Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Diva

Detail of photo from USC Digital Collection - Herald Examiner collection, 1951

Last night, when The Man I Love had a business dinner and I was on my own, I decided to go have an after-work drink at a wine-bar near my office.

I parked on the street nearby. I sat at the bar, sipping a glass of Cabernet and reading a novel, people watching and enjoying myself for a half hour; then I paid up, went to the ladies' room and went out to my car.

As I stepped off the curb, I heard a voice call my name.

"Oh my God! How are you?" In a charcoal-grey skirt-suit, sunglasses; her claret-colored hair in curls about her face.

The Diva.

Ten years ago, having moved to L.A. and making a career transition, I'd answered a "help-wanted" ad in our local newspaper. A woman raising funds to start a non-profit organization needed part-time help in her home office - it was in the field I longed to go into, so I responded.

She needed someone with computer skills - I needed a part-time job. We had so much in common. We loved the arts. Our kids were in the same school. Our politics - and it was a troubled time in politics - were the same. It was perfect.

I became devoted to our cause, and to her. She was a smart, charismatic woman who had connections in our field. She charmed people. I helped her set up her fundraising effort - mailing lists, mission statements, events. I drew The Man I Love into her circle - he is in the same field, and she was eager to make alliances with him.

He never seemed to warm to her, oddly.

And as time went by, I became less enchanted with her, myself. I call her a Diva for a reason - it's partly her personality, but it's also actually true in her case, by definition. You can look it up.

There are lots of people who make a living by being charming. And there are a lot of people - especially in Los Angeles - who have the right personality to work for people like that. But I am not one of them.

I began to realize that, while she charmed and talked and spoke to the press, I was the one doing all the scut work. I even wrote a lot of the words that ended up coming out of her mouth - that she claimed as her own. But that wasn't the worst part.

There's much that should be left unsaid. But I will say this - we reported to a non-profit organization that was noted for its work to make opportunities for poor and troubled communities - yet she spent the organization's money on luxuries. The rationale was that it helped court rich donors. But I kept thinking - if they're really interested in our cause, won't they appreciate it even more if our style is modest?

That was ten years ago, and since then I've learned that in fundraising, both tactics work. But I think that sincere philanthropists respond more when the people who lead the organization choose a tactic that matches their organization's mission statement. And the Diva's style was upside down - it clashed with what we were trying to do. In addition, when the Diva entertained, it was difficult to tell whether the luxuries were meant for the donors, or for the Diva herself.

Anyway - my work with her was part-time, and when I left it was to take another job. She understood - congratulated me, even. I was relieved to get away from her. I think, in the long run, she sensed my growing discomfort, and was delighted to hire my replacement. He was a more skilled sycophant.

Over the next ten years we have had an uneasy relationship. We exchange emails. I congratulated her when she finally achieved her goal. She invites me to lunch and then cancels it. I invite her to parties at the last minute, knowing she's got other plans. I praise her work, and then stay the hell away from her.

But anyway - So there she was, the other night, on the street calling my name. We hugged. We exclaimed over how good one another looked. She said she was just coming from an important meeting. She made a comment to show how well she knew my boss's boss's boss. I mentioned something to show the inside scoop I had on something. She dropped a celebrity name. I passed along a (very sincere) compliment from The Man I Love, who saw her at a business meeting a month or so ago. We asked after one another's kids. They were all, of course, doing fabulously.

Her eyes were invisible behind the greyed lenses of her photochromic glasses.

As we stood on the street and chatted, I noted the wrinkles around her mouth. No doubt she was calculating the weight I'd gained since we last saw each other. I was glad I had on my flowered silk skirt, and hoped the stain from dropping gelato on the hem didn't show. Silently, to myself, I admired her fashionable suit, accessorized by green jade jewelry - nice color combo - but noted the creases where it strained across her waist and back, and the way her collar was turned under in disarray.

Turns out her car was parked right in front of mine - it was a celery-colored Prius. So like her. As we waved farewell at one another, I noted that her legs were looking awfully dumpy.

She was probably noticing how grown out my roots were. And wondering when I'd last washed my car.


Beverly said...

Glennis, I am sneaking in a read while I'm at work. And, this post was absolutely worth it. I love it.

The pure of heart will prevail. Right over might. I'm 100% with you.

Cheffie-Mom said...

Great post! Well written!

mo.stoneskin said...

'They were all, of course, doing fabulously.'

That made me smile. Great line, classy post.

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

that sounds exactly like every conversation and emotion I had during class reunion.

kcinnova said...

You do write deliciously (and I don't just mean celery-colored Priuses)!

It all sounds like a good way to handle people with whom we need to stay friendly, even when they rub us the wrong way.

It also sounds a little bit like those bragging Christmas cards, and what we are thinking while we read them or write them.

Life with Kaishon said...

Fascinating accounting of a meeting. I always wonder what people are thinking when I run into someone I used to know.

Life with Kaishon said...

PS I love that color; celery green. I don't know if I would want my car to be that color though.

Sugee Andersyn said...

We all know someone like this. Friends, but not really. :)

cactus petunia said...

Meow! I love having conversations like that...they give me a chance to practice my native NY cynicism!

(Cloaked in earnest platitudes, of course)

Delicious post!

Crystal said...

Great post...thanks for sharing your encounter with The Diva. :)

JCK said...

Sometimes you just don't want to run into some people... You have the ability to make me feel as if I was there. Discomforted...

Glad you got away and moved on to something else!

Woman in a Window said...

This is great writing, great character development and that it's is true, right? that it's true, it is all the better.

Fun and just a little sad.