“You know, I’m a vegetarian,” says Sumi, the petite woman standing to my right.
“Oh. That’s funny. Me, too ... well, sort of ...” As I glance over my shoulder in an attempt to catch her eye, I fight the urge to raise my eyebrows.
Oh, the irony. The two ... well, one-and-a-half vegetarians are almost elbow deep in turkey carcass, wading through the coagulating fat juice, searching for bits of choice meat that may have fallen into the marshland of turkey skin, flesh, and bone. With the noon start time of the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center senior holiday party barely under an hour away, the turkey carving crew of two was way ahead of schedule.
Sumi had surprised me with her revelation. I thought for sure she carved fowl on a regular basis, so even were her cuts, so efficient were her knife strokes. In fact, I had curbed my normal get-to-know-you conversational banter for the past half hour (there were numerous turkeys) so as to keep up and keep focused; as a violinist, an accidentally sliced finger would prove far more than incovenient.
As we sifted through the fat dregs with our gloved hands, our knives set aside for the moment, she began to question me. How did I find out about the Neighborhood Center? Why did I decide to volunteer? I couldn’t help but loosen up and breathe a little more easily. Yes, my decision to keep quiet while working had been for concentration, but it was also a trained reflexive response to older Asian women with penetrating eyes and seemingly stoic lips. She was not quite old enough to be my mother, but the shimmering strands of gray in her neatly bobbed and otherwise black hair--not a split end in sight--conveyed an air of maturity and unflappable self assurance. She elicited my respect and a little fear. I had felt that I could not openly address her with a cheery smile and a list of questions, as is my usual way. I would wait for Sumi to address me. So, when she did, and with such an unortho-Asian-dox statement--vegetarianism for a woman of her generation is not common--I, albeit relieved from the weighted silence, felt thrown for a loop. But I answered her questions simply and quickly, as I generally do with my parents' friends on first introduction. I told her that I am relatively new to California. That I work down the street at Bernal Yoga and occasionally pass the Neighborhood Center. That I always have wanted to work with seniors, and so a few weeks ago I strolled into the building, met Roland, the senior program coordinator, and discussed creating a music appreciation class for the senior community due to start in January 2011.
Pie for dessert
Sumi tells me that she is Japanese, but originally from Hawaii. That she has worked at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center for seventeen years. And that when she first started, one didn’t dare walk down the main street, Cortland Avenue, at night out of concern for safety. I find this hard to imagine. Today Cortland Avenue is a hotbed for families with children and dogs. Kitchy meets hip in this hilly enclave, probably a result of the widely spread socio-economic range of the Bernal community.
Sparsely populated and mainly pastureland at the turn of the 20th century, Bernal Hill saw an influx of workers following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The workers, who during the day helped rebuild downtown, in the evenings went home to their families on the hill. And in recent years, young urban professionals are starting to buy property and raise their families here, creating the need for a premium grocery store, nice restaurants and cafes, cute retail clothes shops ... and the yoga studio where I teach. During my off hours, I run across the street to the newly renovated public library branch, where the diverse demographic makeup of the community is quite nicely represented among the stacks or seated at the reading carrels.
In fact, as I deliberately open my senses to survey the seniors, volunteers, and staff gathered in the kitchen and adjoining cafeteria area, I hear Spanish in multiple accents, amusedly watch my new gay volunteer friend, Don, flirt with the old ladies (Don had previously introduced me to one of the visually impaired seniors as “the girl who was just released from prison”), and notice couples that could have easily passed as my grandparents.
My reverie is broken by a beautiful alto voice singing “Oh When the Saints.” It’s Sumi, my carving partner, the Director of Asset Management at Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center.
The entertainment has arrived--two guitar players and a percussionist--and the seniors are starting to sing Christmas carols. The two huge aluminum trays of dark and white turkey meat are warming up in the oven. It’s Friday, and I’m due at the yoga studio at noon, so I start to pack my things up, carefully removing my lawfully required hairnet and plastic gloves.
The morning has been full of surprises ... of things seemingly out of place, but not really. Place is relative, defined by its constantly changing content and context. And as I step out into the noon sun, I realize it is me that is still getting used to my current one.
Listening to the music
To my family and friends in my Maryland, DC, and NY places ... I'm coming back to visit! Let me know if you'll be around during the holidays ... 'til soon!