Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The story of Clarissa

A few months ago, on one of my frequent trips to Bakersfield, Calif., my travel plans became unraveled by some unexpected weather. A massive snowstorm in the surrounding mountains resulted in pounding rain in Bakersfield, closing Interstate 5. If you’ve been to southern California, you know that “the 5” is one of the major routes to LAX. So I changed my flight to depart from Bakersfield – at 6 a.m. – and began to figure out how I was going to get there.

As it turned out, the weather wasn’t the only thing that was unexpected.

The first challenge was returning my rental car. Since Enterprise did not have a location at the airport, or a shuttle from its lot, I checked with the front desk of the hotel and asked if they had a taxi service that they could recommend. Without missing a beat, the answer was “absolutely, call Don” and a number was written down. It was about 10 p.m. when I called Don who picked up after one ring. He was chipper and professional when I asked if I could schedule a pickup at 4:45 the next morning at the Enterprise location on 24th and Chester in Bakersfield. “Absolutely” he said. “See ya tomorrow.”

The morning wakeup call came as planned, and I headed out into a rainy, dark, Bakersfield morning looking for 24th and Chester. I arrived right a bit early to the darkened lot, and waited for Don to appear. As the clock passed 4:45, I started to pull up Don’s number, thinking that there was something wrong. At that moment, headlights appeared through the rain and an old Ford sedan pulled up behind my rental car. As I started to get my things together, a woman in her mid-thirties appeared at my passenger side window. I rolled down the window and the woman asked “Are you waiting on Don?”

My uncertain look drove the woman to introduce herself as Clarissa (I changed her name for this story), a friend of Don’s, who would be taking me to the airport. My options were limited at 4:55 am, on a rainy corner of 24th and Chester. I jumped out into the rain, dropped my rental keys into the night drop box, and headed to Clarissa’s Ford. She had opened the trunk, which was a jumble of shopping bags, some clothes, and a spare tire. I threw my bags in, closed the trunk and got in the passenger side to ride shotgun.

The moment I closed the door, Clarissa...started...talking. She explained that she was a friend of Don’s, she even rented a room from him and that he had been “detained” that morning and had asked her to help out by getting me to the airport. She was quick to mention that she knew the way to the airport, a good sign. She went on to say that she worked nights and that she had worked that night waitressing/bartending and that Don liked her because he worked a lot of nights, too. She was a night person and liked to talk, an accurate self-assessment.

Now it’s not fair to say that the car was “dirty” per se; it was too dark to actually tell. What I could see was a number of empty Sugar-free Red Bull cans and a few packs of Newport cigarettes in the front of the car. Clarissa kept up her monologue as I kept a lookout for Merle Haggard Blvd. (I don’t mean that I felt like I was living a country song. Merle Haggard Blvd. was actually the route to the airport. But it fit the moment.) As she was talking about Don, Clarissa’s voice changed a bit and she started talking about the fact that she and Don had lost a close friend last summer and that it had been tough for both of them but had really brought them closer. For some unknown reason, I mentioned that I had lost a close friend to ALS the past summer as well. (You can read more about that in the blog entry “The Inspiration of Bruce.”) With that, Clarissa burst into tears and chokingly said that her friend that had died had passed away after fighting ALS for more than a year. Unbelievable!

As we turned onto Merle Haggard Blvd., Clarissa cried and I talked about my experience of losing my friend, how much it had moved me and how I am still thinking about and learning from the experience. She gathered herself as we drew closer to the airport and said that she needed to apologize to me, to apologize for lying to me. “What on earth could this be about?” I thought to myself. She said that I seemed like a very nice and kind guy, and that I didn’t deserve her lies. She continued on, in a very sheepish tone, that while she had worked the night before, she wasn’t working as a waitress. She had worked that night, as she does most nights, at a club in town as a dancer. My replacement cab driver was a stripper! I glanced over to take a closer look at Clarissa and realized that she had a turquoise bikini top on under her short jacket and that she was driving with a pair of huge acrylic heels.

Clarissa pulled her Ford to a stop and I jumped out of the car to get my bags out of the trunk. After I paid the fare, she stopped me with a question, “Don’t you think I could dance for a few more years, Bill?” With that she turned a bit so I could see her silhouette more clearly. I was struck by how sad and how candid her question was. Still kind of stunned by the entire experience of the morning, I stumbled over a response that included “absolutely” and “I’m sure for years.” I said goodbye and headed into the airport to head back to Atlanta.

Clarissa and I come from entirely different worlds, and through some twist of fate, found ourselves sharing a few moments together on a rainy morning in Bakersfield, Calif. My need for a ride put us in the car, but our common experience with ALS brought us together. To say the least, it was very humbling. As you make your way through your busy and hectic worlds, keep an eye out for the Clarissas who may cross your path, who may make a real impact on you regardless of their jobs, their attire, or their backgrounds.

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