Updated: Jul 16, 2021
Growing up with a mother who was a mindful first grade teacher in the 80s, she never lost a teachable moment. I called them her PSAs. Creative ways of instilling her values into me. All random moments packed full of wisdom that stuck in my brain as truth. Like when we she took me to see Star Trek in the movie theater. The one with the brain hungry ear bug. I was young. Really young. Too young to see that movie. I vividly remember when the bug unexpectedly came crawling out of his ear as he screamed in agonizing pain. Me gripping the sides of my chair, squirming in horror, my heart was racing, sweat beads forming on my lip, my eyes bulging out of my head, tense with panic. My mother maneuvered toward me, I assumed, to console me or grab my hand in support. She gently leaned down and whispered in my ear, “That’s the insect you can get if you ever sit on a public toilet seat.”
I’ve never been the same since.
Or the time we drove through the confusing one way streets of downtown Los Angeles. A far cry from the inland suburbia we were used to. Downtown LA was a whole different world. New visuals, different smells, exotic people. Swarms of bodies walking through the streets and in the alleys. Each street different from the next.
Businesses, suits, homeless. Clothes and food sold on the sidewalk. Tall buildings. Skyscrapers. Some streets were riddled with tents and litter. The streets buzzed with an unknown energy. All feeling intimidating and possessing an air of hardness to them. A place I recognized as foreign.
My mother was informed about the Cooper Building where we could get less expensive brand name clothes for school. Never being a fashionista, I didn’t care what I wore. But she definitely did. And she never wanted to pass up a deal. So, we drove over an hour to downtown Los Angeles. The days before apps and guidance if you got lost. Which is exactly what happened.
Somehow going down the unknown world of one way streets and no turn on reds, I could feel my mother's anxiety grow. Every street corner we landed on had less buildings and more tents. She kept turning where ever she was allowed. Carefully obeying the signs at all costs. Being the “teachable” example. Careful not to break any rules. With each turn, we found ourselves deeper in the labyrinth. Further from the buildings. No longer in the shadows of the skyscrapers. In the brutal hot light of day. The sun scorching down on a late summer afternoon. My mother slowly stiffening as the reality that we were lost settled in. Suddenly, we were at an intersection with tents lining around the block. People everywhere. Trash in heaps along the unseen sidewalk. People now in close vicinity to our car. Feeling my mother’s anxiety build. The tension mounting. Stuck at yet another, “No turn on red" sign as people walked in front of our car. I felt her slowly reach next to her to lock the doors. Double pressing the lock switch to make sure.
She directed me to do the same as she battled to stay calm. As I turned to the window to triple check the car lock of our 1980 something maroon station wagon, I saw a Latino man stumbling toward our car. His eyes and face puffy and sweaty from the heat. His eyes partly closed. I watched as he kept stumbling closer and closer to my window. So wobbly, I thought he was going to fall.
“Mom.” I said out loud to get her attention.
Just then, in front of my window, he raised his cupped hand over his mouth. Within seconds, vomit erupted from between his fingers and sprayed up past his palm.
I heard my mother gasp in horror as the stumbling continued. The man landing against my window and car door along with another round of barf. Projecting out of his mouth and smearing across my window.
“Oh, sweet Jesus!” My mother cried out.
But I stared. Fascinated. “Is he sick?” I naively asked with my eyes fixated on the man now sprawled out and face pressed against my window.
As more vomit oozed onto our windshield. “Ya. I think he’s sick!” I repeated just as I heard my mother moan with nausea. My eyes glued to the man whose upchuck continued spouting out like it was the most fantastic thing I had ever seen.
She began reciting the Lords prayer as she put the automatic gear into reverse. Pausing, being the law abiding citizen she was. Conflicting with the first grade teacher who wasn’t sure how to explain this to her kid, who was obviously enjoying this far more than she felt I should have and getting the hell out of there before she herself puked. She suddenly stepped on the gas shooting in reverse like a stunt driver. Whirling the car backwards. Going down the wrong way on a one way street until she safely got us back to another intersection, twirling the car around again onto another road. When we found ourselves heading back to the safety of the buildings and blanketed with the shadows of downtown. Silent, as the color slowly came back to her face.
“Mom!” I exclaimed, “That was incredible!”
My mother never missing a teachable moment said, “Never do drugs, Josie.”
Still excited I asked, “Was he on drugs? Is that why he threw up? Is that what happens when you do drugs?”
“Yes.” She said in her most serious, queasy tone, her hands still clenching the wheel. “Every time.”