and why to make a habit of noticing license plates…
I once read that a simple four-step decision-making process consists of observe, orient, decide, act. That seems obvious when you think about it.
The thing is, it’s the rare opportunity that allows such conscious consideration of our ongoing decision process when we need it most.
Shit happens, and we’re left to think about it later. I suggest one more step in our decision-making matrix: postmortem.
Lessons can’t be learned until they are considered.
Lost in thought
Walking in the early darkness of mid-October, the mist hangs in the air, a sweet respite from a week or more of dangerous skies. The smoke from the north bay firestorms had dropped it’s ash across the bay, blowing in from the northeast, the smell of burnt lives heavy in the air.
Inhaling the cool, soggy air on my short walk from the bus stop to Club Fugazi. I am expected for tonight’s performance only as an “in-house.” I walk around, listen to the show from different angles, mixed by a different engineer. I must justify the title “sound designer” somehow. My mind is in zen-before-the-storm, lost in thought, threading my way through North Beach.
My presence is not required at the show. I’ll mostly just be occupying space, trying to stay out of the way of bar and house staff. A skill for which I pride myself learned from lessons hard won in my early career. One way to quickly strip the veil of Sound God arrogance is crashing into a server balancing a full tray of drinks in the dark.
But I digress.
The lizard brain
At the corner of Powell and Vallejo, a white car is parked at the corner, in the red zone. I make little notice at first. I vaguely register a man outside the car, a Honda or Toyota, maybe. But as I walk by I hear the sound of personal terror, desperation. It is hardly expected, but it is palpable. Something in my lizard brain activates. The part of the brain that triggers human distress.
The shroud of thought vanishes, zeroing in on a misty San Francisco night in North Beach, the sound of a desperate woman just a few feet away. I only hear the woman, but walking past I glance over and see a man standing outside the car.
The woman screams “Leave Me Alone!”
The man pounds with rage on the car’s roof, cursing.
Fear and obligation
“This isn’t right,” is my automatic, faintly unwelcome thought. My urban shield attempts to assert itself. Observe, but move on. It isn’t my business. It’s a hard world. Couples fight.
“Leave Me Alone!” the unseen woman screams. The anguish in her voice tells my lizard brain to send a shiver down my spine.
An unsettled sense of moral obligation foments as I walk by, though not enough to overcome my fear of interjecting personally. Certainly, common sense suggests that intervening in such an emotionally-charged situation of which I had no context is not a good idea. Though it is fear pushes me past the car and across the street.
“I’ll call 911” is my first attempt at heroics. I look back at the unfolding confrontation. Violence seems imminent; harassment is already happening.
I reach the opposite corner of Powell and Vallejo. Instead of continuing down Powell, I turn right down Vallejo toward Central Station.
“Did you get the license plate number?”
I see the disappointment in her eyes as I respond “No” to the officer’s question. A thick, clear plastic, undoubtedly bulletproof partition separates her and me. After a few more questions, she asks once again, “you didn’t get the license plate number?”
“I did not.” I feel her same disappointment.
She asks when it happened.
“Like, five minutes ago,” I respond. “It’s happening.”
Without a word, comes out into the lobby, goes outside, and heads up Vallejo toward Powell. I follow.
Halfway up the block she asks, “is the car still there?” I peer through the saturated evening light and see the white car. “Yes!” I point. “There it is.”
The man is now at the driver side of the car, still pounding on the roof, yelling at the woman to unlock the car. His rage echos through the neighborhood.
As the officer walks hurriedly back toward the station, she tells me to “please wait here.”
Three or four other officers soon emerge. Just as I point out the car again, it speeds off with a shriek of burning rubber. “There it goes!”
At the corner of Powell and Vallejo, a woman, apparently a neighborhood resident, asks us if we are there because of the car and the screaming woman. She describes seeing the man chasing the woman down Vallejo street before the woman fled into the car.
Who it was that just sped away in the car, the man, the woman – or both – was unclear. Another officer asks me, “did you get a license number?”
“It was a white Camry,” the neighborhood woman says.
“Ok,” says an officer. “We’ll have units look for it.’
Not a good time to drive a white Camry in North Beach. If only there were a license plate number to go with it.
The neighborhood woman goes back into the night, the other officers disperse. The desk officer asks for my ID. I walk back into the station; she takes my information. Whatever it was, it’s now over.
Turning right on Powell toward the theater, I glance over at the opposite corner, empty, still, and silent. The echoes of the woman’s panicked screams give me pause as I head down Powell.
If only I’d gotten the license number.