The Sidewalk Santas

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“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.

“What?”

“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?”

Jamie blinked.

“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.

Merry Christmas.

The Most Over-Privileged English Teacher of All

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Jamie’s job at the studio came with quite a few social, business, and political obligations. While they were always glamorous, they were usually not a lot of fun. Well, not a lot of fun for me. Jamie networked and schmoozed the room all night while I perched somewhere and watched the Beautiful People in their native habitat. People seldom spoke to me; I wasn’t in The Business, which made me all but invisible.

One night we went to Paramount Studios on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood for a fundraiser for a prominent Democratic presidential candidate. Dressed to kill in tux and cocktail dress, we left the walkstreet before it was even dark; these events always had astounding levels of security.

When we reached the lot, it appeared that half of Los Angeles County was attending this fifteen hundred dollar per plate dinner. Parking was a nightmare with everyone crowding their Mercedes, Bentleys, and Jags into the narrow Hollywood side streets lined with tiny bungalows and curious locals sitting on their front stoops eying us.

I was wearing five-inch stilettos and it was four blocks to the studio’s famous stucco gates. “Damn, they couldn’t provide a drive on pass for this,” I grumbled.

“Not at our donor level,” Jamie answered as he slowed his steps to match mine. “Besides, look at how many people are here. They’d all want one.”

“Are we all going to be in the same place?” I asked. “How big a stage are they using for this, anyway?”

Jamie shrugged. “I don’t know which stage we’re in; they’ll tell us inside at the reservation table, but all of these people aren’t going to be with us. You could get in the general lot party for two-fifty but no dinner, just entertainment, and maybe a movie star or two.”

“What’s the difference?” I answered. “Nobody ever eats at these things, anyway. Except me, I mean. I always wonder what happens to all of the uneaten food. What a waste.”

We’d finally come within sight of the studio; the Bronson Gates and the burbling fountain were right in front of us; behind it stood Security, the event entrance complete with beautiful young women as greeters, the gate itself, and finally, more Security.

We waited in line for a few minutes and, upon checking in, received tiny black and white clapper-shaped paper tickets with the Paramount logo and our names on them. I watched as other people received their tickets. They were all different shapes denoting which level party the holder was permitted to enter. That made it easy for Security to shepherd the visitors to the correct part of the lot for whatever level of entertainment their donation entitled them to attend.

Our dinner was in a stage on the other side of the lot, so we began the trek. On the way, Jamie saw lots of people he knew so the journey took a very long time, what with all that stopping and chatting. As I waited for him and wished for a studio golf cart to appear, I watched the lower-priced ticket holders turn toward the sets where their events were in full, raucous swing. There were snack booths with hot dogs and popcorn and kiosks selling bottles of water and soda and Paramount souvenirs. Gary Busey’s band was playing on the New York street.

When we finally reached the cavernous building where our dinner was, Jamie left me at the door. “There’s Hawk. I have to talk to him.” A peck on the cheek and he disappeared, sucked into the crowd like a genie returning to his bottle.

The soundstage was freezing so I pulled my pashmina across my shoulders and surveyed the room, watching the Great and Good of LA’s business, political, entertainment, and social worlds air-kiss and pretend to pay attention to one another while looking over each other’s shoulders in case someone more interesting or useful entered their orbit. I wandered about a bit, got a Perrier from an obsequious bartender, and pondered my seeming invisibility.

Finally, tired of my thin, Italian spike heels clacking on the cold concrete floor, I scouted what seemed to be a suitable table and sat down. Even though there was no seating chart, I knew Jamie would find me. He always had the scores of times we had done this.  I plopped my Timmy Woods Eiffel Tower evening bag on the table and waited.

A bustling woman in a sparkly lavender evening suit approached. Ignoring me, she began to spread purses, shawls, and documents at every seat around the table. When she got to me, she stopped and stared. Her expression fixed itself into a placating professional smile. I raised an eyebrow.

“Are you planning on sitting here?” she asked disingenuously.

“Yes.” I had rather thought my intentions were obvious.

“Oh. Well, we need a few more seats.”

“Hmm.”

“It’s for the agency personnel working on the campaign. We all need to sit together.” Ah. A PR flack.

I looked at her then slowly cast my eyes around the room at other tables she might choose. I returned my gaze to her face and smiled.

Realizing that I didn’t intend to move, she tried a different approach. “Wouldn’t you like to sit with your colleagues?”

“My colleagues?”

“With the other members of your agency.”

“My agency?”

She was wearying of me and my seeming obtuseness, of not getting her way, and of her plans falling apart. Her smile froze and her voice tightened. “Yes, dear, your ad agency. Which agency are you with, by the way?”

“I’m not in advertising.”

“Really? What do you do?”  The standard LA question by which someone determines just how nice to be to a stranger, in this case, an inconvenient one.

“I’m an English teacher.”

“You’re an English teacher?” she repeated shrilly. “You’re an English teacher and yet you’re here. Fifteen hundred dollars a seat and you’re here. You’re the most over-privileged English teacher I’ve ever met!”

My eyes widened and I stared at her. She blushed furiously. Apparently she realized just how obnoxious that sounded but it was too late to stop the word flow. Now she began babbling in an attempt to mitigate the damage.

I lifted my Tower bag from the table with my right hand and waved the left at her as I stood. “You know what? Forget it. Take your table even though it isn’t actually your table.”

I turned and pushed my way through the crowd until I found Jamie. He was standing with some people I knew so I joined them. It turned out that we were supposed to sit with them, anyway. He pointed out the table and I sat down again. I was really annoyed at how rude that idiotic woman had been. “So what if I don’t work for an agency?” I fumed inwardly. “At least I don’t wear purple polyester to an event attended by the President of the United States.”

Jamie finally sat down. He chugged some Diet Coke and the speeches started. A salad arrived. I picked at it. A waiter asked whether I’d like a mini-baguette. I shook my head. Jamie frowned; my appetite is legendary. As I had said, I really am the only person who eats at these things.

Jamie leaned over and whispered “What’s wrong?” in my ear.

“Oh, nothing. Just something some PR bitch said to me.”

He frowned. “Who?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Some porky woman in an ugly, polyester, Ross Dress for Less dress and a bad dye job.”

“Why do you care what some hack says?” he asked and kissed my cheek.

I shrugged slightly. “I don’t know. I don’t care.  It’s just . . .” My voice trailed off. The politician droned on. This night was really turning out poorly. I expected people to ignore me but no one had ever before been deliberately cruel to me.

“Ah, screw it,” Jamie said. “I know a better place for dinner. Come on.” He pulled me up.

“Where are we going?” I grabbed my evening bag and trotted after him.

“You’ll see,” he answered as we crossed the threshold of the soundstage.

We wandered back through the lot, past the revelers, the loiterers, the Hollywood hangers-on, the night shoot crews, and Gary Busey’s band. We walked back under the famous arched gates and re-crossed Melrose then retraced our steps through the tiny postwar bungalows on North Windsor Street. When we reached the car, I leaned against the door and pulled off my shoes; my feet had had enough, too.

We drove toward La Cienaga and turned right onto West Olympic. I was beginning to suspect our destination. When we eventually turned right onto Pico I was certain.

“It’s so late we ought to be able to get a decent parking spot,” I said, looking slyly at Jamie’s profile.

“You figured it out?”

“Yeah, I figured it out.”

I was right. In front of us the neon Apple Pan sign glowed. It was a great choice – it served the best burgers in LA.

It wasn’t until after we’d ordered our steakburgers with Tillamook cheddar and I’d covered my Chanel dress with one-ply paper napkins that Jamie noticed I had left my shoes in the car. So what? The place was almost empty. No one had noticed and even if they had, no one was about to question my right to be here.

The PR flack had been right: I was a lucky English teacher, but not for the reason she thought.

The Garden Cottage

largeNew York City children grow up cautious. Maybe an extra chemical in the air they breathe has altered their DNA; maybe skepticism is dripped into the water supply. Regardless, they expect the worst from every situation.

Jamie and I were both born in New York, the City of Many Locks. Even though I remember the New York in the 1960s and ‘70s – and even the ‘80s – as a lot safer than it seems now, it wasn’t a place where you slept with the front door unlatched. Having windows open in the summer was a requirement, true, but then no one ever expected Spiderman to climb the brick walls, enter the flat, and clear out its valuables. So we lived in our Upper West Side apartment with an open-windowed view of Central Park and Tuxedo’s dirty paw prints on the wall under the wide, dusty sills. According to Dr. Frank Field, this particular summer was one of the hottest on record, so the windows were never closed and the paw prints multiplied.

Jamie’s family had close friends who owned an original land grant farm in Cape Cod, bestowed by George III. He had worked on it for many of his adolescent summers, remembering those days fondly with their temperate days and cool nights. Since I hadn’t seen Massachusetts since age nine and Jamie was certain it would be cooler on the Cape, we thought it would be fun to drive up for a long weekend to escape the July heat.   We arranged for a friend to look after Tux and reserved a room at The Fernbrook Inn, a gorgeous Victorian bed and breakfast in Centerville.

The snag came two days before we planned to leave. We had gone out to dinner and upon exiting the Mitali West Indian restaurant on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village discovered that Jamie’s baby blue Mercedes E class had a new paint job – a thick stripe of Metropolitan Blue running along the entire driver’s side, almost as an accent on top of the assorted scratches and the crushing indentation from tail light to head light. Although he didn’t shriek the profanities I expected him to, it was obvious that he wasn’t happy with the NYPD’s poor driving skills. But what to do about the trip? Should we cancel?

We considered the problem the rest of that night and the next morning. Neither of us wanted to postpone; NYC in July is a tourist-stuffed and aroma-infested city-sauna. A weekend away was tempting, but how would we get there?

Just after lunch, Jamie phoned me at my office with the solution; his business partner, Danny, had recently sold his house in Tuscany and had had the furnishings shipped home and among them was a BMW sedan. We were going to borrow it for the weekend.

He arrived home a few hours later looking disconcerted. I asked what was wrong. It turned out that there are different models of BMWs available in Europe than in the US. Danny had the newest, snazziest model BMW sedan; all of its controls were voice-activated.   It was the early 1990s and I had never before heard of this.

“You mean you talk to it?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow, that’s cool.” He frowned slightly. “It’s not cool?”

Jamie scratched his chin. “Oh, it’s cool, all right. What’s even cooler is that it talks back.”

“No! Really?”

“Yeah. In Italian.”

“In Italian? You don’t speak Italian,“ I observed.

“No, but Danny does and it’s his car,” he answered.

“Ohhhhhhhhh.” The complication was beginning to sink in. Fluent-in-Italian Danny wasn’t accompanying us. “Do you think we need to speak Italian? I mean, can’t we just fill up the gas tank often and presume that it’s all right?”

Jamie nodded. “We’ll have to. It’s either that or stay home and neither is us wants to do that.”

He was right – neither of us did want that. So the next morning we loaded the car and set off for Cape Cod listening to a new best seller in the CD player. The car had a lot to say but neither of us understood it so we just turned the book louder.

We arrived in early afternoon. The inn was even more beautiful than we had imagined; a Victorian house with a wide, airy porch and spectacular gardens created by Frederick Law Olmstead.  We learned from Brian, one of the owners, that while a sea captain had built it, its owners had also included Dr. Herbert Kalmus, the inventor of Technicolor. Francis Cardinal Spellman, Walt Disney, Gloria Swanson, and several American presidents had vacationed there.

As Brian showed us around, we noticed that it wasn’t very cool; in fact it was nearly as hot as Manhattan. Jamie mentioned that he had spent his adolescent summers on the Cape and it had always had great sleeping weather, cool with a light breeze. Brian nodded. “Usually,” he agreed, “but this has been the hottest summer in seventy-five years.” Jamie and I exchanged glances. “At least there’s an ocean,” I mumbled.

Brian introduced us to his partner, Sal, who had taken our bags to the Garden Cottage. We followed Sal along the pea gravel path to a tiny studio nestled within the embrace of century old trees. It was lovely – with high ceilings, a queen-sized bed, its own bathroom, and airy porch.

“It was a little stuffy in here so I have opened all of the windows for you,” Sal said, opening, then resting, the screen door against his shoulder as he handed Jamie the key to the thick oak door as he turned to leave. “You might want to leave them open. It’s been a scorcher of a summer.”

I pulled a sweatshirt from the beach bag. “Well, I guess I won’t be needing this.”

Jamie shrugged and dug in the suitcase for our swimsuits. Perhaps there would be a cooling breeze at the beach.

Later, after roasting on the beach all afternoon, we returned to the cottage to shower and find a place to eat dinner. As Jamie opened the thick door a blast of heat attacked us like from a furnace in a steel mill.

“Holy cow, it’s still like an oven in here,” I said as I dropped the beach bag.

“We’ll leave the door open when we go out for dinner,” Jamie said turning to enter the bathroom.

“We can’t!” I exclaimed, appalled.

He turned, surprised. “Why not?”

“It’s not safe. It’s like asking someone to rob us.”

“Don’t be silly. We are twenty feet from the main house in a private garden in Centerville, Massachusetts, not pitching a tent in Central Park. And we don’t have anything valuable with us anyway.” I wasn’t convinced, so when he left to put gas in the chatty Italian car, I snapped the door locked and moseyed along the path to meet him in front of the house.

It was nearly midnight when we pulled into the inn’s driveway after dinner but it felt as hot as midday in Studio City. The same blast of hot air met us as I opened the cottage door. “I thought we were going to leave the door open,” Jamie said as we entered.

“You went for gas and I forgot,” I lied. Did he think I was nuts?

“Well, we can leave it open now,” he said pulling back the white sheets and reaching for the remote control.

“You mean all night?” I squeaked.

“Sure, why not?”

“Uh, burglars, rapists, murderers, the usual suspects,” I replied snarkily.

Jamie stared. “What are you talking about? You aren’t in New York; you are in Cape Cod. It’s very safe. It’s also incredibly hot, so, please, please do not close that door. Just lock the screen door.”

Reluctantly, I agreed and crossed the room to the door. I looked at the screen door. No lock marred its smooth painted wood surface. I turned. “There is no lock,” I said.

“Sure there is; I can see it from here.”

“You mean this? This little hook and eye?” I swung the curved metal latch with my index finger. “Tux could break this.”

“What were you expecting? The door’s too thin for a Medeco dead bolt.”

“So? They have never heard of chain locks up here?”

“It’s a low crime area.”

“Humph. No place is low crime if doors are left open and everyone’s vying to be robbed. The burglars’ only dilemma is where to hit tonight.”

“Will you please stop acting like you are vacationing on Fordham Road? They don’t need security gates and dead bolts here.”

“Yeah, well.” I remain unconvinced. I wasn’t a native New Yorker for nothing.

“Yeah, well, I’m going to sleep.” Jamie rolled over and within seconds he was snoring like an asthmatic walrus.

Miffed, I sat on the bed and stared idly at a rerun of Mystery! on PBS. A crime show, great. Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was solving the mystery of the naval treaty stolen from a Foreign Office clerk. Hmm. Stolen. See? From a place that was properly locked at night; that treaty wasn’t left on a flat surface in an unsecured garden shed in a heat-ravaged coastal town just waiting to be pilfered. I gazed at Jamie sleeping and wanted to poke him awake.

I watched TV the entire night, growing more fearful with every noise I heard. Every call of a night bird became the communication of burglary accomplices. Every padding of paws under the window became a rapist in crepe-soled shoes seeking a victim. Every crunch of gravel was a car thief choosing his prey. Eventually, I nodded off, just as the ink-blue sky began its fade to grey.

Early-rising Jamie awoke with the summer sun, leaping from bed just as the robins began their dawn serenade. Grumbling I pulled the covers over my head.   “Come on,” he prodded. “Let’s go see what Sal is making for breakfast.”

“Can’t we see what Sal is making for lunch?” I grumbled.

“No lunch. B & B, you know.”

I peered out over the scalloped edge of the sheet. Jamie frowned. “What is wrong with you? Your eyes are all bloodshot. You look like you just got in after one of your grad school pub crawls.”

I scowled. I hadn’t crawled the pubs all that much at Trinity, Oxford as I completed my Masters degree; Jamie just thought I had based on who my friends and classmates were. Self-righteousness swelled within me. After all, I had stayed awake all night guarding our safety, while he slept completely unawares, snoring like a grizzly bear with post-nasal drip, and if I had felt better I would have told him so.

Truthfully, I felt like a wrung-out dishrag. Jamie could see that. He brought me a brimming mug of coffee from the dining room and held it under my nose. Eventually the scent of what my grandfather called “the hot, black elixir of life” revived me and I made it to the breakfast table where all of the other guests sat chatting brightly. No one else appeared concerned about Centerville’s propensity for nocturnal crime. Frankly, I was too tired to care about it anymore, as well. I spent the entire day dozing on the beach.When we returned to the garden cottage from dinner that night, I decided that while the hook and eye might be – was – flimsy, Brian and Sal had owned this place for years and had never had a break in; that had to count for something. I flipped the latch and got into bed. Que sera sera, as Doris Day so often sang. I imagined I’d be alive and intact in the morning. And if I was, I planned to find a Borders books; I still needed to buy an Italian-English dictionary to figure out what the car was trying to tell us before we drove back to New York.

Tuxedo on the Uptown Bus

BideaWee

Immediately after work on August 14, 1985, I walked down Park Avenue to the corner of Thirty-eighth Street. I had planned to meet my boyfriend there; we were going to walk over to the Bide-A-Wee animal shelter to adopt a kitten.

It was stifling. He was late. Neither of these was a surprise. Bored, I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and wandered along the sidewalk, dodging other sweaty New Yorkers and chewing my right thumbnail. I idly perused the display in the window of the Hallmark store. I looked at my watch several times. If he didn’t arrive soon the shelter would close and my frail wishbone of opportunity would snap.

Finally, I saw him trudging up Park Avenue South. I grabbed his arm. “Come on! Come on! They’re gong to close!”

“They’re not going to close.” He looked at his watch. A quarter to six. They were going to close. We scurried along East Thirty Eighth Street, making it in the door just before the guard lifted his key to lock it.

“I came to adopt a kitten,” I announced brightly.

“Good for you. Got lotsa kittens down there,” he answered. “Go right over there to the Adoption Office.”

While I headed to the office to complete the paperwork, Jamie followed the guard’s chin jerk and walked downstairs to the cat and kitten room. By the time I joined him, he was already stopped before a cage. Inside was a howling black and white kitten; her little paw was stuck out between the bars and she had dug her claws into his Armani suit jacket and nearly into his wrist.   He smiled goofily. “I think this one wants to come with us.”

She was tiny – a ten-week old domestic shorthair, black with white paws, a white bow on her face, and a white bib under her chin. She looked as though she was dressed for a formal occasion so we named her Tuxedo. We paid $15 for the kitten and $2.44 for a cardboard Bide-A-Wee carrier to take her home in and headed for the uptown bus.

Since we lived in a converted brownstone way up on Central Park West, we had to change for the cross-town bus near the Park. It was a long ride and the buses were like airless tin cans.  The kitten was frightened and scratched at the box trying to escape. There were no seats together so Jamie took the quivering box and sat on the left side alone. I sat on the right next to another cranky commuter.

He put the box on the floor, near his briefcase, next to his feet. The scritching noise continued. There were a few plaintive meows, barely audible over the roaring, belching bus. Then the howling began.

New Yorkers tend to ignore each other on public transportation, preferring to sit rigidly, our body language telling everyone near us that no, they don’t actually exist, after all. This bus was no different. Through the shaking and the clawing, no one turned toward Jamie. Even the stifled mewing garnered no response. But, as we were turning onto CPW and he opened the box to comfort Tuxedo, a change occurred. Her head and shoulders popped up like a jack-in-the-box toy and she yowled with relief as she scrabbled up his pant leg to sit in his lap. The entire bus all but cried in unison, “Ohhhhhhhhh! A kitten! Look, a kitten! Awwwwwwwww.” The bus nearly tilted to the left as every rider rose from the seats and reached to pet her.

I have never seen anything like it, either before or since. I have watched television stars enter restaurants and no one looked up from his entree. I saw a bride ride the subway in a big, poufy, white dress and veil and no one cracked a smile at her. But a little kitten on a hot summer day melted every heart on the bus.

Jamie tucked her back into the box so we could exit at our stop. Total strangers, adults, called after us, “’Bye, kitty.” “You take good care of that baby, now.” “Bye, you have a good night.”

Tuxedo lived with us for the next fifteen years until kidney disease struck. I think of her every day, but mostly in August, when I remember the uptown bus ride with the winsome kitten who captured the commuters’ hearts.

Entering the Walkstreet

IMG_3299We had been living in Beverly Hills for three years when Jamie decided that he wanted to move. I wasn’t surprised. While appearing outwardly glamorous in some ways, it is really just an overly-populated, rich people’s small town, and to us, coming from Manhattan, it was a very small town, indeed.

Frankly, I wondered why it took him so long to grow restless. After all, we had seen designer stores before. We had seen Rolls and Bentleys before. We had seen gawking tourists before. And we had seen more movie stars in New York than we ever saw in LA. I think because he spent long weekdays at work and generally returned to New York at the weekends, he had very little time to grow bored; however, when I arrived for holidays or at the end of June and we spent every moment in a town of 5.71 square miles, it didn’t take long for us to weary of it.

One night just before Christmas, Jamie announced that he intended to begin looking for a house. Since I was in New York, he viewed the available ones with a real estate broker after work. After he had seen many and narrowed the field to four, he sent me links to the Google Earth pages so I could participate in the final decision. Benedict Canyon. Hmm. Nice but I did not drive so what was I supposed to do with myself all day besides sit alone at the pool, something I had been doing in BH for years? The same for Coldwater Canyon. Venice? Great, but was that a drug rehab clinic next door?  Oh, no, no, no, not that one. The final choice, in Santa Monica, however, was different.

The late nineteenth century house in the walkstreet was charming. Judging from the photos, it had neighbors, a park, Main Street down the hill, and the ocean two blocks away. There were coffee shops, salons, clothes stores, and a branch library. It wouldn’t matter that I didn’t drive.

Jamie had put off closing on the house until late January, just before the Oscars. I was coming to LA for the long weekend’s festivities; from the gifting suites to the Academy Awards themselves, we had a lot of time already committed, but I wanted to see the house first.

I arrived on Saturday morning. We drove the short distance from LAX to Santa Monica in a wobble of anticipation. I had been to Santa Monica before but, as we had always stayed at the beach hotels, I had no clear idea of its topography.   This time we didn’t go near Loews or Shutters or the Third Street Promenade. We didn’t even get that far. Turning off Ocean Park Boulevard, Jamie pulled into a short driveway and hopped out of the car. I followed. The air was cool and salty. I liked it already.

Jamie tapped the residents’ code into the security gate’s keypad and we entered the walkstreet. I had never seen a more charming place. Two rows of historic bungalows faced each other as the sidewalk joined the postage stamp-sized front gardens. No one was about. Heads swiveling to take it all in, we trotted up the rise to our house. It was sage-green with eggshell trim. It had wide steps and a wider wooden porch with two huge glass picture windows, one in the living room and one in the dining room. Gazing from the house to the west, I could see the Pacific from the rise of the hill. We tiptoed up the steps, excitedly, and peered in the windows. Hardwood floors, open space, a new kitchen. . . I was unbelievably excited, even more than I had been when we bought our first home together.

We stayed only a few minutes. I had hair and nail appointments to begin the long process of getting ready for the big Night Before the Oscars party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We sauntered back along the walkstreet and re-entered the car then drove back along Ocean Park to eat a quick lunch at Jamie’s favorite burger restaurant, The Counter.

Many years later, I can still feel the excitement I felt that day as, although I didn’t know it, this day was the beginning of so many things – living near my niece, Vikki, and her cat, Finn, again; meeting Debbie and Glenn, who ultimately became among our dearest friends; learning about rats and the proximity of movie star neighbors; and, finally, finding the stray kitten who became our Spencer.

It’s often said that a life’s path is determined with a single step. I think it’s true. My Santa Monica time was among the richest and happiest of my life so far. And it started with the keypad  entry on the walkstreet.

August Magic

imageAugust is for Italy; to be precise, it is for Forte dei Marmi, a lovely beach town in Tuscany that we have gone to for years, after Jamie learned about it on a marble-buying trip.

The Forte you see depends on where you go and where you look. Ours is the sleep late and laze at the beach all day Forte as opposed to the drink and dance all night at the clubs and miss the next day Forte.

We are creatures of happy habit and have always stayed at the same hotel – Hotel Augustus, Viale Morin, 169 – and done the same thing the same way. We rise at about 9 am and wander downstairs to the garden dining room for breakfast – small Italian eggs, soft-boiled with rich, creamy, saffron-colored yolks sopped up with crispy whole grain toast and washed down with foamy, creamy, caffe latte. Sitting in the pale yellow sunshine, it appears that no day could begin any better.

We spend the day on lounges in our rented cabana, reading, chatting, snacking on fresh fruit and Pellegrino, and dozing until the inevitable telephone calls from Jamie’s office begin. After a light lunch of pizza and salad we walk to the pier and back. By then the sun has begun its descent and it is time to shower and change for dinner, a little shopping, and passeggiata, the uniquely Italian custom of walking around and looking at each other’s sartorial presentation.

We dress carefully – Italians don’t wear sneakers or fanny packs, not even on their holidays – and walk the mile into town. Sometimes it’s a slim linen dress and heels for dinner at Trattoria Gatto Nero and sometimes it’s a floaty cotton skirt and flats for pizza Margherita at Al Bocconcino. Afterward it is always gelato from Caffe Principe and a couple of laps around the entire town looking at everyone else looking at us as we work our way to the newsstand for copies of British magazines.

The nights are sultry and the salty tang of the sea floats in on the gentle ocean breeze, combining with the potpourri of aromas from the restaurants. The shops are open and crowded with festive customers until long past midnight. Snatches of music or laughter burst forth periodically from hotel lobbies and dining rooms as we wander past, hand in hand.

Finally, we turn left at the go cart track and head toward the hotel. The music is cranking up in the clubs and the high-performance cars’ engines are revving as they cruise the streets hoping for a legal parking spot. As we are now in our fifties, those days are behind us. Jamie will talk on the phone to the studio for hours, returning the calls he missed all day due to the time zone difference. I will watch an old black and white movie on the iPad and fall asleep. Tomorrow it will all begin again.

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, Cafe au Lait

DSC_0891The week after I finished graduate school, my husband, Jamie, and I went to Europe together for the first time. Excluding our honeymoon years before, this would be our first really long trip and, as my overly romantic imagination took hold, I envisioned us wandering arm in arm through moonlit Roman ruins; munching les marron glaces at Laduree’s tiny bistro tables; and elegantly sipping steaming Lapsang Souchong at Brown’s Hotel. So powerful was this vision that I completely ignored what I already knew about the reality of travelling with Jamie; specifically, I read the tour books and look at the sights while he clutches a telephone to his ear, talking to his office as he unconsciously tidies things. Years earlier we had accompanied my parents on a cruise to Bermuda. Since there were no international cell phones then, Jamie spent an entire day on the dock in Hamilton talking on a pay phone on the pier. As I skipped away for a day of shopping and eating with my mom and dad, the last thing I noticed was his saying “No, Kenny, I think if you open the bids again, you’ll find that . . . “ as he dabbed idly at a barely-visible Diet Coke spot on his khaki shorts.
I have never understood his affection for telephones or cleaning. Being rather a Luddite, I didn’t get my first cell phone until long after they’d become common. Perhaps my husband’s addiction to it put me off.
While I suspect that the telephone thing is work-based, the cleaning is something he does reflexively. Most of the time it seems harmless, quirky: sometimes it’s even been charming, like the sunny July morning my visiting childhood friend, Patti, excused herself to go to the bathroom during breakfast. By the time she returned, Jamie had cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher, and scrubbed the griddle, all with his trusty Motorola Razr pasted firmly to his left ear. “Seriously, Danny, you can’t honestly think that . . . “
The days passed, our suitcases were packed, and the morning of our departure arrived. My heart pounding, we boarded the plane to London. During the flight Jamie didn’t use the Airphone at all but he did tidy all of the newspapers on the steward’s cart. As we began navigating our carry-ons down the Jetway, however, his cell phone rang and it took repeated scowls from the Immigration officers to convince him to disconnect. It rang again as we settled into our black taxi and Jamie chatted throughout the drive from Heathrow to Mayfair. As he executed the U turn on Carlos Place in front of our hotel, the driver – no slouch on the mobile phone himself, by the way – commented wryly that he hoped I’d be okay visiting the Tower and Harrod’s on my own since my husband would no doubt be up in our room talking on the landline, having exhausted his phone’s battery.
We wandered through European capitals, Jamie and I, chatting and reading, folding and plumping. The evening before we were scheduled to leave Paris, Jamie prowled the room, hunting for errant objects with his cell scrunched under his chin. I reclined against pillows on the bed and watched the 1936 Warner Brothers classic Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn dubbed to sound like Yves Montand.
We needed to arrive at the station no later than 7:15 a.m. to retrieve our reserved tickets and make our way to the carriage of our 7:45 a.m. train. Because I am not at my most alert in the morning, I had taken the linen jacket I intended to wear and purposefully laid it across the back of a chair before I retired. The chair stood next to the door. Regardless of my level of catatonia, I would see it..
Just after our 6:00 a. m. wake up call Jamie shoved me toward the shower and called Room Service for café au lait and pastries. Despite the caffeine fortification, I dawdled and Jamie prodded me to hurry. Exiting into the misty Champs Elysees morning, I grumbled about the chill air. Jamie assured me I’d find hot coffee waiting at the station. Comforted, I promptly fell asleep in the back of the tiny taxi. By the time we’d reached the station, however, I had awakened shivering. I searched my carry-on bag for my jacket.
“Did you pack it in your bag?” I asked Jamie as the taxi drove through the crescent to the wide-open glass doors of the Eurostar terminal.
He twisted his neck to hold his phone while he spoke to me. “Hold on, Kenny. Pack what?”
“My jacket. My beige linen Moschino jacket.”
When he didn’t answer, I poked him. He shrugged and gestured to the metal object adhered to his ear. He continued talking until the taxi stopped at the doors, then disconnected and glanced at the meter.
“Where’s my jacket?” I asked.
He counted Euros. “Do you have any money?”
I emptied the front pocket of my jeans into his waiting palm. “Here. Where’s my jacket?”
“I dunno. Did you take it out of the closet?”
“It wasn’t in the closet. I threw it across the back of the blue chair by the door because I knew I wouldn’t see it otherwise. “ I could almost feel the little cartoon light bulb suddenly switch on above my head. “You hung it in the closet, didn’t you?” I cried accusingly. “Last night when you were on the phone with Kenny you tidied it away! We have to catch a train in twenty minutes and my jacket is in a closet in the hotel!”
He swung open the taxi door dragging the carry-ons behind him. “Call the hotel and tell them to send it to Jose and Diana’s house. Use my office’s Fed Ex number. I have to call Kenny back.”
After paying the driver and claiming the tickets, there was barely enough time for my errand. Fed Ex number and hotel receipt clutched in my sweaty palm, I scurried down the train steps and looked around nervously for an old-fashioned public telephone sign. Finally locating it on the outer wall of a tiny coffee bar, I trotted into the smoky room. Reaching for the handset, I ran my eyes all over the phone’s body looking for the coin slot. With a shock I realized that it didn’t accept cash, only phone cards. I turned and dashed out of the warm, dark bar and into the bright, chilly station searching for the tabac stand. There it was, against the far corner. I trotted toward it. Facing the clerk squarely, I tried to act out my request as I fumbled with my poor French. “Je suis . . . une telephone card.”
Her brown eyes widened.
“No? Um, voulez vous une telephone card?” She frowned. Apparently that wasn’t right, either.
I mimicked dialing and chatting gaily. She cocked her head like a puzzled squirrel. Nearly frantic, I lapsed into Italian, the only foreign language I know. “Per favore, vorrei comprare una carta del telefono.” She smiled and answered something like, “Vous voudriez . . . une carte de telephone” lilting at the end so I assumed it was a question. I nodded. She asked something else and the blankness of my expression must have assured her that there was no way I knew the answer to that one. She repeated it, louder. Realizing that raising one’s voice at a foreigner seemed to be a universal reaction to coping with one, I chewed my bottom lip and nodded slowly, hoping that was the correct response. She sighed, shook her head, and turned to a locked cabinet where she slid in the key and chose a green telephone card with a French cartoon character printed on it. I held out all the money I had left. She picked out the price of the card, placed in it my hand , and then smiled.
I turned and raced through the station back to the smoky bar. Yanking hard on the glass door handle, I heard a loud, metallic binnnnnnng-bonnnnnnng. It reminded me of the televised Avon Cosmetics commercials from my childhood. Nervously, I laughed aloud at the thought – Avon Ladies in Paris – and grabbed at the telephone handset. I had no idea how much time had elapsed, but connecting to the concierge, waiting for the head of Housekeeping to travel to our room and retrieve my jacket, and then verifying the Basel address and the Fed Ex number, seemed to take hours. I guessed I was safe, though; I hadn’t heard the Basel train called.
I exited the café and turned toward the track where my train was . . . no longer waiting. Disbelieving, I ran along the empty platform, dodging suitcases, strollers, and other people. I really needn’t have hurried since I could see the train’s distant lights as it turned a curve about a half-mile away. Realizing that the Avon Lady sound had probably been my train’s departure signal, I slid onto a cold wooden bench and considered my situation. A tear leaked out from under my lashes. Another one followed. I wiped them away with the backs of both hands (my tissues were in my tote bag on the train) and, feeling distinctly like Lucy Ricardo, I decided I’d better find the stationmaster.
The office was at the top of a flight of metal stairs. The stationmaster was a very kind man; after listening politely to my admittedly ludicrous tale – preoccupied husband; forgotten jacket; no phone card; no ticket or passport, either (both were with the Kleenex in my tote bag on the train), his only response was a small sigh “I am sorry to hear that, madame, however, you are in luck because there is another train in three hours’ time. We simply have to get you on it. Please sit down and allow me to assist you.” He paused and gestured to the blue plastic chair in front of his desk and pursed his lips slightly. “I know what we will do. I will radio the conductor on your train and ask him to verify that your husband and your ticket are indeed on it. The conductor will then assure your husband of your safety.” He slid a small pad of paper and a pen toward me. “Now if you will please write out for me your name, your husband’s name and the location of your seats.”
When I was done, he lifted one of the many radios that cluttered his desk and spoke rapidly to someone in French. He listened to the response then turned back to me. “The conductor says that he just passed through the carriage containing your husband and that he was talking on his mobile phone but that he had two tickets in his hand. In a few minutes, when he finishes his round, the conductor will return and ask your husband to see your passport. Then he will confirm your identity and assure your husband of your safety. Afterward, we will issue you a new ticket. Please make yourself comfortable. We have only a few minutes to wait.”
My husband was talking on the telephone. Surprise. No doubt he’d be tidying the carriage in a few minute’s time.
I stared idly through the window while we waited. When the radio crackled in garbled French, the stationmaster lifted it to his ear, listened, looked at the pad, and then smiled. “Now we will provide you with a new ticket and somewhere to wait until the next train.” He reached for a cell phone and dialed. After a few seconds he began chattering quickly. I understood almost nothing of what he said, just “Americain” and “mal place”. In another few seconds, the stationmaster disconnected the call and rose. “My assistant is coming. He will provide you with a new ticket and remain with you until your train boards. In the meantime, I must go to the train-shed. Please remain here in comfort. If you will excuse me.” He was gone.
I sat and chewed my right thumbnail pondering my own idiocy. In about ten minutes, the glass door opened and a young man entered. “Are you the lost American?” he inquired politely.  Now I had a title.
The assistant stationmaster asked me to wait while he completed a few of his duties. Since I had so much time, I took a taxi to the hotel to retrieve my jacket then met the assistant stationmaster again when he came to reclaim me. Since it was time for his midmorning break, he led me to a cool Parisian bar where he bought me a pain au chocolat and café au lait, then leaned against the scarred zinc counter and introduced me to his friends as the lost American. At the correct time, he escorted me to my train and asked the conductor to be sure that I got to my seat safely. He probably also suggested that it would be best if I didn’t leave my seat until the train stopped in Switzerland, although I can’t be sure of this because I didn’t understand their conversation held entirely in French. Regardless, I made the trip to Basel in safety and comfort, albeit without my second honeymoon groom.
In retrospect, it all worked out fine. True, I missed the romance of a train trip with Jamie but I had a Parisian adventure that I’d never have had any other way. Plus I learned a few things; I learned that I can survive with no passport, no money, and no facility for the local language. And I learned that all my years of living inside books wasn’t wasted; Tennessee Williams really was correct about the kindness of strangers.