I’VE ALWAYS RELIED ON THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS, BUT, LIKE, IN A SAD WAY

 


I’VE ALWAYS RELIED ON THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS, BUT, LIKE, IN A SAD WAY

The most tender place in my heart is for strangers.

I know it’s unkind but my own blood is much too dangerous.

— NEKO CASE, “HOLD ON, HOLD ON”


I’ve always had incredible stranger luck and I’ve never understood it. Stranger luck has appeared in my adult life in such bizarre and fleeting but greatly appreciated ways, often coming and going in a way I perceived as normal. Help, if it came at all, arrived in short bursts, so I just had to savor it as much as I could, because I knew it would end and that would be that. I never got too comfortable or stayed too long, for fear of messing something up and having them take away the help altogether. Better to leave after they’ve been nice to me for three seconds, because what if this is a trick and staying for a full five seconds results in a punishment? Also, real quick, what is unconditional love?


Due to making so much less than minimum wage at The Onionyou guys, just so much, I started using the shit out of Craigslist “free” and Freecycle to get the things I needed. I wrote to one woman about a coat she was giving away because I needed a coat and didn’t care where it came from or what it looked like because it was already full-on winter, and that’s how I met Rosa. Rosa was an elderly woman who lived nearby whom I quickly hit it off with. She had the brightest and best laugh. I would hang out at her home and watch American Idol reruns with her every week while trying to gently encourage her to pursue her long-held dreams of being a painter, which had been cut short due to her ailing parents.


She’d find old furniture on the streets in the city and fix it up. She had this gorgeous 1940s school desk that she’d painted bright red. It was my favorite thing. One day she offered it to me, and after letting her offer it to me six more times because I was worried if I accepted it, she’d hate me—a remnant from my delightful childhood—I accepted and borrowed a hand truck from her neighbor to wheel it over to my apartment. I sent her a photo of me sitting in it, beaming. I wrote on that desk every day for years and kept ideas for jokes and songs in the compartment in the bottom. It was my favorite thing, and I’d frequently send her photos of me enjoying it throughout the year, the way someone who adopted your dog sends you photos of the dog, happy and loved, as it grows older. I ran into her on the street years later and found out she’d gone back to art school. I couldn’t have been happier for her.


My other “friends” at the time included Dennis, a landlord who also ran a funeral home and looked out for me in general, but especially once he realized I didn’t have anyone else. One day, on Christmas Eve morning, I remember getting a call from him saying, “Come downstairs.” I was fucking terrified that I was in trouble or someone was dead, and I asked him several times to tell me why so I could prepare myself, and my fight-or-flight response, to act accordingly. “Just come down,” he insisted. I did, cautiously, and he handed me a small box. “Merry Christmas.” I looked at him, severely confused, and opened it. It was a silver men’s watch with gems surrounding the face. I started crying immediately as he said, “Everyone deserves to have something to open on Christmas.” My heart exploded.


My stranger luck first started when I was living in my car as a teenager right after I graduated from high school, like all my fellow teens did for sure (no). I had always been on my own, my own entity, and never belonged to anyone; why would that change now that I was (almost) legally no one’s problem?


I didn’t have any money, so much so that one time I remember being down to my last five dollars and having to choose between tampons and grape juice, a classic teen problem! But at least I had two jobs and a car to live in and a band that was . . . technically a band.


Nobody can say I did not try to find age-appropriate band members as soon as humanly possible. I did everything I could. I posted online looking for musicians to play with but mostly saw ads looking for “males only” or “MUST BE HOT.” While I thought of myself as a cute-enough human, I didn’t want anyone to ask me, “How’d you join the band?” and then have to answer, “Well, they said, ‘Must be hot,’ and I was.” Not when I’d spent my whole childhood locked in the bathroom practicing to play in a band. I never looked at it like practice—more like preparation for ~*my destiny*~. I couldn’t have known that my immediate destiny would involve a band called Penis Envy, aka a group of aging accountants.


Before I found the members of Penis Envy (WHICH I DID NOT NAME), one of my teachers in school told me he’d seen my post on some punk-rock message boards looking for bandmates and offered to form a band with me. I found this, then and now, to be creepy. That said, he was my favorite teacher in retrospect and believed in my brain when not many other people did, so I will forever love him, even if it was kind of weird that he asked to play music with an underage girl in his class.


Penis Envy was different. For one thing, I was currently a free agent living in my car and living the dream. You know, if the dream is something that started off seeming fun and then immediately became depressing, leading you to a suicide attempt in an airport parking lot. Dreams are different for us all.


I found their ad, clear as I can recall, among the hordes of posts for “Metallica cover band seeking someone looking to rawk” and “Influences include: Green Day and Rage Against the Machine. Men only” listings. Theirs said, “Seeking female lead singer,” which back then, and even now, was like seeing a pile of money on the ground and watching everyone walk by it. It shouldn’t be there, it makes no sense there, how does it exist, and is it a prank? I replied, listing my musical influences and sending some songs I’d recorded on my computer, and eventually drove in my car/house to their shitty practice space by the grocery store (whose parking lot doubled as my sleeping place, and by sleeping I mean being terrified all night).


I don’t remember hearing any of their songs before the audition, and frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. I’d spent my whole life wanting to be the front person in a band, and whatever they were serving I would eat, and then some. I just wanted to play music, like it was air and my lungs were collapsed.


When I walked into the audition, I had short hair spiked with Elmer’s glue (I told you I was punk rock), and five staples in each ear. (I wore staples in my ear in my teen years and well beyond. I still do sometimes as an ode to my weirdo teen self.) I probably also had on pants that swallowed my body, glitter that dominated my face, and a strict adherence to monochromatic head-to-toe color schemes. And Penis Envy . . . oh, they did not.


I first noticed the lead guitarist, who was a minimum of fifty-seven years old, and then the bassist, who was probably about fifty-two. (The drummer was the “youngest” at forty. I swear I heard one of them joke about how that guy “kept them young” and tried not to look too confused because I was literally in high school two weeks ago, but okay. Who cares.) I’d never sung into a microphone outside of a school auditorium because my dad wouldn’t let me use the fifty he had at home because why help your kids find joy? What’s in that for you?


They picked a few songs, including Blondie’s “Call Me” (not my favorite Blondie song, but I knew it), Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” (which I had no idea was not originally by Letters to Cleo and absolutely sang that version), Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (I would’ve preferred “Somebody to Love,” but I also would’ve preferred to be in a band with people who weren’t about to retire). I remember singing quietly at first, since I was still pretty quiet about my music and my singing, never really letting anyone know how hard I was working on building something that would be ready whenever I said so, leave me alone. Now, in this room, I was really doing it—for accountants who probably had kids older than me, but I was doing it. And the more I sang, the louder I sang, because I was finally here, even if it did look very different from what I’d imagined. And I joined the band.


I knew I’d have to play their “originals,” which I swear to God were all about taking baths and general home maintenance, but who gives a shit? They let me cover songs by the Cranberries and Letters to Cleo, including their (who knew it was a cover????) version of “I Want You to Want Me.” And sure, fine, I’d mumble their stupid bath lyrics until it was time to take over the stage with songs I loved.


In between shows, I’d open up my red Hello Kitty lunch box, filled with my notebooks and a pen and some gum, and I’d write as much as my hands would allow, as I always did whenever I was near paper and a pen. Jokes, poetry, song lyrics, journal entries, keeping a record of everything, all of it, the beginnings of whatever this was. And at the end of the night, I discovered sometimes we got paid (??????) and would take my twenty dollars and buy my favorite cookies at the time, which were the hideously named and insanely delicious Light and Fudgies. These were basically soft, salty sugar cookies with a giant pile of fudge-like frosting on the top and I’d eat them in my car like that was definitely sustainable food for a growing child and try to fall asleep in the front seat, waking up every three minutes to check my windows for murderers.


But it didn’t matter. I’d look at the back seat of the car/home with my combat boots lined up in front of the window, making it impossible for me to see cars behind me, and think, “I’m doing it. I’m a musician. This is wonderful.” And it was. When you go from a childhood where you’re not only painfully alone but often frightened as well, to having the chance to be on your own, even if that means you’re homeless in the dead of winter, sleeping in your freezing car in a scary part of town, you’ll gladly take it. It’s a step up, a comparative paradise. Did I feel safe? No. Had I ever felt safe? No. At least now my life was mine, and I could finally say I was alone and have no one look for the asterisk. And maybe now people would care, maybe then they’d see. But no one ever did.


One night, after hitting a particularly low point in my depression (based on God-knows-what ratio of “my life so far” to “my life at present”), I drove around town looking for answers. I called my childhood Sunday school teacher who had always let me do stand-up every week in front of the class and seemed like she cared maybe, and cried and cried, trying to find a way to make the words not sound so scary, but still important enough for her to grant me help. She just said flatly, “Read the Bible.” So I drove to Barnes & Noble and combed through it, visibly sobbing in the religion aisle, as any previously held faith slipped through my fingers like air. I ran through multiple versions as if there would be one version that described my life in literally any way, and advice for how to navigate whatever the fuck this was. All I got was a message that “Jesus has experienced everything you’ve ever experienced,” and I was like, “Um, no, he has not. First off, Jesus had a family. He literally had Mary and Joseph and the Father, and the Holy Ghost. Like, that’s a good crew. I’m just saying.” And that didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of things I’d experienced by the time I finished high school; if Jesus had experienced them, he definitely didn’t tell any of the Bible writers, because as far as I could tell, Jesus had a super-trauma-free, family-filled life . . . up until the end.


So I left the store and drove down the street, blasting the Cure’s Greatest Hits and crying for what must’ve been the whole night. I think at one point I also stopped by the mall’s GNC, where a guy I’d been on one kind-of date with—he looked like an eighteen-year-old Keanu Reeves and was dumb as a brick but also sweet—worked to see if talking to a hot guy with an empty brain would help. It did not.


As I drove, I remember thinking this was the end of my life. This was the day it would end. It had to. Recent events I can’t go into—it would shake my whole body and I won’t be able to tell you the lighter stuff—had just left me feeling like I would never live to see any of my dreams realized, I would just die, murdered in my car in a parking lot while I shivered myself to sleep. Which is obviously also a very light sentiment. Try bringing it up during tea, I bet it’ll land well.


As I drove, I passed a church with the basement lights on, which was weird because it was a Wednesday. I don’t know why, but I turned my steering wheel left and pulled into the parking lot and walked into that basement. I have no idea what the women down there thought when they saw a teenage girl with Winona Ryder hair and a “Penny Lane from Almost Famous” coat walk in, looking like she’d been crying for a month at least, her face red and hot and her eyes barely able to open so that she can see properly. Or what they thought when I opened my mouth, eyes still mostly closed, and said, “Can I just ask you guys why you don’t just kill yourselves? Because honestly what are we waiting for?” To their credit, they didn’t yell, “Oh, helllll no!” and leave me there, jumping through the walls like the Kool-Aid Man to escape this random weirdo who was not okay. Instead, they said something about Jesus and Christ’s love and I was just not in the mood, but where else did I have to be? So, fine. Go for it, guys.


They asked if they could pray for me and if they could hold my hand, and they prayed for me while I continued to sob until I felt so much I felt nothing at all. After the praying, which I mostly tuned out because that had not worked out for me in the Barnes & Noble either, but it was nice that they tried, they asked me where I lived. I pointed outside and said, “Right out there.” And they said, “You live in your car?” and my lip quivered like a child, which I absolutely still was, maybe more than I ever had been before, and my voice shook. “Yeah.” One of the women, Abigail, said, “Whew. Okay. So you’re not sleeping there tonight. You’re going to come and stay with me tonight, and maybe you can go to Miriam’s tomorrow, and we’ll figure out the rest from there, okay?” I cried again and nodded and followed Abigail to her house down the street. When we got there, I met her husband and their two kids; she had a ten-year-old boy named Ben and a newborn in a crib and I couldn’t believe she was letting me stay with her, because I could totally be a murderer. She didn’t know. I slept on the couch in the baby’s room and readied myself for them to change their minds.

  

    They did not change their minds. They brought me donuts in the morning, which I absolutely assumed were not mine and did not touch them until I was expressly told they were for me, and even then, I picked at them like they were poisoned, or I’d heard them incorrectly.


I stayed with them at night and went to my numerous jobs in the morning and kept out of sight and out of mind, trying not to leave any evidence I’d ever been there, ready at any point to be kicked out, found out, rejected—a foster dog through and through.


I’d play with their son and hold the baby and they’d be kind to me and it would hurt because it was new. I went over to another woman from the church’s house and sat on the phone with my punk-rock boyfriend who had a lip ring (so hot at the time) but no emotional intelligence, and talked about how I was literally on the outside of the house looking inside at these people, this family, who moved with one another like they knew choreographed dance steps, and how much it hurt to be an interloper seeing what everyone else had, without even asking.


I stayed maybe three days max because it was too painful and I figured it was better to leave before they could ask me to go and it would break my heart. Before I left, Abigail told me she was going to pray with me, and as soon as she did, she told me, “From now on, any time you go through life, you won’t be alone anymore. If you need help or anything, someone will be there to help you. God will send them. You’ll never be alone again, okay?” and I smiled at the idea of that, wanting to believe her. Several days later, on my way to the gas station, my car made it just short of the station before running out of gas, and the second I signaled, a car behind me signaled too, and you guys, it was so fucking weird. I didn’t die, I wasn’t dismembered, it was just a dude in his forties who had a feeling I needed help, who helped me get gas, didn’t hit on me, and just went on his way. JESUS IS MAGIC!!!


In the years since, I’ve had similar bursts of immediate intimacy with people I’d just met. A few years ago, I met a lesbian couple, Colleen and Renée, and their friend, Elizabeth, on the first vacation I ever let myself truly take, to swim with dolphins. (I adapt so easily to any kind of communal environment, it’s a wonder I’ve never been sucked into a cult.) We all made breakfast together and did dishes together and they laughed at all my weird jokes and they were hippies and grounded and sarcastic and real and no-bullshit and I loved them. I was the only one there under fifty because apparently once you hit fifty, and not a day sooner, you’re, like, “Time to swim with dolphins!” and I was absolutely not expecting it to be as touchy-feely as it was.


While everyone there was openly talking in the sharing circle about what brought them there, I was the comedian/musician from New York City in a mustard-yellow grandpa cardigan who holed up inside herself and would not share, thanks. By the end, I opened wide as the sun, partly because of the warmth and inclusion and consistency of the very new feeling of seeing someone who liked me and cared about me every single morning and night. At the end of the trip, they told me I should come to Atlanta some time and I thought, “Nah, I’d rather just imagine you’re my family in my head rather than get to know you and potentially feel sad.”


But a year later, I took a chance and went. It was incredible. They treated me like family and told me at the end of my stay that during the dolphin trip, they’d all talked and said they felt like they could be a family for me, would love to be that for me. And I cried because I had been adopted like I’d always wanted. But the feeling ebbed and flowed as I grappled with not really being their family, and having that confirmed when I’d later ask when I could come back to see them and they’d say, “Well, the winter won’t work because that’s the holidays, so we’re busy with family stuff.” And I remembered who I was. Not theirs. Not anyone’s.


The exceptional, overwhelming kindness of strangers who immediately see me and my heart as special and full and open and innately, unequivocally, deserving of love and care right out of the gate, no questions asked, has often left me gut-punched and confused. For years, I’d think that surely my family had to be right about me because they knew me best, they knew the truth: that I was nothing and no one and I was bad and horrible and should’ve been a baby in a dumpster, good riddance. Strangers were all just fooled by some surface-level magic I was performing—that had to be it—and if I’d spent any further time with them, if they really knew, they’d see it, they’d see the truth that my family was right.


So I stayed away from people and wouldn’t get too close to them when they seemed like they wanted to love me and could love me and would love nothing more than to love me—if I’d let them. So I didn’t. It would’ve hurt too much to finally feel loved and then, once they’d realized they’d wasted their time, and I was bad and worthless, to have them leave and come back again, or become unsafe seemingly because the wind blew differently that day, just like my family. No thanks. Better to be alone the way I’d always been.


But now I see it differently. If you’re driving on the highway and there’s a giant gorgeous garden that’s remarkable and special and unlike anything you’ve ever seen, you’ll see it coming from miles away, and even if you see only a flash of it, going sixty miles per hour, you’ll know it’s incredible. You don’t have to spend a ton of time looking at it to know that, and even if you don’t inspect it closely, you know what you know and there’s no need to question it. It’s lovely. The end. But if you’re driving past it very quickly and hatefully, to you, it might just be a place where they don’t sell any fucking Diet Coke and you really want a Diet Coke, so fuck that place.


My point is, maybe the people who knew me for five minutes and immediately saw how lovable I was saw it because it permeated everything around me and was refracted all around the room, so was clear to anyone who was paying attention. And my family just never was, for various reasons. Maybe they were standing in an art gallery, staring at their phone or looking too closely at paintings, wondering what all these ugly fucking streaks were, what a waste of canvas. But fortunately, those paintings didn’t stay in that gallery for long; they left and went outside, where other people could appreciate them and love them and see them and tell them they were perfect and special and they’d very much like to have them in their home.






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