Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Streetcar as a School of Life: Notes from San Francisco

In one afternoon, on a beautiful summer day, you can meet 21 kinds of crazy on a San Francisco streetcar.  And every one of them is related to you, is essential to your life.  Every one of them counts, too.

There was the drugged-out man, hair in dreadlocks, who began to dance down the aisle before the car came to a halt at his stop, asking loudly, "Is there a party in here?"  And then danced out of the car to his destination.

He's related to me.  I cannot live my life as if he does not exist and does not count.

There was the man who sang show tunes in a velvety baritone as the car rocked along to the Castro, talking vivaciously and loudly about famous divas, none of whom could hold a candle to Sutherland.  He was Jewish ("I'm Jewish, I'm proud of Israel; but I'm American").  He was gay ("And I'm gay, and that complicates everything else").  He was from New York.

As we exited the car with our friend Richard, who had invited us to have a glass of wine at his apartment, I saw the man behind me and told him he had a wonderful voice.  He was surprised.  He said, "I don't know what to say."  "Did you sing professionally?" I asked.  

I'm essentially a small-town man who has never learned that, in many American cities (as opposed to most European ones), it's considered ill-bred to talk to strangers, to ask questions, to try to make human contact.

"No," he said.  "I'd be lying if I said I had."  "What's your name, guy?  That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me today."

"I'm Bill."  

"And I'm David.  I'm going to the theater"--pointing ahead.

"What movie are you seeing?"

"I don't know.  It's the 1:45.  I'm never late because I sit in the front row and no one else wants it."

"I have to catch up to my friends, David.  I'm touring with them and they've walked ahead."

"Okay, Stephen.  Have a good one."

And David, too, is related to me, essential to my life.  Without him, I am diminished.

There were the two people we encountered on our first evening here, as we had seafood stew at a fast-food place in the food court of the Westfield Centre.  Across from us, a man with a girl I took to be his daughter.  His right arm was garishly tattooed in lurid colors in a pattern that reminded me of a snake coiling through leaves.

He ate noodles with chopsticks.  He ate in the style of American men today, of all classes and cultural backgrounds, the style designed to show that they are men and not quasi-women.  He ate with both arms extended on the table, the fist of his right hand clenched (he was left-handed), bent over his bowl of noodles with his face almost in the food.  He ate in a fashion for which my mother would have slapped me, as she said, "I've seen animals in a barn with better manners."

And as he ate the noodles, if he had taken too many with his chopsticks, he let the excess dribble back from his mouth into the bowl, with some of their sauce.  And then he took the fingers of his right arm, the one with snakes crawling through leaves along it, and pulled more noodles from his mouth.

I was mesmerized.  I was sickened at the sight.  I pitied his daughter, having to watch.

And he is me.  He is related to me.  He is a part of me.  I cannot diminish his existence or his humanity without diminishing my own.

At the same food court, beside us, was a young woman, thirty-something, a trifle sad-looking, with dramatic silver jewelry covering her shoulders and upper breasts.  Her blouse was of that low-cut style that used to be called peasant.  The jewelry made a dramatic statement, silver leaves dangling from silver stems.  It suited her, the gravity of her eyes and expression.

And then she made eye contact, as she got up to fetch her food.  She looked at me, nodded her head toward her seat and her Macy's bag, and indicated by her eyes that she would appreciate my watching her things.  I signaled back.

She returned and acknowledged her gratitude with a whisper of a smile so faint that I would have missed it, had my eyes not been open to see at that precise moment.  She ate elegantly, like a lady, carriage erect, idle hand in lap, dainty bites.  I saw this only because I could see from the periphery of my eyes.  I was sitting beside her and would not stare.

And then she got up, began to walk away, turned around and smiled radiantly, a full smile.  But her eyes remained wounded even as she smiled.

And she, too, is me, an essential part of my existence.

I will probably never see any of these people again, nor will I see the man who entertained the whole streetcar as we made our way downhill back to our hotel, ranting in a loud, staged tirade about the meeting of the city transit authorities to which he was headed, and which he intended to disrupt.  Something about guide dogs and new regulations.  

The rant was about not being allowed to have a guide dog.  But as the conductor (the intended, primary audience of the rant) pointed out, the ranter had his guide dog at his feet.  He was going to organize all those who relied on guide dogs.  The city was going to pay.

He was perfectly color-coded, with neon-lime green sunglasses and a running suit of the same color.  As he talked, a sweet-looking elderly man in the same row (the row set aside for seniors and people with disabilities) turned and faced the rest of the car, twinkling his eyes just enough to indicate his amused delight at the unexpected show.  The elderly gentleman looked like a stage British colonel with a sailor's cap atop his head, that deadpan look of the well-bred British that gives nothing away but manages to convey a world of meaning through a tiny flicker of the eyes, those perpetually surprised eyebrows that the well-bred British always sport.

And then the guide-dog advocate informed us that he would win his battle with the city: "I've done research.  I know I'm right."  And the car stopped, and as quickly as the loud, amusing vignette had begun, it was over, as he made his neon-lime green way down the streetcar step and onto the island in the middle of the street.

Each one of these precious human beings is related to me, necessary to my existence.  And that is one of the important messages of Jamaica Kincaid's book about her brother's death, about which I blogged yesterday.

Though her family maimed her and made her being a writer impossible--though she had no choice except to flee her family and to expatriate herself if she wished to write--they remained her family.  To whom she was bonded.  To whom she had to return when they were in need, no matter how painful the return.  Her mother, who burned all of Kincaid's books when she was a little girl and failed to change her brother's diapers, who told her she would not succeed if she tried to read and to write: her mother remained her mother.

And her brothers, who would not speak to each other, some of them, and who refused to speak to their mother, some of them, calling her formally Mrs. Drew and not Mother; her brother with AIDS who stole from her anytime she came home to Antigua: Jamaica Kincaid's brothers remained her brothers.

Unlike many of the affluent and powerful among whom she now lives as a successful writer, Jamaica Kincaid has not chosen to reinvent herself.  She remains the daughter of a troubled, impoverished, Afro-Caribbean family whose existence has been upended by the continuing effects of colonialism.  She has accepted, and she writes from the vantage point of, the painful double consciousness that, in W.E.B. DuBois's view, is the legacy of all people of color in this continent colonized by white Europeans.

She does not deny her family--herself--even as she lives, necessarily, at a distance from a family in whose midst she cannot write.  Cannot even breathe.

We are all care of one another.  I cannot deny your humanity without negating my own.  I cannot wish you out of existence without nullifying my own existence.  

And so it is our lamentable tragedy to live in a time and place in which many people and their communities of faith, whose core teachings are all about affiliation, the ties that bind ("religion" is from Latin roots meaning "to bind decisively"), refuse to recognize our interconnectedness to each other, and to all creation.