Let’s call him Brother. He walked into one of the cash-only coffee shops on Valencia Street, which was crowded with white folk, mostly writers or aspiring ones, I could tell from the thick, unbreathable air of seriousness, I mean self-importance (to which I contributed my own generous share), that was the very atmosphere of the place.

Brother sat on the empty chair near mine, our knees almost touching—my table sat four and though the place was crammed, even the tables of two occupied by perfect strangers from what I could see, I was splendidly unbothered, enjoying an entire island alone. Perhaps I exuded a subtle menace, being the only black man in the room—until Brother entered and began asking me: Where you from? Kenya? Senegal? So dark and beautiful, brother. A true African. What is your name? Kenya, yes? Those long arms and legs. And that small nose. A white man’s nose. Where are you from?

Brother was a one-man show. The scene, naturally, received the attention of the other fellow coffee shop writers, who all stopped writing and stared at us, as though we, Brother and I, were covered in shit (that is a Dinka expression, which means—well, exercise your imagination). That thick seriousness, the self-importance, melted into a near-palpable dread, and the erudite quiet, punctuated by a hint of sarcastic laughter, became genuine silence, the kind that often attends real danger. Trust me, I know danger. Brother appeared indifferent to the changing atmosphere. He shot out questions. Kenya? Yes?

There was nothing criminal about Brother’s looks—unless, of course, wearing a torn purple shirt with missing buttons, and a battered black leather jacket, and a straw hat that was more like Christ’s own crown of thorns is a crime. Brother was just that: a brother. But he frightened us. The questions that raced through my head were unbrotherly. What’s in his pocket, gun or knife? Is he going to rob us all or just me? And why me? I was on the verge of telling Brother to leave me alone when the manager of the place came and asked him—in that disingenuous polite voice that white people employ when dealing with black people whom they deem dangerous—to please leave the establishment.

Brother began to yell obscenities I will not dare recall here. There was something quite eloquent about the blasphemies he uttered. Perhaps it was the intensity of the moment or his righteous rage that conferred upon his inarticulate words the kind of grace and gravity of expression enjoyed only by prophets or poets of true genius. In fact, Brother’s lyrical imprecations (or perhaps incantations?) suggested Walt Whitman, of all people. In order to defuse the situation, I asked the manager to back off and walked Brother to the street. Outside, on Valencia, with cars whizzing by like police cruisers, Brother resumed his chant of glorious profanities. His song, more a lament really, was now resonant with me. I wanted to sing with him, join him in his song, but I only managed to offer him petty cash.

Nyuol Lueth Tong is a writer, critic, and playwright based in San Francisco. Editor of There Is a Country, the first ever anthology of short fiction from his native country of South Sudan, Tong studied philosophy and comparative literature at Duke University and fiction (MFA) at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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