On a train

Walking Home

A Visit with Saint Nicholas



I walk home every night from the shuttle that drops me at 15th and Harrison. It adds half an hour to my already long day, but it clears my head. I thought I did it for exercise, a rabid need to walk more than a few feet at a time, running from desk to copier to files to desk. That's why I started.

I walk along Harrison, a street I never paid much attention to. I find it makes me happy, colorful Mission-area street that reminds me why I like my neighborhood. I wander past the Indian restaurant at 16th, which always smells so good, ready for the dinner rush that never seems to be there. I think of going in but never do. Crossing the street, I look up and see a couple walking out of the SPCA with a cat carrier, faces beaming. I remember picking up my cat, when he was so small I could hold him in the palm of my hand. Now he's the size of a small dog. I wonder where he will live for the next few months.

I cross 16th, where Harrison splits into a Y, and try to walk the diagonal with no sidewalk without getting killed. It would be much simpler to cross the street on the other side, but I like the challenge. Dodging a car before arriving at the curb, I glance at the empty lot across the street, with its huge pile of black soil. It makes me think of Iowa, with its black soil perfect for growing corn, so unlike California with its clay-colored dirt. I don't ever miss Iowa, not really, but it makes me remember the pride I used to feel when my dad would point out the rich soil in our garden and tell me that anything would grow there, you just had to plant it. I remember sitting on the porch swing and watching my parents work in the vegetable garden together, weeding, putting up fencing to keep rabbits out, stopping to bite into a huge fat gloriously red tomato freshly pulled from the vine. I was pleased then, at 7 or 8 years old, to see my parents so full and happy with this thing they grew with their own hands. I think of how little they do of it now, make things for themselves just because they can. My dad has a lemon tree on the porch of their apartment in Sausalito that he's pretty proud of. It doesn't seem quite the same. I wonder what the pile of good soil is for, landscaping maybe.

I walk along and look at the walls and fences of the PG&E facility. One of the walls has an enormous mural on it that I stare at every time I go past. I notice different things, wonder what the muralist meant me to see. I love the construction workers with their hard hats seemingly jackhammering the dance floor of the Mexican dancers with their colorful full skirts. I wonder what PG&E had in mind when they allowed the artist to paint. It's hard for me to imagine a bunch of suits sitting in a boardroom saying, "Let's get a muralist to represent the contrast between our rampant capitalism and the traditional culture of this neighborhood." I run a hand over a bulge in the wall, painted red and blue, a piece of skirt. I can't ever resist touching paintings. Itís only a matter of time before I get thrown out of a museum. I remember using my sister's oil paints in high school and wanting to run my fingers through them. I wonder idly why she doesn't paint anymore. Between her husband and her computer I suppose it doesn't occur to her. I wonder if she'll give me the painting I love, the one with the hand stirring the coffee, for my apartment. I wish I could take a piece of the mural home with me.

I pass some Mexican men sitting on a bench across the sidewalk from a taqueria truck. They call to me in Spanish as I walk by; I pick out words-- "bonita" and "Hola, hola"--so I get the gist of what they're saying. I walk on with a degree of happiness, thinking I can at least excite the interest of middle-aged Mexican men with nothing better to do. I wonder what he would say if I told him I was leaving him for one of the men who sit on the bench by the taqueria truck. Or better yet, for one of the men who push the Popsicle carts that ring past as I cross the street.

I turn my head to watch a truck with a little man with a mallet sitting on top of it, the words "pest control" written on the side. As it turns the corner, I glance across the street and stop dead in my tracks. A garage door is wide open and inside I see fencers. People in white outfits sparring with foils. I start to laugh at the oddity of it. There are no signs saying "fencing school" or "gym" or "swashbucklers anonymous". Just a line of houses and the wide-open garage. There are big stone figures outside the garage door on either side, dogs or lions, guarding the practice. I cross the street for a closer look. I remember watching Errol Flynn movies as a kid, feeling desperately in love with him as he swashbuckled his way through "Captain Blood" and "Robin Hood." I watch the fencers for awhile, doing regimented movements in time with each other, listening to a coach's voice guiding them. I lose interest after a bit, the same thing over and over and not a Robin Hood in the bunch, and turn to the stone guardians. On closer inspection, they are well-worn, large parts of stone faces and paws broken off, the metal arms inside exposed like raw nerves. The expressions on their faces are still clear, amiable dog-like faces rather than fierce attackers. They look sad, like they've lost their purpose, like too much of them has been lost to continue their fight.

I walk on past rows of almost beautiful Victorian homes, brightly colored in peaches and pinks and blues. Someone obviously put some care into them at one time, but it's clear now that the people who own them can't afford to keep them nice or just don't bother to. They look like rentals now, paint chipping, dirty stairways. "Why put money into these houses", I can almost hear, "when they're in the Mission, and not the hip part. Rent them out for twice what we got last year and see how long it takes before they leak." Some have lace curtains and decorative touches; at least the people inside seem to care. Our apartment is the inverse of these, nicely kept up outside, owned by a young couple who really do seem to care. But inside it's cold, gray carpets covered in cat hair, long dark hallway, and cluttered rooms with ugly posters put up before I got there. These places, disheveled as they may be outside, seem warm when you look through the windows, soft yellow light and warm Mexican cooking smells slipping out the cracks in the windows. I imagine families inside, kids on the floor watching cartoons while mom makes tamales in the kitchen. Father walking the dog and chatting with the old men outside the corner store on his way home with more Jarritos. I smile at the vision, but when my mind tries to place me in it, I shake my head. I pass into the next block.

I look up at the building I'm passing, Mission Cliffs, with its giant metal stick figure of a rock climber. It makes me laugh every time, as do the motorcycles and jocks in bike shorts pretentiously hanging around outside. I get a certain joy out of walking by in my pearls, black tights with walking shoes, casual pace, as they all raise their noses as they bite into their Power Bars. I think of all his friends who climb rocks and hike and surf and how for some reason I just never quite identified with them just as he never quite got comfortable with my artist friends. We would fight sometimes because I couldn't get the energy up to go out with his circle and he thought they felt shunned. I knew they were happy just to get him and not some connected couple creature. Just as, though my friends would ask why he never came out, I knew they were happy it was just me. Or at least I hoped they were. They would have to get used to it.

I pass the Queen Bee on her second floor porch of the red house with the white fence. She always stands there on her porch when I walk past, her large body poured into a brightly colored dress or low-cut shirt and tight pants. She always has an attendant nearby; an older black man in a straw fedora and Hawaiian shirt whom I can't quite see as her husband or a young black woman, thin and pretty, whom I suspect is her daughter. She reminds me of the voodoo women I saw in New Orleans a few weeks ago, though she doesn't have the air of mystery or menace I sensed in them. But she definitely has her own power as she looms over the railing and I smile toward her. I imagine myself in her place, full of my own power, confidence and strength of character, not needing anyone but simultaneously drawing people in. I sort of wish that for myself. It isn't quite the life I would choose and yet thereís something very pleasing about the idea. I suppose it isn't nearly as easy as she makes it look. She doesn't seem to notice my smile.

I walk past the Florida school, painted a pinkish-orange like all the hotels and houses when I went to Florida as a kid. I remember seeing the pinky-orange hotels with their swimming pools and palm trees and thinking how strange and exotic they were. I remember the first time I picked up a palm frond and found a coconut lying on the beach. I was so excited, I brought the coconut home with me. I think of when I first moved to California, looking out from my apartment and seeing a palm tree. It was like a dream to me; when I was a kid in school everyone I knew wanted to move to California. I was one of the few who hadn't, thinking it would be far more romantic to live in Europe or Canada. Now I'm here, though not in the California that those kids imagined; I don't think they knew of any California aside from Hollywood. I'd logged on to a classmate finder website recently and found several of the people I'd known in high school listed there. They'd dreamed of California and bigger adventures. They still lived in Iowa. One had spent twelve years working in a local grocery store. Married and settled down, I suppose they were happy, or thought they were. But they were still there. And probably always would be. I might not be exactly where I want to be, but at least Iím not there.

I turn off Harrison onto 24th finally and cross the street. Not much farther now. I see a beautiful Volkswagen van turning the corner with me. Its paint job is immaculate and the interior looks original. I almost drool as I watch it, missing the days when I had my bus, though I don't think about it too much any more. Only when I want to do serious shopping. And then I can always borrow his car. Well, I guess always isn't true.

24th is bustling at this time of day, twilight, just before everyone goes home for dinner. People are wandering in and out of all the little groceries and taquerias, bakeries and candy stores. There is a woman on the corner selling prayer candles. I glance at her as I pass, at the cardboard box with the cloth over it, the multicolored jars with pictures of saints on them. A middle-aged Hispanic woman is holding a red jar with the Virgin Mary on it, speaking to the seller in Spanish. Mary is the only one of the pictures I can identify. I suppose one doesn't learn things like the names of saints merely from the osmosis of living with a catholic. Especially living in sin with a catholic. It surprises me still that I got involved with someone with such different ideas about religion. I suppose it's why he cares about marriage and I donít, among other things, something in the upbringing he can't shake, or doesn't want to. Maybe if I had kept going to church after the age of 8, or if I'd chosen a religion instead of skipping around from Christian Scientist to Episcopalian to Quaker to confusion to disbelief, I might have been married years ago and things would be different. Different doesn't mean much to me, different would just have been different, but marriage wouldn't have solved anything. I imagine myself married, living in a dark small apartment in Oakland, commuting 4 hours a day for work, watching TV everyday when I get home for quality relationship time. I imagine all the questions about children, when when when, our parents would ask. I imagine screaming into my pillow in frustration every night, managing to slip into bed and falling asleep before he can demand sex from me. I imagine leaving one day without a word and never coming back. I stare into store windows as I pass by, trying to shake off the pictures.

I'm passing a little store it took me years to finally venture in to. The costume jewelry in the window was what had managed to lure me in, but what I enjoyed buying were the little packets of magic powder. The writing was in Spanish so I never knew exactly what I was supposed to do with them, but I could make out enough words on the front to figure out what they were supposed to bring you. Some were for luck, suerte, some for love, amor, and some for vanquishing evilówell, I had no idea if the words meant vanquish or evil, but from the picture of the third eye sending out a deathray to the devil, I suspected that was what it meant. Iíd never actually used the powder; I was afraid to put it in my shoe if I was supposed to mix it with my salsa, but I liked the idea of it and often bought it for friends and put it in birthday cards. I think now of going in again, buying a few for suerte and inner fuerza. But I keep walking, knowing they will never work if I donít know what to do with them. I suppose I could ask the man at the counter, but I always feel like such a white girl in the shops down here. I try not to seem more so.

I pass the bakery where I bought pastries one morning when I got up early before work. I got several interesting looking rolls that I didn't know the names or flavors of and some orange juice and walked back home before he ever realized I was gone. He woke up to the same smells I inhale now, freshly baked flaky bread and syrupy fruit. I remember crumbs falling into the sheets as we curled up and ate the exotic sweet things.

I breathe deeply and pass on, past the laundry where we do our wash. When we first started going out, I used to go with him and sit on the tall tables, my legs dangling, chatting with him, watching him fold his clothes with what seemed like endearing care. Now we come here together sometimes, if I've gone through my entire wardrobe and haven't managed to find the time to get out to my parents' to do my laundry for free in their machine. When we do, we sit in silence, reading magazines until our clothes are dry. The excruciatingly long time it takes him to fold usually causes me to leave without him. I turn my head to look for cars as I step off the curb.

I notice a woman on a bike across the street. The bike is a turquoisy green and she has a messenger bag slung over her neck and shoulder that is exactly the same color as the bike. I think about how excited she was when she found the bag, hear her say to a friend, "This is exactly the color of my bike!" And how she spent more than she should have for it, because it was just so perfect. I watch her ride and wonder if the newness has worn off, if her excitement over the bag has faded as the newness of things always fades into complacency. Does she still notice how perfectly it matches her bike? Or does she just sling it over her shoulder and go, not giving it a second thought? I think about Susan at work. She has a first date on Saturday and I was excited for her for the newness. She said how much she hates dating and I agreed with her; it's nerve-wracking and scary. But I said it was worth it for the first kiss.

That moment when you're standing on the doorstep, awkwardly, not knowing quite how to move, what to do. She can't quite look him full in the eyes. She licks her lips against her will, knowing it's too strong a signal. But she knows it will happen. He stands uncertain, not knowing her well enough yet to tell if she wants to or not, trying to gauge, speaking more softly so she might lean in closer. Finally, he takes a deep breath and begins to lean in, only to find her leaning in, too. Their lips touch. Perhaps itís a chaste peck, like a goodbye in a 50's movie, when the girl knows her parents are lurking behind a tremoring curtain inside the porch window, lips barely touching in the light from the porch lamp swarming with moths. Or maybe it's not so chaste, their lips touching and parting softly, tongues tentatively touching, exploring, brushing enamel on teeth. When she pulls away, a little breathless, slightly shivery, quickly or not so quickly, she hurries inside with a soft good-bye before it becomes too difficult to break away.

Susan called me a romantic and I laughed and said I'm getting sappy, time to go home. She told me I've been reading too many Jane Austen novels, and laughed. But it's no joke and I told her she's exactly right, that and too many Meg Ryan movies. She laughed again and I said good-bye and left.

I think of how quickly that newness wears off, that first kiss. How quickly it becomes just part of what you do every day, mixed in with paying the bills and doing the dishes. I think of all the possibilities in that first kiss. She doesn't know a thing about him really except what music he likes and what book he's reading now, what he does for a living and how he likes his coffee. She doesn't know if he likes to sleep with the window open in the middle of winter or if he insists on watching the discovery channel for hours every night. She doesnít know if he gets resentful if she goes out with friends or if he can't stand it when she tells him he's wrong. She doesn't know if he sits around almost every night and gets stoned or if he'll have no more ambition in 5 years than he has now. She doesn't know if in 5 years she'll be looking at him and wondering how she could have gotten herself so locked in without really considering who she gave the key to. She doesn't know that in 5 years she'll be thinking longingly back to that first kiss and wondering how she could have gone so wrong from that moment on.

My steps slow as I pass Walgreens and the parking structure. Only a few more blocks now. I remember when neither of them existed, remember watching as they were built, skeletons filling in until finally I can't remember what was there before. I think back and donít remember who I was before. I wonder if I will become a skeleton, waiting to be filled in.

My steps falter as I start to cross the street and see his car outside. He was so happy when he bought that car, a good deal from a good friend, used sedan. I can never tell itís his from the front; from the back I see the Grateful Dead stickers. We never did have the same taste in music, or much else. I reach for the gate to our apartment, fumble for my keys. I take a deep breath then start in.

I ride the bus home every night, standing sometimes, happy when I can get a seat. When I sit, I spend the trip reading and time passes quickly. Iíve read more books in the past 2 months than I did in the year previous. I get so sucked into the stories that I sometimes miss my stop and have to walk back a few blocks. When I have to stand, I hold tightly to the metal bars and watch people as they come and go. The apartment is well over halfway down the bus line and I observe the transition from older Asian men and women going to their little Sunset houses, sitting silently and refusing to move in their seats to let me by; to the teenagers of every culture imaginable with their baggy pants, painted on hair, Razors, and loud radios. I listen to the kids talking about things I didnít dream of at their age and barely do now. I try not to stare when they talk about fights theyíve had and pregnancies amongst their friends. When we cross Mission, the bus gets even more packed so I get off and walk the remaining few blocks.

I walk up the hill from the stop at Silver and Mission. I have to force my feet to trudge up the steep hills that remind me of the ones up to my old Nob Hill apartment, where I lived with my sister when I first moved to the city. There's a sort of weird symmetry, I suppose, walking up the hill to the apartment I now share with my sister, at least until her husband comes back into town. I look at the houses as I pass, new and modern, with clean driveways and trimmed lawns. They have big picture windows and I wish I could afford to own one of them. The streets are quiet and dark; the only person I see is an Asian woman taking out her garbage.

I feel slight twinges in my feet from the boots Iíve worn all day, with their high heels. I think of how he hated them when I brought them home, bright red and tall. He told me I was too clumsy to wear high heels, in a way that he thought was caring. I wear them almost every day now, finding outfits that theyíll go with. I also wear the capris with the beads and the dress with the bow in the back that he said made me look like a housewife. I glory in them. The wind catches my hair and it flies across my face; I gently pull it away from my lips, trying not to smear their red paint. I wear my hair down all the time now and I know I look and feel younger when I do. Teresa at work reminds me to put on lipstick when I forget in the morning. I never used to wear it, but now I feel powerful when I do. I smile when I think how amused my coworkers were to see the change in me. I laugh thinking of the random men whoíve asked me out, the one who stopped in his car at the bus stop, the one who came up to me in the video store... Itís not the boots, the hair, or the lips. A light has come on inside me. I feel like Iím blinding.

I reach the top of the hill and see the light on in the front room. I know my sister will be watching Buffy on TV and I can join her if I like or I can watch Sense and Sensibility for the 10th time. Or I could call up a friend and go have dinner or stay at home and eat egg rolls for the 3rd night in a row. I can go to sleep at 9 or stay up until 3 and know that I can sleep on whichever side I like when I do. I can do as I please.

I quicken my pace as I cross the street toward our building. I smile at the possibilities. A man getting out of his car smiles back at me, thinking I meant it for him. I let him think I do. I hurry to get my key in the lock of the gate, eager to be inside. I want to see what will happen next.





All stories copyright 2001 Alyssa K. Wodtke