by Aaron Gilbreath
Two weeks after the scabs from the assault had healed, a
man on the Blue Line train asked to listen to my iPod. Now, I hate to
assign labels, especially since things like color and clothes don't,
or shouldn't, matter, but this was a hiphop type guy, kind of
gangster-ish, with big baggy jeans and a puffy red down basketball
jacket and a sideways baseball cap. And black. He was also a stranger,
and in a city of 1.7 million like Portland, Oregon, no one in their
right mind hands a stranger their valuables.
I was on my way to work, tired and wishing I had a car and
a cup of coffee. Morning commuters crowded the train - white
businessmen in expensive black trench coats, college students slouched
under the weight of huge backpacks, Asian men just in from the airport
- and because the seat opposite me was the only one empty, the man had
ended up seated right across the aisle.
His voice sounded soft when he first asked to see it, like
a blue note from a jazz clarinet. I listen to all types of music, from
Ella Fitzgerald to Bad Brains. I also work hard for my money -
forty-plus hours a week typing the blandest form pledge letters you've
ever seen at one of the city's longest running homeless shelters;
rarely can I afford to indulge in such luxuries as sushi dinners or
six dollar mixed drinks, and I wasn't going to let an extravagance
like an iPod out of my hands. So I told him no.
Actually, first I tried to ignore him, keeping my head
back against the seat, my eyes closed, but he knew I was awake; when
I'd sat up earlier to make sure I hadn't missed my stop, we'd looked
right at each other.
"Excuse me," he repeated, "mind if I have a listen to that thing?"
I lifted one earphone and, stalling for time, leaned
forward with a fake grogginess. "What?" I couldn't think of anything
else to say, and I didn't have the guts to say anything like "Sorry"
or "I'm germphobic and don't share headphones" or just plain old "No."
An old woman glanced over, her brow raised above eyes wide
with sympathy. A man in a suit and tie, iPod resting in his own hands,
rustled his newspaper and turned toward the window.
The man said, "I hear the sound's pretty good."
"It is," I said, thinking how he looked about my age,
twenty-six, "but no better than your average CD player."
My fingers scrolled to the volume control. A pink scar had
started to form on my left knuckles from where they'd hit the
pavement. The two assailants, one white, one black, both in their
twenties, jumped me while I was walking home from the Red Line train.
They didn't say a word, just threw quick jabs into the back and side
of my head while it was turned, and they didn't take anything, not my
Walkman, not my bookbag, not my wallet. The first blow to the temple
blurred my vision and left me stumbling with the sideways gate of a
Mardi Gras drunk. Subsequent blows left me face down on the sidewalk,
my hands scraped from the impact, face bleeding onto someone's lawn,
as the guys ran away.
I bought the iPod for the week I was stuck at home
healing, and I've worried about thugs stealing it ever since - just
running up and yanking the sleek dark unit from my hands. For
concealment, I switched the telltale white iPod headphones with my
Walkman's old black pair. It seems kind of paranoid, but, truth be
told, between working at the shelter and riding the light rail as much
as I do, I come into contact with some shady characters with colorful
pasts, and a little extra caution cannot hurt. The weirdest thing,
though, is that when people asked about my attackers, the questions
were always "Were they black?" and "Did they take anything?" I lied
and said my attackers were white. Why feed the racial stereotypes?
Some things are bigger than truth.
The guy reached his hands across the aisle. "Let's check
it out." A soft sheen textured his palms like the matte of a new
paperback novel, and before I could say another word, I handed him the
headphones. Just the headphones. Not the player.
His eyes tilted up to me, pitifully, like one of those
homeless panhandlers that sit on the sidewalk all over town. Alright,
the eyes seemed to say, you gotta be kidding me.
But I wasn't. I held on to the iPod. Clung to it. "Put the
headphones on, I'll play you something."
My voice strained to sound light and friendly. Not owning
or knowing any hip hop, I searched for a song he might like, something
cool and not rock 'n roll, but it was hard to concentrate with him
staring at me with his mouth open, eyes white as iced wedding cake.
The old lady nearby shook her head.
Alright, I admit, this was awkward. I've lived in Portland
my whole life, and never had any black friends growing up. Everyone in
my old neighborhood was either white, German or Japanese, and the
black kids at school, few that there were, stayed to themselves, with
the exception of Terrence the music geek who played trombone for the
school band and probably didn't know Snoop Dog from Boss Hog and who
people called Erkel. Myself included.
I selected a swinging Hank Mobley song, "Split Feelin's,"
but the guy didn't even put on the headphones. With a loud huff, he
tugged his cap, draped the cords over the back of my scarred hands and
laughed. "Forget it, man. Keep it."