Last night I took the 24 Divisadero, a San Franciscan orange behemoth of public transportation, to my boyfriend's house.
The 24 traverses a rich mix of neighborhoods, from placid Noe Valley houses overlooking glittering downtown lights, to the infamous gay men's mecca known as Castro, to the Western Addition, where gentrification hasn't strangled the predominantly African-American neighborhood yet. This gives it an assortment of riders who rarely meet, much less talk about the weather.
I'd forgotten how strangely unsettling saving the mixture can be.
I wandered over to the Market and Castro stop, fresh from a jog and shower, and watched the men on their way to clubs. The vibe in Castro at night is always electric and slightly anxious, like hosts getting ready for a party.
I got a piece of pizza and waited. The bus came after a scant 10 minutes, heroic by the 24's standards. An older man next to me with reddish hair and a bomber jacket noticed my harried eating. With a kind voice, he reassured me that I had time to eat. "It's still a couple of blocks away," he said.
Nice of him to tell me that, I thought. There are still some people in this city with a sense of compassion.
As we got on the bus, I noticed some kids in back. At first, they talked among themselves. But soon the atmosphere switched into mid-level hostility.
"Yeah, when I get home I'm gonna get me some pussy," one kid joked, "but she better not have any shit on it, I don't wanna stick my dick in a shitty pussy."
The other five kids, young, maybe 16, laughed hard. The other passengers did their best to ignore it. I noticed how the driver stopped at every single block.
A man got ready to get off the bus. "This guy's gonna get off here because he can't hear this shit," the boy barked.
"I live here," the man said.
"Yeah, I know you do, I know you do," threatened the boy. "When you go home you're gonna get some dick, and I'm gonna get some pussy."
The man walked off the bus.
"Yeah, these faggots don't know how it is, but they should. They keep on sucking dick, but they oughta know how it is to get pussy."
The other passengers were starting to get pissed.
Suddenly the man who'd been so nice to me at the bus stop jumped up and yelled: "How would you like it if I called you a nigger?"
"What?" The kids erupted.
"I said if!" The man explained.
Words were tumbling and cascading, making it impossible to hear anything clearly. But I did hear the gay white man yell, in a futile attempt at empathy, "I am a nigger!"
Maybe it was the recent O.J. ruling, but that would seem too pat. Maybe the daily mix of affluence and underclass had formed a fission experiment.
Whatever the reason, it was too late. The tension had exploded between the trash-talking teenagers and at least ten men who felt those stings every time they left the Castro.
The kid got in the man's face. The bus continued on, leaving us trapped and helpless. In back they argued, loudly, verbal fists flying and punching. They ended up next to me in the aisle. The man's face slightly fearful, but still willing to fight, the kid's face angry and indignant.
I kept on waiting for something bigger to happen. The entire bus ride had escalated into a microcosm of the city's fears: those hideous gay men sinning in the Castro, those barbaric kids looking for any excuse to lash out at white people.
But during those five minutes of extreme tension, my main fear was entirely selfish. What if they began fighting, and accidentally hit me? Or what if somebody had a gun? Any liberal attempt at empathy was squashed by a primal instinct for self-preservation, for wanting to get out of this trapped bus.
The man said something in Latin, and motioned with his hands, his voice rising as the kid mimicked him. At the end of his incantation the man yelled "Hail Satan!"
Everything collapsed. Any hope of a clear moral upperhand vanished. They were two seconds away from getting physical before the driver pulled over. "Young man!" He yelled, but calmer than anyone felt. "I said, young man! If you don't sit down and be quiet I'm going to have to force you off this bus." At that the kid sat down. The war wasn't over, just on hold.
The kids kept on talking about faggots as people got off at different stops, their young hatred bubbling over slurs and taunts. As the Satan-hailer got off the bus, others on the bus checked to see if he was being followed. Usually on talk shows and exploitation TV he'd be decried as evil, the type of guy who sacrifices babies. But this time he was a savior, at least for the white and gay people on board. My own momentary affiliation with him was confused after he hailed Satan on the kid. Now I wondered if he would've said anything if I were black. Maybe this wasn't a fair assessment of him, but nothing was turning out the "right" way.
All I wanted to do was get off the bus.
It was a reality check a realization that the world isn't black and white, but fuzzy. Like a cotton ball that got soaked in a puddle of lime, but all the acid did was fray the cotton to tattered bits.
The vague unease I'd always felt at being a typical white pseudo-hipster in my boyfriend's neighborhood was now full-blown paranoia.
Would I ever get in that kind of confrontation? What would I do if it did? I felt guilty about being so self-interested. I'd been somewhat insulated by living near the Castro from both sexual harassment and racial prejudice. But now all I wanted to do was creep back into my little hole, and nurse my shock.
At my stop, two gay men got off with me one black, one white.
"They're so ignorant. They make me look bad," the black man said.
I've asked around, and my friends haven't observed anything that hateful on a bus in San Francisco. But, then again, most of them drive.
Do you ride the bus?