Mean Streets

Now THIS guy is a professional. My guy could learn a thing or two from him.

It was about 12:30 AM this past Friday and I was making the mile long trek back to my apartment from a local tiki bar, feeling rather glib after three or four drinks that were boozier than Whitney Houston’s ex-husband and fruitier than Rick Santorum’s most secretive fantasies. It was a lively evening – Lankershim Boulevard was flooded with cars and the streets were full of people patronizing my neighborhood’s five bars, eight restaurants, and sixty-three medical marijuana dispensaries.

So there I am, marching up the street, looking forward to getting home so I could hop on Netflix and finish off season 3 of King of the Hill, when I heard a voice from behind me:

“Hey, man, hey! Hang on a second!”

I stopped and turned to see a guy in his early 30s running up to me, clad in loose fitting jeans and a freshly pressed collared shirt. In the three steps it took him to get close to me he looked over his shoulder two times.

“Hey.” He said again. “You know how to get to the Metro stop?”

“Oh, yeah.” I pointed up the street in the direction I’d been walking. “We’re on Lankershim right now. You just walk straight up a few blocks and it’s right there at Chandler. You can’t miss it.”

“Oh, cool, cool, thanks.” He glanced over his shoulder again. “You going that way?”

Yes, I was going that way, but I definitely didn’t want to go that way with him. It wasn’t out of any concern for my safety – keep in mind, there were mostly-sober people everywhere – but because I just didn’t have the energy to make stilted, achingly polite small talk with a complete stranger who would only be a part of my life for the time it took to walk four blocks.

Yeah, I’m heading this way. My name is Truman. Hi Grxfib, pleasure to meet you. Yes, I do live around here. I too enjoy a good pizza from time to time. No, I do not have a dog. Thank you for showing me pictures of your brother’s dog on your phone. Well, this is the Metro stop. Bye Grxfib! While I hope that the rest of your life is pleasant, your very existence is ultimately meaningless to me!

See? It’s exhausting.

“Uh, I am,” I stammered, pulling out my phone. “But I’ve got to make a phone call. You just head straight up Lankershim and it’s there. You can’t miss it.”

He nodded quickly, glancing over his shoulder six or seven more times. “Yeah, well, I think I’ll wait and head that way with you, just to be sure.”

Something inside me died. I’d made it perfectly clear that the only thing this guy had to do to find the Metro stop was walk in a straight line – in fact, I was so confident in his ability to find the street in question that I staked my reputation as a direction giver on the claim that he, a man I had never met, could not physically miss it, but he was still insistent on me escorting him there. This could mean one thing and one thing only:

He wanted to talk to me about either animal rights or Jesus – two things that I appreciate conceptually but have very little use for in my day-to-day life.

“I guess I can make the call later,” I sighed, slipping my phone back into my pocket and plodding up the street once more. Random Dude fell into a swerving, anxious swagger beside me, ever constantly craning his neck and throwing looks over his shoulder.

“Thanks man. I’m not from around here and I don’t want to wind up in a bad neighborhood, y’know?”

At the time, we were walking past a gelato shop adjacent to a childrens’ ballet studio, across the street from a community theater. Given these incredibly threatening surroundings I could understand why this 5’9 black man had sought out the toughest, most physically intimidating guy on the street – me – to protect him.

“I don’t think you have to worry about that in the North Hollywood Arts District.” I said.

“Oh, okay. Cool.”

And so we walked – him veering back and forth across the sidewalk and scanning 360 degrees for threats, me desperately trying to make small talk so as not to seem racist. Throughout our conversation he muttered a few details about being from Culver City, not knowing his way around the Valley, and needing to take the Metro home. For a stranger in this part of town, though, he seemed to know an awful lot of people – he exchanged greetings with three separate guys on our walk up the street, and I started to wonder why one of them couldn’t just walk him to the train. Looking on the bright side, he wasn't lecturing me about factory farms or the Second Coming.

We were one block away from the Metro stop, so close we could see it, when Random Dude began veering to the right.

“C’mon, man, let’s cut around this way.” He said, heading toward – I shit you not – a dark alley behind a Wells Fargo. The alley ran parallel to the street we were on; there was absolutely no reason whatsoever for us to cut through there to get to the Metro stop, save for being out of sight of about two dozen potential witnesses.

Holy shit. I realized, standing there on the corner and watching Random Dude inch toward the alley and nervously beckon me to follow him. He doesn't want to talk about Jesus. I think he's trying to rob me! That is adorable.

I shook my head. “No thanks. I’m going to walk around this way. Have a great night!”

I proceeded up Lankershim, and a second later he was galloping up beside me, exasperated and begging me to slow down. We crossed Chandler and arrived at the Metro stop – a huge transit center that spanned the entire block.

“Well, here we are!” I said as we walked past the throngs of people flowing out of the station. “Just head down that escalator and get on the Red Line, then transfer to the Blue for Culver City.”

He bobbed his head nervously, still checking over his shoulder. “Yeah, I think I’m going to take a bus. C’mon, let’s head to the buses.”

The bus stop was located on the far side of the transit center – an area with fewer streetlights that was totally deserted. I shook my head again and kept walking.

“There isn’t a bus to Culver City. You have to take the train.” I pointed to the station. “To do that you need to go over there.”

“Nah, I’m going to take the bus to my friend’s house for the night. C’mon.” He started to veer toward the dark parking lot that led to the buses.

“Alright, have fun walking over there!” I waved to him and continued up the street, and sure enough he kept following me.

At this point, I was getting fed up – we were moving out of the heavily populated, well lit part of North Hollywood and into territory where even this sad sack George Michael Bluth excuse for a criminal could rob me.

“The Metro is back that way.” I said, continuing forward.

“Yeah, the buses aren’t even running. I’m just going to chill at Denny’s up on Burbank Boulevard.” Perhaps noticing that I was keeping an increasing distance from him, he said, “Damn, man, get closer.”

I came to a stop outside a crowded Mexican nightclub and shook my head.

“Alright, you clearly know where the Denny’s is – even though you’ve supposedly never been here before – so you can get there on your own. I’m done.”

Desperation filled his eyes. “No. C’mon. Please. Please? Just walk me to the Denny’s.”

It's an odd emotion, feeling sorry for somebody who you're 80% sure wants to trade your iPhone for crystal meth. I almost let him rob me out of sympathy (and to alleviate some of my white guilt.) Instead, I took drastic action by entering the Mexican nightclub and starting a lively chat with the bouncer, which prompted Random Dude to finally disappear from my life forever.

I’m as surprised as you are at how calmly I handled the whole thing, but I can’t stress enough how pathetic this guy was. Say what you will about his intentions or his competence – he was by far the most memorable complete stranger I’ve ever been forced to make small talk with.  

Truman Capps apologizes for neglecting to mention this on the phone this weekend, Mom - it was such a nonthreatening situation that I forgot.