Bonding with my sister brings back a lot of great memories

IPICKED UP my sister from her bus in Chinatown, near Little Italy, just like in San Francisco. (The Chinatown buses get you from Washington, D.C., to New York for around $20, even the day before Christmas Eve, providing healthy competition for Greyhound. My sister's braver than I am; I've only taken Greyhound, preferring to pay a five-dollar premium for English-speaking drivers.)

After I picked her up, we had pedicures and rented four DVDs, including "The Devil Wears Prada." This continued our tradition of tenuous feminine bonding, in which my sister shows me how to do girly things and I feel like an anthropologist.

More importantly, it continued our tradition of watching batches of videos together during the holidays. Every New Year's Eve back in Stockton, we used to stay up late watching rentals. Pretty mediocre stuff, most of it:

"Maverick" with Mel Gibson, "Bye Bye Love" with Paul Reiser, whatever my sister and I could agree on from the 200 videos for rent in the corner of the local supermarket. One year, around eight minutes past midnight, my dad emerged into the living room and demanded that we pause the video so he could see the ball drop in Times Square.

We pointed out that the moment was past, and he insisted that "sometimes they show a replay." None of us considered or pointed out that the whole ball drop would have been a replay of an event from three hours prior. We turned on the live TV to stop the argument, and the sparkly ball in sparkly Times Square was nowhere to be seen.

In retrospect, maybe watching that ball drop was my dad's own personal tradition that I never noticed until it conflicted with ours. I used to have an end-of-the-year TV tradition of my own: watching the last network evening news report, the one with a montage of the year's pop songs overlaid with the year's news stories. It probably got on my family's nerves; a one-person tradition is just an eccentricity.

My sister and I had video-watching together. In India one week, alone in a relative's house, we watched every Bond video the local corner shop had.

On Saturdays in Stockton, we waited half an hour after our parents left for prayer rituals, then sneaked off to the S-Mart for videos, licorice ropes (me) and cookie dough (her). We picked one film each, and like Grade Point Averages, our Video Point Averages went up or down as our choices turned out great ("Clueless") or horrible ("Article 99"). And then there was the time I rented "Glengarry Glen Ross" and our parents came home and heard the cussing and never let me finish. Maybe I'd actually understand that movie now.

I rode the subway with my sister the day after Christmas, delivering her to her bus back to D.C., marveling that she can make me laugh as no one else can. We've been hanging out for 20-odd years, watching movies good and bad, entertaining ourselves on long car rides and making up play universes for those long afternoons when we were too young to sneak off to S-Mart.

"Do you remember the secret handshake?" she asked. I did. We kept adding to it, including an ankle slap she never entirely loved. I suspect I borrowed inspiration from the Happy Dance in "Perfect Strangers."

"Borat is basically a more malicious, obnoxious Balki," I mused.

"You should write a column about that!" she exclaimed, spinning a paragraph of fake cultural criticism out of thin air. I reminded her of the sentence she started college papers with: "As we race toward the millennium." I suspect that workhorse is what she misses most about the'90s.

"You aren't going to use 'As we race toward the millennium,' are you? Because that's trademarked."

"That is a wholly wrong understanding of how trademarks work," I digressed.

The other passengers pretended we weren't laughing as loud as we were.

The New York subway has the strongest taboo I've ever seen against interacting with strangers. I used to understand this on an intellectual level: in a crowded city, the taboo provides individuals with a fiction of solitude and privacy. But only after a year here do I really feel the rule inside me, like a physical constraint stopping me from making eye contact, and like a bubble letting me read my commute book in peace. In that cocoon, seeing my sister, I felt at home again, as though I'd never left California.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at