Yesterday, in San Francisco, the day rippled boat blue. People spilled out of their homes. Sidewalks shriveled.
On the bus down Van Ness, the driver chirped through the daily route of his day, a kind word to everyone who hopped on and off. Behind his merry twinkle, his bus, much like a bus in India's Mumbai, burst with grumpy lards of people. An Arab family clambered into the bus, stroller in hand. Their toddler, a bottle in his mouth, clung to the ends of his mother's scarf which ran over the top of her head and under her chin. An Amazon in her sixties sat by the front, assuming the role of assistant driver over fifteen blocks. Every time the bus stopped, she would holler, the edge in her voice making me feel sorry for her family. "Make room. Go in. Everybody in front, all the way to the back please." A Japanese girl with skin like roses and whipped cream sailed in, cell phone to her ear–a baguette in an assortment of San Francisco sour dough. I was traveling by a city bus after ten years. Why didn't I do it more often, I asked myself?
The last time I used public transportation, I was in Paris where, for a whole year, I rode the bus and the metro, standing shoulder to shoulder and toe to toe just to go about my daily life. There's something visceral about a daily journey with other people, remaining anonymous, exchanging pleasantries, staring at someone up close and wondering if their life is better than yours. It's exciting listen to a co-passenger chat on a cell-phone, to figure out the life of the person at the other end. I stood inside a packed bus yesterday, my hand grasping the railing tight as the bus braked countless times between lights. My painted toes were crushed, again and again, by sneaker-clad feet. My derriere was pummeled by large handbags and rear ends more panoramic than mine. For a half hour last afternoon, I was a map-holding speck in a galaxy of humanity and I too was trying to understand where I was headed. I clutched my purse. I hadn't heard of pickpockets on the buses in this city but who knew. The city does that to you. It makes you grow spines. Yet, at unexpected moments, it makes you soften, stop to think about another person and step forward to reach out. An elderly Jewish woman in thick glasses heaved herself up the steps, a cane in her hand. I got up to offer my seat. Watching me, a young man across me got up in haste and bade an older gentleman sit in his place. "No, young man, thank you, I've been sitting too long today," the old man smiled back.
Outside, on the roads of this charming city, I was reminded of my life growing up in Chennai, where I went and claimed my little patch of life and the vegetable vendor eked out a living in her portion and the many homeless scrambled for their piece of the action, sometimes snatching what everyone rightfully thought of as theirs. I turned the corner towards where my friend waited. Near the parking meter, a disheveled man tapped the owner of a parked van for a cigarette. The well-dressed gentleman gave him one from his pack, and lit the cigarette, a crooked smile forming on his face. I recalled how many times I'd seen this sight in Paris and in Chennai. What the surgeon-general never told us is that cigarettes bridge enormous social gaps.
I was about to leave for my safe and boring suburban life when a man came out of nowhere.
"C'mon back here, you whore!" he cried aloud, into the air, pushing a Safeway cart loaded with the debris of his life.
Afraid I was being called a lady of the night and quite certain I wasn't one, I quickly turned around to my friend of many years to see if the hapless gentleman could be referring to her. He was not. And then, convinced that the man was calling out to some other woman in the vicinity, we just crossed, a little shaken, right by where the cable car stood clanging, and walked on towards Saks Fifth Avenue, to begin window shopping, on an elastic budget of about $2000, for a new Mother's day wardrobe.