One of the things I remember most about growing up was the bowl of withered fruit my mom kept in the entranceway in our apartment. It was the first thing you saw when you came in the door. Mom and I never talked about this bowl of petrified fruit but I knew why it was there. It was a reminder of all the fruit she had purchased and I had refused to eat.
I grew up in Alaska and most of the fruit sold there was shipped up on a barge from the Lower 48. By the time it got to the Safeway on Northern Lights Blvd it was soft and mealy and tasted like upholstery. So I refused to eat it. Insubordination in any form wasn’t taken lightly in our house so in the beginning of my banana strike mom launched a lot of heat-seeking word missiles at me over my wastefulness. In between long drags on her Viceroy cigarettes she would lecture me on the health benefits of the ironically-named Red Delicious apples or the concrete pears she found at the Bi-Lo. In order to make my position more sympathetic I’d walk around the house with a bandana over my nose refusing to eat another Red Malicious unless she stopped smoking.
After months of fruit-based arguments my mother finally settled on the quieter and more subtle method of letting all my uneaten fruit rot in the middle of the dining room table and then when it was completely withered moving it to the bowl by the door. The apartment was small so there was no way I could avoid passing by either the fly-covered bodies of rotting peaches or the rock hard carcasses of petrified pomegranates.
This went on for years. There were other arguments about bigger things but the Great War of Withered Fruit lasted until I was 17 when she died of cancer. I had a lot of tangled feelings during the next two years but I never missed that bowl of fruit.
When I was 19 I left Alaska and drove to Los Angeles where my mother lived before I was born. I took her old address book so I could track down her old friends and find out why she was always so angry. A lot about my mom was a mystery to me but the one thing that confused me the most was her temper. It was the biggest thing in the house and often made me afraid to go home.
So I drove down to LA with my friend Billy and within three months I was living in my car. The jobs we thought we’d get didn’t pan out. The cousin-of-a-friend-of-a-nephew-on-Billy’s-mother’s-side didn’t want us staying with them after a while so Bill and I went our separate ways. Every day I’d find a phone booth and dial up numbers I found in my mom’s address book. It turned out all those numbers were 20 years old and no one had ever heard of Rowena Currington. I was never going to find out the story behind my mother’s volcanic temper.
When I wasn’t looking for ghosts in a faded address book I was looking for places to park. The worst part of living in a car is not knowing where it’s safe to spend the night. Sleeping in the back of a station wagon means the only thing separating you from the world is a quarter inch of glass. It’s scary because you never know who is going to bang on your window at 2am and try to break in. Gunshots, screams and squealing tires are the sounds you fall asleep to.
Finally, after two or three months I found myself knocking on the door of a random church in Orange County. An old woman answered the door and I asked if she knew where I could get something to eat. I had never in my life had to ask anyone for food but the brick of sweaty cheese I’d been nursing for two days had finally gotten too gross to eat and I was desperate. The lady took one look at me, shook her head and closed the door. I didn’t blame her. I’m sure I looked like a cheese-breathing scarecrow that had just crawled out of a sewer somewhere.
I drove down the street to a park, got out and fell onto the grass. I had nothing left. I wondered if it was possible to starve in a city of 10 million. What would it be like to steal something from a 7-11? How do you do that? Do you just grab a can of Pringles and run? Or do you slip a SlimJim down your pants and casually walk out the door? As I lay on my back trying to figure out the spiritual ramifications of stealing hot dogs off a quickie mart rotisserie a skinny old guy with one leg hobbled up to me.
“Hey Buddy,” he said.
I looked up and saw that there was an skinny old woman standing next to him. Except for the wrinkles on their faces and their dark sunburned skin they looked a lot like me. Dirty clothes, hair stuffed under a sweaty bandana, the general look of exhaustion you get when you have to spend every day moving from one place to another.
“Hey,” I said.
“Where you from?” the old man said.
I was going to make up something tougher sounding like the south side of Chicago but I couldn’t remember which side of Chicago was the tough one. I’m pretty sure I’d only heard the phrase “south side of Chicago” from an old Jim Croce song.
The old man and his lady started laughing.
“Yeah, you don’t look like you’re from around here. You know about the church feed today at 2:00?” the lady said.
I shook my head.
“It’s all you can eat from 3-4. Walk down to Carson Avenue with us. We’ll show you where it is.”
As we walked down to where another church was handing out lunch to the homeless we started talking. He was Bones and she was Sally. They’d been living on the street for a long time. They told me it was no place to live. They asked me if I had family to go back to. I told them I had a dad up north but that I wasn’t going to call him. They didn’t argue. I guess they knew what that was like.
Instead, they told me where all of the local church feeds were. If I timed it right I could eat once a day every day of the week. From then on we met every day in different places, standing in different lines, eating the same cheese sandwiches and potato salad. Each time I saw them, we’d talk and share stories. Sometimes they’d point out who to avoid in the area or who I could go to if something bad happened. I never saw them outside those food lines but I had a feeling that if I needed them I would somehow find them.
During the day I would drive around looking for safe places to park. Gas was still cheap and I used the last of my money to put miles under my tires looking for secluded spots in the city. Once, during a side trip to an unfamiliar part of town, my car sputtered and died. As I pushed it down the street looking for a place to pull over a big, green cadillac stopped behind me. A tall scraggly guy got out and yelled, “You need help?”
I turned around, shrugged my shoulders.
The guy in the cadillac walked up and helped me push it to the side of the street. He looked down at the out-of-state plates on my car and said, “What are you doing in LA?”
“I’m trying to find out what happened to my mom.”
It was the best answer I could give him. He asked me a bunch more questions and then said, “You know this isn’t the safest place to sleep in your car. You want to stay at my place until you get it running again?”
I asked where he lived and he pointed to his car. I laughed and said, “The Caddie?”
He said, “Yeah, Rufus usually sleeps in the back seat but he can sleep up front with me for a while.” Rufus was the big white dog who was watching us from the passenger seat. I said, “That’s ok man. I’ll stay with my car. I think it’s just flooded. I can probably get it started in a while.”
The guy shook my hand, got back in his Caddie and drove off. I was right about my car. It was just flooded. I started it up an hour later and drove to the next park with food in it.
A month or so after I met Sally and Bones I spotted Billy stealing a microwaved burrito from a Circle K. He told me that he’d found a job and gotten a cheap unfurnished apartment. I wasn’t sure I believed him about the job since he had just liberated a 99-cent bean and cheese burrito but I did follow him to his apartment. That night I slept on the floor with a few thousand cockroaches grateful to be off the street but not sure if I was any safer.
The next six months I learned what it was like to be truly, deeply alone. Billy brought home a few dollars every now and then and I made sure to never ask him where it came from. When the car finally died my only escape plan went with it. I knew one day Billy was going to walk out the door to “get some cash” and never come back because he wasn’t quite the master thief and con artist he thought he was. Every night I laid down on the floor with the roaches and wondered how this was all going to end.
During this time there was an old man who lived in the apartment right above us. He would always smile and say hi whenever we passed each other in the courtyard. He’d ask me how the job hunt was going and I’d ask him how his retirement was going. Sometimes he’d ask if I’d called my dad yet. No, I’d say. I don’t want to do that. I’ll figure something out.
Then after months of slowly disappearing into myself I got a letter from two friends in Alaska. They were driving down to bring me home. The letter said don’t bother trying to call us because we’re already on the road. Stay where you are! It’s 3,400 miles from Anchorage to LA. It would be 6,800 miles for them by the time they got me back home. I don’t remember if I cried when I read that but if I had been living that life now I would have fallen to the floor and wept.
The next day the old man from upstairs asked me if I had a bed yet. I said no, that I was still on the floor. He said, “I’m getting a new bed and if you help me carry it upstairs you can have my old one.” I could tell from the way he was looking at me that he had walked by my window and seen me sleeping on the floor.
I told him I’d be happy to carry his new mattress and box spring upstairs for him. The bed he gave me was almost brand new. That night for the first time in almost a year I slept on a bed.
The next morning when I walked outside I found a bag of plums hanging on the doorknob. The man from upstairs had left them for me. They were ripe and full and the sweetest thing I’d ever tasted.
It took my friends a week to reach me. Billy wasn’t around for me to say goodbye and it was just as well. He’d stolen my wallet the day before and I knew he wouldn’t come back to the apartment until I was gone. I did run upstairs to say goodbye to the old man and thank him for everything. I offered to bring the bed back upstairs for him but he said to leave it where it was. He was glad I’d for the time that I did. Then I climbed into the back seat of an old Datsun and went home.
It’s been 30 years since that time in LA and I still think about Sally and Bones and the guy in the Cadillac. And I often wonder what happened to the old man who lived upstairs. I spent the first 17 years of my life learning how to navigate my mother’s temper and wondering what it would be like to live with someone I could trust. I’m not foolish enough to think she never showed me an act of kindness. She did. She must have. She was my mom. The thing that makes me sad is that I can’t remember any of them. Not one act of kindness stands out from those years. I’ll tell you what I do remember, though. I remember those plums. I’ll always remember those plums.
And that’s the kind of story we’re looking at for our next show on Nov 10 at Roy Street Coffee and Tea. Of course yours has to be a lot shorter. In the words of Pascal, “This letter is longer than usual because I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” I wanted to get this invite out as soon as possible because we only have 10 days between shows so I apologize for the length of the story this month.
The theme for this show is “Unexpected Kindnesses – Stories of being there for each other”
Remember to keep it clean, practice out loud on friends or pets, and make sure it’s under 8 minutes. Here are the updated Rules & Guidelines for telling a story at the show:
I hope to see you on the 10th!
Let me know if you have any questions.