Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tender Strangers

Sitting on the BART, a delicate film of sweat collected over my cheeks and collar bone, I rock and sway with the other anonymous strangers. The young man across the aisle from me sips from a disposable coffee cup. His sneakers are white, he wears a black fedora and leather jacket over his tee shirt paired with skinny blue jeans.
The metallic caterpillar rocks to a stop at the platform overlooking John Daly Blvd. and more passengers stream in as an indistinct mass and then separate, congealing into distinct forms as they find a place to sit or stand. One wears a black and white stripped shirt and looks like Ross from friends. This street means everything to me. It was the first and only street I knew of when I first arrived here in this strange cold land. Everywhere that I went I found my way by connecting it to this central artery and for years I followed these same desperate routes carved out in this cold wet and misty wilderness of concrete, afraid of becoming lost, tangled in streets whose purposes might elude me, ending at a chain link fence or curving around to swallow their own tails like the ouroboros. My path, which always sprang from and returned to this blvd., was ultimately always the least direct route. There were streets nearer at hand which connected to my destinations and traversing these would have taken half as much time as I spent tracing my way along the spinal column of road that stretched from the seas to the cemeteries and beyond into lands unknown, but I was oblivious to these paths.
And now that I understand the lay of these other smaller veins that reach through the city and they no longer represent a dark forest in which I might be ensnared by a witch abiding in a gingerbread box house, I have no car to take advantage of this knowledge. Now I sit on buses which also trace their way along their own main arteries, always watching the more direct route to my home flash by the smoky tinted window and then I am forced to walk the difference home. Cats now nest in my broken down Chevy Celebrity station wagon laid to rest in the garage like the hull of a sunken pirate ship nestled down in the sea bed. Swathed in the eerie and sparse illumination of a halogen bulb and coated with a fine white layer of dust as French toast is with confectioners sugar, it accumulates many little feline paw prints and a rank filthy odor. The power windows could no longer be rolled up after last summer and so whatever wants to come in can do so. In my car, spiders dance with newborn kittens on the juice stained cushions and they scale the mountains of debris that have accumulated to form a range reaching from the front seat to the back hatch. They can play with discarded little ponies and Barbie’s heads and dress up in the costumes that once belonged to my littlest daughter, dress as princesses or mermaids or disco queens. Or they can establish a school for young alley cats and the spiders can write out the lessons on the chalkboard that my eldest daughter used to use as a painting easel. But in none of these activities am I involved, so they do not concern me overly much.
I am a passenger on a little turbo train like the one that my father built into a train set for me as a child, coasting along on a rail high above the heads of ordinary commuters. A new influx of passengers board and I am joined by a new stranger that sits intimately near to me. He holds a bagel that smells of onion and a bottle of milk and pretends not to notice me writing and I pretend not to notice him eating, but we know that each person is aware of the others actions, and somehow it makes it even more intimate, our mutual respect, our ability to be alone together. We have suddenly become like a loving elderly couple that sits in easy chairs by the front window, one reading and the other knitting, only we rock along on the BART together for 7 minutes rather than fifty years. Then I hear “Powell Street” and I look big eyed into his face, seeing for the first time the blue eyes and sparse strawberry blonde beard of my tender stranger. Without words (for we are that sympathetic to each others needs by now) he knows I must get off at this stop, and he rises quickly, allowing me to slide out into the aisle and that first look at his face is the last as I bustle off of the train.

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