Waiting for 36-Teresita
Across the street from Forest Hill Station, there is a damp, cave-like bus shelter with a stone bench inside. One afternoon a few weeks ago I was waiting inside that shelter for my bus, the 36, and not too far away was another regular of the line, an older Chinese man with a casually dapper style. He’s pretty recognizable, as his outfit is consistent from day to day: in his slightly worn suit, his durable leather vest zipped up under the coat, that awesome beret pushed back from his forehead, and the large bifocals that cover half his face, he gives you the impression that he takes care to look good, but not to excess. He’s really got more important things on his mind.
For instance, the likelihood (or not) of the 36 ever arriving on time.
You see, the 36-Teresita is one of those lines designated by Muni as “community service,” which in polite English means “unpredictable.” Unfortunately, it’s the line I live on, so I spend a lot of time waiting on that stone bench inside that shelter, repeatedly prodding my BlackBerry for the next arrival time. Nextbus.com sometimes predicts that I have twenty minutes to wait, but then the next time I look, it predicts forty minutes — meaning a run has been dropped in the meantime.
I poked the BlackBerry: this time it predicted ten minutes to go.
Soon I noticed our man in the beret was talking to a beautiful dark-haired woman. She was slightly distracted by her children: with one hand she was preventing her restless older daughter from wandering into the path of the oncoming buses, and with the other she was giving additional support to the sleepy infant strapped to her chest. I recognized her: as it happened, I’d seen her at Tower Market several months earlier, when she was pregnant with that very child. It was definitely her: she had an unforgettable face.
I checked my BlackBerry again: eighteen minutes to go. So I started eavesdropping on their conversation.
He was from Hong Kong, she was from Armenia. How long had he been here? He waved his hand and said he’d been here a while. The subject seemed not to interest him, so he turned it on her. She’d been here six months; did he know where Armenia was? He didn’t. Turns out that it used to be part of the Soviet Union, next door to Georgia, and to Turkey. (Mention of Iran was avoided, by design or by chance.) In response, he began to explain where Hong Kong was, but she stopped him, as she already knew. He offered that he had lived in the island city itself. At his feet were two bags. One was a red paper bag with the Lexus logo on it, stuffed with Chinese newspapers and assorted groceries. The other was one of those omnipresent pink plastic bags that seem to grow in Chinatown and the inner Mission. He picked up this second bag and offered the little girl a packaged snack from it, which she accepted shyly, with wide eyes. Then he offered something to the infant, who was less impressed. After a moment’s evaluation, the kid pitched the gift back into the bag whence it came, prompting laughter from everyone.
Three buses blasted by: a 43, a 44, and an 89. People would run by, notice the kids, stop long enough to make goofy faces at one or both of them, and then continue on to catch their bus. A flock of teenage girls screamed and shouted their way past the shelter; ten seconds later, they screamed and giggled their way back. They’d run in a panic for the wrong bus, and thereby missed the right one.
I prodded the BlackBerry. Five minutes to go.
On the far end of the stone bench sat another elderly man, in a yellow suede jacket. He lives at the end of my street, and we’ve been on several buses together. He seemed to recognize me.
“Waiting for the 36 too?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“Story of our lives!” He said this with a tolerant air. “I missed the 3:00 today. Left the station and there it was, leaving.”
“Sometimes I used to miss it because I’d stop to check the schedule in the station,” I offered. “Now how dumb is that?”
He smiled. “Pretty dumb, I’d say.”
I waved my cell phone. “There’s supposed to be one in a few minutes.”
The woman brought her children into the shelter, and as she walked in she scanned the place. As usual it was heavily littered with newspapers and plastic bags and empty bottles, but on that day every surface was also plastered over with wet cherry blossoms, blown off the trees by the recent storm, and things were still a little damp. Something about all the petals and the water made even the most sordid trash seem kind of clean, in an elemental way. The woman and her kids approached me, and I scooted over on the bench to make room for them.
She sat down, but all of a sudden there was our man in the beret, standing over us, waving a rolled-up newspaper in the air, telling her to wait, no, wait, and motioning her to stand and step forward. Puzzled, she stood and stepped forward. The second she was out of the way, he spread his newspaper out on the bench where she had been.
“O.K.,” he said. “Now sit.”
She sat down on the newspaper, grinning at me, as he retook his position at the mouth of the shelter. Our sentinel, ever vigilant for the 36, and for the comfort of a lovely young mother.
I poked the BlackBerry again: just eleven minutes to go.