I first noticed her by the dull rumble of her smoker’s voice, low enough that the words disappeared in the same way that whatever a river is saying is lost upon us as we stand upon the bank. But the sound was there, and so I glanced up, saw her, her iPhone wrapped in Malibu pink, rumbling away in a Winston cigarette whisper to whoever was on the other end. And that is fine; this is not to cast aspersions on either cell phones or those who smoke—lord knows in California we’ve got laws to asperse those folks in volumes as it is, the poor bastards standing fifty feet from buildings in the sleet and pouring rain (damn them for their vices, for they surely needed a better lobby for their habits like, thank God, all mine have). No, it was not to judge her that I watched, but simply awareness of the distinct and common rarity of such a throaty temblor of a voice, its incessant nature like an earthquake underway, and it attracted my attention as such things will do.
But, there wasn’t much to see, like I said, her words mainly lost, though they never ended—pity whoever it was trapped on the other end of that grating monologue—so I started reading, allowing the whispering tectonics of her conversation to fade into the white noise of the smog shop in action through the window behind me. All was fine. Time passed, etc.
“Avalon,” the young man at the counter said, which, being the first sound since my immersion into my book, caught my ear and raised my eye. What a wonderful name, I thought. Avalon. I think I could have been happy with that name, even if it does seem a bit feminine. Call me Avalon!
Frauline Faultline rumbled back, “Is that me?”
The youth replied, “Is that your Avalon?”
It’s a Toyota product, you see. Too bad. Her parents had missed a great opportunity, as had mine.
She answered, “Yes,” and got up to pay her bill. And there I am watching her. I can’t help it now. A thing already underway.
I try not to judge so much as to observe—I am quite overweight, grotesquely sarcastic, and I drink far too much, so I’m hardly in a position to condemn anyone else—but I do watch, and there are those who would wrongly accuse an observer of humanity like myself of being prejudiced simply for his having seen what falls upon his eyes (doing so has become almost a sport amongst modern liberality; how soon until I get my scarlet letter?). I reject that, out of hand, of course, no less for the accusation being untrue as for the simple fact that my saying “out of hand” sounds important, especially when you do it like I did.
So I watched her, and she stood with her pink phone in hand, finishing up the conversation with whomever it was that never got to speak. I noted in her uprightedness that she had a deep and leathery tan upon her rather dimply legs. Again, not judging—you should see the prodigious construction my relationship with beer has begat about my waistline. But I saw nonetheless, as my eyes were open, and I noticed, for she was wearing shorts, and her flesh was made of that dark brown stuff that you see made into saddles and sometimes railroad ties.
And I admit, who cares, what does it matter, and all that rot. I have a mirror. I do. So I merely watched, and the youth rang her up, making a pleasantry as she came up to the counter. “Congratulations, your car has passed.”
I realized instinctively that this must be such a tired joke at this particular sort of establishment, but he did say it with a right degree of enthusiasm that I appreciated it anyway. Hearing it must be a welcome thing for anyone who might be worried that their old and paid-for vehicle had, by its present age and time, run afoul of the frowning state’s mandates and it’s usurious safety and environmentally-minded laws and fees—all in the name of good health for the community of course, so, if it can’t be fixed, simply cough up twenty or so thousand dollars for a new one and you’re good to go! And don’t forget: the astronomical taxes on that new-car purchase go to benefit the poor! Etc. So, given that certainty, his little tired joke was quite friendly, a real retail courtesy, really.
She didn’t laugh, of course, for she was still talking on her phone, but the gesture was not lost, at least not entirely, for I had seen it, and, well, in the universe that hardly seems to care, that was probably as good as it gets. He rang up the bill and pronounced her price—sixty-eight dollars, to be exact—but he added at the end, “And if you’d like to donate two dollars to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, it will bring your bill to a round seventy.”
“No thank you,” she said, and I suppose in that she was polite. No, thank you, I would not like to donate. What a courteous way to not help someone. “No, thank you. I would not like to help you.”
I thought about that, and wondered what it might mean. I thought about how ironic it was, even though I totally and completely understood. Not only did I understand; I was way with her on that. I too was sick of all the charities bolted onto whatever I want to buy anywhere I go. Everyone does it. It’s everywhere. All the NFL guys on my fantasy football team were wearing pink this weekend. And dear God, if I ever have to watch another sad, abused puppy TV commercial with a Sarah McLachlan song trying to suck joy out of my life ….
How did our culture actually manage to make kindness revolting?
Anyway, I couldn’t condemn the leather-fleshed Madam Marlboro at all for saying, “No, thank you,” to his offer of taking an extra two bucks from her. The more I thought about it, it dawned on me that I had probably even said the same thing, and only a day or so before, at the grocery store. I don’t remember the charity, some variety of cancer or starvation I believe, and I think I said the very same thing: “No, thank you, I’d not like to give you any more money than you’ve already got from me today.” I think I said that. Or at least I am sure I wanted to. I probably would have liked to ramble on about sales tax too.
So that was fine, and I guess I had some sort of a connection with her in that, despite how much she went on and on and left her poor iFriend to never get a word in. So, I just turned back to my book, when I heard the young man—diligent and following company sales directives line by line—ask her, “Would you like to complete the registration process here and now? We can finish the whole transaction for you, and you can walk out with your license plate stickers in hand.”
This was a shock to me. I had no idea such convenience could be had from some little wayside SMOG shop. He was still speaking this oracular when I looked up and listened like a parishioner mesmerized by some newly preached miracle. How could it be?
“I can?” she asked, plucking the very words from my brain.
“Yes,” he answered. “We can set you up right now. There is only a twenty-four dollar service fee—which we have to pay to the DMV.” He pronounced this last apologetically.
Such congeniality! Such sympathy!
I frowned when he said it, though, life experience poisoning the purity of the moment. I knew that couldn’t quite be true. Surely the DMV—benevolent, well-meaning institutions that California’s bureaucracies obviously are—wouldn’t require that they, this SMOG shop, this small business, this cornerstone of the American way of life, had to cough up all twenty-four dollars of that charge simply to afford their customers an added convenience. Surely the owner/operators, those who put up their homes and sweat equity to open the business, must get some cut of that! But, alas, I had no way to know. Perhaps this SMOG shop does the service as a yet another form of charity, helping poor, unsteady California out.
What high-mindedness, I thought. Here I revile the fact that our state has no shame in providing its citizens with the highest taxes in the land, and yet here, this business, has been led to believe those moneys are no different than those that might send some dying child to Disneyland for a laugh with Mickey before the darkness comes. Needless to say, my heart warmed like the Grinch’s beneath the sweet scrutiny of Cindy Lou Who. How cynical I have been!
“Why yes,” she said, her voice like eighty-grit sandpaper. “I’ll take that.” And just like that the young man was underway. He scooped up her paperwork and whisked it off into the back office for a time. It was quite a time too, much longer than I would have thought.
I, having some experience in retail automotive in my past, found myself glad for him that his shop had not been busier, for who would have greeted anyone in that long interim wherein he leapt through hoops back there for whatever pittance the shop would get in the end? But, eventually, he returned, and right good timing too, for the benefactor of our beleaguered state bureaucracy had finally finished up her call. She spared the poor victim of her last twenty minutes another moment of her company, and, thank God, proved that there are people kind enough to contribute so unselfishly to the wherewithal of the state by paying her bill as agreed upon, that extra twenty-four without a blanch.
Best yet, for that mere twenty-four dollars, she not only saved herself having to go home and log onto a computer and bear the agony of at least two to four minutes of typing in her details on the form—or, worse, the painful writing of a check and, sweet mercy, after it all, a stamp must be licked!—she had even spared the DMV the trouble of processing it and mailing it to her, in the same way she might have had to mail it to them. Egads, can you imagine? A poor, weary postman having to carry all that commerce back and forth.
I have to say, in observing this scene unfold, such a moment of social piety did come upon me, a heaviness of humility. I saw in those moments the essence of American spirit as it has become—California above all the rest—I saw the answers, the explanations, and the specific methodologies by which we have arrived at this historic state of freedom’s auspicious enterprise.
I was so benumbed by it, I could hardly arrive at proper reasoning, and when it came my turn to be rung out for my SMOG check, my time to answer the complex and contradictory charitable choices that young man offered, I froze. Locked up. Didn’t know what to do.
Those same taxes that I pay every year, the fiscal onus that lays upon me like a blanket of wet, suffocating lead, dragging my family’s ability to travel, to save, to dream of retirement one day, all pulled down beneath the surface of angry hopelessness … that seeming sacrifice was suddenly so glaringly pathetic, so flagrantly not enough. My dear, beloved state was suffering in the same way that little children with Leukemia did, and they needed my help. The largesse of the legislature was a false symptom. The situation was dire. They needed more!
And yet, the price of my SMOG check, the thing that had compelled me to come to a special “STAR” station against my will to begin … it was already so high. The same sixty-eight dollars that Leather Barbie had opted not enough to pay seemed so much to my selfish self. I was weak. Me, me, me. I’d learned nothing. I went for the cheap choice behind door number one. I chose one sick child over an entire state. I said okay to two bucks, but no to the twenty-four. A state charity. A convenience fee. But I passed on that.
My guts still churn.
I left so befuddled. So confused. I actually felt bad about going through the McDonald’s drive through afterwards. It suddenly seemed ironic, not just for the waste of money, but for having just gone to the gym before the SMOG shop. And worse, now I have to type in all those numbers on the DMV website when I get home and get to it. My credit card alone is sixteen numbers long. That doesn’t even count the expiration date. Ugh, and that stupid number on the back.