Today was an Al Hirschfeld sort of day. It seemed every person I passed on my commute—the woman in the gold Mercedes SUV applying her eyeliner, the man hawking newspapers at the intersection of 9th and Massachusetts, the woman on the scooter wearing her helmet so snugly it looked like a part of her natural features, the gangly guard at the entrance to the parking garage—could have been or had just jumped out of a Hirschfeld. At any moment, I expected strains from Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) Pictures at an Exhibition to burst forth from the radio and underscore my oddly illustrated world.
Do you ever wonder about the lives of others?
Normally, at the intersection of 9th and Mass is a woman hawking the aforementioned newpapers. She’s average in height, thin. Her hair is long and often looks stringy and unwashed, except that I think perhaps she’s just come out of the shower and is going with the wet look. Probably in her fifties, though she may be younger. It’s hard to tell. What does seem readily obvious is, life has been hard for her. It is etched deeply in the tanned, creased lines of her face and the hollow vacancy of her eyes. I often wonder what her story is and what she once hoped her life would be. If her dreams were dashed, I wonder what she hopes each day will now bring. There is a seemingly contradictory mixture of resignation and tenacity about her that worries and awes me and it begs this existential question: If life is meant to be meaningful, what is the meaning for her?
On my way into work every morning, I pass a coffee shop — Breakwell’s — in the struggling-to-gentrify area around the new D.C. convention center. Some mornings, one of the baristas is taking a break. She sits in a cane-backed chair, casually smoking a cigarette and intently reading her latest literary choice. She looks serene and content and I ask myself the same question I’ve asked myself for years. Why can’t I do something like that and be content?
There are a million little proverbs and sayings that have been bandied about for decades, if not centuries, in one form or another—each meant to inspire, uplift, give hope, bring perspective. When life hands you lemons, says one of the more cliché, make lemonade. It seems so straightforward and simple. And yet, I’m lousy at making lemonade. All that keeps me from being a sourpuss is love and laughter. My sanity/insanity is a mix of quiet desperation and outright panic tempered by rational thought about cause and effect. Somehow, perhaps merely by the grace of God, I hold on and function aptly. But is it enough?
I’d like to be the barista at the coffee shop, but I worry that one day I might be the woman hawking newspapers, cars streaming past me in a perpetual procession of hurry and scurry. Those in the cars will drive by without noticing, save at least one person — a person of heart and conscience, a person of kindness and thought — who will drive by and wonder, “If life is meant to be meaningful, what is the meaning for her?”
Illustration copyright: Al Hirschfeld. All rights reserved to him, may he rest in peace, and his estate.