When we first arrived in California we rented a town-home in Brisbane. It was at a cul-de-sac, down Apricot Avenue and not far from the crossing of Dartmouth and Pacific. Apparently not many of our friends knew much about Brisbane, a town hidden in the east end of the San Bruno Mountain. We came to know about it through Gary, a Chinese coworker in my company. He also helped us with a real estate agent, who found the town house. Folks living this town were mostly blue color workers: Italian and Portuguese immigrants. As the real estate prices increased, a small sprinkling of starter Asian American families working in the tech companies around here and in Silicon Valley in the south started moving in. As such it appeared good enough a place for us to begin our life in this area. The building we rented in had four two-story town-homes. The end ones were three-bed rooms and two-baths. And the middle two were two-bedrooms and two-baths. Ours was on the north end, away from the street and next to a line of juniper trees that form the back fence of a row of single family homes on Cherry Lane. Our kitchen and the living room were in the ground floor. There was also a half bathroom. “A half bathroom?” I asked the rental agent, not knowing then what a half bathroom was like. “There is a sink and a toilet there,” replied the agent, a short white man in his early fifties with back-brushed hair and a demeanor of an uncle. “Just no shower stall,” he pleasantly added with a soothing smile.
And that was all right with us. There was a covered patio on the back of the living room and on one end of it was a small laundry room, with a lockable door. The patio was screened, something that felt new and charming to us. Past the patio we had a small back yard, with red-wood fences on all sides. Over time, the fence woods have turned dusty dark gray. The owner of the town-house, a Taiwanese family, who has moved to a single family home in Palo Alto, had raised some flower and vegetable beds along the fences. They also put a concrete floor on the rest of the back yard. When we moved in, blackened dry skeletons of some withered plants were sticking up from the raised beds; and a mint bush with semi dried leaves with brownish edges was still alive. In early enthusiasm, we watered and made the soil soggy in hopes of growing vegetables. I must mention that being the northern most house, our backyard had an exit door. It led to an outside paved parking lot, where we parked our car: a second hand Honda Civic that we bought from a local used car dealer. It was blue with a metallic sheen, the only aesthetic of the car that my wife grudgingly approved; besides we could not afford a new car at that time.
All our bedrooms were on the second floor, each room with its own window with plenty of outside light. The window of the master bed room overlooked a small patch of green in front of the building. It was across another town house in the opposite building. That place was rented by Donald Dillard and his family. They had been living there for many years. “Over ten,” Donald mentioned to me later one day. And that was when we moved in our town-house. They were still living there when we left ten years later. Initially I had difficulty remembering Donald’s name, mixing up with Daniel, my Vietnamese neighbor next door. So I thought if I remember McDonalds, the restaurant chain, it would help me recall his name. Then, one morning, as he was collecting the garbage bins from street, I approached him and called him Mac. He looked at me, startled first but then smiling. He must have realized why I called him Mac and not Donald. But he did not seem to take any offense. Nor did he mention anything.
Medium built and thin and with orange-yellow rim glasses, Donald had the look of a gentle man. His family was very religious; and his wife was more so, I felt, than him. They were not native Californians, like us in some way. They had moved here from Midwest somewhere, he once told me. The family drove an old Chrysler station wagon. It was brown and the outside panel around the edges looked like wood. But it was faux wood, because, if you happen to touch, it had plastic-feel. There was a sticker on its back bumper with a famous quotation: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” I somehow believed that the principle of the quotation was more appropriate on my car than on Donald’s, as I grudgingly maintained that I must be intellectually superior. And I am still not sure if it was my subconsciously jealousy. But, with a daughter and two pre-teen age sons, the Dillard’s lived quietly and in apparent peace.
As we often met outside, Donald would, in some appropriate occasion, invite me to come with him to his church, “The Holy Trinity of the Peninsula” and I, though never declined outright, showed lukewarm interest. And I could feel that he was not totally disheartened and would try again someday later.
The daughter, Ann, the oldest child, was modest and in the middle of this fast Silicon Valley life showed the mental disposition of a mature, well-bred young woman. Like her parents she was thin and had a blondish brown hair. Some pre-teen speckles on her cheek and neck line were still visible. She never seemed to use any of the modern low cut or over dazzling dresses and I did not remember her going out with any friend, boy or girl. It appeared that her social life, like that of her parents, revolved around the church. And so was with the two young sons as well. They had a golden German shepherd and the dog was well taken care of by the whole family. The special thing about Donald’s wife was that she never seemed to speak with any of her neighbors, men or women. And we suspected that she might have been either shy or prejudiced to foreigners; though she never showed any disregard towards anyone, neither through act nor words. And I envisioned that her rural Midwestern upbringing might have been the reason. May be she was from a farming family. Just a guess, I must admit. And I never had any chance to authenticate that.
Donald’s wife worked full time somewhere. Her appearance fit nicely with a secretary in a library or a school. I would see her leaving home early in the morning on office days, as I would leave for my own office. With old style haircut, she always seemed to wear a long cream colored polyester shirt and a brown sweater on top and a long plaid skirt. She would carry a leather bag with long straps on her shoulder, another bag in her left hand and a cup of coffee in her right hand. She would put the coffee cup on the top of the car, open the car door with a key, put the key in her long skirt’s pocket and move the coffee cup inside. I could see the white steam slowly spewing up from her cup. Looking older, may be, than her age, thin and pale, I tried to make a mental study about her and the family. But beyond Donald’s discussion about the church and religion, I could get no further.
“I want to go to the heaven,” Donald told me once, as I was coming from a walk one week end morning.
I looked at him with a smile, not knowing what to respond. “And the way things are going around, the only way is to the hell”, he said. Then he mentioned about some story of their church congregation. I listened to him in fake attention, always thinking he might then be asking me to go to the church with him. But he did not. His young son came back with their dog. And that saved me. The discussion ended abruptly and with an assumed possibility that we should talk about it again at a convenient later date. At that time we were in discussion to buy this new house in Burlingame, which we soon did and then moved out of the old place and sold it. And thus I never got the opportunity to talk with Donald after that.
Then one day, some year later, after we had moved out of the house and the locality, another neighbor, Jason Flinger, mentioned of them to me. The daughter, Anne, had got married, soon after we left that place. But the marriage, Jason told, did not last very long and within a year and a half she was separated; and so she came back to live with her parents, in their old rental townhouse again. Jason could not throw much light as to why the marriage failed. Though they both were the white American families, they did not seem to have any rapport. At least that’s how it appeared to us from outside. And it did bother me sometimes. “I want to stay away from them,” Jason once fleetingly mentioned about the Dillards, eyes closed, smirking as if it is sour and shaking his head. I did not get to ask why.
To our horror we were also informed that Donald’s youngest son had died in an accident. He went to a summer leadership camp, near a lake in Napa County up north, with their church group. And during swimming in the lake with friends, he went too far in the middle and did not have enough strength to swim back all the way. And he drowned. That was very sad; the boy might have been barely twelve or thirteen. I could remember him taking their dog every evening for walk. Sure, I did not like that they, sometime, allowed their dog to poop around the neighborhood and they did not care to clean it. That was a point of our silent clash, but it never went out of hand.
But the news of the death brought back the memory of another sad incident in my childhood when my cousin brother drowned in the river in Polashdanga. I know it is far from America but when I arrived in this country new, I was astonished by the scrupulous discipline this country has about safety. And I practically accepted that things like that would never happen here.
Jason Flinger, I just mentioned, was Donald’s next door neighbor. At that time, he appeared to be in his mid-forties to mid-fifties. But honestly, my judgment about someone’s age has often proven wrong. Shoma, my wife, would remind me of that on every occasion she gets. At around five feet two to three, Jason would be considered short for a Caucasian man. He was thin, lean and looked haggard. Getting prematurely bent, Jason was single. And quiet. He worked in construction business, as a carpenter. And the physical abrasion that the profession demanded left him weak and often with troublesome joint problems. So he had to reduce his work hours and spend more time in physical therapy. He would rely on his local union to look for temporary job suitable for his health condition. Never married, he realized late that he has missed his boat to get a suitable partner. Either that realization or what, I am not sure, he subtly began courting a neighbor’s wife, an Asian lady. I did not know this story at that time. Nor did I anticipate any relation to this incidence to the mutual disharmony that he had with the Dillard family. Human relation has been a mysterious domain in my geography.
Beside the Dillards and Jason, our little neighborhood was a microcosm of American melting pot. The Truongs were Vietnamese, a Korean family, a Chinese and an African American family. The Smiths, another white American couple, who lived on the other end of our complex, had then just retired and sold their town home to this Korean family, and were about to be moving to Grass Valley, a small California town in the Sierra foothills. “It’s been twenty four years this last June,” Mrs. Smith mentioned to me one day that they had been in their house. Their two children grew up here, went to the nearby schools and were grown up, on their own then and gone. I had been in their house, to make a telephone call one day as I locked myself out. I liked their house; the living room had a fire place, something we did not have. We always noticed the white painted brick chimney from outside, next to the footpath that ran along the road. Shoma wanted a fireplace but she preferred the house away from the road. But it’s a quiet area and the traffic is not that busy, except in the morning and evening office hours. Smith’s had a black and white rug in American Indian motif, spread in front of the fire place. Next to the fire place was a window, overlooking the footpath nearby. We did not have a window either in the middle of our living room wall. That’s because, there was a parking shed attached to our wall on the other side. Mrs. Smith looked old, but not infirm, mentioned that they enjoyed the quiet of the place over the years but they wanted to live in a cheaper place now that they were retiring. Their home price had appreciated many times over the years that they had owned it and they would use the profit to pay down for a house at Grass Valley. She mentioned that some of her known friends, also of retirement age had moved in the nearby areas. I heard the story before, and the Smiths confirmed me that many people from the Bay area, at their golden retirements, end up living in the Sierra foothills, where prices are cheaper.
The Korean family who bought the house from them was a young couple with a baby. Soft spoken, shy and quiet, they would carry their baby in a stroller along the narrow paved path in front of our house. The husband worked in a health care industry, may be a doctor’s assistant, I never got to ask him. He would often pass by our house in a sky blue scrub used by doctor’s office staff. I say a doctor’s assistant, because a doctor most probably won’t be living in this place. We had young engineers living here. Like me, I knew Sam, a young Lebanese engineer from Beirut, who lived in a nearby quarter and worked for an electronics company; he was a director of our home owners’ association. But a doctor? That may be stretching a bit. I still maintain that they would think themselves as a different breed. I knew that Shoma always complained about Mrs. Ganguly, the Bengali doctor’s wife.
Mrs. Ganguly would be always arriving late in social gatherings. And then in mock exasperation she had to declare: ‘You know the life of a doctor’s wife.’ “As if she was so busy,” Shoma bristled. Full of heavy gold jewelry, twenty four carat at that, all over her body, she demanded special attention from all Bengali wives. “As if we don’t understand,” Shoma would open up at home. “Every time she attends a party, she is late.” She took a breather from peeling potatoes in the kitchen one morning after a gathering. She was assembling material for making aloo paratha for our brunch that Sunday. “And after coming every time she has to announce that her husband is a doctor!”
“And a brain surgeon at that,” I would smile to rub to her wound.
“Don’t laugh,” she would admonish me. “It’s not fun anymore”.
I could feel the heat in her voice. “And when the engineers are doing a little better in the stock market, she could not take it anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean?” Shoma barked at me. “The other day she was telling ‘Now-a-days even the engineers are doing well.” She imitated her pronunciation with a sneer. “With such a tone as if the engineers are not supposed to earn any money.” She stopped a little. “Nakamo!” she scoffed.
I share her pain. Her brother-in-law is a doctor in Hoogly, a district town back in West Bengal. She knows how well they live; her sister could get anything she wanted. Being an engineer’s wife did not turn out to be as charming as she once dreamed; particularly in this bay area, where the real estate market is so tight that your mortgage would soak up most of your earning. She had not forgotten that she could not buy a house in Cupertino. The school district is good there and all Asian families have their eyes there. Many of her friends also wanted to buy homes in that neighborhood. During lonely moments she would imagine that she had bought a house there and then gossiping about it among her friends when she visited a Bengali party. She imagined of talking about her Cupertino house: ‘You know our neighbors,’ she would boast about her rich neighborhood. And her Bengali friends would eagerly look at her to hear story about Cupertino. The jealous look in their eyes would make her feel good. And a sense of happy feeling rippled through her spine.
But, you know, we could not buy it there. All our offers to buy a place were above the asking price, and still they were all overbid. Shoma was angry at the Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong who brought hoards of dollars and snapped up all the homes there. “They are here to buy all of America,” she was jealous of their money. “Cupertino should be renamed Cuperchino”. And then she agreed to buy the house in Burlingame.