“There’s this moment of still right before it happens.”
The first time, she was in a car. A man came to the window, reached in and held a machete under her friend’s chin.
“But I knew,” Melissa told me. “Like, right before it happened. We were sitting in the car and I just kept thinking, ‘She should roll up her window. She really shouldn’t have her window down.’”
Melissa sat on the floor, dangling a string over the cat’s head. The other cats were hiding—behind the bookshelf, in the closet, under the stairs to the loft. I couldn’t see them but I could hear them, feel them.
“The second time, I noticed it again. We were coming from the BART station, and these two guys were walking behind us. I was aware of them, but all the sudden I felt it—this shift. Everything just kinda froze.”
This time they had knives. They grabbed her friend by the hair. Melissa swung her skateboard at the guys’ heads. She missed and they ran off into the dark.
Outside the cars hissed along International Boulevard. A truck passed and the windows lurched in their panes.
“By the third time, I knew exactly what it was. My brain was like, ‘Oh shit, I know this’”—a sidewalk at night, this time a gun—“but I wasn’t fast enough.
“But the last time, I was able to stop it. I felt it—just some old crackhead walking behind me but I knew, could feel that shift in the air. So I turned around real fast and yelled at him, spooked him enough that he ran away and I booked it to the Ruby Room. I sat down at the bar and said, ‘Dude, I totally almost just got robbed.’ And the bartender said, ‘How did you know?’ And I said, ‘I just did.’”
Melissa shook her head and laughed.
The windows trembled. The cat on the floor batted at the string, then its own tail. The cats in hiding rustled.
Pablo knew it would happen. He knew as soon as he got out of his car, parked in front of his friend’s house in West Oakland. It was eleven pm, the sidewalk ringed with streetlights. He could see two figures a half-block down.
“I could tell they were gonna fuck with me; I just didn’t know how. I thought maybe they’d just say some shit. I thought I could be quick enough, could get inside the gate quick enough.”
He couldn’t. His hand was on the knob when one of the figures grabbed him by the throat and put a gun under his chin. I imagine their eyes meeting for one hot moment.
The other figure stood back, coaching the one that held Pablo in a deep voice: “His pockets; his keys.” A slow, steady, faceless voice.
My mom knew but she tried not to know.
He walked into the shop where she was working—I imagine a little bell dinging. I imagine my mom smiling.
Immediately she could tell something was off about him: a mangy-looking teenager in a stained sweatshirt, not the kind of person normally buying flowers. I imagine her smile fading.
He reminded her of an old student she’d taught, she told me later, and she felt sorry for him, almost maternal. He had lint in his hair.
The lint is what she remembered.
The lint is what she focused her eyes on instead of the barrel.
I consider myself lucky; I’ve never had that moment of knowing.
What I’ve had are the other moments, the thousands of everyday moments that seep into you, an automatic static you don’t even know is there after awhile: locking the car doors the moment you’ve sat down; checking the side mirrors before you get out of the car; driving when you’d rather take the train, because you’ll be getting back too late to walk through the parking lot. Never walking at night; checking over your shoulder in the daytime; not walking too close to blind alleys or dumpsters; wearing your headphones low enough that you can still hear everything around you. Watching; being aware; being alert. Listening for that moment of still.
This is what some people call “street sense,” what other people call “common sense.” What I call “being lucky.”
I don’t know if Tom knew. I don’t know why he decided to walk the mile back to his mom’s house from the Fruitvale BART station.
There was a group of them. They came from behind. One swung a bottle or a baseball bat, or else just hit him in the head so hard he crumbled to the pavement.
He said he didn’t remember much, just that he curled into a little ball while the guys laid into him. He only had a few dollars in his pocket, $15 at most, but it didn’t seemed to be about that, he said. “I think they just wanted to jump someone.”
He woke up in the hospital. Days had passed and his brain had swelled. Wires were attached to him, beeping machines with little red lights, and he didn’t know what they were scanning for.
“The doctors said I was lucky I didn’t have brain damage,” he told me on our third date as we walked to the BART station, the mile of sidewalks and alleyways stretching out around us.
He’d been partying a lot back then, he told me, but it changed after that night. Two years later, Tom’s life was still reverberating from that one moment. He still lived with his mom, still did the part-time lifeguard hustle, still rode the buses because he didn’t have a license. Still called himself lucky.
It happened to Johnny and Aaron on the same night. They were together, walking to their cars after a shift at the restaurant we worked at on Grand Avenue—12 am and cutting through the back parking lot.
We’d thought it was safe to walk in pairs. It was one of the things we’d tell the new hires, right along with the tasting notes and where the broom was kept: “Don’t walk to your car alone.” We’d even check on each other: “Who are you walking out with?”
The guys had run up behind Aaron and Johnny. They’d pulled guns. They’d gotten their cash and their phones, but they hadn’t pistol whipped them or beat them or anything. “It wasn’t that bad,” they told us the next day at line-up.
“Not that bad,” we all agreed.
After that we started walking out in groups. Then Ian got jacked a few weeks later, drunkenly walking the half-mile to his apartment at 10pm. “His own fault,” we said. “He should have known better.”
Less than a month later, the pastry chef of a nearby restaurant got abducted walking home from the West Oakland BART station. They took her to her apartment; her roommate was home; they kept the girls there for hours.
“They did awful, awful things,” our manager told us, pinching her eyes and shaking her head.
We looked down, studied the tabletops. Our manager didn’t say what the awful things were and none of us asked. Whatever had happened was locked there—in that moment, in those hours, in that room and between those people.
“The police have put a reward out,” our manager said, and we all knew what that meant: there were no leads.
The pastry chef and her roommate packed their bags and split Oakland a few days later.
The men were never found.
The rash of robberies and assaults continued, almost always after dark. It was 2010, right when gentrification was hitting full stride. Rents raised, but crime got worse instead of better. Oakland got to feeling like two different cities: one during the day, with its hip coffee shops and farmers markers, and another once the sun went down—the Oakland that had always been there, that remained untouched. The shadows would stretch and a tension would rise. Every sidewalk would have a dark space, a place you couldn’t see behind: a blind alley, a parked car, a driveway or a trashcan or a dumpster.
We decided not even walking to our cars in groups was safe. We devised a system where one person would park directly in front of the restaurant at the beginning of the shift and pay the $2/hour for parking. At the end of the night, all the closers would wait around until everyone was done. We’d all pile in the one car directly out front and the driver would deliver everyone else to their cars, parked on side streets around the neighborhood.
“It’s like living with vampires,” I laughed in the backseat one night.
“Except they can’t come in unless you invite them,” Aaron laughed back.
A trick my Dad, an Oakland firefighter for 23 years, taught me:
“If you’re ever really in a jam, tell the 911 operator you’re having trouble breathing. Then it’s a medical emergency, and the fire department has to come. They’ll be there in 3-10 minutes, versus the hours it could take the police.”
I’ve never had to use this trick. But I know what it means to live in a place where such a trick exists. I know the way the waves stretch out from a singular moment of violence, and become bigger than the people that compose the moment—victims or perpetrators. I know the way the waves spread, seep in, become a culture.
I don’t know what it’s like inside that moment.
This is what I mean when I call myself lucky.
Pablo was angry.
The guys who’d jacked him had actually gotten caught—which was the only instance, among all the people I’ve known who have been victims of violent crime, when the perpetrators have been caught. The guys crashed Pablo’s car right in front of the Whole Foods, a few hours after they’d taken it.
It took months for the hearing to be scheduled, long months of laying on Pablo’s mattress and talking about everything: the insomnia, the nightmares, the paranoia, the waves that radiated out of that one moment.
Eventually, Pablo had to go to the courthouse to testify. He told me he wanted to go alone.
Of the two men, it turned out the one who’d held Pablo was a minor, while the one who’d coached the minor was older, with a long litany of arrests. Since it was the first offense for the younger one, the lawyers were arguing for leniency. “Fuck that,” Pablo spewed later that night, the anger vibrating off him. “He was giving me the stare-down, right there in the courtroom.” He let out a bitter, cutting laugh. “Well, I gave him the stare-down right back.”
I asked him how he could recognize the guys, if it’d happened months earlier; if it’d been nighttime; if he’d been scared and if it had all happened so suddenly.
Pablo squinted at me. “Just cause. I can.”
The younger one’s family was in the audience. After testifying, Pablo had to ride the elevator down with them. I imagine them all in that little box, warbling on the cables, stating straight ahead and no one meeting eyes.
“It’s a funny thing,” my mom said, a week or two after it happened to her.
The nightmares had started. The initial shock had worn off and the waves were beginning to gather force. She’d talked to our neighbor, another long-term resident who’d been robbed. “Get out of town,” Lottie had recommended. “The best thing you can do is get out of Oakland for awhile.”
She folded a t-shirt, placed it in her suitcase.
“It’s like there’s this person out there who knows something really personal about you,” she told me.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“How you react.” She paused. “What you do in that moment when your life is on the line.”
My mom begged. She told him she had children. She screamed, though she doesn’t remember screaming, just hearing a scream that must have been hers.
She said she blacked out but she doesn’t remember that either, just that she was suddenly on the floor and he was a standing over her—a young boy with lint in his hair, saying, “Don’t scream like that.”
“But it goes both ways,” Melissa told me, still swinging the string over her cat’s head.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, they see your most scared, vulnerable moment, but you see theirs too.”
The window shuddered as another truck rumbled by. “Look, they know, right—no matter how fucked-up or desperate they are, they know on some level what they’re doing is wrong. That’s why they pick strangers. You don’t do this shit to people you know.”
She flicked her eyes up at me. “It’s like you have this kinda exchange: you see them do this violent, terrible thing, and they see you cave to it.”
She looked back down and fell quiet. The room hummed. In another apartment, a TV was blaring. We could hear it, through the walls and windows—not the exact words but the reverberation of the voices. The muffled sound filled the room, seeped into the quiet spaces, the pause between words.
From behind the bookshelf, something rustled.
On the floor, the cat kept batting at its tail.
“So what do you do with that?” I asked.
“I dunno, dude.” She shook her head and let out a laugh that turned into a snort. “Live with it, I guess.”