By Lisa Marguerite Mora
Maria was a large woman, a round body, a series of circles. She scared me. But not because she was fat. It was because when she looked at you, it was like she could see not only who you were trying to be, but who you really were. Her eyes were blue fringed in black lashes, and her hair was pulled back from her face, a tight black silk on her head. Though I didn’t think it then, she was kind of beautiful. She looked out at you from those eyes and that face with a sturdy weariness, and you realized that she would tolerate you to a point. And you never wanted to get to that point.
She was my friend, Tammy’s mother. We were seven and Tammy lived around the corner from me. We often played together after school. She wore dresses that flared at the waist and fell at mid-calf. She wore saddle shoes and bobby socks. My mother thought little girls should show their knees. She thought it was charming, so my dresses were actually in fashion for 1967. The next year would be white go-go boots that zipped at the side and knee socks. I didn’t trust my mother’s opinions about most things, but she was right about mini skirts.
Tammy lived across the alley on Paloma in a huge brick apartment building with I don’t know how many floors. There was an elevator with an extra metal door that pulled across, I guess to keep us from falling out. It was a little scary, though sometimes we’d take excursions up to the various levels. Tammy, Maria, and Susan the older sister lived on the very bottom in a two-room basement apartment, which I found sort of depressing but interesting. Depressing, because there wasn’t much light and interesting because the windows were level with the alley floor. People walked by and you’d see only their feet and hear the sounds of their feet in their shoes—a strange intimacy we were privy to which the passerby was never aware of.
In their apartment you had to walk through the front room and through the second room which was covered in linoleum and partitioned off by a sliding door at night and a multicolored bead curtain in the day, to get to the teeny tiny kitchenette that was carved out in the back corner.
This is where Maria cooked. Always smells of cooking came from that steamy corner closet of a kitchen. Once, Tammy gave me an oatmeal cookie in a napkin. Maria had just made a batch. It tasted thick and fatty and not sweet at all. I wrinkled my nose. Tammy watched me then skipped through the second room to tell her mother, “Lisa doesn’t like the cookie.” In the same tolerant to a point manner, Maria replied, “She doesn’t have to like my cookies.” I walked back with it in the napkin to the kitchen where the garbage was. Maria was doing dishes. Unsmiling, she held out her hand and I gave back to her the disappointing treat. She dumped it in the trash under the sink.
People tended to hang out at Maria’s. She seemed to have a lot of friends. Like Peggy and Andrew, who were a couple. They both wore jeans and Levi jackets and smoked cigarettes. They were there a lot and sometimes spent the night. And then there was Jesse who always had a drink in his hand. He had black hair and thick lips. He may have been Maria’s special friend. There was Bill who was kind of beaten down, his face weathered and creased, gray stubble on his cheeks.
I guess there’s always been a fair amount of homeless in Venice California. I didn’t recognize this at the time. I figured everyone had a home. But there were a lot of people down on Ocean Front Walk just hanging out, day and night it seemed. There was a festive, party like atmosphere, drums in the background, patchouli in the air. I thought it was kind of weird. I was a conservative child.
One day Maria had a huge black pot on the stove—cooking smells again. She was cutting up carrots, celery, potatoes. All of it went into the pot. At sunset, she and the Levi couple, Peggy and Andrew and whoever else was around would take the heavy pot down to the boardwalk. Maria would set up at the benches and stand there with her ladle, and spoon out soup for anyone who had a bowl and their own utensils. And people would line up. As word got around, the line grew. The food was there for people who were hungry, but on one occasion I saw our apartment manager in his sunglasses and white Panama hat standing in line with his bowl. He grinned at me. He knew I knew he was taking advantage of the situation.
I do not know where Maria got the ingredients to make a huge soup meal every day. Maybe she asked for donations. I don’t know. This was her work, but she didn’t get paid for it. Though it was serious business.
Eventually Maria and company moved down to the local park and recreation center. I tagged along with Tammy and Susan. One day KTLA news came out to interview Maria. I saw her on our black and white television. She was sitting with Andrew at one of the picnic tables on the beach. The reporter asked her why she was doing it. Why was she feeding these people? Maria could be imposing without much effort, but right then she didn’t look at the reporter or at the camera. She was kind of focused past them, maybe looking at the ocean that rolled and swayed in the distance. I remember noticing her feet, which were so surprisingly small and neat, pulled under the bench and crossed at the ankles. She said, “People are hungry. We’re just trying to help.” And that’s when I knew that Maria was something more than I had thought. Because up to that point I hadn’t really thought about what she was doing as being especially good or noble. It just seemed like she was doing her work. That’s probably how Maria saw it too, because she could tolerate things to a point, but then she had to step forward and put things right.
It was some days after the TV interview. Tammy and I had been playing at the beach when we walked back to her place at twilight. We stopped short just inside the complex entryway. Maria was standing at the top of her concrete steps in front of their apartment. The ladies that lived in the other basement apartments were standing on their steps too. Mrs. Berg was in her housedress, her hair wrapped up in a scarf, her arms crossed low at her waist. They were all quiet. But Maria was speaking in firm even tones. “I know you talk about me,” she said. “You say I have different men sleeping over.”
Tammy and I stood next to each other and we did not move. I wonder how it came to be that all the ladies were outside in front of their doors. Had they been gossiping when Maria stepped quietly outside? Now she stood with all her roundness and her firmness, her hair tied back in a green ribbon, her blue eyes steady. “It’s none of your business what goes on in my house.” Though her voice wasn’t loud it projected across the walkway and rose up between the buildings so that who ever was home on the other floors may have heard her. “I am a good woman,” she said. Silence. None of the ladies budged, but I could feel the shuffle of a foot, the creep of flesh on the back of the neck. Maria continued, “If anyone wants to say anything to me, you can please say it to my face.” I saw a movement from one of the ladies; she was wiping her nose with a Kleenex. The tension bounced around like a blue jay protecting its nest. Maria stood there a moment more then she turned and walked back inside and quietly closed the door.
“I’m gonna go home now,” I said to Tammy who mumbled something and headed toward her basement apartment steps. I walked the short trip to my building, through the alley, we lived on Speedway, my feet following each other down the uneven blackened pavement. One pale blue star stood in the sky and I felt the wind pick up and push hard against my face. Then I heard the ocean moving in and pulling away, a roar and a hiss, pulling away a million granules of sand. It was slowly eroding the shoreline, changing the landscape. It could take years. It could take a lifetime. It could take a moment.