The crowded bus left me with no choice but to stand over a gaggle of Chinese women who had taken over a fourth of one side and were all comfortably seated, relaxed, totally oblivious to the discomfort of the standing overcrowd. The nest of women chatted among themselves in what, to me, sounded like wanga, wanga, hong, tong, yeeow, in too loud for public transportation tones. I found their back and forth sing songing especially irritating as I stood sweltering in the heat of the day. I couldn't understand a word they were saying, I just wanted them to be quiet, we were all miserable enough.
I resented the fact that these factory workers got on the bus two stops before stopping for the masses in downtown. I resented this because, as I saw it, it always gave them the advantage of not only getting a seat, but also the privilege of sitting together as a group, wherever they chose.
I quietly expressed my indignation by giving each a careful and critical eye, noting their unique gestures and how differently these factory workers dressed from the smart set downtown. The ultimate, to me, was the fact that they appeared to be almost casually lounging as some sat askew their seats to more fully engage in multiple conversations across several rows. Their full attention was within their group, seemingly unaware of the misery of the herd surrounding them.
The bus was packed to near capacity when the driver made a stop near the edge of downtown. Instead of the usual, "...everyone move to the back….” a small group of black teenage boys rushed on and immediately started pushing and shoving their way down the aisle. One made it a point to stop next to me. I ignored him and avoided eye contact by looking down. That was when I noticed that one of the chatting group of Chinese women was sitting with her purse on the seat, partially open, her wallet clearly visible. She was distracted, completely unaware of her vulnerability.
My instinct was to look up at the boy who had insisted on standing next to me. To my astonishment, he was smiling at me, but his eyes weren't. He held the satisfied grin of a mission already accomplished, and he, like an experienced virtuoso, positioned himself to do so quickly. To anyone who cared to observe, it was clear that he had done this many times before. I think that he assumed that since we were both black, regardless of the stark contrast in age, he was free, without protest from me, to steal the Chinese woman's wallet with my full permission.
Without thinking, from somewhere within me, I returned his smile with the meanest, most scornful look I could conjure. My body followed with the protective stance which unmistakably translated to don't you dare! At that moment, I understood, for the first time, what it meant to stare daggers because I stared him down face to face until the next bus stop without blinking. When the bus stopped, the boy loudly exclaimed, "FUCK!" He and his buddies quickly got off of the bus, pushing and shoving in the manner in which they had arrived from the previous stop.
The group of Chinese women continued their daily ritual of loud chatter for the rest of their journey without interruption, never once indicating awareness of what had just occurred. They all got off in the Sunset District, and I quickly claimed a seat for the few remaining minutes to my destination, the end of the line on the Great Highway.
The week following the bus ride it was my turn to spend the weekend with my Jewish boyfriend, Maury, at his home in Berkeley; we had a routine. When we were at his house, we always knew that we would get up early in the morning and go to our favorite bagel factory and have lox and bagels with a rugelach to munch on throughout the day. Dinner would be a choice between two restaurants. On this particular day, we chose our most favorite, Chinese.
The restaurant was family owned, a neighborhood place, diminutive, with no more than six tables which filled the small room. Szechuan shrimp, charged with pungent spices, was always my favorite. As a matter of fact, as soon as I sat down it was the only thing on my mind as I ordered without looking at the familiar menu. Maury did the same. We were engrossed in conversation, not wishing to be disturbed, barely acknowledging the waiter’s presence.
Maury was a master conversationalist; I had found it to be one of his most attractive features. When we were engaged in conversation nothing else around me mattered. I listened to every word while basking in the thrill knowing that all of his words were for me and that I had his full attention. Listening to each other was easy that evening because we were the only ones in the restaurant except for the people who worked there. Our waiter was the only one to be seen when we arrived.
As soon as we had ordered, I sensed the arrival of others but paid no attention other than to acknowledge they seemed to be a couple, a man, and woman, who, without assistance from the waiter, hurried to be seated. They chose to sit at the table directly behind me. Back to Maury as if I had ever left.
Our intimacy was soon interrupted by a growing sense of being overcrowded as the waiter quickly reappeared without our food and sat at the table across from us, staring at us. My annoyance increased when the cook came out of the kitchen and quietly stood at a distance behind me. After that, I noted two women, one aged with a dowager’s hump and the other younger holding an infant, who came in and sat at the table next to the waiter and stared in our direction without saying anything, even to each other. Lastly, to my complete amazement, a boy, unmistakably the dishwasher, came out and leaned in the doorway of the kitchen, lazily wiping his dirty hands on an even more soiled apron while staring unblinkingly in our direction. It was hard to determine which was worse off, the cross contamination of his hands to the apron or the apron to his hands. The restaurant was suddenly almost filled with employees who were, to my mind, just sitting around staring, making their customers uncomfortable. Didn't they have something else to do?
The restaurant employees were destroying my perfect evening. They had never done this before. Regardless, I impulsively made a mental note never to return because they had become hoverers who didn't allow their customer's privacy to enjoy their meal. I attributed their new behavior to their ignorance of how we do things here in America, assuming they were all foreign born. Their actions must be related to a Chinese cultural thing I hadn't noticed before but was sure to be on the lookout henceforth. But I again changed my mind because I loved Chinese food too much to make the pledge NEVER to go to another Chinese restaurant, particularly this one where I enjoyed the food.
Just as I had settled in my mind my future as related to Chinese restaurants and food, I was startled by the sudden clamor of chairs being slammed aside behind me. The couple quickly brushed past me as they ran out, slamming the door, leaving behind the clacking sound of the bells tied to the door knob as they crashed against the door. As soon as they left, I looked quizzically at Maury; he looked at me, shrugging his shoulders.
I glanced around the room and noted that the cook was on his way back to the kitchen, and the two women with the baby and the dishwasher had disappeared as silently as when they had appeared. I'm thinking, why in the hell did you come out in the first place? I was getting pissed; the Maury spell for the evening kept getting interrupted.
In response to our growing irritation, confused and questioning looks, the waiter stood and approached our table. I was near my limit. I'm thinking, "My God, they're a weird bunch, will they ever assimilate?" "Only in Berkley, I'm glad I live in San Francisco!"
The waiter stood before our table and calmly cupped his hands at his waist. In an almost apologetic tone, he inform us that the couple who had just left was trying to steal my purse, which, as I looked down, lay on the floor near me, partially opened, with my wallet clearly visible.