Part One: Trying to Catch the Bus
Copyright © By Chuck Fager
San Francisco – 2006
Kate was racing the Muni bus toward the stop at the corner. She was wet and out of breath. It was bad enough, she thought as the bus slowed, that the skinheads had ripped up her peace poster. But why did they have to drench her with ice water?
The bus stopped and the doors flapped open. Kate leaped onto it, flashing her bus pass and shivering her way toward the back. A sudden San Francisco fog had rolled over the peace rally just as it was breaking up, quickly turning a sunny afternoon chill and dreary. The skinheads had jumped her when she rounded a corner, away from the others, headed for the bus and home.
Kate was used to quick changes in weather here; the variability was part of San Francisco’s appeal. But she wasn’t accustomed to being out in it soaking wet.
She also hadn’t been afraid of the skinheads, at least not at first. There’d been a lot of that trouble since the election, and the rise of the “Surge” in the Iraq War. She’d taken nonviolent self-defense workshops at school. The training kicked in automatically, and she didn’t resist when they surrounded her and grabbed the poster. She backed up when they called her a “stupid Commie bitch,” but didn’t see the one crouched behind her and fell over him, sending them into harsh laughter. Kate was still scrambling to her feet when they dumped a bucket of icy water over her, and pushed her down again.
Then she was scared. The shock of the water left her gasping, but energized. Jumping up, she shoved the nearest skinhead aside and ran past him. He snatched at her and caught hold of her backpack. But she slid out of it and raced back around the corner. They started to give chase, but she was fast and had a good lead. By the next corner she saw the bus coming, and knew she could get to it with time to spare.
The bus was only half-filled. Kate sank into an empty double seat near the rear exit, leaned against the window, and watched her breath make small foggy ovals on the glass. Traffic was slow, and the bus lurched along fitfully, rubbing Kate’s skin against her sticky damp shirt.
She wasn’t sure what bus line it was, hoping it was the 28, headed out past Golden Gate Park and toward home. But it didn’t really matter; there would be a transfer stop coming up somewhere, or she could ride downtown and catch the M-Ocean View trolley there. She needed to get changed and over to SF State by seven, to meet Sal and get to their women’s history class. She was behind in the reading and had hoped to catch up today. Not very likely now; the textbook was in her lost backpack.
A flurry of motion outside shifted her gaze through the glass, and then Kate drew back. The skinheads were trotting along the sidewalk, still trying to catch up to the bus. She crouched down, shivering now with fear. The bus had seemed like a refuge, but it could easily become a trap. Why was the traffic so slow?
The bus swung around a corner, and the pursuers disappeared. Kate scrunched down in the seat; still cold. She felt the bus slow for a stop, shut her eyes and held her breath; she couldn’t watch.
The brakes hissed and the doors thumped. After standing for what seemed like an hour, the bus jerked and rumbled slowly on. Kate stretched to glance quickly out the window: nothing. She lowered her head again; don’t take any chances.
There was a rustling sound, and someone sat next to her.
Part Two: Scratchy but Warm
. . . There was a rustling sound, and someone sat next to her. Kate squeezed away, toward the wall of the bus; the metal was cold against her wet shirt.
“My goodness, Friend,” said a voice, “Thee’s soaked. Here, take this shawl. Thee’ll catch thy death of cold.”
Kate’s eyes blinked open. Beside her was a woman in a flowing gray dress, carrying a canvas tote bag, with salt-and-pepper hair tucked into a small white bonnet. She was sliding a woolen shawl off her back, and in another second had deftly wrapped it around Kate’s shoulders. It felt scratchy, but warm.
“I-uh, thank you,” Kate stuttered.
The woman’s dress looked like it came from a museum. By itself, Kate knew, this was nothing to wonder at — in San Francisco , despite the steady influx of google-techies, you could still run across people in any kind of strange getup or antique costume just about anytime, or anywhere. But this woman seemed different; it didn’t feel like she was role-playing or camping it up, despite her odd form of address.
“There,” the woman said, “that’s a bit better, til thee gets home. What on earth happened,” she added, “if thee don’t mind my asking?”
Under the warming shawl, Kate found herself mumbling something about the peace rally and the attack. As the woman listened, shaking her head and tut-tutting sympathetically, she dipped into the tote bag, pulling out long wooden needles and a large cream-colored ball of yarn. Fingers moving expertly, it seemed she knitted half a square before Kate had finished.
“Good for thee, standing up against the war,” she said when Kate finished, nodding approvingly. “And beat them to the bus, too? Quick thinking. And fine running, too, um –?” Her gaze was inquiring.
“I’m Kate,” she said. And you?”
The woman smiled. “Call me Lucy. All my sisters did. And we had our share of close scrapes too.” She lifted a needle to pull some yarn from the ball, and furrowed her brows. “I believe it was `43 when I almost got tarred and feathered. Near Wilmington. And then, of course, that dreadful business with Pennsylvania Hall. Burned it to the ground, they did.”
She shook off a memory. “But then, those were all steps along the path of progress, I suppose.” She paused again, her needles going as she pursued some thought.
Kate’s curiosity was stirring now. “What are you making?” she asked, touching the nearly-finished square. The stitches were neat and tight.
“Oh, this,” Lucy said, waving one hand dismissively. “Just squares. Make a stack, and stitch them into baby blankets for AFSC to send overseas.” She smiled again at Kate, then tied off the square, dropped it into the bag, and started another one. As the needles began moving again, she lapsed back into her reverie. Soon she was shaking her head.
“What?” Kate asked, feeling a little bold.
Lucy glanced up, one eyebrow raised. “I was thinking of those poor boys,” she said.
“Which–?” Kate began, but then she knew. “The skinheads? What about them?” Her voice was rising. “They were pigs!”
Lucy’s head was still shaking. “Yes,” she said, “I can see how thee feels. But think of it: what has been done to them, to fill them with such hate and anger? How can that ever be healed? It never ceases to trouble me, after all these years, how society can twist and pervert perfectly fine human beings, bury the light in them, in them all, under so much muck.”
She sighed. “Where is the radical reform? But,” she added, turning to Kate again with the beginning of a smile, “we must never lose hope.”
Kate began to wonder if Lucy was about to launch into a sermon, and still wasn’t sure she liked her sympathy for the attackers. But then the bus stopped again and she heard the doors open. Loud voices came from the front.
She looked up — and there they were, three of the skinheads.
Part Three: A Very Challenging Climate
“What–?” thought Kate, and shot a glance out the window. They were passing an orange construction sign, its yellow warning lights flashing, and she realized that the bus had hardly been moving the whole time she had been talking. Now what?
She started to shiver again, and turned to Lucy. “It’s them,” she muttered, and tried to shrink down behind her capacious skirt.
Lucy put down a needle and patted her shoulder. “It will be fine,” she whispered.
Kate didn’t believe it. The bus rocked forward, and the voices in the front started again, this time in a raucous chant: “USA! USA! USA! USA!”
They made their way slowly down the aisle, shouting their three-syllable manifesto at one row of passengers after another. A few joined weakly with their chant; most moved away, alarm on their faces.
Then the chant stopped, interrupted by one skinhead poking another with his elbow, and gesturing toward the back. Toward Kate.
She grasped Lucy’s arm. “They’ve seen me,” she hissed. “Lucy, I’m–”
The older woman signaled silence with a finger to her lips, and then abruptly stood up. As she did, the ball of yarn fell off her lap and bounced unrolling down the aisle.
“Oh, dear,” she said, and began following it, needles aloft and waving, right up to the skinheads.
“Excuse me,” she said to the first one, “Can thee help me, please? My yarn–”
Behind her back, Lucy’s free hand was gesturing at Kate, pointing toward the rear exit.
“Here,” an alert passenger said, coming up with it. “I got your ball, Miss.”
“Oh, thank thee,” Lucy said, and then turned to the lead skinhead, holding out her needles to him. “Would thee mind holding these for a moment?” she said. “This ball’s almost completely unraveled, and I must get it back together.”
The skinhead hesitated, then took the needles. Lucy gave him a big smile, and began turning the ball in her hands, wrapping the loose yarn back around it, talking as she wound.
“These squares I’m making are for refugee children in Afghanistan,” she said to him. “It’s a very challenging climate there, as thee must know; so hot in summer, bitter cold in winter. Has thee been there, friend, with the army perhaps?”
The skinhead opened his mouth to answer, but Lucy rushed on.
“My sewing circle makes these blankets for Iraqi babies, too. It’s the same there, I’m told, extremes of temperature. And so much destruction from that awful war.”
She paused for a moment in her winding, and fished a square from the tote bag. “Does thee think this color is satisfactory?” she asked, handing it to a second skinhead. “My sister Martha tells me my yarn is always too dull, and I should try some scarlet or even black. But plain is all I really know, I guess.”
Kate was watching this one-sided conversation unfold with such fascination that she didn’t feel the bus stop, just saw the rear exit door light blink on. She quickly got up, pushed through it, and then was out on the street.
Instinctively she started to run, up the sidewalk. Then she slowed, and stopped as the bus rolled slowly past her. Through the window she could see Lucy’s white bonnet, bobbing to one side, as she continued talking earnestly and cheerfully to the baffled skinheads.
Kate thought she saw a gray arm rise in a gesture of farewell, but she couldn’t be sure; then the bus turned the corner and was gone.
Part Four: I Thought You Liked This Class
Kate stood for a moment, trying to take in what she’d just been through. But the metallic wheeze of trolley wheels snapped her back to the present. There, just ahead, was the M-Ocean View trolley car, waiting for a tractor trailer truck to make its tortuous way across the next intersection.
Kate wanted to cry with relief. This car went straight to San Francisco State, so she could make it to class, even if she might still be a little damp. She climbed on gratefully, and looked for a seat.
And there, even better luck, was Sal, waving to her. “Kate, babe, hey!” she called through the milling riders.
Kate angled through them and plopped down next to Sal, who looked closely at her, brows furrowed. “Kate, babe, like what hit you? Your hair is a wreck.”
Kate found herself grinning. “I ran into a skinhead shower,” she said, ready to tell her the whole story. But then she had another thought. “Tell you in a minute. Do you have the book for women’s history?” she asked. “I need to so some cramming for class.”
“Sure,” Sal said, and reached for her backpack.
Kate took the book. “What chapter was it?”
“What chapter?” Sal teased. “Chapter Ten. Hey, girl, I thought you liked this class.”
Kate grinned sheepishly. “I do!” she protested. “But I’ve been — well, I got distracted.”
She paged through the book until she found it. “Chapter Ten: The Road to Seneca Falls.” Facing the first page of the section was a photo of a woman, in a grey dress, and a white cap.
“Omigod, it’s Lucy!” Kate almost shouted.
“What?” said Sal.
“I just –” Kate started to explain, then stopped. No, Sal would just tell her she was nuts.
Kate gazed at the photo again, and the caption underneath it:
“Lucretia Mott, 1793-1880. This outspoken Quaker woman somehow managed to combine raising a family, helping her husband in business, and acting as a nationally-known advocate for woman’s rights, antislavery, peace, and other reforms. More than an eloquent speaker, she was also fearless, and faced down mobs that burned down Pennsylvania hall in 1830, and threatened her with being tarred and feathered.”
Kate closed the book and looked off into space. How could this –? she wondered. Then she shrugged. Well, San Francisco was that kind of place: anything could happen here.
Sal tapped her arm, breaking the trance. “Hey, babe,” she said, “this is like a very cool shawl you’re wearing. What thrift store did you find it at?”
Startled, Kate glanced down at the wool, and fingered it. “Oh,” she stumbled, “an-an old old friend from Pennsylvania gave it to me. I’ll tell you about her sometime.”
She stroked the shawl again; scratchy, but so warm. “I know it’s kind of plain, Sal, but it works for me. And every time I put it on, you know, I get this irresistible feeling that it’s time I learned how to knit.”
Story copyright (c) by Chuck Fager