Friday, December 2

The Lesson Of The Window Painter

It was the end of a long week visiting in California over the Thanksgiving holiday. The drive back to the desert from the Sierra foothills is a nine-hour drive in the best of circumstances. It was shaping up to be at least eleven with the endless line of eighteen-wheelers, RV’s, and autos crammed full of vacationers going back home.

My middle son and I were already bored and tired halfway through the trip, despite having loaded up on olives, dried fruit, Jordan almonds, and other central California delicacies at the many road side Mom-and-Pops along highway 99. Just southeast of Bakersfield, as always, the feel of the trip changed drastically. After turning onto highway 58, we began a long climb over the last of the hills to feel the Pacific’s breath. Gone were the endless fields of stuff green or fallow. The orchards with their military rank and file precision disappeared. The earthy tang of cow manure, wood smoke, and growing things gave way to, well, not much of anything.

The Central Valley morphed into another classic west coast terrain, the dry oak woodland. It clung to hillsides traversed by train lines little changed in 100 years. It was a beautiful drive, but bittersweet. In 30 miles, the California I know would vanish. It would stretch in one last fertile and futile attempt to the low mountain pass, then give in to greater forces, meandering downhill to sulk in the Mojave. Before it admitted defeat, however, it showed us one last little gem: Tehachapi.

Those unfamiliar with California tend to visualize the sunny beaches of Malibu, the Golden Gate bridge, Hollywood, or maybe ski resorts. The other 95% of the state is dotted with Tehachapis; small towns with tourist traps, historic markers, or nothing much of note. And in each of these is a place I like to discover: the local cafĂ©/diner/family restaurant. In Tehachapi, that place is Kelcy’s.

My son and I pulled up in front, weary from an already long trip, and hungry. I set the car alarm, it went “bweep!” and we walked up to the door. A strong odor assaulted us. Looking around I saw a black man standing near the front of the restaurant, peering through the smoke wafting to us from his cheap cigar. He was wearing a threadbare hooded sweater against the chill, warming his hands on a Styrofoam cup of coffee. His beard was ragged and unkempt, bits of broken leaves or some such stuck in it. His jeans looked dirty and had holes at the knees. He peeked at us from the corner of the brick wall, appearing to take some shelter from the breeze. All in all, he looked pretty unsavory.

I ushered my son in and he selected a spot at the counter. We always sit at the counter because it’s an honest-to-God old formica job with decades of wear from the elbows of patrons. The wall in front of us had a 1930’s era radio with an almost as old sign that read “STILL WORKS” scrawled in crooked letters. A few feet to the right of it was an old clock, the type with cardboard cards that flipped every ten seconds or so, advertising local businesses in bright fluorescent poster paint. My son had seen only this one, I hadn’t seen one in at least twenty years, and I don’t think you can buy the gaudy paint in any modern market chain. The opposite wall was covered in old black and white photos of the town and its resident farmers, lumberjacks, ranchers, and, of course, trains.

To my surprise, my son ordered a ham and fried egg sandwich (when was the last time you saw that on a menu?), and I ordered an omelette. My traveling philosophy has always been that the rating of any small town eatery is directly proportional to the size of their omelettes, and the number of hours in the day you can order one. The ubiquitous plump, buxom waitress brought my son’s Sprite, poured my black coffee, and we took to our plates with mismatched silverware.

I made sure to keep an eye out the window. Our car was filled with souvenirs, trinkets, gifts, a chair my mother had given me, and most important, my cherished laptop. Despite the car alarm, I wasn’t too sure about the disheveled character out front. We ate our lunch in quiet, my son and I both in a contemplative space about our recent trip. I watched the car every minute or two until the check came. I laid out bills on the counter, making sure to leave a generous tip, as I always do if the mountain town waitress is pleasant and efficient.

It wasn’t until we stood on the sidewalk that I learned my lesson, and realized my eyes weren’t as observant as I had thought.

There was the black man, a brush in his hand, painting Christmas murals on the restaurant windows. At the moment he was working on an angel. He had completed a Christmas tree, a nativity scene, and the phrase “Happy Holidays” in bright red. The mural had a childlike quality to it. The sheep looked sort of like the camel, and the camel looked sort of like the sheep. The angel’s wings weren’t symmetrical. The tree was ordinary. The writing was definitely not calligraphy. But it was all honest and happy and homely and humble, right down to the squiggly extra rays of baby Jesus’ halo.

My brain fumbled in its unfairness and embarrassment. He knew nothing of my earlier thoughts, but I knew I had wounded him. I struggled for something, anything.

“That looks great,” I said lamely.

“Thank you!”

“You have a Merry Christmas, ” I said.

“Thank you, sir. Happy Holidays, and God bless you.”

Dropping back into the desert on the highway, I knew the painter’s God had blessed me. He had blessed me with shame and a lesson in the meaning of the season of Good Will to Men.

The desert burns the superfluous and indulgent out of its inhabitants, burnishing them with wisdom and truth. And all the rest of the way home, the desert mocked me.


Kingfisher said...

Before any blog stalkers rant here:

Yes. I am perfectly aware of the irony of this post compared to my earlier one regarding discrimination. I'm human. Sue me.

jazz bird said...

Touching. I liked your writing style for this one. It painted the picture well. No pun intended, but I'm leaving it in anyway 'cause serendipity is cool that way.

KOM said...

I was going to leave this one alone - it hits a bit close to home.

But I can't get over the idea, howevever humbug, that the holidays are also the most likely time to get fleecced. Or so it seems.

It's a fine line between caution and cynicism.