The Double Meaning of “Rideshare”

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Greetings. Welcome to UpLyfted–a blog site about everyday people like you and me who need to get from point A to point B without the hassle of driving themselves. In a place like Orange County, where I work as a Lyft driver, enjoying the comfort and security of a safe ride on your daily commute can make the difference between a good and bad day.

One of the great gifts of driving for Lyft is that I get to meet interesting people from all walks of life. It gives me space to get out of my head–where I spend too much of my time–and hold space for someone else. Oftentimes, a simple “Hi, how are you?” turns into a meaningful conversation about all manner of topics–from the personal to the political–giving new meaning to the term “rideshare.” Strangers become friends. A Lyft becomes an uplift.

Without disclosing actual names, I will use this site to share brief passenger profiles if only to tell stories that would otherwise go unheard and, in so doing, prompt my readers toward a more empathetic consideration for the strangers in our midst.

 

Jay, Steve and Me: A Case of Unconscious Misogyny

Jay and Steve were two white, late twenty-, early thirty-something Canadians with scraggly beards that I picked up toward the Friday afternoon rush hour in Newport Beach, California, after they had spent the day drinking cheap beer at a local Irish pub. They were both very friendly and did not hesitate to initiate conversation. In fact, I barely had a chance to push the “Pick up Steve” button on my phone before Jay, who took the front passenger seat, piped in and asked me how my day was going.

“Good,” I said, “It’s been profitable. On my second shift now after working the morning rush hour. How about you guys?”

They were both in good spirits, saying how grateful they were to be away from the cold blast of the Nor’easter that was leaving behind a trail of snow in Toronto.

“Oh, I’ve been to Toronto,” I said, “Great city.” I told them that I am from the East Coast–Baltimore–and that I was at one time conditioned to the cold.

“Yeah, it’s great ote here,” Jay said, his Canadian accent coming through, “So beautiful. But let me ask you, Rob. Is it us or are the girls’ boobs bigger out here?”

I didn’t know how to answer.

“I have never noticed,” I said through an awkward smirk.

“Rob,” Jay responded, “You’ve been out here for how many years?”

“Nine,” I said.

“And you’ve never noticed the size of women’s breasts?”

Feeling a bit cornered by the question and at a loss for a dishonest excuse I said straightforwardly, “No. If I’ve noticed anything it’s of the other sex.” Then, turning toward Jay, I added, “I’m gay.”

There was an awkward pause. “But still,” Jay said somewhat defensively, perhaps covering up his embarrassment, “Even as a gay man you can still notice women’s breasts.”

“True,” I said, “But given my inclinations, I am not inclined to look. Which is why I mentioned my sexual orientation.” Then, so as not to make Jay feel uncomfortable, if he did at all, I conceded to the heteronormative banter as much as I could allow for myself, “But I will say that I find the women very beautiful out here.”

“Yes. There must be something in the water,” said Jay.

To switch the subject I turned toward the occasion for Jay and Steve’s visit. Both in construction–Steve a contractor who owns his own company, Jay a site manager–they were out here to get away from the early Toronto winter for a long weekend that included a hockey game at the Anaheim Honda Center between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Anaheim Ducks, as well as a Ram’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

They asked me about what I do and I told them that I am a former community college teacher, English, and that I’m now driving full-time for Lyft with the hopes of getting into print journalism up North, in Humboldt County, California, to cover topics on culture and politics. This lead into a discussion of, among other things–including Canada’s geography; the fact that Canada exports oil to the United States; and the oil-rich history of Huntington Beach–gun violence in America. The recent mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, was key in our minds.

In Canada, assault weapons are illegal. Individuals may own hunting rifles, but everything else is off limits. Of course there is a market for illegal guns, but for the most part people follow the law. The result: minimal gun violence, especially compared to the United States, where every month there seems to be a new episode of a “lone wolf” (read isolated, mentally unstable white man) letting loose on a crowd of civilians. Jay and Steve thought it absurd that people in this country get so up-at-arms about their right to own semi-automatic assault rifles. I agreed, thinking of how easy it is to obtain such a weapon and of the popular reasons for owning these guns, chief among them being self-defense. I have yet to hear of a mass shooting prevented by someone else’s semi-automatic. Moreover, I voiced my frustration that these incidents are not treated as terrorist attacks by the officials responsible for reporting them. Instead, as Jay and Steve noted also, we use the term “terrorism” or “terrorist” only in reference to typically brown bodies of the Muslim religious persuasion, suggesting an inherent, if unpsoken, racism in the way we go about framing, or refusing to frame, events like the one that happened in Thousand Oaks.

We talked a bit more about politics. When I asked what they thought of their Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Jay chimed in, saying he does not feel that he is well-equipped for the job. “He was a high school teacher,” Jay said, pointing to his lack of experience in politics. Jay feels that he has a good reputation only because of his charisma, his good looks, and how he compares to Trump.  “Trump says a lot of terrible stuff, but at least he is a successful businessman,” Jay added.

Though I did not voice my disagreement as I just wanted to listen, I felt it. For one, what’s wrong with an educator getting involved in politics? Second of all, Trump has no experience in politics, either. Thirdly, Trump has an ambiguous track record in business. And finally, he is more than a blow-hard spouting divisive rhetoric. He is dangerous. And his words, as ideological devices, have the power to shape public policy: through law and those he appoints to public office. Consider his draconian separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border; his anti-Muslim, anti-refugee travel ban; his roll backs on environmental protections and his appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas ex-governor Rick Perry to the role of Secretary of Energy; his possible ties to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement; his tax plan which disproportionately benefits the wealthy; his team’s early proposals to cut funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities; his scandalous appointment of Matt Whitaker, outspoken critic of the Mueller probe into Russian election meddling, to the formerly Jeff Sessions-helmed Department of Justice; his support of dictator Duterte’s brutal anti-drug campaign in the Philippines; his refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia over the murder of Washington Post journalist and dissident Jamal Kashoggi in October; his general orientation toward authoritarianism; and a whole host of other ethically, morally, and politically questionable habits and practices that smack of various “isms”–all of which have the potential to become the rule of law.

A fiscal conservative who doesn’t trust any politicians, Jay lamented Canada’s national debt, which is currently nearing the $1 trillion mark in USD. For a country of 37 million people to have debt that exceeds that of the State of California, at $4.26 billion USD for 39 million people, is outrageous. When I asked Jay what Canada is spending its money on he couldn’t answer, but he is in favor of cutting it nonetheless.

When we arrived at their hotel in Anaheim, I thanked both of them for their conversation, asking Jay his name, which I did not catch early on when he told me after having picked up him and Steve in Newport. They were both appreciative and kind, wishing me well in my writing career as I mentioned to them where they could find my blog links on the Lyft passenger app.

“It’s not everyday you get into intellectual conversations like these,” Jay said as he exited the car.

“That’s true,” I responded, smiling and grateful for the opportunity to learn more about another country (as well as my own) and the way at least one of its people tick. (Steve did not say much during the car ride as he got caught up in a phone call that buzzed in as Jay and I were talking up front.)

Looking back on it, however, I am still processing Jay’s heteronormative assumptions about me and the problematic of female objectification underlying his speech about “boobs”–a problematic in which I participated by way of my concession that the “women are beautiful out here.”

I have no doubt that Jay and Steve are good people, intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning and of no ill intent. I appreciate their openness toward me as a gay man and, clearly, I felt safe enough to admit my orientation in front of them. It was my way of protesting their unconscious presumption about the standard scripts operating in male homosocial spaces such as our Lyft ride and about me. Perhaps because I do not perform my sexual orientation according to the stereotype of the effete gay man (indeed, because I enact a gender performance that aligns with traditional notions of masculinity, I am often presumed to be heterosexual), Jay felt comfortable enough to ask that question.

Even still, despite by discomfort about being presumed something I am not, I wonder now why I did not draw our attention to the most immediate offense: the objectification of women. I could have said that that kind of talk discomforts me irrespective of my sexuality. Why did I not first stand up for women whose bodies have been under the objectifying scrutiny of the male gaze for as long as this country has been in formation?

I can only surmise that my silence is the byproduct of some social conditioning on which all three of us have been reared as (white) males. We are raised in societies that privilege this kind of discourse between men, encourage it, expect it–so that when it happens it is taken for granted as just the way men talk amongst themselves. Indeed, such “locker-room talk” is so deeply ingrained in our national psyche that it has become permissible for our publicly elected officials to use it without recompense. Even worse, it has had an insidious way of creeping into our judicial system so that it becomes common sense to dismiss a woman’s charges of sexual assault as an attack on upstanding male citizenship–the recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court a case-in-point.

By refusing to resist such talk on the basis of its slight against women who, in the context of this car ride represent the “other,” and instead taking Jay’s question as a personal slight to my minoritarian status as a gay man, I am no less guilty of objectifying women than this nation’s current president or these well-meaning straight boys from Canada who drink beer, like sports, and talk politics.

It is a good lesson in humility on my part and a call to awareness for all of us to be impeccable in our speech. For words, though seemingly innocuous, have the power to tear down as much as build up. Let us choose them wisely and always through the perspective of the outsider to our various in-groups–such as a Lyft ride shared between gender-conforming men. Otherwise, our evasions and silences–like mine on the subject of the perceived anatomical differences between women in Toronto and California or on Trump’s supposed merits as a politician–make us complicit in the oppression of the absent other.

 

 

A Eureka Moment with Mary

It was early on a Sunday morning when I pulled up to the ramp outside of an assisted living community in Huntington Beach, California. As I was waiting I thought perhaps I was picking up an elderly man or woman for a ride to church or a breakfast. Instead, a younger, middle-aged African American woman appeared at my door.

“Oh, it smells good in here,” Mary said as she strapped the seat belt across her lap.

“Thanks,” I said, “Lavender.”

Mary was just getting off of an all-night shift that she works twice a week at the retirement home.

“The map is going to tell you to take the 405,” she said, referring to the freeway that runs through Orange and Los Angeles Counties, “But take the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway].”

A sucker for the spacious scenery that such a route provides, particularly as it runs through Sunset and Seal Beaches, Mary did not have to tell me to change trek twice.

As we drove along the oceanside highway, a grand vista of the Pacific panning out beside us, a view of the Long Beach ports in the distance ahead of us, I learned that Mary is passionate about providing companionship to an overlooked population.

“I really respect your vocation,” I told her, “especially given how little we care for our elders in this society.”

She agreed and then asked about whether I drive for Lyft full-time–a question I am asked often.

I gave her my usual spiel: I’m saving money to move up North to Humboldt County with the hopes of establishing myself as a writer.

“Oh,” she said, “My mother is a writer.”

Available on paperback and digital copy, her mother’s book is a spiritual memoir of sorts that engages the Christian Bible for inspiration to live through life’s tough conditions, treating them as opportunities for healing and growth. Right now her mother is in the process of writing a second book that she won’t say much about. “You know how writer’s hold their ideas close before they publish them,” Mary told me.

She asked where up North I’d like to live.

Eureka,” I responded without hesitation, “A sleepy coastal town a few hours south of Oregon.”

“Wow,” she said, “that’s way up there.”

I told her that I’m drawn to the quiet of it, though it is a well-established city with roots in the lumber industry. There are a few newspapers up there to which I have applied, as I explained to Mary, but I will pick up a job doing menial labor as I attempt to make an inroad in print journalism. In the meantime, I will continue to write on my own.

When I asked Mary if she had traveled anywhere, she said she had been to Ensenada, a coastal city in Mexico, south of San Diego on the Baja California Peninsula.

“But I haven’t really been anywhere else,” she added. A native of North Long Beach, Mary said that she wants to see the world.

“What is stopping you?” I asked.

“That is a good question. I don’t know. I guess it’s just a matter of doing it.”

“Well,” I said, “You can always start with Eureka!”

She laughed, but I was serious. I have two close friends up there, married, one of whom is a church pastor, who live in a large Victorian home that functions in part as a retreat space for travelers. There is a big wing reserved specifically for guests on the front side of the house.  I told Mary about this and asked if she would ever want to stay there.

“Yes,” she said, “Sign me up.”

Upon dropping her off outside of her apartment complex in Long Beach I jotted down her e-mail address and told her that I’d be in touch, that I’d just have to be in contact with my friends and get back to her.

Tired and ready for sleep, she exited my car. Later in the day, after I notified my friends up North who said it would be fine to pass along one of their e-mail addresses, I sent word immediately to Mary, imagining a soul-empowering journey that might work to refresh her spirit, convince her that seeing the world could start with a simple road trip along the California Coast–this time to a different coastal town.

Mary may  never take me up on that invitation, but at the very least a seed is planted. Within me, if not within her. Stay the path, a still, small voice told me, and you will find a home in which God can abide. Eureka!

 

 

Jean from West Virginia

I picked up Jean and Michael inside of Camp Pendleton Marine base in San Diego County, California. Michael, though large with a stocky, six-foot frame, looked no older than a teenage boy. Jean, whom I took to be his girlfriend or wife, also had the face of a child–slightly chubby, but beginning to show the sharper contours of womanhood. Both of them were friendly and spoke with something of a Southern twang.

Michael needed to get to another part of the base, which stretches for hundreds of acres beyond the Pacific Coast Highway, south of Dana Point, from where I received notification of their Lyft request. I had to travel seven miles inland from the shore in order to collect them at an apartment complex within the camp compound.

After Jean and Michael were situated in the back, air travel luggage packed into the trunk of my car, I asked Michael about his time on base. He said that he’s been in the Marines for six months now out of West Virginia–a rural city called Beckley–and that he had spent the last three months in California. He was in South Carolina before.

He said that he was awaiting deployment and that Jean, who I later learned is his fiance, was out on a weekend visit. Michael does not know where he will be sent, but it will likely be overseas–maybe Japan–though he mentioned that a troop of Marines were being sent to the border in light of the caravan coming North from Central America. Michael, 21 years old, is a combat engineer, which he became by way of training.

When I dropped him off at a mostly empty parking lot just outside of a campsite–rows of cylindrical bunkers that looked like tin cans cut in half–he did not reach over to kiss his partner. Instead, he looked over and, without affectation, said, “Ok. I’ll talk to you later.” He thanked me, exited the car, grabbed his luggage out of the trunk and walked toward the tin cans like it was his duty.

I pulled away, his partner still in the back seat, and waited in a brief moment of silence before initiating a conversation–one that lasted the 80-mile, two-hour trek to Los Angeles International Airport–with Jean, an 18 year-old pharmacy technician-in-training.

“So how long will he be gone?”

“Seven months.”

“How do you correspond?”

“Well, he’s not sure that there will be service for cell phones where he will be stationed. And there is also a security issue with them because of some hacking, so we’ll stay in touch by e-mail.”

“That must be hard.”

“Not really, actually,” Jean said, “We both work all of the time, so we barely see each other anyways. It won’t really feel that different.”

Jean’s demeanor, nonchalant and matter-of-fact, made for a comfortable car ride, as if we were two friends catching up.

Currently, she lives on the campus of Marshall University in Huntington, a city in Cabell County, West Virginia, of around 49,000 people–a good 32,000 more than Beckley, the small, backwoods town from where she hails. While she finishes the schooling necessary to take up employment back in Beckley, she works at McDonald’s. She is a self-motivated learner who finished high school in three years and, in that time, started obtaining online credits toward the degree for which she is presently working.

The daughter of a milkman and a pharmacy technician, Jean is a homebody who loves to go hiking in the wilderness of West Virginia and enjoys reading when she finds a book that interests her. One such book, which she picked up from a sociology class that she dropped early on in the fall semester, is critically-acclaimed journalist Sam Quinones‘ renown Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate EpidemicThe book chronicles the coterminous spread in the 1990s of black heroin from Mexico and painkillers such as OxyContin from big pharma across America’s small and mid-sized cities, leaving in their wake wastelands of addiction. Huntington, riddled now with crime and poverty, according to Jean, is one such space–given due attention in Quinones’ book.

Jean despises Huntington, but decided to attend college there because she did not want to attend a school as large as West Virginia University. She is highly individualistic in her style of learning and, quite simply, does not enjoy school. Despite this, she is getting her work done so that she can establish a life for herself.

Her aspirations do not reach much farther than West Virginia, however. Perhaps this is why she is betrothed at 18. When I asked her about living outside of the state she did not express any real interest in moving. I asked her about her stay in California and she did not seem impressed by it. Too much traffic and no change of season. Jean appreciates fall colors and does not feel inclined toward the ways of the big city, having grown up on land with a lot of acreage. She and Michael, who spent their respective childhoods ten minutes apart from each other and whose fathers are friends, will get married one day. “But I’m not about that right now,” Jean said, “I have my own life to live.”

She struck me as an independent woman whose ho-hum resignation to small-town life in an economically depressed state betrayed a deeper curiosity about the wider world, evidenced in her penchant for reading. “I’m the person with the book during break,” she told me earlier in our conversation, as we were discussing Dreamland. A former community college teacher, I told her I was glad to hear that, especially that she was so taken with the required reading of her dropped course that she stayed with it even after she left the class.

As we were approaching the interminable traffic leading into LAX, our conversation finally reaching a lull, I turned toward my satchel on the front seat next to me and pulled out the latest copy of The Atlantic, volumes of which I have stacked in the back pouch of my passenger seat.

“Here,” I said, “Check this out. You may find it of interest.

Jean did not hesitate, but accepted the gesture, if only to be polite perhaps, and set to paging through the text. When I took a look back through the rear-view mirror I saw that she was genuinely engaged, chuckling at something she found funny.

“This is really good,” she said, “I like to read about politics.”

She then stacked the magazine neatly in with the others as we arrived at Terminal 8 for her flight on United. I wanted to tell her to get out of West Virginia. Go explore. But something told me I didn’t need to.

 

 

 

Pride and the Humility of Asking for Help: Clarice’s Bind

Clarice is a 53 year-old, unemployed white woman whose criminal record for an undisclosed offense has kept her from finding meaningful work. I picked her up from an office building in Irvine, California, in the midst of early rush hour one afternoon a couple of weeks back.

When I asked her how her day was going, she said without hesitation, “Not well.”

She was in town from neighboring Huntington Beach, a Southern California coastal city just five miles North of Irvine, for a scheduled office visit with a psychiatrist who might be able to prescribe her some anti-anxiety medication for the angst with which she has been dealing lately–her unemployed status and an impending eviction no small part of this.

As it turned out, her doctor left the building early that day without rescheduling his appointments, nor notifying Clarice. She was pissed, naturally, and despite her typically non-confrontational demeanor as she described it to me, lost her temper with the desk clerks who kept her waiting for over an hour, giggling with each other and engaging in chatty banter, before finally admitting to Clarice that the doc was not in.

“You have every reason to be upset,” I said to her as we came to a busy intersection where, moments after I stopped, two cars bumped each other in a small, non life-threatening fender bender.

“Well,” I said jokingly and without making too much light of a shitty situation, “I guess someone else’s day just got worse.” Clarice laughed.

As we drove, she told me about her two children, both of whom she raised on her own. Her daughter is a twenty-something college graduate who started working recently for a self-storage facility–a fact that frustrates Clarice: “She could be doing something to suit her degree!” Her son, meanwhile, is also a twenty-something, living with his girlfriend and their newborn baby in a San Francisco Bay Area house that the girlfriend’s parents purchased for them. Clarice is proud of her children and she’s proud of her status as grandmother, but feels humiliated by her predicament–a struggle that began with a nervous breakdown a few years back, following a divorce, and which ended up in an arrest for a violation upon which she did not expound. She told me this through tears.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I guess you’re my therapist today.”

Pausing, I responded, “I’m just your friend.”

Nearing her host’s apartment complex in Huntington Beach where, from the balcony, her two Shih Tzus were wagging their tails in eager anticipation of their owner’s arrival, we sorted through Clarice’s anxieties and I asked her rather pointedly, “What’s to stop you from asking to live with one of your children for a while?” After all, she wants to enjoy the experience of being a grandmother, though she does not want to interfere with her in-laws’ interaction with the child. She didn’t have an answer to this. “Sounds like you may be too proud,” I added. She did not disagree.

I dropped off Clarice at the driveway aside the two-story apartment building and offered her a hug on her way out of the driver’s side back passenger door, assuring her, “You’ll find someone who is willing to employ you.”

In the process of hearing myself say that, I couldn’t help but think that I was talking to my own doubts, fears, and insecurities as much as I was to those of my sister Clarice. Such is the nature of these Lyft rides, I’m realizing. I seem to attract individuals who are going through similar-though-different circumstances only to realize after I have left them at their destinations that their struggles are mine, too. For example, I am currently in between jobs and relying on the generosity of family to house me while I look for gainful employment. This has been a challenge to my self-esteem and no small trigger for the anxiety that feel. Clarice mirrored some of that for me, prompting me to renew my faith in the future and to find joy in the present.

 

 

 

 

 

A Fallen Angel (in All of Us)

The young, brown-skinned man entered the back passenger seat of my blue Optima high on Crystal Meth. I did not know this until I inquired into his “drug of choice”–a question prompted by his unsuspected and disarming self-revelation about how he needs to get back on his feet, but has had a hard time doing so because of drugs. This came up in the course of a conversation that he started–asking me about how it is driving for Lyft–just after he closed the door and I drove off with him inside, heading toward his chosen destination: the back parking lot of seedy motel between the cities of Santa Ana and Orange, California.

Named after one of the archangels in Judeo-Christian mythology, this Gabriel comes from a secure family in Santa Ana–a populous Central Orange County city 10 miles inland from the Pacific Coast with a largely Hispanic population. He has been in an out of recovery houses for an addiction rooted in nothing else but boredom. He says that accepts responsibility for his choices and knows he has a problem, knows he needs to get his shit together, but that he wants to get high all of the time and struggles with the willingness to get sober.

Now living on the streets, this young man, not more than 22 years old, seems to spend his days in a fog of paranoia, which, he admitted to me, is one of the reasons he wants to quit smoking Meth. Part of his problem, Gabriel said, is that he does not surround himself with sober people. I asked him if he has any supportive friendships. He does, he said, such as that with the other young man who ordered the Lyft for him, but he’s an occasional user himself.

I offered Gabriel a pack of cigarettes I bought that morning as a kind of “replacement activity” to satisfy some part of the urge to use and he thanked me for it. Before dropping him off, I shut down my Lyft app and we shared a few smokes outside the car, during which time I learned more about his wrestling with a disease to which we are all prone–the current pandemic of opioid addiction in this country, to say nothing of the crack-cocaine explosion of the 80s, a case-in-point.

“I love you because I love the struggle in you,” I said, thinking of my own battles with addiction and dependency, “It is mine as well.”

He didn’t quite know how to respond to this, but I felt compelled to say it. Addicts are at a loss for love, often failing to recognize it, even as it stares them squarely in the face. I’m not sure that he really heard me, nor did I expect him to. I have no doubt that he was going to go looking for a fix the minute I dropped him off at the pristine front sidewalk of a business park office building, in the shadows of which he would find his relief from boredom. I thought afterwards that I should have offered to take him to a sober living facility, but I knew that my efforts would be for naught. He was hooked. And he would find a way back to the shady, back end of the parking lot where he asked to depart.

“God bless you,” Gabriel said as he exited the car.

“God bless you, too, brother,” I said, adding, “And watch out for those angels. They’re everywhere.”

 

Betty’s Mid-Life Anxiety

I picked up Betty in the midst of a panic attack she was having outside the door of her Newport Beach, California, home.

“I don’t feel very well,” the white woman, thin and older, perhaps in her mid sixties, with dyed platinum blond hair, told me as I rolled down my window to say her name and thus verify her identity.

“Do you need me to call the paramedics?” I asked immediately, “What’s wrong?”

She said she felt anxious and that she couldn’t breathe. Pushing the “hazard” button, I put my car in park just off center of the roadway leading around her housing complex and asked her if she needed a hug. As I put my arms around her she started to sob, telling me that her husband is dying and that she is taking care of her aging and ill parents–all of this on the eve of her birthday.

Reminding her to breathe deeply–in through the nose, out through the mouth–I acknowledged her pain and assured her that everything was going to be alright, offering her some lavender oil, which I keep in my car, to help calm her nerves.

“What are the neighbors going to think?” she asked through tears as we stood in her driveway for the next fifteen minutes, during which time she stuttered through the woes besieging her: questions about the status of her life, her aging beauty, her failing marriage. We were running late for her facial appointment at a local skin-care center so we headed toward the car, her demeanor somewhat calmer than before.

I handed her a small plush bear that I keep in one of my car’s cup-holders and it seemed to provide her with some emotional comfort as we drove towards her destination (she stroked its furry head gently and gave it a few soft squeezes). We exited the car together and I sat with her on a bench nearby so that she could further gather herself before heading inside of the salon for her scheduled visit. She apologized for her behavior and told me, “I need to stop drinking.”

I was not surprised to hear her say this as I smelled liquor on her breath in the car. I reassured her that there was no judgment on my part, only support and encouragement. Her husband, who does not take care of his diabetes problem, treats her harshly, she said, and is very controlling. She has been with him since she was in her twenties, but she is no longer in love with him. “But it would kill him if I left,” she said.

“Would it really kill him?” I asked.

She turned the conversation around to me and asked about whether or not I was in a relationship. I told her I was–with a man. She was very accepting of this, but asked a question I assume many others must think: “Is it true that all gay men are sexually promiscuous?”

I laughed and said, “Well, I can see how that stereotype might circulate as true, but, no, not all gay men are promiscuous.”

She asked if I want to get married.

“I think so,” I said, “He’s significantly older than me, but he has a lot of vitality for his age.”

“I don’t think that matters,” she responded, referring to the close-to-30-year age gap between me and my man.

I appreciated her encouragement and needed to hear it in the midst of doubts about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it with the one I’m with–voices of confusion that creep into my psyche on occasion as I become every day more deeply involved with a man nearly twice my age.

Finally, she mustered up the guts to step inside of the salon for her appointment where she was greeted warmly. She asked me if I would wait for her and I told her I would, taking the 45 minutes she needed for her facial to stroll the harbor-side avenue and maybe grab a bite to eat.

When I returned almost an hour later, her frail body seemed sturdier, buoyed by what she called a “consultation” with her thirty-something male aesthetician. As it turned out, she did not opt for a facial, but instead spent that hour sorting through all that was overwhelming her with another witness who reminded her that, as she put it, “I have the power. And I am beautiful.”

I echoed these sentiments, really convictions, and encouraged her to live into that power and beauty as she celebrates her birthday.

She thanked me for holding space throughout her meltdown, adding, “We all need to love and be loved. And to look out for each other.” I nodded in total agreement.

Still a bit anxious as we parted ways, I told her to be strong, free, and courageous for the new beginning ahead–despite and because of her natural anxiety.

“I hope we stay friends forever,” she said.

“Me too.”

And no doubt we will. She is a piece of me–that part which does not want to grow old, or up; which is insecure about his appearance; which is afraid of taking responsibility for his own life, for his own freedom. But she reflects another side as well: that which believes in his own beauty and power, and places life’s greatest value in friendship–the only way to survive in a world that would have us believe we are unlovable and alone.

 

 

 

Karen’s Family

Karen is a white, middle-aged divorce from Salt Lake City County, Utah. She has three daughters–the youngest a sophomore in high school, the middle a recent high school graduate, and the eldest a dental assistant–and one son, who is 22 years old. When I asked what her son was up to, she said, laughing facetiously, “He’s a pharmaceutical rep.” After a brief pause, she followed up, “He’s actually a drug dealer.”

Karen said that she is not happy with his decision and that he is not allowed to live in the house–close to a school district–while he is dealing. She hopes that if the upcoming measure to legalize marijuana passes that he will join a legitimate distributor. Apparently he has borderline personality disorder and is verbally and physically abusive, though he has a girlfriend with whom he is planning to live at her mother’s house.

“I hope that things mend between you and him.”

She thanked me and said that family is important and that no matter how much friction there may be, she would never abandon her children. Her two daughters and her cousin, around her daughters’ ages, sat comfortably in the backseat, three across. They were mild mannered and good-natured.

As I was getting close to dropping them off at Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, California, Karen had mentioned that the family–her sisters and their kids and their mother and father–often vacation together. Recently, after receiving word that her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, causing gradual blindness, they went to Hawaii. “My mother always wanted to go,” Karen said, “So we went to make that memory while she still has some left.”

I thought of  my own mother whose one bucket wishlist item is to make such a trip. She, too, had a memory issue not long ago (a few weeks back) whereby she experienced a bout of “temporary amnesia” as the doctors at Hoad Medical in Newport Beach, California, called it–though they do not know its source (I think it is stress related, or maybe just a fluke). Either way, it was a terrifying experience to hold space for someone who could not remember what transpired five minutes previously. I told Karen about this and she noted that a loved one’s illness is hard not simply for them, but for the ones taking care of the sick person. Her mother is on a scroll of medications that she typed up recently and distributed to her sisters, as well as her 80 year-old father, who, she said, has the well-being of a 60 year-old.

Family is important. True enough indeed. I think of Ron whose sister took him in after he put in a lifetime on the streets. I think of Karen, who has raised four children virtually on her own (their father is relatively absent from the picture) and who stays committed to them despite their disagreements. I think of myself–a 35 year-old Lyft driver still living with his aging parents as he figures out what’s next on his journey. I need my family as much now as I did when I was in infancy. In many ways, this period of my life marks a similar kind of transition as that of an infant learning to walk on their own, guided by the hands of those administered to care for them. In a country where individualism is so entrenched into our national psyche, it is good to meet people like Karen, whose loyalty to her children and whose capacity to keep a broken clan together demonstrates the necessity of family–biological, in her case; chosen (street friends) and biological in Ron’s case–for survival in an often cold and cruel world.

Ron’s Pain

Ron is a 55 year-old recovering heroin addict who has been sober for one year and off the streets for two.

I picked him up from a recovery center after his meeting with a counselor. He is currently on 35 milligrams of Methadone to ease the pain in his back that he had been self-medicating for 35 years with heroin. He got into a car accident at 15. His mother was driving, but put the car in cruise control after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. They crashed at 85 mph and somehow both survived, though maybe six years later his mother committed suicide. He ended up with a tangle of hanger wires in his back to hold it together–at least that’s how he described it to me. He looked like he was in pain when I picked him up, upper torso bent forward at a 45 degree angle.

His sister, with whom he is now living, has been calling the clinic, harassing the counselors there about the Methadone treatment. He says she wants him off the Methadone because he changes when he’s on it. But if he goes off the Methadone he’ll relapse, for sure, he says. “The pain is just too much to handle. I don’t know what else to do.” Says he is actually down from 55 mg of Methadone everyday to the 35 mg every other day. He’s doing well, but the pain is unmanageable at the present dosage. Actually needs to go back to the 55 mg dosage, despite his sister’s protestations. Counselors are amenable to that, but not to his sister’s constant calling.

“I’m going to have some words with her,” Ron said, as we were on the way back to his sister’s house, situated in an affluent suburb of South Orange County.

I asked him more about his life. He has two sisters and two brothers–one of whom went looking for him two years back and found him with his street family in a shopping center parking lot in the city of Bellflower. Said he couldn’t believe it when this man walked up to the group and asked if anyone knew of me. From there he spent some time in a motel where his brother put him up before his sister, the one in South OC, took him in.

He still keeps in touch with two of his friends, but the rest have died. He is lucky and grateful for his fortune, as he says.

I asked him what he thought about the forced movement of the homeless encampments along the Santa Ana riverbed some months ago. He spoke unfavorably of it. “We’re not harming anyone,” he said, “We’re just trying to live. Where do they expect us to go?” Said the police harassed him often when he was on the streets, treating him like a criminal and forcing him to pick up and move camp, shopping cart in hand, just as he would find a place to settle.

As I dropped him off, I watched him exit the car. His feet were a bit unsteady stepping out and his back hunched. I wished him well and told him I would keep him in my thoughts and prayers, wondering what would become of his recovery and whether or not his sister would ever come around.