My girlfriend, Ming, and I spent about three hours in my car the other day on lovely Treasure Island. This is not the island in the Pinocchio movie where boys are turned into donkeys after ingesting enormous quantities of rock candy, licorice and tutti frutti ice cream, but rather the former naval base in the San Francisco Bay where Ming now lives. I was giving her a driver’s lesson. We were working on her turns– she is inclined to use the sliding, underhanded method rather than the bold, hand over hand turn, which slows her reactions and causes the car to occasionally veer out into the opposing lane and oncoming Vespas, or worse, hulking MUNI buses. We were also working on her parallel parking skills.
Teaching somebody to drive can be very nerve wracking, especially when they’re learning in your car. But my car is old, and Ming is very sweet.
I met her at a singles’ event in The City. After a couple subsequent dates, her calm, happy temperament closed the deal for me. And she’s a good parent to her son too, firm, but positive, and forgiving. Some of this is, I think, attributable to her having been, at the age of eleven, one of the ‘sent-down’ girls, in what used to be called Red China during the national madness of the Cultural Revolution. She and millions of other young people were taken from their families and bussed out into the countryside to labor in the rice fields from sun up to sun down. Afterward they spent their leisure hours doing calisthenics, singing fawning songs of praise to Chairman Mao, and listening to fascinating lectures on the ten-year rice plan, or sometimes, thrilling ‘real-time’ outings of closeted Capitalists, people who squeezed the camp’s toothpaste tube in the middle, and Counter Revolutionaries. Given the level of trauma associated with all of that, it was related in a way to my own experience of being drafted, with the ink still drying on my HS diploma and the memory of my greatest conquest– dry-humping Francine Buloni on her parent’s aptly-named shag carpeting– quickly fading, and then being given a gun and air-dropped into the mountainous jungles of Vietnam to go up against the grimly determined killing machine that was the PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam). Experiences like these can create, I think, in many of those who live through them, an appreciation of the simple pleasures of life — evenings spent in quiet conversation with family members, or playing checkers or maybe Twister, drinking, bonsai cultivation, and the quiet contemplation of private, non-government-recommended thoughts and ideas.
Interestingly, with her sweet ways, Ming is the polar opposite of my ex, also from that part of the world. While Ming is prone to hearty laughter, the ex was prone to volcanic rage. I remember the ex bringing the car home one day full of dents after she got into a demolition derby kind of discussion with another woman over a parking spot, and the time we spent our vacation on the Santa Cruz boardwalk watching our backs after she got into an angry exchange with some heavily-tattooed gang-bangers on the bumper car ride after one of them bumped her, and, of course, the time she kicked our little Antwon and I out of the house after finding two candies secreted in the lining of his backpack the day before Halloween when the entire country was up to its knees in M&Ms, Skittles, and Tootsie Rolls. I sometimes wonder how we both got through all those years without any major injuries other than a few broken-off fingernails for her, and a half dozen deep, inflamed, but never infected (she was very clean) facial scratches for myself. Thank God I never took up golf. Anyway, I digress…
Part of the CA driver’s test consists of an approximation of parallel parking. This entails driving the car slowly forwards and backwards parallel to the curb without hitting it. We know this because we’ve closely followed those actually taking the driving test, observing their every move until they threatened to call the cops on us.
Anyway, we found this stretch of pavement along the back side of some houses where no cars were parked. Ming began slowly rolling the car backward and forward as I settled into my book– The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett– 983 pages). Ming occasionally put the car in park and got out to check her distance from the curb. She used a wooden ruler and her goal was to be eight inches away.
The day was cool, but lovely, with wisps of fog pouring by. Minutes turned into almost an hour. I looked up from my book. We were parked next to a property with a rotting fence. The gate yawned open, half fallen off its hinges. A little white Bichon Frise had wondered out to look at us curiously. I smiled at it and it barked. I looked back down at my book but it continued to bark, a steady ‘ruff ruff’ warning type of bark. But then Follett pulled me back into his tale of brutal knights and a tough, toppled princess and I forgot about Fido for a while. When next I looked up a little boy had wondered out to look at us going backward and forward too. Totally focused, Ming ignored it all as she continued her quest to master parallel parking. And so I went back to my book.
“I think I’m ready to try my turns again,” Ming said, bringing me back up from the fictive medieval dream world of Pillars.
“Okay,” I said. I turned my head and saw a women come out of the yard. The Bichon Frise had ventured out about a foot or two from the fence line and stood on the pavement. The woman flashed a worried look at us as she scooped the dog up in her arms. She turned and called to the boy and they went back into the yard. Ming pulled out onto the street and we made a circuit of the island as she practiced her ‘hand over hand’ turning.
I looked up from my book. “How are you doing?” I said.
“Good. I want to try my parallel parking again,” she said.
“Fine,” I said. When we’d first started our lessons I had suffered from boredom if they went on for too long. But I’d since been saved by books. And now, since Follett had just thrown a few more complications at his characters, I couldn’t wait to see what they were going to do.
I started reading. We went back and forth. The car door opened. Cold foggy air entered. Springs squeaked as someone got in the car. I lifted my eyes briefly– Ming. More back and forth. A car drove slowly past. I looked up. It stopped halfway down the street without pulling over. The couple inside were looking back at us. The car started backing up. It was her, with her little dog in her lap. The man, her husband, I assumed, sat in the driver’s seat. He looked composed and benign, almost Gandhi-ish, while she was angrily talking a mile a minute, alternately looking over at us and back at him. Well, at least she wasn’t married to a brute.
They backed up till they were parallel with us and she gave the dog to her hubby and leaned out the window. “What you doing here?” she said angrily and repeatedly. English was not her native language.
“She lives here,” I said, indicating Ming, but the woman evidently didn’t hear me.
“You think I no know? You think I crazy?”
“Huh?” I said. I looked at the husband and he smiled benignly.
“What you do outside my house?” she said. “You think I no know? You want him, huh?” She grabbed the dog off her hubby’s lap and held it up to the window. “I know you.”
Now I understood. She thought I was interested in her pooch. She thought we were dognappers. People out here really cared about their cats and dogs. There was an incident where a guy got in a road rage altercation with a woman who had her Bichon Frise in the car with her. Desiring a more intimate encounter, they pulled to the side of the road and got out of their cars. While they were arguing, the man snatched the little creature out of her arms and threw it onto the roadway where a passing car smooshed it. The story made national headlines and within hours there were thousands of people calling for the death penalty for the guy. Contrast that with how many thousands of people died before the media got us into Somalia or Bosnia.
“We were practicing our parallel parking,” I said to the woman.
She didn’t hear me, having never stopped her tirade.
And then my own anger got the better of me and I made an attempt to defuse the situation with some stupid, culturally-insensitive humor, saying, “Safeway was closed and we were really hungry.”
She didn’t hear that either, having never shut up.
I shook my head and turned to Ming. “Look, let’s go somewhere else. This woman is unbalanced or something.”
They watched us as we drove off. Fortunately they did not follow us. We found another lonely spot on the island. Actually, there were a lot of them, long stretches of curbed sidewalks fronting abandoned warehouses, barracks, and officers’ housing, where fifty years earlier thousands of men had trained and shipped out to sail the seven seas and sometimes to fight on them. It was the perfect place for Ming to continue to practice her parallel parking. I took out my book again and continued reading.
Back and forth. The door opened. Cold air. Someone got in. The springs squeaked. The door closed. I saw something out of the corner of my eye and looked up. A black and white SFPD police cruiser turned the corner in great haste and rolled past us. Immediately it braked and turned around, racing over to our side of the street, splashing gravel noisily up onto its underside. A very tall, muscled policeman got out.
“What’s the matter?” Ming said, genuinely worried, “I didn’t do anything.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just act naturally, that’s all.”
About six feet, eight or nine inches tall, this cop had a hard, merciless face and a gym-inflated physique that would give caution to all but the criminally desperate or insane. He stood outside the window, or rather his belt and pistol did. With a great squeaking of leather, he leaned down and said something into the driver’s side window. Ming began to open the door and he pushed it back on her until it locked with a click, saying, “Roll down the window, please.”
She did. Cold air filled the car.
“Driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.”
As I opened the glove for the insurance form, Ming turned to me, her face slightly flushed with nervousness. “My permit is in my bag,” she said.
“So get it out,” I said, not wanting to keep this guy waiting too long. Something about him reminded me of the sadistic, chrome-faced robotic cop in THX 1138, the one whose programming had not included the maxim about not beating a dead horse.
“No,” said Ming emphatically, “my bag is in the trunk.”
“Oh.” I said. “Well, tell him and I’ll go back and get it.” I wondered if not having the permit on your person was a violation, and what the punishment might be. We’d soon find out.
I got Ming’s bag out of the trunk and carried it over to her door. She reached up and was about to bring it into the car when the policeman leaned down and said, “Open it here where I can see it,” evidently worried that she might whip out a gun or something.
As Ming held the bag open and fished out her driver’s permit, I went back to my side and got in. The policeman took the papers and went back and got into the patrol car.
We rolled up the windows and sat for a while, saying nothing. Then Ming asked again, “What did I do?”
“Nothing,” I assured her. The windows began to fog up.
“So why did he stop us?”
I shook my head and smiled, trying to reassure her. “I don’t know. They’ll tell us in a minute or so.”
But we sat for what seemed like a long time. I looked at the clock on the dashboard and saw we’d been waiting seven or eight minutes. I had to overcome the temptation to turn around and see what they were doing. They had probably already run the plates on their dash-mounted computer to see what they could find on the car. I began to get a little annoyed at it all. How many houses were being broken into at this very moment? How many people were being raped, beaten to death? How many drivers were texting as they drove their BMWs and Minis through red lights at sixty miles an hour? All while they were scrutinizing us so closely for… what?
The police car door open and he got out.
“Here he comes,” I said.
Ming rolled down her window.
He leaned down with a squeak of leather. “Where do you live?” he asked her.
Ming told him her address.
He held her permit down close to where we could all see it.
“That’s not what it says here.”
“That’s my mailing address,” Ming said.
The police man looked at her suspiciously. “Not where you live?” he asked again.
“No,” said Ming, “where I get my mail.”
I was getting really frustrated with the treatment when I suddenly realized what it was all about. “Does this have something to do with a dog?” I asked.
The policeman seemed taken aback.
I smiled and shook my head. “That woman is…” I fought for the right word, “mistaken. We were simply practicing parallel parking, that’s all. We weren’t interested in her stupid dog. We didn’t even know the dog was there until just before we left.”
He looked at me, his face having reassumed its critical, suspicious demeanor. “Just a minute,” he said. He went back to the car and spoke to the other officer on the passenger’s side, the one operating the computer. A moment later he came back and handed Ming her papers.
“You can go. But in the future, stay away from that street. Okay?”
I nodded. “Thank you, officer.”
They drove off in a big hurry.
We sat in the car as the fog drifted by overhead. I shook my head. “I can’t believe they put us through all of that over nothing.”
Ming laughed and I felt myself coming down from my anger.
“Eh,” she said, “it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
I nodded, realizing she was right. “But, you know,” I said, “you really ought to consider putting your actual address on there instead of your mailing address.”
She shook her head dismissively, putting it into perspective. This was not a police state and it was all a misunderstanding. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, and I let it go.
“Alright.” I leaned over and gave her a kiss.
San Francisco has great Chinese food. And sitting in the car and reading for three hours while the fog chilled me had spiked my appetite. “Let’s go eat,” I said, looking forward to some stir fry, some steamed rice, and a nice Tsingtao to wash it all down. Life is good.
Disclaimer: This post was written under the influence of the following muses– Siculus, Clarabelle, Diodorus, Jack Daniels, William Shakespeare, and Scrog of the Planet Zargon– and was not intended to insult or otherwise sleight or denigrate women, minorities, Pinocchio, Chairman Mao, people who drive BMWs, William Hamleigh, people who drive Minis, Dav Pilkey, the Vietcong, Empress Maud, people who love Bichon Frises, Seinfeld, people who hate Bichon Frises, the Police– the kind with guns and also the former band members, Francine Buloni, the Nortenos, Ken Follett, and the Surenos.