I glance out of the window at the life I used to lead.
Mount Tamalpais is rising as a majestic glory over valleys of one of the wealthiest communities in the United States as I ride the 22 bus in Marin County, California. Beautiful homes outline the hills and flats with perfectly manicured lawns and flower gardens, all fed with compost of course. Mercedes, Volvo, and BMW wagons fill the driveways, all of which have the proverbial bike racks…oh, and Prius hybrids are everywhere.
The house in the hills, the Mercedes and BMW, the soccer mom in designer yoga gear (on my way to shop, not to do yoga), the blonde, blue eyed poster child for the perceived American Dream of health, wealth and status. I was a model citizen of self-righteous compassion on the boards of non-profits, dealing out my wisdom and advice on how to help those in need.
I organized benefits, raised money, walked the red carpet circuit of galas befitting the poor and downtrodden. I went to silent auctions and walked away with trips to wine country, spa days, wine club memberships and many things I did not need and gave away to my less fortunate friends.
One of my favorite take-aways was a chair covered in the poetry of seventh graders from a school for children growing up in the projects and subsidized housing. This chair, with its words of honesty about living in troubled homes and single mothers trying to make enough to feed their children, made me feel good about myself.
“See? Look how awesome I am to be helping these poor children.”
They may have been poor but I was bankrupt, empty inside.
By all appearances I had almost everything a person could want or strive to have. I was publisher of a fashion and lifestyle magazine in San Francisco, newly transferred from my life as a film producer in Hollywood.
I was courted by the San Francisco elite, socialites, fashion moguls, celebrities, city officials and business magnates. Being a publisher is a powerful position because of the power of media—I was a local celebrity and my Facebook page reads like the whose-who of Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Hollywood Illuminati.
Life was grand—everything was offered to me on a silver platter.
I went to a gala a week, sat front row at fashion shows, experienced every spa in the city—gratis. I was dressed by local designers and walked red carpets where I was asked on camera who I was wearing. Every week I was on page 7 in the society page photos.
I was bankrupt: emotionally, spiritually, and physically—slowly killing myself through addiction to pills and alcohol and in an abusive and progressively violent relationship which played itself out behind closed doors.
On the outside, everything was rosy. We had the house in the hills, the country club, the cars, the friends, the jet set life, but in the awful silence of the evenings, I cried myself to sleep—sometimes holding an ice pack to my new black eye wondering how I had allowed myself to fall so low, to live in darkness and despair.
My life was like Bob Fosse’s biopic All That Jazz.
Every morning he’d take a shower, pop some pills, glance in the mirror, “It’s Showtime!!!,” and out he’d go into the world to be fabulous and brilliant. He spent his days and evenings in decadence and debauchery—drinking, partying, sleeping with various women. He would then roll out of bed destroyed by the night before and it was “showtime” again.
I was a single mother of a two year old when I decided I wanted to be a film producer.
There was no reason why I should have thought this was reasonable. I was living in Sarasota, Florida after leaving an abusive relationship with my son’s father. I was light years from Los Angeles and I didn’t know anyone in the film business, but the vision came to me one night.
I was sitting on my living room floor with my baby asleep in the other room afraid of the future when I had a thought, “I have stories to tell.”
Little did I know that that brief thought would lead me down the road towards the greatest peak experiences of my life and the bitter depths of hell.
Charles Dickens begins his masterpiece, “A Tale of Two Cities”, with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A truer statement of the last ten years could not be said.
I write this as I sit in the Marin County Department of Social Services awaiting my appointment for food stamps and general assistance.
I am surrounded by the “poor” people I once so arrogantly championed—thinking that I could empathize with their plight. I had suffered, hadn’t I? I look back and I shake my head at the ignorance of my good intentions. My Grandmother, a cornerstone of my life, used to say, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
I send a quiet prayer to her, ” Grandmommy, you were so right.”
So, I sit here listening to the stories of people who, like me, find themselves in this crowded lobby, waiting their turn to be interviewed to receive assistance they desperately need. There are children playing with used toys in the corner, happy in their innocent bliss. There are aging grandparents, barely able to walk, begging for help with food and money to keep the gas on. There are pregnant single mothers in need of housing and medical coverage for their babies. There are able-bodied men, heads of households, with their heads hung low—they are ashamed to be here.
There is no one who would choose to stand in line for two hours in the cold to be first in line (as I did this morning) only to be turned away because the waiting list is too full. This is my fourth day of waiting in line, each day coming earlier and earlier—I have finally been granted an interview.
No one wants to be here. No one wants to swallow their pride and ask for help from the kind, but overwhelmed, workers behind the glass windows. We do not want to be here, but here we find ourselves and we all make the best of it.
We can either lament our circumstances or hold our heads up high, knowing we are all doing the best we can in this moment in our lives.
I just saw a grown man in designer running clothes break down in tears at the window. He is intelligent, in his 40s—handsome, educated.
He is crying because of the circumstances that have brought him to his knees for the first time in his life. A perfect storm of down economy, divorce, loss of his company and an injury that brings him here to a strata of socioeconomic society where many of us are new. This man has been brought to his knees—his broad shoulders are heaving—in between his sobs he says this is temporary; I never thought I would be in this situation.
I understand all too well.
My heart goes out to him. Have strength brother, we are all in this together and this too shall pass.
As I find myself on this journey, I am discovering a beautiful side to humanity that those in their air-conditioned BMWs will never know. They are isolated in their prosperity. I know, I was never so lonely as when I had it all. My days were spent in my beautiful car, meeting with beautiful “friends” inside beautiful places, picking up my beautiful son and returning to my beautiful home.
Botox hides despair and loneliness as well as wrinkles.
There is a camaraderie of those who rely on others and organizations for survival. Those of us who were ambitious (or desperate enough) to line up at the door at 6:00 in the morning, in the fog, were a quiet but friendly group. We helped one another, we exchanged coffee and cigarettes. We traded stories of how we ended up here and gave advice on where to find jobs, get clothing, food, job training, bus passes and help with addictions.
Everyone has a story, rich with the human condition.
Everyone is their mother’s child born with all of the hope of a parent’s love for happy lives.
But here we are and being here one can either disappear into the miasma of the system—a victim of their circumstances—or we can keep our heads high and rise above the difficult challenges we all currently face.
I find that most of the people I am meeting are striving to rise above and better their lives for themselves and their children. Everyone is proving to show an inner courage that I rarely experienced with the “beautiful” people.
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Editorial Assistant: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: elephant journal archives