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.

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.

The Surf

The sun is setting earlier and earlier and this cove is a bit of a drive even from Malibu or Camarillo.  Tonight, the ocean is nearly flat, no swell to lure people from comfort or convenience despite the beauty of water still summer-warm and mild afternoon breezes and deep red setting sun. There aren’t many out this evening, and most who are, are mostly sitting.  But not all.

Mira! Mira, papa! 

He paddles her toward the wave- too late to catch it and she squeals as they break through the whitewater. She sits, gripping the nose of the board with her knees. He lies behind her paddling them through the surf.  

Another wave approaches and he rolls off the board, swinging it around toward shore and giving her a shove into the wave. In a second she’s on her feet, wobbly, riding the wave only to the bottom of the face before falling and then paddling neck-deep in water as the surf pulls the heavy board away from her.  In a second her father is there, helping her back onto the board, paddling her back out through the surf as she shouts excitedly in Spanish.  

She sees me watching and waves, grinning.  She is small and blond and tanned – perhaps seven years old – with a gap in her smile where she’s missing a tooth.  Her father listens to her chatter, offering a few pointers (at least I think that’s what he’s doing, though my Spanish is too rusty to keep up).  

Listo?” he asks, and she nods eagerly, beginning to paddle long before the wave approaches, pure joy on her face. 

They are leaving as I walk back to my car.  She still chatters with hardly a pause. At their pickup, she holds up her arms and he swings her onto the bed and begins helping her take off her wetsuit, laughing as she tells him whatever it is she’s telling him, wrapping her skinny, shivering body in a big towel and pulling her close.

Today, this is what they both want most in the world. Perhaps as he holds her, he worries about losing her as she grows up, that there will come a day when she will be too busy to surf in the evening with her papa. He knows already what she hasn’t realized yet, that these end-of-summer days aren’t endless.  That someday she’ll be too big for him to set her on her feet on a tailgate, too big to share a surfboard.  

If I had more confidence in my Spanish, I’d stop and tell him not to worry, that even though days of bigness and business will come, no matter how hold she gets, there are always times when the thing a girl wants most in the world is to go surfing with her daddy. 

King’s Cross to Cambridge

They are sitting opposite me on the train from King’s Cross to Cambridge: a family travelling. Bags, and a stroller, and two small boys are apparently also a hassle in the UK.

When they enter, the man, whose accent is British (though my ear for levels of poshness is not very well-developed), asks me whether this is the train to Cambridge.

I am glad that British people also find this place and it’s paucity of platform signs confusing. I give a qualified yes; a middle-aged man eating a sandwich a few rows back nods a confident yes at both of us.

I notice them more particularly when the woman addresses the older of the two boys in Italian and then speaks to the man in heavily accented English. In the US, I would have placed him as a construction worker from my hometown. He is what they call wiry – thin and muscular together – with a farmer’s tan and boots I’m pretty sure were worn to distress and not bought that way. She is is chic and pretty, despite looking rumpled and bit tired. She pulls the slightly whimpering toddler onto her lap and asks whether he had called to let his mother know what time their train got in. It appears to be an unaccustomed journey, even for him.

My mind begins to fill in a back story, but as the woman and younger child settle into the light, restless sleep of the traveler, I am more struck by the man and the older boy. He pulls out a stack of magazines, the label on the top one is FOOTBALL. In a soft, don’t-wake-the-baby-voice, he starts talking to his son as they leaf through one together.

The conversation on both sides is enthusiastic and joyful, engaging in the sort of friendship that comes from participating in the shared object, growing together by looking toward the same thing. There is a subtle differentiation of roles; the man explains that one player is not as good as could be because he always looses his temper and gets carded. But his enthusiasm is boyish, and the boy’s careful questions are informed and curious. Their subdued happiness sits brightly amid the monotony and hassle of travel, a story in its own, even if only beginning.

A Tale of Two Strangers

Even if you follow all the rules–don’t make eye contact, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t wear anything sexy or pretty or attractive–the creepy guys still show up, especially on the metro.

It is early enough on a Saturday night that the platform is not yet crowded. He doesn’t say anything, but he angles himself so that he can stare directly at my chest. It’s the sort of gaze that stands out in the midst of all DC’s perfected non-connection and avoidance. The ugly opposite to the genuinely friendly Southern tourist who hasn’t yet noticed that in this city we don’t smile at the people we pass.

I move uncomfortably away and hope the train will come soon. It does and I make my way into a car with relief, sitting next to a window. But then my gut twists, he sits next to me and again turns to stare.

Changing seats, of course, means making a scene. And I don’t make scenes. Or at least I think I don’t. Mostly I wish to blame it on the city, on too many people, on crowds, hoping that if I just ignore hard enough it will all go away. I won’t have to decide whether to move or how to disappear.

But then. An older man in front of us moves seats, crosses the aisle and sits directly in front of the creepy guy next to me. And he turns in his seat and stares directly at him, calmly, steadily, silently, but with unflinching disapproval.

And the guy who was looking at me like I was a thing, he turns his head, looks down. Then–blessedly–moves to the other end of the car. And gets off at the next stop. I smile just a little at the stranger in front of me, but he turns around without saying anything, and I go back to staring out the window invisibly.

Later I hear him on a cell phone, making arrangements with someone about switching from “Just as I Am” to “Amazing Grace” for the morning. I am glad for the kinship of belief and grateful that for him that night loving his neighbor meant loving a stranger on the metro.