Tuesday, June 19, 2012
I am leaving Berkeley Bowl with a shopping cart full of groceries and become annoyed to see a taxi parked behind my truck. I maneuver around it and am loading my purchases when the driver comes out of the cab and asks for my help in translating between him and his passenger. (How did he read me as Iranian? Even with his broken English, he has to have lived here in Berkeley for long enough to have seen a shitload of us, because unless it's a delighted white person telling me how much they love every Iranian they've ever met, most folks usually call me something like, "That Mexican girl with the funny name.")
I think there is no way he has me pegged correctly until out of the backseat emerges this tiny woman with teeth like my grandmother's and a colorful scarf on her head. She has some sort of coupon, you see. A book of them, in fact. They come in different dollar amounts and apparently the city of Berkeley somehow gets them to elderly & disabled folks for transportation payments. And I'm not sure what's going on; she's paid her fare, but there's some confusion. She realizes I speak Farsi and I warn her I'm not very good, but it doesn't deter her. Her fare was $10.30 and she's given him $10 in coupons, three $3 ones and one $1 one, and she's sure he's ripping her off and on top of that she wants to give him some more of her tickets in exchange for cash. Gangster.
I check out what she's given him and assure her he's not ripping her off, but can't remember how to say the number "30" in the moment (seeh) and so, fumbling, can't figure out how to tell her she owes him thirty cents. I pull out my wallet and hand him two dollars. He smiles and thanks me and begins to leave and she asks me to ask him to exchange the rest of her coupons for cash before he goes. I explain again that he can't, but she makes me ask him. So, as though she were my own grandma, I humor her and ask him and he laughs and says he can't.
"Neh-meetooneh, deeg-eh." He can't, . . . [I realize I have no English translation for the word "deegeh." It's similar to the Spanish "pues," but not quite.] He can't do it. That's just the way it is. We all laugh about it, and she reluctantly begins to let the idea go.
The cab driver takes off and my Mamani of the Moment grabs the cart I have just emptied. She has another smaller, collapsible cart that she tries to attach to the shopping cart, and struggles with, so I take it and help her out. I can't imagine why someone isn't with her. (Maybe her grandkids are queer and kinky and polyamorous and have shaved heads and tattoos and they have no idea how to be around each other?) We make some quick conversation before parting ways. She confirms again that he didn't rip her off. "Baleh. Sehtah seh-dolar-i va yek yeh-dolar-i." Yes. Three $3 coupons and one $1 coupon. She says I didn't have to pay the driver, she could have paid with her coupons. I brush it off, "Mesleh Mamani-eh khodam hasteen, deegeh." It's as though you're my own Grandma. "And I gave him a tip," I say in English, knowing she doesn't understand.
She asks where I live, and when I say Berkeley, she gets it in her head that I am a student at Cal. Her logic and understanding are a bit muddled, just like my own Mamani. I ask her name. Etty. She asks me mine, and hears "Mahtab," a more common name than my own. She gets convinced for a moment about that, too, but I don't let it go. I want her to know my real name. I say it again and again until she repeats after me, "Mahfam."
I want to go inside the store with her, real bad. Burning bad. I imagine my Coconut Bliss Bars melting into a chocolate puddle in the bed of my truck. I suddenly have to get out of there.
"Khosh-hal shodam. Khodahafez." Nice to meet you. Goodbye. I get in my truck and don't look back. With no warning, my face contorts and the tears come and I am heaving and making weird alien noises. The first words to escape my mouth, said to no one but myself, and coming from I don't know where, are, "Why was she alone?" And I cry all through the short drive home.