Yesterday I was in San Francisco for a dental appointment. Early morning bus, then art museum, then our old standby Cafe Trieste for lunch, then bus to the dentist, then checked into the Adelaide Hostel for an overnight. Out to eat, then back to the hostel’s kitchen to write.
The hostel has an upstairs lounge, but I prefer the basement where the combination of a blaring TV, late-night drinkers, and conversations in French or Spanish create a loneliness that serves me well—my mind wanders, but not so much as in dead silence. I finished my overdue biweekly blog post, but abruptly I had the seeds of a new one.
An older guy, maybe mid-sixties, was watching a documentary on whales while chatting up a young woman from Boston. “I’m from Boston,” he said. They talked about Boston a while, and then it died. The TV turned into something louder than whales, and the guy continued watching—or at least pointing himself in that direction.
A youngish black man turned and asked him, “Are you watching that?” A reasonable query, one would think, simple to answer with yes or no. Instead, it sparked an explosion.
The older guy responded with fury, “What does it look like?”
“I just asked.”
“Can’t you see?” And suddenly all of Northern California was afire. Neither got up from his chair, but the rhythm of whap-whap-whap was growing lethal. I got up, walked over to them, said something like, “Hey, change the rhythm.”
I never do stuff like that. I claim a coward’s privilege. I never had a fistfight past fourth grade. The times I’ve tried to act as a peacemaker on the Web have never won me the Nobel. And I recall what happened to Mercutio when he tried to intervene in swordplay.
But in this case I persisted. “Let go of it, it’s no big thing,” I said to one and to the other as they continued shouting. And then the older guy stormed upstairs, either to lodge a complaint at the desk or to call down a drone strike on the kitchen. I went back to working on Chapter 26 and drinking my Jameson.
Later I lay in my cubicle of the 10-bed dorm reading. The youngish black man came in and I heard him speak to a friend about the dust-up. “Don’t know what his problem was. Think he just doesn’t like black guys.” And he may have been right. Surely he has more experience with that than I do.
But it struck me: How does he know? It could as well be that the older guy is feeling his age, that the girl is uninterested, that he’s got nothing to do in San Francisco at night except watch TV, that this young twerp is implying he’s not even conscious—
Not something I’d thought of until I reached that age when gray hair makes us invisible, useful for nothing except to blame for the state of the world. Experience has led me to a hypothetical perception, as the black man’s experience has led him to a different perception. Neither of us knows, though for both of us it likely adds evidence to our preconceptions. Even the other guy probably doesn’t know what moved him.
Lots of land mines out there. Walk with caution.