We’re headed out to the Valley. I pull up to Martin Luther King Way, across from Franklin. It’s a dingy gloom tonight. The dealers are on both sides of the street. Various shapes lumber about in the periphery, shifting figures in front of lights, signs of life at the laundromat and beneath the overpass. A small crowd is waiting at the bus stop, maybe five of them, dark shapes against the darker night. Looks like mostly younger guys, tall and lanky, post-high school or so.
Groups of kids are a strange animal. Some years ago on the 7 a cadre of thirty teens beat up a young couple, sending them both to the hospital. Older drivers will remember gang initiations in the back of the 106; the new member would be beat to a pulp, but had to remain silent. This is why some passengers will tell you they never sit behind the articulated section. When I first trained on the 7 I rode one of the late-night trips, and the driver flew past a stop with a crowd of teens waiting. “If you see a group,” he said, “don’t pick them up. Keep going.”
Pulling into MLK now, I take a deep breath.
As I open the front doors I’m still waving thanks to a person stepping out the back. “Thank you,” I yell back at them. Only takes a second. Then I turn my attention to the guys at front. As soon as they see me they all start laughing. I don’t know why, but they’re screaming with glee, one slapping his knees, another struggling to keep his food in his mouth.
“Come on in, gentlemen!” I say loudly, leaning back with a smile. When they hesitate: “don’t be shy!”
Bro Number One pimp rolls on board and offers me a handshake, one stroke and firm.
“Ey, one second,” says the second, reaching in his backpack for change.
“Aw, you’re cool,” I reply, meaning take your time.
It’s hitting me now: all of these guys know me already, and they’re happy to see me. Man Three is older, and I recognize his overjoyed face: “heeeyy,” we yell together, trying to ascertain the last time we saw each other. I feel like it’s been a while, but he reminds me of a moment just earlier this week. “I saw you runnin’ by the train station, it was your off day. You had tha shirt on.” He’s referring to an Others Like Us t-shirt I was wearing, which I learned about through Real Change; I found it fascinating that he noticed.
“Yeah, it was another lady driver there that day after you ran past, and we was talkin’ about you. She was sayin gooooooood things about you–” several octaves contained in that “good”– “you got respect, bro.”
“You should know it! People be lookin’ up to yo ass, dawg. Talkin ’bout yo’ attitude no matter who it is, you always polite and happy, no matter what the route, and, and,” more laughter, “she was like, da first time I saw him, is he even old enough to… can he shave? Does his mom know he’s out here???”
The remaining fellows board without incident. I remember a smile forming on one I didn’t recognize, his slitted eyes in a quiet grin, taking me in with newfound appreciation.
“I’m serious, dude,” Man Three continues. “She had good words for you, real good words. You’re always the best. Listen, I’ma stop blowin’ you up though!”
“No, man, comin’ from her, comin’ from you, that means a lot! ‘Cause you guys know how it is!”
We wrapped up the conversation and he went to the back to join his buddies. They’re hollering to the high heavens back there, but it’s okay. I feel safe. They know me. I’m among friends.
“Is this yo’ phone?” one yells to another, handing up a pink phone from the floor.
“This doan’ look like mah phone,” the other replies, as they all collapse in manly giggles.
A half hour or so later, at Holly, a man with a guitar and long silver dreads steps out, still wearing sunglasses at midnight. I’d seen him the night previous riding the bus back from my art show– the faces you get to know when you don’t use the car. This man plays at 88 Keys on Sundays and weeknights (“them comedians get the prime spots, Friday and Saturday”). As he leaves he says, “man, people really love you. Tha’s good. Keep doin’ what you’re doin’.”
Another man expresses largely the same sentiment later on, albeit in what practically sounds like a different language: “Ay yo. You da man, hannlin yo’ bidness on da 7. You got it goin’ on, bro. Respek. Hannlin yo bidness on da 7 in the nighttime ow-ah, you be doin’ it like it weren’t no thang. Sheeeit. Dassit. You got mah respect.”
At Othello the boys in the back deboard, taking time to wave. “Thanks buddy! Love ya!” yells the older one.
There was nothing to worry about.
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