Beggars Can’t Be Choosers

by Jane Devin on 07/19/2011

Love until it hurts, give until there’s nothing left, break until all the sharp edges are gone. And when it’s time to stop hurting-giving-dulling, believe until you do again. 

My extended stay at the Motel 6 just outside of Seattle, with its 24-hour Bigfoot Java Hut & convenience store next door, was one of my favorites.

When I wasn’t downtown tripping over my infatuation with fate and other new possibilities, I was in my room with the door wide open. I had asked for something quiet, preferably in the back, and the clerk didn’t disappoint. Past a short expanse of parking lot, there was a thicket of rain-soaked pine trees. Lying on the bed, journal in my lap, I could pretend I was in a forest, near an ocean. Wrapped in a thin, scratchy blanket, I wrote notes to myself and scribbled dreams to the Unknown. On occasion, I’d surprise myself by laughing out loud just for the joy of having everything I wanted within reach.

The girls from the Java Hut got used to seeing me after just a day and would sometimes have my coffee ready by the time I reached the window. They all looked like aspiring models, even in the black of morning. Sixteen to nineteen years old, they shared spiky salon cuts, thin bodies, thick makeup and perfect smiles. I didn’t know any girls who looked like that when I was sixteen. Even the pretty girls always looked like they were holding something in reserve. They were the Marcia Brady’s and Laurie Partridge’s of my generation. I was more like one of the cautionary-tale girls in an ABC Movie of the Week: A juvenile delinquent, a runaway, a girl who had her face broken with a baseball bat. I wasn’t pretty, especially after the assault, and I didn’t know how to be. I wore faded jeans, flannel shirts, and a naked face. I plaited my unruly hair into a single braid so it would fit neatly under my factory-issued hair net. Back then, even plain and gritty, I was considered exotic—perhaps not as much for my small brown eyes and yellow skin as for my fiercely independent minimum wage existence. I had my own little rundown apartment and an old pink car. When I closed my eyes at night, I imagined that I was in a log cabin in Santa Cruz and the sound of traffic was really the waves of the Pacific. Outside of sleep, I starved a lot, worried almost non-stop and shamelessly borrowed promises from the future. One day…someday…when I’m grown up things will be different. Some things don’t change very much. In Seattle, I had to wonder if the girls at Java Hut made the same kind of promises. I suspected they did, but probably for different reasons.

At the convenience store, mostly empty at night, Irma was always busy cleaning or tending to something. She had an animated way of chatting with the occasional customer as she mopped the floor with vigor or wiped down the counters. One foggy morning she was taking a break outside, furiously smoking a cigarette and talking on her cell phone. “Can you believe that asshole?” I overheard her say in a shaky voice. “He tells me because I’m already poor that I shouldn’t mind working for less than he pays anybody else—that I should be grateful for the opportunity he’s given me to work longer hours for less pay because I was unemployed for so long. Tell me how that’s right! God, tell me that’s not like kicking a person just because they’re already down…”

No, it’s just like that, I thought as I entered the store, you’re not wrong. The rule in fighting is to never, ever go down because once you’re on the ground you’ve lost. The only way to get back up again is to wait for the kicking to subside. Then you dust yourself off, put on a stronger, more confident face—one that doesn’t look like you need anything at all—and find a place where no one knows how desperate you’ve been in the past.

The next morning I found the manager—sitting on a stool behind the counter and looking bored—and told him how lucky I thought he was to have a worker like Irma. I told him that his store was one of the cleanest I’d seen on my road trip and about how welcome she made me feel as a customer. He feigned a smile. “Just doing our jobs,” he said.

“That may be,” I replied, “but some people seem to go above and beyond.” We stared at each other for a moment until my point was clear. Then he averted his eyes, rang up my purchase, and made his own point by not saying thank you or wishing me a nice day.

This morning, on a sun-soaked balcony in Albuquerque, I remembered Irma as I lifted my eyes upward and spoke my present-day worries into a silent sky. Of course, there was no answer—another reminder that good faith isn’t always an even proposition—and that sometimes there’s more almighty God to be found in the guy behind the counter than in the woman with a mop.





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