Russian men bring you flowers

From 2005 – 2006, I lived in the Netherlands and had a fairly serious Dutch boyfriend. One night, in February 2006 just before Valentine’s Day, my boss invited me and my boyfriend over for a weeknight dinner, prepared by his lovely wife girlfriend-of-18-years. Midway through the meal, the conversation migrated from American vs. Dutch traditions of Valentine’s Day presents to American vs. Dutch traditions of romantic presents for your beloved in general. I made the observation that Dutch men do not seem to bother with flowers and jewelry for their wives and girlfriends.

“That is true,” said the boss’s wife. “If you want flowers, you have to buy your own.”

“That’s boring,” I replied. “Where’s the charm?! The chivalry?! The romance?!”

“Dutch men are just never going to give you romance, ” the wife girlfriend declared. “In 18 years that we have been together, I have never once received flowers or jewelry from him.” These final few words were delivered with a very pointed look at my boss.

“I gave you flowers once,” my then-boyfriend interjected, looking smug, as if he had won some sort of Dutch-I’m-so-chivalrous contest.

“Yeah, once. For Christmas. That’s it, so it doesn’t really count,” I replied. He wasn’t going to get off so easily for being lazy in the romance department.

Hei, ja! I gave you earrings once! Those red ones!” my boss exclaimed in victory, looking at his wife girlfriend as he leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head, smug as well. He could be redeemed!!

“Earrings? Earrings?” the wife turned my boss.  “No, those were red pimples for my ears! Tiny red pimples! They were the most divorce-worthy present you could give me!”

Not being able to bear a lifetime without flowers, chivalry and romance, I left the Dutchman a mere 7 weeks later (ok, maybe there were a few other reasons too — but they would’ve been more bearable with a little romance to take the edge off). Barely a year passed before I met the Ukrainian. A man with exquisite taste in jewelry, and a regular deliverer of flowers to our kitchen table. He always does it at a moment when I’m not looking, so that even though the flowers are a regular appearance, they are always a surprising appearance, thus keeping the romance alive!

Last Saturday, after the exquisitely painful experience at the vet where we agonized over just how many unnecessary tests and procedures could we deprive our dogs of, we went to Trader Joe’s on 9th and Bryant. We did our shopping, came to the checkout line, and suddenly I remember that I had forgotten to buy the dogs their weekly treats of SoftAndChewyPeanutButterYumYumTreatsForDogs. I stepped just 7 feet away from the cart, turned around, and studied the shelves until I found the box I was looking for. I turned back around, spied out cart, and saw the gorgeous pink flowers filling the cart’s child seat.

It was romance-at-the-grocery-store. Proof that being good towards your wife can be the smallest gesture of love in the most mundane moment. No special occasion needed.

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A little (un-pc) background

Summer 1995 — Edwardo’s on Chicago’s 57th St.

It was a regular summer weeknight. The Edwardo’s staff comprised mostly of equal parts students from the University of Chicago, local African Americans from the ghettos that surrounded Hyde Park, and not-entirely legal immigrants from Mexico who staffed the kitchen and bussed the tables. We had two waitresses on duty: myself (the UofC student who had just moved up from answering phones to waiting tables) and Lateisha, an African-American woman who came from one of the blighted South Side neighborhoods that surrounded Hyde Park. She had waited tables at Edwardo’s for years. She carried a “Don’t mess with me attitude” and I had no intention of messing with her.

Our shift started at 5 pm and not long after, our first customer arrived: A large African-American family of about 7 people. Edwardo’s waitressing etiquette commanded that the more senior waitress on hand was to get the first table. After that, new tables were to be rotated evenly between the staff.

“You have a table, ” I said to Lateisha as the family stood by the “Please Wait to be Seated” sign at the front of the restaurant.

“Nuh-uh. They ain’t my table. You take them.”

“But they’re first. And you’ve been here longer.” Why the hell doesn’t she want the table, I wondered.

“I don’t wait on no niggers.”

Oh. Ok. If you’re going to put it like that. I guess the table was mine. Like I said, I wasn’t interested in messing with Lateisha. And I wasn’t rude enough to leave a hungry family standing at the front of a restaurant. With my politest, fake-genuine Iowa smile and upbeat tone of voice I knew, I greeted the family, sat them and proceeded to take their order.

And now, here in this little story, if I was a true liberal interested in writing a “Don’t judge a book by its cover”/break-all-stereotypes story, I would write how that family was the nicest family I ever met with the most polite children I’d ever seen and they left me a very generous tip that must’ve been quite a stretch for their most-likely-limited budget.

But that’s not what happened. The family lived up to every stereotype you could imagine for a family that lived in a ghetto and had not been taught — nor interested in — how to behave with decorum and politeness in public. The grown women were rude and talked to me as if I was their personal servant. The children created mess after mess as children are wont to do. There was something “wrong” with every plate of food I brought out to the family. And, of course, only giving a discount for each plate was the only way to “fix” the problem. And, at the end of the meal when that section of the restaurant had been thoroughly trashed? No tip.

Fine, I said silently to Lateisha in my mind. You’re not going to wait on niggers (your words not mine). Ok. But then every piece of white trash that comes in here — they are yours. Every European with the fancy jeans who forgot to read the section in the guidebook that says “U.S. restaurant food is cheap because the restaurants don’t pay their servers” — they’re yours too, Lateisha.

It was not a game of race, but a game of class. It was easy to predict who was going to tip you. Students? Oddly, yes. Many were flush with cash from their parents’ support or had waited their own tables to support themselves. Professors, grad students, etc. Yes, but at a flat 15% rate. Middle-to-upper class African-Americans? Yes, and quite well. European tourists? Not at all. Lower-income whites from the less-desirable white neighborhoods from the southwestern reaches of Chicagoland? Most likely not much, but maybe a token amount. Low-income African-American residents of the Chicago projects. No. And they were going to work you to the bone.

And it was with that single “I don’t wait on no niggers” comment coming from my African-American colleague, my mind began to wake up a little to the fact that the world is a much more complicated place than I was idealistically raised to believe in rural Iowa.

After all, how can race be an issue if you have no concept of race?

Some shoes, a livery driver, and same-sex marriage & parenting

The Ukrainian and I exit Bloomingdale’s on Market Street. We are
only a few yards away from the entrance to the underground BART train
that can deposit us a few blocks from our house in San Francisco’s Noe
Valley in exactly 7 minutes. But I am wearing my new Steve Maddens —
the ones constructed with 5 inch heels and tight apple green leather
trimmed in brown. I have been wearing them for the past 9 hours and
walking those last few yards to the train daunts me to all but tears.

“We’ll take cab,” the Ukrainian says feeling my wince our every
step. I am clinging to his arm as if an old lady while trying to brave
a face of youth that doesn’t scream “Yes, these shoes are new and
crippling and I am silly for wearing them, but aren’t they hot?!?”

There is a dearth of cabs on the east-bound side of Market St. where
we are standing. I allow myself a cursory remembrance of my past New
York life that included cabs everywhere as candy for the taking.
“Perhaps we’ll have more luck on the other side,” suggests the
Ukrainian. I agree, steeling myself for the pain that will be involved
in crossing the 4+ lane street.

As we begin to cross the 2nd lane, an elegant, shiny black towncar
pulls up behind us. “Taxi?” the slightly-pudgy E. Indian driver asks.
Without even turning around to look at him — for I can see the driver
and his car out of the corner of my eye — I dismiss him with my hand,
saying “No, you are too expensive.” “No, no ma’am. You say how much,
and I will take you where you want to go.” I hesitate. Tempted. The
additional 3 lanes and a bike path to cross may be more pain than I can
bear. But I also consider that the last private car that offered to
take us home wanted $30 for the honor, when a regular taxi would only
cost $12.

“Ok,” I say. “How about $15?”

“Sure, get in,” replies the driver with a smile. I am amazed at the
ease with which the transaction takes place. I had expected more
negotiating or the driver scoffing my offer away. But my amazement is
replaced quickly by fear and embarrassment as the driver does a u-turn
straight into the path of an oncoming bicyclist.

The bicyclist is not amused by the threat on his life. He rides up
to the car and starts chiding the livery driver through the open
passenger window.

“What are you doing, man?”

“What do you mean ‘what am I doing’? What are you doing? You see me, you brake. You are bike, I am car.”

“Hey man, I have full right to the road. You need to yield to oncoming traffic. You almost killed me.”

“No, no. You only get to be on the far right side. You were not on the far right side.”

The argument quickly ends as the stoplight turns green and both the
driver and bicyclist are more interested in their final destination
than the proving themselves right.

Or so I think. The driver continues his tirade against the bicyclist
at us. And we are his captive audience. “That bicyclist had no right to
be where he was…he should have stopped when he saw me…” It was the
classic case of methinks-thou-dost-protest too much, but I refrain from
saying anything. My silence is hypocritical of me for I also ride my
bike down Market St. during rush hour several times a week. But my feet
are too grateful for the ride home to put my foot where my mouth might
go, so I keep it shut.

The driver’s diatribe does not last long though. As we approach
Duboce Triangle — the part of Market Street where the Castro, Mission
and Lower Haight districts intersect — traffic slows to a crawl. A
vocal gathering on the sidewalk is beginning to spill out into the
street.

What is it? A protest? A celebration? Another typical San Francisco
day where the abnormal is the norm? And then I remember…the
California Supreme Court had overturned the ban on same-sex marriage.
The Castro is the center of gay pride. Of course! Progressives are
celebrating! Conservatives are protesting!

The driver switches is rant from bicyclists to gays.

“Look. I don’t care if they want to be gay. That is nobody’s business.”

Ok..I think…at least he isn’t completely closed-minded.

“But to allow them to marry! To have children! That is not right.”

But there are limits to his open-mindedness.

While I had kept quiet about his attitude towards bicyclists, I
can’t keep my mouth shut about same-sex marriages and parenting. I
decide to try a rational argument — the same rational argument I had
used on the Ukrainian just last summer when he had voiced similar
opinions after our attendance at the 2007 Gay Pride Parade on the very
same Market Street.

“I don’t see how one’s private sexual practices affect their ability to be good parents.”

“They can be gay all they want, but they shouldn’t be allowed to have children,” the driver reiterates.

“Why?”
I ask. “Are you afraid that their children will automatically turn out
gay? If the parents’ sexuality affects the children, then why do most
gays have straight parents?” Now was not the time to get into the
nuances of gay, straight, lesbian, queer, transgender and any other
categorization of sexuality that I had encountered since moving to San
Francisco. I wanted to keep the argument simple.

“They won’t be good parents,” he insisted.

“Why not? If they are caring and loving and supportive of the children? If
they help with the homework and set boundaries, etc…how is that not
being good parents? If they are in a loving committed relationship,
what is wrong with that? What about a single mother who brings home a
different man every night? Is she some how a better mother?” I played
into his conservative side to open his mind a little. “What about
parents who beat their children? Are addicted to drugs? Are they
somehow better parents because they’re heterosexual?”

The driver thought a little, conceded a bit, said “You do have a good point”. I
don’t know if the concession came from him wanting to get his fare, or
if indeed, his mind had opened a little. I hope it was the latter.

By now, we had arrived at our house in Noe Valley. I walk barefoot from
the car to our building, with the Ukrainian carrying my shoes — the
ones that had gotten us into this conversation in the first place.

“Put this in your blog, ” the Ukrainian says. “It’s important. I didn’t know better until you explained it to me.”

The
Ukrainian is referring back to the conversation we had while walking
the dogs after the 2007 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. We had attended
the parade as a fun date and, afterwards, he had offered the same
arguments that the driver had again against same-sex marriage &
parenting. I gave the same counter-arguments, and over-time, maybe not
that day, but in the months that have passed, my Ukrainian’s mind has
opened. He now supports same-sex marriage and parenting.

Progress. Just a little bit at a time, but progress nonetheless

A little bit more of a wife

We stood at the corner of Bush & Montgomery. Already, it was 9:05 a.m. He was late. He leaned down to give me a quick kiss good-bye so I could head off to my office and he could go to his.

But before the kiss, there was first a question.

“Honey, what’re you doing after work today?” My Ukrainian has long since learned all the amourisms to call his beloved. I have yet to learn when he uses them to be romantic and when he has a more ulterior motive in mind.

“I don’t know. Go home. Do stuff.”

“Are you going shopping? Maybe?” There was the tainted sound of hope if his voice. He definitely had an ulterior motive today.

“I wasn’t planning on it. Why? What do you need?”

“3 Hugo Boss shirts. The kind that go under my long-sleeve shirts.” He instinctively pointed to the collar of his undershirt to be clear that I wouldn’t misunderstand what he meant.

“Ok, maybe. Where did you buy them? The Hugo Boss store”

“I don’t know. Maybe Bloomingdale’s. Maybe Macy’s.”

So tonight, I will go around Union Square and Market St and try to track down my husband’s favorite undershirts. I am definitely more of a wife today than I was yesterday.