It must have been around Powell Street when I heard a strange voice, like a lost child chattering, quietly calling out. The car had filled with people, many standing – leaning on poles or swaying from handles they gripped overhead, their necks bent into newspapers and books, smartphones and tablets. No one was talking. The man in the aisle seat next to me typed into a document on his laptop. No one seemed to have heard the voice but me, so I went back to grading the stack of papers on my lap. What is your thesis statement? I wrote in messy green cursive when again the voice called out. “Bahdah too bahdah?” Was I imagining it? “Dah lee?”
Looking up this time, my eyes landed in the wide lost gaze of a man staring at me from across the aisle. He’d been asleep there when I’d boarded in Daly City. There were hardly any passengers on the train then, and I’d noticed him there when I’d taken my seat – his pudgy cheeks and mouth hanging open over his red windbreaker, his unzipped backpack with crumpled binder paper and what looked like administrative paperwork spilling out onto the seat next to him. I’d watched his head bounce with the rhythm of the train as we’d pulled from the station.
Now, through the swaying limbs of passengers, his eyes latched onto me like a scared child’s. He must have just awakened in this strangely crowded train and felt lost, I thought. He obviously had some developmental issue, and he couldn’t have been more than twenty. I hoped he hadn’t missed his stop, and I tried to send him a reassuring look.
What more could I do?
I went back to my work, with quiet bursts of incoherent chatter occasionally singing out from across the aisle. Be more specific, I wrote on another student’s work. Even with the amplified noise in the tunnel as we crossed under the Bay, the young man’s intermittent song slipped through the din. When we rose into the light of West Oakland, as the splay of Jurassic cranes claiming the port came into view, I was relieved to see him get up from his seat to wait by the door for his stop. Clapping his still unzipped backpack under one arm, he seemed to know where he was going, to have someplace to be. When the door opened, my eyes followed him onto the platform, watching the red of his jacket until it was lost in the crowd. Maybe someone was waiting for him, I thought. At least, he seemed to know where he was.
As I had those thoughts, as the now emptier train peeled from the station, the three women who’d been sitting in the four-top of facing seats in front of the man erupted in conversation.
“I’m so glad he left!” An alabaster blonde by the window who’d had her back to the man was now petting the back of her silky hair, as if the man had left some filth there. A grimace swept her face as she looked to the older lady with short white-gray hair who sat next to her.
“At first, I wasn’t sure if he was with someone –” the older lady started, her long artsy earrings swinging with the motion of the train.
“He wasn’t with anyone!” A large woman with mousy brown hair belted out from the seat across from them, closing her Kindle onto her lap. “I was watching. I had my eye out for you the whole time!” A hungry smile spread across her face, as she pushed her wire-framed glasses up over her small eyes.
“He made me so nervous,” said the blonde. “I didn’t know if I should turn around.” She laughed a little.
“I know. I wasn’t sure what to do,” the older lady said.
They all laughed a little now.
“Some real crazies on this train,” the large woman announced. “You never know what you’re gonna get!” Everything she said, she shouted.
“You never know,” said the blonde, still petting her silky hair with her slender hand.
I understood she was scared, afraid he’d reach out for her pearly neck like the stereotypes in too many movies, afraid he’d pet her or spit on her or try to engage her in nasty conversation. She’d been trembling in her seat like a rabbit with a tiger crouched behind her, and I understood her taking comfort in these women, needing to laugh it off, to a point.
Over the scream of the train, I couldn’t hear every word passing between them. But I could see them smiling and making fun of the young man – their unlikely friendship fueled by their fear of him – their fear of him, I thought, that poor lost man two of them had never even bothered to turn around to look at! It made me angry watching their gleeful coming-together at his expense. He was the one who needed protection from them, not vice versa.
Them, I thought. There was a them now.
“I had your back,” barked the loud woman. Her face turned pink, and she rocked back and forth a little. “I was watching the whole time! I wasn’t gonna let anything happen!”
“I had your back,” the loud woman repeated, still rocking in her seat. “I was on your team! You never know who’s on your team on the BART!”
All three of them nodded, leaning into each other, biting smiles, and I saw a horrible gleam shoot off their faces, like a circle of witches leaning into a terrible spell. And when the loud woman yelled, “He didn’t have anyone on his team. That’s for sure!” I thought I’d burst with indignation.
“I’m on his team!” I wanted to shout out to them.
Of course, I would have had to shout out aggressively – make a scene to get involved. So, I sat and watched and listened until the blonde, the older lady, and the loud woman settled into silence again, by 19th Street resuming their previous distractions.
But I couldn’t let it go.
When I tried to re-immerse in my work, the loud woman’s words wouldn’t leave me alone – He didn’t have anyone on his team! I felt sick from their cheerful hostility. I couldn’t stop thinking about how advantaged these white women seemed on their afternoon commute, compared to that disabled black man who had so many odds against him.
In another time, another place, this was how it started, I thought – a lynching.
I wanted to say something about it. I burned to say something – to speak up for him.
But I didn’t want to make things worse.
Being “too confrontational” has landed me in trouble since moving to the Bay Area. Once, I hadn’t been aware I was being confrontational when I suggested there was racial tension here. “If you think it’s so racist here, why don’t you go back to New York!” said the white guy with half-sleeve tattoos outside the Starry Plough one night, as if I’d assaulted the whole of Bay Area culture, as if the thorns of prejudice and racism don’t exist here, as if those problems are for other places, like Baltimore or St. Louis, or the Old South.
I’d been frustrated by so many Bay Area “free thinkers” who talked endlessly about improving the world while ignoring the disenfranchised people in their own communities. Palo Alto disassociates from East Palo Alto. Piedmont ignores Oakland. And Marin City? It’s not the segregation – the divided worlds of race and class – that gets my goat (it does, but that exists everywhere) – it’s the pretense that Bay Area people are so advanced. They judge others for not recycling, for drinking soda, for smoking cigarettes, for not knowing better, while they pretend to be beyond base human flaws themselves – saving the world one Tesla at a time, which they drive proudly by the rows of homeless in San Francisco.
We must save the environment, they tell me. We must reform the banking system, the injustice system – they preach to me like Bernie Sanders protégés while supporting the death penalty and Proposition 13 with gusto; they chant “free college tuition” while paying 30K for their own child’s pre-K; and they erupt in a chorus of “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter,” depending on the occasion.
I’d been preoccupied with Black Lives Matter lately, writing letters to the editor of The Washington Post about prison reform, assigning lyrics by Tupac and Kendrick Lamar in my English courses. These women had triggered my frustration with something much bigger than they were. They might have reacted the same way if the young man sitting there had been white, like grown-up mean girls who’d made fun of the “retarded” kid in grade school. I knew California hadn’t provided meaningful support for mentally disabled people since Ronald Reagan was Governor.
More and more, “Bay Area liberals” were seeming to me like social elitists in poor disguise.
Serious problems – poverty, racism, mass incarceration are abstractions to us – something we discuss to make ourselves feel moral. But when an actual human being displays his poverty, his lack of education, his lack of hygiene or healthcare, it betrays our sense of self, so we look away and say, What’s wrong with that person, instead of asking how we can help.
What had prevented the blonde and the older lady from looking around at the man behind them, anyway? Why hadn’t they found out if he was a threat, instead waiting in toxic paralysis?
Where was their compassion?
The loud woman who’d fueled the clan most had wanted credit for “having their backs” more than she’d cared about protecting anyone, it seemed to me – her shouting for acknowledgment, her angry smile. But what was I going to do? Give them a lecture about “othering”?
Down my rabbit hole of thought, I knew it wouldn’t help to insult the women, or to be angry.
But I didn’t want them to get away with it either – their happy ridicule of that poor young man.
I wanted them to know I was on his team, and I figured the power in speaking up for him was less in what I said than it was in the fact of doing it. I was an attractive white woman in my forties, and I was well put together that day – expensively, if not formally dressed, with my long blue scarf, Italian shoes, and brown leather tote. They might listen to me.
As the tracks rose into daylight again near MacArthur station, I decided – if the women were still on the train when we reached my stop at Ashby, I’d approach them.
I tried to plan the words as I packed up my work.
I’ll be sweet, I thought. Not abrasive.
But as we neared my stop, I panicked. What if they got off at Ashby, too? So, I prematurely hoisted my bag onto my shoulder and squeezed by the man with his open laptop to exit my seat, stepping across the aisle to confront the three women, gripping the ceiling handle above their seats and swaying over them with the bend of the train.
I don’t know what response I hoped to get.
“Excuse me,” I said, leaning over them. I’d spoken too quietly, I realized, and it took a moment for the blonde and the older lady to realize I was speaking to them, the blonde finally glaring at me with unblinking blue eyes, and the older lady looking up hesitantly from her book. The loud woman across from them kept eyes glued to her Kindle, holding the screen up in front of her face, pretending to ignore me.
“I’m sorry to intrude,” I said. “I just heard how your were talking about that disabled man before. And it made me sad. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
The blonde widened her eyes. The older lady looked more troubled, I thought, unsure what to say. The two continued to stare as I hovered in the awkward silence between us.
“Well, I just wanted to say something,” I continued. “I was watching him earlier. And he was harmless.” I regretted saying that. How could I know he was harmless? What I meant was they were harmful. But the words wouldn’t come out right. I was stunned none of the women would respond to me – not a word, the loud woman continuing to “read” her screen, pretending not to listen.
“Well, it just sounded cruel,” I went on. “And it hurt to hear you talking about him that way.” I waited what felt like minutes for one of them to say something, to acknowledge my existence beyond an open-mouthed stare. But the blonde only pursed her lips before looking away, while the older lady’s artsy earrings bounced and swung with the train. I stared hard at the loud woman for ten full seconds, trying to penetrate those small eyes hiding beneath the glare of her glasses, watching her cheeks turn pink, wanting her to know I heard her listening.
Then, finally, I gave up and stepped away from their seats to wait an eternal minute for my stop in a car now pregnant with silence. I hadn’t expected no response. The weight of their held back voices seemed to burden the train now, so slow and heavy on the tracks. I wondered if anyone else had heard me. Had I just been one of those crazy liberal Bay Area ladies who BART? But when I looked around, I found passengers much as they’d been earlier – absorbed in their own worlds. Not listening.
At last, I was let out at Ashby Avenue. It felt like I’d been holding my breath, how the air rushed in when the door opened onto the station. When I stepped onto the platform, when the train doors closed behind me, and the train began to roll away, I saw through the window the loud woman look up from her Kindle with a pink face and cackle, reigniting the three women in conversation.
This time, of course, they were talking about me.
Streets were quiet when we left, but when we turned at the end of our block ten minutes later, a parade of parents and kids with shiny backpacks and fresh haircuts lined the sidewalk. As they bunched at our heels, their enthusiastic chatter at our backs, Riley stopped and moved to the sidewalk’s edge to let them pass. This happened over and over. If he made any comparisons about their speed versus his, he never said a thing. Still, we arrived before first bell on the first day of school.
The kindergarten classes were up a slight hill and through a gate on the right, and his classroom was the last one. Why does it have to be the...