If Only I Could See A Little Further Ahead

[BY J.L. EUBANKS]

When living in Oakland, my lifestyle was set up in such a way that Mission Year, the inner-city missions organization I worked for, took care of all my physical needs so I didn’t have to take care of myself. They took care of me so I could take care of others. Because of this, it felt as though we were on call 24 hours a day. At any moment, someone could knock on our door, needing to talk about something or requesting a special favor of us and we would be out the door and by their side. This was a wonderful thing. It blessed both them and us.

It was also very exhausting. As a result, our weekly day off was very special to us. I would often take the 10-minute ride over to San Francisco to ride my bike around or take the 15-minute ride over to Berkley to hang out in the music stores. Sometimes though, I would just pick up the acoustic guitar I was borrowing at the time and walk the seven blocks to my church. There I could play my guitar uninterrupted or play the drums as loud as I wanted. Sometimes I would even jump on the piano (an instrument I didn’t know how to play at the time) and would tinker around until I found something that I liked.

One night after traveling over to the city, I had stopped by the apartment to grab my guitar and headed to the church. I was working on a piece on the piano and was attempting to record it onto an old cassette player. Seeing as how I wasn’t a pianist, it wasn’t coming very naturally. I stumbled over my fingers time and again.

I would look up every few minutes and peak outside. You see, my church sat on the busiest drug corner for a 50-block radius. All the action went down outside our walls. Mission Year had strict rules about being alone at night. It wasn’t allowed. I was safe though because all the potential danger on the corner went down at night and I had a good hour before the sun was going to set. Then I had a good half hour. Then the sun was starting to fade. Then the sun all but disappeared as I heard the nightly buzz of the corner pick up and start to hum. I finally got a recording take I could live with and packed my things and left. I decided to leave the guitar that night because I didn’t feel like carrying it now that it was nightfall. The whole point was to not draw much attention to myself and carrying a guitar would probably not help to reach that goal.

I stepped outside the front doors of the church. The night was clear and a cool, moderate breeze was blowing through the streets from the nearby Bay. I looked to my right and saw the usual – dealers, prostitutes and hustlers, cars dragging up and down the street, dice being thrown on the pavement. I turned away from the corner and began to walk in the direction of my apartment. I walked about half a block when my peripheral vision, trained to do so from living in the inner-city for 10 months, picked up on a group of guys walking quietly behind me on the opposite side of the street. As they began to cross to my side I looked for cars and casually crossed to the side where they had just been. We walked one more block and repeated this, once again switching sides of the street. My senses, now awake but nervous, stood somewhere between highly alert and a victim to the deaf, dense sound of fear. I walked another block and turned to see all of them now far behind in the distance. My senses calmed as I stood about a block from the next main intersection. About halfway through this block I took notice of someone walking behind me. His pace was quick, not uncommon in the inner-city when someone is in a hurry to get home or to meet some friends. He soon caught up to me and walked right up to me, and then passed right by without a word.

Relieved the possible danger had passed, I glanced at the concrete below me. Next thing, my ears went deaf and I found myself on the ground. I looked up to see a hard cold, hungry face screaming at me. It was the young man. “Gimme yo’ cash nigga!” I pulled out my wallet and started to hand it to him. I stopped and drew it back towards me. Fearful of being hit but with a mind so muddy I wasn’t sure what I was doing or how to do it, I pulled my cash out – the remnants of a missionary’s stipend: $4. He snatched it from my hands. “Gimme yo’ credit cards nigga!”

“I don’t have any. I’m too young.” (A lie – I really didn’t have any, but I wasn’t too young. I was just too poor to risk owning one.)
I closed my eyes and waited for one of two sounds. The sound of a trigger being cocked or the sound of his foot hitting my stomach repeatedly. Instead, I heard another sound. The sound of running. He was running away.

I sat there in silence. The silence was deafening. What had just happened? My mind cleared as I could taste the blood on my lips. I looked down and saw the blood on my shirt. Before my mind could draw any connections, a voice called from the other side of the fence of the house I lay in front of.

“Did he just hit you?”

“Yeah.”

“Did he just rob you?”

“Yeah.”

“Come here. Let me clean you up.”

A small delicate hand helped me to my feet. She was white. She looked young. Maybe 22 or 23. (Try 30!) She was dressed different. Very artist-like. Not very urban. She stuck out like a sore thumb.

Looks who’s talking.

She put a running hose up to my face and when the water hit my lips it stung. I saw the sidewalk turn red. Someone else came out from the house and the two of them then took me upstairs and led me to the bathroom. I looked up into the mirror and almost had happen what happens to many injured people when they first see their wound. I almost panicked. My lips were bloody and swollen. I had a gaping hole in the upper left hand side of my lip. I could put my entire tongue out through it. My shirt was a mess. I was a mess. I needed to go to the hospital.

I called my roommates (who in turn called my pastor, who in turn gave me a ride to the hospital where I received six stitches.)

The two ladies called the police. The police never came. They never looked for the guy who hit me. They were at the hospital when I arrived, but I knew people who sat outside on the street waiting for the police to come to survey where I had been hit. They waited and waited figuring if nothing else, then they would at least come to check on me. But they never came.

Sometimes cops are our heroes. Not that night. That night I was a resident of the Lower Bottom of Oakland. The scum of the scum. That night I was from the inner-city. That night I was poor. That night I was on the other side of the tracks. The side that didn’t deserve protection. The side that didn’t deserve attention. The side that deserved it when it turned on itself.

Five days later I was walking to church. I passed the corner where I had been hit and stopped to look at my blood still stained on the pavement. I felt sadness for the young man who needed his next blast of crack so bad he had to do whatever it took to get the cash to get it. He hadn’t killed me that night because he was already so far gone on drugs that he couldn’t think straight. At least that’s what I thought.

I walked another half a block when I heard a voice.

“Hey! You that guy who got hit a few nights ago?”

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I turned to see a middle-aged Hispanic man with a mustache sitting on his stairs. He rose and approached me.

“Uh, yeah. Who are you?”

“I was here that night. Do you realize you had four guys following you?” (I thought it had only been three.)

“No.”

“Yeah, man. I was out here with my friend when I saw you walk by. You didn’t see me. Then I saw those four guys walk by. I turned to my friend and said, ‘That boy’s about to get it.’ So, I stood up and started yelling, ‘Hey, you mother fuckers!’ and they had all this attention on them cause they knew people were looking so they all got nervous. Well, I looked over and saw one of them had gotten a ways ahead to you. I saw him hit you, so I ran inside to get my gun. I was going to shoot him, see? But, by the time I got back outside they were all gone and the lady down the street had already taken you in. I called the police and waited for them so I could tell them what happened and who to look for, but they never came. I waited for over an hour and they never came.”

I didn’t know what to say. I can’t remember what I did say. Probably a cheap and mumbled version of, “Thank you.” Maybe I just stared at him hoping my eyes would say what my mouth couldn’t.

The bottom line: he saved my life. Without question, if all four of those men had caught me, and all four had already had their hands on some crack that night (which they almost definitely had), they would have killed me. They would have killed me. This man saved my life. God spared my life. How do I respond to something like this? I remember God’s mercy and try to live a life that reflects that gratefulness. I thank God for the stranger who cared enough to stop those men that night. Who cared enough to get involved in someone else’s business. Who valued the life a white boy who stuck out like a sore thumb enough to risk his own life.

I named the piano piece, “If Only I Could See A Little Further Ahead.”

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