On Sunday, I was in Bolinas, a beach community about an hour’s drive north of the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s where Anne Lamott, the author of Operating Instructions lives. It’s a community that prides itself on retaining its 60s vibe, though the real estate there now runs into some hefty (read, seven) figures. It’s the community that has for decades assiduously removed any signage indicating its presence from all passing roadways, in an effort to block visitors of any kind.
It’s where I encountered a female blue whale, or the scant remains of her, washed up on the tiny beach at Duxbury Reef. Before I got to her, rumpled like a rug across the sand, I encountered what appeared to be a vertebrae, big enough to serve as a small stool. Soon after, I saw a strikingly beautiful bone formation that might have been a sternum. Slim, pinkish bone fanned out in two sloping curves on either side of a bony hinge. The symmetry was breathtaking. Later, my friend said it would make a nice two-seater bench.
Only after that did I come upon what remained of her skin, rumpled like a carpet at the shoreline. I touched it with my tennis-shoed toe and was shocked that I could feel the substance, the presence, that she almost felt alive. Yet, she was gone, shapeless. She’d left only this cloak of herself behind.
When I got home, I googled beached Bolinas whale and learned she was a she, that she was 79 feet long, that she’d been known to marine biologists for some time, that she’d calved and raised at least one baby, that she had distinctive markings, that she generally hung out in Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands. I also learned that she’d likely been struck by a ship, that her many broken bones and wounds were consistent with being struck by a ship, that she had something like 16 broken ribs and a crushed skull.
I’m writing from a narrow cafe called Southie in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood. Im due to pick up my daughter from her tennis lesson in 22 minutes. I chose to work here while waiting for her lesson to end.
Not long ago, a mom passed the window, trailing after a running 3 or 4 year old, with a smaller child clinging to her shoulder and hip. The mom tried to put the child down, but at the last minute, it changed its mind and sort of climbed back up the mother’s body as she bent from the waist. I could just feel how injurious that was to her back.
Incredibly, she only smiled wearily, re-positioned her marsupial, and trudged on, following the trail of her other tyke. I loved her for that. For not letting a grimace pass her face, even as in empathy one passed mine.
That wrenched my heart.
As did the hollowed-out Southeast Asian man ensconced in the doorway of an elegant, butter-yellow building in downtown Berkeley at 3 p.m. today. For a time, we shared a space, a container. I was parked in front of him. He was lying down. He struggled to a seated position. I felt him notice me. He felt me notice him. We stayed in some kind of detante like that for a good fifteen minutes.
When my daughter came, I said, “Should we give that man something?” She said, “We don’t know he’s homeless.” I said, “I’m pretty sure he is.” As we drove away, I got the courage to look at him. I sort of waved, in an attempt to acknowledge his humanity. He looked right through me.
A sh0rt while ago, a small, thin man passed this same window of mine, the window on the world I have essentially rented for these scant two hours. He wore a white Arabic head scarf. He walked with his eyes and face turned down and his shoulders hunched forward. He couldn’t have been any more inward-facing if he’d tried. I wondered if he was lonely.
“Are you lonely, Mama?” my daughter had asked me the other night. “No, honey, not really.” I said. “I just want to show off my cooking.”
It was true. I did want to show off my cooking to an admirer, to a friend. The problem is, he arrived full. I was offended.
No, I do not really want or need an admirer. But they do make nice distractions.
I told this one in no uncertain terms that he should under no circumstances move his residence to be closer to me.
I read about the self-dubbed “Curvy Widow” the other day in the New York Times. She said she doesn’t want a husband, boyfriend, or relationship. She just wants sex. She wants no complications. She made me think.
My brand new GE dishwasher bought from Home Depot not two months ago has broken. Home Depot said since I failed to buy their insurance plan, they can’t help me. I mean, they can, for a restocking fee that is 25% of the purchase of the brand new, rather high-end GE device. I called GE. They will “look at” the machine for $108. The first time. They will look at it three times (at $108 each time, presumably), and then… I don’t know what will happen.
Am I livid? You bet I am. Did I look up GE’s brand new CEO, Mr. John L. Flannery immediately? You bet I did.
The waiter in this hip little restaurant came over when I’d gotten off the call. “Do you want a glass of wine?” he asked sympathetically. I looked around the joint, chagrined. I said, “Did I chase everyone away?” He assured me I had not. Then, he said he was going through the same thing. Shortly after he bought a new washer and dryer, one of the units failed. When he tried to return it, he was told by Best Buy he had to pay a 25% “restocking fee.” I asked, What brand? He said, “GE.”
What does the beautiful little Blue Whale washed up at Bolinas’ Duxbury Reef, the woman with the clinging child and the pinch in her back, the little Arab man in the white keffiyeh, my admirer and I passing one another like ships in the night, the homeless southeast Asian man, and my and my waiter’s appliance woes have to do with one another?
Maybe it’s about vulnerability. About the weaker members among us — the cetacean brutalized by a speeding ship and left to decompose on a lonely beach, the tired mother keeping a smile on her face while being bled dry by the needs of her children, the lonely foreigners invisible in this society, me and this Mexican waiter struggling with patently unfair corporate practices in a cafe on College Avenue. We are invisible. We are powerless. We are vulnerable. That’s what we all have in common.
Yet, though invisible, we are all here, blessedly alive, except of course for our baleen. And yet, she lived once too. She was noticed. She had children. She left her mark. She was known. We all are. Whether the powers that be, the moneyed interests, the river of life, notices us or not, we exist. We matter. We count. Simply because we saw, noticed, and were moved by one another.