I wake up a full twenty five minutes before Alexa prompts me, so I’m already feeling smug.
I pad into the kitchen, making coffee in the pour-over – tired eyes adjusting, straining to focus – a new phenomenon. My eyes don’t adjust to contrasts between light/dark very well anymore. It takes a few minutes in the morning before I’m ready to read things. Driving has become difficult at sunset. With age comes humility, whether you’re resisting it as hard as you can or not – and I am. I’m resisting both age and humility. I try to be the unbridled ego manic I was ten years ago. I set out every day with that goal, and by noon, I can barely remember my social security number, let alone how I was going to take over the world. The upside is, by dinner, I don’t even remember wanting to take over the world.
Time does heal everything, but it bears mentioning – the way it heals is by equalizing things at a minuscule pace. Like taking fine sandpaper to driftwood, time makes people brittle, yet inoffensive. The sharp corners of youth are exchanged for a smoother, curved grain. I’m not quite an unattractive version of myself now, but a grey one – certainly clumsier than before. More myopic, too.
I enjoy a strong, semi-acrid coffee on my terrace. I perch with it in a ludicrous velour chair – contemplating the lattice framework of a fence covered in greenery. The gorge separating our estate from the one next door is covered in lush ivy which gets watered three times a day, drought or no drought. My landlady is an American classic, thank you very much. She’s in her 80’s, and yes, she does have a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. At some point she also left indoor vintage 70’s furniture out here, and a rustic coffee table that seems fashioned out of a tree stump. I gaze over the chasm between neighboring estates, this verdant hillock and tiny valley between our respective domains.
I feel placid. Grateful, even.
My therapist calls to confirm this week’s appointment, and while we’re on the phone he mentions a few goals we’ve talked about. I’m trying to learn how to be a better version of myself. We are deciding whether I have bipolar II or hyperactivity disorder, whether we medicate it, and to what degree. I’m expecting a titanic uphill slog because I’m incredibly argumentative and stubborn. I’m so painfully tough on myself – then I turn around and expect the world to maintain a moral, ethical standard I cannot possibly even fringe upon. I’m a hypocrite, is what I’m saying, I suppose. I’m a hypocrite but I’m trying to forgive myself this fault and move beyond it. Every person on this planet is a hypocrite, which is possibly why we hate hypocrisy so much. Every single person is a two-faced liar, a sanctimonious prig prone to lecturing other people on harmony and clean living, unable to get their own finger out of their own nose. We are all finger jammed up to the knuckle, digging around in there, hard and deep, for nothing. For vanity. For beauty. For meaning.
I’m trying to forgive that particular human trait in myself. Apparently I’ll forgive everyone else, if I do. I don’t know. For a ten dollar co-pay, you can’t beat the effort.
In my car, I realize I’ve worn pink today. Pink seersucker shorts and matching socks pulled up, with a tight white tee-shirt and white canvas shoes. I look darling, but every bit a gay man. It occurs to me I’ve dressed like a model from Target’s “Precious Little Faggot” collection for 11-14 year old non-gender-binary tweens. I get a phone call from my client. Running late, but I’m already on my way. I’m heading to South Central Los Angeles.
I do social work. I service foster youth transitioning into adulthood. It’s my job to link them to social services like housing, college tuition, driving lessons, etc. Plus, just provide companionship and guidance. I like my job and I’d like to think I’m good at it. Certainly I’m getting better at it, at the very least.
My client texts she’ll be a full hour late, but I’m already on the road. Nothing to be done. I’ll get some lunch in her neighborhood, then we’ll go on a supervised visit to see her baby. She’s 17, and sweet-natured – fun with a good sense of humor. She has a 1.5 year old daughter who’s also in the DCFS system. She hasn’t done meth in over a month and is proud of herself. We’re working on showing her judge responsible behavior patterns. The long term goal is independence – some sort of subsidized apartment for her and her baby to live in while she attends trade school. It’s my hope once she turns 22 and her benefits run out, she will have a middle class income; a sense that she can provide for herself and her child. It’s a tall order. I, myself, couldn’t provide for a child when I was 17, and indeed at this particular moment I take stock of my life and wonder if I could swing it even now. It would take some doing, but yes, I suppose I could.
Wait, what? No. I’m too self-absorbed for that.
South Central has gone through some changes in the last 20 years. The particular area I’m concentrating on today is near a train station. Dilapidated, shack-like structures stand next to semi-pristine Craftsman homes. To look at the hodgepodge of architecture in this area, you’d swear gentrification was already well underway. I imagine I could easily spot a group of post-undergrads from USC, who have moved to this neighborhood to live together and launch their ironic-Bluegrass-band empire together. I entertain this notion for a bit. They’re a “diverse” band, with gender queer members, some mixed race and Asian members – but still 60-70% white. Maybe there’s an extremely dark person playing banjo, that they all treat like a Greek seer, or some sort of liberal sacred cow. That’s my idea of who would gentrify this neighborhood. I think of the white band members sitting in Eagle Rock coffee houses after gigs, explaining how, yes, they live in South Central, but because of the demographics of their band, they’re not really the ones gentrifying the area.
It’s always some other poseurs doing the truly evil stuff, when you’re dealing with white liberals. I should know. I helped gentrify Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the early aughts. You’re welcome, New York.
My client is running even more late, so I pull out of her residential area, onto this neighborhood’s main drag. Charming (if slightly shabby) side nooks give way to a main street’s dilapidated wasteland. I pull into a plaza and park my car. Cricket phone stores, Burger Kings, Chinese Food joints clog this strip mall, which in turn clog the larger environ. Cheap, vinyl American flags hang outside a store advertising tax help in Spanish. Choked gutters form a clumped monstrosity of brittle palm fronds, candy wrappers, grocery store coupon books. The sidewalks are filthy, spots of gum mottle the walk, having turned dark black over years of neglect. Nobody is ever going to take solvent to remove this gum, but it’s so well trod at this point as to be of no threat to the bottom of anyone’s shoes. Matted, dull, innocuous – formless, nameless.
Around here it seems like hope is in short supply.
I pass a bus station. A middle-aged woman with a milk eye sits, dressed for church, in a muted robin’s egg pantsuit and matching hat. The hat’s featured lavender flower rests askew, cockeyed. She sits next to a saxophone player who summons the air of a desert bedouin, clad in layers of earth toned fabric so oily, so misshapen – the sleeves blend into the rest of the garment. He is a lump of burlap holding the tarnished instrument. There’s no case for the sax, and it’s missing the reed needed to play it anyhow. Next to him there are two boys with skateboards and bright, clear eyes. They draw my attention. They don’t look defeated. They don’t look completely beaten into submission. In a few years, these boys could easily be clients of mine, if they’re lucky. If they’re unlucky. If whatever…
I’m conscious of seeming condescending in situations like this, even just by looking. I am well aware of my status as interloper, as “other.” I might as well be wearing a tee-shirt that says Well Intentioned White Social Worker. I wish I hadn’t come down here dressed as a gay candy cane.
A woman stops short in front of me. A fire engine has pulled off the side of the road, about twenty yards ahead of us. The woman starts yelling about a fire that happened sometime in the recent past, about how the fire engine didn’t come fast enough to save her cousin’s belongings and how it’s some sort of conspiracy because her family isn’t the right sort of people to get prompt service from the fire department. I can’t help it. I smirk.
Briefly, I imagine a two story firehouse with a dalmatian and and a pole to slide down. In my fantasy the staff of the firehouse is multicultural and buff. They rest -having herbal tea and playing scrabble, moving slightly when the phone rings, but then reverting to banal relaxation upon seeing the call coming from the undesirable lady’s cousin’s house. Maybe one of them quietly says, nope.
I have to pee.
I head into a Popeye’s. No bathroom. Underlining the message of “eat here but don’t pee here,” the door between the employee area and the customer area is made of thick bulletproof plastic. It’s like what you’d see in a Chase bank, except yellowed by grease, and made cloudy by ten thousand tiny scratches. I try three more fast food places – none of them have restroom access. Finally, at a Korean drug store an employee takes pity on me, and leads me into the back, where, of course they have a toilet.
As the logy mass of water in my bladder voids itself I acknowledge even this as a privilege I routinely take for granted. How could I not? Drug stores are supposed to let you use the bathroom. But in this particular neighborhood the rules are different.
I’m reminded of the difference again as soon as I’m back in the front of the store. I decide to buy a pack of Trident. I just want to show this store worker gratitude. I thank her as she’s ringing me up. Preferred customer, she says. I take a minute and pause. She glances out the window and nods her head at the rogue’s gallery marching by. You’re not from here, she says, and gives me a knowing smile. Oh Jesus, I say audibly, then glance down at my pink Little Lord Fauntleroy shorts. Is it my gayness or my whiteness that makes me a “preferred customer?”
“Okay, then,” is all I can manage out of this particular exchange.
I make my way out of the store and back to my silver Prius (silver because it won’t show dirt, Prius because, gay). As a parting thought I smirk again, and think to myself, I should’ve said, I’m not a preferred customer, lady – I come to this neighborhood and tell everyone exactly how to live. I’m an UN-preferred customer!
My phone buzzes. My client has finally gotten out of the shower, and is ready for her supervised visit. She’s asking if I can call ahead to report we’re going to be 15 minutes late. I tell her no, that she has to do it, that it’s her responsibility to be on time, or account for her lateness. I’m being terse with her. I could use a cute emoji or a sticker to show that I’m not annoyed, but I am annoyed. I want her to get her child back, and I need her to be more responsible. She sees me as a fun goofball, but I have an unforgiving side too. Once in a while, I bust out the tough love. She can handle it, I think. It won’t drive her back to drug use, and if it does, something or someone else would have done that anyhow.
I pull up outside her house. I’m illegally parked and cannot come inside, I text. She’s blowdrying her hair and will be out in five minutes. I type out a response about how she said she was ready, then delete it. She does get points for trying. People get points for trying, sometimes.
I make a few phone calls – County Social Workers, Probation Officers. I’m constantly playing phone tag with these folks, trying to locate clients or connect them to social services. Sometimes people help. Sometimes it’s an elaborate system of pass-the-buckery.
My client gets into the car. She’s excited to see her baby. She smells good, like soap. Like a fresh shower.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she says. I put on a deflated-looking face.
I put the address for the supervised visit into my GPS. After some significant time has passed, my client asks, “Michael, do you think I should try harder?”
There is a long pause. Finally, I speak.
“I think the fact that you asked that question is evidence that you are trying harder. I think that you should be proud to be sober for a month, and I think you should just focus on that, and secondarily on running a schedule that isn’t constantly late all day. You’d be surprised at how much credit you get in life for simply showing up when you say you will.”
My client seems to like this response. In no time she’s recovered from the cranky text I sent. We play with her baby, who somehow at 18 months has a head of hair to rival a 35 year old woman. I agree, the baby is getting fat. I disagree, the baby hasn’t stopped recognizing her. I downplay the fact that the baby becomes noticeably excited toward the end of our visit, when the foster mother returns. We say goodbye to her baby.
“Jews,” my client says, when we get back into the car. “What do you think of Jewish ladies? Are they okay?”
Yes, I say. Most of them are well-intentioned. Certainly the ones participating in the foster system. I rattle off a list of positive stereotypes: Jews have a cultural tendency to value education, to support the arts, to encourage one another’s success. She finds this information reassuring.
She wants to know if I think her baby will freak out, when and if the judge decides to give her custody again.
Yes, I say. She’ll probably freak out. But, only for a few days. Once she gets used to her new environment she’ll be fine. She loves you. My client seems happy with this. She starts talking about her new boyfriend, who wants to marry her. She’s seventeen. Her boyfriend is 31. I try to minimize her expectations, to encourage her to focus on herself. Out of nowhere, my client changes the subject.
“Pink shorts,” she says, pointing at my legs.
“What about them?”
“I like them. Where’d you get them, Target?”
“Um, no. I got them on sale at J. Crew.”
“J. Crew! White people love that place.”
“That’s correct. We do. Any time I’m feeling bad about being a white guy in America I can go to a J. Crew. It’s always air conditioned and there’s music playing that makes me feel calm – like I deserve understated luxury and pink seersucker shorts.”
She laughs. “You’re funny! You do deserve it! But you’re also an idiot, sometimes.”
I laugh along with her and turn up the radio. She’s not wrong. About the luxury. About the funny. About the idiot. She isn’t always right, but today she isn’t wrong.
Later that night, I walk back up the staircase to my butler’s apartment in the back of an estate Orson Wells built for Rita Hayworth.
I open up Grindr and flirt with Weho boys who want to see photos of me naked, but will under no circumstances drive up the canyon to visit me after 10:30pm. I send some photos. I receive some. I take a Benadryl and 3mg Melatonin and sit out on my porch. The hoot owl in the yard is letting me know all about its private 2am grievances with the canyon. The owl complains endlessly, screeching into the night. He levies all sorts of complaints about being an owl, about hunting for field mice, about being nocturnal.
Who? Who? He demands. Who?
Sorry, I can’t help you, I say to nobody and nothing in particular.