Tea and Rain

I arrive ten or fifteen minutes early. It will be awkward if my hosts are still settling in after work. But the steadily falling rain precludes the possibility of a stroll and ten or fifteen minutes is a long time to sit in the car. Enter the ubiquitous corner Starbucks.

It is not quite 8 pm but the little shop is already closing (this is obviously not the neighborhood for exciting night life). The door is still unlocked, however, and the boy at the register looks up welcomingly enough.

“What’re you having?” he asks.

“Well . . . I was just gonna get a hot tea, but now I’m not so sure.”

He grins, “Get something more fun than that. It is raining after all.”

Anywhere else the justification would have ben a non sequitur, but this is Los Angeles. Rain is as novel and exciting for Angelinos as the first snow day of the year is to 6-year-olds or warm sunshine is to Seattleites. I laugh and let him talk me into a spiced tea latte. He charges me fifty cents – “we’ll call it a refill; we’re closing up for the day and have poured the milk already anyway.”

I accept the small gift and his light flirtation. The other barista is slightly older with a dark scruffy beard and joins in as he makes my drink. They are charming and attentive, and though I know their efforts are as much a good-natured competition between them as any tribute to me, I’m not in the least immune to their flattery.

All three of us are in high spirits because of the rain, all three of us quite happy to have something to fill what had looked to be a boring quarter hour, all three of us quite willing to suspend our disbelief – to accept the concern and interest of the other without question.

So we talk about rain and disasters and earthquakes. “Did you hear,” offers Scruffy Beard, “about the lawsuit in Italy a few years ago, against scientists who failed to predict an earthquake?” This leads to a discussion of Italian government and politics, which leads to a discussion of travel. We share anecdotes about our experiences overseas as if we had large repertories to draw from, politely avoiding any attempt to disillusion ourselves, to discover that the others’ experience may be less impressive than it sounds.

It’s an exchange like a hundred others each of us has had, completely insignificant in its own right. We each, no doubt, have more important things to think about – friends we care deeply for, romances realized or hoped for or lost.

But in the midst of navigating the high stakes of life, there is something comforting in the attention of strangers. It is something to feel that you aren’t always alone in the crowd, to connect and to care, if superficially and momentarily, with strangers, not as abstractions but as individuals worth knowing.

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Another Family

It is not the nicest drive on a dark winter night, dark even before you leave the office. The canyon is pleasant enough in the fading twilight. But then comes the freeway,  slow crawl amongst headlights and taillights  – loneliness exacerbated by the abstract crowd around you. Then the busy city street through the San Fernando Valley which certainly doesn’t look like its going anywhere you’d want to go: past a low, square building selling tombstones and masonry, bright neon lights of fast-food restaurants and corner liquor stores, a strip club on the right advertising discount lap dances.

Once off the busy street you find yourself in a dark neighborhood with bland mid-century houses: utilitarian, unimpressive. A couple rights and lefts more and you pull up in front of a house that you recognized even on the first visit. This one is set apart from the others by attention and love – welcoming landscaping, bright light pouring through the frosted glass ichthys (ichthyses? ichthyss?)  in the wood-framed front door.  You ring the doorbell and then there is an open door and open arms and a welcome home in the darkness of winter.

It is their home, but as long as you are here it is your home and this time of year – and this time of life – it is nice to find home wherever possible.  It is a good home to find when you come on your own to talk about life, when you need to be comforted or corrected. And it’s also a good home to find when you come along with the rest of the family and you don’t need anything in particular except love.

On that sort of a night there is laughter and chatter and rich Cuban accents. The daughters and sons-in-law ask about your work and your family in genuine effort to know you better. The grandchildren are happy to have a new playmate, a new ear for their stories, a new seat-mate at supper.

The meal is loud and full of laughter as the daughters tell stories on their mother, interrupting each other with details and she laughs at herself along with the rest.  The older of the grandchildren listens with increasing skepticism as her grandpa tells a story. Even if a grandfather is a priest, you still can’t believe his tall tales. And you grin at him and say “she knows who to trust in this family” and he laughs “She knows to trust no one in this family” and she says “uh huh! Grandma!”

And with desert there is a frosting fight between the uncle and the five-year-old and she comes to show you the smear of sugar on her nose, dimples deepening when you pretend like you’re going to lick it off for her

These  friendships are still new, and you are a little surprised at your own comfort. You’ve heard before and said before, that the church is a family; words like “brother” and “sister” tossed around until they seem trite.  But tonight, almost for the first time, that doesn’t feel like an idea or an analogy.  Tonight it seems like mystery and reality.

Behind the reality of fellowship and the joy of laughter, all the stresses of life remain, different for each but real for all (except, perhaps, the five-year-old).  Being together doesn’t make them go away, but it is good not to bear them all alone.  And as you say goodbye after dinner, you thank them and you thank God that, for tonight, your sorrows and joys were welcomed into the mix.

The Garbage Truck

On 6th Street in Arlington, the trash gets picked up at about 11:30 am on Fridays. I know this at all because, for two little boys who lived in a modest, bright two story house on that street, this moment was a genuine highlight of the week. When they could hear the truck coming, slowly making its way down the street, they would run to the glass storm door to watch. And when the men jumped off the truck in front of their house, they would begin to wave madly, grinning and jumping, until their adoration was acknowledged by their heroes in navy coveralls.
 
I wondered nearly every week what those men thought of this little ritual. Little boys often like trucks and loud noises. But more often, the objects of such joyful admiration are firemen or perhaps construction workers. Maybe in this case their attentions were captured because the garbage men were there every week, only steps away from ordinary life for small people in an ordinary house. I am sure that when they were hired these garbage men did not expect any groupies at all, even if they were very short and sometimes sticky ones.  They probably expected smell, grime, weather and daily drudgery–a hard job with almost not cultural appreciation of its difficulty.
 
I no longer spend Friday mornings in Arlington. But I think of the waving and the grins whenever I start (a little impatiently) to follow a slow garbage truck down a city street. Heroes. And my mind drifts a bit further back, to an aquired memory, not even properly my own.
 
See my family drives Fords because my grandfather worked for the Ford factory in Buffalo. Even though the necessities of the Depression stopped his education after eight short years, by his retirement he was doing a job that now requires a degree. But there were earlier years when there were five children and not very much money. And so, after shifts at the factory, he worked another job, too, as a garbage man on small town NY streets. An image of him on the back of the truck, taller perhaps than he was in real life and straighter than my last memories of him, plays over the mental soundtrack of one of the last conversations I had with him, which was how to work hard in a new job you didn’t like yet. 
 
I like to think those boys were also cheering for him.

Verona

You found that you slept in later in Verona. Perhaps it was the soft, November light, filtering through a sky that was not sunny nor cloudy but simply grey.  Perhaps it was the coziness of blankets and the coldness of tile floors, or the way your friend left so quietly without waking you and there were no sounds of conversation or traffic to let you know it was morning.

But eventually you did wake up and then there was rich espresso in a tiny mug and a slice of a traditional Christmas cake for breakfast and time for reading and time for prayer and when that was done a city to explore. You had your own key and turned it four times in the lock and walked down the stairs and onto the street which was old and led across the bridge to the medieval church and from there opened into other narrow, cobbled streets between ancient buildings past frescoed chiesas and through crowded piazzas where street vendors sold roasted chestnuts and cups of fruit and cheesy souvenirs of Romeo e Giulietta.  And in the morning it was fine to be surrounded by the people you could not talk to and to listen to the flow of a language you did not understand, and eventually to make your way to a coffee shop and shyly order a ciocolato calde.  Then you were overwhelmed by the barista offering flavor options in Italian and you ordered caramello not because you love caramel, but because you understood the word, and when you shyly asked “e panna, por favore?” you were relieved, when you got the steaming mug, that it did come with a generous serving of whipped cream. 

But when you were done with your thick chocolate you began to feel a little lonely in the crowds of strangers and then it was good to walk home and to find, when you turned your key in the lock that someone was already opening the door from the other side, and there was your old friend to welcome you back and years of conversation and silence to catch up on.  Long ago, you had lived together in a crowded dorm with many other girls and the conversations and pranks and tears and whispers had been taken for granted. Now you each lived on your own in quiet apartments that were sometimes wonderful and sometimes lonely and for this week you were both glad to have a roommate again. 

In the afternoon you wandered out together through the city and now you were not lonely in the busy streets because you had a friend and because your friend was also your bridge to the rest of the people. She could explain to the man behind the counter that you were Americans and where you were from and could translate for you the flavors of gelato or the items on a menu and would order for you when you were not sure what to say. And when you were tired in the evening you would wander home together and sip tea or Prosecco and nibble on dark chocolate as you read together silently and companionably, but then again the silence never lasted long, because what you were reading would remind you of something and you would read it aloud and then you would be an hour into a conversation that had meandered across years and continents and subjects. And sometimes you would have no response and the conversation would fade to silence and other times you interrupted her and other times she interrupted you but that was okay because the interruptions were as good as the silence and the silence as comfortable as an answer.  And around midnight you would go to bed and whisper together a bit more before you fell asleep, like children at a slumber party, and then you would say goodnight and sweet dreams and she would say sognid‘oro and you would sleep well and soundly and wake up the next morning to begin again.

Two Blocks Away

“So how do you guys know each other?”

I want to just say “life,” because at this point the real answer is complicated and a bit absurd and really slender. Something about my old roommate and a campaign and somehow, despite the fact that our school, church, work and career circles don’t overlap at all, they are close enough to family that making the comparison seems to slightly mis-state the case. As does saying, well, they live two blocks away.

I think the number of cups of coffee I’ve had in their kitchen is close to a thousand.

I’ve placed panicked calls of the “please come help me decide what to wear” variety and also lots of “are you around? can I come see you?”

I’ve been laughed at and with, including, recently, for laughing at the laughing scene in Mary Poppins.

They say that after you get out of college you are supposed to learn to take yourself to the airport, but I’ve lost count of the times it’s been one of them on the BW Parkway in traffic or absurdly late at night.

And being friends with two now means being friends with two more and learning so much by watching them go from crawling to walking and from small words like “doggy” to the sort of sentences that stick in your head in their wisdom or clarity. (Least we get too sentimental, the meltdowns are also good for me; don’t just learn to gloss over your inner toddler, realize she is still there and deal with her.)

But that’s all just quick sketches of a moving picture and this is really about the sort of friendship that is as vital as a cool glass of water on a really hot day, except the glass keeps going and the hot day is this crazily difficult thing we call life.

Because I’ve also held their children when I needed somewhere to hide my tears and been greeted with a high five followed by sound advice when I confessed doing something foolish and sat on their couch talking out my complicated overthinking until way too late at night. Also, there is the bonafide pleasure of someone just to sit with on a porch on a pleasant afternoon.

What this might not quite articulate is the way hearing “Emmy’s here!” followed by running when I let myself into their kitchen grants me a sense of belonging in a place I was sure would never feel like home and how this is part of the essential strength needed to choose to live a life that would be so much harder all alone.

Part II

Sometimes there are long stories, stories that go on for nearly your whole life. And sometimes there are short stories, an afternoon, an exchange. But I’m particularly attached to the ones that begin again after years in between, joyously finding again at 30 what was there at 10.

It is this city that is the catalyst, though I think both of us were mostly unaware of it as children, at least as a destination. But here it is, with its traffic, population, and, most significantly, government and university jobs. And, with nearly 50 years of education between us (we counted the other night), here we are.

It is odd sometimes, to have this life re-merge with an older one. The details of what we know of each other are still there, known in some ways much better than someone who has spent much time out of the last five years with either of us. Perhaps this is because the essential core of a person is present in childhood, not yet refined into the presentation of self in adulthood, which is both deeper and modified by social acceptability.

Both of us were nerdy children, certainly not among the cool or popular girls. Makeup, now mastered when necessary, was a foreign topic. Although we could do just fine in the academic world, that hardly earned you points in middle school. She was athletic, though, and I, timid and easily frustrated by my own clumsiness, was not. Despite this, I was never left behind. Even now, I feel safer in her presence, it matters a little less whether the rest of the world dismisses me.

Nearly all of my best friends all through life have turned out to be the sort of people who deliberately push me to be stronger and braver than I ever would have been on my own. Then it was trying volleyball. Now it is finishing the dissertation that is the barrier to my joining her as a “Dr.” Still the best might be playing games and eating cupcakes and laughing at the pictures of our old selves which seem to invoke our childish spirits, bidding them to rejoin their bodies: “Don’t worry. You turned out ok. And I still like you.”

The Feast

Often she finds going to her parents’ rural church an exercise in extreme self-consciousness. She feels herself a poorly constructed appendage of her familiar family, showing up for holidays and occasional longer trips, but having been gone for far too long really. After the service, everyone gathers for coffee and baked treats. Here are the kind, inquiring faces from childhood, who assume things about a life in a city, about jobs. Another explanation that, yes, she was still in school seems almost unbearable. There is the embarrassment of trying to justify obscure study in a blue-collar world.

And yet, such discomfort seems self-involved, even in the moment. The “Sister” who hugs her and casually mentions (as she has for the last decade) what her grandson is up to, has known her for her whole life and genuinely means the set cultural phrases of greeting: “It’s good to see you.”

There is an old phrase for this still common practice of eating together after gathering for worship: a love feast. Here is it is humbly translated into mediocre church coffee and pretty good brownies or coconut bars. There is the buzz of voices, male and female, darting children, routine conversation about the week ahead, and sometimes continued prayers or tears.

And just before, in the adjoining room, there has been another meal, one that joined them all together past the awkwardness and the routine chit-chat. They had each gone to the front, one by one, and eaten and drank of that mysterious food, which presented in tangible form the highest love. And each face, some tired, some much worn by the world, some youthful and innocent, had encountered that love. It reached down into the despair of addiction, the pain and terror of abuse, the isolation of arrogance, and all of this ordinary, sometimes unpresentable humanity.

The words spoken, so familiar, so radical, recall a broken body and spilt blood. Which made communion between all these many people.