Not a flip, not a so-called Obama phone, not any cell phone; but they do have a little notebook

If you chat with the identical homeless Ukrainian twins on the streets of the Mission, you’d learn that our Golden Gate Bridge can’t hold a candle to their Zaporozhye Arch Bridge, the longest bridge  (and the pride) of their native Ukraine.  You’d find out that they knit all the sweaters and mufflers and shawls and leggings they are swaddled in, “Of course we made these ourselves. San Francisco is really, really cold at night.”

And, despite the checkerboard teeth left in their mouths, don’t offend Tatiana and Oxsanna by offering them dark chocolate, “Nyet, nye, nye, NYET! Dark is not sweet enough, I prefer milk,” Tanya explained, swigging from a quart bottle of coca-cola, “but maybe you have some salami?”  

They are 54 years old, and, except for their teeth, say they are in pretty good shape. Tanya and Oxsanna hail from the town of Zaporozhye, Ukraine (literally “from beyond the beyond”), and they don’t seem to miss it.

“We’re used to it here now.”

They arrived in San Francisco ten years ago to visit their 90-year-old aunt, a permanent resident.  

“She was really old then, and she said to us: ‘OK, I got you here. You are on your own now.’” 

And pretty much, according to them, that’s how it’s been.

When asked if they’d ever received help from an agency, church, or community organization, they both shrugged, “We just never asked, we never approached anywhere. We don’t have any documents (dokumenti)” they said, “they got stolen,” and their eyes blaze.  

Then they return to the church question.

“Well, here, the Spanish churches feed us.” 

They speak fluent Russian and Ukrainian, and say they got as far as Level 3 in City College’s ESL classes. But that was quite a while ago.

During a series of conversations (in Russian) with this writer, they smiled frequently, knit steadily, and asked lots of questions about jobs and rooms, “What do you have?” they asked curiously, “do you have a room?”

They also talk a lot about “here” and “there.”

“What about you? Are you from over there, or here?”

“From here? Are you Mexicanka or Amerikanka?”

“Have you heard, is the virus over there too?”

The first year they arrived, they worked at a laundromat in Daly City, where the owner let them stay and sleep at night.  

That lasted about a year, but didn’t work out when they had a disagreement about getting paid. They are vague about what happened between the laundromat and the shopping carts they live out of now.

They have never had a phone: not a flip, not a so-called Obama phone, not any cell phone. But they do have a little notebook where they jot down phone numbers (from announcements hung up in laundromats) in case they get to use a phone. The numbers are for rooms to rent, and ads for babysitters or caregivers. 

“Can you call this number for us, and ask how much they charge for rooms?  Nu, it’s probably too late, we got this number off a notice board over a month ago.” 

When asked why they prefer the Mission District, they looked perplexed,  “well, here we are. We are just here.”

They don’t know the street names, but they know the routes of the MUNI #12 and #27 lines. “Sometimes we sleep between the pizzeria and the laundromat on the #12 line — people will buy us pizza before we sleep.”    

They asked if it’s possible to look things up for them. “Do you have a way of seeing other countries? Can you call anywhere?”

They say they left three siblings and a family apartment in Ukraine, but they have had no contact with home in years.

“We don’t even know if our auntie here is alive. She would be 100, so probably not, she moved a few years ago and we lost track.”

They are keen, cogent, and quite observant. Sitting outside Humphrey Slocombe on Harrison Street on a hot afternoon, I bought them each a scoop of ice cream. Vanilla. Since I had no salami on me.

“How much did you pay for this little scoop?”  Tatiana asked me. “Two dollars?”

FIVE DOLLLARS, for THIS little thing?” she laughed when I told her.

They prefer parklets and benches (Cesar Chavez and Mission, Harrison and 22nd) and shun the shelters. 

“We never stay where ‘the screamers’ are,” Oxsanna said.

Their territory seems to be as far north as Mission and 4th, and as far south as Big Lots at Mission and 29th.  They asked more questions than they answered, and that’s completely understandable.

When you have no dokumenti, you can’t be too careful.

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