Tag Archives: Patti Isaacs

Bay To Breakers ©

A Story by Patti Isaacs

              To Protect and Serve

I lived in the Bay Area for a year and a half. The job that brought my husband and me there evaporated in the recession, so we moved back to Minnesota. But we can’t stay away. Running Bay to Breakers is a great excuse to come back, reconnect with our friends here, and revel in San Francisco’s joie de vivre.

As dawn breaks, we gather at the BART station. The train pulls up at 7:10 a.m. and we skip aboard in high spirits. A gangly young man in 1970s retro basketball shorts and a frizzy, multicolored clown wig like mine gives me the high five as we enter the train car. His pseudo-Afro is cinched in the middle with a green terrycloth sweatband to match his Celtics jersey.

I sit down with my group of friends: Suzanne in a fuchsia feather boa; Gauss in his Minnesota moose-antler hat; and Sean and Jeff, serious runners, in nondescript wicking tees. At each stop the car takes on more costumed participants, all jolly and some already a little tipsy: A cow and a milkmaid; a kitty-cat with pointed ears and leopard print tail; Superman and Wonder Woman. Several of the characters discreetly sip spirits from bottles encased in brown paper bags. Laughter fills the background as I catch up with our friends after a year away from them.

At the Civic Center stop, two San Francisco police officers board the car. I can tell they’re the real thing and not costumed runners because they’re wearing long pants. Bay to Breakers participants dressed as cops would be wearing the same blue shirts and carrying the billy clubs and handcuffs—but they would replace the regulation trousers with Speedos or buttless chaps.

The officers walk up and down the aisle, smiling and chatting amiably.

“Sorry, no drinking on the train,” the male officer says to the Devil, grinning. “Hand it over.”

The Devil shrugs his shoulders and gives up his booze.

“I’m going to have to take that from you,” the policewoman says, stretching her arm toward a glitter-dusted man in a gossamer tutu and crooking her fingers.

“Can’t blame me for trying,” Tinkerbell replies, a lilt in his voice. He’s not angry and hands her the bagged beer can.

The train stops at a station and the officers take the alcohol to the open door, pouring it out onto the tracks. They walk back down the aisle, handing the empty containers to their owners. Then they return to the door. Before stepping out, the policeman smiles and calls back, “Have a good day, and be sure to recycle!”

Only in San Francisco.

photo by patti isaacs

Rules of the Road

This story written by Patti Isaacs
In the early 1980s, China had just opened to the West but was still emphatically communist.  People dressed in nearly identical Mao jackets and called each other “comrade.”  Food shortages were common, a radio was a luxury, and bicycles transported the masses.  Curtained limousines with white-gloved drivers were the privilege of a few highly-ranked officials.  The locals stopped to stare, open-mouthed, when one passed by.
     At that time, I lived in the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an, known for the army of terracotta soldiers unearthed there only six years earlier.  I returned in late 2005 to find a metropolis with skyscrapers and a high-tech zones surrounded by freeways.  In a quarter century, apartment building have replaced the traditional courtyard homes inside Xi’an’s city wall; Audis and Hyundais cruise roads once traveled by donkey carts and the occasional commune truck.  Bicycle traffic is down now that capitalism is up.
     Experiencing a city by foot, bicycle, taxi, and bus provides a glimpse of the social and cultural differences that separate China from the West.  To Western eyes, traffic in China appears utterly chaotic.  Drivers run red lights and turn in front of oncoming cars, pedestrians blithely step in front of trucks, a bicyclist hogs the center lane while glancing over his shoulder to deliver a withering look to the guy behind the wheel of a dump truck.
     In the twenty-first century, The Chinese still follow patterns of movement established when most transportation was human- or donkey-powered.  Never big on queuing, they don’t so much drive in their lanes as they jostle to fill any available space.  Released from the constraints of enforced egalitarianism, the few who can now afford cars cheerfully lord it over those who can’t, squeezing cyclists against the curb and nearly clipping pedestrians who brave the crosswalks.  Motorists unapologetically occupy a place in the pecking order that used to be reserved for the most well-placed Party operatives.
     Driving in China involves many games of chicken followed by a series of dances.  Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians constantly eye and evaluate each other, but like bighorn sheep who establish dominance by butting heads, they usually avoid the carnage of a fight to the death.  Instead, once it’s been decided who leads, they arrange themselves, with the flawless timing of Peking Opera acrobats, into a flowing, interwoven pattern.  Their feet hover the brake pedals even as they try to outrun every other motorist on the road to reach the spot they want.
     If Americans tried this, we would surely kill each other.  We are a society of laws and not men, intent on following the rulebook.  And too many of us are certain we are the one who should be leading the dance.
     As addicted as they are to their cell phones, few Chinese use them as they drive.  Nor do they shave, eat, apply makeup, or read the newspaper behind the wheel.  Driving there is serious business.  The Chinese acknowledge that not everyone is up to the task; they know their traffic is fearsome, with a worldwide reputation.
     These days, most locals use bikes only to get around the quiet neighborhood streets.  To venture into the wider city, they prefer the relative safety of a bus or taxi.  So when an American regularly bicycles to downtown Xi’an, her Chinese friends voice their respect—welcome respect, as the expatriate is incompetent at many things in her adopted hometown.
     Maybe because Xi’an now has central heating, email, and supermarkets, the exotic is harder to find.  Getting on a bike, threading into the traffic tapestry, and learning to deliver the obligatory dismissive look carries the rider to a place many people never visit.
This piece is an excerpt from a book Patti is writing about her experiences living in China in 1981 and 2005.  You can read more at her blog, timetravelinchina.wordpress.com
photo by patti


Journey of (re)Discovery

Written by Patti Isaacs
            I told my fifteen-year-old son, Emilio, that I’d be out when he got home from school.  I handed him a house key, which he put in his backpack.  My husband, Gauss, agreed to make saffron rice and salad for dinner when he got home from work.  Our older son, Luca, was off at college.
            Later that afternoon, while I was running errands, my cell phone rang.
            Gauss: We don’t have any onions!
            Me: Yes we do.
            Gauss: They’re not here.
            Me: Yes they are.
            Gauss: Where?
            Me: In the pantry cupboard, where they always are.
            Gauss: They’re not there!
            Me: Well, I know they’re there.  Ask Emilio to show you.  He knows where they are because he grills them when he makes himself hamburgers.
            Gauss: He’s not here.
            Me: Why not?
            Gauss: He called from the neighbor’s house.  He couldn’t get in because he didn’t have a key.
            Me: He’s an idiot.  I gave him a key this morning and saw him put it in his backpack.
            Gauss: So where are the onions?
            Me: Open the pantry door.  Look for the shelf with the cereal.  Look at the shelf above that.  There should be a bag of onions there.  They should be right in front of your face.  You can’t miss them.
            Gauss: Oh, here they are.
            After dinner I opened Emilio’s backpack.  The key was where he had put it that morning.
            I knew that it was time to cut these guys loose for a couple of weeks.  I’d been kicking around the idea of a sales trip for a few months, so I called potential clients and set up appointments.  But as my calendar filled and I plotted my route, I became alarmed to discover that after spending twenty years at home being mother hen to my family, my independence seemed to have vanished.
            At eighteen I had crisscrossed the country with a backpack and a lot of luck, hardly thinking twice before I hopped on a Greyhound or stuck out my thumb for a ride.  At 28, I spent a year teaching English in China.  Now, approaching fifty, with dependents and a mortgage, the prospect of a solo road trip was daunting, even with a late-model car and a pile of credit cards.  What had I lost in those intervening years?
            Like a rock tumbler smoothes an agate, life had knocked the sharp edges off me, and I wasn’t so sure I liked the polished version of myself.  I wondered if the edgy personality I used to have was still there.
            After setting up twelve meetings, I couldn’t back out, so at 8:30 on a Monday morning, I loaded my Honda Accord with a portfolio, a laptop, and an mp3 player crammed with tunes for the road.  I would drive from Minnesota to Boston, visiting established and potential customers along the way.
            Putting the key into the ignition, I felt like a sheep going to slaughter.  What was I getting myself into?  But as I headed through Wisconsin’s rolling wooded hills into the morning sun, my anxieties began to fade.  The trees were gold, red, and orange, almost fluorescent.  Fields spread out at their feet, blond crew-cut stubble of harvested corn, velvety green grass, or rich black earth.
            I found myself to be an ideal travel companion.  I liked the way I drove; I didn’t complain about the lodging I selected, and I never asked myself.  “Are we there yet?”  As the tunes blasted, I’d sink back in the seat and soak in the scenery in an almost meditative state, relaxed and alert.  Thoughts flowed through my head; it was like standing on a bridge watching a stream beneath me carrying feathers and twigs.
            My first appointment was on the outskirts of Chicago that afternoon.  I lugged my samples into the office, greeted my contact, and began my presentation.
            Each subsequent meeting became easier, and by the time I’d given three presentations in New Jersey, I began to enjoy it.  Even the least successful meetings were cordial and businesslike; the best left me feeling that I’d made an important connection.
            By the weekend I’d reached Long Island where I stayed with my sister.  I spent Sunday “doing” New York City with Frank, a guy I’d worked with for years via phone and email, but had never met.  We found each other under the big departure board at Penn Station at the appointed time, shook hands, and headed up to street level.  At the top of the Empire State Building we spent a long time looking out over the city, identifying buildings and pointing out geologic formations.
            We walked several blocks to a restaurant for lunch.  As we ate, we talked about historical buildings in our respective cities, September 11, where we’d gone to school, and how we met our spouses.  Like my husband, Frank is Italian, so we talked about our favorite Italian foods and cities.  When it was time to go, Frank pointed me to the correct subway platform, and with a wave and a smile, I took off for Chinatown.
            I strolled the streets, soaking up the atmosphere, wandering into tiny stores on side streets that catered to recent immigrants.  The products they stocked were identical to those I’d seen on the shelves of stores in China when I’d lived there: stacks of plastic washbasins in vivid candy colors, tinny aluminum steaming pans, bamboo baskets, cloying floral-scented soaps.  I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and was transported back for a moment.
            Traveling alone, I extended myself more to others, trying out my meager Chinese on the store proprietors, helping a French exchange student find her subway stop, and chatting up the guy selling flowers on the street.  As evening fell, I headed back to Penn Station to catch the train back to my sister’s place.  My coach was oddly quiet, packed with people who, like me, had tapped themselves out running around the city for the day.  As I slumped in my seat for the ride home, my cell phone rang.  It was Emilio, calling from a friend’s phone.
            Emilio: Mom, do you know where Dad is?
            Me: How should I know?  I’m in New York City; he’s in Minnesota where you are.
            Emilio: I can’t get into the house and he’s not there.
            Me: Maybe he drove Luca back to the dorm.
            Emilio: What’s Luca’s phone number?
            I gave him the number and the conversation ended.  I settled back, closing my eyes.  At the next stop, an enormous woman plopped herself into the seat next to me, smashing me up against the window.  My phone rang again.  I struggled to get it out of my purse, which was wedged between my foot and the sidewall of the train.  I answered on the fifth ring.  People around me looked irritated.
            Emilio: He’s not there.
            Me: Maybe he’s at Nonna and Nonno’s.
            Emilio: I forgot their phone number.  What is it?
            I gave him the number and hoped he wouldn’t call back.
            The train rattled down the track and I started to doze off.  My phone rang again.  This time a couple of people shot wilting looks at me.
            Me (eyes rolling): Hello
            Gauss: Hi Patti!
            Me: Hi Gauss.  Did Emilio reach you?
            Gauss: No.  Where is he?
            Me: I don’t know.  He called from Nick’s cell phone and said he couldn’t get into the house.  I had him try Luca’s dorm and then your parents’ house.  You’d better track him down.  I can’t believe it.  I’m fifteen hundred miles away and you guys are still calling me to help you find each other.
            Any feelings of homesickness I might have had were quickly erased.  I was glad I wasn’t going back just yet.
            The next day I headed for Boston.  My memory of the place dated from a cross-country journey I took as a teenager, when my cousin drove me around in his Renault, practically clipping the door handles off the cars in the next lane.  But after a day of driving there, I adapted, no longer skittish of the city’s narrow streets.
            While I enjoyed my client meetings, being “on” for so many of them was wearing me out.  I’d been on the road for nearly two weeks and was ready to head home to my boys.  I wanted to cook in my kitchen and spend time with my pet birds and to be home on Sunday morning when the paper came.
            Gauss told me that aside from the phone calls, Emilio had risen to the challenge of my absence, getting himself up without prompting in the morning and taking over laundry duty.  With me gone, Gauss and Emilio—and even Luca, off at college—discovered that they were more self-sufficient than they thought.
            The last day of my trip, as I drove back through Wisconsin, the trees had lost most of their brilliant leaves.  Like me, they looked a little more tired than they had two weeks before.  My wallet was lighter and the car had more miles on it, but I was returning with more than what I’d set out with: a fresh appreciation for my home and family, and a renewed belief in my talents and abilities.
            I’ve often heard that courage is not a matter of being unafraid; rather, it’s the ability to march ahead despite fear.  And that that’s what I’d done.  Years looking after my family had turned my focus away from myself, and life’s trials had whittled away some of my self-assurance.  I had left needing to know if I still had courage.  I realized, as I pulled into our familiar driveway, that it had hitched a ride back with me.
photo by Patti Isaacs