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Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Queen of Sutter Street

"At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said she would love to go." ~ excerpt from "Araby," Dubliners, James Joyce



As of 10:30am yesterday (and this is retroactive to at least the last twelve years of my life),

I have had it.

I am done with whiny, spoiled, helpless women who are entitled. Who substitute vapid feel-good platitudes for a personality.

Done. Had it.

Not interested in your demons, your dark side, your dragons.

Oh, you're an artiste? Whatever.

Oh, you're the center of the universe? Not my universe, lady.

Get over yourself.


That was my morning.

This was my afternoon.

Meet Ghalyia.

She is the Queen of Sheba.


Yesterday, after meeting a new friend for lunch (who bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone mentioned in the preface), I ended up wandering in an entirely different direction than I had planned.

I meant to go to the Castro, but instead I ended up in the Tenderloin (again).

Walking up Sutter Street, it started to drizzle and I tucked my camera inside my coat. I'm learning. I'm not getting my camera wet anymore.

Across the street from a pawnshop was a corner market where most of the writing on the awning had faded or was rubbed out. But you could see where it said Middle Eastern Foods. That was enough to get me across the street. The open door with the smell of spices got me inside.

Near the doorway were three older women wearing long tunics and headscarves. The eldest woman had a blue painted line running vertically from her lower lip down her chin. (I am not sure what that marking means, if anyone else does, please enlighten me.)

A television was playing in Arabic.

Feeling somewhat shy, I ducked around the back of the store to see if I could find some of my favorite coffee. I love my Cafe Najjar with cardamom, and it's hard to find. And I was enjoying wandering the narrow aisles, looking at all of the juices (blueberry, mango, pomegranate, tamarind) and packets of spice blends (kebab, za' atar, baharat).

I came up to the counter with my little bag of coffee, and noticed near the register boxes of Turkish delight, and little candied fruits wrapped in plastic.

The woman behind the counter beams as I finger the candies. "Oh my God," she says, with a little lust in her voice. "I love those so much. I eat too many of them."

That's all I need for a testimonial, so I choose one of each. She takes an apricot. "Oh my God, this one is my favorite." She unwraps it and takes a bite of it like it's her last meal.

"You like cardamom?" she asks, looking at the coffee.

I love cardamom, I tell her.

You like tea? she asks.

Just tell me what to buy and I'll get it, I tell her.

Come with me, she says, and I follow her to the back of the store. She disappears into the back room and then emerges with a sizeable tub of black tea leaves.

She smiles as she takes the plastic lid off of the tub.

Smell this, she says knowingly. She makes it herself, she tells me proudly, mixing four different kinds of tea with cardamom.

OH my god, I think. It smells like heaven.

Ghalyia owns this lovely market on the cusp of a neighborhood that has still evaded gentrification, even though technically the address is Nob Hill.

She has owned the store for 10 years. The Queen of Sheba on Sutter Street.

Ghalyia offers me a cup of her tea. It tastes even better than it smells. She tells me how to prepare it. "Just a pinch in hot water."

She tells me she is from Yemen. She says she raised two children (one is with God now, she says) as a single mother and never got to go to school. But she has a beautiful granddaughter, Nadia. "Look, there is her picture," she points to a photograph of an infant next to a photo of Barack Obama. "That's my granddaughter, right next to the President."

There are Obama posters and t-shirts about, and I'm not quite sure if they're for decoration or for sale. She shows me an article that someone wrote in the paper about her. An American reporter who speaks perfect Arabic came in to visit regularly and wrote a whole article about her. It's laminated for sharing.

"Where did you come from?" she asks me. "Did you hear of me?"

I tell her I was just wandering by and she says, "That happens every day. I love when people find me."

I tell her I'll be back to talk some more, and to give her a copy of the photos she's so goodnaturedly let me take. She gives me the realest hug I've had in a long time. It's such a lovely hug that I don't want to let go. But I do.

As I'm leaving, it's starting to pour. An old homeless woman, barefoot, comes in, clutching a dollar in her arthritic looking hand. Ghalyia waves after me, smiling. "See you soon! Next time, I'll make coffee."

That is an antidote to the preface.

There are false queens and then there are real ones. I think I've met a real Queen today.


ps.: I was thrilled to see that I'm not the only one to have discovered Ghalyia and her lovely welcoming manner. You can read reviews here on yelp, as well as get her address so you can stop by and buy some tea. And maybe even get a hug.

Queen of Sheba
1100 Sutter St
(between Larkin St & Polk St)
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 567-4322


Cynthia February 14, 2009 at 3:17 AM  

I finished reading your narrative and walked to the kitchen to make some strong Puerto Rican coffee...still thinking of what the Queen of S's tea might taste like. Yes, now I know why people live in the city, so they have opportunities to experience and connect in the way you describe here, tangobaby. Your day reminded me of past unexpected and real chance encounters. Lovely, description of an important moment of warmth and sharing on the streets of San Francisco. <3

paris parfait February 14, 2009 at 3:53 AM  

Oh I love this story! What an unexpected and lovely encounter. Galia sounds fabulous! Usually the blue line on the face or any sort of tattoo marking is the mark of a Bedouin tribe. I'd love to know how she came to the US and to SF. Thanks for sharing this story. xoxox

Anonymous February 14, 2009 at 3:57 AM  

Ms Tango: What a beautiful, beautiful post. It's actually made me a little tearful. Can I blame my hormones?


R. Yaeko February 14, 2009 at 4:47 AM  

I know what you mean about the queens of the preface. Some days, they just seem to pop up more than others.

But your story about Gaila is BEAUTIFUL. If I wasn't across the country, I'd find my way down there this afternoon and buy some tea. I love tea. And the pictures are stunning.

The real queens make it all worth it.

Liz February 14, 2009 at 5:05 AM  

Wonderful!! I love the "realest hug" part...

Adam February 14, 2009 at 5:56 AM  

absolutely heart warming.

It's Just Me February 14, 2009 at 6:04 AM  

How I love this post.

How true how true. I too am sick to death of disingenuous people! Talking about their diets and who they know - ughhh!

I seek real people whose sincerity, honesty, and genuineness shines through.

(there for I am down to only a few friends - but they are REAL)

Brook February 14, 2009 at 6:46 AM  

Not everyone comes equipped with GPPs. Sounds like you had a good free Friday anyway.

~K February 14, 2009 at 7:20 AM  

Well the second part of your post was definitely a nice balm for the first part. although I understand with some people you just have to brush your feet at the door on your way out and be done with them. They can be life sucking vortices that will consume you if you let them.

How do you find these people. It is like they are drawn to you. I am telling you you have been writing that novel already and you didn't even now it. A book about the people in SF. A street book about the charm and tragedy of your city. With real people and photos

I have to say wehn your Queen went to the back room I was kind of rooting for some kind of special hashish tea! ;-)

shabby girl February 14, 2009 at 7:36 AM  

I loved this post! Thank you so much for taking me with you.
SF is full of those kinds of places tucked in between giant buildings. So fun to poke around in them.

Teri February 14, 2009 at 7:56 AM  

What a wonderful post to read on The Day of the Heart! This is one thing I love about blogging, to learn and see and be there, really felt like I was there in the shop with you; and to realize there is true love out there in unexpected places.

My mom and her partner live in SF part of the time and in Oregon part of the time and just got back from a motorcycle tour in Morocco (they are ~ 80 years old and full of life and love) and I will tell them about Galia's shop, they'll enjoy the visit and come away with something nice to enjoy, just like you did!

Happy Heart Day,

Teri and the cats of Furrydance

Teri and the cats of Furrydance

rochambeau February 14, 2009 at 8:05 AM  

Happy Valentine's to you Tangobaby, who's work is beautiful like a dance.
Glad you met "The real Queen".

julochka February 14, 2009 at 8:15 AM  

i am so coming to visit you!! and her!! i love cardamon!

i think those people with the blue lines are berbers...i saw that in morocco. but i'm no authority. :-)

happy valentine's!

p.s. excellent vent at the beginning. ;-)

Anonymous February 14, 2009 at 9:26 AM  

TB, a wonderful post as usual. I will tell you that one of the positive results of having cancer (yes, there are many actually) is to make it much easier to avoid and/or eliminate falseness and energy vampires :-)

smith kaich jones February 14, 2009 at 9:52 AM  

Oh girl. You had me at the beginning & I hung on for a simply fabulous, fabulous tale. Thank you for this story that reads like a series of paintings - that tastes & smells like a moment in some fairy tale land.

More of these please.
:) Debi

Yoli February 14, 2009 at 10:11 AM  

What a beautiful lady, what a great find.

Happy Valentine's Day to my Queen of Tango!

Red Shoes February 14, 2009 at 10:29 AM  

Thank you. For these stories. For all kinds of things.

Mtnhighmama February 14, 2009 at 11:38 AM  

Ah, what a lovely story!

I had a similar experience, utterly by chance, not that long ago and the charm remains.

Claire February 14, 2009 at 3:37 PM  

Mmmm, cardamom... what a lovely story and a sweet antidote to your earlier disillusionment!

Mari February 14, 2009 at 6:29 PM  

Thank goodness for the truly beautiful people.

Natalie February 14, 2009 at 7:14 PM  

That was one of my favourite posts I have read on blogger. Wonderful!

Even more wonderful in my eyes, is that I have just moved from a house in Suttor st, Australia. Your post caught my eye whilst visiting Mary Ann. Seems I was led in another wonderful direction too.

And just quietly, I used to consider myself the queen of my little castle in Suttor st. :D

namastenancy February 14, 2009 at 8:32 PM  

Kindness and cardamon tea - what a lovely combination. I'd never heard of this lady but I am certainly going to check her store out. You know, you should collect all your stories about SF and submit them for publication along with your photos because you have a rare talent. You could be (should be) the new Herb Cain but instead of the Nob Hill movers and shakers that he was so fond of, you seek out the truly unique souls that make SF so special.

Braja February 14, 2009 at 11:48 PM  

Brilliant post, loved it...

The tattoos are symbolic kind of superstitious/mystic/luck things. Some represent protection of children, marriage, desire for children, etc. That's all I know :)

Christina February 15, 2009 at 11:41 AM  

So lovely. Remind me again why I live so far away. Continue to meet beautiful people and gather more stories, so when I visit, we can retrace the sweet journey. : )

Relyn February 15, 2009 at 1:23 PM  

One of the things I love most about you is the way you make friends wherever you go. I love your curiosity and interest in new experience and in people. This story makes me smile. You make me smile.

Gillian February 15, 2009 at 9:11 PM  

Tango this post thrilled me to death!!!
I am so looking forward to visiting San Fran one day....xoxo

KennethSF February 16, 2009 at 1:01 PM  

I'll have to go pay homage to the truly deserving Queen of Sheba on Sutter. I have a weakness for good tea and spices (especially in chilly days like these).

Sue February 17, 2009 at 12:36 AM  

That's enough to tempt me to move across the world. I love stores (and shopkeepers) like that!!

My Castle in Spain February 18, 2009 at 12:58 PM  

oh i've been sighing and smiling while reading your post...
Wish I could have shared a cup of tea with you and Galia who sounds like a wonderful warmhearted woman...
Lucky girl!

Anonymous June 24, 2011 at 1:24 PM  

I know you wrote this a long time ago - but I hope you read this. My name is Anisa and Galia is my Aunt. I am actually staying with her right now! Since she's moved from the Bay [to stay closer to her Mother who is currently in a nursing home] I love asking her about the people she met at her store [Queen of Sheba]. We were just eating breakfast and she told me the story about you and said you wrote an article online. We found you on Yelp [she asked me to read the comments to her]. But she told me that she misses you and she's going to school soon and that she will write to you. She cried when I read your blog to her. [Keep in touch!]