Need a lift? I’m a softie with a full tank of gas!
My Prius makes an awfully great neighborhood Taxi. Just ask the local housekeeping staff.
By Janis Hirsch
When I first moved to LA, I saw signs for Coldwater Cyn, Laurel Cyn and Benedict Cyn. “Who’s Cyn?” I wondered and was she jealous of Beverly who had a whole Hills named after her?
Cyn, it turns out, is an abbreviation of “canyon.” Until I came to California, I hadn’t realized there was even a need to abbreviate “canyon.” And while I’m at it, I get needing to shorten the word “boulevard” but “road”? Really? Those two other letters are deal-breakers?
I now live in a canyon, which sounds exotic to my New Jersey ears, as if a posse of cowboys in chaps should be roaming the neighborhood. Which they occasionally do but their chaps are tush-less, which is why it’s called the Wild West.
Except for the free range coyotes snacking on house pets, rattlesnake roadkill and spying a “See The Homes of the Stars!” tour bus stop in front of a house Jackie Chan hasn’t lived in for twelve years, my canyon is like any other suburban neighborhood.
As it is driving through any community, there are things you see –- the power walkers who haven’t eaten more then 300 calories a day since they were teens; things you wish you hadn’t seen – the guy in the shorty robe bending over for his morning paper butt-akimbo; and things you never see – people mowing their own lawn.
But apparently, there’s one thing that only I can see — and one look at the pock-marked front of my car will tell you that I see almost nothing. I guess it’s a super power! Although why it has to be this and not the ability to fly, to become invisible or to wear a skin-tight cat-suit is a source of great disappointment to me.
I see housekeepers walking up and down my canyon. And the problem with seeing them is that I can’t un-see them, which is why I stop and ask them if they need a ride. Luckily I have excellent charade skills because my Spanish is limited to “El telefono es blanco” and “mas tequila por favor.”
A few of the ladies clutch their purse to their chest and wave me away when I stop for them and I’ll admit, I do cut a terrifying figure in my bad-ass Prius, wearing a University of Arizona Mom t-shirt while eating a Weight Watcher’s frozen chocolate fudge bar.
But most take me up on my offer. Once I get the address they’re headed for, I feel it is my responsibility to entertain these ladies. I turn off NPR: you’d be surprised how few housekeepers are as enchanted with Terri Gross interviewing a man about genetically altered Florida tomatoes as I am.
So here are my tips for keeping the conversational ball rolling while taking women who’ve already been on buses for over an hour to a mansion where the lady or gentleman of the house never once wonders how they got there.
First, introduce yourself. I was using what I thought was Spanish for “my name is Janis” but what I was telling them was that I had a llama named Janis, which is why I got so many glassy stares. And because they’re human beings too (I know! Weird, right?), they then will tell you their name. I pray for the cliché – I can produce “Maria” but Lordy, some of those names can really throw you for a loop with the rolled “r’s” and the “n’s” that sound like castanet’s so I recommend smiling and then making whatever your “I’m crazy” face is and saying “ai yi yi, I’m sorry I’m an idiot.”
By this point (two minutes into the drive) I’ve completely forgotten the address they’re headed for so I ask them to be my GPS. Once again, they have no idea what I’m talking about so I do my uncanny imitation of the GPS lady saying “recalculating route” which is what she always says to me. My passengers either laugh nervously, with pity or genuinely but I’m not fussy! A laugh is a laugh and I’ll take what I can get.
Canyons go through hills and hills are, well, hilly which means most of my housekeeper-delivery excursions are up steep streets, none of which have sidewalks and many of which are unpaved. You see, in the canyons of Los Angeles, the less accessible your home the more expensive it is which is lousy for pedestrians but great for high-end auto body shops.
I always check my odometer and once we’ve passed the two-mile mark, I start to pry. No, “pry” implies artfully ascertaining information. I ask outright: “Who the hell do you work for? Why the hell don’t they pick you up? Or send one of their minions? Or give you taxi fare?”
Again, the non-English speakers in the group have no idea what I’m saying, but the veins bulging on the side of my head are a clue. I should also tell you that when I get a good head of steam, many of the women who speak flawless English pretend they don’t. It’s like how my husband hears me whisper to myself: “I’m going take poker off the TiVo because there’s a Mia Wasikowska movie on where she’s a waif” but can’t hear me shriek “Why is your wet towel on the bed?!” in his face.
Back to my ladies. When we’ve gone past “giving a lift” and gone into “schlepping,” my horror at how far they’re supposed to walk depresses them which is not my intention. Luckily, I have God-given improv skills to show them how I’ll ring their employer’s doorbell, say hello and then punch the lady or gent of the house squarely in the nose job – this is LA, after all. The punch is so unexpected – and so perfectly pantomimed, if I may brag – that she starts to laugh and it’s genuine and I’m happy and sad at the exact same time. So is she. By mile three, I’m just sad. So is she. Once, a woman and I got to mile four and we started laughing so hard at how absurd this all was that I had to pull over.
I have never, ever, ever dropped a housekeeper off at a smallish house, the kind where everyone is at work, the kind where there are no cars in the driveway. There is usually a gate more impressive then my Passover china and there is more times than not, a tiny-waisted woman in a Chanel track suit standing in the window giving us the “what took you so long” hand gesture. Use your imagination as to the hand gesture I make in return. Invariably, my passenger and I hug each other. Sometimes they bless me. Once I was offered five dollars. She was 78.
A few months ago I saw a woman walking down the canyon at the end of day at the end of the week pulling two unwieldy suitcases behind her. I tried to keep going, I really did but to no avail. I hung a u-ee, pulled over and opened my window. Before I could begin my hilarious housekeeper-tickling routine, she said: “She fired me. And wouldn’t pay me for this week.” That shut even me up.
She got in, she cried, I cried, I got her laughing (I’m telling you, that punch in the nose gesture gets ‘em every time) and then she fell asleep. I didn’t wake her up till I got lost and by then she only had a fifteen- minute bus ride home and I had found a delightful place where I could get a yummy Salvadoran pupusa. And if that wasn’t silver lining enough, a very nice fella with a bucket of filthy water washed my windows for only a dollar and the promise he wouldn’t kill me…this time!
Yes, I know you shouldn’t stop for strangers especially if, like me, you live a block from where the Manson Family murders took place, which is why I never pick up anyone with a swastika carved in his forehead. I don’t pick up men, except in airport bars – kidding, Larry, you’re the only man for me! But a woman in a maid’s uniform carrying her lunch because God forbid they should feed her, yeah, I’m pulling over for her and pulling out my “A” material.
Because nobody should walk to work until they earn Weight Watchers Activity Points doing so, and everybody should laugh once a day. Except for the lady in the house four miles up. She should go get so fat that her skinny Chanel suit never fits again.