Monday, May 14, 2007

Reality Check

Today I took a walk in a part of town that was rougher than I expected. To play it safe, I probably won’t be going back there by myself—I’d hate to have a relapse of my ridiculous paranoia.

I was exploring a part of Oakland that’s a little further northwest than I’ve been before. It’s another neighborhood with some nice houses in disrepair, but the houses aren’t as nice as some I’ve seen, and by disrepair I don’t mean that the owner waited an extra summer to paint—I mean that they’re abandoned and slumping to one side. The grandest house of all I saw had all its windows broken and was up on a jack, waiting to be moved to a different part of town.

I walked for about a half an hour past liquor stores, storefront churches, graffiti, guys with shopping carts, and, most ominously, a couple of clusters of young men in parkas standing around doing nothing except looking like they were looking out for something. (Probably just their ride to band practice, but I couldn’t help imagining it was drug-related.)

Toward the end of the walk I found myself walking behind three people who all looked like they’d just stepped out of church—in 1965. The woman was wearing, I swear, a pillbox hat and a long blue cloth coat. The two men were also wearing long coats, Malcolm X-style fedoras, and bowties. They turned around when they heard me coming up behind them. For some reason, I thought of the scenes in the show Weeds where Halia’s Black Muslim boyfriend treats Mary Louise Parker so coldly. Great, I thought, they’re going to harangue me for being the white devil.

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” one of the men said, “May I give you something?”

I said, “Yes,” but thought, “Please not a diatribe, I have enough liberal guilt going on today.”

He handed me what turned out to be a Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlet called “Will This World Survive?” (Bad news: no. Good news: The actual planet won’t be destroyed, just life as we know it.)

I thanked him weakly, more for not yelling at me than for giving me the flyer. “Can I ask you a favor?” he said.

Uh, oh. Shakedown. I nodded warily.

“Will you please have yourself a wonderful day?” he said.

And I did, to the extent that my smarting guilt over the whole situation allowed.

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