Nobody walks in LA. We all sit comfortable, or uncomfortable in our little metal and glass cells and strive to stay in our bubble untouched by others.
Today I felt deep concern for a stranger, then overwhelming sadness and loss followed by such joy and hope and levity- in the course of perhaps 25 seconds. It was an entire day of emotions squashed and intensified like the rest of L.A. living.
My morning started with breakfast with my Dad. We ate at a fairly well known place called Joes which is a family style restaurant- that means that we share a bench with other people who are having their own breakfast dates. Typical to all plans made in L.A. we had a date at 8am and so at 8:15 I had to use the cell phone to call to see where he was. "Oh I wish you would have called me" he said, "I had to move my cars- street sweeping" In L.A. cars take precedent over people. Parking tickets cost twice as much as breakfast dates so that just makes sense in numbers. I told my Dad I would wait and sat at that bench alone for 15 minutes. The waitress got my coffee order, but other than that, I had no human contact. There were people sitting next to me, on the same blue vinyl padded bench, an arms length away, I could smell their food and hear them chew, but we didn’t talk. It’s like we were all still in out cars.
When my dad showed up we were engaged in conversation, and I wasn't really aware of anyone around us. Towards the end of our meal, I dropped my purse on the ground and had to bend over to pick up my pen and wallet. I was at the very end of the bench, next to a window, my head below the table to retrieve my belongings. As I pulled myself and my purse back up above the table, a woman walked past the 8 other people sitting on the bench, slid a piece of paper onto my table top and walked away quickly. It was as if we were in Jr. High and she was passing a note, except that when I grabbed what she had left behind, it was simply a sticker sheet with all but 3 stickers missing. (2 of the stickers were Disney witches, and one a Disney warlock, but I am not even going to try to read into that). "Do you know her?" My dad asks. I look at the back of this lady’s head as she rushes out of the restaurant. "I can’t say I have ever seen her before in my life. Perhaps she thought I dropped this out of my purse? " I suggested. "She came over from the other side of the restaurant" My dad explained. I try to re-create the vague image I have of her in my mind- well-dressed, short hair- dyed a bright orange color that is obviously not natural but still socially acceptable in a work environment. "I have no idea who that woman is, or why she would leave this with me" I replied. My dad became frustrated, almost angry. "What the hell was that about? He demands, "Go ask her!" "Dad, I’m not going to chase her, I don’t really care. It doesn’t make any sense to me." My Dad surprised me when he dropped the issue. Letting go is not a family trait, so I suppose we both made great strides in our acceptance of whatever may be will be.
I meet my friend at the mall at 10 am. I need to buy a dress for a fancy semi formal function and I am not prepared. I wear combat boots, tights, mini skirts. Everything I own is black. I don’t wear heels. I don't own "Country club casual" but I did like the idea of the chance to get a bit dressed up. I had tried shopping by myself the day before with zero results.
The entire time I am shopping for a posh party frock for this event, I am reminded of shopping with my Mom for my first ever real "Work party" when I was a manager in a restaurant at the age of 21. This particular restaurant we got to wear "costumes" dress up as kitschy waitresses from the 1950"s. I was having the same feelings shopping for the dress today as I did then; I want to look pretty, I want to look dressed up. But I want to look like ME! I don’t want to look like I am wearing my Mother’s clothes. When I show up at the place where people make more than me, and people are older and more established than me, I want to feel confident. I don’t want to feel under dressed or in loaner clothes – I want these folks to look at me and think- "She likes the way she looks." Maybe they would never tattoo their arms and dye their hair pink, but I look beautiful and comfortable and my outfit is congruent with me. I want to feel like Maria in West Side Story when I get dressed for the party.
After trying all the stores that I know are cheaper, more practical, I finally go to the store I love, the store I can’t afford, and I find the dress. No I find TWO dresses that I love and would be pained to leave behind. They are so far out of my budget that I should have never even tried them on. For some reason, the sales person in there was helpful and nice, in spite of my budget clothes I arrive in. She smiled, she helped, and she earned her commission. I suppose these days it shouldn't be important to be these days that the sales competent at her job, in addition to taking my money but it is.
I left my friend and went home to see the dog, leave my 2 new pretty dresses and then go get my boy from school. I was exhausted and ready for a nap, but had a long drive ahead of me. My Mom was still heavy on my mind, but I had pushed her into my subconscious. I was really just aware of the good times, nothing sad or morose. I came to a stoplight that has a very dangerous crosswalk. There was an old woman crossing and something about her build, or her outfit or her pep in her step made me think that perhaps if my mom had lived longer she may have looked like that. I was concerned for her crossing the street and looked all around to make sure no cars were speeding towards her. I rarely do this anymore, but something compelled me to say out loud- "I love you Mom, I’ve been thinking a lot about you." I said it loud enough for the sound of my own voice to suddenly twist my face in pain and bring tears to my eyes, but certainly quiet enough that my stereo and closed windows kept anyone else from hearing what I said. My deep sadness shocked me, my voice shocked me and I wiped the tears from my eyes as quickly as they came. The old woman crossed the street safely and I felt glad for her safety.
Then I felt someone from the car next to me looking at me. It was a young boy- maybe 23 or so, handsome and boyish and full of sparkle in his eyes. He looked right at my twisted face, smiled the most genuine smile as if we were old friends and waved to me in the most cheerful hello. My smile was sudden, involuntary, unexpected and welcome. I smiled and waved back and he seemed satisfied, gave me a nod and turned his head forward again, kind of bopping and dancing to the music in his car. How did he feel me? How did he know I needed a friend? An L.A. friend; only passing in his bubble while I’m in mine.
We are so connected as people, no matter how we surround ourselves in glass and metal and unshared thoughts and grief. He touched my heart with that smile and took my grief from me. He gave me hope. In him I saw myself as a carefree girl before my Mom died. I saw an image of my son a few years from now, with his whole life in front of him and his security around him. In the 50 seconds or less that I was at that crosswalk, I felt concern for a stranger, I felt deep sadness for the loss of someone most dear, I felt gratitude and joy. This was not insignificant. This was not just some moment in time that washes over you. This left a mark deep inside me that has changed me. This moment has given me gratitude. This moment gave me something more. That smile changed the course of my day.
I imagine logically that he must have looked over at me, saw my face filled with grief and he just thought he’d try to say "Hey". But no one says "Hey" in LA. and honestly I don’t think he was looking at me that long. He was watching to see that the old lady got across the street safely also. I think he felt me. I believe he felt my pain and reached right out of his bubble. No one ventures out of their bubble, not even if you are sitting alone next to them for 15 minutes in a restaurant.
I wonder again about the lady at breakfast with the stickers. Did she need a smile? Did I miss the cue I was supposed to see? Did she see me as the person who needed more than I was getting from my own little bubble at that moment? Did I not even know it?
So I gather my emotions, and do the best I can to act like a stable person, a responsible person who can handle the most daunting task of raising a 12-year-old boy. I pick him up and he is excited about his day, excited about the drive we need to take 20 miles away to Hollywood. We talk for a while about school, homework, substitute teachers, what he had for lunch. After a while, when our talk had slowed down and I was off the freeway and on surface streets in Los Angeles, I do what I often do and put on my wax lips. Similar to the feeling I used to get when I was a smoker and would absent-mindedly smoke an entire cigarette and then feel like I never had one; I often forget that I even have them in my mouth.
I had my lips on in the car for a while, and my son had his head down looking at the phone or the ipod or his hands or any of the things that keep tween-aged boys head in a constant downward position. At I stoplight I heard laughing. Next to me were two tough looking dudes, riding low and deep back in the seats of their dark Honda. They looked tough, but they were looking at me with smirks on their face and when I turned my head to look at them they started laughing. I pulled a spare pair of lips from the center console of my car. I rolled down the window and the guy closest to me says, "I was hoping you’d look at me! I tossed him the package of wax lips- "Wear these and make other people smile" I told him.
Their faces changed. These 27 year-old tough guys looked like they were 8 and it was Christmas morning. That man grabbed that package of lips and ripped them open like he just got a new X-box. He put them in his mouth and his eyes were so bright and smiling, he gave me his tough guy pose- head cocked back and flashed me the peace sign, and drove off. I wish I could have caught up with them again and got a photo. I thought of all the other people that would be driving by them and seeing the wax lips and laugh, and then possibly pass me and see me wearing mine.
I don’t know why I have such a desperate need to connect with strangers- to try to bring a brief moment of joy. I wear wax lips in public; I make chalk murals in the street. I leave tiny plastic mermaids in unsuspecting places for people to find like treasures. It’s not art, it a movement. It’s FUNISM. Fun as a religion. It's my way of trying to lure the people I meet in to trying to be nice to one another.
We are all here alone in our bubbles. Why does that have to be?
Why are we not waving and smiling when we see some old 40 year old crying in the car next to us? I am so thankful for that young boy's smile today, he changed my mood. Because of him my mood changed quickly and I was able to be a better mother. Because my mood changed I felt inspired to put on my wax lips and then I changed the mood of 2 men that looked like they would have never went out and bought wax lips on their own. Who knows how many people smiled when they saw them with the lips on? Why can’t we all have a little more silliness in our lives? Isn’t it silly to pass thousands of people every day and NEVER make eye contact? Is it any less silly to want to see people smile at you?
I can’t remember my mom ever sleeping. My entire life living with her she would go to bed after I did and when I woke up she would be at the kitchen table drinking coffee-already showered, hair already dried. I do remember her owning robes and slippers so I don’t know where that falls into the picture except to say that my mom was modest. I never saw her naked, never saw her in her underpants and only remember seeing her in a swimsuit when I was in my early 20’s. We took a water aerobics class together and when she came out from the dressing room in her modest 1 piece suit I was in awe of her. "Oh my God Mom! Look at you! You are so beautiful, look at that figure"! She laughed at my reaction and told me I had the same body --but it wasn’t true.
My Mom had a class and grace I have never seen in another person, ever. I’ve seen actresses try to convey it on screen and they can’t even pretend that as well as my mom lived it. She could accept a compliment or give one in the most genuine way. Years ago I wanted to have this quality that she had but I’ve quit trying.
My Mom’s coffee cups had little feet on them, and delicate handles and rims that tipped slightly out at the top and the material was so thin you could sometimes see through it. She drank from the pot of weak coffee that she would brew in the morning all day long,
My Mom had amazing table manners and even tough she grew up very poor and underprivileged in Detroit, you would have guessed she dined with the Queen every night.
My Mom never complained or gossiped and kept all of her emotions and feelings inside. If I so much as stub a toe, I need to tell every person I meet every detail about it. My Mom was terminally ill with cancer, dealing with a mentally ill son and a fiscally irresponsible ex husband and had a pot-head daughter who occasionally modeled nude for art classes. All anyone knew about My Mom's world unraveling at the end of her life was that her office door was closed more often.
My Mom was an amazing woman; our relationship was often much less than amazing. We mainly didn’t get along, but luckily for me, the last few years of her life she and I made peace. When I think about where she came from- an absent racist, alcoholic father, a meek subservient mother living in poverty- I see that my Mom gave me so much more than she ever had. She gave me so much more than you could ever expect a person of that background would be capable of giving.
My mom rarely spoke of her past and the small amount of information I have I've collected from my grandparents and photos and the very rare fleeting references my mom would make. She never spoke about her heritage much but when she was older and preparing to die she started to mention our Chippewa Indian heritage and tried to help my Grandpa preserve his small percentage of reservation land.
My mom took me to Minnesota to see where I came from and meet other relatives of mine that share the same Chippewa bloodline. But some memory of that place hurt her. Some relative in that group had hurt her and the entire trip went bad in such a way I had never seen. Even then, in her anger/hatred/bitterness she was in such control that I never dare ask for specifics.
When she died and I saw her body she looked like an old wise Indian woman. I had to identify her body and it was difficult because it was as if I was seeing her for the first time. She was just a small, delicate woman, not the giant I knew. Having to identify her body helped me come to terms with the idea that she was only human, when so many of us viewed her as something much greater than that.