On my way home to Hollywood on a recent evening, after teaching a World Theater course at Cal State San Bernardino, I was walking with Marquis, one of my students, who rode the bus with me from the college to downtown San Bernardino where he was going to meet some friends and I was going to meet the train at the Metrolink station.
We had been discussing Everyman that day in class — a medieval morality play believed to be of Dutch origin by an unknown author circa 1495. Everyman meets Death when he least expects it. Death carries a message from God, who’s perturbed that the mortals aren’t giving Him enough credit. It’s time to head to the grave, Death tells Everyman. Take whomever you wish to bear witness to what you did in this life, so you can have a fair reckoning before the Judge. Everyman finds a number of friends to accompany him — Kindred, Cousin, Beauty, Strength, Five Wits — who swear they’ll stay with him to the end. But to his dismay, Everyman watches all but his Good Deeds abandon him when they fully comprehend where, exactly, he’s going.
Suddenly, as Marquis and I walked, a police car swerved around us, staring at what I suppose is the unorthodox visage of a black and white man talking amiably in a quadrant of town that gets dicey after dark. Or maybe the cop was drawn to Marquis’ gang attire. Marquis is a sweet-hearted guy who, for some reason, relayed the entirety of our trivial repartee via cell phone to his girlfriend while we walked the desolate street. He’d never taken a train, he said, though he’d heard it was nice. Then he slipped into the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, and melted into a crowd of young men, also in black stretch skullcaps and oversize basketball jerseys. He waved like a child as I walked on, alone.
With a book bag over my shoulder, a takeout burrito in one hand and a Diet Coke in the other, I approached the 215 freeway overpass when a local cab skidded around a corner, spraying asphalt and gravel from the semi-paved road. The driver asked if I was headed to the train station. I nodded, and he warned me that my train — the last train of the evening to L.A. — was leaving in 10 minutes and that I’d barely make it on foot. He’d drive me there for five bucks, he said. I got in the back and found myself sitting next to a fellow passenger, a large black man talking intently into a cell phone:
“You gimme ma fifty bucks or git off ma fockin’ phone, motha focker. No, I ain’t meetin’ you ’round here, there’s too many poh-lees ’round here.”
The cab was crashing into potholes, taking an as-the-crow-flies direct route to the stadium-like glare of the train station, the only well-lit facility in the region. The driver screeched to a stop at a barricade that said “Do Not Enter,” then drove around it and entered. I could see only dust and dirt out the window, but the driver appeared to know what he was doing, like a pilot landing a plane on automatic. The turbulence was so severe that I was having difficulty holding on to my soda, and I noticed that the burrito was now leaking into my copy of Everyman. As long as it didn’t land inthe lap of my fellow passenger, I thought I was safe.
“What you doin’ walking down here by yo-self at night?” the driver asked me with concern, as the passenger continued to mumble expletives into his phone. “Should you be walking by yo-self, or is you packing a .38 in that book bag of yours?”
There was anotherscreech, a lurch to stillness and, as the dust cleared slightly, the faux deco entrance to the train station emerged. The white triple-decker train glistened like a ship in port. The taxi driver remarked that people were already boarding, and without turning his head back, he extended his hand behind him in a gesture soliciting the $5 fare. The passenger stared out his own window, making deals.
I paid, got out, thanked the driver, said something embarrassing, like, “Be well,” and watched the cab screech away, leaving a small cloud in its wake.