She’s a Lady

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Recently, I had to switch delis. As a New Yorker, this is huge. You love your deli, the one that makes your bacon bagel sandwich exactly the way you like it, the one that throws in a banana with your purchase just to appreciate your patronage, and the one that employs people who don’t judge you when you add on a second box of Nilla Wafers to your purchase just so you can make the $7 credit card limit.

At my now ex-deli, Deli Sheen Bros Co., Raul makes the sandwiches and Jose mans the register. Whenever I would go in, they’d call me names like “beautiful,” “linda,” “mami,” and – after I lazily answered my phone on speaker – “Sarita.” Normally I would politely stare at the stained floor, take my animal cookies and leave, but today was different.

Raul and Jose had their short, fat friends over behind the counter for a social visit that involved eating ham and watching a foreign soccer game. When I came to Jose’s counter with my loot, the visitors clicked their tongues and said “How did you get to be so pretty, mami, eh?” They were noticeably admiring my hoodie that was over my head, strings tied under my chin to make me look like an American Apparel pilgrim.

They said they liked the way my lips were glossy (Vaseline) as Jose made the transaction. Finally, as Jose dilly-dallied in giving me my receipt, I couldn’t handle it anymore. “Good lord shut the FUCK up.” I swore as I walked out with a bottle of wine and box of Oreos (yep). I trotted off, angry that I was sexually harassed in my house clothes.

“HEY!” One of them was hanging out the deli doors and calling after me. “HEY!” Jose and Raul were outside too, laughing and egging the yeller on, he ran to catch up with me and blocked me in my trek back to my apartment. “HELLO.” He repeated, as if we were quoting lines from Clueless back to each other. He smiled and advanced on me. “Ees dat how ju treat so’one who tells ju ju are beautiful?”

Yes, he was just telling me I was pretty, but this was my block and I would treat this man with the same hospitality that I give all of the creepy street-walkers who try and court me in Alphabet City. “Cállate la boca, hijo de puta.” I said as I walked around him. He froze there on the curb. Raul and Jose continued to yell sweet nothings at me, but my follower did not refute and tell me that no, I was the puta, as some are wont to do. I tied my hoodie strings tighter and walked on to a similar encounter with the guy in the backwards Jets hat who leans against the lamp post on 5th and A.

To answer his question, yes, I do treat them all that way. All the men that hit on me are usually privileged enough to have me flip them a ladylike middle finger. I react with such anger because of experience and exhaustion. Every morning on my walk to work along Avenue A, delivery boys stop pushing their carts of Bushmills meant for the Lower East Side bars stop to greet me or simply say “Mm!”

When this happens, I am reminded that the only people that hit on me are people that one avoids in subway cars. I am pursued relentlessly, habitually, and without care by short, squat, chicano men who occupy all the manual labor jobs in this city, and I tell all of them to shut the fuck up. Every. Single. Time.

This is not a new thing for me, and I’ve learned to deal with the attention by learning rude Spanish phrases and exercising my death stare. When I was on a trip to Costa Rica with my family, a young native selling crude crack pipes that were fashioned into clay penises whistled at my sister and me. My sister was 12 and legitimately scared of this guy who was blowing us kisses. To help her with this fear, I told her to look at him like she was plotting to kill him once he fell asleep that night. Look at him like you know where he lives and where he fries his plantains, I told her. “Then he’ll be scared because he’ll think you’re on your period, and he will leave you alone.” This was logic gained from years of being whistled at from Camaros.

My friends tell me I’m incredibly rude to men who hit on me in bars and clubs. But it’s not my fault that the men who hit on me are always the ones who own Laundromats and have spurs on their shoes. If someone in a suit wearing a Rolex were to offer me a steak dinner at Outback or something, I would gladly smile and bat my eyelashes. But that has never happened.

Because of my attractiveness to those of South-of-the-border heritage, things have gotten weird in the workplace. When I worked for a man who owned hotels, his cleaning people sent me love notes and tried to kiss me goodbye at the end of their shifts. As a bartender, I got so much special attention from the busboys (my bar was spotless, the liquor had always been brought up, and lemon wedges were cut into beautiful flower shapes), that the manager had to intervene. When I was working at an office in Boston, the guy who took out the trash actually WAITED for me to finish work one day and offered to walk me home. NO.

Every burrito assembler, flower stand attendant, and guy-who-hands-porn-flyers-on-the-strip-in-Vegas has loved me at first sight. I am Aphrodite to anyone who can’t pronounce their J’s. I know that most women would say “stop flattering yourself, those guys will whistle at anyone,” but please, take a walk down Avenue C with me. I think I emit an aroma of a Mets game and double shot margarita because I get an unprecedented amount of attention for someone who barely brushes her hair in the morning.

And yet, here we are in February, the one month where we all decide to actively hate ourselves and everything around us. It’s not just because of Valentines Day that February is the most awful, awful time of year. I’m fairly certain that even if Valentine’s Day fell in the perfect month of June, all relationships would sour during the insipid, cold, dark, evil Stepmother month of February.

The logic supporting this theory is that it’s cold outside, no one wants to go out, so we stay in and watch movies. You learn a lot about someone when you watch more than a few movies with him or her. When I watch movies by myself I fast forward through the scary or sexy parts, which, when you’re in a relationship, are the moments that bring you together. Needless to say, people always discover my true colors and by St. Patrick’s Day we’re no longer snuggling under heated blankets.

After I successfully screwed up another winter-time romance this past weekend (after sitting through a painful and ironic viewing “Fatal Attraction,” mind you), I sat on my bed, contemplating love; wine bottle in one hand and Oreos in the other (I’d been craving Oreos since the scene in “Fatal Attraction” where Glenn Close consumes the treat as she’s stalking Michael Douglas. I realize how this may sound, but I also crave oranges whenever I watch The Godfather, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to sever a horse and put it in a Central Park carriage-driver’s bed, calm down).

With a lick of fresh frosting, I realized that the last person to physically say “I love you” to me was a very short, very round Hispanic man with greased back hair. He was on the subway. I was not on the subway. There was a giant pair of shiny, double-steel, bulletproof doors between us. He had his headphones in and his orange backpack on. As a lady’s jarbled Queens-raised voice blared over the loudspeaker of the 34th Street station, our eyes met and he mouthed the precious, sacred words of “I Love you.”

I had my artillery ready. I’d been practicing “ugh, as if!” in Spanish for weeks now. But today, being a day in February, I decided to try something new.

“Really? You love me?” I asked him in full volume. People turned to look at me, because I was being very loud. When they saw that I was just another girl in a flannel talking to herself they went back to their AM New Yorks.

The train was stalled. My vato didn’t look startled by my response. “Yes. Yes I do.” he nodded in earnest. I stared at him until the train rolled away, just to be creepy. He stared back, creepy by nature.

And this was the last man who told me he loved me. Sure I could have called my dad or brother to get a 1-4-3 out of them, but I didn’t. I can’t stop thinking about the poetry of it all: it’s February, it’s cold, and New York is LONELY, no matter how many friends or dates you may have. Something about the city reminds you of sordid things from your past, perhaps because it seems like everyone else is trying to forget theirs. And this guy was just like any other guy I’ve been involved with; he told me what I wanted to hear when he knew he was on his way out.

We’re all looking for passionate romances, but no one really knows what that is until its sitting right in front of them. There are certain things we all want: someone who is trustworthy, supportive, and sings your praises. We also want someone who gives us gifts and writes us love notes, like my Latino lovers. Every time one of these men hollers at me on the street, they look at me with the same sincerity as my subway romance did. They truly look like they have eyes only for me. What would they do if I stopped and indulged them? What would they do if I forced them to sit and listen about my day? That parallel universe doesn’t exist, because these men KNOW I’m going to keep walking.

Perhaps this is why I’m so mean to them. I hate that they’re playing me like that. I lash out at them, making New York an even more lonely and cruel place.

But at some point, we all have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves because we as humans have the capacity to hurt one another. Yes, I’ve engaged in and am maintaining unhealthy relationships with men, as any 22 year old should, but I am taking that anger out by YELLING AT STRANGERS ON THE STREET IN SPANISH. I am Glenn Close emerging from the bathtub (sans knife) just screaming for the fun of it. I express my rage to an undocumented immigrant who just feels like telling me I’m pretty, perhaps because he thinks I need to hear it.

The only consistent affection and love that I get in this city is from the dirty, ‘hood dudes that sell flowers, hand out flyers, and work behind deli counters. And for that I should be thankful, because in this town, it’s the only love I’m going to get.

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Lesbians in Space: My Movie Debut

A friend of mine was recently a production assistant for an independent film. We’re talking independent like, the equipment was probably stolen and the actors were being paid in free Kirkland water bottles. This movie made The Blair Witch Project look like Titanic. I don’t know where the budget for this movie was coming from, but it was being made, and when my friend told me about it I had a notion that his uncle or whoever got him the job was just paying people to hold cameras and order him around to get food so that he could have something to put on his resume.

At the last minute of shooting a scene, an actress with one line bailed for some sort of “scheduling conflict” (she was “scheduled” to appear on set at her job waiting tables in the Olive Garden in Times Square). My friend called me to see if I was willing to fill in without auditioning. Also, he said, the role required that I wear stripper heels and fishnets and play some sort of lesbian from outer space.

“Will they feed me?” I asked hesitantly, knowing that if the answer was yes, there was no turning back.

“Of course.” he said. So I packed the old fishnets in a knapsack and set off for the West Village.

There was never any tutorial about what the plot line, synopsis, or even name of this movie was, but I gathered from the sharpie scrawl on all of the production binders that the working title was “Lesbian Space Aliens.” But really, I have no idea what it was. No one paid attention to me, they just handed me a purple leopard print tube dress and pink platforms and told me to suck it in.

For my role I was to play the part of Roz, a “trashy gameshow contestant.” I had one line, and several stage directions to smile and giggle. I – excuse me, my character – sat on a 60s loveseat next to another actress in a bald cap and blue space suit. She also had on a big Dracula-like collar made from blue felt. She wore absolutely no makeup and donned big, black leather boots that reminded me of the ones Elizabeth Berkley used to kill that rapist in Showgirls. I assumed that what was sitting next to me is what the crew envisioned a Lesbian Space Alien to look like, but I didn’t ask. It’s don’t ask don’t tell with this industry, right?

As I worked on channeling Tanya Cooley, the other actors filed in. One was a thin, weathered comedian that I swear had served me at The Capital Grille two weeks before. He was playing the “trashy gameshow host” and wore a tan suit and lavender tie with the tag from the thrift store still attached to it. We immediately hated each other. As competitors for “funny person in the room,” there would be no mercy. Ultimately, I found out that he was getting over an alcohol and heroin addiction, so I let him have the attention. But I won’t forget it.

Aside from my friend and a few camera operators, the entire staff of the movie was comprised of thin, oily haired women in polos and combat boots. The director had the exact same build and body type as my ten-year old cousin Dylan. Her wardrobe also matched his. Her hair was short, dark and untouched; her brow deeply entrenched in a furrow. Her assistant looked a lot like her, but had more of a dark, elfish Kate Gosselin quality to her.

They both seemed angry; angry at this movie, angry at the stand-up comedian who was currently rubbing my couch-mate’s head and making jokes about baldness in other areas of her body, and most obviously, angry at the camera-MEN.

Lesbians have always flocked to my roommate, Daria. They trust her with their secrets, entangle her as accomplice and confidant in their dramatic episodes, and brainwash her with screenings of ‘Now and Then’ and ‘A League of Their Own.’ Many have fallen in love with her and gotten their hearts broken by her vicious and steadfast straightness, but most just like her because she’s quite like a dude. I tend to think my amount of feminism is equal to Daria’s considering we both eat baked beans straight from the can, but I somehow possess another more undesirable quality that makes gay women look at me like I’m Ann Coulter in a nun costume. They HATE me. I’m generally either liked or ignored by immediate public, but Lesbians inexplicably hate my guts. I truly don’t know what it is; maybe they are jealous that my hair looks better when I don’t shower for a few days.

The hatred I’ve learned to live with whenever I’ve attended softball games or sorority reunions was thicker than 3-poly fiber flannel on the set of Lesbian Space Aliens. Suddenly, I was glad I hadn’t tried to win over the room with stories of botched one night stands and funny pick up lines. I was completely ignored whenever I would ask a question about my character’s motivation to adjust her cleavage and was told numerous times to “just do it better,” even when “it” meant simply existing. My one line made every un-make up’d, razor-hating, frowning face in the room cringe. I can’t imagine that it helped at all that I was spilling out of my dress, sitting there like a plate of bacon rudely thrown in the middle of a Seder.

Two hunky boy actors sauntered in, immersed in a discussion about acting. One was dark-haired, lean, and immediately revealed that he had spent his career at the state university majoring in theater. The other was bright eyed, blonde, a student at Tisch who “was taking time off to act,” and wasn’t fooling anyone by saying he was 22 (definitely 18). I was bored and unloved, so I immediately began to scrutinize.

“Yeah man, no matter how many acting classes you take or conservatories you study with, none of them give you the key to how to make it in the business, man.” said the douche to the other douche. “But it’s super important to work on your craft. Like, Marlon Brando, he never stopped working on his craft.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah man, Brando was the greatest actor of all time. They say that when he would act on a stage it was impossible to look at anyone but him because he took such command of his characters.”

“Whoa.”

“Yeah. He used to go to parties and hide under tables and people would look underneath and say ‘Marley – they called him Marley – come out.’ And he wouldn’t because he said he could observe people better from down there. That’s how he got to be so good at acting.”

“That’s amazing.”

Aside from the fact that I had no idea what the fuck these guys were talking about, they both looked like they were coming out of an Ibiza nightclub. They were wearing leather chokers adorned with masculine tribal pendants and sported collared shirts with subtle glitter. I was trying to think of what “trashy gameshow contestants” the costume designer was trying to imitate when she dressed us. Even the people on Singled Out seemed pretty normally dressed to me. The only place I’d seen these outfits before was while watching Jersey Shore. Inherently, the Jersey Shore is actually gay outer space.

You could smell the eagerness of the two boys from a mile away. When the dark-haired one was done discussing the Marlon Brando IMDB page that he had inevitably perused after a Netflix viewing of On the Waterfront, the boys opened their eyes wide and scanned each face in the room, searching for power and connections. They both scanned me not because of what I was wearing, but because they wanted to know what I could do for their careers. The dark haired one became squeamish in the room full of confident women who don’t have stage-induced eating disorders, and immediately busied himself with his two-sentence line in the script. The light-haired one saw potential networking opportunity in the stand-up comedian, who was currently talking to no one about the new jokes he’s been inspired to write since his recent breakup.

We sat there for hours while the director fought with her cameramen and typed on her blackberry. Every now and then someone would pull a bagel out of her back pocket and silently nibble at it, heedlessly looking at everyone as if to say “Don’t you dare ask me for a bite.”

I was still busy digesting the Jonah Hill-suited portion of bagels and schmear I’d consumed before slipping into the tube dress, so I wasn’t jealous that other people were snacking while I had to sit under hot lights. And anyway, I was worried that the oily haired Le’crew were plotting to get me fired from my one-day cameo, so I refrained from reaching over to the light technician and breaking off a hunk of her Cina-raisin like it was challah on Shabbat. Plus, like a squirrel or really busy stripper, I had hidden my emergency snack in my cleavage.

“Yeah man, I love going to the gym. I go every day, you feel better, and you’re just all around more confident. You know?” The two dreamers enthusiastically nodded in agreement. I knew I was witnessing the beginning of a beautiful friendship. “I mean, I know acting is tough, so you gotta stay in shape. But its really about passion, man, I just have to do this. I’m so passionate about it.”

Right when I thought they were going to make out and leave me as the only straight one in the room, the cameras started to roll. Take after take we were instructed to do the scene EXACTLY LIKE THE TAKE BEFORE IT. If we forgot a line, we were all fucked. That meant another hour sitting on the love seats and another hour listening to “blooper jokes” that “never made it into the act but are still pretty great” from the comedian.

“I just love being around you stand up comedians, it seems like you’re all kind of in on a joke. It’s so interesting.” said the blonde boy to the stand-up. “Can I hear more of your material? I just find it all so interesting.”

Finally, we were down to our last few takes. The dark haired boy had messed up his two-sentence line at least twenty thousand times and was about to give up on acting, but we were able to move on. All we needed now was a few more closeups and then we could take off our spanx and go home.

I was told that my part was finished, but that I had to stay seated for no other reason than to be tortured (the code for that is “just in case”). Annoyed, I produced the blueberry bagel half I’d been hiding in my boobs and started to chew. No one took notice; they were all too busy consoling the dark haired boy because he had failed Brando.

“Okay Sarah, now we need to get your reaction shots.” Surprised, I hurriedly put my treat behind me. This was it; I had spent the entire day in a windowless room with several angry gay women and two very vapid conversationalists. I wanted to go home, wash my face, and find something in my apartment that reminded me that I’m better than this. I smiled, giggled, I played with my pink plastic jewelry. I gave it all I had.

I used every bit of drama club I’d had left. Now I could go home. The crew reviewed my tape on a screen that I could not see. I imagined I looked awesome and professional. I hoped the other actors were jealous. I didn’t care if everyone in the room hated me, whether they were lesbian or recovering drug addict, I ruled.

“Oh Fuck.” said a lesbian. “She’s got bagel on her face.”

My friend the production assistant was not in the room. No one was on team Sarah here. I was the reason we’d have to sit there for another hour. “This is why we hire professional actors.” said a disembodied voice belonging to someone who was probably wearing flannel.

I’d spent the entire day texting my friends about how annoyed I was at the two male actors, how silly I looked in purple leopard print, and how mean all these oily-haired bra-burners were being to me. I had been a huge bitch to everyone all day because they weren’t nice to me, and now I was basically throwing myself a pity parade, tearing up the free bagels for confetti. In reality I wasn’t doing anyone any favors. My friend called me because he knew I liked being in front of cameras and he thought I’d have fun, not because he wanted me to judge everyone.

Perhaps the lesbians were mean to me because they saw it in my face that I was only there for the free food paycheck. These women were trying to create a project that would contribute to the artistic Lesbian community. This was their baby, and even if it was a Lesbian Alien baby, I had to be respectful, or at least have the decency to wipe my mouth.

At the end of the day, we were all richer and happier. Perhaps I made zero friendships and the actor boys made no connections that will be of use to them as they continue their hustle, but it was nice to come into contact with other souls like me who are just trying to get by and make this city work for them. I mean, we didn’t have to get along or speak, but it’s good to know that they are there, reminding me that I’m not better than anyone other human, alien, or lesbian on the planet.

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Best of the Decade

In the year 2000, the city of Brea, CA built a giant 20-screen movie theater on the abandoned cul-de-sac of Birch Street. Along with this theater they opened a Baskin Robbins and constructed several fountains. The plaza also came with plenty of cops on bicycles and areas to pick up and drop off patrons under the age of 16.

As tweens, we flocked like sheep to the well-lit and bar-free promenade of Birch Street. It was the coolest place to be when you couldn’t drive. People would meet, hang out at Fatburger, flirt, and then go into the movies to make out. A year earlier, we were performing these activities at Disneyland. Birch Street was closer, didn’t require a pass, and there were no rides to be kicked off of when going to second base.

When I entered eighth grade in the year 2000, I was allowed to go to Birch Street to see movies, be obnoxious, and hang out with the opposite sex. So many scandals went down in the hours before our parents picked us up and carpooled us home. Ashley left Zack high and dry after brushing his wiener with her elbow in the middle of seeing Love and Basketball, only to sluttily join Taylor in The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, where they held hands. I played spin the bottle in the parking lot when I wasn’t able to get in to Final Destination.

It was all very innocent; there weren’t any drugs or sex involved. I would later find out that those things come with cars. It was a crossing over, a departure from my life in elementary school. To me, this is when my life started, and coincidentally, when the decade began.

Going to the movies continued to be a tipping point for each confusing event in my growing life. In high school, one of my first dates was to go see The Ring with a boy who was terrified of horror movies. He clenched the seat arms with a ferocity that intrigued me, but was so embarrassed to close his eyes that he kept looking down and playing on his phone, which, at the time, didn’t even have Tetris software. I offered to make out with him, but he didn’t think it would make the situation any less scary.

Later in the decade, I went to see Gigli with one of my girlfriends on a very boring and very hot summer day. You remember Gigli. It was the era of J-Lo and Ben Affleck, Bennifer as I recall. I don’t remember it being a particularly bad film, but critics would call it the worst movie of all time until Catwoman came out a few years later.

A few days before my Gigli adventure, my gracious father had added text messaging to my phone plan, but I had to pay 10 cents a text, to him. In the middle of the movie just as Jennifer Lopez’s psycho lesbian girlfriend slits her wrists, my phone lit up to show me my very first text. It was my current boyfriend, telling me he wanted to break up. “We shud break up” was written in pixilated block letters against an eye-melting lime green screen. Of course I wanted to know why he wanted to separate, or if he actually meant “book up (a trip to Hawaii maybe?)”, but I didn’t think it was worth 10 cents and the embarrassment of handing a dime to my dad just to ask the boyfriend such a question when he’d be forced to give me an answer that was under 50 characters. I decided my best bet was to think about it later, when I could have the clarity of going over to his house and throwing things at him.

In turn, I hyper-focused on the movie. I think I saw things in that movie that no one else did. I also think I was one of the first people to be broken up with over text message.

In college, movies were a way of getting off campus and sharing inside jokes. My roommate and I still scream “JUDY DENCH” to each other for no other reason other than that we really liked Notes on a Scandal. Casey, Katharine and I actually paid money to see 50 Cent’s autobiopic “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” We returned to the dorms that night to find out that half of the male residents on our floor had been kicked out of housing for marijuana use – Marijuana which we would have used with them had we not been watching 50 Cent toss the salad of the movie’s heroine.

I have had two near-death experiences in my life, and both have been centered around the movie Moulin Rouge. I was listening to the movie’s soundtrack on my Ipod when a plane I was on decided to stop running and I was deep in conversation about John Leguizamo’s ability to play a midget when I crashed a Toyota Matrix full of my girlfriends. I own a copy of the DVD and watch it often, though I rarely talk about it.

When I remember Christmases and Thanksgivings, I remember the movies we went to see after we opened presents or before we ate dinner. Some of them were good (Spiderman) some of them were bad (Spiderman 3), but all were seen with my family and in all of them my dad fell asleep.

When flying to and from California during breaks I would watch movies and try to relate them with the confusion I always felt in leaving or going home, which is very hard to do when you’re watching “Norbit.”

It was always when I was sitting in movie theaters that catastrophic events took place. While Hurricane Katrina was terrorizing the gulf coast, I was wrapped in a bouncy cocoon of purple armchair, darkness, and pumped oxygen while watching Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Daria and I were watching a hotel-room ordered viewing of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Benazir Bhutto was gunned down. While studying abroad in India, I was attending a viewing of Bachanee ae Haseeno with my Punjabi host family while Hurricane Ike rampaged through my extended family’s homes in Texas. It wasn’t until the movie’s intermission when we were having beers at the movie theater’s bar (I know) did I see my childhood summers getting washed away on the big screen TV located above the shelf of hookahs.

I have vivid memories of shamefully walking out of Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes’s “Ghostrider” to find out that Anna Nicole Smith died, and less embarrassingly, walking out of “The Hangover” to find out Michael Jackson was dead. I have been delivered more news by pimply Regal Cinema ticket takers than by Walter Cronkite. And it was a pimply ticket taker who told me he died, too.

Whenever I clean out my wallet I’m reminded of the decade’s friendships, enemies, and multi-year sagas that were represented in one trip to the movies. I saw Volver with someone whom I was in love with, I saw Mean Girls with my best friend, and I saw Rambo by myself. I can never seem to get rid of those ticket stubs. They sit in my wallet aging like wine.

If I were to compile a CNN-style list of “Best of” moments and milestones of my past decade, I would barely remember the details of any historical event or life altering experience, but vividly remember the movie I saw before or after the event took place. I am only able to categorize these events based on movies that I went to see, whom I saw them with, and what I snuck in the theater to snack on.

You can say it’s because I watch a lot of movies that I am able to track the decade in release dates, but it’s more than that. I can tell you what movie made me feel better when I was fighting with my parents or dealing with a death in the family. With all of the history that took place in the last ten years, movies were a way for me to escape the fact that I was growing up very, very fast.

This past decade is without a doubt the “Decade I Grew Up In.” I was cognizant of every historical event, aware of my thoughts and actions, and I have the right to say “Back in the 00s.” I find it very sobering that we are now saying goodbye to the decade that I spent my formative years, and barely a few days after 2010 begins I will start my first full time job, marking a strong move towards adulthood.

I will likely continue to watch movies and talk about them like they are just as important as elections or the discovery of a new species, and for me, they are. Movies keep things in perspective and provide a road map to all the crazy, confusing shit that goes down every single day of the year.

At Birch Street, you saw a movie, and then the drama ensued. Never during. As a body glitter-smothered tween, I didn’t realize that this would be exactly how my life would play out for the next ten years.

Early on in my decade on a cloudy morning in September I sat eating Special K at the wee hour of 6 am, waiting for Jason Schulz (neighbor and football star) to pick me up and take me to my third day of high school. As expected, my father walked into the living room in his underwear, and I bussed my bowl to the sink. He turned on the TV just in time for us to see the second plane hit the twin towers.

That night no one spoke in my house. After Matt and I watched a re-run of TRL, I lightly shoved our VHS copy of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion into the VCR, because I just didn’t know what else to do.

I’ve met New Yorkers who have told me my reaction to the news of 9/11 is “so typical” of a Californian, because it combines ignorance and addiction to movies, but I don’t think I should be guilty. When you look back at the last ten years of your life, there are bound to be things you aren’t proud of. Hell, I am NOT proud of seeing Gigli, but I did and now I hate text messages. As with all of those CNN-style “Best of the Decade” lists and slideshows, we look at our collections of memories, not really agreeing or disagreeing, simply remembering what was.

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My Most Memorable Christmas

People are always telling me that I don’t celebrate Christmas. I never correct them because when they say this to me they always sound very nervous, as if I might respond with something that rocks the very structure of our differences as Jews and Christians. But I find it hard not to celebrate Christmas considering it’s a day that I have off and happen to be in a food-filled environment with my family, so to me, that’s celebrating. Still, some Jews feel the need to tell everyone in the world that we are not CELEBRATING, or rather, refuse to celebrate. So instead we Jews do community service, because that’s the opposite of celebrating.

My parents used to take us to the Disneyland restaurant Goofy’s Kitchen for Christmas Eve every year, but when Pluto spoke to me (I pulled on his big rubber tongue and he said, clear as day “That’s not very nice.” I freaked out), we started spending our eve serving food at the local homeless shelter.

At first it was just the five of us and our Jew friends the Lebowitzes, but two years ago we were told that our services were no longer needed because there was a new gaggle of fresh-faced and unjaded volunteers from the church who weren’t afraid to serve corn with their hands when we ran low on ladles. While I took this as a sign to go back to Goofy’s Kitchen and finally confront my fears, my mom wouldn’t have it. She sought a new philanthropic endeavor.

At this point, all of us were in college so my mom was of course, like all moms nesting in an empty nest, beginning to go somewhat crazy. She told us we were going to be doing something philanthropic all day Christmas Eve, but we had no idea what it would entail. “It’s going to be fun.” She said.

On the morning of Christmas Eve we piled into the car. My brother was nowhere to be found. He hadn’t returned from the bars from the night before. He called from whatever ditch he woke up in and promised to meet us there.

We drove out to Westminster, CA. I always thought this town was weird because the street signs were written in this strange font that one might find on a Swiss chateau or in a kitschy restaurant where the waiters wear lederhosen. There was no reason for this font and it made me uncomfortable to look at it when we were stopped at lights.

Dad drove us to a strip mall called La Mancha center. We crossed a great expanse of parking lot before we reached the small office space that would be our philanthropic destination of the day.

We entered a small office that was riddled with tinsel, crepe paper, and old restless ladies wearing broaches featuring Santas or rosy-cheeked elves. One of them had her entire breast covered with little angels, each representing one of her children. These women were running around the place like it was Grand Central Station, cheerily barking orders at one another and hoisting bags of toys haphazardly around the fluorescently lit room. In the foyer, there were old clippings from Westminster community newspapers featuring the office and their philanthropic service. I hadn’t figured out what that service was yet, but angel booby was about to let me know.

Apparently, a man named Juan Carlos organized this event many years ago. Underprivileged children and their families could come to this parking lot on Christmas Eve where they would get a free toy, free meal, and a meet and greet with Santa. It had been a success for over 25 years now, and Juan Carlos was certainly revered to be a demi-god by these wrinkly ladies. But there was no time for history lessons; there was a lot to be done before the man in red arrived at 1 p.m.

Matt and I were immediately put to work wrapping presents. We went outside to the back of the strip mall and carried boxes of donated toys to the wrapping room. There were about 25 people wrapping presents and two pairs of scissors. Matt never even waited to use the tools, he just ripped the paper off the spools and fastened the sheets into open slits in the toys’ packaging.

After a few minutes a tiny lady wearing jeweled glasses and a red turtleneck screamed, “We’re running low!” to the room. Everyone became very tense and my eyes inexplicably started to water, because really, someone was going to cry that day and I wanted to be the first.

We had already stopped using holiday-themed wrapping paper and had moved onto the brown and green plaid print. Jewel glasses was talking to an important-looking woman and saying something along the lines of thousands of kids not being able to open presents because of lack in funding for wrapping paper. Thousands. She turned the battery off on her light-up Rudolf broach due to the seriousness of the issue. I looked to Matt to ask him if Christmas was ruined, and he was sitting with his head between his knees. When he looked up at me he said, “These toys suck.”

He was right. Since we arrived, I’d been wrapping the same “X-treme FlyMan” action figure and throwing it in the “Boy toys” box. An old toy store had donated a couple hundred boxes of the figurine. It was just a rubber figure of a guy with the face of a fly. The wings were on top of his head like a hat, not on his back like a normal insect superhero. I was sad that my brother was too hungover to make any Jeff Goldblum jokes, but I went on wrapping.

Jewel glasses came over to me to tell me in her sweetest voice not to use so much ribbon. If it hadn’t been Christmas I probably would have smacked that short puffy church lady hairstyle off of her head, but I couldn’t blame her. She was right, there would be a bunch of presents that would go unwrapped if we didn’t get more paper, and then we would be stuck with a surplus of “X-treme FlyMan” because none of the kids would want it.

I was trying to figure out how to get out of the wrapping room and away from all of the worried ladies when a thin, weathered woman with tinsel draped around her neck like a lei walked in with two giant CVS bags full of wrapping paper. The paper said “Happy Birthday” on it but it was a Christmas miracle all the same. In the joyful commotion I had a chance to slip out and see what the rest of my family was up to.

As I walked through the hall I saw the demi-god that had been mentioned to me. He was a tiny Latino man in a metallic silver suit and ivory leather shoes. He had white hair and a kind face. I got nervous when I looked at him, so I kept walking.

My mom was handing out lemonade to the very long line of people that was forming in the parking lot. My dad was now wearing a red and green apron and overseeing the production of hundreds of hotdogs. Becca was organizing the snack-pak size chips that were the sidedish to the hotdogs. I guess this was the meal.

A police car and a fire truck were there with all of their doors open so kids could go inside and look around. There were also a few officers present so that kids could shake the hand of someone in uniform. Along with that theme, four gigantic souped up trucks had parked next to the fire truck and had also opened all of their doors. Huge, mustachio’d, inked up dudes hoisted little kids into the driver’s seat of the trucks, and bored dads could come over and look into the engines (because the hoods were popped). I went over to admire the artwork on each of the cars; a portrait of the owner’s grandmother holding a old fashioned gun, a waving Mexican flag fading into flames, a crying stripper. It was quite beautiful craftsmanship. I left when someone asked to me to hold his baby.

I considered helping Becca organize the chips into categories of saltiness, but it was announced that Santa was about to arrive. From the end of the parking lot he came. He sat in the back of a long red Corvette convertible with the words “La Leyenda de Mexico” airbrushed in flames along the side. He wore a Santa suit but pulled the beard down below his mouth to reveal his thin mustache and gold tooth’d smile. He had a tattoo of a tear on his right eye.

The parents loved it. They cheered Santa on like he was coming home from war. The corvette had hydraulics so Santa bounced up and down with the car, saying “ho, ho, ho” all the way. The kids were a bit confused, and only a few were crying, so I think he pulled it off.

One by one children in line chose a toy from a gigantic pile of wrapped presents. They were told “don’t open it til Christmas.” Wide eyed, they were hoisted into the corvette with that scary ass Santa who did not have anything resembling a twinkle in his eye. They all looked miserable, and though my dad is a great barbecuer, I don’t think the nasty hot dogs made matters much better.

I felt a strange sense of anger because everyone looked so unhappy. Moms and Dads were yelling at their kids to stop being greedy and pick a goddamn toy already and brothers and sisters were stealing their younger siblings’ hot cheetos. It pissed me off that this organization was so centered around the gift and the wrapping and the Santa. It was so nice out, I feel like we all would have felt lot more warm and fuzzy if we’d played a big game of soccer. In fact, the only people having fun seemed to be the dudes driving Santa, who I’m pretty sure were Cheech and Chong.

I wanted to share these thoughts with someone, but my brother was hungover and being attended to by dozens of lonely church ladies, my sister was doing that thing where she relates to children, and my mom and dad were feeding hungry mouths. Once again, I felt alone on Christmas.

I went back inside and I found the man in the metallic suit sitting down on a box of “X-treme FlyMan” toys. When he saw me, he smiled and patted the box next to him, indicating for me to sit. I sat down and said something lame to start conversation, probably “So you do this every year?” Juan Carlos smiled at me and said he didn’t speak any English. I’m pretty good with Spanish but I had caught some of Matt’s hangover and couldn’t remember if the word for “Christmas” was “Navidad” or “Cumpleanos.” So we sat in silence.

“Conoces ‘La Mancha’ en Ingles?” he asked me. He pointed at the large sign we’d passed on our way in that read “La Mancha Center.” I shook my head. I did not know what the word La Mancha was. Juan Carlos smiled a huge toothy grin, revealing a few of his gold teeth and also a few of his rotted ones. “es STAIN,” he said. “’La Mancha’ es eSTAIN.”

Then he put his arm around me and laughed so hard I briefly had a vision of his head falling off. I started to laugh too. “The Stain Center.” That’s so funny, and so typical of a town that has all of their street signs in that weird Swiss chateau font. Juan Carlos gave me a warm hug and said “Feliz Navidad.” He smelled like corn and had the whole twinkle in his eye thing down pat.

Oustide, the crowds had died down and we were told we could go home. My dad was sitting in the driver’s seat of one of the trucks and talking to a man wearing a leather vest and no shirt. The policemen were chatting with the body-shop artists and the moms were cradling their snoozing children. My family and I decided to go to the beach for some fried food on the pier, but I had to drive Matt’s car because we were pretty sure he was still drunk.

It was such a weird day, but that’s how it always is in California. We don’t understand how to celebrate Christmas because it’s not cold, and the true meaning of Christmas is this: back in the old days when it was freezing as shit, all you wanted to do is eat food, drink cocoa, get babied by your parents and do what you could to provide that comfort to someone else. So simple things like holiday philanthropy tend to go awry in our great state because we’re just all very confused. And with my family it’s an even bigger mess, because we’re not even supposed to acknowledge that the day exists.

And yet, I’m here in New York, which is exactly what the entire world is trying to emulate when they decorate for Christmas. There are lights all over the city and the tree over Rockefeller Center is bigger than King Kong. There are children in coats and mittens and toy trains in shop windows (does anyone else not understand that Christmas symbol because I really don’t). Misteltoe is in every doorway and miracles are happening on 34th street as I write.

But this doesn’t feel like Christmas at all to me. I crave illegal immigrants and 90 degree weather. I crave multi-cultural Santas and sea salt fries.

I don’t know if I helped anyone that day in the parking lot, but I know that Juan Carlos made me laugh and helped me feel a lot more warm and fuzzy inside than if I’d been pulling on Pluto’s plastic tongue.

By the way, Santa was on COPS three days later for robbing a house. As Santa.

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Filed under california, Christmas, cops, judaism, westminster