MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 4, 2013
By four-thirty in the afternoon, the first mad rush of after-school passengers has come and gone. What’s left are stragglers and stay-laters, swiping their bus passes as they climb onto the 57 bus and take seats among the coming-home workers, the shoppers and errand-doers, the other students from high schools and middle schools around the city. The bus is loud but not as loud as sometimes. A few clusters of kids are shouting and laughing and an older woman at the front keeps talking to the driver.
Dark is coming on. Daylight savings ended yesterday, and now evening rushes into the place where afternoon used to be. Everything is duskier, sleepier, wintrier now. Passengers look at their phones or stare through the scratched and grimy windows at the waning light.
Sasha sits near the back. For much of the journey, the teenager has been reading a paperback copy of Anna Karenina for a class in Russian literature. Today, like most days, Sasha wears a T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, a gray flat cap, and a gauzy white skirt. A senior at a small private high school, the teenager identifies as agender—neither male nor female. As the bus lumbers through town, Sasha puts down the book and drifts into sleep, skirt draped over the edge of the seat.
A few feet away, three teenage boys are laughing and joking. One of them, Richard, wears a black hoodie and an orange-billed New York Knicks hat. A sixteen-year-old junior at Oakland High School, he’s got hazel eyes and a slow, sweet grin. He stands with his back to Sasha, gripping a pole for balance.
Sasha sleeps as Richard and his companions goof around, play fighting. Sleeps as Richard’s cousin Lloyd bounds up and down the aisle flirting with a girl up front. Sleeps as Richard surreptitiously flicks a lighter and touches it to the hem of that gauzy white skirt.
In a moment, Sasha will wake inside a ball of flame and begin to scream.
In a moment, everything will be set in motion.
Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha will spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple surgeries to treat second- and third-degree burns running from calf to thigh.
Arrested at school the following day, Richard will be charged with two felonies, each with a hate-crime clause that will add time to his sentence if he is convicted. Citing the severity of the crime, the district attorney will charge him as an adult, stripping him of the protections normally given to juveniles. Before the week is out, he will be facing the possibility of life imprisonment.
But none of that has happened yet. For now, both teenagers are just taking the bus home from school.
Surely it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus.
There must be something you can do.
Oakland, California, is a city of more than 400,000 people, but it can still feel like a small town. Not small geographically, of course. The city sprawls across seventy-eight square miles, stretching from the shallow, salty estuary at the edge of San Francisco Bay to the undulating green-and-gold hills where bobcats and coyotes roam. What makes it feel small is the web of connections, the way people’s stories tangle together. Our lives make footprints, tracks in the snows of time. People know each other’s parents or siblings, their aunties and cousins. They go to school together, or worship together. They play sports on the same team, or work in the same building. The tracks cross. The stories overlap.
Oakland is considered one of the most diverse cities in the country. It’s Asian and Latino, black and white, African, Arab, Indian, Iranian, Native American, and Pacific Islander. No one group is a majority. It has more lesbian couples per capita than any city in the nation, and one of the largest proportions of gay- and lesbian-headed households. It’s a city that prides itself on its open-mindedness, its lack of pretension, and its homegrown slang. (Oaklanders say hella when they mean very—and hecka when they want to be polite about it.)
But for all its laid-back inclusiveness, Oakland is also a city of stark contrasts. In 2013, the year Sasha was burned, Oakland ranked seventh among American cities in income inequality—just below New York. Its per capita rate of violent crime made it the second most dangerous city in America, but its citizens still paid some of the highest rents in the country.
Gravity works backward here—the money flows uphill. The wealthier neighborhoods in the hills boast good schools, low crime, and views of the bay. Thanks to the Bay Area’s high-tech boom, long-vacant historic buildings downtown are filling with start-ups, boutiques peddling handmade jeans, and nightspots serving seven-ingredient cocktails. But little of this good fortune spilled over into the flatlands of East Oakland, where Richard lived. This is where the bulk of the city’s murders happen—two-thirds of them, in 2013. The schools are shabbier here; the test scores are lower. There’s more trash on the streets, more roaming dogs, more liquor stores, fewer grocery stores. The median strips are ragged with weeds.
The 57 bus travels through both kinds of neighborhoods, traversing an eleven-mile path from one end of the city to the other. It begins at the northwest corner of Oakland and lumbers diagonally through the city, crossing the middle-class foothills where Sasha lived and where Richard went to school, and then chugging along MacArthur Boulevard for 120 blocks. The route terminates at the city’s southeast border, close to Richard’s house. Each afternoon, the two teenagers’ journeys overlapped for a mere eight minutes. If it hadn’t been for the 57 bus, their paths might never have crossed at all.
Text copyright © 2017 by Dashka Slater