Essay: Always Talk to Strangers

Map of Lake Merritt from the Bold Italic.

The sun’s throwing that hazy afternoon, postcard skyline up around Lake Merritt as I bike into the Lakeview branch of Oakland Public library. There’s some grown-ass white folk snogging on the front steps. She’s blonde, he’s bald. They wouldn’t look out of place driving the minivan to soccer practice, but here they are groping each other on public property.

I lock my bike. A guy’s futzing with the brakes on his. He’s getting grease all over his thick pair of neon yellow gloves, which match his neon yellow muscle tee. The guy’s a super fit brown man, some flavor of Asian maybe. I ask, “You figuring it out?”

Like magic, the brake noodle on his V-brakes slips back into place. He squeezes the brakes a couple times and says, “I shoulda had a look at this myself. You see this?” He points to his left eyebrow, which is puffed up with a purple contusion, then points across the street. “I got this right there. I had my tennis shoes dangling from my handlebars and WHAM! I got six stitches and a concussion.”

He’s just warming up.

“I was on BART the other night. I woke up in Concord. The door’s open and my bike’s gone. I run out and don’t see nobody. So I turn around to get back on the train cuz you know, my bag and wallet and everything’s on there. Door closes on me. I turn around again and there’s the dirtbag with my bike so I slap him.”

I crack a grin. Slapped him?

The guy continues his story. He tells the station agent the situation and they send his stuff back on the last train coming back the other way.

“While I’m waiting, this white guy chats me up. I get my stuff back and I go to take a piss. Park my bike outside the bathroom and I see the white guy looking at me. I’m like, you’re kidding me, this guy’s sizing me up?”

I’m shaking my head.

“I take a piss, come back out, and the bike’s gone.” He has missed the last train of the night so he calls a friend in Concord for a crash, then walks over to the Safeway nearby.

I laugh out loud.

“You know what’s coming right?” he says. “My bike’s outside, being watched by these teenybopper ragamuffins. She’s crying like, ‘It’s my boyfriend’s.'” He goes inside, parks his bike by the security guard and tells him the situation. Then he sees the guy, the thief, walking down the aisle carrying groceries.

“I give it to him. Two jabs and a left. I used to be a boxer you know. And I drop him. I look at the security guard and I’m like, ‘Call the police!’ And the security guard says, ‘You don’t want to get them involved.'”

He and I are both incredulous. I high five him. “Nice job getting the bike back. Twice in one night, huh?”

He breathes, “Twice in five minutes.

We shake hands and introduce ourselves. He’s a cook at a restaurant down the street. I tell him I’ll come by. He says, “You gotta come in the morning. We’ve got these savory waffles. They’re sweet waffles, but with bacon and cheese melted on top.”

I go inside the library and pick up my book. The grown-ass white folk are still on the steps outside, still on each other. The lady librarians are locking up and tut-tutting.

“We really can’t have them making out on the steps,” says one. “But Mary. What would we do without her?”

It was another gorgeous afternoon by Lake Merritt.

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