Ed has a habit of moving with his head-down, gazing at the ground. He shuffles his feet when he walks. It isn’t that Asperger, count-the-cracks-in-the-pavement while you talk to yourself, kind of shuffle and stare. He is genuinely friendly when he encounters any of the drab and tattered tenants of the industrial part of town. He offers a matter of fact greeting to anyone he passes. Ed just lacks any innate fear. He respects people enough to avoid bothering them with his own attentions.
West Oakland is the kind of place where a guy can easily wake in the late afternoon of his warehouse home, unperturbed by judgment of any neighbors. You get up. You step over the disaster of yesterday’s art project and dishes, on the way to the bathroom. You pour yourself a greedy cup from the perpetual coffee-tap that was brewed last night, last month, or last year. Eventually, you step outside to be hammered by the full force of daylight. The stink of ancient machine oil and metallic dust is worked into the ground and the bricks. Bleak, uncritical, yellow-grime sun wipes the hope from the train tracks that cross Mandela Parkway near the sheared rebar and rubble of the recently collapsed freeway. It scratches at the sleep still clinging to your eyes. It is routine to amble off to any one of a murder of tiny liquor stores for the “morning’s” snack-cakes or Spicy Pork Cracklins’. Once fed, it is easy to find yourself wiling away the day’s remaining sun in a squabble of dominoes, with leathery old pipe-smokers. They welcome you to their dilapidated coffee table on the sidewalk and speak unintelligible scat, like Redd Foxx with a mouthful of whiskey and gravel. You hide together in the shade of a tattered umbrella, or behind a run-down truck piled above the buildings with used tires. Oakland’s finest roar past in unmarked cars with so many passengers that you know they can’t take prisoners. Back-alley handshakes surreptitiously cover the swap of drugs and money. Craggy scavengers pass with loads of recycling in shopping carts stolen from Pack-and-Save. The nearby freeways drone with a constant rumble. It is filthy here, and lovely for it. We live in self-imposed exile from everything we know of San Diego suburbs. We have liberty in this terrain that is uncommon in wealthier places. We are naïve in this new habitat, and we feel free.
No one worried when Ed didn’t return with a breakfast of cigarettes and apple Home Run Pies. We were all surprised that evening to hear that he had turned up at Highland hospital with a concussion and no shoes. He had been pulled into an alley and mugged for less than $10. None of us were dumb enough to believe that this part of society was by any means safe. We all carried some sort of personal weapon loaded with enough late-teen angst to use them. Ed probably gave the guy a respectful greeting before he dumped a full canister of red-dyed mace into his eyes. Still, Ed’s attacker got the drop on him. The guy was fool enough to take Ed’s place in the liquor store that morning, looking for something to wash off the dye. Ed’s assailant was apprehended. Our friend Rabbit called us later from his own new digs in the county jail with stories of a red-faced thug bragging about beating up a white kid who was shuffling his feet. It was 1994 and the effects of the recent recession were still being felt in the poor parts of the East Bay. The lack of resources was instigating aggression in the minor predators of this ecosystem. Having defected from conservative San Diego, my friends and I were still learning how to survive here.
Everyone carries behaviors imparted from our parents out of a primal need for their offspring to survive. These actions are specific to the region where we are raised. They are ingrained in us so early, that we seldom remember the instance when we learned them. Proper urban life was new for us. We had grown up with near instinctual understanding of a very different landscape. Contrary to our upbringing, Ed had to train himself to avoid literally shuffling his feet.
South of Santa Barbara, California, the average safe driving speed on the wide freeways hovers somewhere around 80 miles per hour. Drive slower, and you risk inciting irrational and often violent driving behavior from the people “sharing” your little section of road. Southern California natives tend to carry arrogant driving habits with them throughout the world, often enjoying travel destinations with loose speed limits. Driving the Autobahn is a particular SoCal favorite. Your average San Diego drivers wouldn’t know that their predispositions are ill suited for driving the Canadian Rockies, where bear and moose collisions commonly take the lives of speeding motorists. Conversely, Canadian tourists would not naturally think to shuffle their feet when wading into the warm summer waters in San Diego. The feared and adorable round stingray resides in the sandy-bottomed shallows along the coast of this state during the spring and fall. This minor predator feeds on small crabs, worms, and mollusks buried in the soft bottom. Related to sharks and skates, round rays have a soft skeleton made of cartilage. As a delicate-boned animal who lives on the bottom of shallow habitats, they need a significant defense against being eaten by larger sharks and pinnipeds, as well as being crushed from above by the enthusiastic plodding of human tourists making their way into the comforting waves. The barbed stinger itself is a modified scale, which lies flat near the end of the animal’s tail. It is continually replaced by a new spine growing from underneath. Grooves along the underside of the spine are lined with delicate sacs of venom. When an excitable wader unwittingly begins to crush the poor ray, it whips its tail forward causing the spine to protrude and impale the attacker. On contact, the venom sacs rupture, spilling their potent contents into the wound. Barbs prevent the spine from sliding backward out of the attacker’s body. The spine then breaks free, allowing the ray to escape. Round ray wounds are not generally fatal to humans, however it is painful enough that many who have experienced this, report wishing for a swift death. The proteins in the venom can be rendered inactive by immersing the wound in water as hot as he victim can stand. 110° F is recommended by lifeguards. Urinating on stingray wounds does not reduce pain or help the situation at all. Finding reasons to pee on friends and loved ones, does potentially offer hilarity in future stories of the event, so long as participants in the situation remain unaware of your comprehension of nature.
Round rays themselves don’t want to sting a person anymore than a bee would. They tend to be docile, and are known to have a downright friendly disposition in captivity. Round stingrays quickly become desensitized to touch and can be picked up in both hands like a slimy flustered pancake. Most San Diegaños have never laid eyes on one. We just grow up shuffling our feet as we enter the ocean, which scares them away and spares everyone the trouble. News reports from July 2012 claim up to 40 stings in a single weekend. The majority of the quoted victims are visitors from out of town. Similarly, it is usually folks from out of the area who are rescued by lifeguards due to exhaustion and panic from attempting to swim against the common rip currents. Anyone used to the ocean there, simply swims diagonally to shore and into the waves that will carry them back to solid ground. Local surfers even seek out rip currents as a free ride past the surf break.
In many ways, people have forgotten that wherever we go, we are part of a much larger ecosystem. This is especially poignant in the ocean where we are furthest from our own element. You would think it might be important to learn a little about such an alien environment before visiting. When leading SCUBA dives in Hawaii, tourists are briefed before each dive to protect them from themselves. After a short discussion of the wildlife and layout of the dive site, dive instructors cheerfully help visitors help themselves with statements like, “If you’re in the ocean and it looks pointy and dangerous, it is. If it doesn’t look pointy and dangerous, it still is. Don’t touch anything.” This last sentiment is great prevention of the “Hawaiian tattoo” left behind when someone plops their hand onto a tropical sea urchin. The needle sharp spines piercing the victims are usually broken off at the skin. The diver is left with a series of purple dots that mark the imbedded reminder of their mistake. In the years since society has moved away from outdoor activities, and our playgrounds have degraded from magnificent steel and concrete megaliths, to soft padding and plastic, we have forgotten the caution and self-reliant behaviors that allowed us to survive everywhere. That’s not to say that it is fair for people who don’t play well to be immediately kicked out of the gene pool. Accidents and wounds were common instructors for future escapades. The simple belief that personal harm could happen, spurred us toward greater and more satisfying exploits because we could balance caution with calculating risk.
California has the population size and acreage of some small countries. It is home to an incredible range of habitats, dangers, and world-renowned wonders. For those children exposed to these ecosystems, the thought that safe habits need to be adopted in each, is ingrained as much as the habits themselves. You just take the time to learn that you shake your shoes out when in the desert to clear them of scorpions and black widows. You also learn to get to high ground in order to avoid flash floods if there are even storm clouds on the horizon. You do the same if you are at the beach and the water level makes sudden dramatic changes to evade tsunami. You don’t swim in a lightning storm. You watch where you put your hands while climbing to avoid rattlesnakes. Hikers teach their kids the mnemonic “Red touch yellow, kills a fellow; red touch black, friend of Jack” to tell the difference between the harmless California King snake and the venomous Coral snake. Children in the mountains learn to avoid avalanche areas in winter, and to store anything with strong odors away from where bears might smell them. We all cover our necks in earthquakes, before calling everyone we know to tell them where we were while it was happening. For children who grow up anywhere, the habits of cautious self-reliance turn dark forests from places of lurking nightmares, to playgrounds, sea monsters, to fleeting love affairs.
Taking the time to learn about a new region while traveling can mean the difference between enjoying a cool swim on a blazing hot day, and becoming lunch for the saltwater crocodile whose billabong you’ve blundered into. Wilderness is not by any means the only dangerous portion of the wide and varied ecosystem we inhabit. The majority of results from an Internet search for “nature safety tips” in other countries, involve avoiding crime. People it seems, pose a far greater risk in our wild world than the rest of nature. Children of inner cities learn to survive their environment with the same fundamental circumspection. Anyone can reason through dealing with blurry-faced men wearing water wings over a ratty sweater, and an empty bottle of vodka tucked under their single dreadlock. One doesn’t need much instruction to move in a different direction than people in masks waving firearms about. It does however, require a different kind of shuffling to skirt the trouble that doesn’t always look pointy and dangerous.
It’s winter 2008. Another recession has graced this part Martin Luther King Jr. Way with nightly broken car windows. Desperate hookers turn tricks for drugs in the park under the freeway interchange in broad daylight. I’m in between jobs after moving back from Kauai. Amy and Mark have offered me a room for free as they consistently do for all of our close friends. We have had years to adopt the behaviors that help us avoid the stings and pains of living here. Walk with confidence. Keep your head up, and avoid staring anyone in the eyes. Wear a hood over your headphones or skip using them. Don’t take out your wallet or expensive phone. Don’t show fear, and don’t shuffle your feet. Oakland natives just grow up knowing this.
I am much older now, and have long since doffed the aposematic black clothing of my youth. I get out of my car looking like a regular guy, putting on a few packs and bags that hold the handful of my belongings. When I look up from strapping my bags to myself, I find a local giant rolling up to me on a run down beach cruiser. He is wearing a white hat and matching tracksuit with the tags still on them. In his hand is a shoe, which he is using to beckon me to the curb. He is sizing me up with a direct stare filled with rotten petty experience. I try to ignore him. He straddles the bike and starts in, “Ey!” For guys, interactions that begin with “Ey!” usually don’t turn out well for at least one of the participants. I close up the car so he can’t see the contents.
He stares me in the eyes. Pressing me, he bellows, “You see dis hat?”
Assuming he plans to hit me with the shoe, I step to the left to put the corner of the car between us. He’s humongous. I’m strapped with heavy bags. I have no maneuverability. There’s no way I can take him if he decides to try anything, and I can’t outrun him with all these bags. I casually glance at his hat, “You mean the one on your head?” I’m shuffling. Taken aback by my casual reply, I see frustration flash across his face. He thought this would be easy. He plays it off like it’s a sale, “twenty dollar…”
Already wearing a baseball cap, “I’m wearing a hat. I’m good.”
He tries again, “You see dis shirt?”
“Yep. Lookin’ right at it.”
“How ‘bout this?” he says, pulling at the shiny white fabric of his shoulder.
“Nope. I’m good. I got shirts too.” I’m not taking my wallet out in front of this guy. To my horror, he slowly pulls a 7-inch throwing knife out of the shoe he is carrying and waves it in my direction. I calculate what it will take to rush in and kick the bike between his legs in the hopes of knocking him down. He’s too big. I won’t make it. I turn one of the bags toward him to take the blade if he tries to stab me. While I contemplate yelling up to the house for Mark and Erik to help my escape, I notice that the guy is just waiting, waving the knife. Too many seconds pass before I react. The long dumb silence that passes while I consider my options makes him think I’m not afraid. I chuckle at him despite the feeling that my heart is going to pound itself through my throat. Trying my best to look relaxed, I glance at the knife. I look him sideways in the eye. One more chuckle, and I say, “Naw, it’s all good. I already got one.”
It is almost imperceptible when he tips his head back, but his resulting head-to-toe glance speaks volumes. He’s genuinely worried about where I’m hiding the knife I implied. This minor predator decides that the opportunity isn’t worth the effort. Without another word, he breaks our locked stare and simply rides on. I take my time crossing the street to the house, concentrating on covering the sweaty fear that has my stomach knotted. Inside with my back to the locked door, I finally allow my hands to visibly shake. I taste a sweet breath of relief. My shuffling worked.
© Chris Reeves: Seemed Like Good Science at the Time, 2012.