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Mean Streets of Marin

I park my car on Bon Air, alongside Marin General and cross light traffic to the bike path by the Corte Madera Creek. It’s the same path I’d pedal to Kent School every morning in the seventh grade, and as I break in to a  jog, visions return. There’s the twelve year-old Bruce Strahmborne (not his real name) on the path – an odd kid who kept a “thing box” filled with rusty nails and plastic buttons. He was always getting picked on, and this particular day is no different. The Sommerfield twins, Randy and Bill, have him boxed in on either side of his bike. They position their front tires each time Bruce makes an attempt to escape until finally, out of panic and frustration, he pulls a tiny penknife – one and a half inch blade barely suitable for opening a loosely-sealed letter – from his backpack. “He’s got a knife!” Randy Sommerfield exclaims, as he and Bill pedal off furiously. “What a maniac!”

Other more legitimately disturbing incidents would helped cement Bruce’s reputation, and whenever something like this occurred it enhanced his legend. Within hours the penknife was a switchblade, slashed wildly at both brothers and narrowly missing an ear. They were bad news, the twins, and forever scouting easy prey.  I  had a run-in with Randy. He hit me in the arm after a ceramics class to see how I’d respond. Through quick calculation I returned the favor, as hard as I could, and that was it. He rubbed his arm for a while and moved on to consider other targets. The rule would apply to all bullies well in to adulthood. Those hitting hardest were the same ones hiding in their homes, fearing being revealed.

I pick up the pace, marshland air from the creek in my nostrils and sun sitting low on the horizon, Mt. Tamalpais now a dark construction paper cutout. Marin summer temperatures soar in the afternoon but cool to ideal by evening with San Francisco fog parking itself just beyond the surrounding hills. My breath is holding out but the legs feel tired as I approach my former school. I run around the circumference of the soccer field, cut through the parking lot, and head to the basketball courts adjoining my old wood shop class. It was there, many years back, that Mike Olivia discovered that someone had lifted five dollars lunch money from his wallet. Kevin Franklin was suspected by all before shop teacher Mr. Harvard stepped in. He summoned the principal, but when this solved nothing, Robert Truckee had a suggestion.

I once saw a movie,” Truckee explained, “where something got stolen and they let everyone in the place enter the room individually, giving the thief a chance to put the thing back where it was.”

And so it was that we all filed out to the basketball courts, entered the shop class one by one through the rear door, and exited the front. When it was over, Olivia’s five bucks had been returned and class resumed. Afterward, of course, the first thing we did was to query Eddie Black who came before Kevin Franklin, and Mark Chambers who followed. Black: wallet was empty when I got there. Chambers: five bucks was returned . A minor slice of life and sociological experiment for the day, that only became more telling with time. Franklin was in and out of trouble throughout his twenties before falling victim to California’s Three Strikes law and being sentenced to hard prison time. He died while incarcerated, in his thirties.

I finish my run, sweating, and drive to the parents’ place. Halfway there, a more recent memory is jarred from maybe six years back. Driving nearby with a passenger, I jokingly referred to the surrounding area as the “bad part of Corte Madera ” – a nod both to Marin’s affluence, and status as a sleepy, bedroom community. The joke missed the mark, and I was later chastised for my naivete. But tonight I think about Kevin Franklin, and then about Jim Mitchell who shot and killed his brother Artie in his home on one of those same, sleepy Corte Madera streets. And then about my own life these last six years; the easy shit and otherwise. I park at the folks’ place and take the keys from the ignition – a free meal waiting inside.

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