When I was twenty I moved to Long Beach, California with plans to attend Cal State. But, because of the high cost of out-of-state tuition, I made the decision to work for a year and become a resident before enrolling. I had my heart set on waiting tables at a local Marie Callenders restaurant because, as I remember explaining, it felt “countrified and cozy, like an open-faced turkey sandwich on a chilly autumn day.” One month later, considerably disillusioned, I accepted the solitary job of cashier at a Fotomat—a photo processing company. Describing the Fotomat kiosk as small would be generous. The humiliating shed was plopped down on a gravelly edge of a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot—clearly an afterthought. I spent my six-hour shifts eating chicken and looking through other people's photos. Once, a woman complained about the greasy fingerprints that covered the images of her four year old daughter’s birthday party. I feigned ignorance and concern. She clearly couldn’t ask to speak with my manager.
Autonomy—the only good thing about the Fotomat job. That, and not having to worry about getting along with your co-workers since you didn’t have any.
I shared an apartment in downtown Long Beach with two other guys. One of my roommates was from Pasadena. He drove a loud Camaro and laughed at all of my jokes. The other man was kind and quiet, a devout Christian. His fiancée had recently left him for a woman and he seemed to be in a perpetual stupor. The apartment building was the quintessential Southern California—U shaped, three level, pool in the middle—type of complex. Residents used the walkway railings to dry their clothes. Radios and police sirens underscored life. And there was a motorcycle at the bottom of the pool, submerged. At the time, I found it hilarious that no one ever commented on it. Even on hot days when the pool was crowded, people just swam around it, over it. Little kids would sit on the handlebars and eat popsicles. It was something you might see in a tragic water park. The apartment manager was scary so no one complained. I’m fairly sure he was an ex-con with his tank-top wardrobe, cigarette mouth, tattoos, and shiny sunburned skin. I’m guessing it was his motorcycle. There was a great story there but he wasn’t talking and I wasn’t asking.
A young girl lived three doors down from me. She was eighteen going on fifty. We used to play Bette Midler records and swing dance in my apartment. I don’t remember how we met but, like me, she had big dreams. She bragged about knowing “everyone in the industry.” She told me that her father “basically owned Paramount studios,” and that she was being considered for a featured role in a ground-breaking television series called The Dukes of Hazzard.
Directly below our place was the apartment of Jenny Padilla, an elderly Hispanic woman who had Multiple Sclerosis and some other condition which made it impossible for her to turn her head. Most afternoons she would play her Lowrey drum machine organ and I could hear her music echoing off the walls of the courtyard. Cole Porter’s Anything Goes was her tune of choice and I would toss out compliments as I walked by her open window. Jenny and I became good friends. Since I had a car and she didn’t, I would drive her to doctor’s appointments and we would make weekly trips to the grocery store together. On rainy days, we’d watch All My Children, eat Top Ramen, and thumb through her one and only songbook, Top 100 Organ Hits of the Seventies.
One day, Jenny announced that she was moving in with her son who lived in Bellflower, a small community about thirty minutes east. She bemoaned the fact that he and his new wife only had room for a few of Jenny’s possessions. The night before the move she told me how much I had meant to her and that she wanted to do something special for me. I felt confident that she was going to give me her Lowrey organ since I had, on several occasions, expressed interest in “getting something just like that one day.”
She disappeared into the kitchen and returned holding a blue, enameled colander. She pushed it at me and said “Thank you for everything.” I wanted to ask her what she was going to do with the organ. Instead, I thanked her for the colander.
“I really needed one,” I remember saying, and “How did you know?”
When we were finished packing, we both cried, mourning her vanishing independence, overwhelmed by the end of our time together.
The next day, we loaded up my Dodge Colt and made the trip to Bellflower. Her daughter-in-law used my instamatic camera and took a picture of the two of us with our arms around each other. I thanked Jenny once again for the colander, kissed her on the cheek, then drove back to Long Beach. Two days later, I quit my job, packed up my car, and moved back to Seattle. Before I left the apartment complex, I walked to my car and passed by Jenny’s empty place. I saw the organ, sitting in the corner of the dark living room.
Months later, I discovered that my little camera had had no film in it.
But here it is, four cities, thirty-nine apartments, five relationships and thirty-four years later, and I still have that colander.