Category Archives: Travels and Travails

Way up here, we stand on shoulders

mail500.jpeg
Poste Maroc, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

I found this post languishing in my Drafts folder, dated nearly 2 years ago. You all seemed to enjoy my previous post on Open Letters to My Fellow Commuters so much, I thought I would post something similar again, this time open letters to a series of people I’ve encountered or appreciated.

Dear Butcher at Indus Market on San Pablo Ave., Berkeley:
Remember me? I’m the girl who wandered in a minute before closing, on the Friday evening before a long weekend, and announced, “I need ten pounds of ground beef and ten pounds of chicken breast, in two-pound bags, please.” Thank you for being so patient about my order, even though I have no doubt that in your head you were relegating me to a special place in hell. Thank you for also being sweet enough to carry all twenty pounds of meat to the front counter for me, so I could pay there. I’m stubborn enough to have insisted on picking up the bags and lugging them around myself — but the meat counter was too tall and I couldn’t reach them. Please consider installing a pulley or something for short people like me.

Dear Gil Scott-Heron:
Stop snorting cocaine and getting arrested, and please go back to making beautiful, hard-hitting music.
Note: Soon after I initially jotted down this note, Gil Scott-Heron died in May2011 of undisclosed causes.

Dear (would-be) gentlemen:
You don’t have to pull out chairs for me. (Although I’m sure plenty of other women may appreciate this. See, I never know how to gracefully fold myself into a chair pulled out and held by someone else.) But holding doors open is always lovely and highly necessary. And don’t walk in front of me, if we’re hanging out together. I hate that — I don’t care if your legs are freakin’ longer than mine. Also: Tip well. I believe anything less than 20% is completely unacceptable, unless the service was terrible. Finally, when you’re dropping off a woman, stick around just long enough to ensure she enters the building safely, before you drive off. It’s a classy and chivalrous thing to do. Feminism is grand, but that doesn’t mean you should be any less a gentleman. It’s about common courtesy, and basic respect. Keep it up.

Dear man selling handmade earrings on Shattuck Ave., downtown Berkeley:
You’re going to make me broke if I keep spending my bus/train money on your wares, all that beautiful plastic, wood, metal, and string creatively welded by your hands.

Dear little girl:
I think you must have been 7 years old, but I could be wrong. Regardless, on the days when my nose looks too big (or too crooked) for my face, or I’m not as tall as models and mannequins suggest I should be, or my eyebrows are unruly as if prepared for war, I think of how you skipped right up to me one afternoon in my beloved N’s kitchen, stared me in the eye, and exclaimed, “You’re so pretty, mashaAllah!” before skipping away again. Anyone who hopes to win me over with flattery would be hard-pressed to compete with your innocent yet sincerely-delivered compliment. And that’s the thing — you were so sincere, it was clear you told the truth. Years later, I still remember this encounter and believe your words. Thank you — and a thankyou to your parents, too, for raising you so beautifully. You’re so pretty, too — not only on the outside, but on the inside, where it counts.

Dear guys at Copy Central in downtown Berkeley:
You’re the best. Thanks for always dealing with my print orders on such short notice and with such rocking quality — this goes both for my professional projects as well as personal ones such as wedding invitations — and for having the most amazing turnaround time in the whole Bay Area. And for shouting out my name whenever I enter your shop.

Dear hot chocolate:
Thank you for warming my hands and uncoiling the lump in my throat on too many days to count.

Dear newspaper man at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station:
I have a confession to make: I rarely buy print news anymore — but sometimes I do, just to see you smile. I wonder what your story is, how old you are, how long you’ve been selling newspapers, what the process is for setting up a table directly inside the train station, how early you get there in the mornings. At an age where it seems you should be relaxing at home and playing with your grandchildren, you’re instead selling papers. Some mornings, you look awfully tired, and the lines on your face are more pronounced. But then someone walks by, and you nod in greeting, and flash that amazing smile that lights up your face. Next time, I will ask for your name.

Dear people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to reply with “Yeah” when I say “Thankyou”:
You’re rude. Also: Stop it.

Dear foxycart:
I still remember that when I pointed out that your email about scheduled maintenance/system downtime referenced October rather than November, you took my corrections graciously. Thankyou for immediately sending out a corrected email to the masses, and a separate note to me that read:

Hi Yasmine.

We’re really sorry. We proofread it internally, and even had a 3rd party proofread it. Clearly we need a better proofreading plan.

Or a time machine.

We realize that for an error like that to occur on an email describing a major change perhaps isn’t confidence-inspiring, but please rest assured that this migration is expected to go smoothly.

Best,
B

I love that there are real-deal humans (with a sense of humor, no less!) behind all the technology and machinery. You have rocking good customer service.

Dear people who rush from the platform into the train before those who need to exit can do so:
Stop it. You clearly don’t know proper public-transport etiquette. Also: You must be related to those who don’t understand the concept of “stand right, walk left” on escalators.

Dear people at Au Coquelet:
There are only four electrical outlets, and they’re placed in such a way that only the lucky four of you who snag those tables can access them. I tried sitting five feet away and plugging my MacBook cord into one of your open outlets once, and everyone in the vicinity gave me a dirty look because they feared someone walking by would trip over my cord (rightfully so). So I good-naturedly unplugged my cord, and retreated back to my only-half-charged laptop, deciding I was okay with this.

What I was not okay with was looking up several minutes later to realize that you — yes, you, one of those who sit at the lucky four tables — was doing nothing more amazingly important than browsing Facebook. I was writing a final paper that, at that point, was 22 pages long. I would have loved an outlet! And you, with your laptop plugged in and charging away, were just clicking through your Facebook minifeed. I frowned and sent black vibes your way, without being too obvious about it, and was relieved when you packed up and left half an hour later. I promptly shifted all my stuff over to your abandoned table, sat down, plugged in my MacBook — and began writing a blog post.

Dear people who answer their phone with “Hello?” as if they don’t know who it is that’s calling:
I know you know it’s I! What’s with this questioning “hello?” I expect personal greetings, dammit! Also: If you don’t leave a voicemail, I will never return your phonecall.

Dear Damien Rice:
I love your songs, and have absolutely no idea what you look like, or what your story is. Thankyou for reminding me that your music — and my appreciation for it — should have nothing to do with your looks. (Although now I’m tempted to Wikipedia you.)

Dear Benicia Public Library:
Thankyou for having comfy couches in front of a fireplace. Could I stay forever, please?

Dear Mills College library:
Thankyou for floor-to-ceiling windows that make me feel like I’m in a forest, and for work-stations that actually make me productive.

Dear Walnut Creek library:
Thankyou for restrooms that smell so delicious, I feel like I’m at a spa.

Dear opera-singing girl standing in front of the downtown Berkeley BART:
You looked relatively well-dressed in your polka-dotted dress and flats — were you a Cal student? I wanted to ask where you got your stylish coat. It was a drizzly afternoon, but the rain didn’t faze you, and you sang beautifully, eyes closed, not even watching the people who stopped for your voice.

We’re all going to the end of the line: Open letters to my fellow commuters

BART
Public transport is ROCKING, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

ZB suggested one evening in Toronto that I should create a weblog-category based around BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), so that everyone can read all my stories of being hit on while using public transportation. The idea made me laugh, but I’ve taken it under consideration and created a “Travels & Travails category”—the latter because public transit is nothing if not drama sometimes, no matter how much I love it and no matter how much amusement it provides. (Seriously, does your public transportation of choice have ice cream carts? [And why was I not on the train that day?] Do you get to observe men having their goatees braided on the train? In short, I love the stories.)

Meanwhile, I present to you a (for now) short series of open letters to my fellow commuters—

Dear People Who Still Don’t Understand Right vs. Left:

A long, long time ago, Yaser referenced people like you in a short post filled with rage directed at those who don’t seem to understand the seemingly simple concept of “Stand right, walk left” on escalators. Seriously, people, get with the program. I hate having to elbow you when I’m trying to get to wherever I need to go. I like walking, and you’re in my way.

Even in airports, I eschew those moving walkways in favor of actually walking all the way across the airport to my gate. I wish you would do the same. And if you don’t want to, that’s fine, just please open up the pathway for me, so I can get by, dammit.

Plus, the sooner I get to Berkeley, the more time I have to swing by and grab a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream before heading into the office. Every single minute makes a difference—and, as Adnan established recently in Toronto, American minutes are longer than Canadian minutes. Stand right!

Dear Man with the Drama of Which I Wish I Knew More:

You provided my intriguing, one-sided BART conversation of the day, as you talked to an unknown person on your cell phone while riding the train from downtown Berkeley to MacArthur: “I just wanted to say, I was…I was happy that you pressed charges. Don’t hang up!” [Other person hangs up. Man pulls the phone away from his ear and stares blankly at it.]

That was such a cliff-hanger. It’s not fair. I demand details!

Dear People Who Always Want to Sit:

Stand up! If you’re on a bus or train and refuse to give up your seat to the elderly, the disabled, the pregnant, or those who otherwise look like they have a priority over you to the seats: You’re an asshole.

I have no other words for you.

PS: I hate it when you see such people boarding the bus or train and shift your glance away or clamp your headphones even more tightly over your ears, as if to imply that if you can’t see or hear them, they don’t exist and then you really don’t have to get up. That makes you even more an asshole.

That is all.

Dear Man Who Propositioned Me on the Train:

First of all, buddy boy, it’s a little early in the morning for such drama, isn’t it? There I am, transferring onto the Richmond train at MacArthur, heading into downtown Berkeley. There you are, already seated, looking like a young, solid, clean-cut guy, dressed nicely in a button-down and slacks, wearing glasses and those newsboy caps I like so much. You’ve got a stack of papers in your lap and you’re diligently marking them up and making edits, so I figure you must be a teacher or something. I end up sitting in the row behind you, you turn around just as the train begins moving, and the following conversation ensues:

Man: “Excuse me, does this train take you to Berkeley?”

Yasmine: “Yes, the Ashby stop is next, and then North Berkeley, and then downtown.”

Man: [Laughs.] “Oh, okay. I thought for a second I might’ve gotten on the wrong train.”

Yasmine: [Smiling politely.] “No, you’re okay.”

Man: “So. Are you seeing anyone?”

Yasmine: “No.”

Man: [Jaw drops.] “What!” [Gives me the once-over---as well as he can, anyway, with a train seat between us.] “How is that possible!”

Yasmine: [Trying not to laugh.] “You know, I ask myself that question once in a while, too.”

Man: “Will you go out with me sometime?”

Yasmine: “No.”

Man:Why?”

Yasmine: “Umm. I’m not interested in a relationship at the moment.” With random men on BART, I mean. Even if they wear those newsboy caps that I like so much.

Man: “Oh, well, I didn’t mean anything about a relationship.”

Yasmine: “In that case, I’m definitely not interested.”

I’m glad my decisiveness on that issue finally shut you up long enough for me to get back to my book. Seriously, though, yaara, does this really work for you? Hitting on women on BART, I mean? You should take some pointers from this guy, perhaps. I mean, he may have rambled on about gypsies and Egyptians, but at least he finally wore thin my defenses enough for me to smile quite genuinely at him, in the end.

PS: Thanks for providing so much amusement for our fellow passengers. Do you understand how many smirks I had to walk past when exiting the train?

Dear Pissed-Off Girl:

Your loud, disgruntled phone conversations all the way from the Pleasant Hill to the MacArthur BART stations (“I can’t believe that shit!”) kept making me laugh. Also, I kind of envy your lack of concern for all the head-turning you caused amongst your fellow commuters every time you screeched into your cell.

One more thing: How did you manage to get full-reception for the entire ride? I barely get a single bar, if I’m lucky, which makes me disgruntled because all I want to do on BART is send my friends textmessages about strange characters like you whom I keep encountering.

Dear Man with the Business Suit & BlackBerry:

I was so glad you were there when it came time to board the Fremont train and the man with the curly white hair and thick Italian accent shouted behind me, over the din of the rapidly-approaching train, “Excuse me! Downtown San Francisco?”

I looked helplessly at the Fremont sign, trying to recall BART-line configurations in my head, but then you came along, BlackBerry at your ear, and said, “Yes, you transfer at MacArthur.”

“MacArthur? Which train?” asked our friend.

“This one. I’m going that way, too,” you said soothingly. “Come.”

We all boarded together, and you—phone still in hand—pointed out to him all the relevant stops on the colorful map hanging across the carriage. When we got off with the mad crush of people at MacArthur, I craned my neck over the crowd, and saw you, tall and steady, shepherding him across the platform to the waiting San Francisco/SFO Airport train. I smiled to myself and ran down the escalator and back up another flight of stairs to catch my Pittsburg/Bay Point train on the next platform, all the while thinking about how awesome you were.

Dear Sweet Man with the BlackBerry:
I think I’m in love with you.
Marry me?

City days: River, culture, speech, sense of first space and the right place

I thought this was the question I most despised...
Near MACLA, downtown San Jose, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

I was taking BART into San Francisco one Sunday a few weeks ago when a young man got on the train at the MacArthur station and glanced curiously at me for much longer than I was comfortable with as he made his way down the aisle.

A few minutes later, I heard someone call out, “Excuse me!” I looked over my shoulder, as did several people in my vicinity. It was the aforementioned young man. The train was packed, so he was forced to stand in the aisle, a few rows behind me, from where he delivered his bombshell question to me: “Excuse me, what language do you speak?” Everyone’s head expectantly swiveled my way, waiting for an answer.

Being asked, “Where are you from?” generally annoys me. But I hadn’t known until that morning that being asked, “What language do you speak?” could make me so furious. Was he serious? I wanted to ask, “What the f*ck do you think I speak?”

Thrown off guard, I stared over my shoulder at the guy, mentally calculating my possible responses – my totally b.s. Pukhtu, my fluent Hindku, my ever-dwindling repertoire of German, my passably conversant Urdu. But then, still angry, I responded as coldly as I could: “English.”

“Yeah? Well, I just wanted to say that…” – here, he paused to swing his arm around his head and torso – “your style is really beautiful.”

“Thank you,” I said shortly.

“Where is that kind of style from?”

Guess,” I snapped, and turned around to face the front, eyes forward, jaw tight. Apparently, a red&white wrap-around spring dress from Forever21, and flared jeans, and dangly earrings and flip-flops, and, oh yes, the headwrap, are all exotic items that have no space or sense of belonging in American fashion.

I understand that I look different, and that this will raise curiosity wherever I go. I understand, too, that some people are genuinely interested in learning about others. But I have a right to be angry about how such interest is sometimes articulated, and the manner in which such questions are sometimes posed. Really, I was fuming over being asked – point-blank and in a completely rude manner (how is it okay to make that the very first question you ask anyone?) – about what language I spoke.

Goddammit, I’m surrounded by effin’ MORONS.

I comforted myself with the thought that at least he didn’t tell me how great my English was.

Several people got off the train at the next stop, and, next thing I knew, Mr. Smooth & Charming had found a seat in the row diagonally across from mine. “Hey,” he whispered loudly.

I ignored a couple of the Heys, but I didn’t have a book with which to pretend to distract myself, and, up and down the train, people’s heads started swinging back and forth from me to the guy, so finally I turned my head, eyebrow raised challengingly.

“So, you’re not going to tell me where you’re from?” he asked in a wheedling tone, sounding a bit hurt, as if I were doing him a great disservice.

“No,” I said, spitefully spitting out clipped responses. “You just keep guessing over there.”

I turned around again. A minute later, he ventured, “Are you Gypsy?”

No.” I didn’t even bother turning around, but could still feel him staring.

“They’re the oldest race, you know.”

I sighed, raised my eyebrow again, tried to give every indication of being uninterested, but couldn’t help asking, “Who? The Gypsies?”

“No. The Egyptians.”

“I’m not Egyptian, either,” I said.

I felt like I was actively participating in a guessing game, in Twenty Questions or something, and the ridiculousness of the situation (and, perhaps, of my antisocial – even defensive? – reaction) started to hit me. Everyone on our side of the car was silently watching our childish exchange. I tried to suppress a smile, and he must have noticed my face softening, because that’s when he made his smooth and charming move: “You’re very beautiful, you know.”

“Ha. Uhh, thanks.” And I was trying not to laugh, because somehow, in his cocky yet completely bumbling way, Mr. Trying Too Hard To Be Smooth reminded me very much of my co-worker from my old Sacramento job, and I couldn’t wait to get off the train and call H#3 and say, “Guess what idiot on BART just reminded me of you?”

I turned my head to the left to look out the window. From my right, Mr. Smooth added loudly, “Your beauty will never fade.”

Mein Gott, can we get to the city already? This is killin’ me.

A young mother of two, sitting in the seat across from me – and directly in front of Mr. Smooth – smiled. Most of the other people seated in our vicinity smirked as well.

“Did you know that?” he repeated loudly. “Your beauty will – ”

“Yeah,” I said hurriedly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“When?” he challenged.

“What?”

“When will you keep it in mind?”

Forever,” deadpanned the man behind me. I started laughing, and so did he, and Mr. Smooth, shameless flirt that he was, smiled winningly, as if his charm had finally achieved victory over my cold war. I was still chuckling a few moments later when we reached the Powell St. station, and something about laughter as a letting down of the guard put me in a good enough mood again that I even saluted Mr. Smooth as I stepped off the train, calling out behind me, “Have a good one!”
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