I’m pounding the keys on my laptop at my regular corner table in my favorite café when I glance up and see a petite old lady, white hair poking out under a red beret, struggling to balance steaming tea, a big vinyl purse and a drippy umbrella. I stand up to help her, reach for her tea cup and pull out her chair.
She shrugs off her drenched raincoat and lays it on an empty chair, then pulls off leather gloves, finger by finger. “Thanks young man. Kind of you to help an old broad like me. Weather’s a bitch today.”
She has a deep raspy voice and I didn’t expect to hear language like that. I chuckle. “Yes, Ma’am, it certainly is nasty out there and we may have flooding.”
She is elegant in a shabby way – her skirt smelling faintly of mothballs and her wool sweater showing spots where it’s been mended. After sitting herself carefully on the chair closest to my table, she takes a compact from her purse and tsks at her reflection. She blows on her tea, sips, looks me up and down and frowns at my attire, torn CAL sweatshirt and baggy plaid pajama pants. I feel like I’m five years old and about to be scolded.
“You know young man, years ago people dressed right, not like you kids wearing pajamas in public. Ladies wore gloves, hats, dresses and shoes with hose – not silly flip flops.” She sniffs when she eyes the other kids, dressed like me or worse. I consider pointing out that under-dressing hadn’t hindered Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg’s success, but she wanted to vent, so I listen.
“My first husband, Harry – always wore a suit and hat, but he was a worthless SOB and drank too much. Got hit by a Muni bus when he left a bar one afternoon.”
She clucks and shakes her head.
“My second husband, Leonard, was a natty dresser … never made a dime. And my third husband, Seymour – he wore a fresh starched shirt every day but left me with a pile of bills.”
She laughs. “My first three husbands dressed nice but didn’t amount to much. Truth is I’m on a fixed income, live in an old hotel room.” She sighs. “I never dress up these days.”
I go for a coffee refill feeling bad for her. Behind the counter, Lillie the café owner smiles, “Lucky you. I bet you got Mrs. Whitmore’s “proper dress” lecture. Did she tell you about her four husbands?”
She hands me my coffee, and I add low fat milk. “She hasn’t got to number four.”
“Oh … he left her a fortune … owned a chain of gas stations. Go figure. Wait ‘til she tells you that he had grease under his nails from fixing cars, but ‘knew how to make a dollar.’ Her chauffeur is parked down the street. She lives in a mansion in Pacific Heights. She’s uh … sweet but confused.”
Wow. I get my coffee and settle back in my chair. She goes on talking like I never left the table.
“Now Sonny, my fourth husband, Paul wasn’t a sharp dresser, but …”
published 13 March 2013