The night I became a real Californian I was in Manhattan (of course). My boyfriend and I were at the 66th St. subway station and a metro card machine had just eaten up ten of my dollars. Because there was no attendant station at this particular entrance, we had to climb out and seek out another that held a human being in an MTA uniform. I asked my strident boyfriend to take care of rectifying this situation, since I can barely get on the phone to order a pizza. He walked up to the glass cage and spoke with cute righteousness right into the little slotted metal oval that separated the MTA attendant from the outside world. After listening to his impassioned complaint and looking at my metro card, she said simply: “There’s nothing I can do.”
This was the dreaded and expected reply. I thought maybe her metro card reader could magically see that I had stuck $10 in it, but apparently not. She could give me a complimentary entrance, but otherwise, the only thing we could do was fill out a complaint form and mail it to the MTA Office and wait for the big fat refund check to be mailed to me. “You have to go get the number of the machine that took your money though,” she instructed. My Brooklyn-dwelling boyfriend has a thing against the MTA anyway, so this was a welcome last straw. He went all fire-and-brimstone on the MTA agent: “Are you serious? I know it’s not your fault, but this is just ridiculous.”
As he ranted more, I just kind of stood off to the side, mutely watching the MTA agent. She was a small, thin-faced African-American woman of middle years. She was bundled in a grey fleece and she looked tired as all hell. Her face was tightly closed against the brief but broad range of consumer’s fury my boyfriend was unfurling on my behalf. But while she met my boyfriend’s gaze dead-on, her look was not unsympathetic. Her hair was pulled back into a tidy bun, with an elegant, almost Victorian middle part. I stepped forward, tugged at my boyfriend’s sleeve like a little wife and said, “It’s OK. Let’s just go get the number of the machine.” I skipped up to the attendant myself to receive the complaint form and self-addressed prepaid envelope. I thanked her and then we were off.
The whole time I dragged him up and out and back into the first subway entrance, my boyfriend was grumbling like mad, but I weirdly felt all daisies and buttercups. I felt something come out from that MTA booth and wind snugly around my feelings. As I explained to my still indignant boyfriend, it was almost midnight, and that lady was probably not thrilled about being trapped in that glass box, her hands tied by the MTA corporation that didn’t give a fig about her, either. I cooed at him and practically danced the both of us to and fro, from the attendant box, to the offending ticket machine, back to the attendant box. My boyfriend said afterwards that I was “bouncing around like My Little Pony.”
The MTA lady was waiting for us. “What’s the number of that machine?” Her inquiry held fatigue, but also an upward lilt: it was not aggressive.
I skipped to the counter. “1733,” I chirped, sounding as if 1733 were a winning lottery number.
The lady nodded and wrote the number down. It could have been her grocery list for all I knew, but I appreciated the official quality of the gesture. She then waved us towards the turnstall. Her voice was, again, not friendly, but not unfriendly, either. “OK. Both of you go through the first entrance.”
“Thank you!!” My voice was so cheery it was almost a shout. I skipped and collided into an unyielding turnstall, but I bounced right off with an unsinkable “Yeep!!”
“The first gate.” The lady called out. Gently, I think.
“Oh, the first one! Thank you!!” I then bounced right through the right gate, harp tunes popping out of my pores. As we were waiting for our train, my boyfriend expressed his amazement at me. He told me that my unusual bounciness had melted away not only his own cynicism and grumpiness, but, he deduced, that of the MTA lady. “I think you shocked her. She didn’t shut down on us, which is the norm. She’s so used to all these grouchy aggressive New Yorkers. You brought a little California glitter to a hardened MTA attendant.”
It is an understatement to describe myself as not the sunniest gal in the room. I learned how to be an adult by reading Sylvia Plath, and deep in my heart, I am still a depressed teenage girl. But that night, I felt like covering that grey metal and Plexiglas box with iridescent fluorescent hologrammatic stickers of hearts, rainbows, and unicorns. I know I’m not powerful enough, but I hope I had turned that MTA lady’s eyes into wide glitter starry manga eyes.
There are some things I could attribute to (or blame for) my uncharacteristically puffy amiyumi behavior: the cheery opera we had just left (Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment with a heroine styled after Lucy Ricardo and Pippi Longstocking); the glasses of champagne inhaled during intermissions; the superfestive glittery Isabel Marant sweater I wore to sit with my boyfriend in plush blood red balcony seats, we the junior opera queens. What all of those factors did was open up the airwaves for the call of the wild, the call of California. Pack me in a pink box and call me Malibu Hello Kitty Barbie.