It was a lead pipe about four feet long and about an inch in diameter. When it hit the old man’s head it sounded like a baseball bat hitting a watermelon. And when the old man’s crushed skull hit the pavement, it sounded like a canvas bag full of wet bricks. Mercifully, the old man was dead before he hit the ground.
That’s what I saw and that’s what I reported to the police in the aftermath. They asked me to describe the assailant, but all I could see in my mind’s eye was the blood gurgling from the old man’s mouth as I tried to do something, anything, to help him.
“I don’t know,” I said, “dark, skinny, seemed to be really wired like he was on speed or something..” I was taken to the police station to view some photos and a line up, but frankly, dark, skinny guys on speed South of Market in San Francisco are a dime a dozen. “They all look alike,” I offered. “Sorry.” And there we left it for nearly five years.
Five years later, I was living in Milwaukee. A man came to my door with a certified letter from the District Attorney of San Francisco. It was a subpoena ordering me to return to San Francisco, at state’s expense, to testify in a murder trial.
Testify in a murder trial! It had been five years. It had taken only a second. I pieced together what I could remember: I was working in a lithography shop on Howard Street that day. It was sunny and warm with a vivid blue sky – the kind that attracts winos to the dumpsters for naps. I heard a commotion in the alley outside the door. I walked outside. Commotions amongst the winos and dumpster derelicts are commonplace, and it was always idle sport to look outside to see what they were up to.
The old man, Vietnamese and at least 80 years old, lived in a ground floor walk-up across the alley and was yelling and shaking a broom at the skinny dark man. The dark man had apparently fallen asleep on the stoop and the old man was trying to chase him away. An argument ensued, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a lead pipe appeared and the dark man was taking a roundhouse cut like Barry Bonds leaning into an inside fastball. Thwack! The old man’s head shattered. A second later I was running to the aid of the victim and the assailant was sprinting south down the alley with two of my work mates in hot pursuit.
I was first-aid certified but there was nothing I could do. Air bubbles gurgled through the blood that drained from his mouth as the old man stared blankly and uncomprehendingly dead at the deep blue sky.
Seagulls watched from the dumpster. The winos and derelicts had all instinctively cleared out.
That’s all I could recall. And that’s all I told the District Attorney when I got to San Francisco. In court, they asked me if I could identify the dark, skinny, frightened man wearing an ill-fitting suit. I could not. They nodded without comment, apparently satisfied, and put me back on the plane to Milwaukee.