Published in Cheers to Muses: Contemporary Works by Asian American Women, Asian American Artists Association, 2007.
Don’t Look Away
Number 4 Sutter bus, 1960. The old man heads straight for the empty seat next to me and sits down. His scalp shows pink and freckled through thinning hair and the loose skin around his mouth is stubbled with silver. His chambray shirt and khakis are fairly clean, but he emits a powerful odor of sharp Caucasian sweat.
“Arr arr arrr. Ish ma rarr wa arr?” His voice is as calmly conversational as if discussing the weather, but the sounds are no known language. “Woh ma arr arrrrr,” the man continues. He stares with fatherly intensity. Don’t make the same mistakes I made, kid, says the tone. Polite little Asian American kid that I am, I try to look understanding and respectful, but I feel helpless. I’m only a kid, why me? I think. “Arr wa rar rar,” the old man says. His eyes translate: You’re a good kid. You’ll be all right.
The old man leaves his smell on the seat when he shuffles slowly down the aisle and gets off the bus. I steal a look at the other passengers. They’re looking away, as if avoiding a deformity, intently not looking at where the old man had sat. I flush red, feeling guilt by association. Why me? I constantly feel that I don’t measure up, my socks falling down, the hem of my skirt turned up, my slip showing. Why is it always me that that the drunks and crazies sit next to? Do I have invisible cooties sticking to me, saying “weirdos welcome”?
Fast-forward 35 years to the Sixth Street Needle Exchange, October 1995. Tanya, a faithful regular at the Wednesday night needle exchange, always has kind words for us volunteers as we hand out alcohol swabs, syringes and sterilizing bleach. “How are you doing tonight? It’s a great thing you’re doing, showing up every week, making sure us junkies stay safe. Gotta thank you for that.”
Blunt-nosed, with broad Slavic cheekbones, Tanya’s dressed for the street, in a heavy fake sheepskin carcoat and a knit cap jammed over blonde curls. She carries a big plastic milk crate slung over her shoulder. It's a multi-purpose tool, a bag lady’s tote crate, a begging stool, a step ladder, and—in an emergency—arcing fast at the end of its long red strap, a dandy little shinbreaker.
Tanya is ready for anything. She may be a junkie panhandler, but she moves through life as deliberately as a Safeway truck on a downtown street. The needles she turns in are neatly bundled in groups of five with nail polish marking “hers” from “his” “His” belong to Bill, her faithful shadow. He doesn’t come in but lingers watchfully outside the needle exchange while she ducks in to make the trade.
Tanya drags in new clients, steering them by the elbow like a bluff mother hen steering her little starveling. Tanya talks constantly, telling us volunteers what she did, what she’s going to do, and when cat litter is on sale at the corner store. Since she noticed the skin condition on my finger, she makes a point of asking about it. “How’s the finger doing? Let me see.” She takes my hand gently and examines the coarsened skin. “That’s looking better!” she says brightly, even when it’s clearly not.
Montgomery Street, November 1996. Tanya stands in the street at the edge of late-afternoon traffic, her hand stretched out, beseeching the Audis, Miatas and BMWs that rush past in a blind metallic stream. Eyes blank, she bites her lip. Her face is taut with unshed tears.
“Tanya!” I say. “How’s it going?” Her eyes widen in recognition and relief. She seizes me with the desperation of someone publicly drowning in a torrent of indifference.
“Oh, hi! It’s you! So good to see you!” she tries for heartiness, but her voice cracks. “It’s not going so great. Not today.” Her eyes well up, and in an instant, she’s a blubbery mess, tears and snot streaming. “We’ve made two dollars and eleven cents all day. We haven’t eaten...I try, you know...I really try. But sometimes it’s so hard.”
I put my arm around her and pull her out of the street. The pedestrians divide around us like a river around a couple of rocks.
Tanya waves towards him. He’s standing across the street next to the all-purpose milk crate. He’s not quite looking at us as his body leans towards us, rigid with concern.
“It’ll be okay, Tanya, You’re tripping ’cause you’re hungry.” I hand her five bucks I can ill-afford. “You’ll feel better if you have something to eat.”
Tanya sniffled. “You’ re so good, I...”
I cut her off. Looking her straight in the eye, I speak slowly and emphatically. “Tanya, you’re good. I know how good you are. And God knows. Don’t let the assholes get you down.”
“Yeah... I just need to eat,” she tells herself. “Yeah,” she says, her voice firmer. “Okay. Okay.” She straightens her shoulders and brightens her voice. “It’s so good to see you. How’s your finger. Oh look, there’s Bill. He must be worried.” She heads towards him. “Take care, baby,” she calls to me. “See you Wednesday.”
After that, Tanya greets me like a life-long friend. Mostly. Sometimes she is too distraught or too intent on copping to notice anything.
A few weeks later, as we leave the exchange, Tanya asks, “Say, have I ever shown you a picture of my daughter?”
“I didn’t know you had one.”
“Yeah. Oh yeah!” She rolls her eyes with delight. She digs through her pockets and fishes out a photo of a plump and pretty teenager. “Melody. She’s fifteen. Isn’t she pretty? And smart as a whip.” She pulls out a thick, dog-eared stack of snapshots held together by a rubber band: Melody as a toddler, as a little girl, with her dog, with her grandmother, in front of a car. Tanya rattles off a running commentary full of minute details and big gaps. I piece together a ragged story of small-town roots and early ruin. A born-again mother, stiff-necked and disapproving of blowsy blonde Tanya, puppy-fat and buxom and pregnant too soon. The wrong men and drink and drugs and Melody growing up with grandma in the podunk valley town.
“I haven’t seen her in fifteen months. My mother thinks I’m a bad influence.” She laughs dryly. “And I guess I am.... But I’m going to clean up. I’m going to get my daughter back. She could stay with us. We could get a bigger place. I just need to get my act together....” The sentence trails off. “I miss her so much,” she says.
And after a pause. “Isn’t she beautiful? And smart, too.”
Over the next year, Tanya looks worse and worse, her skin gets patchy and breaks out in sores. My heart clutches when I see her. I feel powerless to help her, or any of the other clients. What can I do but keep showing up and loving them for a couple of minutes apiece twice a month?
“I love your tattoo.” I say to the gen-Xer whose slender neck is banded with a delicate line of indigo antelopes. “Whatchya got on today? Girl, you got style!” to the black woman in the crushed velvet coat from Goodwill. “Love your kit. That’s so cool!” to the raw-boned transgender who stashes her needles in a pink plastic Barbie lunchbox. Silently I pray for each of them, wondering what awaits them if they do clean up. Most are in poor health, lack job skills, have learning disabilities. They are black, gay, incest survivors, victims of family violence.
Only this moment. Only love, I remind myself. It’s all I can do.
Market and Montgomery, November 1997. I’m crossing the street to the bus stop after yet another meeting on an HIV prevention plan for low-income women. I have just been told that the money promised for over a year is going to be redirected to the police department.
“Oh, hi!” Tanya greets me as if she’d just seen me yesterday, although in fact, its been months since I’ve seen her or Bill at the needle exchange.
“I was wondering what happened to you. How are you?”
“I’m great! Just great! I got into a program.” I examine her face as she rattles on about the methadone program. The blotches and sores have cleared up and there’s new strength and firmness in her features.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Bill hurrying towards the bus stop. When he sees me, he breaks into a wide grin and raises his hand in delighted greeting. It’s the first unguarded moment I’ve ever seen in Bill.
We all get on the same bus. I sit next to Bill, and Tanya sits opposite, still talking about her drug rehab program. “I’m trying to get Bill to go, but…” Bill starts to say something, but Tanya overrides him. “He had a bad experience with methadone.” I nod. I have heard that kicking methadone cold is worse than kicking heroin. I turn to Bill as Tanya keeps talking.
Feeling my eyes on him, he says, “Tanya’s been doing great. And she’s doing it for her own self. Not for her daughter, not for me. I’m so proud of her. I knew she could do it.”
“And how about you, Bill?” He’s been looking past me with the practiced self-effacement of a small man trying to stay out of trouble on the street. “I been knowing you for two years now. You’re quiet and you hang back, but I been watching you.” Bill sneaks a look at me. I grin back. “I seen how smart you are and how you look after Tanya. You may be quiet, but down deep, you’re strong, and you got a real good heart”
Bill nods. His eyes sheen with unshed tears. He’s used to not being noticed.
“You can kick it, too. If not with methadone, maybe some other kind of program. I feel you, Bill. You’re a good man.”
As I keep up a gentle patter, Bill seems to expand, straightening his shoulders and breathing a little deeper, into the quiet dignity of a middle-aged man with nothing more to prove. He’s looking at me full-on now, his warm brown eyes taking in every word. I lean gently into his shoulder. “I know you can do it. I’ll be praying for you.”
“Thank you,” he says softly, with resolve.
‘Here’s our stop,” Tanya says. “You should put up some flyers for my program up at the needle exchange. They still got slots for the next session. Take care of that finger, now. Good to see you.”
In the sudden silence after the door closes behind them, I realize that we’d been talking pretty loud. I glance down the aisle. The other passengers stare straight ahead, as if looking away from a deformity.