I’ve been thinking about race and gender a lot this week. It has been hard not to, with demonstrations protesting the Trayvon Martin decision, and sell-out screenings of Fruitvale Station, a movie about the local killing of another unarmed black man. Mid-week I came out of the 19th St. BART station to a near-empty downtown, helicopters circling overhead and favorite restaurants and bars sporting plywood windows. Telegraph looked like a smile with teeth missing.
I don’t know if any mother of a teenage boy — black, white, or any other race — can read about the Martin decision without thinking about her own son. I know I did. It was also hard not to think of the teenagers I encounter every day in Oakland, many of them dressed exactly like Trayvon, many of them with dark faces inside their hoodies, like Trayvon. It’s an urban uniform that cloaks the individuals within. Some of the teenagers I know are gone this summer. Their families have sent them to stay with friends or relatives in quieter locations rather than have them while away their summer at loose ends in Oakland. Who can blame them? The shooting death of an 8-year-old girl four days ago was the city’s 54th homicide this year.
This summer has found me commuting to San Francisco, a venture that has involved at least six kinds of public transportation, in varying combinations, sometimes all of them in a day. It’s a far cry from my usual schedule, where I work about 10 minutes from home.
While I’ve ridden public transportation periodically — buses to downtown, BART to SF for an evening event — this day-in, day-out commute has been an annealing process. The sheer number of people I’m surrounded by every day, all of them strangers, has been a little overwhelming. I’m struggling to relax into the process, but I can’t. My body just stays on yellow alert and at the end of the day I feel raw.
“Don’t look around,” my friend advises. “Don’t make eye contact. Don’t talk to people. Keep an eye on your stuff.” Hardened by years on the New York City subway system, she is full of advice. And I try not to, but sometimes I look around because I have to. If you’ve ever had a job where you were responsible for groups of people, you know that this looking is a hard habit to break. I’m not talking about staring at people. I’m talking about the quick scan that is like taking the temperature of a room. I do it out of habit. I do it out of need.
Sometimes I can distract myself with a book, when the environment feels safe enough to pull out my iPhone and its Kindle reader, loaded up with my geeky summer reading list.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself on a mid-day Richmond train on my way to a meeting in Berkeley. Unlike my morning commute under the bay, this time my train car was almost empty. I think there were three of us in total, the two others at the far end of the car. The doors opened at the West Oakland Station and a guy got on. He had a head full of shoulder-length dreads that he shook out like a lion when he boarded the train. His pants were sagging, buckled low. He had a plaid work shirt open over a loose white tee. But I wasn’t supposed to look, right?
He surveyed the car and caught my eye as I glanced up. He smirked a little and purposefully walked toward me and sat directly across the aisle. He was carrying a half-finished smoke and a lighter.
“Shit,” I thought to myself. “I hope he doesn’t light that cigarette once the train starts moving.”
I debated bringing my phone out and reading, but I didn’t feel safe, especially with the prickle of this stranger’s eyes on me. I thought about just getting up and moving to another car. I see people do that all the time. I could have done that.
But I didn’t. I focused on looking out the window. I didn’t want any trouble, and suddenly I longed for the anonymity of my super-packed morning train.
I heard some rustling and clanking and gave a sidelong glance his way. He was unbuckling his pants.
Immediately my internal dialogue started. “What’s going on here? Should I move? What the hell?” I felt my heart rate kick up. I tried not to look, but when I peeked again, he was pulling a large hunting knife in a leather sheath of out of his pants. He set it on his thigh in plain sight and let it sit there for what seemed like an eternity while he unzipped his backpack and then finally put the knife away. I went back to looking out the window, but felt him look at me, as though wondering whether I had noticed.
The back doors of the train car opened and a woman came up the aisle. She was panhandling as politely as anyone can.
“If you have any money, I would sure appreciate it,” she said, to no one in particular.
“I got ‘ya right here, sister,” I heard a warm, distinctly feminine voice say, and the “guy” across the aisle held out a folded bill. “Bless you. You have a good day,” our panhandler said. “I will,” came the reply. “Mine is just coming to an end.”
I was dumbfounded. This guy was a butch woman and in my fear to look, to make any sort of eye contact, I hadn’t even noticed. (This is something that rarely gets by me.)
We pulled into the Ashby station and she exited the train, but not before catching my eye and giving me a full, cocky grin and toss of those dreads.
“Hot,” I thought, against my better judgement.
I don’t know exactly what this means. Although she was black and I’m white, I didn’t perceive a threat because of her race. I perceived a threat when I thought she was a man. I’d like to think it’s not because I thought she was a black man. After all, black man, white man – any man watching me with a big knife is a threat.
“A hot butch woman watching you with a knife is a threat, too,” a friend pointed out. And that’s true. But somewhere, fear crossed over into a kind of desire.
I can’t begin to explain where that line is for me. And, I certainly can’t explain where it is for her. Did she think I was being coy by attempting to avoid her gaze? Was that what broke open her cocky grin? Or did she realize she had passed and was getting off on the feeling of power, toying with me with by flashing her knife?
This encounter made me question what I think is safe, something I’ve done many times this summer — something I’ve done many times since moving to Oakland.
For me, safety is familiar environments, familiar variables, familiar outcomes. Other situations push the boundaries of my comfort zone. But safety is different for each of us, rooted in our own experiences. For a butch woman whose workday starts in the dark hours of the morning, it might be passing and carrying a big knife.
As she left the train, a pair of BART Police officers got on, stiff in their blue uniforms, weapons hanging heavy and ready at their belts.
They didn’t make me feel any safer.