It’s Halloween weekend. We’re writers, and we do stories. It’s story time. So tell me: what is the most frightening thing that ever happened to you?
I have a number of candidates from which to choose. When I was a kid I walked into a spider web with my mouth open when the owners were home and accidentally swallowed one. It didn’t give me spider powers but I was crawling walls for weeks. I was almost carjacked in the French Quarter a few years ago. Sobriety and a 9 mm. enabled me to put a stop to that. I was almost robbed in the French Quarter at midnight, walking toward Bourbon from North Rampart on St. Ann Street, with the same result as the attempted carjacking for the same reason. The one incident that stands head and shoulders above the others, however, occurred when I was but a wee lad of twenty-one years of age in San Francisco.
I was a FM radio DJ at the time — it was too much fun to call a “job” — and one of the perks was that it enabled me to meet any number of attractive women. One of the most attractive was a Chinese woman who we will call “Mei.” I was smitten with her, in great part, alas, because she was able to tutor my body in ways that it has not been schooled before or since. There was one problem — there is always at least one — and that was that Mei’s brother, who we will call “Max,” was the leader of one of the Tong youth auxiliaries. The fact that his sister was dating a white man did not sit well with him. This bit of information was communicated to me one afternoon when I walked out of Tower Records on Bay Street and found Max and a few of his friends waiting for me. He told me that I wasn’t able to see his sister anymore. Being young and full of myself, I told him to perform an impossible anatomical act and walked away. I mean, I was on FM radio. What was he going to do? Kick my ass?
The answer to that question was a definite “yes.” That evening, I mc’d a concert at a new, small music club on the edge of North Beach, on Columbus Avenue just off of Broadway. The concert was an unmitigated disaster, an event in itself that I may describe another time. For our purposes, let it be known that after a number of small near-riots the show concluded at 2:45 am. I stumbled out of the club and onto Columbus Avenue, took a couple of steps, and noticed Max and a somewhat larger group of friends about ten feet away. I did what anyone would do. I panicked and started running down Broadway, toward the tunnel.
I had reached the tunnel mouth and thought I was in the clear when I heard shouting behind me. I threw a glance over my shoulder without slowing down and saw a group of figures running toward me. Max. And his friends. I picked up the pace — I weighed exactly half of what I weigh now — and pounded through the tunnel on the pedestrian walkway. I frequently used the walkway to get from my apartment on Russian Hill to get to North Beach and knew that there was an emergency phone about halfway down the tunnel. This was before the days of cell phones and 911 and even cordless phones, mind you, so this emergency phone was quite innovative. Pick it up and take it off its cradle, legend had it, and police would come. I never found out. As I approached the phone, I saw the cardboard sign underneath it, bearing the professionally lettered legend “OUT OF ORDER.” An unnamed but aspiring comedian had scrawled an admonition in crayon right below those words: “RUN FAST.”
I started crying. And kept running. I thought of my parents and my friends and women that I loved and that I intended to and my dog in Ohio and knew I would never see any of them again because these guys were going to catch me and kill me. That was their reputation, something which had seemed quite remote when I saw them on Bay Street, a painting of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin on the wall behind us. And I wasn’t quite as full of myself as I had been earlier that day, if you catch my drift. I ran faster than I ever had in my life. I came out the other end of the tunnel and turned left, ducking into an area known then and now as the Tenderloin. It was and is a colorful but horrible place, a spider’s nest of the crazed and the drugged, where pain is the chief currency and waking up intact in the morning is a victory. I ran down alleys and tripped over sleeping, God-forsaken souls and in a sudden fit of genius hid in a trash dumpster until morning. I spent three days on the streets, Turk and Eddy and Larkin and some alleys I’ve forgotten the name of. On the third day I happened to see a friend coming out of an adult book store and approached him and told him what was going on. He had a little street influence. He got to Max and communicated my apologies and assurances that I wouldn’t see his sister anymore. I was permitted to resume the life I had been living, or a semblance of it. But things had changed. And not all for the better.
I moved back to Ohio a month later and started law school. I have no idea what happened to Max or Mei, or if we would recognize each other if we were to have an accidental, casual encounter on the street. I still have dreams about running through the Broadway Tunnel, however, dreams where I can never quite reach the end of the tunnel and make that left turn.