If one wanders through the streets of San Francisco (as I do … aimlessly … with some regularity) it is not uncommon to hear people shouting. It is difficult, most times, to be sure of what they are shouting about or at whom the vitriol is directed. Everything and everybody, in most cases, I think. The language, even by my own colourful standards can be very blue. The sorts of words that one might expect to hear from a sailor who has just dropped a brick on his big toe.
But it’s nice that people can feel sufficiently comfortable, I suppose, to express their feelings so openly in an open forum. Heavy drugs and mental health issues probably help.
But it was different the other day. There were two people shouting and they were shouting at each other. They were both on bicycles. They were stopped at a set of lights and there was a black guy shouting at a white woman whose bike was about 6 feet in front of his. She was facing away from him but turning her head such that she could hurl abuse at him with the added benefit of ugly facial expressions.
In terms of a verbal contest I would judge it as having been fairly even. The dude probably had the upper hand with regard to volume and arm waving, but that was balanced out by the superior vocabulary deployment of his opponent.
But then she turned her bike and rode back towards him so that she could get her face about 2 inches from his. She started to prod him with a finger. Then she grabbed him by the shirt. The dude pushed her back but she was clearly gaining ascendency. He looked frightened. Things seemed like they might escalate rapidly.
I don’t know who these people were. They might have been lovers – although they looked like an unlikely couple. I don’t even know what the argument was about (who ever does once an argument really gets going?) and I’m fairly sure that I didn’t care.
What was clear to me though was that, if this thing was to become violent, then the black dude was going to be outclassed. She had a definite weight advantage. She was some years younger than him. He was in for a beating. So should I have intervened?
My intervention skills are limited. Things have gone badly wrong before.
(On one memorable occasion Mrs Richmond had me stick my nose into a domestic dispute. Some lunatic was beating the crap out of his wife. There were punches and tears and ripped clothing and blood all over the place. I managed to hold him still for long enough such that she could make an escape. And then I was king-hit from behind. By the assailant’s mother – a woman of about 60 with a savage right hook. A week later the happy couple were back together, but I was still recovering from a mild concussion.)
Nevertheless, I am no stranger to physical confrontation. And it’s not like one more broken nose is going to make me any less good looking at this stage in life. But should I have intervened? Should I have stepped in to defend the underdog? Can you imagine how it might have looked? When a policeman walked around the corner as I was wrestling a young white woman to the ground as an older black guy looked on screaming obscenities?
By the time the decision process had gone through all its twists and turns I was upon them. They had both stepped off their bikes by now and she was pushing him backwards into a brick wall where, I assume, she would be better positioned to get a decent swing at him.
I did the only sensible thing.
“Good afternoon,” I said to them both.
And then I kept walking.