Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Raise your hand if you ever took a typing class in high school. One or two hours a week dedicated to tapping keys in a windowless room, all girls except for two boys in the back row. I was of the Hunt and Peck variety, which meant I sacrificed speed by glancing away from the copy to find and press each key individually instead of relying on the memorized position of the keys. I probably took the class because I thought it would have something to do with writing, not transcribing at record speed. Nevertheless, it came in handy in college when I stayed up all night to finish term papers—the ding of the carriage return and clickety-clack not only made good company in the still dormitory, they provided just the right little-engine-that-could motion that kept me on track.

In the early nineties, I upgraded to a portable Brother electric typewriter to write a business plan for a restaurant. At the time, it seemed harebrained—an impossible dream (I was told many times), but once I started pecking, the words nudged each other forward—I think I can, I think I can. And when the lease for L’amie Donia was signed (oddly the space used to be a typewriter repair shop), we shoved a desk into the storage room upstairs and it became my office where I wrote menus with Brother. Downstairs carpenters hammered and drilled booths and bar tops, while I perched in my nest hatching summer dishes for a July opening.

For our first anniversary, my husband gave me a vintage Smith Corona (he’s never been subtle in urging me to write). It has a nice clatter even with neighboring arms jamming when pressed at the same time. In a crazy dream not too long ago, every key I pressed spurted batter instead of ink on the page. With every mistake I was forced to scrape away what looked like buttermilk pancakes off the carriage with a paring knife. I won’t even address the symbolism here, but what a mess! Talk about think before you write.

Brother retired sometime after my sister gave us a bright blue iMac which sat like a spaceship on my desk urging me to hop on board. Well, there was no going back after that, but I miss the bell, the springing forward of words that can’t be deleted, the commitment to staying on track. I love my laptop, but Brother never made it easy for me to walk away, erase, cut and paste, or check email in the middle of a paragraph. And when the day was done, you had something to show for it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Walk With Me

In the shopping center near my parents’ old apartment, there was a flower shop that stood apart from the rest of the storefronts, angular like a kiosk dropped there accidentally. Home for the holidays on winter break, I carefully filled an application there, even listed my hobbies (cooking, reading, writing), left out where I was from, and confessed to my lack of experience. I could identify roses, carnations, and tulips but couldn’t tell apart poinsettias from amaryllis. It didn’t matter. When I handed it to the lady behind the counter, she asked if I had a driver’s license and sighed with relief when I opened my wallet. Never mind that I hadn’t driven since I totaled the used ’72 Firebird my parents had scraped together the funds to buy for my graduation. She called her husband who was out making deliveries to give him the good news. He rushed back to give me the keys to a white Dodge van in the parking lot with it’s rear doors thrown open displaying several wreaths with huge red bows destined for a house in Atherton.

I was terrified. The van was like a small bus. I drove ten miles an hour with my foot on the brakes, peering over the steering wheel, sweaty palms clenching it like a lifesaver. How do I get to Atherton? Where the hell is Atherton? I had an address on Oak Grove and a map open on the passenger seat. I was lost. Circling Menlo Park, stopping to read the house numbers, realizing too late I was in the wrong town. Joyous when I finally found the house, I parked and carried the enormous wreath to an iron gate that opened to a long driveway. I heard the bark before I saw the German Shepard bounding toward me, all fangs, snarl and spit with nothing between us but laurel and holly, so I bolted like a scared rabbit back to the van. It was noon when I had left the shop and four-fifteen when I pulled into their parking spot, pretty scraped up from trying to squeeze into the driver’s seat with a holly wreath.

The proprietors, Mr. and Mrs. Wells, didn’t fire me. Instead, they let me stay in the shop to help take orders and learn to assemble flowers and wreaths in elaborate baskets. I was glad for this paid apprenticeship and they never asked me to make another delivery. Their children were grown with families of their own, they had both graduated from Berkeley and I suppose they were glad to have a student from their alma mater around. They once asked me where I was from originally and I lied, of course. No one in her right mind would confess to being Iranian in the middle of the hostage crisis.

My day started at nine when I helped Mr. Wells pull all the Christmas greens out front, all the while quizzing me on their names, then leaving me to arrange the giant clay pots of cyclamen and boxwood topiaries. Back inside, Mrs. W would offer me some of her Earl Grey tea and we’d go about the store and in the fridge “to shop”, as she liked to say, for that day’s orders. We filled the hours quickly. At noon I would be sent to the deli to pick up their usual (pastrami on rye) while I ate a tuna sandwich from home. They were generous with their knowledge and I proved to be reliable as long as I didn’t have to drive. After lunch, I’d help pack the van and Mr. Wells would leave to make the deliveries, always rolling down the window to call out “Now you girls hold down the fort 'til I get back!”

And we did. I helped guys who were buying flowers for their dates, ladies looking for pretty centerpieces for their dinner parties, and once, a nice man with shaggy hair who stopped in to buy some ferns and camellias. Together we carried the plants to his pick up truck and he followed me back into the shop and handed me a check. When I asked to see his driver’s license, his face lit up with a smile. I took down the number like I’d been told to do and he left whistling. Closing the drawer that evening, Mr. Wells gasped, “Neil Young was here? Here in my shop? Donia did you see him? Martha, did you help him? Look, look, look at this check!” He caressed the signature. “Who’s Neil Young?” I asked. He stared at me, incredulous.

Already dark by five thirty, I would bring the greenery inside and carry a watering can around the store, giving the plants one last drink. My father would often take an evening stroll and walk me home. More than once I saw him standing a few yards away in the waning light, wearing his dark wool coat with the collar turned up, hands shoved in his pockets. I’d wave. He’d nod and look away, quietly sobbing. His shoulders told me—oh how they shook. My father buried his face in his coat and waited for me to finish. We walked home in silence and you would think I’d have asked “Why are you crying, Daddy?” But no, I was too afraid of the answer: because it wasn’t meant to happen this way, because I dreamed a different dream for my daughters, because you have dirt under your fingernails, because you are too young, because you’re giving up your youth, because. His daughter should not have to work in a flower shop, for god’s sake! But my parents had taught me everything I knew about hard work. And what about everything they’d given up for me? Their home, their country, brothers and sisters, friends, patients, work, family albums, all left behind so I could be here, in this world of possibilities, to live in it, free and in charge of my own becoming.

By the time we reached our front door, one of us would wonder aloud what my mother had made for dinner and the spell was broken. My mother opened the door and pulled me in for a hug and a sniff. She said she liked the wintry smell we carried inside and while I washed up, I’d hear them in the kitchen carrying silverware and glasses, the evening news coming on, and the smell of rice and stew that drew us to the table where we were no longer unmoored. The television glowed and while we waited for Jeopardy, I told them about my day, sometimes embellishing an encounter to draw a chuckle. My mother nourished us, anchored us, and slowly we felt the ebb of the emotion that had blindsided us out there.

Three weeks went by and it was time to go back to school. I hated leaving the cozy routine of the shop. They even had a little goodbye party for me. Mr. Wells, always generous, said, “Invite your mom and dad!” But on my last afternoon, it was just the three of us, and a carrot cake. Neil Young on the stereo. A few weeks later, I wrote to the Wells and told them where I was from. Originally. They wrote back and said they didn’t care.