Sunday, February 11, 2007

On a mission

Friday February 9 (Part Two)

It seems that only the poor (and tourists, I guess) ride the bus.

I make yet another mistake when I confidently board the bus for the Mission district. Five minutes later, the driver stops the now-deserted bus.
‘Last stop!’ he hollers.
I stumble sceptically to the door and look out at a vast concrete carpark and a nondescript stretch of city street.
‘But … but … this isn’t the Mission, is it?’ It’s not. It’s Mission Street.

On the driver’s instructions, I trudge down the road to another bus stop, and another bus. An elderly black man seems to be sleeping on one of the seats, the one closest to the route map, even though the seats have been designed precisely to be unsuitable for sleeping on. (The individual seats flip down as you perch on them.) As I draw closer, I see that he is awake, barely, just not terribly conscious. He is violently shivering, even in his bulky parka.
‘You just missed the bus!’ a friendly-seeming Latino man tells me. ‘You missed two of ‘em, actually.” He brandishes a coffee in a paper cup, visibly steaming. “I saw ‘em while I was getting my coffee. It’s watery, too.’ He shakes his head and gestures at the falling rain. He wears yellow plastic workwear and a laminated card dangles from a cord around his neck. I guess that he works in construction or something similar.
‘You goin’ home?’ he asks me, and I shake my head. I tell him I’m travelling, then wish I hadn’t.

I hate this, being so suspicious of everyone. I hate the fact that the poorer someone looks, the more suspicious I instinctively am. I especially hate the way I’m even warier when they’re not white. Though, to be honest, I don’t notice many poor-looking white people here – though I’m sure they exist. Maybe my awful hotel is having an effect on me?

The bus quickly fills, and soon it is crammed with sweating, rain-damp and noisy humanity. I’m lucky to have a seat, wedged against the bus window beside a quiet, middle-aged Asian woman who talks on her mobile about her shopping in a thick Californian accent. All around me, people are talking in a cacophony of languages: Spanish, English, what could be Chinese or Vietnamese. What would Our John Howard think of all these people who don’t assimilate, but create their own communities – and districts - within the larger one of San Francisco? Not much, I suspect.

Behind me, two twenty-something black girls are jive-talking like something from a Will Smith movie, or maybe the Rikki Lake audience – N-word and all. They are loud and showy, but playful with it. When the bus is temporarily frozen, due to someone refusing to move from a step, the girls come into their own.
‘You got FIVE SECONDS to get yo’ ass off that step or I gonna whip yo’ ass!’
‘You gonna GET IT!’
‘Yeah, I WHIP yo’ back ass!’
They actually sound more like nagging girlfriends (and maybe they were – I couldn’t see who they were talking to) than queens of the street. I get the sense that they’re performing for us – like the teenage girls on my train route in Melbourne.

Mission Street shifts from plain old poor (99 cent stores, giant drugstores) to Little Central America. The signs go from English to bilingual, sometimes even just Spanish. The shopfronts change from drab and grey, some with neon lettering in the windows, to shabby but colourful, in splashes of green, red, pink. There are taquieras (Mexican cafes), El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan restaurants, fruit stores with staff chatting to customers in the doorways, a Latin American bookstore, and various travel agents and phone card outlets advertising cheap rates to Mexico, Guatemala and neighbouring regions. At the bottom of Mission Street, vast Victorian houses look down on the neighbourhood from the surrounding hills.

Surreptitiously checking my City Walks card for the area, I get off at 24th Street – and then walk back a block in the direction I came to withdraw money from the Bank of America. I use the ATM in the bank’s lobby, to be safe. Afterwards, I step away from the ATM to let the next customer through, with the feeling that something is wrong. I check my purse. No card. I turn back to the man who has taken my place.
‘You have your money?’ he says.
‘I think … my card …’
He looks at the machine, presses CANCEL, and out pops my card. He hands it to me with a smile and a courteous nod of the head. I thank him profusely, and catch him looking after me with disbelief as I go.

I have to be more careful – though I’m trying, I am.

I stop, as the City Walks have instructed, at La Taquiera, supposedly the tacquiera to eat at – the one people travel to especially for the purpose. I’m pretty sure that my father-in-law, a frequent traveller, has mentioned it. I go in. A staff member is actually mounting some kind of Best Restaurant award on the wall, which is covered in similar plaques. The customers seem to include other tourists – a Japanese couple talking excitedly in Japanese, a well-dressed Anglo woman looking around as if this is new to her.

I order a chicken burrito (for around $6) and sit down. The woman at the cash register is glaring meaningfully at me.
‘Do I pay now?’ I ask her.
I scurry back to the counter. A waitress had taken my order, so I’d assumed I’d get a bill (and need to tip). My burrito comes wrapped in tinfoil and placed in a red plastic basket, with disposable cutlery. I unwrap it and eat it with my hands, hungrily. It is, of course, enormous. I realise it is 4pm and I haven’t eaten today. Is it the best Mexican ever? Well, it was pretty good, though so was the chicken taco I ate at a deserted tacquiera next to City Lights yesterday, which was not the least bit famous. It’s certainly better than Australian Tex-Mex. (For one thing, the chicken is fresh breast meat – really good.)

As I leave, two cops are entering. One of them holds the door open for me and dips his head in greeting. It’s weird, but every time I see police, police cars or fire engines here, I feel like I’m on a movie set. They look like they’re playing dress-ups to me, I guess because they’re wearing what my brain processes as costumes.

I walk down to Cesar Chavez Street and take a photo of the sign for the Husband. As I cross the busy street, I look around and feel uneasy. I’m moving off the map, I think, and I don’t know if it’s safe anymore – or where I’m going. I turn back and head for 24th Street.

On the way, I poke my head into a shop that with interesting-looking books in the window. Inside, it is mostly filled with rosary beads, statues of the Virgin Mary, and other knick-knacks. I’m too shy to ask for the book I saw, about Latin American gang girls. It feels nosy, inappropriate.

I look at the Mission Neighbourhood Centre, hoping to learn some local history, but it’s not for tourists. It’s an empty-ish building with a public hall and a revolving plastic stand of brochures and flyers – for salsa lessons, an art exhibition, a Valentine’s Day concert. Once again, I feel like I’m intruding, and slip out before anyone sees me.

On 24th Street, I decide to conquer my fear of looking like a tourist and hang my camera around my neck. I’d have taken more photos if I wasn’t so wary of looking conspicuous. I walk too briskly, still afraid despite my best mental efforts. I’m afraid of the people who linger in the street, probably just residents chatting to their neighbours – but I don’t know that. I’m frightened of the blank-eyed homeless people pushing their trolleys, the slick-haired Latin boys stalking along the footpaths. Just walking down the street – I know.

I hate this. I blithely walked my son to kindergarten, in a stroller, through the streets of Footscray every day for a year. I walked past drug dealers and men sleeping in bushes by the side of the road (actually, one particular man who was there a lot, I think). I was very rarely scared – not even on the occasion that someone asked me if I wanted ‘to buy’. So why am I so jumpy here? Is it because I don’t know the territory?

Striding down 24th Street, trying to look purposeful and confident but unable to keep from clutching my camera as it swings from my neck, I think I have a flash of insight about America. (Not terribly original insight, but insight nonetheless). Imagine how it must feel to be a Latin American or African American here, to have people afraid of you as a reflex action – just when you’re walking down the street or standing around talking in your own neighbourhood. It would make you pretty angry. It would make you think: fuck you, I’ll GIVE you something to be scared about. And, why are Americans, and white middle-class visitors like me, so scared? Yes, partly fear of the unknown, the other. Partly based on media representations. Partly experience of the homeless who ask you for money on the street, or shout menacingly at you as you scuttle from your tram to your hotel. But partly guilt, too.

There’s the guilt about having money and living well when others don’t, and the knowledge they must want that, too. But also historical guilt: slavery (without Europeans, African Americans wouldn’t be in America in the first place); theft (California was stolen from Mexico in the 1800s); interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, for the good of the US government – and often to the detriment of the citizens of those countries (think Chile, Nicaragua).

Maybe we’re scared because we feel that we deserve to be punished. Karma.

And yes, I’m fully aware that this must apply equally to Australia and its indigenous people.

When I disembark from the bus in front of my hotel, I feel okay. I get a clear walk across the road: no comments, no approaches, no looks (that I notice, anyway). Maybe it’s because I spent the afternoon being scared in the Mission?


lucy tartan said...

Ariel, I'm loving your trip so much. It's giving me itchy feet. Thanks for these posts. I love your bits about the cops wearing cop costumes and that insight about what it could be like to be a minority. Thoughts like that you can only get form really travelling, with your actual tired jolted adrenalised body.

The culture shock will wear off in a couple of days. I have never ever managed to acclimatise to traffic where they drive on the other side of the road.

In Los Angeles I hope you get time to go the Getty. The public transport in California is really dreadful. I admire your skill with the buses.

MikeFitz said...

G'day Ariel. I, too, am enjoying your trip immensely.

Your experiences bring back memories of the very first time I took my family to the US. It was a great education for the kids. #2 Son, who was about 6, asked his mother: "Mum, why do all these men with brown skin keep asking Dad for money?"

Ariel said...

Thanks Lucy! Yes, that tired jolted adrenalised body is mine, alright. And I'm off to Tijuana tomorrow to catch my plane. Talk about culure shock ...

Ditto to you Mike. A kid's eye view is alwys interesting, isn't it?

audrey said...

Ariel, well done for being brave enough to point out the automatic feelings of fear or poorer people, or worse, poorer ethnic people. I hate hate hate that I've had it so drummed into me that aboriginals on the street at night are drunkards that i instinctively heighten my awareness when I encounter one. I really hate that I've fallen for that trap.

In other news, I'm loving your travel posts. You perfectly capture feeling small and lost and intrusive when you're outside your comfort zone. I love your writing!