Monday, November 17, 2014

Public Transit

The patch on her right sleeve read "78866." Using the Pilot pen I had tucked into the notebook's spiral, I wrote down the number. "Let me repeat it," I said, "78866."
The conductor smiled as I continued, "I'm going to send a compliment to Metro. You've been terrific."
This was the second operator of a #2 Sunset-PCH bus that I had praised since my arrival in Los Angeles. The first driver, per my request, called out my stop, even though the audio system alerted me several streets prior to reaching the corner of Hollywood and Poinsettia.
The episode with 78866 began when my Tap card was out of funds, but my Senior Citizen Pass could permit a 35-cent ride. "I don't have change," I told her, pulling a dollar bill from my wallet. (The day before, my grandson, Felix, had showed me his treasure chest of coins, so I emptied my change purse into it.)  "Just take the dollar; my fault for being unprepared," I told her.
"Just ask one of the passengers for change," she said. "Don't waste money."
"No, that's fine. My mistake."
But, 78866 insisted; so curbing embarrassment, I called out my request, which was quickly answered by a mother cuddling her baby. She nimbly used her free hand to extract coins, at first refusing my paper bill, but accepting after I pressed it into her palm.
Of course, there have been hiccups on my use of Metro. On Sunday, after alighting from the #704 at Santa Monica and Fairfax, I asked a friendly woman where I would catch the #218. It wasn't until my 35-cents had plunked that I had learned I would've been traveling in the opposite direction of my destination in Studio City.
I relate these experiences because prior to moving to Los Angeles, various people warned me against its public transit system. "Dicey passengers, unreliable service," they cautioned. "You'll need to buy a car."
However, I had received my Carless Basic Training in Chicago and was determined to avoid the expense. Uber had successfully been my option for short trips, but for longer excursions, I turned to Metro.
My initial reasons to go carless in L.A. included: a desire to save money, to get exercise walking to bus stops and coffee shops, to learn its landscape via window seats, and to prove my independence. But I now realize it was my childhood adventures that bonded me to public transit.
It started in the 1940's, with the red Pullman streetcar that stopped on tracks outside our mom-and-pop grocery store. Here are excerpts, via my memoir, that may help you understand our relationship:
"Once on board the streetcar, Mother took a quarter from her purse and handed it to the conductor who made change for the ten-cent fare with the coin holder he wore on his belt. Then, with the car in motion, we lurched through the aisle until we found two empty spaces. After we landed on the cane-backed seats, I tugged at Mother’s coat sleeve and said, ‘Look, there’s Mrs. Schwartz, she’s going into the A&P.’"
Okay, that particular passage is a bit dour because it previewed the coming demise of our small establishment that couldn't compete with supermarkets. But there are other paragraphs that can enlighten.
Here's one from Chapter 7 of "The Division Street Princess":
"I recalled the first time Estherly and I rode the streetcar, on our own, to Wabash Avenue downtown for dance lessons. Dressed in outfits a step up from school clothes and carrying our tap shoes in drawstring sacks, we thought we were big shots.
"My cousin and I had a shtick back then that we ad-libbed every time the streetcar approached the bridge over the Chicago River. 'It’s going up,' Estherly would cry out, as the trolley paused at the water’s edge. While we’d watch the jaws of the bridge unfold and reach for the sky, and the tall sails slip below the open bridge, Estherly would add, 'What if it doesn’t shut back down tight? What if it falls apart when we cross it, and we plunge into the river?'
“'I can’t swim,' I would wail, and clutch Estherly’s sleeve as if I were a starlet in a B movie. 'Save me!' Once the streetcar made it safely over the closed bridge, we’d laugh at our pretend terror."
So, to all those who warned me against Los Angeles' Metro, you should know that once the red Pullman, streetcar tracks, and overhead cables, have been imprinted on your childhood brain, it's useless dissuading the rider from the joys of staring out the window, watching her world -- old and new -- pass before her enchanted eyes.



Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Gold Line to South Pasadena

"You'll have to forgive Grandma," I tell Felix. "I'll be calling you 'Is-felix' for a few days."

My five-and-a-half-year old grandson flips his long hair from his eyes, pauses mid-bite, and waits for an explanation.

"You see, sweetheart, I've know Isaac for 18 years, so I'm used to that name. And even though he and I never lived in the same city, I saw him often enough to plant it in my head."

Felix takes another bite of his buttered French bread, and then patiently waits for more details.

We are sitting at an outdoor table in a bistro in South Pasadena. Jill -- his mother, my daughter -- is on her way back to our table and smiles as she sees up engaged in conversation. Her iPhone is pulled from her purse, and the image of small boy and grey-haired woman has quickly been saved and posted on Facebook.

The three of us have reached this destination after driving to a station in Chinatown, and then boarding the Gold Line to South Pasadena. Felix is enchanted by train rides and induces his mother to indulge him. I have been in town for just 24 hours, and although sleepy from pre-trip insomnia, do not forgo this chance to accompany them on the ride.

Jill places a Salad Nicoise on the table and leans in to hear the rest of my explanation for Felix's temporary tag. "So, until I get used to seeing you often, I'll probably start off by calling you by your brother's name. I'll catch myself and finish with your real name, and soon, you'll just be 'Felix.'"

My grandson appears to accept my excuse. His attention then turns to the trains passing by on a nearby track. Jill smiles; this makes sense to her, too. As for me, I am storing this scene on the plus side of evidence that I have made the right decision. Who could've imagined that two years after the death of my husband, Tommy, I would have moved from Chicago -- the city where I had lived nearly all of my 76 years -- to Los Angeles?

Although living walking distance to my daughter and her family was the primary reason for my move, I had a sense of something more propelling me forward, as if there was someone -- still unmet -- who needed my presence in L.A. I knew Jill and my grandsons were in solid shape and didn't require me, like some comic book heroine, to fly in and save the day. But, perhaps there was a young woman, desperate for a faux Jewish mother, or someone stuck at a decision crossroad that involved me raising the gate?

That Gold Line ride was the penultimate event on my magical first Saturday morning in Los Angeles, which opened with a Torah study at a nearby Reform temple. This attempt to replicate my regular Chicago Shabbat experience turned out terrifically. A group of two-dozen men and women in my age group, some originally from my hometown, welcomed me.

Following that, I joined my grandson Isaac for a deli lunch at Grand Central Market in downtown L.A.  This episode of sitting on a counter stool, eating a thick pastrami sandwich, with my tall, hip grandson at my right, filled me with a satiation that matched my appetite.

Sunday's schedule, two days post arrival, was similarly filled with happiness: a respite at Griffith Park while Jill hiked and I snacked and read the L.A. Times, then a visit to a pop-up restaurant with my son-in-law, Bruce, and my two grandsons.

A blank November calendar, which nagged with the possibility of boredom, is quickly becoming filled in. Along with Saturday mornings accounted for, I've had my first meeting for volunteers at Felix's school and will soon book a weekly tutoring date there.

Then, there's his birthday party on November 15, my book reading at Skylight Books on November 19, Thanksgiving at Jill's (my first ever in Los Angeles!), and tours of rental apartments in contention for my permanent residence.

As I think back on that first Saturday Gold Line train trip to South Pasadena, with my daughter and grandson seated a knee's length away, and all of the happenings of my first weekend in L.A., the identity of the person needing my presence here has become clear.

You've already guessed it, haven't you? It's me, of course.













Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My Magic Act

Anthony is six-five, nearly two feet taller than I. But as he steps into my Lilliputian-sized apartment, he does not seem to be dismayed by the ceilings he can likely touch on tip toes with an outstretched arm, or the walls he can reach a few feet away in either direction.

In fact, this young man seems pleased at the condition of my place and the scenic view from my expansive windows.  But when I reveal the bedroom, which is concealed behind a sliding door, he folds his arms and says, "I'll have to switch out the bed for king-size."

"That's a shame," I tell him, "it's only a year-and-a-half old." We both stare at the full-size box spring and mattress, with Anthony envisioning how to fit in a new larger one. As for me, I'm conjuring the one I left behind when I moved from the Dakin St. house I shared with Tommy, to this River North high rise.

In that transition, I used an estate sale to dispose of most of my furniture and the contents of closets, drawers, shelves, and cupboards. Poof, 14 years of marital accumulation gone, as if a magician had waved a wand, making all disappear -except for memories.

With my upcoming move from Chicago to Los Angeles, I am the sorcerer. Faster than you can say "abracadabra," via a Craigslist ad, I found Anthony to take over the remaining six months of my lease, thus avoiding a two-month penalty. The slight-of-hand I used to lure him simply involved accepting the suggestion of my designer friend, Karen, and changing the listing from  "rental" to "furnished-rental."

"A cross-country moving truck would be too expensive," I explained to those still reeling from my announcement that I not only decided to move to L.A., but it would take place in one month's time.

Of course, Anthony isn't concerned with my logic; he had been seeking a temporary residence until a nearby condo he is rehabbing is finished, so our quick-change act works out well for both of us.

When we turn to study my mini office with the sapphire blue desk and bench, Anthony laughs as I say, "you'll never fit there."

My friend Chris, an artist, not only painted the two pieces a bright color to disguise their country-style provenance, but he cut the legs to make it fit my four-nine size.

That same blue color transformed our coffee table -- the one that stood between Tommy's and my facing couches, home for the pencils he used for his cross-word puzzles, TV remotes, and the Post-it notes that conveyed our chatter in the last silent years of his life. In this downtown apartment, the table has held the same props, except for the crossword puzzles. Now, the Post-it notes are only used for reminders from my buzzing brain.

In that previous move in April 2013, I stood at the living room window early in the morning awaiting the arrival of the truck that would cart away my small load. This time, there will be no window watching for I am using a large grocery cart to transport boxes to a UPS store two blocks away. Cartons of photographs, previously stored in garages, or basements, lockers, and closets have already gone to my daughter Jill's home in Los Angeles.

"Do you want my china?" I asked in a text to her. Six dinner-sized and six salad-sized Wedgewood were rescued from the set I had left for the house sale. I've had them for 54 years, 24 longer than the marriage that brought them.

"Nah," was Jill's first response to my offer. Then this, "I think I do want those dishes. Yom Kippur realization!" (Some spiritualism at play here?)

Recently, a neighbor came to my apartment to pick up a scarf she had left behind at an event we both attended. Because I was in that neighborhood for a lunch date, I was able to retrieve it for her. "How can you leave all of this behind?" she said, her eyes tearing as she scanned the space.

"It's just stuff," I said.

"But, you did such a great job putting it all together."

Later, my therapist suggested that what my neighbor really meant was, "How can you leave me behind?" 

Does my neighbor speak for all of my dear friends whom I'll soon hug goodbye? Could they really believe I'll allow our relationships to vanish? Through the magic of airplane travel, e-mail, Facebook, and cell phones, our ties will endure. We are tightly bound; even the famous Houdini would fail to separate us.











Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Leaving Home



The voice was familiar, but I was having trouble placing it. In past conversations that occurred in my head, the participants were deceased, but still chatty. There were talks with my husband, Tommy, and with my parents, Min and Irv. While all of these episodes were tinged with the sadness of loss, I relished my brain's ability to bring these characters back to life, even if briefly.

I was narrowing in on identifying my imagination's latest speaker: it was a woman's voice, young, and definitely not coming from the afterlife. When she continued talking, I felt as happy as if I were welcoming home a long-lost relative.

"I know that emotion you're feeling," she said. "It was the same one we experienced in other parts of our lives. Think back."

She was my 25-year-old self who had evidently decided to reappear at a critical juncture in my journey.  How odd that a youngster like that felt it necessary to counsel the 76-year-old she had become. But, I was delighted to see her. I took a moment to bring her full force into my vision: her brunette hair, her pretty green eyes covered by dark-framed glasses, her sweetheart-shaped face, and her welcoming smile.

I patted the empty side of my bed, inviting young Elaine to take a comfy place next to me. She slid in and I sighed as I took note of the extra inches of height awarded to the younger me. "What brings you here?" I said.

"Well, I could see you struggling with your decision to leave Chicago for Los Angeles. I watched you tossing each night, and wrestling with second thoughts. It was painful for me to witness that, so I thought it wise to reappear and help you out."

"It's not really second thoughts," I told this cutie pie sharing my bed. "I know I want to be closer to my daughters, and it's important to do it now, when I'm untethered and in good health. But after I enjoyed lunches and dinners with close friends, I felt sad, and wondered how I'd get along without these people in my day-to-day life."

"Yeah, I saw that," she said, "and I felt your sadness. You may not remember, but you've experienced the same emotion several times over the years. It's called 'separation anxiety.'"

"Hmm," I said, "that's interesting. I thought it was the separation from my daughters that was pulling me towards the West Coast. Now you're telling me the same feeling is tugging me back?"

"Think 1963," she said, pausing a moment for me to envision calendar pages flipping to that year. "Your -- or should I say 'our' -- first husband was called up to serve in Fort Devens, Mass., and you accompanied him. Remember how you cried at the thought of leaving your mother behind? Separation, sweetheart, separation."

So that's why it was my 25-year-old self who had volunteered for this lecture. She was present. Married just three years earlier, leaving the home she shared with her widowed mother. No wonder she felt so vulnerable.

"I have another," I said, grateful I could contribute to our memory bank. "There was the time when he and I left our daughters behind with sitters and travelled to London. We were supposed to stay for two weeks, but I missed the girls so much, I insisted we return after one week."

"Separation," she repeated, "separation. You felt it with Faith and Jill when they were toddlers and you've continued to have a hard time with their absence. But the important thing to remember, dearest, is that these feelings are natural; they're what make us human. We love, and become attached to people, and we feel pain when we leave them."

"Another thing to keep in mind," said my guru "is that in those earlier experiences, you didn't lose the people you left behind. When you moved to Massachusetts, and said goodbye to your mother and best friend, you phoned them regularly. This time, along with calls, Skypes, email and Facebook, you can periodically fly back to Chicago for reunions with special pals."

"Thanks, sweetheart," I said, "You've really made me feel better. Is there anything I can do for you?"

Young Elaine contemplated my question, then said, "I do have one request." She grabbed my hand as if to insure my attention.  "Don't let separation anxiety interrupt forward moves. I -- and all of your younger selves -- would be so bored if you suddenly decided to just stay put."

I gave our clasped hands a shake, kissed her adorable forehead, then turned over to sleep peacefully the rest of the night.