The nice vendor who sells aromatic oils in front of Speedy Liquor on 14th Street got stabbed the other day. Word on the street is he “got sliced with a machete.”
My office overlooks his makeshift stand. On warm afternoons he cranks up his boom box (powered by a cord run through the Speedy Liquor window) and blasts Motown and R&B. The music, direct cheerful attitude, and can-do spirit make his corner a community gathering place. He knows all the neighbors. Greets the older women. Gives a holler out to the homeboys. Bench-presses weights when custom is slow. Cleans his stretch of sidewalk with a blower and picks up the litter.
After he disappeared for a few days, the story came out. Some men, too much in their cups, got angry when he told them to move their drunken selves to some other doorway, off his little corner. In the dramaturgy of city life, a machete flashed. The vendor took it in the abdomen.
The ties that bind an urban neighborhood, the “lines of social force” as philosopher Lewis Mumford describes them, while nearly invisible, are remarkably strong. Like spider silk, they drift down sidewalks, in and out of grocery stores, up apartment stairways, past bus stops. Over years and even generations, a web is formed made up of memories, greetings, losses, little jokes, mini-traumas caught from the corner of an eye.
When the Speedy Liquor owner first met the oil seller, he was hawking wares out of his car—where he was also living. They struck up an acquaintance. Eventually, the liquor store owner offered to let him set up a table outside the storefront. Over time, the owner invited him to keep his merchandise in the back of the store. Now, when a neighbor hears the trouble befallen the oil vendor, she responds, “He’s always a bright spot on my walk down 14th Street.” This is the city as “theater for social action,” a crucible for human emotion, gesture, and kinship.
In biblical times, tending sacred oils was a priestly duty. During the wilderness wanderings, Aaron’s son Eleazar was assigned care of the oil for the light of the Tent of Yahweh. Additionally, he watched over “the sweet-smelling incense, the daily grain offering, and the anointing oil” (see Numbers 4). This vendor’s work is far from priestly. And yet, he suffers for defending peaceableness on his corner. He is hardly a prophet, but still he drops a plumb line between what is right and what is wrong. He is even less a king, but welcomes all who walk his way with equanimity. “Like two pearls were the two drops of holy oil that were suspended from the two corners of the beard of Aaron,” says the Talmud. Sacred business.
This evening the oil merchant is back at work. His side is bandaged. An oil of gladness spills across the corner and down the street from his stand, carried on strains of Diana Ross’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” One of the drunken guys involved in the fight stops by—now sobered up and shame-faced. “I’m sorry, man,” he says extending a hand. “You all right? We good?” The vendor cautiously reaches out, “I’m all right, man. Let’s keep it cool.” I recall a line from poet Theo Dorgan: “Be grateful for kindness in the perfumed dark.”
The scents of sandalwood, patchouli, and eucalyptus drift along the sidewalk again. An old man from the senior center has pulled his wheelchair into the shade next to the vendor’s stand. “What is the city,” Shakespeare asked long ago, “but the people?”
Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners associate editor, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.