Bus exhaust spews over me on this quiet Saturday, and I smile, remembering high school in Missouri. I cross Weyburn Avenue, anticipating today’s seminar, reveling in the freedom to step into the role of avid student, leaving the blown-off teacher to the week days. I spot two Asian women, each sporting a UCLA visor, one blue, one gold, pointing towards Wilshire Boulevard, studying a map, pointing again. The blue visored woman opens her phone and taps the key board. They argue.
“Tourists,” I think. “Looking for campus. Or maybe Beverly Hills.” I am good at directions. I can help them. My hearts thumps with the thrill of their gratitude for my good deed.
A homeless man who camps near the Westwood Center Building kicks out of his blanket and rises from his fortress of possession bags and newspapers. His bulk shadows the sidewalk. He lurches forward, grabbing the wrist of the smaller woman of the gold visor. Her friend yells and pulls her companion towards her. The gold visor clatters to the ground. The man’s bulk is triple that of the two women together. His next pull lifts his victim off her feet.
He has frowzy, filthy hair and raw, scabby hands. I am getting closer, assessing how to safely intervene. He shakes the woman as if he is a bear with a fish. He claws at her backpack. She goes limp.
I should run to them, but I am afraid. I look for a passing pedestrian, a sympathetic passenger in a car. Where is the meter reader? I am closer, having edged two steps forward or perhaps he has pulled her in my direction.
I smell him now: musty, damp, acrid, vomitous, urine-soaked. The woman’s eyes are dazed.
Her friend cries out, “Ai, ai, ai ai,” her mouth forming a rigid O.
The man turns to me, shouting, “You.” He shakes the woman, and her head flops. “You hear me?”
I don’t answer.
“She cut off my mother’s cock.” He shakes her again. “She cut off my mother’s fucking cock.”
I can hardly breathe through the thickness of his smell and my fear.
He yells and shakes her again and again, “She got to pay. She cut off my mother’s cock.”
I back up to the door of the building. The door opens. I rush in as the unarmed security guard rushes out, leaving the door askew. I collapse in the guard’s wheeled chair and lean forward, head between my knees.
The security guard is speaking in the soft, relaxed voice I use when the grandkids act out. “Hey, man. It’s all right. You’re all right. Let her go. Let’s talk. It’s all right. No reason to get yourself upset, now, is there?”
The homeless guy drops the woman and resumes his cross-ankled residence on the sidewalk, muttering into his sweatshirt. The women are weeping as the guard leads them to the door.
I flee before they reach me, to the elevator, getting off on the wrong floor, washing my face in the restroom, getting back on the elevator, finding my classroom, waiting, hoping for a classmate to come, needing to tell this story. I write in my journal. I wonder what these two will remember of America. Will they turn this episode into a funny travel story? Or an indictment of us. Of me? My lined journal page smears with tears, blurring the edges of the words I, me, my, them.