The man who went too far on a streetcar


‘HERE COMES James Brown, man. Here he is, James Brown.” “I wish I was James Brown,” said the other man sadly, as he settled into the seat on my left.

“But you’re like James Brown, man,” said his admirer. “Look at you. Look at you.”

And he was wonderful to look at, in a narrow, cherry-red suit with a black coat thrown over his shoulders and, remarkably, patent shoes. Only his glamour was reminiscent of the late James Brown. In truth he was handsomer: slim and elegant and not young. He had a thin moustache and looked more like Kid Creole back in the halcyon years when he was with the Coconuts.

Kid Creole and the Coconuts gave one of the best concerts I was ever at, in a sports hall in Belfast. None of us knew then that Kid’s Latin-lover style was based on Cab Calloway, a bandleader from the 1930s and 1940s.

This was the sophistication the man on the San Francisco streetcar embodied, sitting there sadly on route F at about a quarter to 11 at night. Part lounge lizard, part caballero, like all truly glamorous people he cheered the rest of us up immensely.

We were in the front of the streetcar after a long day. The white man opposite, who was comparing the man in the red suit to James Brown, was himself wearing a raincoat that had once been white, and he was short of a couple of teeth. I was wearing a short puffa jacket I had borrowed from my hostess and my hair was dreadful. I had an overnight case with me, one of those wheelie suitcases. “Don’t bring that, you’ll look like a tourist,” said my hostess before I left San Francisco.

But I had replied rather airily that I didn’t mind looking like a tourist.

The thing was I had spent the whole day travelling back from Bakersfield on the train. “What’s the train like?” people kept asking. Prosperous Americans aren’t great train users, perhaps because the trains are slow, and yet the trains are pretty busy all the same.

At Fresno, about halfway between Bakersfield and San Francisco, a class of German Baptist children, along with their female teachers or perhaps their mothers, and a couple of adult men, had got on the train. It was a school outing for Columbus Day.

The adult women wore full-length floral dresses with capes of the same fabric attached, and small transparent bonnets, rather like the caps Irish nurses used to wear. The little girls wore navy pinafores, which fell well below their knees. The little boys wore ordinary clothes. The children carried baseball caps, presumably to protect them from the sun, because it was a very hot day. The adult men wore jeans and polo shirts with every button firmly tied. Every man jack of them – men, women and children – wore runners.

They were a strange but extremely well-behaved sight. The children played cards. Just before they disembarked the little girls started singing songs. It was extraordinary.

My journey from Bakersfield to San Francisco took more than six hours. Then there was the bus trip to Market Street. I was tired.

On the streetcar the white man opposite was still raving about the elegance of the man in the red suit. I said I too loved his look. “It’s all I have,” said the man in the red suit sadly.

He really seemed pretty depressed for someone who had put so much work into looking fabulous. “It’s all I have.”

A fire engine went by at that point, with its siren blaring, and I jumped, turning to watch it race by. “Don’t they have that where you’re from?” asked the man in the red suit with a kindly smile.

I didn’t mind him thinking I was a hick.

Nevertheless, I got off the streetcar two stops early. I was beginning to feel awkward with the two men at the front of the streetcar, for reasons I couldn’t explain to myself. It was quite a while before I realised my purse was gone. I’d put it in my jacket pocket at the bus stop, after getting it out of the suitcase to give two buskers a dollar. I’d stuffed it into the left-hand pocket of my jacket when the streetcar came.

The man in the red suit didn’t waste much time. By the time I got on to the bank in Dublin they were able to tell me that with the credit card he’d gone pretty well straight to the Safeway supermarket and spent about $80 (€62). Then he’d gone to Subway and spent more than $20 on food. He then went to the metro station and spent almost $200 on bus tickets (these can be resold, apparently). Then he went to Walmart, but that was on the debit card. He just bought staple items. It wasn’t very glamorous, really. No wonder he was depressed.

I am angry with myself for being such a plonker. My American friends are rather embarrassed that I was robbed, and I have had to comfort them by telling them that in Ireland we beat tourists senseless; this does seem to make them feel a bit better.

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