It was a dream come true. Finally, after almost forty-five years as a licensed driver, I was getting my Dream Car. Finally, someone was taking a chance on me, on my future, on my value, on my ability to rise from the ashes. I woke up this morning with joy in my heart – the kind of joy that you feel the first time that you fall in love and that love is reciprocated. I got dressed and put my key chains in my purse, key chains that I had gotten in London to attach to my car keys. Key chains that had remained tucked in a drawer for sixteen years, waiting for my car dreams to become a reality. As I walked to the bus stop, I thought to myself, This is the last time I have to walk three blocks to the bus stop with my arthritic knee. I remembered the joy I felt when bought my first car in the 70s, a tan AMC Gremlin that I loved on sight. But this was even better. I had loved Minis since my first trip to London in 1985. For two decades, I had parked a British Racing Green toy Mini Cooper on my desk – a symbol of all that I dreamed of attaining. And today, that dream was coming true.
Last Saturday, I had gone to the Niello Mini dealership to test drive a Mini Cooper. There was a 2014 Mini Cooper S two-door hardtop in British Racing Green that was reduced to $18,997. I took a test drive and fell in love. $19,000 wasn’t that much money. I had a good full time job making almost $30 an hour. When the bank review was done, the terms came out to a monthly payment of $434.34 at 11.49 APR. That was doable, since my rent was only $610 a month and the only other mandatory expenses I had were a $291 student loan payment and a $45 utility bill. Everyone else I knew had rents and mortgages in the four figures, and some even had tuitions to pay, but they all had nice cars. Maybe my mistakes of the past were behind me. Finally, in my sixtieth decade, I would realize a Dream. On the left side of the bank review said “ON APPROVED CREDIT.” I asked the sales representative who had accompanied me on the test drive if that meant that I had not been approved. She assured me that I was already approved. Since she had also given me forms with my credit scores from Experian and TransUnion, I assumed that she was correct. On the following payday Friday, I purchased auto insurance and counted down the minutes until I could go to the dealership to get my new car. I felt vindicated. I remembered an incident many years ago, when I went to the Niello Porsche dealership with my boyfriend. The blonde saleswoman came out, asked if she could help us, and walked away when we said that we were just browsing. It was obvious by her actions that she had already made the assumption that two people of color could never be able to buy a Porsche. From that moment on, I hated Niello and all that it represented – a privileged lifestyle that I would never attain. I would never have a Niello Acura, Alfa Romeo, Saab, BMW, Infiniti, Jaguar, Land-Rover, Maserati, Porsche, Volvo, and Volkswagen. But when the Mini dealership opened, I couldn’t help but admire it from afar. I loved that car. Sometimes, I would make a special effort to walk past the Fulton Avenue lot to admire the shiny cars parked there and dream.
I tried to contain my enthusiasm as I walked into the showroom with my new car insurance paperwork. In January 2012, I was homeless, sleeping in a dirty cot in an emergency homeless shelter in West LA. Now, I was employed, making almost 60K a year, with my own apartment and a social worker job helping other people improve their lives. And in a few minutes, the Dream Car that I had treasured for so many years would become the embodiment of my triumph over adversity. I would enjoy making those six years of payments on a car that I truly loved.
But after I handed my sales representative my insurance information, she went into a room with another employee. She told me that they were “working things out.” She remained in the office for over an hour. What could be taking so long? She had told me on Saturday that I had been approved, giving me the impression that once I presented valid insurance, I could drive away and start my new status as a person with a nice car. I had planned to take one of my friends for a ride over the weekend, a friend that had stood by me for over twenty years. My co-workers couldn’t wait to see the car when I drove to work after the holiday weekend. Finally, I would be envied, not pitied. No longer would people on the street see me at a bus stop and assume that I was poor, uneducated, unemployed, and stupid just because I used public transportation. No one realized that I was single, with no dependents, with a good job, two degrees, a thirty-year work history and a Mensa-level intelligence quotient. But soon, I would have status again.
Finally, she came out of the office. She had a strange look on her face. This time, she had a different bank review. This one had new figures on it – impossible, ridiculous figures on it. Even though the price of the car was $18,922, in order to finance it, I would have to pay $45,839 and put $1,000 down. Even with my good salary and minimal monthly obligations, in order to get this car, I would have to finance 2.5 times more than the price of the car. Instead of the quoted monthly payment of $434.34, I would be paying $636.66, more than my rent. I told the manager that came out that I was told that I had already been approved for the car. I told him that I would not have bought insurance on the car if it wasn’t mine. He said that the sales rep was new and had given me wrong information. He just shook his head with feigned concern and offered me a free Uber ride home. I told him that I was able to afford my own ride home. There was nothing I could do. There was no contract and I hadn’t signed anything.
And then it hit me. No matter how many charities Rick Niello, David Niello and Roger Niello support, they do not care about me or my ability to pay for the car of my dreams. But that is business in America. This is how the poor stay poor. Instead of assisting potential customers who will retain brand loyalty and garner repeat and additional business because someone had the foresight and wisdom to take a chance on them, The Niello Company (and probably every other luxury dealership) and the banks they deal with make it virtually impossible for working people to afford Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles. And people like the Niellos will be the first people to wonder why desperate people fall for get-rich schemes to obtain a piece of the American Pie. I was willing to pay $31,294 for my dream car, but not 2.5 times the price of the car, which was higher than the Kelley Blue Book value for the car. I promptly contacted my friend, who had also planned to purchase a Niello Mini Cooper, and advised her to search elsewhere.
I felt like someone had stabbed me in the heart and called me the N-word. I felt like I was back on that cot again, just another piece of human excrement that had no value in this world. I will never have my Dream Car. I won’t even bother to dream any more. Because of American Greed, dreams of hardworking Americans die everyday. I’m sure that the Niellos have monthly mortgages more than the cost of my dream car. And I know that no Niello will ever lose sleep over the fact that my heart has been broken and my dreams have been shattered. It’s just business…
I looked at The Niello Company Mission Statement. “Our Core Values: We are a team/We respect each other/We encourage self-improvement/We hold high expectations/We embrace change/We enthusiastically value our customer/We support our community.”
I held high expectations that I would be driving my Dream Car. I enthusiastically embraced the American Dream, the idea that one can change and come back from adversity and be given another chance. I was wrong. That only happens in the movies.
As I was getting ready for work on Thursday, November 10, 2016, I heard something on National Public Radio that stopped me in my tracks. The announcer was mentioned a shooting in the southwestern Pennsylvania town of Canonsburg. I was shocked. I grew up a few miles from Canonsburg. I went to high school in Canonsburg. My mother died at Canonsburg Hospital. I had friends in Canonsburg. The shooting involved a domestic dispute, leaving a pregnant woman and one officer dead, and another officer wounded.
When I got to work, I searched online for more information. A woman had been killed in her Canonsburg home by her husband, who she had filed a protection from abuse order against in the past. When officers came to investigate, the abuser shot the two policemen and then killed himself. It was a tragic story, which became more tragic when the emphasis seemed to shift almost exclusively to the deceased officer. On social media, my friends and acquaintances in the area started posting tributes to the fallen officer, changing their profile photos to a blue banner, and discussing his bravery and service. From the limited news that I saw from a distance, it appeared that the first victim was being ignored.
Who was she? Her name was Dalia Elhefny Sabae, a 28-year-old woman who was born in Egypt, was fluent in six languages, and was working as a pharmacy technician while she worked on her pharmacy degree, as she had already obtained a degree in pharmaceutical sciences in Egypt. She was a dancer and had been a college athlete. I felt a connection to her. She sounded like someone who I would have liked to know. She worked at Jeffrey’s Drug Store, where my late father used to get his prescriptions for many years. Even though she was born almost exactly a month after I moved from southwestern Pennsylvania to northern California, I can imagine encountering her smiling face as she filled a prescription. Someone shared posts and photos from her Facebook page. She looked like a fun, caring person who was making a new life for herself in a small town.
“Why didn’t she just leave?” Some people online posted this question. As a social worker that works with domestic violence survivors, there is no easy answer. Maybe she didn’t have anywhere to go. Like me, her closest family member was probably thousands of miles away. Since she was a student, maybe didn’t have the money to move and start over in another area. Maybe she was afraid to leave. There were several domestic violence reports on file with the local police. He had used sex to threaten her about her green card. He had hit her numerous times. A month ago, he had told her that she and her unborn child needed to die. But maybe in her heart, she hoped that he would change, and become the loving person that she had fallen for at the beginning of their relationship. Only she knew the real answer to that question.
As the days went on, people posted more stories and comments about the officer and his family. But one person mentioned that Ms. Sabae was the true innocent in the tragedy – the only person who was unarmed. Some people asked, “Why didn’t she have a gun?” Even if she had possessed a gun, it might not have made a difference. Her only crime was falling in love with a man who turned into a monster.
Her story reminded me of the women I have known and worked with over the years. A close friend was almost strangled by an ex-boyfriend. One woman was run over by a car driven by an ex-boyfriend. Another woman was beat so harshly that she was unconscious for several days. It broke my heart when a young woman requested that her case be closed on the day that we were supposed to visit a domestic violence agency. I sensed that her abuser was probably listening to the call. I hoped that she had kept the emergency hotline number card that I had given to her.
This morning, one of my friends shared her obituary online. Ms. Sabae and her unborn son will be buried in the same cemetery where my parents are interred. Today, hundreds of people visited the funeral home to pay their respects to her. Tonight, a purple light was shown in the sky over Canonsburg as a memorial to her. Tomorrow afternoon, doves will be released in her honor. I wish that she could have found the freedom afforded to those birds. Donations in her name can be made to Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania, at 308 East Maiden Street, Washington, PA, the Washington City Mission or any woman’s shelter. I used to live near that office on East Maiden Street. I used to work across the street from the Washington City Mission. When I was in my early twenties in the eighties, I had gone to training in Washington for a domestic violence hotline. But after my first call, I realized that I wasn’t emotionally ready to answer calls. In the nineties, I went to training in Sacramento to be a volunteer at a domestic violence agency. When one of the stories shared by a survivor mirrored my last relationship, I realized that I had been emotionally abused and didn’t even know it. And I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one.
If spirits do indeed walk the Earth, I hope that Ms. Sabae encounters my mother at Oak Spring Cemetery. Momma would take her into her arms, hold her close and tell her what a wonderful, beautiful person she was. She would remind her of all of the lives that she touched, of the difference that she made in the world during her short life. Maybe the memory of Dalia will save the lives of other women trapped in the cycle of domestic violence in southwestern Pennsylvania. Maybe the contributions made in her honor will give others hope and the chance for a better life.
In Baltic mythology, Dalia is the goddess of fate. In Hebrew, a version of the name is a flowering bush. Rest in peace, Dalia, we will never forget you.
Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Washington, PA
A Community for Peace, Citrus Heights, CA
I have about ten months before I enter my sexagenarian decade, but I’m already apprehensive. My fifties haven’t exactly been a walk in the park, so I cautiously wonder what my sixties will be like. Most of us get the Cliff Notes version of aging. Hair turns gray, periods stop, and you turn into a kindly grandmotherly figure or a mean old crone – that’s all they tell us when we are young ladies full of life, hope and hormones. But I need to reveal what I have discovered so far.
I find myself wondering – what would my boobs look like in space? As you get older, a weightless environment sounds like a good idea. Everything heads South, from eyelids to toenails, and you don’t even get a Mint Julep. Why does the bra that keeps my boobs in the general area where they belong cost as much as a train ticket to Los Angeles? When I was going to the five-and-dime with my mother to get my first training bra, no one warned me that someday my bras would cost $60. Why does it cost so much to restore elasticity to my skin? I use moisturizer religiously – one for my face, one for my body, and three different ones for my hands. Who wants wrinkly old lady hands? Sometimes they look like an aerial map of the Sahara and other times they look white and ashy like Mount St. Helens on a bad day. I will not leave home without hand cream – under any circumstances.
Once you realize that everything hurts and probably will hurt for the rest of your life, the better you will feel. My new boyfriends are Ben Gay and Arthur Ritis – which decreases my allure to 99% of the male population of this planet. (And I would advise staying away from the remaining 1%.) You will learn that keeping your balance is actually something that is not guaranteed to happen at all times. I’m now compiling a list of my most memorable falls. So far, number one is a ramp at Union Station in Los Angeles when I fell running for a Metrolink train to Anaheim. I have been able to quickly bounce back and pick myself up, but the day is coming when I will need one of those emergency devices around my neck as a permanent accessory. I just hope that I don’t fall in a tub, as wet and naked has never been one of my best looks.
What hair? My hair started falling out three years ago and has never returned, no matter how many creams, shampoos and conditioners I put on it. Maybe all of those years of relaxing, dyeing, and picking have caught up with me. I have thought about wigs and weaves, but thinning, weak hair doesn’t give you much to attach them to without worrying that they will end up on the ground at an inopportune time. I’m thinking of just shaving my head and accepting the inevitable, letting my skull shine free and unencumbered. Which brings me to the next point.
As a bald, old lady with a lack of balance and a lot of gravity and gravitas – the chance of getting a date will diminish from slim to non-existent. As society has it, men get distinguished and women just get old. Rock stars like Jimmy Page can still pick up 26-year-old girls when they are 71, but what 71-year-old woman in her right mind would want a 26-year-old boyfriend? Really, I think that Jimmy should follow my own dating rule – never date anyone who was born after John Bonham’s death. If they can’t remember when Led Zeppelin was an intact band, they are too young. And where do fifty-ish women go to find a date? I love music, but going to concerts does not attract any suitors. The ones that are alone or with male friends are usually drunk before the band hits the stage. So it’s either “girls night out,” (if you have friends) or “cat video marathon” (I have no friends).
I’m not going to mention any brands, but “age appropriate” clothes look like crap. I’m not wearing a turtleneck no matter how bad my neck looks. If I spend $60 on a bra, you can be sure that I’m going to show some cleavage. I will NOT wear any pastels or pants with elastic waistbands. I will wear motorcycle jackets and Doc Martens with funky hats. I will slip into my skinny jeans as long as I am not wearing adult diapers. If I reach diaperdom, I will wear long colorful shirts and sweaters over my not-so-skinny jeans. If people don’t like my ial choices, who cares? Wear whatever makes you feel good. If Susan Sarandon can show her bra at 69, so can you.
This is important. Get all of the insurance that you can as soon as you can. Get all of the health tests that you need, and some that you don’t need, if you still have employer-paid health care. If you want to live in a fancy senior complex that will take care of you when you don’t remember that you are you, save up every penny that you can and invest wisely. Unless you start out with that silver spoon, you need to assume that you will have less money when you retire and that everything you will need to live will cost twice as much. Don’t buy anything that you can’t pay off in five years. If you don’t have any money, marrying a rich man is out of the question. (See item 4.)
Remember that laughter is the best medicine. I hope to be here a long time looking at my bald, off-balanced, dateless, inappropriately dressed visage and laughing my sagging ass off. I’m still here, and that’s the important thing. When we were younger, the one piece of advice that older people tried to give us was to find joy in each day – advice that we ignored until the day we realized that there were more years gone than there were remaining. Once you reach the age when three-fourth of the deaths you hear about are people younger than you, you have to applaud opening your eyes each morning. This is what I have learned so far. Sure, getting old sucks, but it’s an adventure too – like an amusement park fun house. You never know what’s waiting for you at the next turn or what it’s going to look like. But as long as you are still turning, you ain’t done yet. Life is like a rotisserie chicken.
Every morning, I glanced up at the smiling bronze faces of Miko and Titi Branch, surrounded by halos of shiny, curly hair. I sighed in relief, having made it through another night without being thrown out onto the mean streets of Crenshaw. In the evening, they taunted me. With their curls and smiles, they reminded me of my former life. But I could never pass the billboard without looking at it.
Like most black women, I have probably spent a million dollars on hair care products during my lifetime. In 2004, Miko and Titi, two black/Asian sisters, started a hair care line named for their African American North Carolinian grandmother, fondly called “Miss Jessie.” I don’t remember when or where I first discovered the Miss Jessie’s line, but by 2006, I was a devoted convert. I ordered products from their New York area company and told others about the wonderful, but expensive, emollients for curly hair. At that time, I was working full time at a government job. I could afford to place orders for $50 to $75 worth of hair products, buy clothes at Nordstrom Rack and still have money for the rent, utilities, and food for my two cats, Smokey and Ozzy. I loved Miss Jessie’s products and even got small jars to take with me on trips to Las Vegas and back home to visit friends in Pittsburgh. I had a good job, good friends, and a closet full of clothes and shoes. I had it made.
I put the $32 jar of Curly Buttercreme on the shelf in the bathroom. Later, I added Curly Meringue, Quick Curls, Crème de la Crème conditioner, Super Slip Sudsy Shampoo, the new Coily Custard, and even a small jar of Super Sweetback Treatment. Even though Ozzy was gone, I was on my way. I could imagine the products stored once more in my own bathroom cabinet. I would have my own apartment, another feline companion, a car, and maybe even a male companion not of the feline variety. I thought of the possibilities and smiled. It was gonna happen, I knew it. I looked in the mirror and fluffed my curls. Miko and Titi would be proud.
In December 2014, Titi Branch committed suicide. When I heard the news, I cried. I thought about the billboard I used to pass on cold January mornings when I was sneaking out of temporary homeless housing authorized for one, but sheltering two. I would make a comment about the billboard to my friend Mary, who accompanied me on those chilly mornings. Even though she was white, she found that some of the Miss Jessie’s products worked on her blonde mane too. As we spent days walking the streets of LA in January 2012, I thought that the Branch sisters had it made – dazzling beauty, a successful company, and a glamorous life. But Titi was in pain, battling depression – a condition that many women, especially women of color, tried to hide from the world. It’s hard to ask for help, when you are supposed to be strong as a redwood tree, able to handle everything that life throws in your direction.
During my time on the street, I asked lots of people for help, even though I knew that just the idea of asking would have had my father rolling over in his grave. Friends and family made it possible for me to spend a few nights in a hostel and get temporary housing. I was able to get an emergency grant that assisted writers in crisis. Another friend offered housing until I could get back on my feet. Since then, other people have offered help and encouragement, to my eternal gratitude.
I start a new government job tomorrow, the first step to getting back into my own residence and becoming self-sufficient again. Things will get better. Someday, I’ll have another cat, new clothes, a car and maybe even a loving partner. I think of Titi, for whom things didn’t get better. She felt that life was too hard; she couldn’t escape from the dark place that held her captive. I think of Miko, alone without the constant companionship of the sister that she loved like no other.
I will pay it forward, whether it will be a helping hand, an encouraging word, or a dollop of Curly Meringue. But I’ll never forget that billboard of those smiling sisters, assuring me that beauty could be found, not matter how dire the current circumstances appeared to be. And I’ll always remember the sister with soulful eyes and curly blonde hair for whom beauty was not enough.
(Miko Branch has published a book about her life, her sister, and their company, Miss Jessie’s: Creating a Successful Business from Scratch Naturally.)
I received your latest issue today, and I just woke up from looking through it. BORING! First of all, it had Bob Dylan on the cover and I can’t stand Bob Dylan. He writes good songs, but his voice affects me the same way as fingernails on a chalkboard. (Do they even have chalkboards any more?) He may be the voice of a generation, but since he is fifteen years older than me, I don’t consider myself a part of that generation. Personally, I was twelve when Woodstock happened, and I had a nine o’clock bedtime, not exactly conducive to three days of peace, love and music. Why don’t you put someone cute like Kip Winger on the cover? On the back cover is an ad for Raisin Bran. Not all people over fifty eat cold cereal and milk for breakfast. (I wonder if Kip Winger does?)
I guess that “RP” now stands for “Real Possibilities,” instead of “Retired Persons.” To that I say, “Really, people?” As I flip through the magazine, I look at the ads. Almost everyone in the ads has gray hair. Not all people over fifty have gray hair, including the aforementioned seventy-three-year old singer on the cover. My hair isn’t gray and I don’t dye it either. But millions of people do dye their hair because they don’t like gray hair for whatever reason. And many of these people actually look good with their hair color of choice. When I do decide to dye my hair, I will probably dye it bright purple, but that just happens to be my personal preference.
A lot of the ads show people with young children that are obviously supposed to be representing grandchildren. I do not have kids or grandkids, which I had to make clear in a strongly worded letter to Journeys. Just because a person is looking at a backpack with kittens on it does not mean that they are “looking for backpacks for their grandchildren.” I happen to like backpacks. And kittens. I have no desire to ever ride in a teacup at DisneyWorld – an activity probably even worse than a Bob Dylan concert. If I ever rent a car from Avis, it better be a convertible and I won’t be renting it to play in the sand with some little kids. Just saying…
Now, I understand that you are a nonprofit organization and that you are very particular about who advertises in your pages, but couldn’t you liven it up a little? How about some fun ads from some of the places and products offering AARP discounts? What about Ticketmaster? If AARP really wanted to help me out, they would help me score some prime tickets for the upcoming Rush tour. (Neil Peart on the cover – there’s a suggestion.) How about a cool Zipcar ad? I just found out about that discount – one that I actually plan to use. Show a stylish, sexy couple taking British Airways to London for a vacation of a lifetime. Now, I understand that you have to include ads for medications and ads for various insurances (I guess the three letters that AARP sends me each week aren’t enough), but couldn’t you mix it up?
I’m sure that some of your articles are actually interesting, but in the eight years of being a member, I can’t remember even one of them. Maybe it’s the font. Whatever it is, it makes your magazine even more boring than an automobile club magazine and the magazine I get from my alma mater. And believe me, I know boring – I used to edit a newsletter for social workers. 32 pages of boring each month and four years of my life that I will never get back. But in your latest issue, I did learn that the Rolling Stones were older than the Supreme Court, but not older than the cast of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But I think if Bill Wyman had been included, the Stones would have won. Enough about Bill Wyman.
Maybe I’m just pissed off that for years you have ignored my request to have metal bands at your annual convention thingy. Why not Slayer? You can’t afford Robert Plant? (Jimmy Page on the cover – he has gray hair, so that should make you guys happy.) I think I might have actually read something about the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp in your magazine once. (I actually do remember an article – my bad.) Sammy Hagar does that a lot – he would be great for your annual thingy. Or maybe Jon Bon Jovi instead of Jon Secada. You need to realize that all of the eighties rocker guys are now in their fifties and early sixties, even though they don’t have gray hair and probably don’t ride the teacups at DisneyWorld, even if they have children and grandchildren that they are aware of. And not all hard rock artists are men – what about Lita Ford? (Put her on the cover – I can interview her for you.)
Well, that’s all for now. I like the fancy new AARP cards, but I’m not happy that I didn’t win anything in the AARP photo contest. I think my photo was nicer than a lot of the ones that won, even though my devil horns were backward – but that is just my opinion. I will continue to be a member, but I just wish that the Real Possibilities that you are considering would include the real possibility of making your magazine more interesting to those of us closer to fifty than to ninety – those of us who grew up in the seventies, not the forties, fifties or sixties. And if you could pull some strings – some Rush tickets would be nice. And a job.
Beatrice (58, still wearing Doc Martens, skull earrings, and listening to loud guitars)
On the snowy morning of February 2, 1988, I left Pittsburgh International Airport bound for San Francisco. Puxatawney Phil had just seen his shadow and I wasn’t about to stick around for six more weeks of winter. I boarded a plane heading west to a land I had never seen before. As the USAir plane lifted from the runway, I watched the snow covered Pennsylvania hills recede from view. My emotions oscillated between sadness, excitement and apprehension. I was leaving behind my friends and family and everything I had ever known. I was going to California to start a new life.
I was thirty-one, leaving home for new experiences and adventures. I was moving to San Francisco with two suitcases, $300, and a return ticket dated a month from today. I knew no one there. But the fear of never leaving Western Pennsylvania was greater than my fear of the unknown. After seven years as a welfare worker, I was leaving behind a caseload of senior citizens that had never ventured farther than the West Virginia border, which was only twenty-five miles away. Unless I took the initiative, I would spend the next forty years just like them, growing old in the same area where I was raised, never exploring the world or realizing my dreams.
The five-hour flight was a moving geography lesson. The plan passed over places that I remembered studying about in grade school textbooks. The Mississippi River. Iowa. The Rocky Mountains. I saw the shadow of the plane as we crossed some of the country’s highest peaks. The mountains looked close. Too close. The pilot helpfully pointed out landmarks as well as dutifully announcing the altitude. I was vividly reminded of how much I hated to fly and my fear of crashing.
When the seatbelt sign came on and the plane prepared for landing, my heart was pounding. I looked out the window and saw green hills, a welcome sight after leaving Groundhog Country. I searched in vain for the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the few San Francisco landmarks I knew. I heard the landing wheels come out and I looked out the window at…water.
Now I was really nervous. The green had disappeared, only to be replaced by a blue watery mass that I deduced was the San Francisco Bay. I tried in vain to remember what the flight attendant had said about what to do in case of a water landing. I couldn’t swim. I looked around, but no one else seemed to be disturbed. The plan continued to descend as I looked out of the window in horror. At what seemed like the last possible moment, I saw a small jut of runway appear to come out of the water to meet the descending plane. One of the things that my guidebooks didn’t tell me was that the runway at SFO extended into the Bay. My stomach returned to its proper place once I felt the wheels connect with the California concrete.
In the shuttle from SFO, my head bounced from side to side as if I was watching a tennis match. There were people and buildings everywhere. I had never lived in a city before and I wondered if I would be able to survive in this strange environment. I was the last passenger in the van. The driver told me that the Pine Street rooming house where I had a reservation was in something called the Financial District. He assured me that it was a safe neighborhood and he wished me luck.
I stood in the back of the elevator as a grizzled older man manually closed the elevator cage. It appeared that most of the hotel’s residents were single men. As I walked down the dark hallway to my room, I was invaded by the faint smell of urine. The room did not have a bathroom, only a small sink. I did not look forward to sharing facilities with my new neighbors. If the shower was not appealing, at least I could wash up in the sink.
As soon as I shed my Pennsylvania winter wardrobe, I went outside to explore my new neighborhood. The temperature was in the 60s, which was balmy compared to the cold and snow I had experienced only a few hours ago. I took a deep breath. The air was a mixture of grease and auto exhaust. There was a McDonald’s three doors away. At least I wouldn’t starve. I gazed in awe at the vertical streets and buildings that rose to the sky.
On my first full day, I took a bus to Fisherman’s Wharf, the only other landmark besides the Grateful Dead House that I remembered from my guidebook. I got off at Pier 39 and walked toward the water’s edge to look at Alcatraz Island. The whole scene was surreal – the hazy sky, the shining water, and the crowds of people buying overpriced trinkets. I went into a bakery to get my first taste of sourdough bread. The sourness of the fresh bread filled my mouth. It had a strange but appealing taste. Strange but appealing, just like San Francisco.
After finishing the bread, I walked down the street, taking in my new surroundings. There was a young blonde woman sitting at a table on the sidewalk. At first, I thought she was another street vendor, but the only things on the table were flyers and brochures. As I passed the table, she caught my eye.
“Hi! How are you today?” Her perky, bubbly tone was a welcome surprise. I hadn’t talked to anyone except the dour Temple Hotel desk clerk since my arrival.
“Fine. How are you?” I glanced at the literature on the table.
“Just wonderful!” She extended her hand. “My name is Sandi. What’s your name?”
I shook hands. “Beatrice.” I wondered why she had stopped me.
She eyed my clothes. “Where are you from?”
I looked down at my jeans and jacket. Did it show that I was from somewhere else? “I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” I wasn’t really from Pittsburgh, but it was the nearest big city.
She smiled and handed me a flyer. “How long have you been in San Francisco?”
I smiled back. “This is my first full day. I just arrived yesterday.”
Her smile broadened. “Great! Welcome of California. Let me tell you about our organization.” She brushed her long hair away from her face as she told me about the group.
As she talked, I looked at the flyer more closely. The name of the organization had something to do with unification. The name was familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I had heard it before. I just nodded my head and let her words float away on the bay breezes. But then she said something that caught my attention. I looked up from the table into her blue eyes. “What did you say?”
“I said that we are having a spaghetti dinner this evening. Why don’t you meet me back here at five? Then you can ride up to the house with me. We’ll eat and then have a short presentation about our group. Maybe you’ll want to join. After the meeting, I’ll be happy to take you back to your place.”
I hadn’t had any pasta for a while, especially free pasta. I agreed and she seemed genuinely happy that I was coming to the meeting. I was looking forward to the spaghetti, since my own nourishment so far that day had been an Egg McMuffin and the sourdough bread.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the area around Pier 39. I felt like I was in a Rice-A-Roni commercial as I watched people get on and off the cable cars. It was wonderful to be walking in warm sunshine at the beginning of February. I wondered what my friends where doing back home, a place that seemed a million miles away.
At five, I met Sandi and her friends. They echoed her welcoming smile, introducing themselves and shaking my hand. We all piled into a waiting van. They had recruited a few other people for the dinner/meeting and I sat in the back with my fellow novices. The van bounded up the hill over the cable car tracks. In a few minutes, we pulled up to a large Victorian house. At the top of the creaky stairs, I met more friendly faces.
After a few minutes, I started to notice a sameness to my new friends. Everyone was friendly, but their friendliness seemed artificial and rehearsed. I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, but the story of Jim Jones entered my mind. Now I listened intently whenever someone started to tell me about the group. I was invited to their retreat in Napa.
The spaghetti dinner was good, though. After dinner, everyone went into the living room to view a slide show about the group and its activities. The slides showed more happy, smiling people like the ones that surrounded me in the dark. The narrator talked about the wonderful Napa retreat in glowing terms and urged everyone to go.
But one slide was passed over quickly. The slide showed a middle-aged Asian man. “And that is our leader, Rev. Sun Myung Moon,” the narrator said. The next slide was back to more happy faces at the retreat.
The slide remained frozen in my mind’s screen. I knew who he was. I had only been in San Francisco for one day and already the Moonies had picked me up. Fear jostled for position with the spaghetti in my stomach. So all of the stories I had heard about California were true. I was being recruited for a cult! I wondered if they had put something in the spaghetti. My father had always warned me about taking anything from strangers. I could see him rolling over in his grave. But I didn’t feel funny. At least not yet. I resolved to escape if they tried to detain me. I didn’t know where I was, but I was sure I could find my way back to Pine Street.
After the slide show, I was ready to leave. I had seen enough. My new friend from the Wharf drove me back to my rooming house.
“Thank you for dinner,” I said in my most polite voice. My mother would have been proud.
Sandi displayed what I now knew was a smile of indoctrination. “I’m so glad that we met, Beatrice. You’ll have to come back to our house for dinner again. Keep in touch.”
I tried to smile back, but the corners of my mouth shook. It wasn’t easy to maintain a fake smile without brainwashing.
“I will. Thanks again.”
She wasn’t ready to let me go yet. I wondered if she had a quota that she had to meet. “We will be going up to Napa in a few weeks. You must come with us. It will be so much fun!”
I didn’t know where Napa was and I wasn’t in any hurry to find out. “I’ll think about it,” I answered in what I hoped was a sincere voice. I walked quickly to the door of the hotel. Not even the urine smell bothered me tonight. I breathed a sigh of relief as I closed the door to my room. I went to bed glad that they had not drugged me and held me captive in that house.
But it had never occurred to me to not let them know where I was staying.
When I came back from exploring the City the next day, the hotel manager informed me that my “friend” had stopped by looking for me. Sure enough, a few hours later, Sandi came to visit me and give me a flower. I was afraid to sniff the flower. I had seen “Star Trek” episodes like this. But I thanked her and begged off visiting their house for another great dinner.
My first month in San Francisco passed quickly, and on Leap Year Day, I found my first California job, in some place called “Foster City.” Even though I didn’t know how I would get there, I accepted. It was only two days before the date I was to return to Pennsylvania and I was determined not to use that ticket.
On March 3, I moved to San Mateo with my new roommate Paula. As I sat on the floor of my new unfurnished bedroom, I reviewed my first month in California. I had learned a lot. Don’t come to San Francisco with only $300. Don’t catch BART in West Oakland at midnight. Sourdough bread and string cheese can make a filling meal. And don’t take spaghetti from strangers.
(A version of this story appeared in the Banyan Review in 2003.)
In my opinion, Physical Graffiti is THE greatest rock album. It saved my life. I bought Physical Graffiti on January 19, 1976, less than three weeks from the day I became an orphan, and two weeks after my nineteenth birthday. I was alone, adrift, and in mourning. But that double album from four British musicians became my lifeline. It still is.
It all began in 1975 with the sound of a guitar riff at 4 AM. When my alarm would go off each weekday morning, my ears would be greeted to the same song. The vibe was Middle Eastern, with a hypnotic effect. Why did WDVE play this song every morning? Who played it? After a few weeks of hearing the song before I got ready for school, I found out that it was called “Kashmir,” a cut from the new Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti. From that moment on, I devoured everything I could read or hear about or from Led Zeppelin.
I was a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, living alone with my father in an eight-room house. Momma had died five years earlier and Daddy and I were forced together, even though we had almost nothing in common but our grief and confusion. I was eighteen and Daddy was seventy-five, generations apart in our worldviews and outlooks. We lived in Lawrence, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining suburb twenty miles southwest of Pittsburgh, while Daddy was raised in rural eastern Kentucky, near Hazard. I liked to read, shop and listen to hard rock. Daddy was illiterate, miserly and loved B.B. King. I felt trapped by his plethora of rules and restrictions. He was trapped by an old mining injury that confined him to a wheelchair. I was frustrated because I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere with my friends, at a time when friends were of the utmost importance. Neither one of us had signed up for this. I’m sure that when Daddy and Momma adopted me as a baby in 1957, they never imagined I would end up alone with Daddy as I struggled through puberty.
Over the years, many people have asked me why I fell in love with rock and roll while everyone around me was into R&B. Maybe years of listening to Daddy’s old 78s and reel to reel tapes of blues riffs affected me in the same way they affected hundreds of young British musicians who sought out those sounds in the late fifties and early sixties. As I got older, I embraced loud crunching guitars over smooth bluesy ballads. While Daddy watched television in the living room, I stayed in my room with my radio and plastic phonograph. When the music was playing, it didn’t matter that I was uncoordinated, unpopular and unconventional. As Daddy’s health continued to deteriorate, music became even more necessary, as necessary as oxygen and nourishment.
After class, I went to National Record Mart to purchase the album. It was a cold winter’s day, the day of the victory celebration for the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. I clutched the bag tightly as I walked in the opposite direction, away from the enthusiastic sports fans. The anticipation mounted as I rode the bus home. I was still getting used to coming home to an empty house. Even though Daddy had been in the hospital for several weeks before his death, the house felt different now. Now the emptiness was pervasive and permanent.
As soon as I got home, I tore off the shrink-wrap and looked at the strange pictures peeking out of the little windows on the cover of the double album. The main cover featured an apartment building with cutout windows and the inner sleeves showed pictures of the band and other things displayed on the structure. I spent a few minutes flipping the cover and sleeves before putting the first disc on the hi-fi Daddy had bought from Brody’s Furniture Store. It had been his stereo, but now it was all mine. I cranked up the volume and succumbed to the guitar riffs of “Custard Pie.”
I spent the rest of the evening, and practically every spare moment in the next few days, listening to the album. I memorized the names of the songs and their order. The rocking sounds of “Custard Pie” and “The Rover.” The hypnotic, bluesy, but disturbing “In My Time of Dying.” I wondered why “Houses of the Holy” was in this album, instead of the previous one, which shared its title. The bouncy “Trampled Under Foot” led into “Kashmir,” the song that started my sojourn into the land of the big blimp. The second disc started with “In the Light,’ with its long lead in. “Bron-Yr-Aur” was an instrumental. “Down By the Seaside” was an upbeat pleasant song. But it did not prepare me for the sonic assault that was “Ten Years Gone.” That song quickly became my favorite. The guitar solo in the middle of the song is still my favorite solo of all time. I imagine it is what Heaven must sound like. The fourth side started with “Night Flight,” another electric guitar fueled fantasy, as was the next song, “The Wanton Song.” “Boogie with Stu” and “Black Country Woman” featured acoustic guitars and loud percussion from Bonzo. The crunchy guitar chords at the end of “Sick Again,” resembled the sound of my brain matter scrambling. For the first time in my young life, I was in Love. After sitting and listening to the album for days, I started to dance. Yes, I danced to Led Zeppelin. I can still feel the sensation of the stereo turned up to the maximum volume, loud enough to disturb my never complaining neighbors. I moved to the sound and the rhythm in my soul. a sensuous, spiritual experience.
Today is January 19, 2015 – exactly thirty-nine years after Physical Graffiti entered my life. It was the first CD I bought when I got my first CD player back in the late eighties. My original album is encased in a frame. And I still dance to Physical Graffiti. Unfortunately, I can’t dance straight through the whole album any more, but I always dance to “In My Time of Dying,” all eleven minutes and eight seconds of it. And I still cry every time I play “Ten Years Gone.” This September, John Bonham will be gone for thirty-five years. Next month, a remastered version of the album will be released on February 24, forty years after the original album was unleashed upon the world.
I will never be able to repay those four musicians for the magic they bestowed onto the life of an African American orphan girl, giving my lonely life meaning. Without Bonzo’s rapid-fire drumming, Jonesey’s hard and heavy bass, Page’s crunching and melodic guitar riffs and Robert’s post-Janis bluesy vocals, my life would have been a silent abyss. On that January day, Physical Graffiti gave me the solace I needed. Led Zeppelin rocked my world and turned it upside down. Twenty-three days after my father’s death, I found a reason to live.
It amazes me that I have kept a diary for 45 years. I’ve never had a romantic relationship that lasted longer than five years or a job that lasted longer than seven years, but somehow I have been disciplined enough to chronicle my life for over four decades. Most of the diaries are the little rectangular books with tiny locks, but for the last five years, I used a letter-sized journal. Next year, I will return to a smaller format, with a 6 ½ by 3 ½ bound book that cost $25. I also hope to be able to splurge on a fireproof box to store them in, as by now, they are the only connections I have to my former self.
I always joke that the diaries will be enjoyable fiction if I develop dementia or Alzheimer’s someday. But even now, they are a fascinating narrative of who I used to be, the people I used to know, and my changing priorities and interests. They can be fun reading or they can make me cry. Sometimes I have both reactions, when I read about good times and realize that all of the people who shared those times are gone or out of my life. But as long as I am lucid, I will continue to record the day’s events in five lines.
Sometimes, I like to pick out a date and review what happened on that date. I will check out today, New Year’s Eve. I dig into the back of the closet for the metal box that contains my stories. I’ll select five entries, one for each decade.
December 31, 1975 – Cousin Mag, Cousin Rose, Cousin Joe, Bobby, Dickie, and Carolyn came for the funeral and left. It rained practically all day.
My father’s funeral was on this date. A few hours after the funeral, everyone left. My cousins from Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland and Harrisburg wanted to get back to their homes before the New Year. As I sat alone waiting for 1976 to begin, I remembered the year before, when my father said that I might be at a party this year. But instead, Daddy was gone and I was an orphan. I wondered if the loneliness that I felt would ever dissipate.
December 31, 1987 – I got two Christmas cards from Linda. I called Mary and she is going to see Whitesnake and Great White on February 3. I got another tape player. Get it straight in ’88!
I spent New Years Eve in a flatlet in the Victoria section of London. At midnight, someone on the other side of Eccleston Square serenaded the New Year with a saxophone solo. I had no home, just a return ticket to Pittsburgh and a round trip ticket to San Francisco, where I would start a new life on February 2. The New Year held unlimited promises.
December 31, 1999 – I watched the Year 2000 celebrations from around the world. Lorraine called. Mary called also. I got a birthday card from Brenda. Be a hero in ’00!
Of course, everyone over the age of around seventeen probably remembers the changing of the millennium, even though technically it didn’t start until a year later. But like everyone, I wondered if my computer would continue to work or if some global catastrophe would happen. I had a good life. I had a job that I enjoyed, where I got the week between Christmas and New Year’s off with pay, a two-bedroom condo, a funky 1988 Toyota MR2, and two loving cats that hid when I threw confetti later that night.
December 31, 2007 – I went to Loehmann’s and got a leopard knit jacket for $15. I got a pizza. Mary Lou sent me a birthday card and $30. Cindy called and we talked about an hour. Get a date in 2008!
Little did I suspect that this NYE would be my last one as a full-time employee. Changes would be occurring soon, but getting a date was not one of them. In four days, I would be flying to Las Vegas to meet a friend and celebrate my birthday. There was a big storm that day, the first of many upheavals to come.
December 31, 2010 – It cost $30 to get a taxi to the hotel. The show was good. Don looked good with long hair. I tried to get some pictures of him for Mary. Sean sat in with Y and T. Chuck Billy sang “Ace of Spades.” A member of the Y and T Forum died at the hotel of a heart attack after the show. Turn in up to 2011!
For the first time in my life, I went out for NYE, attending a benefit concert by Y and T for this bassist Phil Kennemore. A week later, he would lose his battle with cancer. But it was a wonderful night, in spite of the death after the show. A year later, I would be homeless, but on this night, I was surrounded by friends and enjoying the music that I loved.
I often wonder how I should dispose of my diaries. Would any of my friends want them? Is there some national archive of the lives of boring, regular people that would want to preserve them for future generations? I’m sure that who ever finds them after my demise will just throw them in the trash and it will be like I was never even here. But regardless, I’ll continue to write…tomorrow is a New Year, a new book, and the start of new adventures.
Happy New Year! Thank you for visiting Marvellaland!
After reading the book Worn Stories, edited by Emily Spivack, I thought about what stories could be found in my own wardrobe. Since most of my clothes are from resale and thrift stores, many of them have stories that precede my purchase. But one item always brings back a story when I see it hanging in my closet – my black leather motorcycle jacket.
I love motorcycle jackets, even though my only experience on an actual motorcycle was a couple of rides on an ex-boyfriend’s Kawasaki over twenty years ago. Over the years, I have bought, sold and traded many a jacket. But I will keep this one forever, because of what we went through together.
On December 18, 2011, I was evicted from my apartment of ten years in Sacramento when my unemployment benefits ran out and I couldn’t get a job in my social service field because I didn’t have a car. My best friend, who was staying with me, and I went to stay with friends in Berkeley, which turned out not to be a wise decision. In the two weeks that we stayed there, we left the house every morning and wandered the streets of Berkeley until dusk. I had brought with me the few accessories of value that I had left and each day I sold one or two items to provide us with a hot meal. Every day brought another loss.
But in spite of everything, I craved something new. It was almost Christmas and my birthday was less than a week later. Even though I no longer had an address, I wanted a present. We spent a lot of time on Telegraph Avenue. Even though the university was on winter break, the street was filled with shoppers and vendors. One day, we passed a vintage clothing store called Mars Vintage. We went inside and looked through the racks. I found a woman’s black leather motorcycle jacket with a removable quilted lining. It had elastic around the waist, braiding on the front and back, and a row of studs on the back. Even though it was a heavy jacket, it fit perfectly. I looked at the tag – $50. I didn’t have $50, but I wanted that jacket. I didn’t want to take it off, but I did and I vowed to come back for it as soon as possible.
When we got back to the house, I put the last of my accessories and my vintage velvet coat in a bag. The next day, we walked the two miles back to downtown Berkeley. I sold everything except the coat at a store downtown, but I still didn’t have $50. Maybe I could trade the coat for the jacket. I had bought it from a friend years earlier, but I no longer had a lifestyle that incorporated occasions to wear a velvet coat. With hope in my heart, we trudged up the hill to Telegraph Avenue.
As soon as we entered, I checked to make sure that the jacket was still there. I went to the counter and asked the manager if I could make a trade, but she said that they did not do trades. I was ready to cry – it was no longer about the motorcycle jacket – it was about my life, about all I had lost, and the uncertainty of the future.
“How much money do you have on you?” The manager must have discerned the look of defeat on my face.
I took out my wallet and counted the bills. “I have $41.”
She smiled. “Well, since it is December 23, almost Christmas, I’ll sell it to you for $41.” She folded the coat and put it in a big green plastic bag.
“Thank you!” I started to cry. She handed me the heavy bag. As I walked out of the store, I felt that somehow, someway, everything would be all right.
Less than two weeks later, I was homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. Each evening, I waited at Venice Beach for the bus to the Emergency Winter Shelter. Once the winter sun set, the beach turned cold, with the surf making it seem even colder. The thin Steelers jacket that I wore wasn’t enough to combat the January temperatures. But my new motorcycle jacket was perfect. When it was fully zipped up, nothing could get through. It was my armor, protecting me as I navigated the chilly climate – both the temperature and the hostile reception of the people in Santa Monica and Venice. At night, I wrapped my backpack in the jacket and used it as a pillow as I slept on a dirty cot under a scratchy blanket of recycled materials.
I wore the jacket almost every day for several months. It was my constant companion when my best friend left after a month and returned to Pennsylvania. In the spring, when I returned to Sacramento, I discovered that one of my friends was not speaking to me. She castigated me for frivolously spending $41 on a leather jacket when I didn’t even have a secure roof over my head. But I loved my jacket. It was a part of me. It was like me – strong and durable, able to withstand whatever obstacles life put in its way. But it was also soft, stylish and “UNIK” (the brand name). I was unique too. It was a symbol of hope – that even in the darkest circumstances, a ray of light can still shine. I didn’t expect her to understand, so I never tried to explain. But we renewed our friendship and I put my jacket in the back of the closet in the room where I was staying.
It has been almost three years since I bought my jacket. A lot of things have happened since then, but when I look at the jacket, I feel the same sense of euphoria that I felt when I got it. “Don’t worry – you’ll make it,” it seems to say, “I’ve got your back.”