I’m staring down at the rails, air whipping as we pick up speed. Holding onto the steel ladder, the blur of tracks look like melting kit kats one after the other. Arms exhausted, my two hiking boots are balancing precariously on a single round bulb of protruding metal, as I contemplate velocity and how hard my body will hit when I jump off the train. I envision a quick touching down of feet, then a shoulder roll, maybe a sprained ankle at worst. But at 35mph, realistically I’d be broken. I see Jack standing on the small platform between the trains, he’s only a few feet away, but there is no room on it for me, he has his elbows out protecting himself from being shoved off by six Peruvian guys, their shorter bodies jostling him while the locomotive thumps along. We are fatigued after four days of hiking the Inca Trail. We arrived at Machu Picchu this morning before the tourists, out of food, too tired to do much except sit and take it all in, the ancient rocks, the steps, the now open air rooms where god only knows what happened hundreds of years ago. Our group had hiked with the Brazilians, their drums and guitar echoing into the Andean nights as we sucked on coca leaves. We left the ruins and dutifully purchased our tickets for the afternoon train to Cuzco, stomachs rumbling, longing for a big order of pollo and papas. The train pulled in, masses of non-paying indigenous humanity swarmed past our dusty backpacks launching their squat brown bodies onto the train. The scene was how I imagine Bangladesh or India, they were on board before Jack and I had time to react and join the throng. No space inside, we jumped up, Jack to the platform and me to ladder, then the rectangular wheeled hunk erupted with that distinct chug of childhood stories. The Inca Trail gone, I readjust my grip on the ladder wondering how much longer I can hold on. Jack, I’m jumping off this fucking thing if doesn’t stop soon, I yell. He shakes his head at me. No way dude, he yells back. I’ve got maybe six minutes left in my arms, max. While I’m pondering how far to jump out to clear the gravel, the thing starts to slow down, then stop. I hop off, thankful to have my kneecaps and face abrasion-free. I’ll meet you guys in Cuzco, I shout up to Jack. I look around; the multitudes are gone, only mountain cloud forest, a few Quechan women in their bowler hats. They are selling cuy, I can smell the grilled guinea pig, a rustic delicacy I ate a few years back when I lived in Ecuador building latrines. I should be scared, but I have my sleeping bag and a little money, and I know the Quechua, know that they treat people like people. As I take steps towards the women, towards the communal life, I’m almost giddy. Will I follow the tracks back to Cuzco? Will I hitchhike? Will I live with the Quechua for days waiting for a random truck to pass by some isolated road? I feel free, knowing I’m about to drift into the beautiful ocean of the unknown. Behind me the train starts up again, and I hear Mark and two other guys from our group yelling, Dan, we have room. My fantasy bubble pops as I muster my legs and backpack for a sprint to the open door where Mark is holding out his hands telling me to jump for. It is my Indiana Jones moment and I make it count. They catch my arms, strip off my backpack, my ass hanging out the door, catching wind. I ride like that for many minutes until eventually more people get off and I finally sit inside the compartment. We make several more stops before finally getting to Cuzco, at each one, I stare at the Quechan faces, the people who were going to take care of me and help me get back to civilization.
I never interviewed for the legal assistant job, some poor suckers probably did, not me, my Uncle Aaron just hooked me up. In retrospect they should have paid people just to apply. I had two ties, one sport jacket, and a fear of being captured by the man, the capitalist system. My dad was an attorney, my uncle was an attorney, I was afraid that the law might get me too. Sunday night before my first day at the firm I announced that I would slumber outside of my aunt and uncle’s house. I lay my sleeping bag out on the Mill Valley deck, smelling the eucalyptus trees, feeling the presence of Mount Tam seeping into my being. I was looking for strength, for answers, for last breaths of freedom before joining The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The next morning starts out ok. My uncle and I take the ferry across the bay to the Embarcaderos, sunshine, gulls, lapping water. I try to ignore the suits, newspapers, the paisley tie that I’m wearing. I don’t feel like I’m on the conveyer belt until we’re in the elevator surrounded by steel and little blinking lights, everyone staring down at their shoes. We get out at the 22nd floor. My uncle briefly introduces me to Harold, then is gone. Harold is a middle-aged middle management man, sweater vest, navy blue tie, haggard, balding. Once upon a time he probably had lawyer dreams, but now he is king of the paralegals. These boxes all contain documents that need to be labeled. At any point you will be asked to discontinue one box and start another. We go to trial in late November, you will be working overtime, you will be working weekends, any questions? His coffee breath fills the small room that is packed with cardboard boxes and file cabinets. My mind starts alternating between Full Metal Jacket, You will not laugh, you will not cry, and A-B-C, always be closing, from Glengarry Glen Ross. After Harold leaves, I meekly ask some of the other slugs what I’m supposed to do. This guy with Buddy Holly nerd glasses takes his headphones off and tries to explain the process of labeling documents, as I watch his pale face almost quiver. Why are you doing this? I finally ask. I’m applying to law school. If I do this for a year it will help me get in. It turns out everyone in the room is in the pipeline. I just sit there for an hour ruffling papers, contemplating the four windowless walls. I know I might go out one day, but I wasn’t going out like this, whimpering to myself, nursing my daily paper cuts. No, I have one of the great moments of clarity that we sometimes only appreciate after the fact, but I celebrate it right then and there. I get up and leave. I enter my uncle’s corner office on the 23rd floor. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. My uncle looks at me with the quizzical countenance of someone who is trying to act more serious than he actually feels; I think he knows what’s coming. The good news is that I’m getting dim sum for lunch. The bad news is that I’m not coming back. My uncle proceeds to say all the right things about me letting him down, and how I blew this opportunity, but days later I heard that he was bragging about me. All the law firm partners knew that I had escaped being a shield boy; Aaron’s nephew wasn’t going to take it up the butt.
Edward Smith may or may not be dead, but this is his obituary. People in Noe Valley, San Francisco knew his first name, as he sat on plastic crates outside of Walgreens on Castro Street. He attended Castlemont High School in Oakland, worked as a cook, was blinded during a robbery. Couldn’t stand anymore, his spinal column knocked out of place by a car while he was selling the Street Sheet. He may or may not have been married, but he lived with a woman near 6th street. Years ago when he first started to sit, ask for money, he’d sing, loved BB King. I met him later, when all he said was, anything, anything will help. Before he disappeared, Edward was in and out of the hospital, would get shivers, was always cold. Before he disappeared, I helped him get on the website HandUp, where he raised money for eyeglasses, a motorized wheelchair, and food vouchers. Before he disappeared, the good people of San Francisco clicked buttons, donated money, sent him messages, well wishes. After he disappeared, my kids asked me, is Edward dead? I said, I’m not sure, but maybe. The truth is I will never know, we will never know, we San Franciscans. We drive by them, walk by them, see them, blanket covered cadaver-like bodies on the sidewalks, in doorways, strewn out on the grass in front of City Hall. The named and nameless Edward Smiths of our city, the ones we ignore as we type into tiny screens, cradling our lattes. Edward Smith may or may not be dead, but he certainly lived, like so many still do, starving, struggling, alone.
To learn more about Edward, please visit: https://danielwpolk.org/2016/05/22/edward-and-handup/
1979, just a six-year old boy with big hair swinging the ball between my legs, granny style. It began there, in what they called extended day, the after school place for kids with working parents. The court wasn’t much, just a rim really, some loose asphalt, the Wilson ball and me. I took shot after shot; the repetitive motion was golf without the green grass, without the irons, without the country club. Three years later I’m wearing the YBA jersey, two hands shooting the ball for a team. Summer of ‘84 began the deep amor, the nights with Lorenzo and Horace, when they let me play in the counselor games after the other kids were asleep in their bunks. We played outside; the older guys would leave me open on the baseline, while the luna moths and mosquitoes swirled around the lights in rural Virginia. My dad put up a hoop in our driveway, the makeshift cracked court flanked by a rock wall on one side, a brick one on the other. I’d play one on one against Tim or Jack, we’d shoot from deep or get to the rack fast, otherwise the walls were immovable arm scraping defenders. Then there was Dematha’s basketball camp, where I met Danny Ferry, made an all-star team. Basketball moved into high school and much later to pick-up games with the students that I taught. What did it mean? What does it mean? Basketball was my ocean, the place where my body collided with the surf of other bodies, shaped by the angles of elbows, big butts boxing out, where a finger wag meant you had met someone’s swish, witnessed their hours of practice. I threw myself into the game like the mosh pit that it was, threw myself into the organized chaos of Latinos, Asians, African Americans, and White dudes rebounding, sweating, swearing. It was our game; it is still my game, playing PIG with my daughter, watching the Warriors. The global game, you and the basket, or you and the team, harmony, jazz, equality.
You can look at the Nikon here or the Pentax with the zoooom. Allen is slurring his words, again. Usually he doesn’t say much, just sits on his stool in the stockroom dipping Skoal. The customer looks at me for help, I slide open the glass case, take out the two cameras that Allen mentioned, and add a Canon to the mix. Allen blinks his eyes, his Adam’s apple protruding out of his pasty white neck, then stumbles back to his stool. Evans is the poor man’s department store, where mostly lower to middle income patrons come with their cut out coupons to buy toasters, televisions, and silver heart lockets. I never see anyone I know at Evans, my high school friends and their families shop at Tysons or the newer Ballston Common Mall. Allen rides his bike to work, DUI, suspended license, and no money for a car anyway. He used to drive, told me about his pilgrimage to buy Coors in Colorado; apparently it used to be a thing, before they started distributing their beer on the east coast. I’ve got the four cases in the back, he tells me, but I get to West Virginia and I can’t wait anymore, I start popping them open, get through half a case, rolling into Virginia, swerving. Cop pulls me over, lost the whole batch. Pathetic, is the word I use to describe Allen, but when he speaks, his stories help break the monotony of my 12-hour Saturday shift. When Allen’s not working, I watch Margie talk to herself as she continually sprays Windex on the jewelry display case, while I write my senior play for English class on scraps of paper. I daydream about working at Evans for the rest of my life, 5 bucks an hour, plenty of time to write. One day Allen is unable to get off his stool for customers. Goddammit, you smell like Vodka, get out of here you dipshit! Darren, our sales manager yells. I wonder now, did Allen have any clue what he had? That his disease required, demanded a fight. I watch him leave the store parking lot, teetering on his bike; he looks like he’s about to fall. I never see Allen again. A few days later I quit Evans, decide to sell baseball cards.
We’re in the Volvo on highway 101 heading to Calistoga, Napa Valley, wine country. The radio and Supertramp have just saved me from his questions. Where do horses come from? Where do cows come from? Where do people come from? My 6-year old son asks. I try to explain evolution, I was a monkey? He wants to know. En route to some easy hiking, then dinner, Indian Springs and their 95-degree thermal pool. We pass acre after acre of grapevines, wineries, and restaurants. Napa, my old adult playground, the place where I was wed. Schramsberg champagne, Storybook zins, the Sterling vineyard aerial tram, the Epcot Center of imbibing. We hit the trail, balance from rock to rock, avoid the mud, I’m a rock-jumping expert, he says. After the hike, dinner is his favorite, pizza. I drink sparkling water, he has an apple juice. Back at Indian Springs, it is cold with drizzle, I put on a white robe, he throws on his LL Bean fleece, we head to the pool for a night swim. What is that smoke? He asks, staring at the steam. The water is the kind of hot that makes synapses disconnect, that turns a wine buzz into an outer body experience. My son doesn’t know how to swim; we play fight with pool noodles in the shallow end. I see her tiny feet pitter-pattering by the side of the pool; she looks like a doll with moving legs, her mother busy with another little girl several yards away. My son and I are the only people in the pool. Out of the corner of my eye I look at the toddler again, maybe thirty feet from us, her body is doing a back dive, head entering the water first. Minutes later I will remember Tim O’Brien’s words from “The Things They Carried,” just flat fuck fell, describing a guy after he got shot in Vietnam. The little girl was like that, graceful gravity, then submerged. NO, NO, NO, I yell, high hurdling through the foggy water. I get to her seconds after the splash, turn her upright, she’s coughing, spitting up water. The mom hears my shouting, runs from the other side of the pool. She’s been walking by the pool all day, she never came close to the edge, she says, is that wine on her breath, I wonder. That was an emergency, says my son, barely able to comprehend what just happened. Back in our room I find myself guessing how many minutes the little girl would have been hidden, silent under the water, before her mother figured it out.
October 16th, 1997, I arrive at Malcolm X Elementary in Hunter’s Point to sub a 4th grade class, I’m the 19th substitute they’ve had in nineteen days. The original teacher quit after being punched by a student. I don’t have a credential; I haven’t been in a 4th grade classroom since I was 10. I hear them before I open the door, the shouts, the taunting, the loud fuck yous. When I walk in, they momentarily pause, look me up and down, then ignore me. There is Brandy whose grandmother recently died, sullen. Herman, who has already been drunk, has the nickname Bad Boy. Randy, a former crack baby, has impulse control issues, hits other kids, then forgets why. Gabe, who will look me in my eyes, ask me if I can find his father. Ralphie, who came into 4th grade unable to read and will leave the same way. June, whose mother I will stop from whoopin’ Ralphie’s little butt. Jasmine, who I let sleep for the first two hours of school, because she stays awake during the late night drug deals at her apartment. Rachel has a dad who fights pit bulls, he threatens to bitch slap one of my colleagues. Bevaun, who I take hiking on Mount Diablo, likes to sing doo-wop with me. Thuy stays in my class for one week before her parents have the foresight to get her transferred out. Gene, who will threat to kill me, throws chairs, eventually is sent to another school. Then there is Ozzie, he is homeless, lives in a car, will fight anyone, fearless. There are a total of 23 kids, five barred windows, and one me. I start by being bigger, louder, but they know that one, that is all they know. One day I just close my eyes, sit in the center of the room, quiet. The mornings get better, math, language arts, multiplication, some writing, except for Ralphie, he sits singing to himself. Before Christmas we practice our song for the show, I hear love in my voice, in some of their voices too. The rain, the rain, the rain, we have recess inside, everyday. When it is wet out, they sit next to me at lunch, ask why I eat tomatoes. Spring, I take them to Glen Canyon Park and Mount Diablo, we do solo sits, some fall asleep, curled up by oak trees. Summer arrives and they leave, what have they learned? I will never know, I’m off to Paraguay and grad school. Years go by and I start to google them. Thuy is a teacher, Brandy graduated from SF State. Gabe is in lock up for drug distribution, Aamir for assault and battery. And Bevaun, my Life Could Be A Dream doo-wop partner; he’s dead, shot in a drive by. Most of them have probably forgotten me years ago, but I will never forget them, my first class.
-All the names in this piece have been changed.