“Everybody counts or nobody counts”
Harry Bosch, The Overlook by Michael Connelly
For as long as I can remember, my mother has lived by particular philosophies. She repeats them to me often, no doubt hoping to impart their wisdom. (I am not always a willing recipient of her advice.) The single belief she most tries to live by is to treat everyone with equal respect. She says that she doesn’t want to die and have to explain to God for the way she treated people on earth but I suspect that she is just an innately decent woman and concern about Saint Peter refusing her entry to the Afterlife doesn’t really enter into it.
Late one Saturday morning just before Christmas Jamie and I climbed into his car to go Christmas shopping in Beverly Hills. On our way out of Santa Monica I remembered that my mom and many of my work friends enjoyed See’s candy so I suggested stopping at the See’s branch at the Century City Mall on the way into town to pick up chocolates for everyone.
Unfortunately, Jamie’s phone rang as we were pulling out of our driveway on Third Street, changing our plans. Something was wrong at the studio so we headed in the opposite direction, merging into the jam on Lincoln Avenue pointing toward Culver City. After the problem was solved and the irate client soothed we headed toward Beverly Hills the back way, turning right onto Motor Avenue near the old MGM lot, then right onto Pico at Twentieth Century Fox Studios, then left onto the Avenue of the Stars.
Beverly Hills was overflowing with both locals and tourists. The sidewalks on North Canon were so packed with dawdlers and gawkers that we were often pushed into the car-clogged streets where we would surely have been run over if any of the cars had been moving.
We had planned to pop into Nate ‘n Al’s on North Beverly for a late lunch after we were finished but the line stretched out the door and up the block toward Little Santa Monica Boulevard, appearing to go all the way to Sunset.
“Wow, look at that line,” I sighed, resting my shopping bags on the sidewalk at my feet.
Jamie nodded. “Do you want to wait?” he asked.
I shifted my weight, undecided. “Yes and no. No because I will be ready for a bungalow at the Motion Picture Retirement Home before we get to the front but yes because I am starving.”
Jamie glanced at his watch. “I have to go back to the studio so let’s just eat at the Greek in Culver City.”
“Oh, great idea.” I loved Mykonos, the Greek restaurant on Washington Boulevard because I had a sentimental attachment to it. On my first full day in Santa Monica, Jamie had dashed out of the studio and brought me lunch from it because we had no food in the house.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur – the studio, lunch, and grocery shopping at Whole Foods. It wasn’t until we were turning right onto Third Street that I remembered See’s.
“Shit!” I exclaimed.
“I forgot See’s. Damn. And now we are nowhere near the mall.”
“We’ll go to the one on Wilshire.”
“Is there one on Wilshire?” I asked in amazement.
“You really need to learn to drive,” Jamie observed as he passed our house and slowed to a stop near Mary Hotchkiss Park.
“I can drive,” I answered defensively.
“Can isn’t do,” he said.
He was right; I rarely drove in LA because I was terrified of the traffic, especially on the freeways. My niece, Vikki, had watched me drive once in Beverly Hills and likened my vehicular temperament to a frightened Pomeranian. Embarrassingly enough, she was right.
Jamie had asked me a question but I had scarcely heard. “Oh. What?” I asked. “I wasn’t listening. Sorry.”
“Why can you drive in Manhattan but not here?”
“Because Manhattan is a grid not an afterthought, and besides it’s an island so I can’t really get lost: if I see water I have gone too far.”
“Honey, just face west and keep going. If you see water here you have gone just far enough.”
He was right; we could see the ocean from our bedroom window. I had never thought about it that way. All I really needed to remember was that Malibu was north of our house and the Marina was south.
We found a parking place in the small lot behind See’s and turned the corner. Seated on the sidewalk, huddled together directly in front of the shop, were two thin and dirty people, a man and a woman. I presumed that they were homeless; Santa Monica had a lot of homeless people. Shoppers walked over and around them on the crammed sidewalk. Watching, I felt terrible and it seemed suddenly frivolous to be buying candy.
Jamie had already reached the shop, however, and was holding the door open for me. I glanced over my shoulder as I entered. While in the tiny, sweet-smelling store I couldn’t concentrate on which of my family and friends liked what sweets; I was thinking about the two people leaning against the outdoor wall and peered out through the plate glass a couple of times.
Jamie sidled up to me. “What are you looking at outside?”
“Those two homeless people. I know there are social services but it just seems so awful to be out there when everyone else is celebrating with their families and friends. It’ll be Christmas Day soon and they won’t even care because it’ll look just like every other day. I don’t know. It just seems wrong.”
“So do something.”
“You mean, give them money?”
“Laura, you grew up in New York City. You know perfectly well that any money you give them will probably go for drugs or alcohol.”
I considered. “Do you think they’d like chocolate?”
“I mean, I know that food is better but they may well be eating at one of the outreach centers. Maybe they would just like to have a treat, a present. I am going to buy them Santas. Do you think that’s stupid?”
Jamie grinned. “No, I don’t.”
We added two large chocolate Santas to our stack of gifts. Just before Jamie opened the door to step outside I pulled the two chocolate figures from the shopping bag he carried.
I walked over to the man and woman. They avoided my eyes so I crouched in front of them. I held out one of the Santas to the woman. “Merry Christmas,” I said.
She stared at me then slowly reached a thin hand to accept the chocolate. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“You’re welcome.” I turned slightly to face the man and repeated the words and gesture. He turned to stare at his companion then accepted the chocolate and croaked, “And happy holidays to you, too.”
We smiled at each other then I rose and met Jamie where he was waiting for me at the corner near the parking lot.
Of all the Christmas presents I have ever given or received, I remember those Santas clearly. I am not foolish or naive enough to think that one chocolate Santa will change anyone’s life but it helped; it made one day better for all of us.
I have two dear friends, my Zen friends, Helen Kuryllo and Debbie Levin, who are my mother’s true philosophical daughters because they do things like this every day. They, along with my mom, are my examples of how to coexist peacefully with the world, doing no harm and attempting to do good. As I am nowhere near as decent a person, I may not always appreciate their daily lesson, but I need it. Especially, during this holiday season, I would like to be like Helen and Debbie, to be the example of how to live well.