I was always late. Late to school, late to bed, late to be picked up - you name it, I was late to it; I was always slinking into one room or another, long after things had started, or trying not to draw too much attention myself as I sat, seemingly forgotten, for hours and hours at any number of locations. Here's the kicker: All this was courtesy of my mother.
She was notoriously late. Sometimes two hours, sometimes eight, and once, she missed the mark by two weeks - no joke.
The thing about her was that she did not give a shit. She would eventually skreetch up in her silver Toyota Corolla
with the smoke grey velour upholstery, and lean on the horn as if you
were the one inconveniencing her
. It was, in hindsight, so arrogant it was admirable.
I could not even begin to guess what the psychology
behind this serial lateness of hers was, but it definitely had long-lasting effects on me. I do remember that all was forgiven once she did show up - and there was a lot to forgive. I had been left waiting for her in parking lots, lobbies, hotels, airports, tutors' livings rooms, weekend country houses, schools, train stations, bus stops, doctors' offices, and sleepovers that were over - way over. You name it, I have waited there, patiently.
In order to be able to "wait" wherever it was that I happened to be, I needed to develop some skills. The most important skill was charm. In order to be able to wait in safety, typically with zero financial resources, I would need to win over the innocent, soon-to-be reluctant, host, and I did. In fact, I got so good at it that I can honestly say most of my hosts were delighted to have me. "Not a problem, Mrs Henrichs, Beata is a delight. She's welcome any time." No one ever detected my anxiety levels
richtering out to levels only comparable to those of a duck in a press.
My mother's serial lateness had other effects on me. I am a social switchblade. I can talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime. I know how to read a room.
And I know how to act accordingly. I have charmed many a doorman whilst loitering in the vast cool lobbies of the Upper East Side. I've spent hours with cooks and housekeepers inside lavish apartments and country houses that had long since been vacated by my hosts. I've watched black and white TV with security guards
in cramped rooms at private clubs I was not a member of. I learned more than I cared for about gardening from a caretaker at my old boarding school who unexpectedly found himself doubling as a babysitter. My mind always racing, She'll be here soon. She'll be here soon
Now you can't come out and show desperation, because no one likes to help desperate people, even kids - it's true. They'll feign interest for a bit and then pass you off to a cop, or at least that's what I thought. You have to act like it's totally normal for you to be sitting in the lobby of the Carlyle hotel for several hours. I discovered early on that one of the best ways to get what you need is with humor. That's the way in. Once you make someone laugh, they are yours. So that's what I would do. I'd suss out the landscape, see who I was dealing with, find some common ground, make some kind of humorous observation, and just like that I was in. One time, a Filipino house keeper confided in me that her husband was abusive. Now that's not funny at all, but I got her to that point by asking her if her boss, Mrs. So and So, had as many shoes as Imelda Marcos.
She thought that was funny. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time, and it got her attention. After that, she just opened up, and told me all about how awful men are and how she had no use for them. "All they want is roasted chicken and babies that they don't care for once they arrive. Don't ever get married," she said. I nodded as I bit into my egg salad with the crusts cut off that she made for me in the massive white kitchen with two stoves and three Subzero deli style refrigerators. I thought: I wonder if Imelda ever roasts chicken
So that was the hustle, and I was good at it.
Sure, there were those rough patches between hours three and four, where the conversation wore thin and I could see that look of concern
in my hosts' eyes - that what if I'm stuck with this kid, what if this becomes a real problem?
It could be a sigh, a glance at the watch, a lull, so I quickly would need to shift gears. This would be around the time that I'd go outside for a smoke (Yes, I smoked at 10 years of age;
I had a stressful life.) Or another trick: I would wait for a third party to pass through and then I'd feel the person working there out and get them talking about them. I discovered at an early age that people have to have someone to look down on in order to feel good about what they are doing, and if you give them approval and a stage they usually will go for it. Once that happened, I wasn't going anywhere
, because they had confided in me on a level that made them feel both good and anxious at the same time. Now, I understand these are not good skills for a 10 year-old girl to be developing. This is some advanced manipulation stuff that serves prostitutes and undercover cops well. It's not supposed to be this way for little girls, but I was in survival mode. I needed a safe place to sit while I waited for my mother, and I did what I needed to do without anyone ever touching me, and it worked.
Sometimes, to be honest, I would daydream: maybe she won't show up this time. Maybe she died on the Cross-Bronx and I can just stay here
. But, eventually the doorbell would ring. She had arrived, and I felt a wave of relief rush over me. She's here. It's over. I can relax now.
Kids, adults, humans - we are very resourceful when put to the test. We are capable of greatness. We are capable of surviving the most heinous physical disabilities, as well as mental and situational ones. There are people who have slept in foxholes with no guarantee of coming out, trapped in cars, lost in the wilderness
- major shit. So I got off easy, but the one thing I have in common with people "in the shit" is that when you're in it, you're not thinking poor me
- you do that later (like now.) In the moment, you're thinking OK, what do I need to do to make this work?
So when my back is against the wall, I can pull some rabbits out of a hat like you wouldn't believe. Looking back at those formative years, while I don't think my mother's serial lateness was optimal, it did show me independence. That I could take care of myself and that I'd be okay. That I would survive no matter what - and in my world, that has served me well.
So she did me a fucked-up favor. Good on her.
OTHERS SUFFERING FROM SERIAL LATENESS: