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By Tania Amochaev

August 17.

I often ride the 30 bus in San Francisco. Starting near AT&T Park, it crosses SOMA, then skirts downtown, ducks under Nob Hill via the Stockton tunnel, embraces Chinatown and North Beach, side-swipes Fisherman’s Wharf, pauses briefly at my home, then traverses the Marina District along Chestnut Street, ending near the iconic Palace of Fine Arts and Chrissy Field. A cheap but thorough city tour. Locals and tourists are mashed together. The locals, especially around Chinatown, mostly look Asian and speak in tongues; the tourists more often look middle-American.

Tania A

I usually chat with people, but yesterday I needed down time. I plunked myself in the middle of a three-seat bench at the front and opened my email folder. Two enormous men squeezed down, engulfing me in bodies and aromas, the larger one on my left in shorts, oblivious to the cold fog.

Ignoring my attempts at isolation, he queried me in a gentle, friendly—but persistent—manner, about phones in general and mine specifically. I ducked on pricing, confirmed usability, and kept trying to return to the screen.

“I’d like to ask you a survey question, if I may,” he eventually asked. “What person born since 1900 do you admire the most?”

I told him in today’s environment it would be easier to decide whom I admire the least, but again he was gentle in his persistence. “If there was one person born since 1900 whom you could converse with, who would it be?”

Finally intrigued, I decided to back away from the present political situation, and said, “Winston Churchill.” I’m not sure how I picked him, it was not a deeply considered response.

“You must be a student of history.”

He then asked if I knew an author called David Irving, who wrote a book called Churchill’s War. I must’ve looked interested, because he described a great historian, who had been jailed in Austria just a few years ago for his political views. My skepticism quickly led to a search.

I turned my screen toward him and said, “But he’s a neo-Nazi and a racist.”

“Oh,” he chuckled, unfazed. “That’s just the way he’s being portrayed. He’s a very thoughtful person. Really.”

Oozing sincerity at me, he got up and apologized because we had reached his stop. My screen did not leave much doubt about this author’s beliefs.

The news that day was all about Donald Trump refusing to acknowledge racism and neo-Nazi chanting at a deadly event in Virginia over the weekend. I had just marked a note in my calendar to avoid Chrissy Field on August 26 because another such event was planned there. And now this? On a bus in San Francisco?

I glanced up at the women facing me across the bus. One had a black print niqab over a long blue robe. Only her eyes and a bit of forehead were exposed. The woman next to her had a black scarf wrapped around her head in the style of the women in Iran, and a beige wool Inca-pattern shawl over black slacks. I didn’t want a conversation with a neo-Nazi to be their image of a bus trip through San Francisco.

Tania B

“Where are you from?” I directed my question to the one whose face was uncovered.

“Illinois,” she replied, with an Indian accent.

This has become quite normal lately, and I understand that my very question could be taken as racist. Clearly, it spoke to their clothes and the character of their faces. Most of the time, I can use open friendliness, and perhaps my gender and age, to go deeper without offense. This woman, however, easily unbent to my grin at a response which confirmed her Americanness.

“I am originally from India,” she continued.

“Really? I am going there next month.”

“Oh? And where will you be going? The Taj Mahal?”

“No, I am going to Orissa.”

“Orissa?”

Not confident that she knew where that was, I added, “and Chattisgarh.”

“Chattisgarh? You are going to Chattisgarh? Not the Taj Mahal? Not Agra?”

I confirmed that I go to India quite frequently but I’ve never been to Agra. She asked me where in Chattisgarh. I showed her my itinerary, and a few photographs.

And just like that, we were friends.

She told me she was from Chattisgarh, and her husband was a doctor who had treated people like the ones in my pictures.

“He did an emergency surgery on a man with an arrow that pierced his chest,” she said, pounding her fist at a spot next to her heart. “They don’t use guns, just bows and arrows.”

I absorbed this amazing story, along with the information that they had moved to America in 1993 and her husband had then gone back to school and become a neurosurgeon.

The fully covered woman next to her sat mute, but her eyes followed us. I am not yet fully comfortable with breaching the privacy of those who cover themselves, and usually just smile. But this time, I finally asked where she was from.

“Pakistan,” she said from behind the cloth.

“Oh, where in Pakistan?”

“Karachi.”

“And have you been here long?”

“Three years.”

“Are you together?”

I learned they were both from Illinois, and are friends because their daughters live in San Francisco. They were visiting family and helping to take care of grandchildren, one of whom now burst onto the scene, with a young woman in a beautiful long black gown, her head uncovered. They all spoke rapidly, checking out the neighborhood.

“What language are you using?”

“Urdu,” said one. “Hindi,” said the other.

In the remaining few minutes of our trip I learned that those two languages have radically different alphabets but are mutually comprehensible, something I had never understood until that moment.

“Like in your countries,” the Indian woman said. She had learned in our interchange that I was born in Yugoslavia which included both Croatia and Serbia at the time.

“Yes, we too,” I acknowledged, “have languages separated mostly by alphabet and culture.”

We all shared a laugh and then the bus stopped and they walked off, heading towards Fisherman’s Wharf.

Tania C

August 27, 2017

You have to love a city where a right wing neo-Nazi group decided it was “too dangerous” for them to show up in public and instead, thousands of people danced and sang and celebrated a common belief in the decency of man. When the leader of Patriot Prayer did finally show up at Crissy Field, where he had scheduled his event, a total of about 20 of his supporters showed up, along with 10 to 20 other people. That’s it. His replacement event, at 2 PM that afternoon, was a Facebook live session taped inside a closed up house in an undisclosed location.

You have to love a city where the previous evening, in the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts Auditorium, the neighborhood was invited to learn and discuss what city officials were doing to protect them. Our district supervisor, Mark Farrell, had sent out an email blast inviting us to the 5 o’clock session. There was no other publicity given to that event, and only the  neighborhood showed up.

You have to love a city where our mayor, our chief of police, our chief of the fire department, our state senator, our district supervisor, and our head of emergency services showed up to reassure the people who lived next to the targeted zone.

All those people came to talk to us while in the middle of planning for an event whose venue had been changed two hours earlier to the Iconic Alamo Square Park, with its famous view of Victorian houses and it’s camera toting tourists. We learned they had no permit for that location.

We learned that San Francisco is the only major city with a National Park abutting residential neighborhoods. We learned that National Parks can issue meeting permits without consulting the affected neighborhoods – but as our speakers pointed out, Yosemite and Yellowstone don’t really have “affected neighborhoods.” We learned that National Parks do allow concealed carry of weapons. Fortunately, the laws of the land surrounding the parks prevail.

Perhaps this, above all else, explains why the Patriot Prayer rally was canceled. The participants could not carry concealed weapons. Imagine. No guns, no clubs, no semi automatic weapons. Who would risk walking onto Crissy Field without that type of protection? Certainly not the neo-Nazi who had called in a right-wing militia group called the Oath Keepers—who have concealed carry permits for America’s parks—to babysit the event.

A woman in one of the houses that Alamo Square faces put up a sign, hand-lettered on short notice, that summed up the events of the day:

Love Trumps Hate

Tania D

Writer, traveler and award winning photographer Tania Amochaev was born in Serbia and has lived most of her life in San Francisco. Her book Mother Tongue, written under the pen name Tania Romanov, will be published in March, 2018. It explores the unrelenting consequences of 100 years of Balkan wars on three generations of women.  Amochaev often lights candles in memory of her immigrant parents, who brought her to this city as a child. “I thank them every day for this blessing.”

Tania E

Copyright 2017 Tania Amochaev. All rights reserved.
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