Upper Lower Middle Class

I’m upper lower middle class and on good days I lean towards the lower middle middle class. I have a roof over my head, I drink lattes, I can’t afford Apple products. On most days I can’t afford anything that isn’t necessary, which is of course subjective. My mind rebels against challenging a $4 purchase. I’m fortunate because the beach is free and I have a car with gas that can drive there. I avoid the Beverly Center, 3rd Street Promenade and pretty much every mall in Los Angeles. I refuse to shop at the 99 cent store.
I’m average, the middle, the median, medium. So is my friend whose idea of a good deal is to pay $350 for a $500 pair of Cole Haan boots. So are all my friends who go on vacations, and say “let’s get dinner”, and argue the virtues of various tablets, without doing complicated math in their heads that never adds up.

***

One day, as a girl in a bleak suburb of Detroit, I went with my mother to a music shop that sold used instruments. It was down 9 Mile, in the direction of the zoo, in a shopping center with a Fantastic Sams, a 99 cent store and numerous boutique fashion stores whose window mannequins always looked to me to be waiting for salvation. The parking lot for the shopping center had parking meters, a novelty in suburbia.

The music store was a dim place, mysterious, sacred almost, the light from the street through the display window barely effective. Bells tinkled when we walked in. A layer of dust glistened over everything in the gray-scale light from the window. We were looking for a guitar for me. My only reference was the one from WalMart that sold for $100. In that price range.

Above us, on the wall tp the left, guitars hung from the ceiling, each at an angle like they were posing for a family wedding picture, hips to the camera. My eyes roomed over the wooden curves of the guitars. There was one guitar, different from the others. I hardly remember it now – only that its wood was darker, the color of brewed coffee, a warm brown. I can see where it was on the wall, about a third of the way through the lineup, and I can see its flared curve which I would not then, but do now, associate with the lines of a woman. I pointed at it, afraid of voicing my admiration.

The owner was a small man, gray hair, a face that wasn’t afraid of aging. He wore large glasses and was in shirt sleeves. He was small, he moved quickly, spoke easily in an accent, and paused frequently. “That one?” he repeated, he pointed his finger at it. Yes. He laughed, a friendly laugh that forewarned something.

“You have good taste,” the owner said. “That guitar cost $2,000.”

I looked at the man. Another customer was running his hand over a piano. The door opened and the bells tinkled and there was classical music playing discreetly in the background that I hadn’t noticed before. I noticed it now, heard the isolated notes of a melody that wouldn’t stop moving, and I followed it.

“Thank you,” I said. Because it was polite, and also for the compliment, for making it okay that the $2,000 guitar was out of my reach because I had something better. An appreciation for beauty, and quality.

I’ve repeated that to myself many times, when there are beautiful things I can’t afford.

***

There’s a ludicrousness inherent in the range of middle class and how it has to be broken up into three – middle, upper, and lower, and then each of those divided again into threes so that in the end average actually means unique. It’s your own point on an infinite line of lower upper middle class. It means having a love-hate relationship with things and beauty, with owning and having and wishing, and a necessary worship of upward mobility.

Crazy Old Man

My father often said in his forties and fifties that he wanted to die young and sane. His greatest fear was losing his mind. Probably because he’d come close before. He knew what it was like to be at war with his mind, as did all of us. Also, our minds were really our only assets. Without them we were undernourished, unhappy outsiders.

He didn’t get his wish. He went crazy early on. Every time I spoke to him we’d meet all over again. I learned that he wanted to be a paramedic when he grew up. He started spending time outside in our suburban wasteland yard, where the razed garage used to stand at the end of the driveway. As always, the yard was half overgrown weeds, half swamp, and the rusted skeleton of our swing set.

He spoke to our neighbor’s dog for hours, through the diamonds in the fence.

I wanted to know if there was sense to his words, and we couldn’t understand. Or if there was none at all. If his prophecies and memories and musings were each distinct from each other, momentary thought bubbles that came and went.

My mother moved a table out there for him. There were books on it, usually open, and when people came to talk to him, he’d pretend to be looking at one of them.

Once I asked him what he was reading.

“Oh, nothing you’d be interested in,” he’d answered, and quietly closed the nearest book. After that I didn’t ask. I sat with him and he spoke to me.

“I should travel more,” he said, “I’ve been practicing my French”. He didn’t tell stories of his past but often made reference to it. “Mel should have traveled more,” he’d say, referring to his brother who died as a young man.

“It might have saved him.”

I came home for Thanksgiving to find him still sitting outside in the yard. The weather was colder now. He sat in a sweater and a coat over an old bathrobe and pajama pants. His nose and ears were bright red.

“Why do you let him stay out there?” I asked my mother angrily, but she just shrugged resignedly. She was a devoted caretaker. Too young really to be tending to a crazy old man. I was angry at my siblings for not coming around more. They were angry at me that I could stand it, sitting out there in the cold, listening to him mutter sentence fragments. They wanted to remember him as he was – a scholar, a teacher, a brilliant mind.

“The dog speaks Yiddish,” he told me. “only Yiddish.”

I bought him an iPod but he refused to use the earbuds so I rummaged through boxes in the basement to find an old Walkman.

On my third day home he was already outside with his coffee cup and his pile of books when I woke up. I made myself a cup of coffee and layered myself against the cold chill.

He’d been crying. His face was still wet. He was sitting cross legged on a folding chair and his body still thin and lithe, shuddered when I reached out to touch his shoulder.

He looked up at the pale blue sky over the yard. “It’s too big,” he wailed. “It’s much too big!” His eyes were magnified by his large, nineties era glasses.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said and patted his shoulder. He threw it off.

“It will not!” he shouted, and more quietly “Why is everybody lying to me?”

He sighed, crossed his arms over his chest. The wind blew through the willow tree that stood in our neighbor’s yard but drooped over our drive way. The neighbor’s back door opened and their dog bounded out. He came up to the gate and started barking, calling to my father.

My Starbucks name

Mine is Reese, which is similar to my middle name. Or sometimes Sarah. Once it was Nicole. And by once I mean, that’s the name I had in mind when I entered the store. I’ve never managed to lie about my name.

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Vegan Sun

Open door to patio, to the fragrant sun mockingly gentle

On a day of striped and spangled sorrow

The mirror is a prophet and a liar

The window is not a key, bars of sunlight in the wrong direction,

The day’s long begun and there are people now

Wearing yoga pants, writing screenplays on charging laptops

Speaking into microphones in malls and in studios

Visiting the pier and Universal City and Pink’s and all the other

Things To Do In LA.

The billboards all sneering, the traffic heading nowhere

The dirtiest streets the most alive with the anger of life

Street vendors selling cherries in plastic tubs

The salt of the beach tracing the outline of chapped lips.

Impostors badly disguised spy on heels too high for living

The sun is unnecessary here, the sidewalk cafe tables full of brunch

eating residents, eating the vegan sun in yoga pants

Worshiping the vegan sun, all natural, organic, free trade

Sunlight for sale, packaged sunlight for a limited time

Capitalist sun, innocent stripes of capitalism, bars of gold.

Photons fuel the digital display of the parking meter

Zero zero hours and thirteen minutes, flashing

The price of a coffee is sixty three dollars, as of yesterday

Speak to the stranger in the mirror, or do not speak at all.

Corner of Santa Monica & Highland

With the window down I feel exposed.

The man on the pedestrian stripes walking past my scarred car

he can see me eating yogurt and raspberries with a spoon

out of a size large yogurt container

while I wait at the light.

He can hear the music playing on 98.7 FM

LA’s rock alternative,

he probably knows the song.

I Am Witness

If I have a destiny, it is to be a witness

A blue hat

The sky that stretches over all of us

Distant but present

Silent but listening

It’s a curse

To see the things I see

To see everything as a symbol

To cry for a single tree like it was every tree

To tear for every old man

That misses the bus

To see both sides of every story

To feel his anger and her dissapointment

Her guilt and his insecurity

To think that somehow made me immune

To my own petty fears

Only it was more so

To take the whole world to bed with me

And wake with it pounding in my head

To be freer and more confined

To fly further and fall harder

Knowing I’m alive from the breath

On my side of the glass

Where more often than not

When the darkness comes

All that I can see through the glass

Is my own reflection