Monday, August 6, 2012

On meter maids and compassion

One of the most devastating effects of the Dreaded D-Word is the way it makes you forget all your exceptional qualities. I once read that depression is like wearing gray-colored glasses, but it’s worse than that -- depression is like wearing blinders. You can’t see anything at all. It’s like fumbling your way through a room that is familiar but the lights are out and you just came in from the bright outdoors. When your eye adjust, the room is still dark, and the shadow-shapes could be furniture or phantoms, and if only you could find the light switch then you wouldn’t have banged your thigh on that sharp corner. In that darkness you lose track of yourself.

I know I am emerging from my cycle of depression because I feel more like myself. I move with ease among friends and strangers, and I feel connected to them. When I laugh I mean it. I can find the thread of energy that runs through those exquisite moments and hang onto it. I recognize when my body needs to rest. I do things for myself and I don’t feel guilty. I’m remembering that I possess a radiant, accepting, and celebratory quality that people gravitate toward. When I found myself dancing to Cher’s “Believe” after two beers and a slice of pizza with one of my best friends, I knew the fire inside of me was returning.

And my life is magical. I am not a religious person, but I am a spiritual one. Maybe it’s the Mexican in me, but I believe in magical realism. I mean, I don’t really believe in magic, and I know the systems of connections and divination I’ve devised for myself are merely my human efforts to create some sort of meaning in a chaotic world ... but things happen to me that seem lucky or destined, and my life is richer for these things. I could tell you so many stories, and maybe, one day, if you invite me out for coffee, I will.

Recently I was walking a dog for work over in Bernal Heights -- the dog is very old so I have to be very gentle even though the dog anxiously awaits his walks like an excited puppy. We move slowly. He sniffs at things, sees things, hears things … but not really, because both his eyesight and his hearing are gone. As we turned homeward, a meter maid rolled up alongside me and parked. She got out of the car and I stepped aside, uttering, “Oh sorry, excuse me.”

She said quickly, “Oh no no, it’s okay.” She paused. “I just … I just need to relax a moment.” There was a verdant tree before us. She reached underneath it, searching, and her hand emerged clasping a white flower. She held it to her nose, and even I could smell its perfume. “I just had a confrontation with a guy. I was writing a ticket and he started yelling at me, he said, ‘My girlfriend has the key, I can get the key’ and I said, ‘If this isn’t your car, then there’s nothing I can do’ and he called me a Nazi and opened his car door and his dog nearly attacked me and I was scared.”

Her body was tense and the words tumbled out of her so quickly she stuttered intermittently. I must have been the first person she encountered since the confrontation.

She twirled the flower in her hand. “I’ve been doing this job for twenty years and I don’t understand why people get so upset. I can let people go, but then I have to explain it to my boss, and I could lose my job. I do let people go -- I understand how life is. Sometimes you go to the doctor and it takes longer and then I’ll say, ‘Okay, know what? I understand. It’s fine.’ But when people don’t have the keys or it’s not their car, then what am I supposed to do? My brother says, ‘Just say okay and send them the ticket in the mail,’ but that feels wrong to me.” She clapped a hand over her heart. “That doesn’t seem fair … I’d much rather people see the ticket right away than get it later in the mail. That just doesn’t seem fair to me. So I write the ticket and leave it on the car. After twenty years I haven’t learned, but I just can’t just send it in the mail. It seems unfair.”

She inhaled from the flower again and after a breath, she continued.

“This tree is part of the magnolia family.” She told me the specific name of the tree, and I even asked for it twice, intending to write about it, but I’ve forgotten it. “My parents go to China every year and they love magnolias. I love magnolias. And I saw this tree here before and after that fight, I just wanted to come here to this tree to smell the magnolia flower.” She held it out to me and I breathed in. It was a rich, sweet perfume. Very fresh and very alive.

“That smells good,” I said.

She held the flower to her nose again. “I had some magnolia trees in my yard, but the economy’s been bad, and I’ve had to rent my house with the yard out, and the trees died. But I don’t understand why people get so angry. He called me a Nazi. I wanted to say, ‘Look, if I was a Nazi, would I be talking to you right now? Would you actually say that to me? Nazis don’t talk.’ I can’t believe he tried to let his dog attack me. I have two dogs of my own. I love dogs.” She made a gesture to the dog at my side.

Clutching the flower, she told me about her parents and their trips to China, about what it’s like to care for an aging mother and father. She told me about other parking confrontations. She told me about her job. She told me more about the magnolia. I let her talk because I could tell she needed it. She didn’t know me, but she needed me, and in a lot of ways, I needed her too. Dressed in her shapeless uniform and with her helmet strapped dutifully under her chin (In San Francisco the meter maids drive open electric golf cart-like vehicles and I guess they are required to wear a helmet) she seemed small and helpless. For some reason I noticed her nails were painted nicely -- red -- and I imagined that her manicure was her small indulgence in a world that sics its dogs on her while she tries to complete her job with a sense of dignity and honesty. I recalled a friend’s recent vocalized hatred of meter maids and it seemed suddenly very unjust. I wanted to know more about her then, I wanted to invite her out for a calming glass of wine (Do you drink?), compliment her nails (Where did you get them done?), and ask her about her childhood (Did you grow up in China?).

But she looked at me, sighing. She said, “Thank you for listening to me. I’m sorry to do this to you.” “Oh no  no, it’s okay, you’re upset, this is okay.” “It’s just really frustrating when people do that to me. They don’t realize how much it hurts me. They don’t realize I’m just trying to do my job. It’s just a ticket. There are so many worse things in the world.” “Totally. I’m sorry that happened to you.” “Thank you for listening to me. I appreciate it. I have to go back to work now, but thank you.”

She climbed back in her cart and I tugged the dog along. I looked back and had I seen her, I would have waved, but she was gone.

I walked back to the dog’s house and I felt significant and fulfilled. I hoped the rest of her day was better. I hoped she would think of me the next time she was confronted with unkindness and I hoped the memory would soothe her. Perhaps that is vain of me.

But I am here thinking of her. I will walk by the magnolia tree three times a week with the dog for work, and I will take in its fragrance and recall the conversation I had with the meter maid in its shade. And I will try to engage everyone with compassion.

Later that day I meter parked my car and even though I’d set a timer on my phone, I dilly-dallied in the park, and when I returned to my car, the meter had run out … but there wasn’t a ticket on the dash.

Photo by simplerich

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