The hem of my blouse didn’t exactly provide ideal protection. But it was all I had to grip the door handle. When I entered the Chevron unisex toilet, the putrid stench alone had overwhelmed me. Even worse, not one inch of paper product existed, and God only knew what bodily fluids went into the cocktail spread upon the floor.
I’d had to use it. No other option existed. After circling the block in one of San Francisco’s busiest neighborhoods ten times with a full bladder, gratitude filled me when a Mercedes pulled out of the station. I sped right into the vacant spot. In my forty-odd years, I’d learned that life didn’t always offer clean solutions. No matter what it looked like, I’d just have to grit my teeth and use it.
But once inside, attempting to take in a breath proved nearly impossible. I certainly couldn’t leave the door open for air. The characters who slumped against the wall outside looked like relatives of Charles Manson.
Thankfully my quadriceps were strong enough that I could pee while squatting above the toilet, because seat liners were nowhere to be found. The one lone Kleenex in my purse managed to suffice as toilet paper, but it left nothing to dry my hands on. I soon realized however, that I needn’t worry. When I turned to the sink, I found someone (probably a Manson cousin) had stolen both the hot and cold handles. When I finished, I carefully turned the doorknob, and kicked the door open. It banged against the frame.
To my surprise, three of the loveliest 20-somethings, decked out in pumps and summer dresses waited outside. Professional blond highlights, polished complexions and just a hint of expensive perfume. Like rare orchids sprouting in a Walmart parking lot.
They smiled at me the way privileged people do at the help. The tallest one used her manicured finger to slide rhinestone-framed sunglasses up the bridge of her nose.
“Why hello,” she said, the way an older person might. The beauties didn’t so much as stand there as they seemed to float in place. Water lilies on the surface of a polluted pond, they remained oblivious to the filth that waited inside the open door.
“Ladies, I should warn you,” I said. “You don’t want to use this restroom.”
The glimmering young things facing me now would surely be traumatized if I let them enter without full disclosure.
The petite one in front—cute as a button with perfect Anne Hathaway teeth—just shrugged. “It’s fine. This was the only place with parking. And we really have to go.”
“That’s right,” said a modern-day Stevie Nicks with expensive-looking earrings. “We drove all the way here from Santa Barbara without stopping.”
“Our friend is getting married,” explained Anne Hathaway. “Her bachelorette party is tonight, but we can’t get into her apartment yet because she’s not home from work.”
Ah yes, bachelorette parties. I remembered those. Champagne, laughter, silly games and naughty lingerie. I’d experienced a few in my youth.
I eyed the three of them, so young, bright-eyed, with designer purses hanging from their shoulders. My grandmother would’ve called them “high fallutin’” and accused them of putting on airs. But looking at them was like peering into a time capsule of myself from twenty years before. I too, was once convinced that I had the world figured out. Costumed in my 80’s shoulder pads and big, teased hairdo, my bright future stretched out ahead of me. I wondered if these budding young angels pitied the middle-aged female they saw before them. I once pitied older women too, who stopped caring about fashion and hairstyles.
Now in my old denim skirt, home-trimmed bangs and comfortable shoes I felt certain I must appear past my prime. But I found I pitied these girls too, for all their confidence and poise, I knew the hard realities that awaited them in life. Such squeaky-clean things with perfect lipstick, if they stepped inside that hell hole, they may just gag.
“You don’t understand,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound like a bossy mother. “It stinks like you wouldn’t believe, there is zero toilet paper or paper towels, and you can forget about a mirror.”
They all giggled and began rifling through their bags. How could I make them understand that Armageddon had come to the restroom they were about to enter?
“I guess it’s a good thing I brought this,” Stevie Nicks said, and withdrew a roll of bathroom tissue from her purse.
“I wish I’d thought of that,” I said. “But there’s no way to wash your hands. No soap. And the sink’s faucets are even missing.”
The tall woman removed her sunglasses, and slid them into her purse. When she removed her hand she held a small plastic bottle.
“May I offer you some hand sanitizer?” she asked.
I stared, open mouthed. These women were way more together than I’d ever been twenty years ago.
“My goodness, “I said. “You’re all so prepared.”
I never used expressions like ‘my goodness,’ but these women looked like charm school graduates who grew up with maids. They’d probably gasp if I uttered my typical, “holy shit!”
Had I used my grandmother’s typical response, “holy mother-fucking shit,” there’s no telling what they’d have done. I held out my palms, grateful for a squirt, and rubbed them together. “Well, there is one more thing,” I said. “Take a deep breath of fresh air before you step in there. It smells like something died. Not much you can do about that.”
I watched in amazement as Ann Hathaway pulled out a spray can of Lysol.
“Holy shit,” I said.
All three burst out laughing. I couldn’t contain myself, I laughed too. I had to wonder then, if I wasn’t becoming more like my grandma than I wanted to admit. I’d completely misjudged them.
I bid them goodbye and navigated my car out back into the traffic. I watched them grow smaller in my rear view mirror, and thought this younger generation would face life’s hard realities just fine.
I dropped my crumpled dollar into the box and shot a glance up the aisle, noting several open spots. The air hung heavy with cheap cologne, spicy food and sweat. Halfway down on the right sat a bristly-cheeked man built like a tank. Dark shades concealed his view of the outside world. He looked like Tone Loc, the rapper whose song “Funky Cold Medina” was playing on every radio station at the time.
Not long after my boss separated from is wife, Darren showed up for work with an invisible ribbon of Calvin Klein cologne trailing him. He lingered, like a hungry pigeon near a park bench, at the desk of Arianna, our middle-aged, well-endowed bookkeeper.
Who could blame him? She was as bawdy and southern as a backwoods juke joint on Saturday night. She brought laughter into our otherwise stressful workplace. The combination of her accent and enormous bosoms made her a natural target for Dolly Parton jokes. But she didn’t carry quite as much poise as Dolly.
Once in the lunchroom she announced, “I haven’t been with a man in so long ya’ll, that the next time I drop my bloomers for somebody, I’ll have to sweep the cobwebs out of my privates.”
Arianna called me over to her desk one day, her purple-shaded eyes darted left and right. I assumed something tawdry was about to happen. When she said she had something to tell me that she wasn't sharing with everybody, I moved closer. I knew her propensity for pornographic proverbs, and I wasn't about to miss one.
But she surprised me when she told me to go cash my paycheck "raht quick." She made it clear she didn't mean deposit. Get cash. I shook my head and asked her why I'd want to carry around such a large wad of money.
She said nothing, but twisted her red-painted lips as if thinking. Now really curious, I leaned over her. From her toothy smile came the scent of Juicy Fruit gum and cigarettes. She whispered that there was a cash flow problem.
“That’s right," she said looking at my gaping mouth. "Now you get it.”
She assured me she was only telling her favorite employees so they could race to the bank first. Not everyone's check would clear.
I confessed to Arianna that it bothered me when the bosses of our floundering mom and pop business took so many ski trips, Alaskan cruises and tours of Greece. How could they possibly afford that?
She shook her head, and mumbled something about them throwing money around "like they got enough to burn a wet mule.”
Asking her to explain that analogy would only detour the conversation, so I pushed on. “This is the kind of stuff makes me want to tell them to stick it the next time they ask me to work overtime.”
“Now you just hush with that,” Arianna used her Mama’s going-to make-you-biscuits-and-gravy tone. The voice that oozed honey whenever angry clients called. Why isn’t my job finished? They’d demand. What do you mean this will cost twice the quoted price? Management relied upon Arianna to intercept those calls, deliver the bad news, and claim management was tied up. If the clients were men, she’d dollop on a sexy sigh at the end of the words “tied up.” After that, they usually forgot why they’d called in the first place.
She advised me not to go biting the hand that feeds me, and reminded me how much I'd been trying to save money to take my nephew somewhere for his birthday.
She was right. I needed that overtime. But after just seven months at the company, I saw a pattern. The owners promised clients the seasons, the weather, and all laws of physics, with lightning-fast turnaround times. When deadlines loomed, they snapped at the employees, acting surprised when we couldn’t finish jobs as fast as they’d promised. Then came their exchanged looks. One would jerk his head towards the office, and they'd scramble inside. When they emerged, one of them would suddenly remember an important “business conference” they’d bought tickets for in Hawaii, or Jamaica.
I was fed up making excuses to clients who wanted my head on a platter when Curly, Mo and Larry were nowhere to be found. And now they couldn’t even make payroll?
I knew Arianna could relate. The bookkeeping kept her busy. But she didn't deal with the public, so the owners didn't give her more clients than she could handle. I busted my butt for them, and they were spending money faster than it came in.
My gaze fell upon Arianna’s desk. A framed photo sat wedged in the corner half-hidden behind her phone. Arianna and Darren. Smiling the giddy intoxication of love, together on Darren’s new sailboat. Purchased used, but still a thirty-thousand dollar investment. Everyone knew this because his ex had screamed the amount over and over in their last shouting match.
The photo looked innocent on the surface, but something else caught my attention on the stern. Something small, in red letters. There, in flame-shaped font, was the boat's name: Hot Southern Lady.
That's when Arianna’s face froze, and turned her head to follow my gaze. I pretended to look the other direction at someone’s cough from the next room. But she’d seen what had stopped me mid-sentence.
No one blamed her for our boss's divorce. It was clear from day one they’d either split or kill each other first. But that photo—and the name on the boat—had somehow transformed Arianna in my eyes. From the ordinary working person she portrayed, to one of them. I cleared my throat, and wandered back to my department, with shoulders and spirits drooping. And wondered why exactly I felt so betrayed.
For the first time in years, I joined an exercise class. Not just any class, a chair exercise class. The kind for people who have great-grandchildren.
I took four steps inside, and froze. A roomful of gray heads spun to face me. Seven people who could've been from ads in AARP magazine eyed me with suspicion. Their facial expressions sneered, "infiltrator!" The silver-haired instructor asked incredulously, "Are you here to participate in this class?" As if she assumed I'd wandered in from the HOT YOGA FOR BAD ASSES class going on upstairs.
Yes, it felt humiliating. I had no other choice, unless I wanted to stay home and let my muscles atrophy even more. I fought Lyme disease for years, and I wish I could say I didn't take it lying down. But that's exactly what Lyme patents do. Because I'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a hungry tick mistook me for a Happy Meal. Three years of antibiotics, (some of that time on IV) and even when it was finally over I faced serious complications.
Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful just to be able to walk. And it's not as if I'm in a wheelchair. I lead a relatively normal life now. But to be honest, halfway through the class my arms screamed and my shoulders wept. But worse than that, my EGO whimpered! I struggled to keep up with the 85-year-old guy across from me. I could probably hold my own if we arm wrestled, but he outlasted me. He did more reps than me with 2.5 pound weights.
(That's right. Two-and-a-half!)
So I have a ways to go. And I left there humbled, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Just goes to show you that the old adage is true. You really can't judge a book by its cover.
Ordinarily, my supermarket experiences offer few interesting photo opportunities. But when witnessing a true American phenomenon like this, it just seems a shame not to document. It was back in October, (opening day of Candy Hunting season) when I saw this.
Yes, a yard. These chocolate babies really measured three feet high. I'm no marketing professional, but it seems like Safeway missed an opportunity to do what is known in retail as an "add on." If they'd displayed these in their pharmacy section, customers could've just grabbed their glucose monitors and syringes on their way out.
"I used to work in the doorway to hell.
My grandmother informed me of this when I was just nineteen. I'd just finished telling her that I'd landed my first paying gig in show business, but I don’t think she even heard the words “costumer’s assistant.” Because after she heard the word “burlesque,” the pasties hit the fan.
“You’re working in a what?!” Her fleshy arm shot up so hard, it knocked the can of Niagra starch from her ironing board. The noise triggered a glare from my grandpa, who sat in his favorite Naugahyde chair. When he sat there to read the paper each night no one was supposed to disturb him.
Grandma didn’t wait for me to repeat the word. She knew damn good and well what all girls meant in a place like Hollywood. "Shit fire and save the damn matches..." She muttered under her breath.
For a woman who dodged fire and brimstone as a child in a Pentecostal home in Arkansas (where good girls didn’t even dance, let alone work in burlesque shows) my grandma was surprisingly well-versed in cursing.
I tried reasoning with her. I explained that it was legitimate, paying employment, and that I didn’t take any clothes off, because I worked backstage.
Grandma's response: "Anybody’d work for an outfit like that must be the Devil’s whore. You want to be the Devil’s whore?”
Working with the Devil’s whores actually paid well—and in cash. But there were drawbacks. Every night I had to endure eye-popping cleavage, Colgate smiles and disgustingly long legs. This seared the fragile ego of a pasty-white teenager in braces with a failed home perm.
And no one warned me that I’d have to use my finger to trace gold paint inside the edges of the lead dancer’s butt cheeks. That’s what it took to transform the statuesque brunette into a life-sized, dancing Oscar, covered head-to-toe in gold body paint in their “Hooray for Hollywood” finale.
She bent way over to make every crevice accessible.
Most of my duties happened as the dancers exited the stage. I ripped apart the Velcro that held together sequined G-strings, freeing their lithe torsos to wriggle into the next costume. Dancers slipped their long, graceful arms through the shoulder straps, and I clasped them in back. Then came the only part of the job where I got to perform.
They’d pout and ask, “Do I look okay?” I’d obediently nod, and wait until they’d whooshed on stage before whispering they actually looked like hideous fucking train wrecks.
I never admitted to anyone what I did when I took the costumes home to launder. I pulled out every article of clothing, squeeze into a ridiculously tight bodysuit. I shoved rolled up socks into the chest area, and strike a pose in the hall mirror. Flashing the open-mouthed smile I’d seen the showgirls make, I visualized the gleaming white teeth that would someday be where my braces were. Back arched, I took my curtain call. And would you look at that! A standing ovation! Oh, the deafening applause! Roses thrown on stage...
None of this mattered to my grandmother. Her barking and snapping switch had been flipped. She informed me that her mother would turn in her damn grave if she saw the child she raised.
I asked her how her mother’s grave could be damned when she'd always insisted her mother had been "saved.” I ducked her can of starch just in time.
Grandpa complained (loud enough to remind their neighbors as well) that he never got a damn moment of peace 'round there after working at that damn plant all day.
That was it. I'd known them long enough to recognize my opportunity. While their version of passion shook the walls, I slipped out the front door. Starting the car, I headed south on the 101, back to the Devil's whores.
The other day when I drove past a donut shop, I was reminded of the summer after I graduated high school. I was convinced if I could get my hideous picket fence teeth fixed, I’d attain my two life goals: I’d pass for middle class, and I could become a movie star. Everyone knew movie stars didn’t have ugly choppers. And if I reasoned if I couldn’t have Brooke Shields’ long legs, I would at least have her straight teeth.
But getting braces was out of the question for a teenager from a working class family like mine. I wasn't raised by parents who played Bridge, drank martinis and owned stocks. Mine shot guns, drank Kool-Aid and stocked up on Spam.
So I did what any self-respecting, working class kid would do. I secured myself two jobs, and worked sixty hours a week to save for braces. I arrived by five a.m. at my first job of the day. My duties at Foster’s Donuts included laughing at the jokes told by geezers who slumped at my counter, comparing their golf scores. Make correct change for the red-faced, peeling surfers, still lizard-lidded with drowsiness when they carried their crullers off in paper bags.
Serving doughnuts was a slumber party compared to job number two, assistant manager in training at Jeans West. I hated wearing pants that made my butt look like a floating barge just to advertise the same brand I sold in the mall. The bookkeeping required at closing time had me clenching my jaw with dread by four, and had me in tears by the time I left. Don’t ask me what I’d been thinking, accepting a job that involved math.
And really, so what if my head throbbed for a week every time the orthodontist tightened my braces? Every time I sat in his chair he tortured me with pliers, I pushed through it by repeating the mantra my friend’s modeling teacher had taught her: Beauty knows no pain.
What was a little pain anyway? The bonus reward was that I would someday flaunt my pearlies at my rain-on-your-parade grandmother. Grandma regularly advised me that I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming famous. “Actress, my ass, you can’t even fry a damn egg right.”
My favorite donut geezer (the biggest tipper who still had some teeth) called me “doll,” and requested his second maple bar right at 7:00. He was so predictable, that I’d ready my chuckle as I handed it to him, and then waited for his follow up line. “Did I ever tell you your hair is redder than an eruptin’ volcano?”
I let the chuckle tumble out naturally, shaking my head and slapping my thigh. I was an actress after all.
Throughout the morning, I constantly calculated my tips and paycheck that week, figuring in the amount stashed under my mattress. I chose to see my struggle of getting up in the dark, wrestling with bookkeeping numbers, and being assaulted by the orthodontist’s pliers as suffering for my art. I knew someday that suffering would go into the movie based on my life.
The one where Brooke Shields would have to wear a red wig to play me.
Christmastime always reminds me of my first day on a new job at a juvenile corrections facility. Christmas eve morning had the place bustling with Inmates craning their necks to see visitors. The kids paced the day room waiting for parents to pick them up for short furloughs home. Everyone was amped up. While I waited in the day room of to meet my new supervisor, I overheard this from the mouth of a fifteen-year-old girl.
“The best time to shoot up was when I was pregnant. My boobs were out to here, man. And my veins you know? They were like all popped out and shit.”
The girl—I’ll call her Guadalupe—said this with the inflection I’d use if I’d said, “After Christmas is the best time to find deals. I found this gorgeous hat on clearance, and it was marked 75% off!”
Guadalupe practically salivated as she reminisced her days “on the outs.” I looked away to pretend I hadn’t heard, while internally trying to wrap my head around the concept. Meanwhile, acne-faced John Cougar lookalikes (it was the early eighties) in ripped Levi’s sauntered past, followed by cholos decked out in creased khakis, flannel shirts, and faces tattooed with cynicism.
Now, substance abuse and scrappy, criminal behavior are part of my upbringing, it’s practically in my family DNA. So when they hired me for the job, I brought a generous amount of my own cynicism. That meeting room with its frayed couches and yard sale-worthy rugs wouldn’t offer any surprises to me.
Still, I found it fascinating that someone made an effort to soften the institutional atmosphere with colored lights and handmade, holiday décor. My gaze wandered to the Christmas tree in the middle of the room. Something auspicious and snowy white dangled from a lower branch. I stepped closer and squinted. A fresh tampon seemed to smile back at me, beautified with a red ribbon around it to wish visiting family members a cheery holiday.
The prank left me speechless, even though I’d come from a crazy family who maintained their own wing at the county jail.
Guess I wasn’t as cynical as I thought. Things still existed in the world that held shock value for me apparently, because within minutes, a cherub-cheeked Deadhead with peach fuzz on his chin approached. Probably mistaking me for a visitor, he smiled sweetly and said, “Oh, I see Santa left a twat rocket.”
Later, when my supervisor gave me the tour I inquired about the Deadhead. She told me he’d been brought in after he and his friends dropped acid and broke into a cemetery. There, they unearthed a grave, pried open its casket, and smashed a human skull.
That Christmas was even more memorable than the one when I was six, when my grandmother was released from jail for shooting three of our neighbors.
But that’s a story for another time…
When you share your neighborhood with non-humans, be prepared to share. It's not uncommon for my husband and I to see bald eagles, coyote and deer outside the door. This means when we fill our bird feeders, visitors who are tall enough (like this handsome guy) manage to steal a fair amount. Some deer have such a sense of entitlement that they'll stand and wait to see a dessert menu.
Teddy Bear, my nearly-toothless, 90% blind senior kitty, suffers from arthritis.
(Cue my husband's mention that I feed our cats too much.) Okay, so it is possible that his obesity plays a role, but when you're 90-something in cat years, and you can't see, what fun can you have besides eating?
He still retains his Brad Pitt looks, and the charms of a gigolo, but what good are those if you can hardly walk? His movie star features may be why he’s okay with weekly trips to the vet. The young ladies at the front desk ooh and ahh over him like he’s a furry Justin Timberlake. What species of heterosexual male wouldn’t enjoy that every week?
Maybe the real reason Teddy Bear doesn’t resist is because he understands the visits help him feel better. Not in a conscious way, the way humans understand the benefits of practicing palates and reducing their Newman O’s intake. (No one's claiming here that I actually do either of these) I like to believe Teddy Bear “gets it” on some special feline wavelength. Instinct? DNA programming? Whatever it is, he is by far easiest kitty I've ever taken to the vet.
Dr.Johnson, his fabulous vet marked specific spots from his lumbar area and his legs on a diagram during our first visit. She placed that into his chart. On each visit, the vet tech. uses the chart as the guide, and holds the laser one each spot for about sixty seconds. Mom, Teddy Bear and the vet tech wear special goggles to protect their eyes from the laser beams. The UV lasers break up scar tissue and stimulate circulation, but their also dangerous for your eyes.
Oh yeah, and it's pricey. I've had to cut back on some comforts of my own to cover treatments. But when I see Teddy Bear dragging his back leg like Quasimodo, what's a mom to do?
I can tell a difference when I skip a few weeks, because he stops jumping up on the couch. When he's having treatments every seven to ten days, he's more active, and makes those leaps without any problem. I'm a believer, and as long as I can swing it on my budget, The King of Fluff will continue to have them.