Excerpt: From Ch. 1, Picnic
It was, oddly enough, exactly what had been preoccupying Anita. How to make a front, if to make a front, where to make a front, without the whole world noticing. Because no matter where you went in North Beach, there was always someone hanging out a window: a nonna getting some air, children yelling down to friends in the street, mammas screeching for them to get home subito it was supper time. And with so many eyes hanging out of so many windows, there was no place for two people to hide.
“You’re such a goose,” Cynthia had laughed, showing her gums, still blackened a little with the licorice she’d been chewing. “Do you know how big San Francisco is? Just get out of stupid old North Beach. Paolo does.”
Anita was shocked at first, not only at the idea, but that getting out of North Beach had never occurred to her, though it apparently had to Paolo. And worse: that she had to learn about it from Cynthia who couldn’t tell her where exactly, but was certain because Jimmy had told her just last week, that Paolo and his crew often rode the streetcars downtown. It was a game they’d been playing since they were ten or so and got tired of baseball: wait until rush hour, and then head down Montgomery to Market Street, where, when the streetcars got jammed full, they could jump on the rear bumper and get a free ride until the conductor spotted them and they had to scatter. A little dangerous, maybe, but that was the fun of it according to Jimmy.
Anita shuddered. Wanted to know if girls ever did it. Cynthia said she only knew of one: Anna Boiardi. She had gone once with her brothers and made it onto the bumper for a couple of blocks until she got so scared she jumped off while it was still moving fast. Almost killed her fool self, Cynthia laughed.
That settled it. Anita was not going to let Anna get away with that—she knew Anna had had her eye on Paolo since grade school—and not try it herself. She was, after all, named after the comrade of the great Garibaldi who fought beside her man in battle after battle. Compared to bravery like that, what were a few streetcars? And so, one Tuesday after school, she followed Paolo and four of his crew downtown. Making sure she wasn’t seen, she observed how they trotted as the car started slowly, grabbed onto the bumpers, and then laughed mockingly at the conductor when he shooed them off; after which they simply waited for another one to do it again.
She waited till they were out of sight, but even so it took her four streetcars before she got up the courage to try it. Luckily for her, there was a young man in a suit not reading his paper but watching her jump on, and he grabbed her arm and steadied her until she could hang on herself. Told her to be careful; it was easy to fall. But smiling as he said it. She guessed he had done it when young; and now, so had she.
A week later, she didn’t hang back, but caught up with the others and announced boldly that she was going to join them. Everyone laughed; hooted at her, a mere girl; while Paolo, at first, just turned away. Then he smirked backwards at her, thinking it was just a ploy to make contact, sure she’d back out at the last minute. But she didn’t. And she managed to get on the bumper last, and right next to him, and allow him, as if to keep her from falling off, to take the perfect excuse to hang onto her upper arm. Which made the thrill of the illegal ride even more thrilling. For both of them.
It became a convenient, if not-quite-perfect rendezvous. She could follow Paolo and his crew out of North Beach, where none of those prying eyes could spot them together. Then, once near Market Street, they could actually walk together, not arm in arm, for that would’ve raised the suspicion of the others, but brushing against each other often enough to keep her strangely excited. And then, on the bumper, they could be almost arm in arm. Exult in the same breeze blowing their hair.
Perhaps it was too good to last. Once, a few weeks after that attack-headlined day in June, the streetcar they were riding lurched as it had never done before. There was a screech, a powerful pull towards the front as it slowed, and then a rebound towards the rear. Paolo lost his balance first, shook her from hers, and in an instant, they had tumbled off the back to their knees. Terrified because another car, following close by as they often did at rush hour, barely managed to stop before hitting them. Paolo grabbed her wrist and skidded her out of the way, and onto the sidewalk, as several drivers shook their fists at these “damn fool kids,” who disappeared laughing into the crowd.
But it was the end for her, and for him too. They agreed it was simply too dangerous, especially now that Italy had joined the Germans in a world at war, and more, that they had felt the deepening warmth and concern for each other. You could’ve been killed, he said breathing hard. You could’ve too, she shot back, rubbing her wrist. And they both shivered. Not just about having had a close call; not just about the unsettling way their fall had echoed in the air, in the war news edging closer to them and theirs by the day; but also about how they were now bereft of a place and an occasion they had no idea how, or if, they would find again.