Trouble In Paradise
‘New Yawk, it’s supposed to be such a mean place, but nobody’d ever treat me in New Yawk like they do here.’
Anywhere there appears to be too much happiness, you know there’s trouble just around the corner.
Close to Utopia
An out-of-towner sounds off on SLO Town
By Dell Franklin
Some time ago I wrote an article in the New Times about slackers, which was not complimentary to changes happening in SLO county. I re-ceived a response by personal, hand-written letter from a self-proclaimed middle-aged slacker named Frannie. She left me her San Luis Obispo phone number: “Am an artist and actress and native of New York City.” She claimed (like me) to have worked dozens of jobs and had little success in relationships. She currently resided in the low-income, subsidized downtown hotel apartment building above a bar. On the phone, we talked for an hour, Frannie carrying the load. She was not afraid to lay herself bare and ask personal questions.
She was full of opinions and observations. San Luis Obispo folks (she’d been here seven months) were outwardly friendly, always smiled and said hello, but seemed to look through you, like they preferred to move on. She felt the women to be remarkably attractive and fit, so diff-erent from Midwest and East Coast women, but “they’re like those Stepford wives in that movie. I can’t relate to them.”
We agreed to meet at the coffee lounge in Barnes & Noble, her favorite haunt. She informed me she was blonde and voluptuous, which meant plump, and she was, but sweet-looking, and somewhat frazzled and nervous upon our encounter, clenching and unclenching her hands, the fingers of which held several multicolored rings. Scarf. Sweater. Large hoop earrings. Gold headband. Tortoise-shell glasses. Several strings of colorful beads. A beret. The works.
“You don’t have to be nervous around me, Frannie,” I told her. “Slackers have low expectations and much empathy. We’re humans.”
She laughed, and we found the only remaining table in the crowded lounge at mid-day. Several pasty-faced students worked computers as did half a dozen thirtyish women—professionals. She thanked me for coming. Right off she informed me she was having trouble finding friends, and felt like a “fish out of water.” So far she’d made one friend, an American-born Latina with whom she attended dances at Mission Plaza on warm Saturday nights. She had lived in many places: Pitts-burg (great city, but ethnic/clannish—Poles, Slavs, Italians); Seattle (cosmopolitan latte sippers and faux hippies); Eureka / Arcata (always cold and rainy, but her son lives there); and Monterey (she loves it, but the rent for her subsidized apartment skyrocketed and priced her out).
She liked to come to Barnes & Noble early, get a good book, stake out a chair or table, read all day, and observe. She had very little money. Slept in. Could no longer work. Her parents and brothers (one a twin) were disappointed in her slacker lifestyle and had disowned her long ago, not communicating in more than a decade. They’d all made tons of money in business and law and lived in gated Miami communi-ties, their lives following a perfectly planned success program, while hers had been financial poverty and personal disaster. A non-drinker, she always ended up with alcoholic men (slackers), and had to eventually leave them, although, it seemed (throwing her head back and laughing like a bawdy saloon girl) she never had more fun while the romances lasted.
“I know about that,” I told her, explaining how in my bartending days down south I had the best of times with women who nearly destroyed me, and was a nightmare for some very decent ladies of high esteem seeking structure, stability, continuity, a future, a family.
“I KNOW!” The fun guys, they’re not like my brothahs. I was raised by Russian Jews. They hated my two divorces and my non-Jewish boyfriends. I was raised to MAKE something of myself, and when I didn’t, I was a fail-yah, and I no longer existed. If you’re a man, in our family, you’re either going to be a law-yah, a doc-tah, or a business-man, and if you’re a woman, yah marry one of those guys, yah have kids, and the kids do what YOU do. Well, I’m a rebel, I guess. I never wanted the things my family wanted. I wanted to be a portrait painter, and an actress.” She smiled. “And a slacker.”
“Not the easiest road,” I said. We sipped coffee.
“Yeah, I never got it together. I’ve done a lotta small stuff in big cities. Off Broadway, yah know. Here in San Luis, at that little theater in town, I auditioned for a play. A musical. I can sing and dance, I can do comedy and drama. I thought I did pretty well. They told me I did well…but I never got a call. I found out later it’s a small clique, that the people who run the theater always use the same people, like most small towns do.” She shrugged. “Yah know, I was only in one Broadway play, “A View From The Bridge.”
“The Arthur Miller play.”
“Yeah. My mother, may the woman rest in peace, yenta she was, she always said, ‘Frannie, you were in one lousy play. What kind of career is that? What kind of LIFE is that?”
After refills, she relaxed, withdrawing from her large purse photos of portraits she’d done. They were delicate, vibrant, captur-ing mood and character, I noticed that people—especially women—had been glancing at us off and on, several sighing, rolling their eyes. Two slapped their books and papers together and huffed off. New Yorkers, growing up in close quarters, in ethnic first- and second-generation households, tend to talk loud and fast, startling socially conscious suburbanites and country clubbers. My background is similar. I tend to loudly and excitedly express myself, relieving my mind, spilling my heart, like Frannie. Now it was her turn, and I let her go.
She suffers debilitating, monthly anxiety attacks so severe she needs medication. Her son, in his 20s, also suffers from anxiety/depression and is on medication. The doctor in SLO changed her meds arbitrarily and she was very upset. As we talked, she fluffed her hair, turned her rings, and an inner radiance emerged in her soft, kind, tortured face. Her voice grew louder and more strident, more plaintive, and another woman, a table over, lowered her eye glasses to glare at us.
I turned to her, and in a friendly, inviting way asked, “What are you reading?”
She looked away, folded up her book, and left.
Frannie had a daughter she gave away to her ex-husband’s (imposs-ible drug addict) parents at 3, has only a photo, which she showed me, and had not seen her since the giveaway, was still trying to hunt her down, but was low on funds, surviving on disability. I looked around. With the exception of a few absorbed students with computers, we’d pretty much cleared the place out.
“I’m finished with men, I think. Yah know, this is probably the worst place for a person like myself to find friends. I sure appre-ciate my one friend. But how does one find friends here? On computers? Can yah put your name up on a bulletin board at a community center and say, ‘I’m Frannie so and so, I talk too much, I’m a goddam nut, and I’m lookin’ for a friend to have coffee and lunch with and yack it up, or go to a dance?’ Do I put an ad in the paper?” She sipped at her empty coffee. “Yah know, I live a few blocks from the market. I don’t drive. I’m a New Yawkah. I’ve never driven. I’m afraid to drive. So how am I gonna get my groceries back from the market? I’m not gonna bother a cabby cuz I can’t even give him a decent tip for such a puny ride, I’m embarrassed. So I walk to the market and I use a shopping cart to haul my groceries home, and then I push the cart back when I’m done. These people, they gawk at me like I’m a homeless freak. The college kids, they jeer at me, make nasty remarks. New Yawk, it’s supposed to be such a mean place, but nobody’d ever treat me in New Yawk like they do here.” I went and got another refill.
“These people,” she resumed, “they circle around things, yah know. They don’t wanna talk about the real stuff. No controversy please!” she exclaimed.
We laughed. Everybody was gone now. Just Frannie and me. “It’s not easy being a slacker,” I told her. “Especially if you’re off the wall. Not a welcome sight in a sunny paradise where people work over-time to be happy, or at least appear happy. No cynics and malcontents, please!”
“But do yah think they're really happy?",
“Well, compared with other places, yeah, I think it’s close to Utopia, Frannie. These people have the things they want, they have successful careers, families, they’ve achieved a good chunk of the American dream. What’s more, they seem to have arrived at a cultural and spiritual balance to counter too much materialism and self-indulgence. It’s almost Aristotelian, it’s so balanced. So why would they appear any other way in public BUT happy, even if they are disgusting? And boring?”
“Gee yah make it sound so wonderful.”
“Well, anywhere there appears to be too much happiness, you know there’s trouble just around the corner, if that’s any comfort to you.”
At last, after a couple hours, we left, and she walked me to my jalopy, and we hugged. We stood, peering around at the white bread traipsing up and down the main shopping drag, many clinging to cell phones, oblivious to their surroundings, one way or another.
“Frannie,” I said, “living here, you almost stand out like a Black Panther holding a machine gun.”
“I went out with a Black Panther!” she cried, and a couple ladies on high heels scurried out of our range. “I loved him. He went to jail. I lost contact with him, I wonder if he’s alive.”
We lingered. Frannie confessed she hadn’t heard from her Latina friend in over three weeks, which was unusual. She’d left messages on her phone, and never received a call back. Maybe she was busy, huh? Out of town? She said she hoped to hear from me, and that she’d had a wonderful time. She stood waving as I drove off.
I was exhausted upon my departure, and waited a month, but by that time her phone was disconnected and there was no sign of her at the hotel. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.