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Street Hassle

One wrong word and she went off like a bomb.

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The cabdriver's radio was cranked so loud I had to tell him three times where to drop me off. He'd tuned in a faint, staticky AM talk show that sounded like it was broadcasting from the moon. Against the buzzing and whirring a man's voice crackled, "Racial profiling at airportsh ish shomething we're gonna have to conshider, and I think Arab-Americansh undershtand the shituation."

The cabbie gave me the evil eye in the rearview mirror. He could've been Arab, Cuban, maybe even Greek like me--though the hand he steered with wasn't hairy enough. I couldn't tell if he wanted an apology for the guy on the radio or if he thought I was trying to steal the buckle off my seat belt.

"What?" I said. "What?"

The staring contest ended when a white light flashed before the cab. A squad car had swerved out of oncoming traffic and was roaring at us like a fireball, its flickering brights filling the windshield. For one long suspended second the cab seemed to hover motionless over Division Street. The blood in my ears was howling down the man on the radio. I could hardly hear myself blurt out "Fuuuuck!"

The cabdriver slapped his other hand to the wheel and wrenched it as if he were trying to put the whole steering column into a headlock. We banked to the right, and the squad's siren sang past us. I could hear the radio again--and behind us the blaring horn of the Buick we'd almost crashed into.

The cabbie glanced at me in the mirror. "Sorry," he said. "No," I mumbled, letting my feet drop off the back of the front seat.

The Buick followed the cab to my corner and parked behind us. The fare was six bucks, and the smallest bill I had was a ten; not wanting to get caught in the middle of anything, I handed it to the cabbie and told him not to bother with the change. But when I threw the door open I almost clipped the Buick's passenger in the knees.

"Sorry," I said, but she didn't seem to notice me.

She leaned into the cab and shouted at the driver, "Motherfucker, what the fuck is wrong with you?"

The cabbie threw up his hands and pleaded, "I'm so sorry."

Her face went blank. "All right," she said, and turned back to the Buick. The cabbie looked at me. I almost asked for change.

Climbing out of the cab I told the woman, "Yeah, that cop totally came out of nowhere."

The woman spun around. "Nobody asked you," she snapped. "You white bitch."

"Whoa!" yelled the cabbie. "There's no problem here. Everything's OK." The guy on the radio was talking about "a nuclear component." The Buick's driver, still behind the wheel, was shaking her head at me and mouthing, "No, no, no, no, no..."

I slammed the door shut and said, "Nobody had to ask me, you crazy bitch."

She sucked in a loud hiss through her clenched teeth; her arms and shoulders seized up as if I'd poked her in the chest with a live wire. A few more seconds and there would have been smoke puffing out of her ears.

"You...honky...mother...fucker!" she growled. "Goddamn faggot cocksucker! Motherfuckin' honky-ass white bitch motherfucker! WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE!"

"Holy shit," I said. The Buick's driver lowered her forehead to the steering wheel. The cabbie was giving me the evil eye again.

"Hey, dude, what's goin' on?" called Gene, a guy who hangs out on my corner.

I started to tell him my side of the story: "This fucking bitch is crazy."

"What are you talkin' to him for?" screamed the woman.

"He's my friend," I told her. "Fuck off."

"SHUT THE FUCK UP, YOU NERD-ASS MOTHERFUCKER--I AIN'T ASKIN' YOU!" She jabbed a finger at Gene. "What the fuck are you talkin' to him for?"

"He's my friend," Gene answered, even though he can never remember my name.

She erupted again, and I went back to telling Gene what happened. He kept looking at something over my shoulder. When I got to the part where all I did was say the cop had come out of nowhere, Gene raised his eyebrows and said, "Shit, dude." I turned around.

There was a van parked in front of the convenience store across the street. Through the tinted windows I could see shadows of people rising from their seats. The driver opened his door and stepped out. His hand was bigger than the side-view mirror. He looked at me and bellowed, "What the fuck did you call my wife?"

Gene and I looked at each other.

"THAT'S RIGHT!" shrieked the woman, pointing at me. "THAT'S RIGHT, YOU PUNK-ASS HONKY BITCH!"

Gene put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You should probably get out of here." When I didn't move he gave me a little push.

I ducked into the bar on the first floor of my building and went up to my apartment through a side door. My roommate was watching a news report on celebrity breakups. After a few minutes I decided, for some reason, to go back down. I stuck my head outside and looked both ways.

"Hey, man, those dudes are gone," said Gene.

"Yeah, I know," I said, bumping into the door on my way out.

"They went around the block a few times, but they're gone now. That bitch told 'em you called her a nigger."

"I did not!"

"Hey, man, you don't gotta tell me. I was standing right there."

"Was that really her husband?"

"Fuck no, dude. Where you headed?"

"Across the street."

"Can you get me a Mountain Dew? I won't go in there--that Arab asshole runs the joint is fuckin' racist." He handed me 60 cents as an old man squeaked by on a rusty bike. "That Polski owes me money," said Gene. The old man once called me a Jew because I wouldn't lend him any.

At the store I picked up Gene's soda, a Dove bar, and a magazine. There was a kid buying cigarettes at the counter, but he was a few nickels short. He ran to the door and started yelling for his friend. He used to live in a building across the street from me, before a fire smoked everybody out a few years ago. Now it's being rehabbed, and I've heard there's going to be a tapas restaurant on the first floor. I paid the difference on the cigarettes and tossed him the pack.

"Hey, thanks, bro," he said.

"You remember me?" I asked.

"I don't know. Yeah. You live over there, right?"

"Yeah," I said. "You remember like, five years ago, on Thanksgiving? Me and my roommate were coming home from the suburbs, and we were getting out of our car, and you ran out of your house and yelled, 'Happy Thanksgiving, you white bitches!'" I felt kind of weird mentioning it, but the coincidence was too much.

The kid bit his lip and looked at the ground for a few seconds. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "I probably did." He held up the cigarettes, gave me a nod, and walked away.

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