Three times in my life I’ve packed everything I could fit into the trunk of a used, four-door sedan and relocated thousands of miles from home.
Twice towards a place, and once, away from it.
The away was Los Angeles.
I’ll never forget pointing the hood of my Oldsmobile East and watching that smog pit shrink in my rearview, having no idea where I would end up next.
No longer hungry for applause.
No new career ambitions.
A week earlier I was sitting on a bench at a carwash on Ventura Blvd when a mysterious woman walked up and spoke to me.
No strangers ever spoke to me in L.A.
It’s a city of opportunists, and I had, it decided, nothing to offer.
So, to be engaged by a gregarious stranger at a car wash was like a shot of B-12 I was numb to needing so badly.
She was older, eclectic, charming.
“Oh, this weather is just gorgeous,” she exclaimed. “I just flew back from Chicago and the sun never came out once.”
“Chicago?” I replied. “I lived there for years. Love that city.”
“It is lovely, but so drab this time of year,” she said. “I was there as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show.”
Show biz folks instinctively cram their latest relevance into every conversation because the worst thing you can be there is someone with no resume. Which I was.
Sizing her up through the new lens of her IMDb, I assumed she might be a psychic or something.
She had that vibe.
“Oh, cool,” I said. Before I could ask the topic of the episode, she obliged…
“Yes, she’s such a dear,” the woman offered. “The show was a reunion of TV actors. I played a character called Mrs. Kravitz on Bewitched.”
I could see it now.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I remember it well. What a great show. Your character was hilarious.”
“Oh, thank youuu,” she retorted, as if I’d been waiting in line for an autograph. “We had great fun making that one.”
She asked what kind of work I did, because the other thing show biz people do instinctively is find out who they’re talking to. Just in case.
I explained to her that I’d moved out there hoping for a writing job on a sitcom. My friend, Tom, had a show on NBC, and he wanted me to punch his jokes. But the show runner wouldn’t let me in the room because I had no experience writing TV.
The show was canceled after one season and, frankly, now I didn’t know what I was doing there.
We chatted easily under the shelter of a canopy waiting for a sweat-drenched worker to waive a blue towel indicating your car is ready. Tips are appreciated.
Mrs. Kravitz, true to her character, had somehow learned my entire life’s story in the space of five minutes.
The real-life Sandra Gould’s matronly tone and sympathetic eyes felt like aloe salve on my weather-beaten soul.
In my solitude I’d forgotten how meaningful it is to connect with a stranger.
Before we parted, she shared advice that changed my life forever.
“I’m happy to give you my agent’s card and set up a meeting, if you’d find that helpful,” she said.
I wouldn’t, and she could sense it.
“But, I feel like you’re searching for something else.”
“So, I’ll share something my first husband used to say to people who were unsure about their direction in life…” she continued.
“He would tell them, ‘Sometimes, to figure out what you want, you have to start with what you don’t want, and go from there’.”
She hugged me, wished me well, tipped generously, and drove away.
I knew instantly that my time in Los Angeles was over.
I got in my car and turned the engine.
The cassette player clicked on James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, cued serendipitously to track #7.
A tune called, “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox.” The second verse cementing Sandra’s timely words:
Let the doctor and the lawyer do as much as they can
Let the springtime begin
Let the boy become a man
I have wasted too much time
Just to sing you this sad song
I’ve done been this lonesome picker a little too long
A week later, my life packed once again — this time with less than I came with — I headed away, into the blue horizon, with nowhere to be.