There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Culture war on the train

It was late and I was tired as I boarded the last Folsom-bound train at the 23rd Street station. A crowd was gathered around the landing inside the car, listening to a black man singing. I made my way past the singer and his audience to the forward mid-car door.

As the train started up I made eye contact with a middle-aged white woman seated by the door. She shook her head. Obviously, she didn't appreciate the performance.

The guy was facing the wall in the center of the car. With one hand he tapped out low notes and with the other he used something to tap out high notes. He was singing a pleasant melody when I boarded, accompanying himself with an intricate rhythm of low and high taps.

This was not your average kid rapping on the train. This guy had skills. He looked to be in his 30s. He was dressed in a t-shirt and pajama-like baggy pants.

And then he shifted to rap and the melodic song was transformed into a discussion of servicing in the agricultural sense and the need for Vaseline and on and on.

The man's immediate audience was roundly cheering each turn of phrase. The remainder of the mostly white, middle-class passengers were at best pained and some were visibly steamed.

I have a 15-year-old son and when he plays rap loud enough that I can hear it, I tell him to turn it off. He says I don't understand. I tell him he doesn't understand. It's your standard parent-teen understandoff.

Why can't rap be good without being so misogynist? My son argues that rap without the sex isn't rap. Too bad.

The guy finished his song as we pulled into a station. As the doors opened a security officer boarded at the front of the train. A middle-aged white man with gray hair near the door got the officer's attention and complained about the singer. I could hear him telling the officer that the singer was pounding on the walls. That was a bit of a stretch, I thought.

The officer walked to the middle of the train and talked with the singer. I didn't hear what was said. It appeared amicable enough. The singer and the officer got into a discussion of whether this was the last Folsom train. The singer wanted to ride to Folsom. He understood the train just stays a couple of minutes and then returns. I gave the singer a copy of the train schedule I keep in my backpack. He took it and consulted it with his audience and then returned it, thanking me.

As the train continued toward Folsom the officer returned to the front of the train and watched. Nothing was happening and so he got off at the next stop.

When the train pulled out of the station the singer decided to visit the front of the train.

He was smiling, but this was culture war with attitude. As the singer walked toward the front of the train he started talking to the passengers as a group, a group of while Folsom residents. He suggested white Folsom residents just don't understand. He reached the front of the train and started back, directing some of his words to the man who had complained but mostly to the passengers in general. He explained that he was a professional singer and this was how he made his living. This is what he does. This did not appear to impress any of the white Folsom residents riding home on the train.

As he walked back to the middle of the car, the singer said, "I'm Robin Hood, I take from the rich and give to the poor." As he passed me he leaned over and, with a conspiratorial whisper, said, "I'll split it with you" and laughed. I smiled.

Unfortunately, the singer's remaining audience was egging him on and he started a discussion of lollipops and licking and I was fairly certain he wasn't talking candy. This wasn't going to stay nice.

And then my stop arrived, and I was relieved to get off.

The black singer and the white Folsom passengers live in separate worlds. Even light rail can't span that divide.

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