It was a few minutes after noon on Thursday, January 19th. I got off BART at the Powell Street station and entered the Muni system, where I boarded an outbound trolley. It was well lit and about half full of people; there were several empty seats. I sat down, and, as the car began rolling off through the tunnels, I took out a red pen and set to editing a friend's manuscript.
I'd forgotten my glasses, but the print was large enough. I'd get by without them. The manuscript was a fictional account of a CIA analyst who'd learned too much about 9/11 and failed to keep his mouth shut. So now he was on the run, constantly looking over his shoulder, ever fearful that any person he met along the way might be an emissary of his former employer. Immersed in the story, I was vaguely aware that the trolley had stopped at a couple of stations and was now entering another. I wouldn't be getting off for a while yet and didn't bother to look up. I underlined a phrase that didn't seem to fit the dialogue, then capped my pen and read on. The trolley lurched to a stop. There was the clanking sound of the door opening, and then, suddenly -- something crashed into the side of my head.
Had something fallen on me? No, someone was standing over me. A young fellow. For an instant our eyes met. His face was filled with rage; anger distorted his features. Before I could recover from my astonishment, he whirled around and dashed out the door.
I stumbled after him in pursuit, but he was much too quick for me. He was already far ahead, swiftly running up the stairs towards the exit. I found myself standing on the platform outside the streetcar, manuscript in one hand, red pen in the other and holding my backpack.
"Did you see what happened?" I asked a person near me. "Yes, I did," he replied, but didn't stay to say more. Others also rushed past, hurrying on their way.
I walked up the stairs to the station agent booth and asked for the police; the station agent took my name and gave me a "Passenger Service Report" form. She told me I could fill it out later and mail it to the address on the form.
My left ear was ringing, I touched my face and saw blood on my hand. My head ached, my jaw hurt and I felt slightly dizzy. I'd been struck on the upper cheekbone, just in front of my ear. I stood there for a for a while, reflecting on the incident, trying to make sense of it.
A robbery attempt? Obviously not. Why did he run away? It seemed so unfair, not giving me a chance to respond. He’d seemed to be in his twenties, young enough to be my son, or even my grandson. I'd never seen him before in my life. He’d been casually dressed, and, except for the incredible anger in his eyes, had seemed like any average person. He could've been a student, an office worker, a computer programmer. Maybe even a poet.
Just then the passenger I'd spoken to a bit earlier, the one who'd said he'd seen the whole incident, came back to where I stood. "He's gone," he said. I understood that this person had chased after the attacker, but had not caught up with him. He described the attacker as light skinned, about 28 years old, 6 feet tall, with curly brown hair, a moustache, wearing a maroon jacket, and carrying a maroon backpack. "The same color as yours," he said, glancing at my pack.
This witness had noticed the attacker before the incident occurred and apparently thought the man's behavior a bit strange. As our trolley had approached the station, the attacker had asked another passenger standing in front of the door to move aside and not block the exit. The reason for that request was not clear until the car stopped, the door opened, and the attacker had struck me. Then the witness deduced the most likely explanation for that strange request.
"Obviously, he was preparing his escape and didn't want someone blocking his way," the witness told me. "He planned it out."
"Was he watching me? Looking at me? Focusing on me?" I asked.
"No, not that I saw. It was a complete surprise to me when he hit you."
The witness gave me his name and email address, and left. I had things to do that day too. I was on my way to meet with the author of the manuscript I had been editing. Now I was going to be late, which is always an embarrassment, even when there's a fairly good reason.
I went back down to the platform, caught a trolley, and tried to continue with my editing, but it was hard to get my mind off the incident. Why me? Why? The witness had summed him up as a someone just out to cause trouble. He seemed to think this was a random attack. Random? There's something very personal about being whacked in the head. Why would somebody would just haul off and hit me for no reason at all?
On my backpack was a peace-sign button, and next to it a pin that read “ex-Marine against the war." For some people, peace is a fighting word, and for the lack of any better explanation, it seemed possible that my buttons pushed his buttons.
Other possibilities crossed my mind. Was this some mentally disturbed person suffering from delusions? A poor soul who recognized me as the wicked sorcerer who’d cast a spell on his life, causing him to be rejected by military recruiters? Or maybe the fellow saw me as the father who had never paid him any attention?
I arrived at my friend's place and told him about my experience. It helped to talk, and we even joked a bit about it, the irony of getting hit while editing a story about a guy running from a hit man. "I guess that'll teach you to make changes in my stories," he said. It helps to laugh about things like this. Then we turned to our manuscripts.
Virginia Browning contributed to this essay