This happened a year ago.
"Be still!" He yelled at me from across the street.
"What? Man, I can't hear you." I called back. Three minutes before, I had been on my way home from the Green Leafe. Since Eleven o'clock, I had finished off three beers, two excellent conversations, and one page of notes. Two weeks before this, road workers had repaired a long section of Scotland St., but never finished. I got a flat on a deceptively sharp pot hole. This guy, call him Rick, walked by on the other side of Armistead Ave. while I was repairing the tube. I had called some kind of respectful acknowledgment ("'S'up?") when I noticed his eyes on me.
"Be fucking still!" He demanded.
"Alright, I'm still." I said. I knew now what was going on.
"Get down. Now."
"I can't do that, man." I didn't want to take my eyes from him. I didn't want to confirm his fantasy.
"GET DOWN!" He yelled at me. "Five! Four!" and ran at me from catty-corner across the street. Forty yards. Thirty. Twenty. I stood my ground and talked to him softly, hands out of my pockets, open, palms facing. Not a threat.
He stopped inside of five yards. Eyes wide. I asked him if he served in Iraq. "Yes, I did." Still in his aggressive voice, the same rough, loud, monotonic tone a twelve year old boy uses on the playground to make a show of force and toughness. Falsely deep, I think it will crack.
"I know I look suspicious to you," I began.
He cut in, "Everybody does."
"But I'm not. I just stopped to fix a flat."
He's not buying it. I'm still the enemy. He's my height, maybe a bit taller, 5'9 and something. Broader shoulders. Dark hair, crew cut, maybe he's still serving. Khaki jacket. Features from the mid-west.
He's drunk. Slow, I could tell that when he was running. Probably higher pain tolerance and possibly unusually strong. But if he lunged, I think I could get out of the way. My phone is in my pocket, but I'm not going to do anything that looks dangerous to this man: this scared little boy in a man's shoes, the weight of many on his shoulders.
"You're a Marine?" I asked.
"My father was a Marine." I said.
"So was mine." still too-hard and loud, but less-so. His breath is steadier.
"He served like you. I've heard the stories. I know a little of what it's like." I'm waving casually at a passing taxi. He's seen the cab too, but he's scowling at it, chin set and pointing his finger at the ground.
He looks back at me. He's still making aggressive mumblings. I raise my right hand slowly and take a step towards him. "I'm going to touch your shoulder." His wide eyes flare wider and he steps back quickly. What did we do to him? "Ok, I'm not going to touch you. But I'm with you, man. I'm on your side."
"Just.. just give me what I want." He says, too softly now. I can't hear him, but he's pleading. Another taxi goes by. Too intent on him, I don't notice it stop behind me. "Give me what I want." He's stretched a hand out to me, now. Palm upward. I think he still might want me to get down, but I really don't know.
"I don't know what you want," I said. I put my hand on his, tentatively, aware he may grab and pull.
"Yes, you do!" His voice is getting louder again, becoming twelve again.
"My dad served out of Norfolk. Where do you serve from?" I'm trying to calm him. Ground him back into reality.
"You know what I want!"
"I don't know, where do you serve from?"
Someone is calling from over my shoulder. Calling his name. "Rick, come get in the van!" They're finally heard, but it doesn't calm Rick.
"Fuck you and your bike!" He yells. He grabs the bike, rear wheel still on the sidewalk, it seems energetic, young, broken, useless. He picks it up, swings, and throws it fifteen feet away. It lands in a heap on the lawn near a rust red sculpture of books held tight in a leather belt. It's dark over there, but it looks okay.
"Whoa," I'm saying, "whoa, Rick, calm down. These are your friends. You need to get in the van with them. Go home."
Now I'm someone else. "No!" he says, sternly, but not the same tone. "You need to! These are the guys that saved your life." It's odd. He's saying this with condescension. My life wasn't worth saving. They risked their worthy lives for my unworthy one.
"Rick, go home and get some sleep."
"They came back for you, man!"
His friends are out of the cab. Rick turns and paces down Scotland, towards the elementary school.
Five minutes later, his friends have managed to pay off the confused and worried taxi driver. (Though one tried to offer him some kind of rewards card in payment. "It has fifty points on it!") They've been standing on sidewalk behind me while I put the wheel back together, talking together about how bad life is ("I'm going back to New York, gonna be a student." "Me too, I'm gonna be a student too." "But that's all I got going for me. If I fuck up one class, that's it." "New York, man?" "Yeah, that's where it all started, 3000 people died there in 2001.") apologizing to me for Rick, ("I've never seen him this bad." "Are you also a marine?" "No, I'm Navy! but I've been with him for as long as I can remember.") wondering what to do now ("He's gone now, man. Gone off somewhere.") I've picked up the frame. The derailleur is bent. I notify the soldiers that Rick is coming back. ("Good spotting, bike guy." Like I'm one of the team.)
After a brief drunken struggle under the spotlight of the street, they head off together, cajoling and consoling Rick, this time down Armistead towards the train station. "Don't call the cops on him, bike guy!" as they leave.
"Just get him home, guys. And tell him Semper Fi for me."
Ten minutes later, I leave the scene and three police cars behind me. (He didn't have a weapon. I'm not pressing charges. Not worried about the bike. I'm worried about the guy. Just see if you can get them somewhere to sleep this off, please. He's been pretty messed up. More ways than one.)
The officer, slightly overweight, blond hair, buzz cut, double chin, maybe 5'10", had asked if I needed anything. "No, I'll get home alright." Was I sure about not demanding any money for repairs?
"Yes. It's just one of those things, you know? It's life."
The bent derailleur clicks the whole way home.