A number of years ago, I was attending a conference in San Francisco with a couple of coworkers. After our sessions, we made a nightly habit of going to our favorite hangout, the Gold Dust Lounge right off Union Square. It’s not on the square anymore. It moved. It was a tiny bar with an old-timer cover band called Johnny Z and the Cameros. We got to the know the staff and band for that week, we were regulars.
Every night, we could count on hearing Sweet Caroline at least twice by request. The band visibly rolled their eyes. Not again they must have thought. Who knows how long they’d been doing this and how many times they had played the song? But it was a crowd pleaser every time. It’s not easy to get American’s to sing in public, but they sang this at the top of their lungs and even more so as the nights progressed.
As we adjusted to the time change, we would stay out later and later until we finally closed the bar at 2 am. Union Square is full of people living on the street. There are men and women with signs, gimmicks, hustles, wares, and music. You get used to it over time. I gave money every once and awhile, but eventually you do what most of the locals do, you learn to ignore it.
But on this night, I was not in an ignoring mood. It was 2 am and the bar was emptying out. We’d all had a few beers and were in very amiable moods. As we turned to walk up the hill past the square to our hotel, someone began calling out to me. I’ll do my best to approximate his dialect without being offensive.
“Hey! Hey, man. Slow down. Lemme aks you somethin’.”
I turned to see a scruffy, street-worn black man of indeterminate age. His light brown skin was punctuated by dark freckles across his nose and cheeks.
“Great, more street hustle” I thought. But there was something about him and about the mood of the night that made me stop.
“Yeah? What do you want?” I said, warily.
“Hey hey, man…relax. I don’t want nothin’…shiiiit. I just wanna aks you something'”
“Ok, so ask.”
I kicked the gritty sidewalk with my foot watching the tip of my boot and discreetly touching the pocket that contained my wallet wondering if it was racist or a reasonable precaution.
“Come here, man. I ain’t gonna bite you. Shiiit.”
My friends stood back laughing and watched me with the man.
Every phrase he uttered broke into a raspy cackle which caused him to bounce and shake his head. Against may better judgement, I took a few steps toward him. I wanted to appear relaxed. I was tired of ignoring and open to the possibility of a meaningful exchange.
“You from around here?” he asked.
“You got any weed?” the man asked.
I laughed a little and decided to play along. “Why? You know where to get some?” I’d never been asked for pot nor been offered it. In school, I would be the first guy out of the door of a party where pot showed up.
“Shit, man. If I knew dat, I wouldn’t be askin you.” What teeth were remaining in his smile gleamed yellow under the street lamp.
Most of the people had cleared out of the bar, and the night air was becoming calmer. I knew my friends were ready to leave, but I relaxed my posture a little and smiled. “Sorry, man. Got nothing.”
“Das alright. You just look like the kinda dude who might be able to help a brutha out.”
I chuckled. “Oh yeah? Whatever you say.”
“Hey, listen. Check dis out. Man, you ain’t gonna believe dis shit. I’m gonna show you somethin’ you ain’t NE-VAH seen on a brutha.”
I held up my hands and took a step back, still smiling. “Whoa! Now hold on! I don’t need to see nothin’!”
“Nah nah nah…it ain’t like dat.”
The man reached up, and with all the flare of a magician offering his audience a slow reveal, pushed the front of his raggedy toboggan hat up over his forehead. I squinted and took a step closer as the man pointed with a dirty index finger protruding from his finger-cut glove.
There, on the man’s wrinkled forehead, was a stratched-in homemade tattoo of a symbol that I truly was surprised to find: a tiny swastika.
“That is messed up! That is sincerely messed up, man!” I exclaimed.
For a moment, we were just two men on the street laughing at the surprise and oddities of life. The man laughed and wheezed at his own bizarre joke.
Wanting to know why a black man would have a swastika on his forehead, but not wanting to linger any longer on a lonely street in the middle of the night with this guy, I looked further down the street and then back at him, I said, “Ok, man. Umm…yeah…thanks for that. That what truly weird, but I’m smiling, so thanks. See you around, brother.”
“Ha ha! Alright, yeah, I will. Hey, but…maybe spare a few dollars? Just need to get me a burger or something.”
I obliged, and started the climb up toward the hotel in hopes of catching up with my friends.
He called after me, “Have a blessed night, brutha!”
I still wonder about that man, and how he got his tattoo. Was he a victim of a hate crime? Was he so messed up on drugs that didn’t know better? Or was it simply the strangest street hustle on Union Square.