Long before I set out for the west coast readings, Julie Olsen Edwards, one of Tillie Olsen’s daughters, asked women’s studies faculty at San Francisco State University whether they’d like to have me read from my memoir. She asked them because I was Tillie’s publisher and friend, and because Tillie’s daughters have given women’s studies at SFSU a bequest establishing a Tillie Olsen student award. I had to fit the reading in between traveling from Santa Cruz to the San Francisco airport, where I would take a flight to Santa Barbara. Early that morning, Janet Bryer, who works as an agricultural specialist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, drove me to San Francisco, where I was met by Jillian Sandell, the Interim Chair. We were scheduled for eleven, the regular time of the graduate students’ seminar, and so we had time to see the women’s studies offices, say hello to faculty and administrators, before heading to the fifth floor seminar room, which housed a library, and which was filling with students of both genders and many hues.
Just before the clock in the room struck eleven, a shrieking ring sounded, and all groaned, “a fire drill.” Everyone headed out the door, all seemingly prepared. But I halted, remembering my knees, which, even with the cortisone injections I had had, could not manage five flights down and then five flights up again. And when we found the elevators marked “out of service,” I said, “I’ll wait up here until it’s over.” Another faculty member had an injury which precluded her walking far, and another offered to wait with us.
University managers of fire drills appeared in a few moments and assured us that, if we were going to wait, it would have to be at a staircase on the other side of the building. And so we made our way there, thinking that it would be only a matter of moments before the impossible ring would be turned off. At half-past eleven, one of our “guards” with a walkie-talkie announced that it had not been a fire drill at all, but that someone had had shut down all electricity in all SFSU buildings. He also said that in ten minutes we would be allowed to go back to what we were doing.
By 11:45, we were all assembled again in the seminar room, and I was directed to speak for twenty minutes, after Kasturi Ray, a member of the department, had introduced me and my book. What happened next was more astonishing to me than the faux fire drill. For someone clearly not a student was now sitting in the front row calmly staring at me with large black eyes. Her round face was one I knew but could not place until after I had finished speaking, when she came up to me, arms outstretched, with a warm smile on her face.
“Shahrnush,” I fairly shouted, “Shahrnush, how did you get here? I thought you lived in southern California.”
“No,” she said calmly, “I live near here, and I drove my car. I am American now,” she added. And she handed me a book to sign.
I asked her to stay for lunch, which became sandwiches someone had brought in from a nearby deli, since the non-fire drill had shut down the university restaurant where we were to have lunch. At lunch, I described Shahrnush Parsipur’s books the Feminist Press had published when I had returned as Interim Director in 2005, Women without Men and Touba and the Meaning of Night. Just as I thought we could have a small discussion about Shahrnush’s books, she said she had to go to deal with her car or it might be towed away.
Reader, I was in for still one more surprise that morning. The women’s studies faculty who remained, including the on-leave chair who had come in for the occasion, wanted me to talk about fund-raising. In the fall the department was planning to celebrate 40 years of women’s studies. Their first course was taught in 1971, and the year also marks the 35th anniversary of their BA in Women and Gender Studies and the 20th anniversary of their MA program. And why did they want to raise money? They won my heart at once, for they wanted to establish scholarships for their graduate students, all of whom had to work part or full-time in order to help support their families. To learn more about how to help contribute to these students' education, click here.