Golden Gate Transit

We had been riding for about twenty minutes. I was looking out the window, first at the houses of Sausalito, then at the greenish water of the bay. I was new to the area and its morning fog was mysterious and wonderful to me. I used to stare at it for hours.

I do not know why I felt a strange urge to turn my head away from the window, but when I did I saw him, sitting in the seat next to me, fully clothed and fully exposed. His pale, flaccid penis, his limp testicles, were nestled between his forest green wool-covered legs, like some kind of poison fungus, both fragile and sinister. He stared straight ahead.

Acting instinctively, I did what my parochial school training had prepared me to do in such emergencies: I found the authority figure, in this case the bus driver, and I alerted him. He was, of course, at the front of the bus. I was toward the back. I had to climb over my seat mate, trying not to brush against his penis, to get to the aisle. I probably said "Excuse me." The walk to the front was interminable. I was sure everyone was watching me. I felt ashamed. Had I done something to make this happen? Would I get in trouble?

"Excuse me," I whispered, my voice even softer than the flaccid penis I had just seen. I wished, instead of a male bus driver, I could report this incident to Sister Mary Perpetua, my Catholic grammar school principal. I had not liked her, but I felt she would know how to handle this situation. She would get out her ruler and whack him one. "Put that thing away, young man," she would say, "and meet me in my office."

"Yes?" The bus driver's voice was loud. You might even say booming.

"Excuse me, but there is a man on the bus exposing himself."

"What?" His voice got louder. His response to my whisper was to yell, as if to tell me, Speak up young lady, I can't hear you. Even as an adult woman, I got called young lady regularly.

"There is a man on the bus exposing himself." I tried to raise my voice, but I could not do it. I could not say "exposing himself" in anything but a whisper. Not in a public place.

"What?"

"There is a man on the bus exposing himself."

I managed to make myself heard. The bus driver turned his head sharply toward the back of the bus, but continued driving. There was really nothing he could do; we were on the Golden Gate Bridge. I sat in the empty front seat and fled at the first stop in San Francisco.

I had just graduated from college when this happened, and it was the first time my eyes fully set on a penis. I'd kissed, of course, been to second base, declined numerous opportunities to have drunken sex with guys whose names I don't remember in the backseats of cars or single beds in college dorm rooms. I pretended I was sexually experienced to most of my girlfriends, as I thought they were. I laughed knowingly whenever the subject of sex came up, tried for a sophisticated "I can relate" facial expression, but the truth was, until that day, the only penis I had ever seen was my younger brother's when we were kids.

I was waiting to be in love before I had sex; I wanted my first time to be special. But after graduating from college without having fallen in love with anyone who fell in love back, I was starting to think that it was time to just do it. I was tired of living a lie. One of my goals once I had moved to San Francisco, was to lose my virginity, which I did several months after arriving in the city, in a loft bed with a marijuana-smoking musician named Bill.

A few weeks after I saw this stranger's penis I was with some girlfriends having dinner, and after my second glass of wine I told this story for the first time. I expected gasps of shock and sympathy as I revealed my shameful incident. But Margaret and Carol immediately burst into laughter. "Did you hear that Marg?" Carol said. "Someone exposed himself to Julie and she told the bus driver."

This was hilarious to them? I sat there, taken aback, but enjoying the laugh. So this kind of experience was funny? I would be rewarded with laughter when I told it? Interesting.

What is fascinating to me now, twenty years later, is that the story is not entirely true as I have told it. I was not a virgin when this happened. I met Carol, who introduced me to Margaret, when I began working as an administrative assistant at an advertising agency a couple of weeks after my brief relationship with Bill ended. The stranger on the bus exposed himself to me some months after I had sex for the first time. His was the second penis, not the first, that I experienced as an adult woman.

Something happened between me and this incident after I told it to Margaret and Carol over that dinner: It changed from a creepy experience into a story, my story, one that I would tell regularly because I knew it would make people laugh, and making people laugh made me feel good, gave me a sense of control. At some point, the second, third, or fourth time I told the story, I tweaked the truth a little. I made myself more sexually inexperienced than I really was. To dramatize my feelings of shame, I used the word interminable to describe the walk to the front of the bus, which took about thirty seconds. To emphasize my timid whisper, I made the bus driver's voice booming.

I had told the tweaked version so many times that I began believing it was true.

Contemplating this fib I have been guiltlessly telling makes me wonder: When did the lie become true to me and how can I be sure I haven't fudged other details? How do I know the stranger on the bus had green pants? Did I make that up too because the image of the mushroom-shaped penis is more visually arresting if it is nestled in forest green? I am not sure about this, but what I am sure about is that when I shut my eyes and bring up this memory, I always see green pants, never red or black or yellow, so I believe they really were green. Maybe they were khaki, or dark brown, or even green plaid. Who knows? All I can be sure about is that I really was on the bus going from Marin County to San Francisco, a man really did show me his penis, I did tell the bus driver, did feel ashamed, Margaret and Carol did laugh when I told them.

Switzerland

My friend Deb and I were hiking in the Alps. It was my first time in Europe and I was euphoric. I did not know it at the time, but this trip would mark the end of one phase of my life and the beginning of another. The end of what I now think of as "The early years in San Francisco." During these years I was an administrative assistant for, in this order, a bank, an advertising agency, and a news magazine. I changed jobs and bosses regularly, but no matter who I worked for, or what company, I was always dissatisfied, bored and slightly resentful that I had to type someone else's memos and organize their careers while mine seemed to be going nowhere.

But that day in the Alps I was not thinking of my job. I was too busy reveling in the beauty of Switzerland. We had just come from four days in London, three in Paris and five in Rome and had enjoyed each of these crowded, noisy, polluted, vibrant cities immensely. We were stunned by the contrast of Switzerland's magnificent mountains, clean air, unlittered trails.

"It's so unspoiled," I said.

"Yeah. So green and perfect. Look at that." Deb pointed to one of the peaks. When we turned to look in another direction, we caught sight of a man, presumably Swiss, standing among some trees. He was holding himself and looking sheepishly toward us.

"Hello," we both said.

He nodded a greeting. We started walking away.

"He must have just gone to the bathroom," I said.

"Of course. There's nothing wrong with that."

We were startled but not afraid. It seemed natural, in these wooded mountains, to come across a man relieving himself in the shelter of trees, nothing to be afraid of. Calmly, we kept walking. Rapidly, so did he, obviously in a hurry to get away from us. Poor man, we had probably embarrassed him.

About ten minutes later, as we turned a corner, I saw him again, standing among more trees.

"Deb, look."

He was holding his very erect, uncircumcised penis between his hands, a big idiotic grin on his face. Look at this, he seemed to be saying, isn't it something?

"Oh my God," said Deb, "It's enormous."

It was beyond enormous. It was humongous. It was mountainous. It was a missile, a torpedo, a warhead. It was without a doubt, the biggest penis either of us had ever seen. And he seemed like the biggest idiot we had ever seen: a frightening combination.

"Let's get out of here."

We practically ran down the mountain. He did not follow us and when we returned to our hotel, we ordered a bottle of wine, drank it and laughed. We imagined telling our friends in America about this unsolicited view of one of the many natural Swiss wonders.

Being with a friend when a man shows you his penis makes all the difference. Having Deb there helped make this an instant anecdote—something I talked and laughed about over dinner and crafted into something I would store in my memory and pull out later at parties. "Look at this," I would say as I told my story, making the Swiss guy dumber and his penis bigger with every telling. "Look at this, isn't it funny?"

Every important part of my retelling has withstood the test of my inventory, except possibly the size of the man's penis. I still believe it was much larger than average, the biggest I'd experienced before or since, but when I shut my eyes and visualize, it is the size of a jumbo condiment dispenser. I doubt it really was.

Barcelona

I'd completed a master's degree in English, was working as a public relations writer for a hospital, my first job that didn't include the word assistant in the title. After writing press releases and newsletters for three years, I realized it didn't really matter what my title was, or what work I did; if I was working in an office, I was miserable.

And so, six years after seeing the Swiss man in the mountains, three months after taking a teacher training course, I was living in Barcelona, near the Cathedral and its medieval gargoyles that glared down at the cobblestones, protecting the city from evil spirits. During the two years I lived there, I often went to a cavernous, noisy bar in the corner of the Placa Real, a large plaza frequented by gypsies, pickpockets, hashish peddlers and tourists. One night, I was there with a group of new friends I had met through my Spanish class and we were all drinking Vodka Limones—bracingly strong cocktails made of two parts vodka and one part Schweppes Bitter Lemon. On my way to the bathroom, I climbed the wooden stairs deliberately, and it happened again: A man, this time with dark hair and a mustache, wearing blue jeans and a white shirt, turned to me as I entered the restroom, thrusting his penis toward me. Blood rushed to my face as I scrambled down the rickety stairs, acutely embarrassed. Had I entered the wrong room? I was always making mistakes in Spain, trying to exit through wrong doors, getting lost in winding alleys, asking for ojos (eyes) when I wanted huevos (eggs) in the market. Could I have just made another of my clueless-American blunders?

No, I decided, I couldn't have. My Spanish was weak but I definitely knew the difference between Mujeres (women) and Hombres (men). And there was something in the man's eyes: a wild, wolfish look. He did not seem embarrassed. He seemed excited.

"Are you all right?" asked Claudia, as I sidled up to the bar. Claudia was German but in social situations we spoke in English and Spanish.

"Yes, but you're not going to believe what just happened. I climbed to the top of the stairs and turned right to go to the bathroom. I thought the lady's room was to the right."

"It is to the right," said Kathy.

"Well, I turned right, and the door was open, and a man was there, facing the wall, and when I walked in he turned and exposed himself to me."

"He did what?" said Christian, Claudia's very good-looking German boyfriend.

"Exposed himself, showed me his dick. It looked like his pants were still buttoned at the top. Could he have just forgotten to zip his pants?" I said, not wanting Christian to think I was a prudish American.

"Of course not. A man doesn't do that accidentally. Men know when they're doing something like that." Christian was so emphatic, so on my side, I felt like hugging him.

"Wait a minute,'" said Kathy, "Let me get this straight. There was a man in the women's bathroom. And he showed you his willy?"

"Yes. That's right. He showed me his willy."

"Oh, you poor darlin'," said Barry, with his inimitable Irish brogue. "There's nothin' worse than an unsolicited penis."

"Do you need a hug?" said David.

Yes, I thought, from Christian.

"No," I said, "I need another drink."

"Camerero," said Claudia, "Otro vodka limon por favor."

"Well,'" said Christian, "What was it like?"

I didn't miss a beat. "Medium."

We laughed.

I was getting good at this. Whatever humiliation I had suffered, my way of recovering from it was to turn it into a story, something I owned and controlled. By making it funny, making people laugh, I felt powerful. And it was a much stronger feeling than the powerlessness I felt when forced to look at that man's penis, which really was medium. This detail deserves no embellishing.

San Francisco Municipal Rail, 31-Balboa Line

I was riding home from my job in downtown San Francisco, having recently returned from two years in Spain. Barcelona had given me what I wanted and needed: work that engaged me. Maybe teaching English is no more important than writing PR materials or typing press releases. But teaching felt important. What I taught my students mattered to me, and it mattered whether or not they learned.

It was the late nineties, and the dot com wave of money, ambition and youth that almost washed away the San Francisco I loved was cresting. Venture capitalists were giving away billions of dollars to twenty-something college graduates who planned to retire by the time they were thirty, having cashed in their stock options. SUVs clogged the streets. Artists fled the city, their studios, performance spaces and galleries converted into slick offices. Rents doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled before the boom went bust in 2000.

I was working for a small language academy that didn't even give me health benefits. I made $17,000 my first year back in San Francisco, including the unemployment benefits I collected when I was laid off for the summer. My friends' careers were flourishing and they were saving money to buy houses and condos. I was in my mid-thirties and I'd had to borrow money from my mom to make a security deposit on an apartment. I had no hope of ever owning a home, or being able to retire, or even afford a vacation.

The thing about being in a life transition is that sometimes you don't know what you're transitioning to. If I had known then that within three years I would have a well-paid teaching job and most of the dot com kids would be unemployed, fleeing San Francisco in rented U-Hauls because they could no longer afford to live in the city they had helped make so expensive, I would have been able to sit back and enjoy the ride. But of course, I didn't know this. All I knew was that I was broke and everyone else was rich. I lived in a constant state of anxiety about my lack of money.

That afternoon I was on the 31-Balboa, a bus that begins its route downtown and loops through the Tenderloin, the neighborhood that not only includes the highest concentration of children in San Francisco, but also the highest concentration of strip clubs, drug dealers and prostitutes. The bus stopped at Twentieth Avenue, where I lived with a roommate in an overpriced apartment.

We were riding through the Tenderloin when I heard the man behind me chattering.

"Yeah, it's a nice day. It's a beautiful day. I don't know what I'm going to do. Hey does anyone have the time? Isn't it beautiful?"

"It's five o'clock," I said.

Please be quiet, I thought, I just want to go home. Surprisingly, he was silent for a few minutes, and we rode in peace. Then I began to have a strange awareness of him and an urge to look. I turned my head. My eyes went directly to his lap, where he was caressing his exposed self.

I got up abruptly and walked to the front of the bus, as I had done while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. But this time, when I got to the front, I did not whisper. I was not afraid or ashamed. I was mad as hell.

"Excuse me," I said loudly to the bus driver, a tall black man. "For your information, there is a man on the bus jerking off."

"Who?"

"That old white dude back there."

He brought the bus to a full stop and went to confront the offending passenger.

"Sir, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to get off my bus."

"Don't worry, I'm getting off."

I watched as the man with the white hair and beard, who moments before had been pleasuring himself in public, picked up his crutches and left. Good riddance, I thought.

The bus driver was my hero and we shared that special bond between rescued and rescuer. "I tell you," he said, as he began driving again. "If my mama had seen that she would have whomped him on the head with her pocketbook."

I looked around at the other passengers, anticipating expressions of gratitude, solidarity. I had, after all, helped to rid the bus of a sex offender. But there were only tired faces. Some seemed annoyed at the interruption of their reveries, some shot me looks that I interpreted as disapproving: because of my intolerance, a disabled, probably homeless old man had been kicked out into the street. But I exited the bus feeling proud of the stand I had taken. Walking home, I kept repeating to myself, I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore. I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.

By the time I woke up the next morning, I was imagining how I would describe the old guy to my colleagues. How I would pause just a minute before I brought his penis into the story. How I would make his hobbling away on crutches a real punchy ending. How I would use the phrase "getting off" as a pun.

Of course they laughed when I told them.

Copyright Julie Dearborn 2007.

Title graphic: "Driver, Approached" Copyright The Summerset Review, Inc. 2007.