Characters Get Together


First Person, Our Daily Correspondent

wilshire boulevard

Wilshire Boulevard ca. 1959. Photo: Roger Wollstadt, via Flickr

There were extenuating circumstances. I was in LA for work, and I had known, intellectually, that it would be warm in California—hot, even. But when you’re deep in a New York winter, who really thinks to pack a sundress?

The lightest thing I had was a pair of jeans. So on a particularly Saharan afternoon, I ducked into a thrift store and grabbed a cotton dress off the rack without trying it on. When I got back to my room and changed, I noticed that the dress was brief. It wasn’t until I had donned my sandals that I realized the dress was in fact too small for me. Oh well, I thought. Better to look silly than to burn, as Saint Paul would most certainly not have said.

The bus let me off some distance from my destination. I didn’t mind; I like to walk. But I was the only pedestrian on that stretch of Santa Monica. Then, as the wind whipped my flimsy skirt up around my thighs, motorists started honking. One car slowed so the driver could catcall me.

If you think this is flattering—and no woman reading this does—think again.

Worse, it wasn’t just that my legs were exposed. I was wearing my prescription sunglasses, much smaller than the glasses I usually wear. I first started wearing big glasses many years ago, after agreeing to have my hair dyed blonde for a magazine makeover story. It seemed to me crucial at the time that I balance the blonde hair with something aggressively unsexy, lest anyone think for a minute that I hoped to look attractive. The idea of being caught out for such presumption made me physically sick with shame. Even when my hair went back to its natural brown, I found I preferred that people see the glasses first.

With nowhere to hide from the honking cars, I ducked into every open business I passed: a gas station, a hardware store, a nursery. I kept my eyes on my phone, watching as the distance between me and my destination shrank block by block, while awkwardly holding my skirt down with my other hand. A drifter hissed something obscene at me. It felt like forever. It was probably only about a mile.

When I reached the dollhouse museum, I could feel the tension drain from my shoulders. The gentleman who accepted my donation seemed wholly indifferent to my anatomy. If anything, his manner was slightly suspicious. Then I walked into the first room of the converted private house, and gasped. “Is that the Mexican Dollhouse from the Flora Gill Jacobs collection?” It was. And each of us had made a new friend.

His specialty, he told me, was larger-scale eighteenth-century wooden peg dolls. The museum collection had a few, but as he explained sadly, they were not acquiring much nowadays; the founder’s children were indifferent to the enterprise. Kids had no interest, either. “It’s a good thing,” he said, “that there are still a few of us who never grow up.”

We sat on the porch, and he told me about the period in the 1970s when he became the de facto companion of a famous 1920s and ’30s movie star, a former sex symbol who by that time was very old. He said she was only about four foot ten. Although he was her only visitor, she always insisted on full makeup, elaborate platinum wigs, and elegant peignoir sets.

I hated to go, but I was due to meet a friend a few blocks away on the Santa Monica Pier. The docent and I exchanged information, and hugged.

As I was crossing the street, a guy pulled up next to me on a bicycle. He was wearing a straw cowboy hat, and straddling the bike, sort of rode-walked beside me as I stared straight ahead and held my skirt down.

“Hey, can I ask you a question?” he said. “I’m a filmmaker, and you have exactly the look I’m looking for in my films.” He pressed a card into my hand; on it was a handwritten Facebook address. “They’re really artistic short films,” he said. “Characters get together.”

I crumpled the card and tossed it into the first trash can I saw. I wondered how many other women he had approached that day.

But then, for all I know, maybe he was totally legit: maybe he was a veritable Rohmer, making atmospheric short films in which characters connected spiritually, or had long talks on a porch about lost friends and the childhoods they never outgrew. As Jane Austen wrote, “it is such a happiness when good people get together—and they always do.” And I wouldn’t want to presume.