I spend Rosh Hashanah in the office and am prepared for more of the same when Yom Kippur rolls around. A completely non-observant friend remarks that despite a total lack of religiosity, she can't imagine going to work on the Day of Atonement. For a great deal of my adult life it would have been unfathomable to not be affiliated with a synagogue or attend services. It feels strange to be a free agent but after having chewed it around quite a bit, I can't say that I miss attending services. That said, observing Yom Kippur as a normal work day doesn't feel right either.
Our Jewish lives have dwindled now to eschewing pork and shellfish and celebrating with candles and a challah on Friday nights. A newer ritual that I observe though is an Internet site that promotes introspection during the Days of Awe called “10 Q” I receive a question each day during the high holidays. Some are personal and some are about the state of the universe. Each year I am able to revisit the previous year's responses before approaching the present. One of the questions pertains to remembering a spiritual experience from the last year. Having barely driven past a synagogue I realize that I am most moved by the ineffable during a long stretch of highway driving or in the presence of certain works of art. After making the decision about not working on Yom Kippur I scour the Internet but find no art that speaks to me.
I have been helping, in the long and complicated process of claiming Social Security benefits, for our former nanny, who is now completely disabled. She is not fit to travel, particularly by bus during a heatwave so I volunteer to take some documents to the Social Security office downtown for her. Maybe this atoning via suffering thing is something I've picked up by osmosis from Mr. Once a Catholic Always a Catholic. Nevertheless, a steamy Yom Kippur morning seems a fitting time to run this errand.
I arrive at the office as the police are removing a handcuffed man. There is a lot of signage about weapons and assaulting federal employees. I am sent through a metal detector and the guard discovers a few rather cunning pockets in my handbag that I will now make use of. The waiting room contains many people whom I would categorize as mentally ill or substance addled. Strong air conditioning is unable to mask the fetid aroma. The staff however is astoundingly gentle and respectful. I imagine that the police are called frequently to remove the profoundly disruptive but I am moved by the patience of the workers and feel guilty that my wait of less than an hour makes me feel so put upon.
Fasting on Yom Kippur feels as imperative as not working, Temple or no temple it has always astounded me about how much time there is to fill when you do not eat. In the absence of interesting art, after my social security sojourn we decide to hit the road. Neither of us have ever been to Sequoia National Park. Google Maps says it is about a three and a half hour drive which seems perfect to fill up the hours until the sun goes down and we break our fast.
Books on tape is an essential component of the on the road experience. The thirty plus hour audio version of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch got me half way to New York this spring and didn't bore me for a single second. It pleases me when Himself decides to get our money's worth on this Audible purchase, particularly because he enjoys it as much as I do. Long time readers here know that misogyny is a major subset of Himself's general misanthropy and Tartt is on a very short list of female writers that he respects.
An audio version of Tartt's first novel, the equally lengthy The Secret History has been released with Tartt herself as the reader. While this can't be considered a spiritual book we both agree that it's an enjoyable soundtrack for our Yom Kippur sojourn. As we approach the park from Highway 99 the rural landscape, except for smatterings of eucalyptus and palms might as well be Indiana or Ohio. In The Secret History the kids at the fictional Hampton College are mostly East Coast Prep School grads. California is mythologized and the main character, who hails from a nondescript Central California suburb is assumed to have frequented the Polo Lounge and the La Brea Tar Pits with regularity. Tartt, without slipping into a facile “Valley Girl” patois shows incredible mastery of a California accent. As we drive through endless agricultural lands and small towns with water towers and fraternal orders I am reminded how much of the California mystique is germane only to the metropolitan.
We cruise the General's Highway through Sequoia National Park and then into Kings Canyon. It is a spectacular drive and in the future, when it isn't as late in the day and we have food in our stomachs, I hope we are able to further explore the parks on foot. There are three stars in the sky when we break our fast at a Roadhouse in Kingsburg. The menu is limited and the waitress wears hot pink cut offs and is befuddled that we should require cutlery for Himself's fish and chips and my own sandwich. The food, even on a very empty stomach, is less than mediocre but the beer is palatable.
We stop for gas next to a big van full of people and yapping chihuahuas. A young man approaches me and starts in on a story, that I know is bullshit from the get go, about a frozen gas card and a van full of family and dogs en route to a funeral. I fork over five bucks and I guess because it is the beginning of a new Jewish year Himself doesn't castigate me. When I go into pay for my gas the van occupants are purchasing donuts and burritos quite shamelessly in front of me. I give them a mild dirty look but I don't ask for my cash back.
It turns out that the Social Security office also needs to copy our nanny's ancient, hand typed and covered with official looking stamps, Salvadorean birth certificate. I decide to combine this errand with the library speakers series. I arrive at the Social Security office right before closing and am dealt with quite expeditiously, leaving me a couple hours to kill at the Central Library. There is an exhibit of old menus I've been eager to see called “To Dine in L.A.” I have wasted many hours perusing the library's menu collection on line. Unfortunately, the exhibit is a bit misguided. Some contemporary artists have been called into participate and this does nothing to enrich the theme. Furthermore, the menus are not particularly well chosen and a display about prison food is completely off topic. The attempt to make the room resemble a vintage restaurant using day-glo greens and yellows is off putting. Still, there are a couple of pleasant childhood memories like The Nickodell and Van de Camps but the whole thing requires less than fifteen minutes, leaving me with another hour to wander the library.
The populace is not that much different than that of the Social Security office. I notice that all of the study carrels have electric outlets and are mostly occupied by people charging phones. Others, surrounded by luggage, doze on sofas and in comfortable chairs. Most, I assume, will have nowhere to go when the library closes. I observe many more security guards than librarians in the gorgeous historic building. I am glad that at least during operating hours, that the library provides a refuge for so many homeless people. Perhaps there will some day be a better alternative. I struggle to channel compassion and think about the patient people at the library and the Social Security office who toil away in the midst of the sad parade.
I find an amazing photo collection about the development of Bunker Hills which required razing hundreds of Victorian homes. No matter how many times I go downtown I cannot get over how remarkably this city has transformed since my childhood. I feel how strongly I am planted here in this city and the weirdness that so much of what is now history has occurred during my lifetime.
I happen upon a photo exhibit in the basement. I'd never heard of Aggie Underwood but she was the city editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner until 1968. Before being promoted to editor, Underwood was a reporter with a crime beat. The lines were more blurred in those days and she interviewed murder suspects and then conveyed her suspicions of guilt or innocence to the police. She attended autopsies, executions, and rode on the bus with a group of felons to the woman’s prison at Tehachapi. The exhibit consists of a series of fantastic crime photos, very reminiscent of Weegee's or frames of film noir, accompanied by stories about some of the city's most sensational murders.
Walking over to meet my friend I am stopped on the street and asked by a young woman if I would like to appear in a You.Tube video about gratitude. I tell her that truthfully I do feel enormously grateful, but that I am on my way to Happy Hour. We drink cheap margaritas and bar snacks. I know my friend back from when our kids attended the same elementary school. She too has an empty nest. We drink and eat and chat. There is scarcely any mention of our kids. We attend the Aloud Series at the library. Critic David Ullin interviews memoirist Mary Karr. My expectations are low. I've only read Karr's The Liar's Club years ago and don't remember being impressed but Karr is surprisingly erudite and very entertaining. Most recently she's written The Art of Memoir which discusses the history and ramifications of the form.
I've completed all of my 10Q questions and reviewed my comments from last year. There is a thread of striving and dissatisfaction that runs through, although for the most part my self examination is, if not optimistic, hopeful. I've braved the Social Security office twice to help someone who has been exceedingly kind to me. Highway 99 takes us to the General's Highway and through the ancient Sequoias. I spend a few hours at the library pondering my place and my history in the city that I love. A writer speaks eloquently about the kind of writing that I play around with. Maybe next year's 10Q will reveal that I'm closer to adjusting to life post kids and less bitter about my lack of accomplishment. Maybe it's just due to cheap liquor and snacks but I start this new Jewish year upbeat and optimistic.