The girl, she walked right out of the smoke shop, up to me sitting in a small patio in between the strip mall and the parking lot.
I said ‘How are you doing?’
She said ‘I’m going to smoke. Do you mind?’
I say no, in fact, ‘I left mine in the car.’
She peeled open her pack and offered me one. When she tried to light it for me the lighter sputtered. ‘Oh, I got one in the store. I forgot to pick it up.’ A twenty-something, a bit sloppy in baggy house pants, a t-shirt and a tight rack held in place, high and snug. Red-tinted hair, twisted and piled up on top of a face that could be beautiful, but it’s around 10:00 AM and she has no makeup, nothing to hide some blemishes, and her shirt, un-tucked, rides up on her waist exposing a bit of a tattoo on her back side. Uh huh. She comes back and fires the lighter. The cigarette paper says ‘Turkish Import’ and it’s smooth and light.
‘These look high class’, I say.
She examines the pack. ‘Camel smooth.’ She’s looking at me, sitting ten feet away on the bench seating that surrounds the cement patio and the small patch of tile and green grass. The shopping mall has seen better days, on Arrow and Indian Hill.
‘So what’s your plan today’, I say.
‘What do you do?’
‘Arrange events and catering for a restaurant. Up at a golf course. Work the bar, sell event packaging, catering, drive the cart around the course and sell drinks.’
‘Beverage cart girl. Make some good tips.’
She nods. She looks like an exotic ethnic mix, maybe Anglo and Asian. She seems relaxed, not overly flirtatious, sultry.
‘Work a lot of hours, though. All day sometimes in the cart, then working the bar, get off sometimes at 2:00 AM.’ I wonder what golf course bar is open until 2:00 AM. Not many of the local courses have banquet facilities, catering services and a bar open late.
‘It’s a long drive, too, now. I used to live in Diamond Bar, and it was easy to get there. I live around the corner now. Long drive every day, each way.’
I don’t say anything for a few moments. I’d offered her some of my donuts. She asked what I had and I told her chocolate coconut and a cinnamon swirl. I almost get her to have a couple of bites, but she says no thanks. I haven’t been to this donut shop since the fall. It’s been a while. An older man wearing a Dodgers cap had said hello when I’d walked in and when I was getting cream we’d talked about the weather, nice spring morning, and when I’d turned to leave he said ‘Leaving now?’ like he’d wanted to talk some more and I said ‘I’ll get some of that sunshine while I can,’ feeling a little like I’d missed an opportunity, but when the girl had come over when I’d sat down it was as if this was a more interesting smoking companion, all my own.
I don’t ask her name. She is young and firm in the right places with a little layer of comfort around the hips, smoking, looking me in the eye. She is not afraid. Nor is she making a big scene, trying to get something, money, a job, a ride, and I let it go for what it is.
She keeps talking after a few moments, about her drive, the time it takes, and how it is tough juggling the commute and the hours of the job with classes.
‘Classes?’ I say. ‘You in school?’
‘Drug counseling classes.’
‘Substance abuse classes.’
‘They hard?’ I say.
‘I have to take them. I had a problem. Clean for about two months, now.’
‘Good. I hope you stay that way.’ She doesn’t look convinced that she will. I’m wondering what kind of girl who has a substance abuse past and now lives in Claremont, instead of Diamond Bar, rolls out of bed and walks down to the smoke shop to buy cigarettes and talks to a strange older man. But it’s not seeming to bother her.
‘What was your substance of abuse?’
She looks me right in the eye. ‘Heroin. Cocaine.’
‘Mmm. That’s not good.’ She agrees.
‘So now I want to have a counseling center, maybe a house, where I can help people get away from that. Not a counseling center as much as a home, a place where people can stay. Help them with the transition.’
‘How did you get involved with that?’
‘A boy. My boyfriend. He sold it.’
Maybe there’s a weak spot girls have for these kinds of predators. Why young women don’t run for the hills the minute they find a guy using needles and trying to hook their girlfriends, I’ll never know. But I’d like to know. That bad boy streak, that danger, the thrill ride that chicks are said to dig. I wonder if she’s living with a guy now. Whether or not she’s a hooker, a midnight rider, a popper still, an alcoholic, or just a smoker now trying to stay cool.
‘Law enforcement, maybe,’ she says. 'Be a cop, help people out. Not a dick, like some cops.’
‘Cops are okay with me,’ I say. ‘I don’t have any problem with police.’
‘Not the good ones. Some are dicks. It would be cool, helping people out.’
‘You take what’s in front of you,’ I say. ‘You can’t really choose what you have to deal with.’
‘My dad’s a cop.’
‘I have a friend whose daughter wants to be a cop. She’s 19.’ I think of Claudia.
‘My dad’s a cop.’
‘Where? What force?’
‘LAPD? Or Los Angeles Sheriff?”
Is he proud of his daughter, I’m thinking. How does a sheriff deputy let his daughter get hooked into the worst kind of drugs imaginable? Does he know? Does he care? I don’t say any of this to the girl. I don’t even know her name. And I’m not going to ask her name. I don’t want to press this any harder than making conversation. People have been telling me their stories for months now, even a few years back, and my best approach is to keep the conversation going, don’t ask real personal questions, allow anonymity, let people say what they have to say and don’t allow anything to get in the way, like who they are, who they know, who they associate with. I think she’d be a romp, a girl wise beyond her years and knows how to use every asset available to her to get what she wants, get what she needs. She’s conned a cop, her dad, is what I think. She’s used to being on the street.
‘This restaurant?’ I point to the sign that says ‘Peruvian Restaurant’. ‘Is that any good?’
She says she thinks it’s the step-down level from the other door, directly behind us. ‘I went in there, I didn’t like the way they had the chicken cooked.’
‘This shopping plaza has been through a lot of changes,’ I say. ‘The corner over there used to be a Ranch Market. There was a Mexican takeout place over there,’ pointing to the corner of Arrow and Indian Hill. ‘They have a lot of turnover here.’
‘It’s a nice area, though,’ she says. She has a nice face, a terrific shape and with a little hair styling and makeup, some nice clothes, she would be a head-turner. That’s not what she is wearing today, though. I won’t see it today, maybe not ever. She’s in the neighborhood, and I can stop in for donuts anytime. Others, men and women, whom I’ve met at other breakfast hangouts, other places, seem like they’d enjoy talking to me again if I’d stop in and seem them another time. The guy, Doyle, at Panera, talking about football. The guys at the Lift Off Café at Cable Airport. The man at the car wash last week talking about his Monte Carlo. The Asian women with the short shorts at the laundromat who drives in and parks in her BMW 740 and walks in, all legs and heels and shorts, asks me if I can help her get the door open on the large washer. This chick. Who knows?
‘This isn’t a bad area,’ I say, ‘this isn’t a bad shopping center. It’s just that people going down Indian Hill are usually going to the freeway, or going uptown. It’s not a convenient stopping area for certain kinds of folks.’ Certain kinds of folks who aren’t like me.
She gets up and says ‘Have a nice day.’
No, I don’t turn to get a last look. I don’t ask for her name, give her a final once over, a punch line, nothing. It’s over. But it’s in my mind.
Now, five hours later, Miles Davis is on KJAZ, like he’s been reading over my shoulder, waiting for the cue.