Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Delayed, or: The Russian Driver

So, we're behind on the blog this week. This is pretty much entirely my fault. We're going to be shifting to stories from Manuel's life for a bit, which I'm really excited about because the dude has some amazing stories. But I'm way behind on typing them up. I haven't even sent a draft Manuel's way yet for this week's story, so I suppose it's wise to just admit we're taking an off week.

However, I have a wee vignette to share. It's not really visual enough to have Manuel draw but it's one of those brief chance meetings that stuck out for me.


My birthday is the day after Christmas. I turned 29 a few weeks ago, and I celebrated with a bunch of great friends at a couple bars in North Beach, across town from where I live, in the Excelsior. This is a cutty neighborhood, way out at the end of the city. If I mention to people I live there, six times out of ten they ask, "Where?" And that's people who also live in San Francisco.

Anyway, I called a cab to get me to the bar. I was by myself, meeting some people there, but the cab that showed up was one of those big van cabs.

Well, that was pretty cool. I smiled to myself that I got to stretch out in this nice big van the whole way across town and sidled on in.

The cab driver was this blonde lady, with real short hair, maybe 45 or 50 years old. She seemed confused at first and had a hard time figuring out her way to the freeway.

After I talked her to the on ramp, I asked her, "How long have you been a cab driver?" I was curious if she was disoriented because she was new at driving around the city or because I lived in the boonies.

"About... a year and one half," she said. She had a striking Russian accent -- it was just a tiny bit husky, but still feminine and ornate. There was kind of a baroque trill to her sharp consonants and I realized I hadn't heard such a beautiful Russian accent in a long time. Usually the Russian accents I hear are shouted on the bus and sound like a German is throwing up while trying to remember song lyrics.

So, it turned out she was a bookkeeper who'd moved to San Francisco some ten years or so back to be with her family, "because it became very lonely for me in Moscow."

She'd done accounting for a jewelry dealer for many years, and when he moved his business up to Portland he offered her a job there, but she declined because she only lived in the States to get closer to her family.

They'd all emigrated here, I learned, but her. She had stayed in Moscow to be with her husband, who died.

She very much liked accounting and was good at it, but the economy made a new job in her field seem out of reach, so she took up the taxi to make ends meet.

"I like to drive," she said. "I am very good driver, but every day I thank God. I have no accidents and no crashes. Is amazing, if you drive so much, to have no accidents."

Later, in the midst of a shortcut she was excited to show me, we got stuck dead in traffic while the crowd from a ball game crossed the streets downtown. She apologized profusely.

"I am very fast," she said, "but there is nothing to do here."

Finally, having gotten to know her a bit, I complimented her accent. She held a hand to her mouth as if daintily blocking a little burp.

"I am embarrassed by it," she said. "I am here ten years and it doesn't go away. It sounds like pornography, like four-letter words."

Well, I liked it, I told her.

Nearing the bar, she got around to explaining why she was so afraid of accidents. Her husband had been driving in Moscow and was sideswiped by a car that left him completely paralyzed.

"I lived to care for him for three years and then he died," she said. "They said get a nurse or put him in a hospital, but no. I cared for him."

She must have really loved him, I said. We were at a stoplight. She put her arm over the shotgun seat and turned around to look at me, and she said:

"He was very nice man."

The whole ride was just great. Her name, I found out moments before leaving the cab, was Nina. I liked Nina. I liked how simple she felt the situations of her life had been, how in spite of being deeply difficult, their demands had at least been clear.

But maybe my favorite thing was something she said after I brought up her accent. She'd been here ten years, yes, and she spoke English now, but when she first arrived she didn't know a word of it. She stayed with her family and went to school.

In her first weeks in the city, she went for walks, she said, and one day she saw a man walking his dog. She saw the man order the dog to sit, and watched the dog sit. Stay, and the dog stayed. Heel, and the dog heeled.

"And I remember thinking I am jealous of that dog," she said, "for he understands English, and I have none."