Goodness Gracious

I was waiting in line at a coffee shop when I noticed a dollar bill on the ground. It was not my dollar. The woman in front of me had been discussing her coffee order with the barista for some time (as people often do in Los Angeles) and it occurred to me that the dollar might be hers. I waited for a pause in their conversation, which was easier said than done–the natural rhythm of an LA coffee-counter conversation is tedious in form but the overall amount of words to be said about coffee is voluminous. When I had grown tired of awkwardly standing there and clutching a rogue dollar, I finally said, “Excuse me, is this your dollar?” By that point it is fair to say that I should have just pocketed it. But I had already committed to asking, and I really hate engaging with strangers, so I couldn’t just interrupt my momentum.

The woman looked down at my hand, verifying that it was indeed just one dollar, and said, “Nope. Looks like you just made a dollar!”

But as soon as I heard “No” I was already making a b-line for the tip jar, stuffing the dollar in tightly with the other random bills. I watched the woman’s face fall as she instantly regretted suggesting I keep it.

“Oh,” she said. “That was really nice of you.”

The voice in my head said, Yeah. I know. And it said that because this is not a story about how good I am, but rather, one about how I sometimes feel compelled to perform goodness in order to feel better about myself.

But the voice that came out of my mouth said, “Aw, it’s nothing!” as though I don’t spend most of my time dreaming of money falling from the sky.

The woman turned back to the barista (because she STILL HAD NOT PLACED HER ORDER) and another, uglier thought crossed my mind. Today is the day the stranger in front of me buys my coffee. Today is the day it gets “paid forward.” And I thought this because there is a pervasive rumor circling the internet that people are just buying coffees for each other willy-nilly, that patrons approach a counter or a drive-thru microphone and a chipper barista announces, “Actually, ma’am, the customer in front of you picked up your coffee today!” I don’t believe that this happens to anybody. I don’t believe that people wander the streets looking for ways to treat each other to free cupcakes and lattes. I have even seen several accounts of this on social media posted by people I know IRL, but I still don’t buy it. And yet, I stood there feeling absolutely certain that the woman in front of me would buy my coffee because she was so impressed with my selflessness, with my ability to part ways with one free dollar.

After the woman eventually decided on half-cafs and double-pumps and extra-foams and had feigned concern over (but happily accepted) a plastic straw, she left without paying me any mind. Which is her prerogative, by the way–to reiterate, I don’t talk to strangers either. I only bother them when I think they dropped a dollar/I want them to see that I am willing to part ways with a free dollar. When it was my turn at the counter, I ordered the Katie Markovich Special (the smallest drip coffee on the menu, no modifications, thank you very much!). The barista peered at me through her Warby Parkers and said, with the confident ennui that comes only with being a barista who works at a Larchmont coffee shop, “That will be three fifty.” Which, fine, sure, yes, take my money. Except I didn’t have any money, not cash money anyway, because I haven’t carried cash in years. It drives my husband crazy but the joke’s on him when he’s always stuck paying for parking.

I charged my coffee. As I waited for the chip reader to decide if I had three dollars in my bank account or not, it occurred to me that I had already tipped with the free dollar. What luck! Only this barista hadn’t witnessed it. Instead of writing “CASH” on the tip line of my receipt, like a sane person, I decided I would tell her that I had tipped her. Because I really needed someone to care that I hadn’t kept the dollar. I tapped the tip jar with my finger.

“I put a dollar in here,” I said, like a child presenting a scribbled drawing to a tired parent. “That one on top, that’s mine.”

“Okay,” she said. “Wait, what did you want again?”

“Just a coffee. Like, the smallest coffee.”

“Oh. That’s all you want?”

“Yep. That’s it. And I already–” I tapped the jar again.

“Tipped, I know.” The barista slid the coffee to me then returned to stocking pastries.

I went outside to the patio and found a seat. I saw a customer let the door slam on a woman who was holding a tray of food, soup splattering all over her floral-print dress. I saw another customer from inside follow out a very old woman, asking which table was hers so she could set down her tray of scones and coffee. I saw a customer agree to watch a woman’s purse while she took a phone call. I saw a homeless teenager not be bothered by staff while he ate his collage of collected food, random pieces of yesterday’s meals stored in Ziploc baggies. I saw an old man conduct a conference call from his cell phone while his elderly wife with a hunched spine served him water and made sure his lunch was perfect. He never said thank you.

I don’t blame the barista for being unaffected by my base-level of human decency. I don’t blame the woman from the line for suggesting I keep a dollar, and then not being very impressed when I parted with it. And I don’t blame myself for thinking a returned dollar would atone for not giving my lunch leftovers to a homeless man I’d seen on the way to the coffee shop. Because sometimes a good deed is only relative to the cacophony of shit that surrounds it, and that’s okay too.

Into the Ocean of Almost

Whenever I return to my diary after having not written for about a month, (a now typical increment of time, mind you, age can make personal gossip a little boring) I begin the entry by apologizing profusely. This act is inherently counter-productive, not to mention downright silly, as I’m basically just apologizing to myself. No one else reads my diary! Imagine that. (Though I do have a hazy memory of handing a diary over to a boyfriend so he could read how much I liked him, and yes, I did cook the pages ahead of time so that he could read something beautiful and profound, which is not at all how I write when I write for myself. Was it you I let read my diary? Well I’m sorry, that seems really awkward for you, but take solace in knowing that I’m none too comfortable with it either.) I suppose in years from now, when my diaries all live in special collections at my alma mater, a young reader will quietly forgive me as they read a new entry, one that begins “I’m so sorry, it’s just been a really crazy month!” And then that future student will continue writing their thesis paper about Katie Markovich, the great apologizer, who really only takes to her diary to voice anxiety about not getting enough photo likes on Facebook.

Oh, right, the point: I’m so sorry, it’s just been a really crazy two weeks! Did you notice I didn’t write a post last week? Judging by the single-digit number of daily clicks I see in my analytics, I’ll take that as a maybe!

I’ve recently had a strange run of Almosts. Almost getting pieces published, almost getting noticed by readers at festivals, almost getting hired at impossible-to-get jobs. And I don’t feel bad about not completing the full rotation, for not sticking the landing. I’ve been quietly submitting and working and writing for lots of years, at times putting in entire full-time shifts at home after a full-time shift at a day job. This doesn’t make me unique, by the way. Lots of people do this. Lots of people want to leave a piece of themselves behind, to show that they did more than simply Got Through It. I guess this is both an admission and an acknowledgement to you that I am no stranger to rejection, and to also remind you that this is what I signed up for. I will also admit that it’s hard to know how much time I put into my work when I am met daily by social media posts boasting #riseandgrind, talking about the hustle, how one must set goals if they intend to get anywhere in life, how it’s easy to succeed if you just put the work in. You don’t need to tell me this, I think. This is just the best I can do right now. Sometimes I rise and I grind and I hustle and I goal and I action verb and I #hashtag. Other days I just get through it. There should be no shame in that. Though I understand the empowerment and visibility in touting your own successes (something you must do; self-advocacy is important), I also long for the day where we will all quietly do our work–hell, maybe some of us will even half-ass that work–and that will be totally ok. Millennials will change the world, this is true. Millennials are also going to burn out super fast. What is my point? My point is that I’ve chosen a nontraditional professional path, one that cannot be conquered by merely checking off boxes and taking the right classes and completing the right amount of hours and experiences. It is one that is solely dependent on literally some person liking something you’ve created from inside your heart and your brain. No checkboxes, no right or wrong, no correct path. So as insane as it sounds, as frustrating or sugar-coated as it might be to some, a week of Almosts for a writer is a big. fucking. deal.

I was blindly fearless when I was 22. Maybe we all were, but I was really, especially, naively fearless. I suspect it was equal parts precious and terrifying from an outsider’s point of view. But there I was, fresh out of college and fully convinced I could do anything. I even gave a speech to incoming college first years at an orientation event in which I basically said, “It’s easy! Just be brave.” I was accepted to the first publication I ever submitted to. Imagine: For a brief moment, I was batting 1000. I was like, “It’s easy, just be a really great writer,” and then I tossed my hair over my shoulder and went back to being unemployed and living with my parents. But then it got harder. I got better, but the time and place and luck elements wore thin. Which is normal! At first I didn’t think it was, but now I deeply understand and know that it is. When my first piece was published, I got an amazingly kind email from a kind of famous MSNBC news commentator and journalist (and not to mention super cute pro-Obama pundit, heeeyyy) who just wanted to reach out and let me know he had read my piece and loved it. But then he said something to the effect of (and I am not quoting verbatim), “Lots of people wait years and years to get anything published anywhere. You’re really lucky to have done this on the first try.” And again, because I was 22 and flipping my hair, I probably thought, “Well, sure I’m lucky, but I’m also good.” But he was totally right: Luck. I see that now. Thank you handsome political correspondent, where ever you are. (I Googled it; he’s in New York.)

The other night at dinner, Tony and I talked at length about what each of us seeks and aims to create in our own writing. I said truth, Tony said beauty. After some more dissection, we realized we were probably talking about the same thing but calling it by different names. At one point we landed on ecstasy, on release, on truth and beauty being a part of both of those concepts. The most thrilling part [for me] about living in California is the beauty, the release one experiences when driving towards ocean or mountains. I cry every time we drive north out of LA. It’s too beautiful to understand, so I cry. And I think about how I want to let go of everything that’s inside me, put it all out there, because there’s so much sky and water and rock into which it can go. It can handle all of me, every truth I have to tell. This is why people come here, I think. This is it. The bigness of this world makes the Almosts manageable, sought after, treasured. It’s hard not to feel endless possibilities when you see an endless horizon. But know that my day-to-day is often spent looking into my living room, out on the courtyard bike racks if the blinds are open, wringing inspiration out of what is sometimes a dry bone of a day, not grinding at all but just getting through it, thinking about what else I can do to make myself better at what I do, to convince others that I am the best at what I do. And I chose this. I almost didn’t, but then I did, and I’m not sorry.

 

Note: These same basic sentiments will also be handwritten into my diary, but there will be more shouting and curse words and sentences that don’t make sense and weird tangents about a person I haven’t seen in 10 years but I’m really into everything they post on Instagram and I just wanted to record that truth somewhere.