The Woman from Rio and the Muni Curse

It happened last night. I rode the Muni #24 bus down to catch the subway at Castro Street, as I often do.  It was a dark night, doubly so since it was a new moon and fog was rolling in.  Gave the city an eerie feeling I tell you.   I paid my fare and took a seat at the front – the handicapped and elderly seats – but the bus had plenty of room this Sunday night.  Good people were  home with family and friends, not heading out to nightclubs, like me.

The electric bus quietly made its way over the top of the hill separating me from the Castro and on down, lulling me with the clicking of the wires and the purr of the motor.  Not much traffic tonight.  I noticed a woman sitting directly across from me, right behind the bus driver – and invisible to him because of the partition behind his seat.  Invisible to even the red eye of the security camera that looked back from its perch high up above the windshield.  Nothing struck me about the woman – I wasn’t actually trying to look at her – but from the periphery of my view I could see her.  Hair inky black, wrapped up in a scarf with more color than a dimestore parakeet, she wore a shift dress that looked too light for the weather, which was cooling quickly as the fog made its way into town.  The dress was a geometric print in various shades of green – near as I could tell.  Mind you, I am good with colors but the light on the bus was a cold, glaring, fluorescent so everything took on some green.  By the light of day her dress could have been most any light colors.  But her skin, the shade of milk-and-coffee and so smooth, yes, she had to be a Carioca I decided – with really no justification.  But this was idle thinking – little matter.  Her skin was a twenty year-old’s but her plump figure hinted she was older than that.

She caught my attention because of what she was carrying.  The lady in the print dress and colorful scarf, this imagined Carioca, was holding a bag of some snack.  I don’t read Chinese characters so I could not be sure what the treat was.  I had a conundrum now, and shortly another or two.  Was the woman Chinese? China has many ethnicities, after all.  I decided that for the sake of my made-up history she was still a Carioca but had stopped for a snack and the closest market was Chinese.  Chinese knew the city, more native here than me, for sure.  If she was Chinese, she would be prepared with heavier clothing for the evening.  No, she must be from somewhere else, somewhere a warm day is followed by a warm night.  I still imagined Rio.

Now, I was not staring at this lady.  I was using my elevator vision.  I use it on buses and the subway, too.  But I could see that she was not only enjoying her snack, she was spitting out pits or shells or something back over her shoulder.  Mind you this is all in the space of a minute or two.  Now I am a very polite person – far be it for me to tell her she shouldn’t be eating on the bus (and the shell or seed-spitting is clearly one of the reasons for the prohibition).  Perhaps they do it in Rio.  Of course they do and in Rio the bus windows are open and one spits the residue into the street.

Before I even think about it (I swear) I dropped the elevator vision and fixed a disapproving look, straight at her, that really only should be given between familiars, the Muni bus equivalent of kicking your mate’s foot under the table.   You know the look – the look you give your spouse just before they’re going to launch into some untouchable topic at the dinner party; the same look you give the person who carelessly drops their empty coffee cup into the trash instead of the composting container at the Ritual café.   That look.

I caught myself after a few seconds and resumed my Muni nonchalance.  Too late, I had caught her eye and I could tell she was now appraising me.  I gave her another couple seconds of “that look.”  I’m sure she understood me.   “No, your $1.50 does not include the right to spit seeds, or whatever disgusting things, on this bus.”

The bus was careening downhill now, and I had to grab a nearby pole to steady myself.  Fewer than a dozen other denizens, some of them homeless and riding the bus for a comfortable place to sit and doze, saw, or could see, our silent exchange.

A second went by with no reaction.  Then, she turned her scarf-wrapped head to the side and spat out another.  A slap in the face.  She had no shame.  I slid down further on my orange plastic seat, still gripping the pole as the driver braked hard for a stop.  The emboldened Carioca defied both gravity and inertia, turned her body and stretched her legs out across the empty seats next to her.  Involuntarily, I swear, I reacted to her placing her shoes on the bus seat.

She was taunting me.  I ignored her, looking forward now to check for my stop.  Really, one can only take this so far.  I wasn’t angry that she was using the shared bus as her own spittoon; I wouldn’t be so petty.  I readied myself to leave, heaving myself up with the aid of the pole against the lurching of the bus towards the stop at Market Street.

And then, she did it.  I had to turn towards her as I moved to the back of the bus to exit.  And she brought a hand up, the one she was eating with, and pointed at me with five fingers, outstretched.  I paused, again without thinking but here she was making an actual gesture, to me.  And then she turned her fingers inwards and with a flick of her wrist, sliced them across her throat.  I shivered.  What was that supposed to be?  A curse?  What was with the five fingers? The cutting of the throat seemed clear.

Quickly I touched my left eyelid with my left middle finger.  Her eyes widened.  Even in the cold fluorescent light I thought her face turned red.  So she recognized the Mal Ochio.  Good.  I ran for the back, down the stairs at the rear and hit the door open.  The cold moist air felt good.


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