ON THE STREETS WHERE I LIVED
Downtown Milwaukee was a “ghost town” at night, my mother would say. Not like the downtown she had known as a teen, where she went to the “movie show” or to the drugstore for malts. Met sailors with her girlfriends, shopped.
By the time I was 21 the White Flight and race riots of the the late 60’s which had gutted the city and made the division between north and south, east and west so blatant, had left a no man’s land in the center. Certainly the banks and businesses remained struggling against the boom of the suburban malls. But nightlife died except for the sailors, whores and drug dealers. And then us punks.
We walked into this zone one summer night to see Die Kreuzen in a sequestered basement club. Denise and I were as pale as moonlight refusing to tan, a juvenile reaction to the “natural” decade we were leaving behind. We wore black like burglars. Smoked and drank.
It was 1980, late summer was gently becoming fall, when we stepped out of the club at 3 a.m. to catch the last bus to the east side. I ‘m not sure if we were still lovers at that time or not yet lovers. If we were in one of the safe zones of “just friends” that sandwiched our short bristling affair. We were better as friends and we knew it.
We were the only ones at the bus stop. Wisconsin avenue was dead silent except for an occasional vehicle, a group of blind drunk sailors, 2 black teenagers on bikes.
Then one tall black man who wandered the wide sidewalk in great arching zig-zags. More gracious than a drunk , but obviously altered. He wandered to the curb. Was he looking for a cab? For the bus we were waiting for? He wandered to the shop windows, muttered at things beyond his reach behind the glass and the accordion-pleated caging that doubly closed the store. He seemed to be looking for something.
Then he found me.
Denise and I had not felt unsafe like most Milwaukeans would have at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night in downtown Milwaukee. We were waiting for the last bus, if there was a last bus, as if we were waiting for the first bus of the morning to go to work. We leaned against the brick store front. We laughed at the drunk sailors nearly our age but boyishly cute and floundering and kidded about taking them home. We marveled at the speed with which the black kids road through the red lights. But we took little notice of the solitary man in his casual zigzagging search for something.
Until he got close. Daringly close. Sociopathically close.
“ You’re too white.” I could feel the droplets of alcoholic saliva hit my face.
Then he lifted his arm and the knife he held.
He flipped open the switch blade before my face.
“You’re too white.”
I was too white. I sunburn easily, that was probably more the reason why I didn’t tan, than any punkish reactionary fashion statement.
“ I can’t help it, I born that way, “ was my stupid response.
“ You’re too white,” the repetition began to make him seem more psychopathic than sociopathic. This was not only the liquor talking, there was something jacked up behind his dulled decision making.
Denise and I had had our own calculated mix of uppers and downers. We were in a delighted, trustful and vulnerable state. We were having fun and it was suddenly being stripped away by one angry black man and the fact that I was too white.
“ You’re too white.” I don’t know if it was the idiocy of his repetition, my drug altered mind or fear, but I smirked. It held back a laugh.
“ Are you laughing at me?” He raised the knife to my throat.
I knew even at that moment that the knife was not held against my throat. Not Danny Mount’s throat. Not my 21 year old throat still smooth as pre-pubescence. It was the throats of all the white teachers that sent him to the principal’s office, all the bus drivers that would let him board, all the white cops who hand cuffed him. I knew also I was not personally responsible “ Black Problem” in America. But I also knew that I was not helping the situation either. I knew I could easily be the innocent victim of a hate crime.
But I didn’t want to be.
I had grown up safely in a white-faced, blue-collared neighborhood where the only point against me was effeminacy. But it was the 70s and androgyny was in, even on the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had coasted through high school lathered with a cool.
Here I was lathered again, but in the sweat of fear this time. Cool had dripped off me and puddled somewhere below where I could not look. I could not look at Denise either whose silence left me feeling very alone. I knew I didn’t deserve to be a sacrifice for all the innocent blacks that died over the last century. But I also knew it would be justified. Eye for an eye. Tit for tat. The way of the world.
Maybe the drugs helped.
Maybe they didn’t.
But I tried a new angle as he pressed the blade against my thumping jugular vein.
Maybe the pack of Pall Malls I smoked that day had helped, lending a husky Tallulah Bankheadishness to my voice. I tried seduction.
Giving in I said, “You’re right, I am too white.”
He was having none of this wishy-washy reverse psychology crap. My agreement with his mantra made him suspicious. He could focus his stare but the blade pressed tighter against my suddenly precious and very white skin.
“ The bus!” Denise finally spoke up.
She was still there I wasn’t alone with this strange man on this god-forsaken street at 3 a.m.
He swirled, maybe he was actually waiting for the bus, his arm and the knife fell to his side.
But not without leaving a zinging dent in my too white skin that lingered even after we got on the bus.