Stepping back in time, Morgana trips the bell on the time-worn, wood-framed glass door of the old newspaper office where she’s been working part-time for years. Maddie, the ancient, slow-moving, toad-like receptionist who has manned the front desk for the last 40 years, greets her with a warm croak.
The Pregonero has been a mainstay in this little corner, and somehow has resisted the piranha-like nips of the real estate developers to eventually gobble up anything funky and replace it with an antiseptic, dark-glassed, mall-like structure with no history, no smells other than a “new building odor” (fumes venting from a toxic mix of organic and semi-organic volatile compounds used in building construction), and a huge price tag.
The Pregonero is one of those surprisingly extant, non-digital, analog paper venues for legal notices of real estate transactions, liens, construction permits, lawsuits, and notifications of weary exes disavowing responsibility for and affiliation with discarded spouses. Along with a spate of coupons sponsored by local businesses, there is also community news of deaths, divorces, weddings, and engagements. Then, slightly more interesting are the travel journals with photos, school fund-raisers, community clothing drives for earthquake victims on the other side of the globe, art gallery openings and their featured artists, tattooed roller-skating teens reviving the roller derby, middle-school hula hoop competitions, church bake sales, garage sales, and raffles to fund homeless shelters, bronze sculptures being stolen from community parks, the police blotter, and the buy-sell-swap page. Somewhere around the last few pages of The Pregonero, just before the onset of an existential crisis, the reader will come across something akin to a large, grainy photograph of a spunky, delighted winner of the Sexiest Grandmother Contest, beaming her best neon-white, bleached smile, and think, “She looks pretty good for 70,” or “Glad I’m not that old,” or “Seventy isn’t old,” or “Who gives a flying flip?,” depending upon the reader’s particular demographic and the intensity of his/her ennui.
But the real attraction of The Pregonero is the distraction provided by a few random space fillers that evolved into regular columns, not that anyone really goes out of their way to read them—they are just simply there. Stacks of The Pregonero can be found all over the city in the vestibules or waiting rooms of the DMV, medical and dental offices, Jiffy Lubes and banks, diners and restaurants, churches and schools, clothing stores and pharmacies, supermarkets and convenience stores, gas stations and fast food joints, and the list goes on.
Originally hired as a “Girl Friday,” Morgana has somehow become one of the highlights of the Pregonero. Not a great writer, and a self-proclaimed even-worse poet, she never dreamed that she would become the default Dear Abby of the local penny saver.
She started out as an assistant to the Pregonero’s Copy Editor, who proved to be a non-discerning, good-time Charlie, three-martini-lunch kind of boss—and his name really was “Charlie.” He was a good guy, and because she was quite fond of him, she covered for him as much as she could.
She’d come in some afternoons and find Charlie sprawled out on his office couch, too snockered to move much, but pretty good at remembering (kind of) what he needed to do.
And believe it or not, the thing that always kept her in the game, in addition to her flexible work schedule, was his kindness—drunk or not, he was always happy to see her. He treated her like she was his right arm—and in his fatherly way, his little girl. Every time she’d come into work, there would be at least a couple of candies on the desk for her. Stumbling back from his drunken luncheons, he’d often carry the dessert he was too drunk to eat, all neatly packed up in bakery papers and snuggled into a to-go box. She came to expect these sweet offerings, always labeled with a slapped-on post it note from the office, bearing the scrawled message: “To My Dearest Morgana—As Ever, Your Charlie.”
The louder Charlie snored his way through his high-octane stupor, the more uneasy she would become at the idea of colliding head-on with their weekly deadline. Sometimes she could rouse him and get him back on track, but some days, it was clear that Charley would be down for the count for the rest of the afternoon. At that point, sheer panic would unleash her into a proof-reading frenzy, sometimes changing content when necessary, and making all kinds of editorial decisions that really should have been made by Charlie—or, at the very least, by someone who was half-way competent, someone who wasn’t sprawled out on the office couch, someone who didn’t have to do a great job, just someone, anyone, to do any kind of a job, and right now, goddammit. That someone turned out to be her.
The harder she worked at covering for Charlie, the more proficient she became in the layout of the graphics, illustrations, and text. Since Necessity is the Mother of Invention, it wasn’t all that surprising that the Mother of Invention gave birth to The Advice Lady. That Advice Lady turned out to be her.
Her column was never meant to be an art form; it was merely the logical response to a lack of text and the resulting menace of undistributable white space. Your average person cannot be expected to “know from” white space, but in newspaper production, it’s a big deal. Just enough white space is aesthetically pleasing, but too much white space makes the paper look really unprofessional, as if the Copy Editor were sprawled out on the couch, three sheets to the wind. She regarded her hastily written words as emergency ballast to fill the bowels of a listing ship threatening to capsize.
Just like her cooking, she’d rummaged around and scare up quite a bit of material that could be cajoled into something that would fit into the category of “that’s the ticket!”
In the case of The Advice Lady, it wasn’t all that hard to come up with something that everyone could identify with: a heart break, a heart ache, an embarrassing moment, a life hack, a silly poem, a quick recipe to feed a flash mob, a good use for six cans of blue paint, yellowing bolt ends of antique fabric, widowed socks, wine corks, and old credit cards. Sometimes, there were real letters to be answered, and sometimes, she’d just make them up.
Morgana’s resourcefulness delighted those whose restless, scanning eyes alighted for a moment on some little tidbit of quirky fun.
Today, her work is easy. She only needs to fill about 1,000 words worth of space. First, she eats the nice little square of tiramisu after removing the post-it note. Then, she leaves Charlie snoring away on his couch. She unlocks the little mail box at the front of the building and fishes through its contents for anything marked for The Advice Lady. There are always a few surprises, such as a greasy paper plate from the pizza place next door that someone folded and then jimmied through the slot, a flyer from a nearby church, with a giant “Fuck Off” (written with an eyebrow pencil?) on the back of it, and a few cigarette butts and beer bottle caps. She distributes the mail to the appropriate addressees, puts the cigarette butts in the trash, and recycles the church flyer, the greasy paper plate, and the bottle caps.
Back at her desk, she opens a letter from a lady named Patsy Scroggitch, who writes,
Dear Advice Lady,
My best friend’s life is a train wreck. She makes the worst decisions, and it’s so clear that her troubles are her own doing. She gets really angry if I suggest a reasonable solution to one of her never-ending problems. It seems like she just wants someone to agree with her that she’s got rotten luck. God forbid that any of this should be her fault! What would you do with such a friend?
Frustrated in Friendship
Will Rogers once said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
Great advice because this is exactly what we pay therapists to do. Ever notice how therapists operate? You don’t even have to go to one yourself to figure it out—just think of any therapist you’ve ever seen in a movie. They let their patients talk and talk until they reveal the real problem. It’s like a broken tooth underneath the gum line. Eventually, it works its way out. When you give advice to someone, you are actually preventing them from solving their problem because they will defend their position, no matter how indefensible it may be.
That’s why you will probably never hear a therapist say, “Well, I think you should….” That’s what well-meaning friends do! Therapists ask questions that the patient (given enough time, introspection, honesty, patience, and/or equanimity) could have asked themselves, all of which begin with the word, “so,” such as, “So, where did your kids get the idea that you would continue to cover their bad debts?” or “So, what does this other woman have that you don’t?” or “So, who taught your grandchildren that it’s OK to jump on the couch?” or “So, just how did you expect your sister to react when you told that her husband was cheating on her?”
I understand your frustration, but just remember how hard it is to take advice. And no one likes a know-it-all! Plus, advice is often seen as judgement, and nobody likes to be judged.
But here’s my advice, since you asked for it: If this person really is your best friend, then give her the sympathy she’s looking for and bite your tongue when tempted to give her advice. Feel free to ask her questions, which will encourage her to provide her own answers; then let her draw her own conclusions from her own answers. This may be the most helpful thing for her—and your friendship—in the long run.
If her “always a victim” attitude begins to wear on you, spend more time with other friends who are less-emotionally fragile.
So, good luck, and thank you for checking in with me!
The Advice Lady
P.S. I hope you enjoy the poem I wrote addressing this very problem:
Thus Spoke The Advice Lady: Advice for All and None
Unsolicited and friendly,
Can sometimes pan out
But on the odd
Occasion or two,
The advice you’ve given,
Truly, you’ll rue.
That enchanted drive
Down the country lane?
Made your friends fix a flat
In the pouring rain.
And that scenic shortcut
Through the verdant woods?
Made them swear off forever
Of all of your shoulds.
La Salade Niçoise
With crispy romaine?
Left them poisoned and retching
With a raging Ptomaine.
And that spray you touted
For the stain on their shirt?
Spread that very small stain
Into a large ring of dirt!
The fridge repair guy
You endorsed, you confess,
Didn’t do as you’d promised,
And left your friend in a mess.
So now I don’t say
There’s a dentist I like.
And I don’t tell old people
To ride a bike.
Nor to take their sore knees
On a challenging hike.
Nor encourage miffed workers
To go out on strike.
I won’t even tell Dutch Boys
To plug a hole in the dike.
Who wants our two cents?
There are too few among us.
All too often our advice
Is as welcomed as fungus.
So for now I’ll just listen
To all litanies of woes
With patience and sympathy
And see how that goes.
My advice to myself
Is to not give advice–
With one mouth and two ears,
Speak once, listen twice!
But just in case you request my opinion,
You must forgive me should I steer you wrong;
And remember that it was you who invited me
To stick my nose where it did not belong.
Morgana feels a sense of satisfaction, knowing that she’s done a pretty good job as she shuts her computer down for the day.
She opens the door to Charlie’s office where he’s snoring so loudly that she half-expects the windows to rattle. She shakes his shoulder just a bit and almost sings his name, so as not to jar him awake. He stirs but not enough to wake up. She can tell that he’s got another hour or so before he’s firing on all pistons again.
Now that the sun’s moved on to a different part of the building, there’s a slight chill to the room. She grabs the old, ratty, yellow, white and brown crocheted afghan from the top of his coat closet, and she pulls it over him and tucks it in around him, even over his shoes. She hovers over him and gives him a warm hug and whispers, “OK, Charlie. Sleep tight and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Maddie’s already left for the day. Except for Charlie, Morgana is the last one out of the office. She turns off the lights, and pushes in the automatic lock on the inside of the door on her way out.
She crosses the busy street so she can walk along the lake on her way home. She passes the familiar, frazzle-haired, tiny homeless woman who sits on the same bench every day, smoking cigarettes that she manages to bum from passersby.
“Hello, I’m Sister Jane, your sister-in-Christ. Would you happen to have an extra 75 cents?”
Morgana digs into her pocket, finds two quarters, and gives them to Sister Jane, who takes the quarters and scowls at the paltry amount. Morgana makes a mental note to ignore Sister Jane in the future, turns to resume her walk, and narrowly misses getting mowed down by a heavily-tattooed skateboarder wearing a spiked dog collar.
Somewhat shaken, she hears herself talking gently to the dog-collared, heavily-tattooed skateboarder who is lying on a couch lodged into some dark corner of her mind:
“So, what do you think the difference is between how you think people will react to your appearance and how you want them to react to your appearance?”
The skateboarder screws up his metal-studded face in disgust and says, “Fuck off, you old bag!”
Morgana takes a deep breath, laughs, and, watching for skateboarders, continues on her way.
To Be Continued in Chapter 9: The Initialization
Photo Credit: pinterest.com