“We’ll get off at the end of the line,” my grandmother promised me, in Russian. The trolley started again from where it had stopped to let people off in the middle of a busy intersection. I smiled and nodded, clinging to the sooty ivory bar on the side of the trolley as we rolled through the streets of San Francisco. The smell of fried bacon fat hung heavy in the air as we passed a restaurant, smoky and greasy, mingling almost nauseatingly with the acrid scent of car exhaust. I resisted the urge to reach for my camera – which seemed like a life-endangering move, since I was standing on a narrow bar of metal attached to the side of the trolley – as we passed picturesque street after street. They were full of rows of pastel-painted, charmingly grimy houses, alive with the movements of tourists and inhabitants in the city; we’d passed hundreds of them, surely, as walking through the city that day, but I still didn’t tire of watching them. So I was only too happy to stay on my precarious perch a while longer, while my grandmother was seated on the bench. It was the first time visiting San Francisco for both of us, and we were wearing identical brand-new, violently purple sweaters with“I <3 San Fran” on them. They served two purposes – to keep out the chill of the sea-laden wind blowing from the bay, and to make it easy to find the other in any crowd.
I was so lost in a new-city reverie that I almost didn’t notice when the trolley reached the end of the line. Only almost, because people shoving me off the side of the trolley were hard to ignore.
“Rude,” I muttered as I climbed down, then turned to find my babushka. A purple sweater bobbing in the distance, beyond a tight huddle of Asian tourists with matching yellow backpacks, was the only sign of her. “Hey! Podojdi, babushka!” I called to her to wait up, then quickly stepped up onto the sidewalk as another trolley clanged by. She turned and smiled as I arrived at her side, out of breath. I looked around, then pulled out my camera.“Ulibnis!” (Smile!) I snapped a photo of her, looking wonderfully grandmotherly in her sweater and long black skirt.
“Where do you want to go next?” I asked. We’d seen Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, and it was a bit too early for lunch. I pulled up a map of San Francisco – in Russian, of course – on my iPhone and handed it to her, then took more photos of the trolley conductor, the polished crimson trolley turning around, the Asian tourists, a pigeon sitting gargoyle-like on top of a fire hydrant.
“We could walk from here to Union Square,” she suggested, pronouncing “Union Square” as “Yuniyun Skver.” She brushed her mousy-gray hair out of her face. “It’s so nice everywhere here!”
“Notwithstanding the litter, polluted air, and pigeon poop,” I whispered and added, louder, “Whatever you want.” It made me happy that I was alone in a big city with my grandmother; being her de facto translator gave me a sense of responsibility that I craved, and I really didn’t care where we went.
“Okay! Let’s go!”
We’d only started walking when my grandmother stopped. “Is something wrong?” I asked, concerned; she was asthmatic and didn’t always admit when she needed to catch her breath. She laughed, the smile lines in her parchment-gray skin deepening. I laughed, too, relieved.
“Nyet, nyet,” she assured me. “I’m just listening to him.” She gestured to the nondescript street performer on the other side of the street, a weathered but functional guitar in his hand, its case lying open for spare change. I listened, too, trying to tune out the trolley bells and the multilingual babble of the crowd. Once I’d isolated his song, I listened deeper, and smiled.
It was slow, sweet, and melancholy. It wasn’t anything I recognized, so maybe he wrote it, who knew. I could barely make out the words, set to a simple series of chords: “When the sun sets, my sweet, the stars will light your way … when the city lights go out, my sweet, the moon will light us on our journey.”
I offered my services as a translator to my grandmother, but she shook her head. The song ended, and the noises of the city enveloped us again. I glanced at the time. “Poidyom,” I told her.
“If we want to see Union Square and eat lunch, we’ll need to hurry. The Caltrain we need to catch is at … 1:48.”
I entered the flow of the street traffic, and my grandmother reluctantly followed, but then stopped. “Oh, I’ll feel bad if we don’t give him money … bad luck; he had such a kind face, and his singing was good. He looks like he needs it.”
I paused, stepping out of the way of a hurrying young Indian couple. “Well, quickly.”
But it turned out there was no need for debate; he’d already packed up and left. Crestfallen, my grandmother nevertheless recovered quickly as we walked down the street, window-shopping and talking. She asked me about high school, my teachers, boys (making me laugh awkwardly and try to hide my discomfort with a bout of coughing); I asked her about what it was like when she was growing up. I loved listening to her stories, because she’d seen the rise and fall of Soviet Russia; the Cold War ran parallel in her life story to her career as a geneticist at a university. I saw her too rarely.
We soon arrived at Union Square, and after a walk around the plaza, we headed into the thicket of art galleries and restaurants. As we selected a Chinese restaurant that looked cheap enough for our wallets, I turned a blind eye to the apparently homeless woman sleeping by the door.
I remember very little else from that day; we got to the train station on time, laden with bags of souvenirs and tchotchkes, magnets of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a map of the trolleybus routes (as well as our sweaters, of course). We were staying in a hotel in San Jose, where my dad had a business conference. That’s why my grandmother and I had been here on our own.
She’d been a spry 70-year-old. But soon after what turned out to be her last visit to America, her beautiful, gentle mind started to slip. I watched from Skype in my home city of Rochester, New York, as she began to forget where she’d left her keys, whether she’d fed the cat, whether she had a cat. Bigger things, as time went on. The day came when my dad shut himself in his bedroom and cried, making me wish that his ex-wife was still around to comfort him, because I didn’t know how. Then came the day when my grandmother didn’t recognize the stranger calling her from a small city she’d never heard of.
I graduated from high school and entered college without much of a fuss; my junior year was when she died. A few days before her body succumbed to the numerous insults done to it by time and the poor diet of her youth, there was a brief glimmer. Over Skype, we showed her the picture I had taken of her, smiling, in the purple “I <3 San Fran” sweater, in front of a beautiful crimson trolleybus.
My babushka started to cry, and we did, too, overcome. Then she said, “I remember now. I remember … we never did pay that street performer. He had such a kind face, such a good voice.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.