Don’t Look At Me

*click on title for image

Recently, someone I know endured a traumatic episode—an assault—walking at night in the streets of Oakland, in the neighborhoods depicted in my two novels, Crystal From The Hills and The Situation. The victims were a middle-aged Caucasian pair on a night out, feeling a part of their community; empathetic, even celebrating of its diversity: of age, socioeconomics, gender orientation, race. On an unlit street a block or two away from a populated commercial districted, they approached a pair of youngish-looking black men, walking languidly in the opposite direction. The couple exchanged glances, but neither said a word. Through body language they consolidated a plan with a tacit underpinning: keep walking, don’t change direction; don’t convey to these young men a prejudice or fear based upon their age or race. Trust.
The plan backfired. Within ten yards of contact, the two men separated, moving to flanking positions on the sidewalk. The couple halted, realizing in an instant what was happening. One of the men pulled a firearm and calmly directed the couple to hand over their bag, while the other man stepped forward and reached into pockets, first those of the husband, then the pockets of his wife. The husband looked up, half-meeting the glance of the man groping around his body.
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “What are you looking at?”
“Sorry,” muttered the husband, immediately complying and looking away.
The man with the gun stepped forward, reaching out to the woman instead. With his free hand he grabbed her wrist, looking to snatch her bag which contained her cell phone, her wallet, identifications, plus an address at which the coupled lived.
“Let go,” he directed calmly, intimately.
The wife didn’t look at him. She wanted to speak instead, ask some of the following questions: do you have a mother? How could you do this? What is this about for you? Is it poverty? Don’t you realize we’re on your side? Don’t you know, or care, what a set-back this is, for Oakland, for relations between white people and black? She didn’t say any of this, of course. She cooperated, relinquishing her grip on her bag. While fearful still for hers and hers husband’s safety, or that of their home in El Cerrito, she was equally distraught over the psychological fall-out: the changes she foresaw in the aftermath of this violation. A minute later, the incident was over, and the couple, physically un-harmed, was soon talking to police, sharing their details. Meanwhile, the wife continued to ruminate: where was the empathy in this world? The civility?
Privately, I’ve thought of incidents like this in the context of writing my two companion novels, both of which—though especially the first, CFTH—depict life on the gritty streets of Oakland, where danger is presumed. Two of my characters, Chris Leavitt and Jill Evans, endure street assaults that are peripheral to the story’s main drama, but nonetheless endemic to the social milieu in which they live. These episodes are included for a few reasons, one of which is a realistic depiction of Oakland, though this is of secondary importance. Firstly, my novels are not so much realistic as surrealistic; they rely on subtext, the expression of fears which are as much felt experiences over a lifetime rather than emotions triggered by specific, present-day circumstances. Still, the characters, going about their lives, for the most part unconsciously, make implicit appeals for more civility in the world; more empathy.
The second novel, The Situation, provides meat to this theme in the form of Bryan “Weed” Tecco’s story. An absent—as in disappeared—character from CFTH, Weed’s actions and enigmatic motivation are the pretext of events in the first novel, now resurrected, like Weed himself, for the plot’s unfolding. Prior to Chris Leavitt’s dalliance with homelessness, likely psychosis, his absconding from work and home, he’d accompanied his similarly psychotic drug dealer/video game tester friend, “Weed”, on an unexplained road trip to the secretive village of Bolinas in West Marin, ostensibly to aid a getaway, but also, more quietly, to take possession of some corporate contraband. That road trip culminates in an accident involving their truck and a West Marin lake, during which Weed disappears, later presumed drowned.
Well, he hasn’t drowned, according to the first line of The Situation (BTW: contradicting the first line of CFTH—hopefully, the reader notices). He’s back and ready to explain himself and the meaning of that contraband, for anyone who will listen and care. The contraband is a set of flash drives, the files for a game entitled “The Situation”, designed by a programmer/quasi journalist, a Julian Assange-like figure, who wants to exploit the phenomenon of gaming popularity, and publish a game with unprecedented social purpose: the game, played at its highest levels, will reveal the whistleblower secrets of the US government as well as bastions of corporate America. While this parallels the secret-laden lives of Chris, Jill, and Weed, they are unknowingly embroiled in a chase for the missing drives; driven to be a part of something they don’t quite understand, but know is important.
Along the path of this mission, from the ill-fated drive to Bolinas, and throughout the events that unfold over the two books, characters experience events that trigger their various traumas, ambiguously calling for civility, empathy, amid the surface pursuit of survival. They do a lot of looking at one another, and a little more talking as time moves on, as therapists like me instruct. Within the drama that is about survival, then a nightmare; then a comeback, and finally a game, a shadowy character, a talisman of sorts, teaches about empathy, tells them they must learn to take risks, look into the souls of others, through the traditional window of eyes.
This fanciful lesson will compete with reality, I think. It is a story, a fantasy, but also a kind of prescription competing with other warnings.
Look at me.

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