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Tour Guide San Francisco 1981

By Beate Murray

"If we're lucky, I'll show you something," she said.

"What's that?" I asked.

She didn't hear, the wind was blowing so strongly. She pulled me into a side street. "Come. Here it is."

We entered a small shop, dark, cramped, one machine in operation. On a black hot belt flat rounds of dough arrived one after the other like pale full moons. An old man, smiling at us, picked each one off the belt, took a paper slip from the pile in front of him, and with three fingers pushed it into shape. A fortune cookie. The dough substance hardened quickly, and the familiar shapes piled up, not in a little dish at the end of a sumptuous meal, but in a large dish ready for the world. The old man didn't speak our language, but we thanked him in it nonetheless for letting us watch. He said something in return.

"Over there is a sweat shop," my friend pointed out when we were in the street again. "There are a lot of women doing piece work in there. In larger fortune cookie factories, it used to be mostly women doing the work, quite unlike what you saw just now. They'd be working at incredible speed. They had to wear layers and layers of band aids over their fingers to keep from burning. My Mom uses the hardened dough that didn't manage to get shaped quickly enough instead of breadcrumbs. You can buy it by the bagful."

"Look at that fragment of brick wall." She pointed to a torn down mess of stones. "What an incredible shape. All that brick lying around without further use. Once upon a time it must have been the corner of a house."

She was excited about so many things, full of inspiration, an artist. It felt good to be with her, to see with the eyes of someone who was moved by colors and shapes. She took me to her house to show me some of her photographs.

"This is the kind of work I do right now. Most of the time I work in collage, but this one was too perfect by itself." She held out a goddess of the sea--or else a tree branch blanched by salt and sun, leaning, as though casually, back against the cliffs at an angle, like a slim white woman's shape with the wood curved out in a suggestion of breasts, and a circlet of hair or flowers hinted at by blanched roots.

We went out touring again. The wind died down and we sat down in a tent among children to watch a circus consisting of a dozen human members, some of them occasionally in disguise as animals. The clowns had already done their part, now came the jugglers, then the acrobats. The last act was a tiny woman in a red suit, every muscle of her slender body obeying her will. She was swinging up into the air on her trapeze. Once she slipped inside the swings at full flight, to the suspenseful screech of the band's music, then, swinging out toward the audience, the woman's face laughing, her ankles caught her precious obedient body safely on the ropes and the bar of the swing, her arms extended in greeting, pride, drama and reassurance.

Everyone clapped wildly. Some children were becoming bored, however, anxious for the finale's reappearance of the clowns. Would the chief clown, for instance, shake some of the hands he had missed when he made his earlier rounds?

"When are you going back home?" my friend asked.

Too soon, it seemed.

"I'll write to you," she promised. "When I get out of prison again. Probably not before. There will be too much to do."

We walked around the fair-ground filled with happy children's voices. My friend had already told me about her intention to get arrested at the upcoming blockade of a nuclear power plant site.

"What exactly will happen?" I asked. I was uneasy. Did one ask such a question in a voice of condolence? But surely not. She was going by choice.

"Those of us who intend to get arrested will stand out during the blockade and in the demonstration," she explained. "Those who don't intend to get arrested stand aside, and stay clear of the main action. Some of them will work as support persons to those who get arrested. Each one of us who choose to be arrested will have a support person who will take care of our ordinary business while we're in prison. Calling in at work, taking care of filling and supplying necessary prescriptions, that sort of thing. It's usually someone we know very well, and obviously someone we trust. Last year those who were arrested were only kept in prison for three days. It may be longer this year. You never know."

Afterwards life would resume again. We walked past a booth with earrings handmade by children. Next to it a table to which handwritten letters were tacked. "Dear Mr. &Mrs. President: Please, please don't make any more war." All the letters, some more elaborate than others, were asking for peace in children's unevenly printed words. They made me want to cry.

A little girl beside me tossed rings past cardboard seal heads that were too difficult for her to hit. The prize, as elsewhere, was merely a glittering paper star. I wanted to tell her: "Go over there where they throw balls at clowns' heads. Nobody misses. It's easier." But suddenly I knew she would find her own way to the stars.

Nearer the bus stop the fair-ground crowd thinned out. The circus band began the music for the next show. The trapeze stood out above the bright-colored tent walls, empty, promising. We wouldn't even need to pay admission again to see the small woman dance there once more, her grace, her danger and the laughing face a split second after our fears. But hers was the very last act, we didn't want to wait that long. Besides, we had seen her once. Already she was red and permanently brilliant in my mind.

The bus that passed us was going the wrong direction. It would take ten, twelve minutes to return to pick us up.

"Look at these flowers, like lilacs almost," my friend said. In sixteen days she would be arrested. This didn't keep her from paying attention to flowers. In nineteen days she would perhaps be released. It might be later than that. What I knew was that on all days she would be free.

Tears tempted my eyes, but it wasn't from sadness; rather it was because of the vision of courage my friend had given me, because of the knowledge that so much of it was still needed to accomplish all that remained to be done to turn our earth into a place of peace, and because of the knowledge that enough of this courage did exist. I felt as though that day I had ceased to be a visitor in my friend's city, her world, our earth. The wind began to rise fiercely.

"Here the weather changes all the time," my friend said. I had noticed that.

"Do you want these flowers to put into your room?" she asked, having picked a handful while I stood beside her, watching, being transformed. "I already have daisies in mine. And I like to share what I have."

Bio: Born and raised in Germany, Beate Murray came to the United States in her teens and graduated from Georgetown University. She has published short fiction, poetry and essays. Currently she is working on an anti-war novel, a feminist retelling of Parcival's Quest for the Holy Grail. Her passion is to celebrate the lives of women.

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