Chinese at the bus station

In the early 1990s, when I was new to San Francisco, I worked at a survey company. Yeah, I was one of those annoying voices who rang your phone to ask your opinion on different light bulbs or detergents.

A woman named Matilda worked at that job, too, and she was a drunk. That’s not an insult, just a fact, and she said it herself many times. She packed beer in her lunch, and said she was almost never completely sober, but she possessed an amazing talent for sounding sober, even sincere, as she read survey scripts over the phone.

She was about 40 but looked 55, neither especially pretty nor especially not, but she had a wicked and cynical sense of humor, and a thousand stories to tell. She told stories in the break room, and they were great stories — far better than the story I’m about to tell you. Matilda was a dame who’d already lived a life, damn it. Maybe a life and a half.

One night at quitting time, she asked what I was doing after work — just chit-chat I think, and I said, “Chinese at the bus station.” That’s all, five words that wouldn’t make sense to most people, but she knew instantly what it meant, and invited herself along. 

The bus station was the old Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco, a few blocks walk from where we worked. Inside that ancient, gloomy, and almost empty building, there were three cheap but good restaurants — a diner that served the world’s finest grits for breakfast, a Chinese place with a full menu and an all-derelict crowd, and a hamburger dive that had trays of pickle chips and onions at the counter, so you could have your burger any darn way you wanted.

It was affordable food, and it was better with Matilda. While we ate, she’d tell stories about where she’d been and what she’d done, and she’d been everywhere and done everything. She’d worked on a fishing ship in Alaska, and on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, picked oranges in Florida, and somehow now she was dialing phones for surveys in a crappy no-window office in San Francisco. “Never been married, though,” she said. “I’ve done everything, but never been dumb enough to do that.”

Then she’d tell another outrageous story. Her dad had beaten her up, she said, so she’d run away at 15 and never returned home. She'd been homeless for several years. Here in San Francisco, there was a bar she couldn’t go back to, because during an argument she’d kicked the owner in the balls. “You wouldn’t think he’d hold a grudge,” she said, “but...”

A heavy drinker she was, and booze was involved in some of her best stories. She said she’d gotten drunk once with Sean Penn’s brother, and blown him — told me that story twice, actually, and she was proud of it. And she’d won a drunk karaoke contest in Japan. And she’d been arrested for not drunk driving, and learned that it’s illegal to sleep it off on the shoulder. 

Alcohol has never been my habit, but I understood her need to escape. This world can be fucking horrible, and whatever takes you someplace better can't be all bad.

So it was Matilda and me at the Transbay, once or twice a week after work. After dinner, she’d always say something like, “I’m going home to swallow some beer, and sleep if I have to.” Then she'd walk the few blocks to her apartment South of Market, which she shared with a girlfriend, and I'd bus to my roachy rez hotel in the Mission. 

I can be platonic friends with a woman, no worries, but I’m not a saint, and the thought of something more was sometimes in my mind. A fat lonely geeky guy eating dinner six times a month with a not-unattractive woman, you’re damned right the thought occurred.

The dinners and friendship were nice, though, and I didn’t want to gamble them away. And also, while her drinking didn’t frighten me, she smoked like a tire fire, and tobacco breath wilts any erection I’ve ever had. Matilda always smoked as we walked to the bus station, and lit up as soon as we stepped out of the building, after every dinner.

There was one night, though, when things might have been different in some alternate universe… 

We were finishing our hamburgers, and she mentioned that she couldn’t go home yet. Her flatmate was "having a rendezvous, ooh la la," and she’d asked Matilda to yield the living room until 8:00. After that, I guess, the action would be in the bedroom instead of the living room, so Matilda could go home, but it wasn’t even 6:00 yet. She asked me, “Any idea what a girl could do for two hours?”

Maybe I was supposed to recommend a movie, but instead I said, “Wellllll, you could hang out with me at my place,” rolling the dice because we’d had about twenty dinners at the bus station by then.

She shrugged and said, “Sounds great,” so we took a 14 Mission to my rez hotel. I figured we’d probably just watch TV, but a guy can hope and you never know. When we got off the bus and started walking toward the hotel, she darted into a bodega and bought a six-pack of cheap beer. From what she’d told me about her drinking, I figured it would be one can for me and five for her, which was OK by me, and also exactly what happened.

At the hotel after we’d climbed the steps, I thought I heard her say “Shit!” under her breath, when she saw a man in the hall wearing a badly blood-stained Christmas sweater. As I put my key in the hole and twisted, I warned her, “I’m kind of a slob,” and opened the door. She said “Shit!” again, but this time there was no mistaking it.

She stepped inside, sat on the bed, popped open a beer and passed one to me, and we watched Home Improvement or something equally forgettable. Her eyes kept looking around the room, though, so I looked at the room through her eyes, and agreed “Shit!” was an apt description. The trash can was overflowing, there were dirty clothes in the corner, old newspapers stacked by the door, there was a long earthquake-crack in the wall, the sink had about 80 years of stains and a dead roach in it, the floor had a slight tilt and wobble, and the underwear I’d washed in the sink that morning was clipped to a wire stretched across the room.

I’d thought, maybe, there was a long shot at some smooching, but it was clear from the second “Shit!” that wasn’t happening. Also not helpful, after ten minutes or so, there came a loud rapping at the door. It was a neighbor from downstairs, an ancient man with tattoos all down his arms, white stubble on his face, and a cigarette hanging from his lips. He was bringing me two quarters because I’d spotted him 50¢ a week earlier. When he saw I wasn’t alone he said, “Oooooh, I didn’t know,” with the emphasis on Oooooh, which probably sealed my doom for the night if it hadn’t already sealed itself. 

During the next commercial after my neighbor had left, Matilda said, “You live here, huh?" I nodded. "Nothing personal, but this is the saddest place I’ve ever seen.” She meant it sincerely, you couldn’t miss the look in her eyes, and from her stories I knew she’d seen some sad places.

“It is shit,” I agreed, “but believe me, it’s better than what I came from.”

She said, “Yeah, I know what you mean,” and high-fived me. Then she offered me a second beer, but I’d only had maybe two sips on my first. Her can was empty, though, so — pssst.

She asked if she could smoke in the room, but I suggested we go for a walk instead, so we walked laps around the block while she chain-smoked half a dozen cigarettes and told more great stories. She told me about getting into a fight during a church sermon in her 30s. She told me about winning a karaoke contest in Japan. She told me about braining a boyfriend with a pie-roller. “Oh, man, he deserved it,” she said, and went on to explain why.

At about a quarter to 8, we stopped walking at a bus stop, and she put out her cigarette because a 14 was coming. She’d drank three beers by then, and was carrying two in her hand by the plastic.

I offered to accompany her on the bus, because it was after dark and this was the Mission, but she said, “I’ll be safer if I don’t have to protect you, Doug,” and then she laughed and laughed, and I laughed too. It’s funny because it’s true. 

A few nights later, we were back eating grits at the Transbay Terminal. We never stopped eating grits, or Chinese, or hamburgers there, until I quit that job. After that I only saw Matilda twice more, both times just in passing on the sidewalk, a few words and then goodbye.

Now, the bus station is long gone. The survey company is even longer gone. I’ve been gone myself for twenty years, and tonight I was wondering about Matilda.

Google knows all, tells all, especially if your name is unique, long, and Madagascan, so Matilda was easy to find. She’d be about 70 years old now, and how she came to own a bar in Pittsburgh, well, I’ll bet that’s a hell of a story.



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