Why you should care

Extra fees, long lines, not enough money. Our time in banks is usually fraught with low-grade miseries. But stabbings? 

I played the incoming answering machine message back, again.

“Eugene, man … it’s Karl. … I’ve been stabbed.”

Then the line went dead. Nothing but the time stamp and that he had called from San Francisco. Karl Umrigar, a 20-something son of a Persian father and a British mother, had a whole passel of problems that while individually bedeviling, were collectively almost impossible to handle. Specifically, a bouillabaisse of crack cocaine, weed, psychedelics, ketamine, cigarettes and an almost unlimited amount of free time, during which he more than ably edited videos for which he was often paid, but racked up other bills that he really couldn’t.

But Karl fit the profile of the kind of person — Bukowski, Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath — whose genius would either ruin them or leave them lionized and recognized beyond the likes of just me. I was unsure which and so he worked on live videos for my band, and I provided as much of a steady hand as he was interested in. Which was not very much of one at all.

Handsome and standing at 6 feet, 170 pounds, Karl could probably have done much of anything, but like another friend of ours once said, “He takes to the streets.” And to the worst neighborhoods of San Francisco, to go along with the worst drugs in San Francisco. Which largely affected how he saw things and what he saw. He could tell who was holding (drugs), who had the best (drugs), and, with a glance, who the strong-arm-ers were and who was to be avoided if you were holding.

Karl looked down at the spreading warmth under his left armpit and for the first time, he felt the cool air outside of his body, now inside his body.

I, in turn, advised him on all of that straight-arrow, big-brother stuff: working through doctor visits, parking tickets and how to get your banking done. But on the occasion of getting his hands on a sizable payment for a bunch of work he had just done, he wandered over to his branch bank to cash the check and use the cash for crack, which he had been without for long enough this day that he had a bit of an edge to him. The teller line snaked from the counter to almost the front door, and in the mid-1990s, there were no televisions in bank lobbies. Just the angry backs of everyone else suffering through the slowness.

Later, by phone, he described how the door opened behind him and a woman strode three or four places in front of him in line. He waited to see if she was with the man she had edged behind her, but they didn’t seem to know each other.

“HEY!” Karl had lived in London and then the American South, so he was direct, respected queuing etiquette and was largely unlikely to be swayed by social conventions. Which is to say he just didn’t give a shit. “Get in the back of the line!”

She glanced around, momentarily caught brief sight of him, then slowly raised her middle finger.

“Fuck you too. Get in the back of the line or I’ll get you in the back of the line!” Now that the line had been drawn, the other people waiting froze. Froze but watched as Karl stepped out of line, walked up behind the woman and with as much force as he could behind it, kicked her in her ass, sending her splaying all across the floor of the bank to the screams of, well, just about everyone.

The woman, for her part, came up swinging. They scuffled for what must have been two or three minutes, Karl said, before she just took off running. Straightening his clothes, his body glowing with its own righteousness, he stepped back in line, ignoring the gawking of fellow folks there to do some banking. He ignored them until he couldn’t anymore.

“What the fuck are you all rubbernecking at?”

One person pointed. “It looks like you’re bleeding.”

Karl looked down at the spreading warmth under his left armpit and for the first time, he felt the cool air outside of his body, now inside his body. He raised his arm to see the stab wounds bubbling blood and he passed out, waking only long enough to note that he was both in the hospital and needing to call me.

He managed a sort of strangled chuckle. Apparently, it hurt to laugh.

“How badly hurt are you?” I asked, after figuring out which hospital had him.

“It just missed stuff to my heart,” he said, the distinct traces of his British accent still in evidence.

“Why’d you kick her, man?”

He managed a sort of strangled chuckle. Apparently, it hurt to laugh. “Can you think of a better way to get her out of line? I mean, nobody else was going to do anything …”

“You ever cash that check?”

“That was the worst part,” he said. “I mean, after the surgery they did to save my life, I never got to cash my check.” Which, reading between the lines, meant one thing and one thing only: He didn’t score any drugs. So at least there was that.

In any case, he was going to be there a few more days and I made plans to see him the next day. Pulling up to the hospital’s front desk, I asked for him and the attendant knit his brows. We went through various spellings of his name before he pulled something up.

“Oh. He checked out already.”

Of course he did.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.