Limbo is different for everyone except that is bears that common weight of neither here nor there, a place we may be closer to than we think, in a world where we are one unexpected turn away from living in a truck. On a road trip with my daughter, thoughts of life were part of what I carried with me as we traveled to Los Angeles from her apartment in Las Vegas to find a new place for her to live. What to bring, what to discard, what to sell, what to give away was heavy on her mind. Ever fashion-conscious yet ever the bargain hunter, her musings that day on these decisions make me think of what we carry and what we own, on our backs and otherwise.
Hungry, under a wide desert sky of Wedgewood blue, we turned off the highway into the parking lot of a Subway Sandwich Shop. As we pulled into a spot, we were approached on the driver’s side by a female, around my daughter’s age, with a squeegee and spray bottle in hand. My first reaction to this young woman’s polite, “Pardon Me,” with the tone of a shop girl from Sax’s Fifth Avenue, was to turn away with a quick, “No Thanks,” as I had done many times back in New York, when those covered with the grime of city approached my car at a stop light, ready to give my windshield a squirt and a wipe in exchange for a some change. My daughter, more gracious and giving then I, said, “No, thank you, but here are a few dollars for you,” as we exited our car for a bite to eat. Her generosity put an awkward smile on my face, one part shame that my first reaction was not as giving, one part caution, hoping this was not the prelude to being hi-jacked along with our vehicle. The woman, a bit surprised, accepted the money, walked away and gratefully wished us a good day. While my daughter ordered, I watched through the window as the tattered woman and three others in disheveled clothing converged at a rusty pick-up, set their tools in the back along with piles of clothing and large plastic bags, then drove away.
Back home in New York, before I left for this trip, I had spent time with two friends, both in a limbo of their own. “You can’t buy a dress for less than two hundred dollars unless you want it to look like a shmata!” said one, complaining about dressing her mother for her daughter’s wedding. “My mom just doesn’t want to spend money!” said my friend about her widowed mother from Brooklyn whose age would tell you that she lived though the first Great Depression, a time when apples instead of window washing were being sold on the streets. Limbo for my friend is a mother without a dress good enough for her daughter. This friend has the best of everything yet she’s hanging in the balance of credit cards and monthly interest charges that she sees as just another expense.
The other friend whom I spent time with before my trip was dressed in a hospital gown patterned with the kinds of fluids found only in the ICU. Limbo for him was the dangling of six IV bags attached to tubes jutting into his skin, and a heart monitor. Perfumed in urine, he was decked out in morphine and bracelets identifying him as an esophageal cancer patient who hadn’t consumed food by mouth in over a month. Once a virtuoso Jazz guitarist who could not pay for the high cost a freelancer’s health insurance, his life hung in the balance of hospital bills he could not pay. His house is half paid for, he kept food on the table, but his wife and son are in between jobs. Their full time job has become his care. With such an unexpected turn, the mother of the bride, with or without insurance, could be one illness away from living in a vehicle, in her case, a Lexus.
Our encounter with the window washer was not on the streets of New York. The foreclosed homes and construction-halted neighborhoods we passed driving out a Las Vegas didn’t start out as ghost towns. And I have to admit, we were on a desert highway from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in the midst of our own limbo. My daughter, a college graduate, spent the last few years as a cocktail waitress in a hotel/casino, making money from tips, saving for her pursuit of dreams on the west coast. She did find a great studio to live in, a job, and had the good fortune of having loving relatives and friends who live a few minutes away from her new place, but others with dreams are not so lucky.
I never thought about the homeless and downtrodden living outside of urban landscapes. But they are alive and not so well in the West, on the corners of suburban Henderson, Nevada, in all parts of the world, and on the road between the City of Angels and Sin City. Stop for a moment and feel the heat of the quiet murmur of purgatory, of the desperate, ill, jobless, and newly foreclosed. And no matter how they got to be in limbo, they, as well as those who have more than they need, are trudging forward, on the move, on the march to what is next, whatever that may be.
Los Angeles, mission accomplished. Upon my return flight to a grey New York, I paid one last visit to my troubadour friend. Those who stood around his bed, although they sincerely loved him, acted as if he was invisible, talking about him but not to him. It is easier to pretend that those who no longer look and act as we do in our take-for-granted lives, still exist. Entering his room, I entered his limbo, his mouth half open, eyes half shut. All I could give him was what he loved best: music, and a song. I asked everyone there, “Pardon me,” in my politest voice, “may I please have a moment with him alone?” And I sang, “The Nearness of You” and “California Dreamin’,” knowing more than ever that though we all must eat and possess money to live, kindness, consciousness, and gratitude on this road, goes a long way.