“Now approaching platform 2.”
“Fremont train now approaching platform 2.”
“Fremont train platform 2.”
I swing my North Face backpack over my right shoulder, stuff my Cal lanyard and student ID in my purse, and hoist my carry-on size luggage over the threshold and onto the train. I’m going to be sitting on a plane for the next several hours on my way to Tacoma, WA for the holidays. I briefly consider standing on the train, but the sea of empty seats and the aching between my shoulders makes me decide otherwise. I don’t like sitting in the seats near the door set aside for the elderly or pregnant, so I choose the next available seat.
As I arrange my bags next to me, the train lurches forward.
I’m sitting backward. I don’t usually feel car sick, but the train does sometimes give me just a touch of nausea and headache. I lean my back against the window and twist my torso to face the opposite wall of the train. Maybe sitting sideways will help.
I keep telling myself that it might as the passengers from the next station load. Two young people, a boy and a girl, sit in the row of seats behind me. As the train pulls
out of the station, I hear a rough, deep voice approaching.
“Would you like the make a donation to the homeless? I’m homeless, do you have
some spare change. Got any coins? Give me your change. It’s for the homeless,” he
demands as he walks past the other passengers seated in the car.
I can hear him close behind me now. I see in my peripheral vision he is wearing dark clothes. He’s bald, and hands look covered in dirt. He has a dull pink piece of laminated paper in his hand, like the color of my grandmother’s powder room covered in a layer of dirt too. Half of it is whipping about in the wind of his movement it’s so worn and torn. The only thing I can read on it is:
“Yesterday, I was at Kelly’s house and we were just finishing that homew..”
“Got any spare change?” he interrupts the woman speaking in the seat behind me.
“No,” she says, “assignment for class about interviewing…”
“What’s your name?” He interrupts again.
“styles. I think I’m going to see if I can practice with”
“What’s your name?” he demands.
“Sarah before writing my response”
“paper. When is it due again?” she asks the guy.
“I think it’s on Thursday.”
Certain their conversation has no room for him in it, the homeless man continues past me. I glue my eyes to my phone screen. I try to be small, unnoticeable even with my three bags of luggage taking the entire seat next to me. Don’t engage. Don’t engage.
“Have a donation for the homeless? Spare change to give me?” He asks the people in the back of the car.
When he doesn’t receive a response he sits down in one of the chairs which faces sideways, the same chairs for the elderly and pregnant that I purposely avoided only minutes ago.
He sits looking around at the inhabitants of the train car, circling his wrist aimlessly, twirling the pink paper in his hand.
I keep my eyes focused outside the window. I look down. I look everywhere except his direction. It’ll be nice to be home with my mom and sisters for the holiday. I am excited to be in Tacoma, and then make a trip to Minnesota to see my grandpa, aunts, and uncles. I texted my old housemate from when I lived in Minnesota who is from Costa Rica that I was going back to -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Uffdah.
It doesn’t work.
A few moments later, the man moves from the seats he had been sitting to the ones directly in front of me. Our seats form an L. My entire body tenses. Don’t move. Be still.
I resist the urge to gather my bags more closely to my person. I don’t know if they or I need more protection. I continue to avert my eyes and hope what I know is going to happen doesn’t.
“Have a donation for the homeless?” He asks me. “Hey, you,” he scoots from the far end of the chair to literally in front of my face.
I cannot ignore him anymore. Maybe if he can’t understand me, he’ll go away.
I want him to leave me and my things alone. I don’t want any trouble. I just want him to go away.
“Have any spare change?” He says into my face. I can smell his breath and see it’s been a while since he’s brushed his teeth.
“¿Qué me dices?” The words spur out of my mouth before I can stop them.
“What?” he responds, leaning in towards me.
“¿Qué me dices?” I repeat. I can’t take it back now.
“Oh, ¿habla Ud. español?” He asks me.
Shoot. I hadn’t anticipated this.
“Uh, cómo… um. .. esté, está… you speak… dónde Spanish… apre….ndes español?”
Whew. From his formulation I can tell even if he speaks Spanish, it’s not great. I can understand him, and I think I can speak with enough authority to continue the conversation without hesitation.
“De mi familia.”
“You speak good Spanish. ¿De dónde es? WHERE are you from?” he asks, raising his voice to emphasize words in English. “You speak good Spanish. You DON’T speak ENGLISH? ¿Inglés?”
I hear the English words and realize if I am really trying to seem like I don’t know English, I can’t respond. I shouldn’t have anything back to say.
I give him a puzzled look.
“¿De dónde… es Ud.?”’ He asks me again.
Scrambling to come up with something, I say the truth, “Del MidWest.”
Shoot. Did I just blow my cover story?
I stick to my guns. “Del MidWest.” Emphasizing the “I” and saying the word more slowly like I’m unaccustomed to pronouncing English.
“¿De dónde es tu familia? Your family?”
“Costa Rica.” I respond with the first place that comes to mind – thanks to my friend I had texted only minutes ago. The story for who I am starts formulating in my mind.
“Ah. Costa Rica. My family is from Nicaragua. NICARAGUA.” He says louder again.
“¿Qué haces aquí?” he asks.
“Visitando mi familia.” I respond.
“¿Dónde viven?” He continues.
“Aquí.” I answer, again almost telling the truth about my apartment in North Berkeley. “Be…”
“Oakland?” He fills in.
I nod. I’ll take the story he gives me.
“How you long been here? ¿Cuando vas?” He wants to know.
“Ya. Ya.” I tell him, motioning to my bags. “Ya me voy.”
“You don’t speak English? ¿INGLÉS?” he asks me again.
I shake my head.
Someone walks by us. He holds out his cup. “Got any spare change?”
The person continues without even acknowledging him.
“I thought you were a white girl.” He says looking back at me.
I jump at the accusation.
“¿No inglés?” He asks again. He can tell that I am following the conversation even though he’s not speaking so much Spanish.
I shake my head.
“But you can understand.” He claims. I shrug my shoulders.
“You want to learn? Aprender?” he asks, leaning close again. Don’t move. Don’t flinch. I shrug again.
“Your eyes are looking at me like I’m doing something wrong. Ojos, cómo sihago algo malo.” He says.
“No sé.” I can’t cover my eyes. My big blue eyes which stare back at him, and
could betray my cover story too. Nor can I explain the fear, anger, and judgment in them.
“I thought you were a white girl.” He repeats. He moves into my face again and spits the words out at me. “WHITE GIRL.”
I shrug again.
“¿Tiene mujer algo de dinerito para ayudarme? ¿Algo de dinero para ayudarme?” he asks, finally returning to his original purpose given my large and confusing diversion.
He moves his cup closer to me.
“No.” I shake my head and look down. He pulls it back and doesn’t ask again.
The train pulls into the next station.
“Fremont train approaching platform 1,” the intercom says.
“Ok, voy a salir aquí. I am leaving here,” he tells me, motioning to the platform, and standing up with his pink paper and cup in hand. As he grabs the handle above his head, he looks back at me.
“Mucha suerte en la vida, mujer. Mucha suerte,” he says.
“Igual.” I say back.
The doors open. He walks off the train.
My entire body releases, and I do everything I can to not collapse further in the chair on the spot. At least, not until the platform is out of sight.
I don’t know if he believed me or not. The longer I talked the more I thought how reckless that was. Did I really think I looked like a person who couldn’t speak English?
The brown hair, blue eyed UC Berkeley student from the Midwest? I’d even told him that’s where I was from. Did I really think that he wouldn’t be able to understand me if I spoke Spanish? It’s California. There were ladies on the other side of the car chattering away in Spanish.
Suerte. Suerte en la vida.
His last words rang in my head.
WHITE GIRL. I thought you were a WHITE GIRL.
Who knew the words you spoke could tell such lies? Who knew the way I looked
could tell such truths?
When I was white, I was a rich white girl he could get money from. When I was latina, he had something to give me, la mujer.
Suerte. Suerte en la vida, mujer.
Kirsten Schowalter is the author of the memoir In My Own Skin and the founder of Aging Courageously, an online community and business which inspires and strengthens you to make your dreams real at EVERY age. Her work often focuses on times of change and how to restore your sense of self within your life and community. Schowalter’s expertise draws from writing and publishing personal stories and her training in mindful movement and dance, Spanish, and demography/population studies. She holds a graduate degree from UC Berkeley in Population Studies/Demography and an undergraduate degree from St. Olaf College in Spanish. Schowalter’s work has been featured in newspapers and magazines nationwide, including the Yakima Herald Republic, the Rochester Post Bulletin,Historic North Tacoma, and the St. Olaf Magazine.