Tag Archives: gratitude

“But You Know: It’s All in a Day’s Work.”

Oh, so it’s gonna be one of those:  A slowly crawling, rainy day best spent under the covers, with a book, after a rare discovery that today, you have absolutely nowhere to be.

You’ve gotta earn a day like that.  There is always too much work; work that often works  you — not the other way around.  The work of Gotta.  The work of Must.  The work that should not be rescheduled:  It could be delayed — but it’s gonna cost cha.  So, it’s always best to deal with the work now, for it might go away if you don’t.  People have choices, around here.  They might take their business elsewhere.  So, you say yes — and take the work.

I wish I knew it to be different, somewhere else in the world.  But I didn’t start working until I landed here:  In the Land of Work.  Some call it “Opportunity”.  Sure, it is.  The possibility of that opportunity tests the desire and sometimes pushes the limits of your capability.  But If you seize the opportunity, it becomes:  More work.  The work of Should.  The work of Must.

Perhaps, it’s more desirable work — work you wouldn’t mind doing for free.  Ask any artist:  an undercover poet or the girl musician with purple hair that works in the front of your office as a receptionist (but mostly, she makes your coffee and keep unjamming the copy machine).  Ask a cashier at a framing store or the teenager with dreamy eyes that bags your groceries at Trader Joe’s.  Ask anyone from the army of these tired kids working night shifts at your restaurants:  They know the drudgery of free work all to well.

Some may still have enough gratitude to go around.  If fuels them to keep showing up after a day spent chasing the work.  There is enough passion in them still — to find the reasons to peel on their hideous uniforms every day, right around three or four, when most people start watching the clock for the minute to call it quits.  But the tired kids report to work in which they rarely believe — but which they absolutely must accept until another “opportunity”, for work.

I know one.  I study her bounce around the narrow sushi joint I frequent weekly.  Every night, and sometimes during the weekend brunch, I can see her doing the work.

(Ugh, “brunch”!  If you’ve ever waited tables in Manhattan, for the rest of your life, there is no more dreaded word in your vocabulary.  It’s enough to lose your appetite for “brunches”.)

She’s got a regular name.  It’s sorta pretty, but I always forget it, and I want to call her Clementine, or Chloe, or Josephine.  She is perky, quick and funny, always ready for some improv with a willing customer.  When she appears at a booth, she tends to find a nook into which she fits her soft places like a kitten agreeing to your caress.  But you better know how to touch her:  A slight degree of nervousness or clumsy inexperience — and she bounces off, while waiving the tail of her gathered hair as a woman used to being watched every time she walks away.

Scarlett Johansson for Vogue

“You want — the salads?  Is that safe to say?”

I know for certain that just a register away, therein lies her bitchiness.  She is too tired from the work to tippy toe around me, for her tips.  And I bet she can tear into a man with eloquence and composure even grown women don’t have the courage to possess .  But she is always nice to me, at first; until she remembers my routine — and she begins to flirt.

“Are you an actress?” I hear the booth filled with older men ask her.

They look like they work in production:  There is a certain air of exhaustion, long hours, terrible diet and lack of exercise that I can smell on them.  There is always too much work, for these guys; so much of it, most end up childless or divorced. They are this city’s doctors:  Always on call.  Always ready to take the work.  Because if they don’t, the work might go away.  So, they say yes.

Clementine says yes.  But she shifts, from one foot to another.  The lines of her curves change in a warning that she may let ‘em have it, in case of their commentary about the work she doesn’t mind doing for free.  But thankfully, the men know better than to ask her the civilian cliches of:  “How is that going for you?” or “Have I seen you in anything?”

They do know better; for they have sacrificed their forming years on putting in the union hours — sometimes, for free — in a dangerous bet that the work would pay off later.

Later.  They would build their homes — later.  They would marry nice, patient, pretty girls — later.  

But the work may not have happened later.  The “opportunity” had to be seized right then.  So:  They said yes.  

Now, newly and happily married, or unhappily divorced, they still find themselves chasing the work.  And in the midst of their private miseries, they chase the fantasy of Chloe’s possibility.  Like me, they find her youth titillating.  But it is her fire — that formed in her pursuit of the work — that makes them hope she would stay by their table just a little bit longer.

But Josephine must go:  She must go do the work.  She has to earn herself the “opportunity” to do her other work, for free.  And she has to work enough to earn herself one of these:

A slow, crawling, rainy day best spent under the covers, in a tired body, with a book; after a rare discovery that today, she has absolutely nowhere to be, and that her conscience is finally at rest — from all the work.

“I Was in the House — When the House Burned Down.”

Trembling.  Waiting for clearer thoughts to come in.

Here comes one:

“How is it that I’m shivering in a 110-degree heat?”

That’ll do, for now.

Gently!  You must handle yourself — gently.

Standing on a street that to a bystander’s eye would appear idillic and “homey”, she wonders about the horrors that could be happening behind the closed doors of these same “homey” homes, with pretty white doors:  the quiet, muffled horrors of domestic violence.

“Beware — of pretty,” another thought comes in.

There is a reason why she has always loathed the sight of the white picket fence:  They reek of false advertisement and broken promises — of broken hearts.  And the heart that break due to the broken promise — takes longer to heal. She is now cradling her heart, in her heaving chest; but it would take her years to learn just how long the healing would take.

Her thinking is fragmented.  If only she could get a grip on this shivering:  If only she could catch her breath.  But the body takes its time.

There is a violence that lives in every body:  A violence that strikes at another — or at itself.  It always comes from the darkest corners of one’s soul and it prefers no audience.  But those whom we love the most often fall victim to it.

So, she is catching herself wonder about the suffering that others endure when love betrays its goodness.  It is much better to be thinking of others, in moments of extreme pain.  Because the end to her own pain — she cannot possibly see from here:  In the “homey” neighborhood that has broken its promise to her and found her homeless, in 110-degree heat.

Besides, the suffering of others should remind her that someone is always having it worse.

“How can it possibly be worse?!” another thought flings itself inside her throbbing head.

The chest is heaving.  The heart is beating fast:  It is not broken yet.

“Do people die — of broken hearts?” she thinks and sits down on the curb to catch her breath.  Is that what happens — in heart attacks?

A Heart:  Attacked.  That would be the name of her cause, if she were to stop breathing right now.

She stares at her feet.  The pedicure on her toes is of her own manufacturing.  She’s had a hand in that.  The chosen color is pink:  They have just passed Easter, on the calendar.  The pair of shoes, that she’s had very little time to peel on before leaping out of the house, are multicolored:  Each strap bears a neon shade.  When she first laid her eyes on them, on a shelf at Payless, she thought.

“When in the world would I wear those?!”

Now.  She is wearing them now.  And in a juxtaposition with her black tank top and blue bicycle shorts, they fail to make any sense at all.  She chuckles to herself:  Yes, she actually chuckles — while shivering — because she is thinking that she must look like a burnt house victim, right now.

And isn’t that what happened, anyway:  Her “homey” home has burnt down on its promise?  It has collapsed on itself, and no matter its false appearance from the outside, behind those pretty white doors and the white picket fence — one can only find ruins.

She shivers and looks over her shoulder at the sight of the house:

The perfectly groomed, neon green lawn — FAKE!

The deceivingly white and pink exterior — FALSE!

The beautiful rotunda window of its office space — LIARS!

A distorted face of a man has been watching her through that window.  She has just realized that.  He is puffy and unshaven, bewildered behind his thick-rimmed glasses.  His mouth begins opening once he notices her looking back.  He is that bug-eyed bottom-feeding fish that outlives the smaller bastards in a shared tank.  The existence of his type is necessary, in nature.  She knows that.  Symbi-fuckin’-osis!  But again, it would years before she sees his purpose in her life.

“GET THE FUCK OUT!” she can lipread on his gaping, bottom-feeding mouth.

“I hope I took my glasses with me,” another thought happens.

That’s when she realizes she’s actually not seeing the man:  She is remembering him, at this very moment.  The brain is taking in the memories:  The bits that it will then try so very hard to forget.

The shivering hasn’t subsided, but it has transformed into an all-over warmth that happens to the survivors of car wrecks.  This is:

The Body:  Coping.

That is the name of her current disease.

No, she wouldn’t die of A Heart:  Attacked.  Not on this day.  Her body has chosen to persevere, to survive the violence.

The shivering is violent.  The body is confronting brutality with its reserve of sudden energy.

This is what it takes — to survive:  To outlive the broken heart.

She wants to go to sleep but then realizes that it’ll be a while; for she has just leapt out of a burning home:  a “homey” home. The thought of anything too far ahead refuses to happen; and strangely calm, she is grateful for that. She thinks no more than five minutes ahead.

Not feeling her own body, she picks herself up off the curb and reaches for the giant black bag packed in the middle of the night.

And:  She.  Starts.  Walking.

It should be hard, in theory, to not know where she’s going.  She’s got no home.  She knows no shelter.

But she is only thinking of one step at a time — and only five minutes ahead.

Gently!  You must handle yourself — gently! — when you survive.

She’s chosen to survive.  It would begin when she starts walking.

Away.

“May You Build a Ladder to the Stars — And Climb on Every Rung…”

I promised to pick her up from school, and unlike all of my own commitments, this one made my heart beat faster.  I was hyperaware of time the entire day; thinking, daydreaming about the nearing hour, fearing its passing:  For I could not, for the life of me, be late!

I mean I’ve seen that happen before, in films:  flustered, hysterical mothers, with messy hairstyles and tired faces, running (sometimes, in heels) toward their disappointed children.  Most of the time, the message of the film was about absentminded motherhood:  Motherhood of the unlucky.  It happened to women in unhappy marriages, with broken dreams.  There was always a justification to all human faults, I’ve learned.  Still, in those films about bad motherhood, I was always more interested in the faces of their children:  with their tearful vulnerability before they would be hardened by continuous disappointment.

“Ma-ahm!” they would whine, pulling away from the hysterical woman’s overcompensating tugging, and hugging, and nagging.  Or, there would be an indifference between them; and it would hang inside their car until someone threw a resentful glance through the rear-view mirror.

Honestly, I didn’t care that much about my reputation:  Her parents would have been able to forgive me if I failed the task; and I could handle all the passive-aggressive remarks by the schoolmasters.  But what I didn’t want to confront — for the life of me! — is the child’s disappointment.  She was a kid — an innocent, still; and even though she wasn’t my own, I had no business letting her down.

I could tell by the density of the traffic that I was near her school zone.  Fancy SUV’s with tinted windows compacted the narrow residential streets.  They double-parked and lingered, with zero consideration for the rest of us stuck behind, and with their break lights flipping us off in our faces.  Staring at the zero on my speedometer, I felt my temper — and heartbeat — rising:

“Why are we sitting here?!”  I swore, wishing I could see the faces of the incompetent creatures behind the wheels of their giant cars.  I wanted to honk and speed around them.  But then, I would remember:  The streets were filled with children, and the loss of my self-awareness could cost a price I was never willing to learn — for the life of me!

Fine!  I backed out, pulled into another side street, parallel parked.  I got out:

“Shit!” I realized my passenger side was buried in the bushes.  So, I got back in, pulled forward.  “Phew.  Now, she’ll be able to get in!”

My heart was still racing:  I was fifteen minutes early; but I couldn’t, for the life of me, be late!

So, I started speed-walking.  Having caught up to the fancy SUV’s, still lingering in their spots, I could see the flustered faces of tired mothers — ON THEIR FUCKING CELLPHONES!  A few times, I saw small children bolted into the back seats while the women continued to gab and block the traffic behind them.

I sped up:  What if she got out early?  I could not, for the life of me, be late!

When I saw her school from the corner diagonally away, I began looking out for her immediately:  the familiar strawberry chin and forever curious black eyes that seem to yank the dial of my heart’s speedometer by some invisible strings.  The crossing guard in an orange vest was sitting in a director’s chair on the corner, and she was laughing with one of the awaiting dads.  At the sight of her, I felt slightly more relaxed:  What a face!  What a soul!  She seemed absolutely wonderful.

A woman with a wrinkly face and droopy bags under her eyes shot me an icy stare in the middle of the road.  She was speaking to her child — an arian boy with golden locks.  But as I got closer, she stopped talking and bent her pretty mouth downward.  I smiled:  How else could I apologize for the nearness of my youth?  When the two of them reached the other side of the road, the woman resumed speaking.  Yep:  Russian.  And she spoke of judging me.

The front lawn was already overpopulated by tiny creatures.  The tops of their heads, of multiple colors, peaked out like a field full of mushrooms.  Not a single one seemed to be sitting still.

Two brown boys were leaping over benches and flowerbed fences, and for a moment I studied the rules of their imaginary warfare.  One of them tumbled down, got up, crouched down to study the scrape on his knees; but then resumed the battle:  Warriors don’t cry, no matter how little!

“M’am!  You have to move!” another crossing guard raised her voice behind my back.

I looked over:  Shit, did I fuck up already?  In the company of these tired mothers, I feared to be obvious in my lack of expertise.  So, I had hidden myself under a tree with protruding roots (not that it saved me from a few more icy looks from the bypassing women).

“M’AM!” the guard was pissed off by now.  She was knocking on the tinted window of a white Land Rover.  From where I stood, elevated by one of the roots, I could see a naked elbow of a woman holding an iPhone inside, with her manicured hand.  Immediately to the right of her double-parked vehicle, I could see the neon red of “NO PARKING”.

Hesitantly, the Land Rover began pulling away.  As the crossing guard turned her tired face at me, I smiled sheepishly:  Could she see my being a total fraud?  In response, she pressed her lips tighter and shook her head.

“People…” she seemed to be saying.

I watched a tiny girl with my complexion skip unevenly, with no apparent rhythm, next to her slowly walking grandmother.  A beautiful boy holding a basketball walked upright behind his father who was texting on his BlackBerry, non-stop.  A luminous woman patted her daughter’s head as the little one was telling about her destiny earlier predicted in the game of M.A.S.H.

I began recognizing the classmates whose names I’ve heard in so many stories.  My heart began racing:  Have I missed her?  Am I standing by the wrong gate?

“M’AM!  YOU HAVE TO MOVE!” the crossing guard was pissed off again.

Behind my back, I saw a giant Lexus packed at the curb with the “NO PARKING” sign.  A disgruntled old woman with a boyish haircut was standing outside of it, with her hand holding the car clicker up in the air.

“Where am I supposed to go?” she said, through her clenched teeth.  “I’m running late!”

I sensed myself shooting the woman an icy stare:  A look I quickly censored when I noticed the familiar strawberry chin marching toward me across the lawn.

She had seen me first.  I felt my heartbeat speed up again.

I didn’t fail the task, this time!  I didn’t let her down!

And the day was young and suddenly reinvigorated:  with endless adventures and her trust the loss of which I could NOT — for the life of me! — afford.

“We All Live in A Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine.”

Yes, it’s a hard way of being:  Living as an artist.  But then, again, I wouldn’t want to be living — in any other way.

And I’ve tried.  In all honesty, I’ve tried to be many things:  Anything else but an artist.  An administrator, a teaching assistant, and a secretary.  A proofreader, an academic, a critic.  A manager.  An accountant.  A librarian.

“Oh, you!” my college comrades used to say.  “You and your jobs!  You’re always changing jobs.”

They had known me for years, and for years — they had seen me working.  They had watched me giving a very fair try to living for the sake of a different profession.  A “normal” profession.   A job.  And they had witnessed me change my mind.

Back then, I wasn’t really sure which profession it would turn out to be, so I would try everything.  And instead of entertaining things, I would satisfy my curiosity by leaping into every opportunity.  Because I always felt I could be so many things; but I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t be anything else — but an artist.

Being an artist resembled an exotic disease — a dis-ease of the soul — and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of its victim.

“So, what’s your major this morning?” my folks teased me during our phone calls.  I was prone to changing my mind, and the flexibility of my American education confused the hell out of them.

“Still English, I think,” I’d say.  “But with a slight concentration — in journalism.”

“Well, at least, you’re getting an education,” my best friend comforted me.  She always comforted me.  And it seemed to bother her the least — my proneness to change my mind, because I felt I could be so many things.

Come to think of it:  It should have been easier, in my youth.  During our college years, that’s exactly what we were meant to do:  To seek.  To learn.  To experiment.  To be — so many things!

But somehow, my contemporaries seemed to be more certain about their paths.  They would be teachers or administrators.  The more city-savvy types were going into investment banking in New York.  And I’ve even known one biologist and a chick who went to work for Fox News.  But mostly, they would be teachers.

“How can they be so sure?”  I wondered.

Because I wasn’t sure.  I could foresee the pleasure in having a day job with which I could identify myself for a couple of years; but the romance of its routine would expire as soon as some bureaucrat’s ego would begin dictating procedures to me, on a daily basis.  Some of them didn’t like my language, or my dress code.  They handed me time sheets and forms, along with the lists of appropriate jewelry.  Some wanted me to tame my hair.  Others preferred I didn’t call my colleagues “Loves”.

So, I would leave.  I would always leave, but with enough notice and plenty of disappointment noticeable on my employers’ faces:

“It’s just that you had so much potential!” they would say.

“Then, why did you break my balls about my headscarves?” I would think in response.  Still, I would leave with grace (even if I was leaving over burning bridges).

After college, I would be the only one in my class to leave for an art school.

“But you should teach!” my academic mentors insisted.  “Most of your contemporaries teach!”

Everyone had an opinion.  Everyone but me.  I still felt I could be so many things, but I really wanted to be — just one!

Some seemed to be quite disappointed in my decision to stick to the arts.

“What are you gonna do — with an art degree?  You could be so many things, instead!”

And I wasn’t sure.  I still wasn’t sure.

“And how can everybody else — be so sure?!” I wondered.

After the first semester in my MFA program, the uncertainty about my profession would remain.  However, the overall vision of my life was becoming clearer:  I would be an artist.  I WAS an artist.  And it was starting to be enough — to be that one thing.

And so, there I was:  Willing to risk my life’s stability — the stability about which my contemporaries seemed to be so sure — for the sake of seeking daily inspiration.  I would take on projects that would fuel my gratitude and curiosity.  I would begin spending my nights in companies of others who shared my exotic disease — the dis-ease of the soul; and I would attend their shows and poetry readings, and loom in front of their paintings in tiny New York galleries.  And none of us were still certain about our destinations; and yes, we were still filled with angst.  But we did share the same vision:  Our moments of happiness were simultaneous to the moments of creation — the moments of dis-ease.

Throughout the years, some of my contemporaries have disappeared into their professions:  They turned out to be successful administrators and great teachers.  Wonderful teachers, as a matter of fact!  I would watch them moving with seeming certainty through their honorable daily routines.

“Still:  How can you be so sure?” I would interview a few of them, years later.

I had succumbed to my disease fully by then, and I would learn to maneuver the demands of my survival jobs.  I had surrendered.

“Are you kidding?!  We aren’t sure at all!” some would answer, honestly.

And for the first time, in their tired and good, decent and honorable faces, I would notice a slight glimmer of doubt.

“Oh!” I would wonder.  “So, no one really knows, for sure!”

Strangely, I would find no comfort in their doubtfulness.

But I would find great ease in knowing that I myself had fully surrendered to my disease:  The dis-ease of my soul — of an artist.

“All You Got To Do — Is Try… Try A Little Tenderness.”

And you know what I’m doing today?

Nothing.

That’s right.  I’m doing nothing, in a Kundera sorta way.

Yes, I’m doing nothing:

Nothing, as in:  I wake up late due to the afternoon sun blazing through my window.  (The shades are helpless against this blazing.)  I wake up to sunlight, and not to the monotonous tune of my alarm clock.  I wake up to another day.  (I’m helpless against waking.)

And when I do wake up, I stay in bed, despite the habitual bounce of my thoughts about the stuff that needs to get done.  It’ll get done.  Eventually.  So, I stay in bed, reading.

The more fragmented my schedule, the lesser are the chances of my reading a book, these days.  A whole book:  Not a book of vignettes by a Parisian melancholic, or of poetry by an angry American alcoholic.  A book, a long novel, or an epic story hasn’t rested in my palms in a long time.  I still read though — but of course! — in between the fragments of my day.  But I never read in bed.

But today:  I do.  Because I’m doing — nothing.

Yes, I’m doing nothing:

Nothing, as in:  I take a scorching hot shower with a bar of handmade soap with tea tree oil and oats.  It smells like the pine tree bathhouses that my people would heat up for each other, late at night — before a generous dinner but after the hard work — and they would come out with red and calm faces of innocence, long ago traded in for survival.

I take the first sip of my black coffee:  I’m feeling peckish, I must say.  I haven’t eaten the first meal of the day, and I’m about to skip the second.  But there is no way I’m cooking today:  Because I’m doing — nothing. 

Nothing, as in:  I walk to the farmers’ market.  I do not drive.  Instead, I accompany my kind man who tells me the fables from his previous day.  His long stories.  As we walk, we study the neighborhood:  The homes that sit at an architectural intersection of San Francisco and Venice Beach.  Homes with abandoned toys in their play pins and enviable tree houses decorated with Chinese lanterns.  Homes with old vintage cars in their gravel covered driveways and disarrayed trash bins at the curb.  Homes I’ve promised to build for my people — my kind people — and my child.

I watch an older couple approaching us:  I wonder what I would look like, when I’m older.  And I shall be older, certainly.  The romantic notion that I would die young has expired with forgiveness.

And now:  I want to live, in perseverance and stubborn generosity; and every day, I want to start with a clean slate on the board of my compassion.

What time is it?  I have no clue.  I do not own a watch and my cellphone has been off since the very early hours of this morning, when I was just getting to be bed after a night of seeing old friends and playing cards until we began to feel drunk from exhaustion.

I think of them — my friends, my kind people, my kind man — as I walk, and I can see the white tents the hippies and the hopefuls have pitched behind a plastic barricade.  They’re all so specific, I get inspired to see them in a book:  A long novel about perseverance and stubborn generosity; an epic story in which its heroine travels toward her forgiveness.

“When you forgive — you love.”

Someone else has written that in a romantic story about dying young.  I don’t want to do that:  I want to live.

Yes, I want to live.

We purchase things that only speak to our taste buds:  Black grapes and persimmons.  Sun-dried tomato pesto and horseradish hummus.  Sweet white corn and purple peppers.  I watch a tiny curly creature with my baby-fat face and a unibrow dancing around her mother’s bicycle, in a pink tutu and leopard uggs.  I look away when she tickles my eyes with tears only to find a brown face, even tinier, resting over a sari-draped shoulder of her East Indian mother.  Live, my darling child.  I want you — to live.

My kind comrade and I walk over to the handmade soap store:  I want more smells of home.  We both notice her:  She is African and tall — PROUD — with dreadlocks and a pair of bohemian overalls.  How could you not notice her:  Her face belongs to a heroine traveling toward her own forgiveness.

“Are you doing okay?” a very gentle gentleman asks us from behind the counter.

I smile into the jar of eucalyptus body butter and nod:  Zen.

“How could they not be okay, here?” the heroine making a rest stop on her journey toward forgiveness says.

We laugh.  All four faces in this store are calm.  They are calm with innocence long traded-in for survival.  But then again, maybe it’s just compassion.  (And I’m helpless — against it.)

“I was riding my motorcycle this morning,” my proud heroine starts telling us a fable from her previous day.  Her long story.

At the end of it, we would laugh.  Not wanting anything from each other, but having so much to give back, we laugh with lightness.

We laugh — with nothingness, in a Kundera sorta way.

I think:  We are no longer innocent.  But that’s quite alright, I think.

Because with enough forgiveness, compassion often takes its place.  Compassion takes the place of innocence.  And that’s quite alright, I think.  And I want to live — a life of that.

Yes.

I want to live.

“just make it, babe, make it…”

“We can make it!  We can make it!  C’mon, babe.  We can make it!”

For nearly six miles I was chanting this to the steering wheel of my car, yesternight.  I was caressing it, leaning my flushed cheek bones against its drying leather.  And when no one was looking, I even planted a peck onto it, with my semi-dehydrated lips:

“We can make it!”

I suspected this would happen:  I had waited till the very last moment — again! — to refill my gas tank.  And now, I was running late to a rehearsal — again! — with my gas light on:  AGAIN!

“God damn it!” I would have sworn normally as I sensed the neon yellow light on my dashboard, out of the corner of my eye.  “I should’ve done this last night!”

But that night, I was exhausted, thinking only of the sleepiness, somewhere in my calves and feet; and of trying to not run outta gas — again.

And now, I was sitting in traffic on a congested side street someone had recommended to me as a shortcut against, um, well… traffic.  But that’s what happens quite a bit:  Other people’s shortcuts — turn into my hell.  

So, I would much rather just keep taking my own routes; doing it my own way.

But then, yesternight, I was running late — again.

So, I attempted to surrender:  “We can make it!”

I had already done THE work, by then:  Five hours — GONE out of my day!  Grateful!  Of course, I was grateful — for being able to do it.  But fitting in THE work every day always required two things:  lack of sleep and brutal discipline toward the rest of my life.

And then, of course, there was the survival hustle:  Chalk up another three hours to that!   But I have long surrendered to that already, because I am the one who chose this destiny, this route.  I am the one who rejected a myriad of day jobs and hustled to get herself out of the drudgery of the restaurant business, as well.  I am the one who agreed to the chronic pain-in-the-ass-ness of a freelancer’s life.  I am the one continuously taking — and building — my own ways.  Because only then, do I have enough dignity and space — for THE work. 

And now, I was dashing across town:  To do more work.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t dashing:  I was crawling, dragging my ass through the overheated, exhausted streets of LA-LA.  I was serving my time among others with their stories of pursuits, and with exhaustion written all over their drooping faces.  And while doing so, I was resisting every urge to curse out the retirees existing in their own timezones inside their oversized Lexuses:

“Why aren’t you moving?!” I’d usually flail while studying the trail of break lights ahead of me.  Normally, there is no rhyme or reason for it:  only the collision of other people’s timezones.  And I have to remember that they too have done their work that day:  THE work.

So, I attempt to surrender:  “We can make it!”

The side street finally opened into a giant boulevard.  We flooded onto it, and the people coexisting in my timezone took over the outer lanes — and we got going.

But then:  My gas light came on.

God damn it!

I immediately remembered the poor sucker in a Porsche who got stuck in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, the night before.  I had been sitting in traffic, on a congested side street, waiting to merge.  Because that’s what happens quite a bit:  My shortcuts collide with the shortcuts of others; and we have no choice but to obey each other’s timezones.

“But why aren’t we moving?!” I kept thinking and trying to see ahead of the red trail of break lights.  Surely, there was no rhyme or reason for it!

Not until we flooded into the intersection, did I notice the Porsche owner sweating, swearing, cursing out the honking drivers, as he refilled his tank with a portable plastic canister.  A Porsche outta gas:  Times must be tough, I thought.

And we kept on crawling, yesternight.  We kept on — serving time.

Some of us had already done THE work.  Others just hustled to survive.

So, I attempted to surrender:  “We can make it, surely!  We can make it!  All of us!”

And I would make it, not just to a gas station, but to my favorite one.  I would pull up behind a tired, droopy face of a young man who stared into space above the rooftop of his vintage Volvo.  He would forget to close the flap on the side of his car, and I would honk.  He waved, pulled out masterfully and waved again.  Thank goodness, there were people coexisting in my timezone.

“We can make it, babe!” I kept chanting.

Forty on six.

Have a good night.

You too, babe.

The nearness of humanity outside the plastic bodies of our cars was beginning to soothe me.  The whiff of gas followed the short-stop pumping sound of the pipes.  I began staring ahead, above the rooftop of my car.

“Um…” I heard.

An older man with smirking eyes and crooked yellow teeth was standing next to me, while clutching a ten dollar bill.

“Could you help me out?” he said.

Behind me, he parked his ride, blocking my way:  A giant black Benz of a recent make.

“A Benz outta gas,” I thought.  “Times must be tough!”

His story would be about money.  About Vegas — and losing all of it, to the hustle.

Times must be tough, I thought.  But we can make it, babe:  All of us!

I surrendered.

Finally.

“Not Bad, Huh? For Some Immigrants?”

“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.” —

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

A girl with an unused-up face was working at the counter of Rite-Aid.  She seemed to be in training, still; wearing that horrid polyester polo shirt made in China.  It was too large on her, too loose; un-pretty, untucked — and without a name tag.

“You’re fine for today,” her manager must’ve told her in the morning, when he completed her “uniform check”.  “But after the training is over, you must remember to wear it, everyday.”

The fucking name tag!  That’s the rule.  There are always rules, in jobs like this.

I often squint at those tiny plaques that sadly dangle by their pins on chests of any customer service personnel.  I try to decipher them, figuring out the pronunciation; and I try to guess the origin.  Sometimes, the names are easy:  Maria, Sally, Mark, AJ.  The names longer than three syllables are always harder — but they make for a perfect conversation piece.  But in cases like that, the name bearer — the name tag wearer — is often sick of being asked about it.

There was this one time, though, a Nigerian man began to tell me his.  All I could hear were endless consonants and glottal stops.  He assumed I was an American. He was getting a kick out of it, making a scene.  Immediately, I felt ignorant and humiliated.  Because I thought I had at least some clue — more clue than most — about what it had to take for him to get here.

So often I stand at a counter — or behind a plastic window — and I desperately calculate the timing of thanking these people by their names; as if that would make the insignificant exchange of ours more meaningful.  No.  I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey.

And I am sure they still go home in the evenings, complaining about their managers, who nag them about silly things like schedules, lunch breaks “by law” — and those fucking name tags.

“Why can’t he just leave me alone?!” they ask the rhetorical question of their equally exhausted spouses, at dinner, their words belonging to forsaken prayers.  They get drowned out by the hyped-up realities happening on the television screen.  And in the morning, they’ve gotta do the whole thing all over again.  And if they aren’t running late, they’ve gotta remember:  to grab the fucking name tag.

Still, I prefer to say these names out loud.  No, I don’t expect to please.  And I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey.  I just want a little bit more humanity, in places like this.  In jobs like this.

There was already plenty of sadness in the fluorescent lights buzzing above the unused-up face of the girl working at the counter of Rite-Aid.

“Why must they be running these things right now?” I thought, noticing that despite the blazing sun outside, the rows of lights remained lit.  Lit and buzzing.

And yet underneath their cold rays whose pulse can send an epileptic into an episode, this girl appeared very pretty.  She had long spiral curls on each side of her brown face.  And because she wore not a hint of make-up, I quickly imagined her on some simple, yet still exotic shore, drinking milk out of a coconut cracked open with a machete.

I wondered if she was a student of some sort, at a community college, working this job “just until…”  Or if she was a daughter of an immigrant, meant to be grateful by that very definition — for the privilege of her minimum wage and health benefits.  And if she goes home, exhausted and confused:

What exactly is the meaning of this daily drudgery?  And when, exactly, does it end? 

And then, there was her face.  It was unused-up.  It had no traces of bitterness, no histories of lovers’ betrayal or disappointment.  Other humans hadn’t gotten to her yet.  And she smiled a little while holding a pack of cigarettes, immediately humiliated, waiting for her trainer to find the time to explain the exact procedure of selling those things.  She waited, while her customer — a strange, muttering woman — scoffed and squinted her eyes at the name tag of the manager standing nearby.  Watching.  Why must we get off — on other people’s humiliation?

It would take a few beats for the girl to settle down.  The scoffing customer would storm out, muttering about her own miseries.  The trainer would return to his routine, indifferently.  The manager could be traced by the jingle of his keys, as he walked away into his hideout, behind the swinging door.  (At least, he had a space of his own.)  But the girl would have to regroup, in front of us, and wait for the awkwardness of the moment to pass.

“I think she’s open,” an old man behind me was breathing down my neck.

Yet, I insisted on holding my spot until I was called over.  The girl with an unused-up face deserved her dignity.

And dignity — takes time. And space.

“I can help the next customer in line,” she said.  Her voice was light, resonant.  It better belonged in a choir of St. Patrick Cathedral.

I walked over:

“Hello, love.”

She wasn’t wearing a name tag, you see:  that fucking name tag I used to have to wear myself, at my very first jobs as an immigrant in America.  But I refused to treat her good, yet unused-up face as nameless.

So, she would be Love — the bearer of my motha’s name — at least for a few seconds that day, at Rite-Aid.  She deserved a name; and if not love — she deserved some dignity.

And dignity — takes compassion.

And space.

“What the World. Needs Now. Is…”

Doing 80 on the 405, at midnight.

The Valley is glistening behind me, at a safe enough distance:  It’s pretty, like a flat lake with reflecting stars.  Kinda like in the old country.  So, naturally:  I prefer not finding myself on that side of the hill.

The Mulholland Drive Bridge ahead is a mess.  Even in the dark, the demolition site looms like a war zone — or a film set for yet another apocalyptic flick, gratuitous with violence.  What it doesn’t resemble, though, is the hopeful vision by LA-LA’s officials that it’s meant to be:  For the sake of easing our commute.  Oh, but how many delays this vision has cost us already!  And how many more to come!  (Thanks for looking out there!)

But at least, at nighttime, it’s safe to roll down the windows:  The dust of the daytime construction has long settled.

And at midnight — we are all moving.  We are trying speeds otherwise impossible, in the daytime.

Yes.  We’re moving.  We’re going.

Ow!  But not so fast!  Nearing Sunset, several pairs of standing construction lights give warnings of another mess ahead.  I’m in the right lane, at this point, mostly out of habit:  On this stretch of the road, I prefer sacrificing a few numbers on my speed dial in the name of changing my mind — and getting the fuck off this fucking freeway, at the very next exit!  Here:  I prefer to have a choice.  So, at least until Wilshire West, I hang to the right.  And I slow down.

The truck next to me seems to be having troubles staying in his lane.  Its aluminum trailer with no written indications of its product, origin or destination, keeps swaying across the neon line and into my lane.  I swear at him, back up and loom just a few meters behind — and to the most right.  As soon as this curve in the road straightens out, I’m thinking, I’ll zoom past the wheeled monster whose driver must be delirious with the lack of sleep.  Because I keep thinking:  Only the most hardened of us take on these jobs.  And in their own way — they are the most heroic.

For nearly a mile, I hang back;  and when I finally pass him, I watch myself skip a few breaths at the sensation of being way too close to the concrete freeway divider, to my right.  But, oh, how trilling it is — to be moving again!

Ow!  But not so fast!  Soon enough, I notice a yellow construction tank leading the traffic in the left lane.

“What the hell are these things called anyway?” I think of the clunky machinery of that exhausted yellow color, the sight of which on any road in LA-LA usually means bad news:  Closed lanes, “Road Work Ahead”; indifferent construction workers, dust clouds; and a cop car with a bored rookie.

And the crawl!  Alas, the crawl of traffic!  The crawl of time, in LA-LA!

“Fuck it!” I think.  “I’ll just call it ‘a tank’.”  And this tank is crawling in the left lane, with a flashing yellow arrow threatening us into yielding.

But still:  We are all moving, at midnight!  We’re going!

Yes!

The road narrows.  We’ve long passed Mulholland.  And I can no longer see the glistening Valley behind me.  It’s kinda like the old country, but slightly more brutal — in the daytime.  So, naturally:  I prefer not finding myself, on that side of the hill.

“What could they be possibly constructing at this hour of the night?!” I think.

By now, I’m balancing somewhere in between 60 and 70, but still:  I’m moving!  We — are moving.

I’m feeling overwhelmingly grateful.  And there is no cure for that.

I’m heading home.

It’s been a long day.  I’ve hustled, I’ve freelanced.  I’ve driven all over this city.  I’ve crawled in its traffic, chalking up the wasted time — to an investment in my dreams.  And when most civilians have called it a day and taken their place in the crawling drudgery of the 405, heading home, I’ve left to spend my night in the company of artists.  For hours, we’ve played, tonight; and we’ve cried.

And we’ve felt ourselves moving.  Yes:  We’ve found ourselves living!

So, yes:  I’m feeling overwhelmingly grateful.  And there is no cure for that.

By now, I’m doing 80 on the 405, at midnight.

Heading home.

I get off a few exits before mine.  Thinking:  I’m gonna cook at home.

Yes!

Ow!  But now so fast!  The roads are ridiculous, here:  empty at this hour, but always bumpy.  I start speeding again.  I’m alone, with an exception of other adrenaline addicts, in their German cars.  I’m sure they too have had to hustle, today.  But now:  They are moving.

We — are moving.

The autumnal selection of vegetables at the market snaps me into yet another degree of inspiration:  It’s gonna be one of those creamy, hearty soups that can heal a soul, or a broken heart — or to bring back my love.  To bring him back home.  The day is long gone, but I’m still feeling overwhelmingly grateful.  So, I’ll just carry it into the next day.

I load up my car.  Speed home.  Start up the chopping, the sizzling, the simmering.  I substitute.  I improvise.  I think of my love.  I think — of my loves, from earlier in the day.

And for the first time, I slow down.  Because it’s already the very next day.  And even though, I’ve carried my gratitude into it, I’d much rather start it up slowly.

I’m moving, slowly.  And I’m living, well.

Well:  I’m living!

“Call ME! On the Line! Call Me, Call Me, Any, ANY TIME!”

My cellphone broke down yesterday:  Finally, that poor thing!

It had been with me for over three years, and by now I was getting texts and phone calls from the Verizon people on a regular basis, begging me to get an upgrade.

“Did you know you were eligible for a $50 rebate?!” some nice girl would be trying to tell me after I would call to complain about the most recent malfunction on my device:

“The flip is not clicking anymore,” I’d say.  “I think it’s loose.”

“Well, m’am,” the nice girl would be studying my files on her screen.  She seemed to be patient, and yes, super nice.  Perhaps, in those files, she could read all the records of my previous love affairs, from start to finish; and she would take pity on me.  And even if she couldn’t see my love stories unfold through a progression of texts between my exes and I, I bet she could tell I was going through another break-up by the gastronomical size of my bill that month.

And sometimes, I would imagine she had some sort of a hidden camera thingy connected to the flimsy flip in my hand, and she could actually see all the terrible truths about my life.

“Hmm.  It says here you’d drowned your phone in a cup of coffee nearly a year ago.”

(See!  I told you she had that hidden camera thingy!)

But yes, it is true about the coffee.  You see, about a year ago, I had finally decided my motha and I were ready to cross the next boundary in our relationship — and that we could try texting each other.

Now, I am not one of those absentee daughters.  I call my motha on a regular basis, one-to-two weekend nights per week.  Even if we feel like we have nothing to say to each other, I would much rather hear motha’s repeated monologues on the other end of my cellphone — than suffer the passive-aggressive silence after I had somehow forgotten to call her one weekend.  Because let me tell you:  Jewish mothers have NOTHING on my motha with their guilt trips.  My motha copyrighted that shit!  And she is not really the silent type, neither in Russian nor English.  So, when she does go quiet on you, she can raise the hairs on the back of your neck with feelings of her orphan-like abandonment and saintly martyrdom.

Anyway.  At the end of last summer, we had passed a new threshold:  For the first time in our lives, we each had our own place with which we were finally perfectly content.  There would be no more terrible roommates.  No more partners with messy habits.  And we had vowed that each would stay at her place for at least a couple of years.

Conveniently, my motha’s joint had horrendous cellphone reception.  So, before she got herself a landline, I would have to text — to test her availability.

“CALL NOW” — motha would respond, often with no punctuation marks and in all caps.

But my very first text to motha was actually less than technical.

“Lov U, shawty,” I wrote.

I was feeling mushy that morning.  It’s a consequence of having a heart that’s easily prone to gratitude.  Motha would understand that:  I am sure I’ve inherited that damn thing from her.  And so:

“Lov U, shawty,” I composed.  But right before I could hit the red button of SEND, the flip phone slipped out of my hand and dove right into the middle of my morning cup of coffee with a precision of a kamikaze.

“SHIT” — I thought (with no punctuation marks and in all caps).  “My coffee is ruined.”

As I said:  I had just moved into the place, and before I had unpacked my kitchen supplies, I had walked to the 7-Eleven on the corner to get my caffeine fix for the day.

The flip phone was retrieved eventually and immediately buried in a jar of rice.  It wasn’t white rice, but one of those healthy wild rice mixtures from Trader Joe’s.  So, the trick wouldn’t work, and I would go through the hassle of filing an insurance claim and waiting for some hideous device to arrive in the mail.  My old flip phone would eventually be revived with the help of a hairdryer, and I would feel like my faithful device and I had passed another hurdle in life.  We were veterans.  Survivors.  And we weren’t ready to part ways yet.

Because one of the terrible truths in my life was that, just like everyone else, I was married to my cellphone.  It was the most significant relationship in my life — and an appendix to my ego.  And even though every once in a while (like after a break-up, for instance) I would lock that thing up in my car for a day to punish it — to punish the whatever him I was breaking-up with — I couldn’t live without it.

And there had been moments when I would fling the poor thing across the room after a prolonged wait for a Time Warner rep to pick-up my call.  I had used it to break-up with my old bank from the East Coast, utterly useless on this side of the country.  Because my cellphone was perfect for confrontations; and I think it had something to do with the flip feature of it.  It added a certain umph to my endings, like a punctuation mark at the end of a text message.

But about a week ago, I could tell:  My poor thing — my dear veteran — was on its very last stretch.  It was no longer responding to its charger, and seemingly its screen was starting to suffer from some sort of electronic epilepsy.  Two days ago, it was over.

Finally, that poor thing!

“NO CHARGER DETECTED” — the screen said (with no punctuation marks and in all caps).

And then:  It went dark.

Strangely, despite all of our history, I didn’t feel any sadness about its departure.  It is true we had passed through many hurdles together.  We were veterans.  Survivors.

But I knew:  Ah, it was time.

“How can I help you?” some nice boy with an iPhone clipped onto his belt said to me when I stormed into the Verizon store last night.

“Well,” I said, whipped out the dead body of my cellphone and slammed it against the counter.  “You tell me!”

The nice boy smiled:  He couldn’t help it.

“Ow… Ouch.  What happened to its gloss?” he said, ever so charitably.

And I remembered the very first day I bought my baby at another store:  It was caramel-colored and shiny, and it would light up with red lights when I caressed its surface.  The gloss was long gone now, and I would begin to be slightly embarrassed to take it out in public.

The kind boy was by now studying my files on his screen.  Could he see all of the terrible truths about my life?  Could he read the histories of my relationships in the gastronomical sizes of my previous bills?  And considering the low amount due this month, could he tell I had been finally single — and contently so — for the duration of the last season?

“Did you know you were eligible for a $150 rebate?”

“That bad, eh?” I said and smiled.  I couldn’t help it.

“IT’S TIME” — the nice boy said (with no punctuation marks and in all caps).

And when he asked me if I wanted to save any of my old text messages or voicemails — for I would be losing ALL of them in this transition — I did not feel any sadness at all.

“No,” I answered.  “It is time.”

“You See: Everybody — Is Somebody. But Nobody Wants To Be Themselves.”

“What you’re thinking… you are becoming,” he said, holding too lengthy of a pause for an effect.

What he wasn’t realizing was that the habit of breaking-up his thoughts with these loaded silences shot down any effect he was aiming for:  It deflated the importance of his statements, and any urgency in his inspirational speech — to a room full of actors — was going out of the windows.

Although, come to think of it, there weren’t any windows in the joint at all:  We were packed into a black-box theatre of a classroom, like an army of revolutionaries planning a revolt in a basement, somewhere in the jungles of South America.  Everyone was an artist of sorts; quite a few writers — and even a spoken word poetess (she was rad!).

There was a handful of newbies in the room:  You could tell by the way they surveyed everyone with their impressionable and somehow petrified glances.  (Oh, to be new to the chaos of LA!  I wouldn’t want to relive that joy.)  The rest of us — were seasoned residents of the city, not yet veterans of the industry.  But we had all been around the block by now — around several blocks, actually, in search of casting spaces and parking spots.

Some seemed jaded, and they sized-up all the previous speakers while never uncrossing their arms for the entirety of a 2-hour lecture.  There were some that loved to hear the sound of their voice; so, every question of theirs turned into a tiny, brooding monologue.  An older actress from Chicago, a bit tipsy from the free wine, had been hollering from the front row as if she were listening to gospel:  Such humanity!  (She was rad!)

Pretty girls — of those, there was plenty.  That’s the one thing guaranteed in LA-LA:  Perpetual beauty that either humbles and inspires — or saddens with its dispensability.

Anyway, he was saying:

“What you’re thinking… you are becoming.” 

The guy was quite tall, slightly on the stocky side.  His non-immaculately white shirt was untucked, with its top half unbuttoned down to his undershirt, also non-white.  He wore jeans and insecurities galore.

Half way through the evening, he took over the job of announcing the speakers from the evening’s MC.

“Who IS this guy?” I caught myself thinking every time he got up, lingered by the director’s chair in the middle of the stage and hogged our time with his prolonged, miserable pauses.

Standing in the corner of a packed room, I had been studying the audience for nearly two hours.  There were a couple of faces I recognized.  A few seemed quite familiar; but then again, as a seasoned resident of LA-LA, you begin to lose track of origins.  And you catch yourself thinking:

“Do I know you?”

“Have we met in a constellation of classes and workshops happening at every minute and in every neighborhood of this city?”

“Have I seen you in a commercial, or in a waiting room for that commercial’s audition?”

“Or, have I simply bumped into you while we both circled around the blocks, in search of casting spaces and parking spots?”

A man with Jeremy Irons’ face caught my attention, in a corner of the classroom.  You don’t forget a face like that.  (He was rad!)  But then again, I’d been around the block too many times by now — around many blocks, actually — and I had long begun losing track of origins.

“So… you just gotta…” the man in a non-immaculately white shirt was hanging onto his silences, on stage.

He made some sort of a peculiar gesture with his hand.

The speakers who had preceded him — not necessarily seasoned residents of LA-LA, but definitely veterans of the industry — were quite inspiring.  Passionate, eccentric and honest, they had spoken of their love for the art — and their advocacy of the artists.  They — were rad!

It’s an unusual thing here, in this city.  Back in New York, packed into black-box theaters, one comes to expect talks about the art of it all.  Because there, we prefer to be think of ourselves as craftsmen — artists of sorts — not businesspeople.

But in LA-LA — it’s all about the business!  And in a constellation of classes and workshops happening at every minute and in every neighborhood of this city, we agree to collect the crumbs of information qualified as networking.

“Because you never know!” they tell us.

So, you learn to surrender.  You better!

You better surrender to the unexplainable chaos of the industry.  You better learn to accept yourself as a seasoned resident of this city.  You better let go of all expectations and stop counting the favors and the debts other people owe you:  No one owes you jack shit!

It takes time and an open mind — to survive here.

It takes a passionate heart to keep bringing the craft into the rooms full of businesspeople; and that heart has got to keep at it, despite having been around several blocks, in search of casting spaces and parking spots.

It takes discipline and humility to become a working artist — a veteran of the industry — not just a seasoned, bitter resident.

It takes a love — for the art!

And my own happiest discovery about the business is that thankfully, it still takes GRATITUDE — to persevere.