Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Commute

I moved to LA to escape a commute. Traffic in the Bay Area has gotten very congested over the past ten years. For the past year, I drove each day from Berkeley to San Mateo and back again, an hour each way.

I would get onto 80 at the Ashby exit and there the Bay would be, San Francisco glorious and Emerald City-like in the distance, and I'd get on 880 South past the warehouses of West Oakland, the modest buildings of downtown, the Fruitvale district of burritos and barrio and cheap photo studios with your choice of pillars or balloons in the background, then past the Hegenberger exit that I used to get off to visit Laura and Kevin who moved to Denver, and I listen to NPR until I cross over lanes to get in line for the San Mateo bridge.

Then I forget the smell of gas, the unnatural splay of my feet, my empty coffee thermos, as I drive that nine-kilometer bridge over water so wide and blue with an airplane just lifting off the runaway and creating an arc that defines the sky as separate from water. My cellphone coverage drops and then I just drive, radio off, from one side of the Bay to other, the car roaring before crossing over into Foster City, then the Delaware Street exit, yet another dreary strip mall, and then my office tucked into a cul-de-sac next to the 101.

The rubber plant was still alive after all those years, but finally I just left it on the sidewalk.

I left it all. I left that shaky ground held together by bridges. I left the misty redwood forests dotted with wireless connections. I left just like I did when I needed the rice terraces again, or the music of Africa. I left in case there was black magic there. I left because I was sick of everyone going to bed early and wearing hiking clothes. I left because I was bored and because love always ends.


I lost two loves in San Francisco, one of them a great love.

Whenever I drive by where the Armadillo used to be, on Fillmore and Waller, I remember him with the pool stick over his shoulder, us walking hand-in-hand by the projects, he so new and then so old here. The pit bulls tied to signposts never snapped at us. He beat Tony at pool and then started gardening with him for clients in Pacific Heights. One day he brought home a rubber plant from Mrs. MacGowan's house, and nothing could kill it.

Missy, our cockatiel, took grains of rice from his pursed lips. He'd let Missy out of her cage and for a long time she'd just sit on the top of it, dazed by her freedom. Then she'd swoop to his wide shoulder, where she'd feel secure.

The ground was always shaking.

There were four Olympics in four different cities and once when I watched them I nearly vomited from being so in love, and wrapped in his hair and arms and smell. I met him at the airport when he first came, and I wore a yellow shirt with a pattern of white and pink blossoms, and he rushed to hold me and neither one of us could say a word.

He looked different. He smelled like coconut.

Sometimes when the light turned green on Market Street, he'd make his face look like an old man mask and throw his limbs askew and run across the street, laughing and laughing. He taught me names of native California plants and how to hold birds, so tightly and so loosely.

His first job was in a flower shop.

On his first day, a streetwalker conned him into giving her a dozen roses he was to deliver to someone else.

"They're for me!" she laughed, and he was new here and handed her the flowers because he believed her.

He bought fake gold on Market Street, out of newcomer's greed and stupidity and openness. He learned how to walk like a native. He could hide his tropical sway, which was often misinterpreted. We had a garage sale once when we lived on Fair Oaks and he changed into a red wool dress of mine, because he wanted to and it looked beautiful. And he kept selling our batik jackets very politely in his red wool dress, and not one customer even mentioned it, it being San Francisco.

We were part of a little Balinese community which had its own banjar where little white and black and brown kids learned the legong dance, and one could go to garden parties where Americans wearing sarongs sat cross-legged playing the tinkling notes of gamelan, and all the men from Bali held the babies, and we ate suckling pig on paper plates.

I felt at home.

Looking for Missy

I never thought I would do it, but I moved from Berkeley to LA.

Why did I do it?

I was at home in the Bay Area. I could go to the Mission or Bernal Heights or Noe Valley or the Richmond or El Cerrito and know I could knock on doors and there my friends would be. They would be kayak guides or playwrights or costume designers or mountain climbers, and a lot of them were computer geeks. I knew exactly where to buy the best Thai chili, or truck tacos, or Vital Vittles 12-grain bread baked a block down from a prostitute-riddled area of San Pablo Avenue, just near Oakland. I developed gaydar. I drank Red Hook. I was on Craig's List. I went to Anon Salon and then the Playa. The Mexican Bus picked up a group of my friends one night at the Kilowatt, and we drank tequila, danced in the aisles, and visited all the salsa bars.

I lost my cockatiel Missy in Bernal Heights. She had flown outside before, and would always swoop back and land on my shoulder, but one day I think she just got scared, or was bored, or didn't love us enough, and kept flying.

For years, I kept looking for Missy when I drove down Bernal Hill.