Good Gifts

By: Shirley Obitz

                       It was unbelievable, I saw her mouth on Facebook, and I recognized it. Just the mouth, nothing else. Not the eyes or the hair, but the mouth. I knew that mouth. Who is that? I had to remember because I knew it was someone that had been in my life a long time ago and meant something to me. She had a smile like The Joker. I remember thinking that. And once I realized that I knew it went with the memory I had of thinking that her smile looked like the joker, then I remembered who it was. It was Sydney. I had worked with her at a French bistro in Los Angeles over twenty years ago. According to Facebook, she was organizing music acts at a pizza place in SE Portland. I decided I would surprise her and go down and see the act. What were the odds, I thought, of both of us ending up in Portland twenty years later? She will be blown away to see me!


In the spring of 1989, Kelsey just got hired as a waiter at the bistro. I was the trainer, and I was training Kelsey on his first night. I began introducing him around to the crew, and when I came to introduce him to Sydney, he already knew her. He told me later he would cross paths with her all the time. I found it hard to believe, but he said it was true—that he had known Syd all his life, and she always somehow turned up wherever he was. Now, here she was, working at the bistro with him. I could tell they had known each other for a long time. If not friends, then definitely long- time acquaintances. Kelsey was living with his sister in Monrovia. He had finished his education a few years ago at a private art college in San Francisco and was applying for jobs as an art director.


Within the two-week training period to work on “the floor” and serve guests, Kelsey and I began a flirtatious relationship that developed into a love affair. Syd was dating the tall and awkwardly lanky southerner— Avery, but he was really far more interested in Bill. If he and Bill would only get together (like they secretly wanted), they would have doubled their wardrobe, and they could have passed as brother and sister. But Syd dated Avery. It was stomach twistingly embarrassing, I thought. One day, Blair, the nut-job assistant manager who couldn’t cook, couldn’t wait a table, couldn’t prep, couldn’t even seat people properly, but was hired straight out of the military because his rich father had financially backed the owners of the restaurant and gave this pathetic worthless fat weasel a job. At night, after the joint shut down, he’d walk around with a gun on his hip, talking about war games and the next paintball match. One day he was standing in front of us at what was called “the line-up” it’s where we gather before we are given our stations for the night. He put Syd on patio-5  (P5 for short), and he said, “I hope you can squeeze in there with the large party on P4.” Suddenly, Avery says, “Oh, she can squeeze all right, don’t worry about that.” Syd gasped out his name in utter puritanical shock that was actually more shocking than the remark, as Syd was quite the very opposite of puritanical. As I said, the whole thing was embarrassing.


Not to mention, of course, the whole disaster did not turn out well. Syd ended up throwing herself down a flight of stairs at Bill’s apartment. I wasn’t there, but rumors abound in a restaurant of 17 servers. It was a tumultuous relationship that she had with Avery, who was constantly reaching under Bill’s apron. I never understood why anyone would torture themselves with such an obviously bad relationship and much less with Avery, who was tactless and dull in a kind of Austin-version of Gone with the Wind way. Kelsey told me Syd had a lot of problems. I didn’t know what he meant. “Drugs, Shirl,” he said flatly. I really didn’t believe it. She didn’t seem like she was on drugs.


Then there was Syd’s friend Marge. I was a trainer at this Bistro for three years. I trained over 200 servers.  I’d say I can remember almost everyone and how their training went, but Marge, I cannot remember training at all. She is absolutely and completely unmemorable.  If it weren’t for Syd, I wouldn’t have remembered her at all. Marge was entirely different than Syd. Syd was wild. Marge looked like she just left catholic school. Syd wore black bustiers and ripped up fishnet stockings with shorts up to her crack. Marge wore felt skirts that fell below her knees. Syd always seemed to have a lot of black netting around her that didn’t appear to be attached to the outfit but was just flowing around her everywhere. Marge wore a sensible cloth coat. Syd’s hair was teased up into some sort of mad-mess. Marge wore a bouffant. A bouffant! The only thing that Marge needed was a pair of saddle shoes, and she would have looked like she was going to a 1950’s sock hop. Syd wore rundown ankle boots or platforms. Nevertheless, these two became close and inseparable friends.


Back then, I never, and I mean never, told anyone at work where I lived. That’s just how it was. I don’t even think I put my real address on my job application. I had a phone, but I told work, I didn’t. That way, they had no way to call me in to work on my day off. One night, Syd and Marge were banging on my door. Syd is drunk off her ass in platform shoes, her skinny legs barely able to hold her up and the rotund Marge, who was sober, kept holding onto Syd’s arms every time she wobbled. She was babbling something incoherent about Avery being an asshole, and they wanted me to go out with them. The last thing I remember is Syd stumbling down my gravel driveway with Marge holding her up and consoling her. I guess they found my address from the memorial records. See, Kelsey had died. I may have put my address down at his memorial. Anyway, it was an asthma attack—he suffocated, that’s what killed him.


Summer in Portland, ah those glorious three days of sunshine that Portland calls summer. I went to have my hair done in this really sketchy area of NE Portland, over off NE Glisan. A real hellhole of a neighborhood. They built the welfare office across the street in the old Safeway, if that tells you anything. The neighborhood was filled with druggies and derelicts. A Strip club was two blocks away. But this was the only person who could do my hair exactly the way I wanted it.  Trish, the hairdresser, had just broken up with her boyfriend and was living in Vancouver (my god, as if Portland wasn’t dead enough but Vancouver!). She wanted to start going out again and having fun. I asked her if she wanted to come to hear a band next week with my friend JC. I told her the story about Syd and how I found her mouth on Facebook and was going to surprise her. Trish was down for it. It was set. We’d all go. I didn’t know how much fun it was going to be seeing this band. I mean, really, a Balkan brass band that plays gypsy music. I just didn’t want to get blamed for dragging my friends to see something horrible. I kept repeating; I don’t know if it will be any good. It’s like I secretly knew it would suck.


So, day number two, of the three sunny days we get in the summer in Portland (of course, I’m exaggerating but…close), we all go to the Pizza place. The streets are lively; it’s like a street fair atmosphere up and down the block. That’s because when you live in the rain and grey sky’s every single blasted day of your life when the sun finally comes out, well, hell, everyone has to get outside in it. It’s not at all like it was living in LA, where we take the sun for granted. Nope, here in Portland, when the sun’s out, everyone is in a good mood, dancing, and drinking, and eating pizza in the street. In LA, we just drink wine in outdoor cafes and complain about our life and the fuckin’ heat. Not in Portland. They are made of heartier stuff. Here we were, JC and beautiful Trish, and I headed to the pizza place. Trish looked great. She has gorgeous long blonde hair down to her ass, and she had on her signature red lipstick and a pink jumpsuit. I had a short green beaded dress on, and JC wore a cotton shirt and lightweight slacks. We were ready to have some cocktails, order a pizza, and hear this Balkan Gypsy band. I was so excited at the prospect of seeing Sydney, just to see the surprise on her face when she saw me.


There are two sections in this joint. When you first walk in, it’s a narrow area leading up to a counter where you can order take out, but past that, to the right is the dining area. It’s fairly good-sized with a few comfortable Naugahyde booths and some free-standing tables. The best part is the stage because behind the bandstand, there are huge doors that open up to the outside, and now the band is both inside and outside of the venue. It’s fantastic because you can be outside and hear the music or inside sitting down with drinks and food.


We’re sitting down, and I’m looking around for Syd. JC and I are chatting. I still haven’t seen Syd. Trish is excited to hear the music and wonders if any of the band members are single. Then I see her. She looks pretty much the same. The exact same style, messed up hair, trashy-chic clothes, and still thin as a rail. Here is my big moment; I am absolutely beaming with excitement, and I see her get up from the table and walk towards the center of the room. I walk up to her. 


“Hi Sydney” I was smiling like an idiot waiting for a hug.


She just stands there with a blank look on her face.


“It’s Shirley; we worked together at Mesonges…”




“You don’t remember me?”




“You remember. Remember, Avery and Bill?”


“You do remember working at Mesonges?”




And Marge? Remember?




“You remember Kelsey,” I said— almost challenging. Syd and I went to his memorial together.


I had her. She could not deny knowing Kelsey, and she seemed to know I knew that.


“Yes,” she said sheepishly.


“I wanted to come by and say hello and catch up on old times. Remember Blair and what an asshole he was?”


“Why would I want to remember an asshole?” She said this with such hostility. I was terribly shaken by the rudeness.


“Well…you know how they say; someday we’ll look back on this and laugh? Well… I thought this might be that someday; I guess I was wrong.”


“ I remember you now; you gave me the Bowie box set for my birthday.”


“Yeah, that’s right.”


“You look amazing.”


“Thank you.”




I turned and left. It was very awkward. I was in a bit of shock that things had taken this unexpected turn. I went back to the table, and JC asked what happened. I told him she said she didn’t remember me, then somehow she remembered the Bowie box set I gave her for her birthday. 


“You always give good gifts,” he said. 


Trish was oblivious to the whole thing as she kept her eye on the Gypsy trumpet player. 


“He’s really good-looking, isn’t he?’


“I guess.”


“ I wonder if that is his girlfriend over there.”


She didn’t remember me. My god. “Drugs, Shirley.” Maybe Kelsey was right. Perhaps she had taken a lot of drugs. I heard she was in a hospital after the break-up with Avery. She was cutting herself, making little cuts all over her body. Maybe it was a painful time, and she doesn’t want to remember. 


“I love this music, don’t you?” said JC 


“I don’t know. You like it?” I said.


“I think it’s good too, said Trish; he’s not single. I’m having so much fun.”