Noe Valley Voice May 1999

Harvey Milk and Me


It's a chilly wet night and I'm sitting by the fire, cozy and warm, thinking about my lovely new grandson. The phone rings, and it's my son calling from work.

"Hi Mom, I'm working late. Do you want to go see the opera tonight? It's Harvey Milk. I have a ticket, but I can't make it."

My silence is loud.

"Do you want to sell the ticket?" he continues. "It's a hundred dollars, and you can keep the money."

Oh boy, that would pay for my photographs of Ireland, or my writing class in December, or a week's groceries, although it seems food prices have doubled in the past couple of months. But I don't want to go out in the cold, and I'd never get a hundred for it anyway. I'm embarrassed to even have a ticket at that price to sell. What with people hungry and homeless and dying of AIDS...

"Mom, are you there?"

"Okay," I say grumpily, "I'll take it. Thanks."

I drag my arthritic feet together, struggle into my raincoat, and call for the dog. Bo-Bo is huge, black, and woolly, a cross between a bear and a Wookie. A Bouvier de Flaunders, he's actually just a French sheep dog with a fancy name, who likes to herd everyone in the house, including the cat, L.B., who plaintively puts up with him.

It's been raining for days now and he hates getting wet, so I have to leash him up and drag him outside for a pee. He's such a wimp. He tried to pee in the cat box, but he got it all over himself and went around emanating cat pee for a day till I could give him a bath. He's also taken to jumping up on the dining room table and trying to see through the window whenever he's left alone. Of course, he knocks everything off in the process, but it's a miracle how he gets up there in the first place.

I grab my purse and hustle him into the Taurus, where he plops down in the back on the old towel I keep there for him so he won't totally destroy the seat.

I get down to Van Ness and I'm looking for the Opera House and I can't find the damn thing. On my second drive around the block, I see that it's being retrofitted for earthquake damage and is now disguised as a construction site. Since there's no one around anyway, I put two and two together and come up with the brilliant deduction that the performance must be elsewhere.

I pull up to a streetlight, snatch a look at the ticket, and catch the words "Orpheum Theatre." Oh God, where's the Orpheum? Market and something, I remember. It's starting to rain again.

Pulling around to McAllister Street, I park in a no-parking zone and jump out looking for someone to get directions from. Stumbling up the curb and around a concrete pole, I catch sight of a slender black woman crossing the street. We speak simultaneously: "Can you tell me where the Orpheum is?" "Will you give me and my baby a ride to the battered women's shelter?"

Oh, Lord, I'm stopped short. This is not what I'm here for, is it?

"My husband gets out of jail tomorrow," she says, "and I gotta get me and my baby out of here. He beat me up before, and he'll do it again. The shelter I'm in is full for tomorrow, and I have to get to another one." She gestures nervously, eyes wide and frightened. Her shoulders are drawn together as if to protect her heart.

"Where's your baby?" I say, knowing that she can hear the hesitation in my voice.

"Back at the shelter with a friend."

"And where's the shelter you're going to?"

"San Mateo," she says, taking from her jacket a torn piece of paper, on which is scribbled an address. I see writing, but the words don't register in my brain.

"The cab fare is twenty-one dollars, and I don't have it," she says. Her voice has a desperate tone to it.

"Where's San Mateo?" I ask.

"Down near San Jose," says she.

Damn, I don't want to drive to San-bloody-Mateo. I decide that if I can sell the ticket, I'll give her the money.

"Do you want to come to the Orpheum with me to sell this ticket? Will you show me where it is? I'll give you the money for a cab," I tell her.

"Sure," she says, then balks as I open the passenger-side door of my car. "You wanna get in first?" she asks, looking at the black shaggy bear in the back seat. "He's big. Will he bite me?"

Good point, I think. Bo-Bo has been known to scare the hell out of the mailman. I get in the car and she climbs in the front seat.

"Okay, first light turn right, then left," she guides me. We park in another no-parking zone, jump out, lock the doors, and hurry across to the

"What's your name?" I ask.

"DeeDee," she says, "what's yours? Wait -- watch out for that car!" she yells as she grabs my arm, pulling me back from oncoming traffic.

"Bren," I reply. "Thanks!"

In front of the Orpheum I wave my ticket in the air. "Great seat!" I shout. No one is buying. There are two others selling, and last-minute patrons are hurrying in. I pace up and down, scanning the streets for potential buyers. DeeDee squeezes her arms to her body in distress. She walks away to the cement barrier and looks back, anguish on her face.

The gray-haired, gray-suited, distinguished-looking doorman announces, "Curtain going up, no one seated after the performance starts."

A slim woman with glasses and dark blond hair walks up and looks at me. "How much for your ticket?"

"It's worth a hundred," I say, "but I'll take fifty. Great seat."

She hesitates, then says, "I think I can give you forty." I grimace. "At least I think I've got forty," she says.

Doubtfully, I look around. There's no one else buying.

She starts counting her money. "Gee, well...I guess I've got thirty-seven."

Casting a quick look at DeeDee, I decide, "Okay, it's yours." "Wow, thanks."

I count the money into DeeDee's hand. "Bless you," she says. We hug and I say, "Be safe." I walk back to the car and the dog, and when I look around, DeeDee is gone.

The new library is brightly lit. On my left in a storefront window I catch a glimpse of a man's face behind the glass. He is handsome and brown, but the look on his face is sad.

I cross over Market Street, get stuck on Howard, realize I have to go down a couple more blocks, and finally head up toward Mission, Cesar Chavez, and home. Thoughts and feelings rush through me. Why didn't I take her to the shelter, take her home with me, ask if she was hungry, give her more money, give her my phone number?

Tears roll down my cheeks as I remember absent fathers and hurt children, remember being so desperate I felt crazy. I drive up to the house on the hill thinking about the inequities of life. There but for the grace of God, yeah, yeah, yeah. Walk in another's footsteps. Right!

When I awoke the next morning, I had dreamed of helping a friend compose a Buddhist chant. It's a privilege to be able to give, anything.

Bernal Heights resident Brenda McManus, who's originally from northern England, credits a writing workshop with Adair Lara as encouraging her creative writing. Last year she wrote and performed with a senior performance group in Marin County. She also is a photographer, singer, and a "Celt at heart." She deems her work with Hospice of Petaluma one of the great experiences of her life.