MUNI train, L Taraval line, morning commute inbound, somewhere beneath Twin Peaks. Train crawls to a stop. Driver's voice on a crackling PA: "We'll be waiting here for a few. Looks like we're backed up all down the line." Audible gasp of horror ripples through the crowded passengers: this is our collective vision of commuter hell.
The people are squeezed together so tightly that it feels unhealthy. It's never pleasant but without motion you become acutely conscious that there's not enough air to breathe. Smells: shampoo, deodorant, cigarettes. You're standing with both hands on the overhead bar, canvas book bag on the floor between your feet.
Elderly Chinese woman at your side, tiny, about as tall as your hip. She's eighty if she's a day, but she's energetic and seems perfectly happy to stand. Her eyes are bright and curious, and she's looking up at you with an openly friendly invitation to say hello.
In San Francisco you'll sometimes hear about older people who've only ever left Chinatown once or twice their entire lives. Think about that: entire lives within a half square mile. They speak no English, and on those one or two occasions when they venture out they sit with each other on the MUNI holding hands, looking at the people with suspicion, and with open-eyed wonder at the strangeness of the foreign world.
"Hel lo?," she says, lingering carefully over both syllables. She has a squeaky high voice like a cartoon mouse, and she ends each sentence with a rise in pitch, as if asking a question.
You smile. Her friendliness makes you want to laugh. "Good morning," you say, almost with a little nod. For some reason you often feel you should bow to be polite to older Chinese people.
She tells you, "I am now learning Eng lish?" She's careful in her pronunciation, clearly proud of herself, breaking multisyllabic words into multiple words of one syllable each. "While we wait? Would you prac tice with me?"
Charmed, you answer, "Yes, I'd like that," and you return her friendly smile gladly.
She narrows her eyes briefly, rehearsing her next sentence in her mind. You can tell that this one will be somewhat more complicated.
Eagerly she tells you, "I like to buy... bones?," her voice rising to an extra-high squeak. She smiles broad, showing black teeth, gold teeth, missing teeth, three or four white teeth, a weird grin which for a moment reminds you of a jack-o-lantern.
Your face falls. Uh-oh, you think. Stuck on a dead train next to Charlie Manson's Chinese grandmother, who likes to collect... bones. Creepy.
For many years there was actually a store in the Lower Haight which sold bones. There was a cattle skull, candles, and a garland of dead flowers in its black-draped window. The place reeked so strongly of ritual weirdness, in that peculiar San Francisco way, that you'd sometimes cross the street to be away from it. "Sticks and Stones" was its name, if you remember.
"Oh?," you reply, more than a little warily.
She narrows her eyes again while rehearsing her next sentence. This one will be crucial because it completes the thought she wants to converse about.
"To make... soup!"
You sigh with relief that seems comical even to you. It's a long commute full of fits and starts, but you're glad to chat with the happy lady whose love of homemade chicken stock shines from sparkling eyes. You never find the heart to tell her you're vegetarian.