indicated that if the celebrant wasn't going to turn it down then he would do it himself and reached into the car and turned it down. The celebrant punched him in the neck with his keys, a scuffle ensued.
“Then I see the police pull a yellow sheet over him and I’m thinking ‘this doesn’t look good.’”
A court case followed. Having to sit in court across from the guy’s nine-year-old daughter? A drag. Having to deal with going to the same San Quentin the celebrant had left behind for involuntary manslaughter? Even more so.
Plus the press had start to play with class issues. The dead man was a local. And Latino. My dude was part of the second influx of white hipsters into San Francisco’s Mission District. Which is what the public saw.
What the reading public didn’t see, because this didn’t make the papers, is that my dude didn’t have two nickels to rub together and the decedent had restaurants that were by many measures, successful. The case worked its way through court. My dude “won”, which is to say he was not convicted but very little else of what happened would be counted as a win. The sitting across from the dead man’s family, the end of his relationship with his long time girlfriend, his apartment, and job. Not wins.
This is not what haunted him though. Or not as much. He was concerned about the character issue that drove him to that man’s car side in the first place. So much so that he swore off of direct engagement: If shit happens, it can happen without him.
Something he thought while standing in the street watching a modern urban playlet unfold. Two young professional women were sitting at an outdoor cafe. Not that it matters (it matters) but they were white. And they were eye checking two cats on a nearby corner. Not that it matters (it matters) but they were Black.
My dude watched the women go through the Kabuki dance of where to place their purses. All of their instincts said…strategically, but he watched them try to decide between the back of their chairs, the table tops, between their legs, between their feet. All of their choices were measured against what each of those choices would mean. In a progressive sense.
And waiting for the light to change, he watched them as they decided to go with the Wonderland choice: they hung them on the backs of their chairs. And then he watched as the sketch cats registered this and moved toward them and did what all and sundry had hoped they wouldn’t do: snatched the purses.
The two guys, about his age, ran toward him now and he had sworn that this is precisely the kind of thing he was not going to get involved with again. But our natures always win and he threw his bicycle in front of the running men. They fell. A scuffle ensued and he, jiu jitsu trained as he was, managed to hold one while the other one eventually fled.
The purses made their way back to the thankful women, the cops showed up and took off the one malefactor, and my dude was full of maybe an unjustified self-loathing: why give a fuck about the purses of two tech women who should have stayed in Portland or wherever the hell they came from? Isn’t this what got him in trouble in the first place?
“We’re going to the park.”
Even more significant than the crack trade was the steady drum beat of mass media that gave it all a sheen of romance. Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer as White Savior…
It’s been a long time since East Palo Alto has been The Murder Capital of America. And even back then that was more about proportionality. For it’s population it had, for a painful few years, more murders per resident than any other place in America. I wrote about it for Hustler after interviewing folks at the FBI. I also had skin in the game. I was friends with folks who were pushing for incorporation back in the ‘80s and I eventually bought a house here after getting some solid advice from my mother to buy the best house I could, in the worst neighborhood I could find. But it was 1987 and crack had just hit. And with it the killings.
Even more significant than the crack trade was the steady drum beat of mass media that gave it all a sheen of romance. Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer as White Savior was about East Palo Alto teens. NWA was extolling the virtues of the dope man because “it’s not about a salary, it’s just about reality”. Running from the cops and high speed car chases, if your “hope” options are scant, might be some kind of excitement.
Flash to now though, 35 years later, and it’s a working class paradise buffeted about by high tech money with Facebook to the north, and Amazon to the south, an IKEA, a Home Depot, a luxury hotel where a place called Whiskey Gulch used to be. The city also has a multimillion dollar budget surplus. Which has partially been used, along with some long corporate dollars, to create playgrounds for the city’s many kids who still do things like play outside.
My almost two-year-old daughter loves the parks here. Her now very old father still remembers the old days but we were being approached by a few white folks with clipboards one day in the park. I make them for Jehovah’s Witnesses or…corporate do-gooders. They want us to sign a release so that we can appear in a video showing us enjoying the park they just paid for. So, the latter.
It was funded, partially, by a local boy done good. He now plays pro football and with NFL money is “giving a little back.” I decline to be photographed for their feel-good story as I watch the cars pull up of adult men who let their kids out while they smoke weed and listen to drill music. I’m here though and with my head on a swivel, and my perpetual paranoia in place, I feel…almost fine.
But this… “we’re going to the park.” Without me? I guess it was fine. Because you know…people change, situations change, life changes. It’s not 1987 any more.
And then a few days ago, right around the time the return-to-work tech employees were making their way home, 5 o’clock or so, “we’re going to the park.” The walk seemed a little too long though, and the car was right there, and so…another park was chosen.
[A]t my two-year-old’s favorite park people were being shot to death. Four men were shot. One died, three wounded. Video of the shooting, filmed by kids who were playing in the park, made the news. The kids were screaming “help me” and running.
Which ended up being fine since at my two-year-old’s favorite park people were being shot to death.
Four men were shot. One died, three wounded. Video of the shooting, filmed by kids who were playing in the park made the news. Kids were screaming “help me” and running.
And now I find my heart turning icy and cold. This is not part of the 2nd Amendment conversation in an America that has a weekly mass shootings. This is not even about social inequities. They might call this neighborhood “low income” but the South Bronx in the late ‘70s? That was low income. East Palo Alto with its $1.5 million houses? Not so much.
The men who were shot were in their 30s, the one who died, ironically, was related to the NFL superstar whose name and cash had partially funded the park. He had been to prison before for gang related issues. One of the other men they found at home, a few blocks away. Wounded.
Press conferences, vigils, candles and flowers on the sidewalk and calls for accountability, up there with hopes and prayers, are all being trucked out, on cue. There’s been a call to not go “back to the old days” and also the inevitable cry of neighborhood OGs that this is just about local culture and “back in the old days” it was much worse.
The other marquee park, right as you enter the city, currently sports a 30-tent homeless encampment. And another corporate park complete with exercise equipment that looks like it was lifted straight from Google’s gym, also had a shooting incident. This might seem like micro local politics. This is about macro national politics.
A state of affairs that’s exactly according to Hoyle.
Because none of this happens without it being willed to happen. City council members stumbling over themselves to pass laws to benefit Facebook in the attempt to hustle through OPA. Surrounding neighborhoods who have figured out that their landscapers, nannies, food service folks and construction crews have to live somewhere. Preferably close by.
And most of all the men on the ass end of capitalist carnage where competition is the lifeblood of trade so we’re going to see some competition and we’re going to see some blood. No matter what.
“And what about the bitch that got shot? Fuck her! You think I give a damn about a bitch, I’m not a sucker!”
NWA sang that. The same NWA that as soon as their cash allowed moved out of “the hood” to leave the rest of us wilting in its trailings.
My heart has turned icy and cold and while it would be easy to leave, easier in fact, than to stay, we’re going to stay. At least until we can leave. And until we can leave remaining will be an act of defiance against rear window sticker memoriam, the decorative spread of sidewalk candles and flowers, and shrugs suggesting that our immutable natures are totally OK about all of this.
Because it isn’t and we are not.
And all of the reasons why things are this way sound for all the world like excuses. Excuses that don’t go down any easier the more we hear them. But past performance is no indication of future successes?