Service With a Smile

Service With a Smile

I grew up in Bell.  Yeah, that’s right, the city where the city  manager made $800,000 a year and where dead people are alleged to vote.

I made minimum wage when I worked there, but that doesn’t keep me from going back.  You see, my mom still lives there.

That means that she does things like use the library, and call the police, and go to the community center when the cameras aren’t staking out city employees.

And what a difference the attention makes.  For years, she’s had to go get the city-discounted bus pass for senior citizens once a month.  She’s had to take exact change and endure the disdain that the clerk at the counter and the other city employees dished at her when all she wanted to do was buy a bus pass.  I can’t count the hours she’s spent wondering what the hell she did to these people to make them hate the five minutes they had to spend with her once a month.

I know I complain about my mom’s eccentricities, but like many a mother, she’s only weird to her family.  She’s pretty pleasant and charming when it comes to strangers.

Because my mom is a relatively private person (she doesn’t know I put all  her stories on this blog and in my comedy act), I thought the national attention lavished on Bell of late would disturb her.  After all, she bought her bus pass this week with all of the local news channels watching outside the community center’s doors.

But, she LOVED it.  She loved that her service this month came with a smile.  There was a “How may I help you?”  There was a “Let me tell you about all the other things the city has to offer.” She actually saw police officers in the neighborhood.  The attention made her happier, safer. “Se portaron como angeles,” she said.

Sure, she knows the LA Times, the FBI, the Attorney General and others will probably lose interest by summer’s end, but until then, she’s making sure to visit every city office and check out a ton of books from the library.  Oh yeah, and if you’re her noisy neighbor–beware! She will be calling the cops on you.

She’s that kind of mom.

(Repost) The Fifth of July

(Repost) The Fifth of July

Reposting this story again today because it is my favorite memory of this weekend.


When I was a little kid, we were too poor to afford fireworks. I suppose I can’t blame my pyrotechnic poverty just on being poor, but more on the fact that my mother didn’t think any part of the welfare check should be spent on frivolity. If we got fireworks, we didn’t get clothes, or we didn’t get food. Sure, it was a practical choice, but as a kid, you just want to rip into the hundred dollar “Independence Day” box of fireworks.

Our fireworkslessness meant that in the days leading up to the Fourth of July every year, we’d visit our more affluent friends and watch them light fireworks. Back then this annual ritual led me to conclude that socio-economic status could be identified by the characteristics of your fireworks.

If you had no color, just sound, you weren’t poor, but you weren’t living in a mansion. You lived in an apartment and shared a bedroom with a couple of siblings. The same went for fireworks with no sound, and just smoke.

If you had fireworks that were colorful, but just rolled around on the ground, you lived in one of the houses in a duplex.

If your fireworks shot color into the air, and did so while crackling, at least one of your parents had a full-time job and probably owned a house with a yard and a driveway (or at least they’d found a way to live in one).

In my family, we didn’t have any fireworks before and up to the Fourth of July. We didn’t get to light something and have sound, or color. Maybe, if we got lucky, someone handed us a sparkler. In the bad years, they handed us the punk used to light the fireworks. Yep, there’s the poor kid, the one with the smoldering ember.

Occasionally, when the sounds of Fourth of July were so muddled that you couldn’t tell the fireworks from the gunshots fired into the air, we pretended to be fireworks. I mean, if you’re a nine-year-old and you scream from a low tone to a very high one, you sound kind of like a Piccolo Pete. And besides, by nightfall, no one even knows what’s going on in neighboring yards, driveways, or streets. Everyone is just staring into the sky, looking for something to make the darkness light. That means there is no risk of being seen joining the cacophony of Independence Day sound, while in your pajamas, from just inside your apartment’s living room window.

I watched from the shadows every year until the Fifth of July. That was the day when my cousin Reggie would come over and my mom, and my sister, and my Tía Rosalba, and my other cousins, and I would go to the local park. Salt Lake Park was the one where the big neighborhood fireworks were set off, and the official, city-sanctioned Fourth of July safe zone for amateur fireworks displays.

We never went to the show on the Fourth of July. My mom was scared that going to the park after dark would make us victims of violent crime, and my Tía Rosalba was a Jehovah’s Witness. Her family didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July.

But, on the Fifth of July, Reggie, Virginia, and I made sure to take a magnifying glass to the park. Our families would stake out a spot next to a tree, drag over a picnic bench, pull out aluminum foil-wrapped burritos, and play dominoes.

Virginia, Reggie, and I headed straight for the previous night’s launching pad.

We crawled around every inch of that soccer-field sized patch of grass, looking for unused fireworks. Although not plentiful, and not colorful, little by little, we’d find some fireworks.

At first, we’d find little black charcoal disks. While we weren’t allowed to buy fireworks, and we weren’t allowed to play with matches, we did know what unused fireworks looked like, and how to start a fire without matches, so out came the magnifying glass.

We figured out the sun’s angle, and the length of time needed to create a flame, and voilà, black plumes of ash came up from the earth and “snakes” came to life.

My sister, Virginia, tore holes in the knees of her jeans and Reggie got dirt in his eyes, before we found another unused firecracker.

Lighting our fireworks became easier with each successive find. We’d get sound, and some smoke, and then we’d laugh hysterically and roll around in laughter on the charred firecracker paper and ashes left from the night before.

Although there were never more than about ten unused fireworks for us to light every year, we had gotten the chance to shoot off some fireworks after all. On the Fifth of July we had not been denied the simple pleasure of creating marvels of sound and sight.

We all knew that our scavenging hadn’t made us children of homeowners this year, but it was understood that ingenuity would get us there some year, maybe next year.

© Laura Genao 2007