My car needed a deep cleaning. After a trek across country, and after sitting outside here in L.A. accumulating layers and layers of the black dust that comes from smog, which is what I am breathing and why I'm glad that I'm a shallow breather at times, I had to get a detailed wash and wax for Maude, my Mazda. Several people recommended the car wash in Koreatown, just down the street from me, and with so many using "cheap" and "good" to describe the place, I heeded their suggestions. "Oh, your car so dirty. Inside need cleaning, too. One and one-half hour at least," the assertive and older man said upon examination. "Need to shampoo carpets and mats. Oh, a lot of work I have to do. Only 100 dollar for everything. What air freshener you like? I write down now." A shrewd salesman, for I forgot about the price, as I immediately looked at the list. "New car scent," I said.
Sitting outside the car wash on one of the three wooden benches positioned like a sofa and love seat combo, enjoying the beautiful weather, I did what I love to do, which is people watching. In the past, though, at times, my people watching involved making judgments, instead of simply observing. Of course, we always get a chance to practice our learnings, especially once we think we've mastered the class. I looked toward the road at the sound of the screeching tires in time to see the car strike the curb. The elderly Asian woman got out of the car to inspect the damage. She threw her hands in the air and shouted, "My tire gone!" Okay, the stereotype of all Asians being bad drivers came to mind, but I let it go, knowing that it was an unfair generalization. Accidents happen all the time, and I was in Koreatown, which has a large Asian population, so the chances of the driver being Asian was extremely high. I quickly turned my attention away from the accident, noticing the gold spinning rims on the older model black Mercedes with the tinted windows that was driving into the parking lot. The rap music blared from the Mercedes, but I fought the notion of assuming that it was an African-American driver. While it turned out to be the case, I was still proud of myself for being aware of the impact that a few unique individuals can have on an entire group, particularly a minority group. Thirty minutes later, five minutes after the wrecker pulled away the car with the flat tire, another car hit the curb. Carefully getting out of the car, making sure the fast traffic didn't hit her, the petite, young Asian girl looked scared and confused. Just as she walked around to the front of the car, the tire deflated. She put her hands on the side of her face and started to cry. Okay, I thought to myself, it's another Asian woman. However, I reminded myself that there were a lot of orange cones and caution signs in the road marking the construction area, but they weren't far enough away from the construction, making the merging lanes confusing and dangerous. And, yes, all the car wash workers were Hispanic, and I was in the same parking lot as a taco stand.Though, I wouldn't let myself conclude anything from this.
Getting confirmation of the importance of meeting everyone as an individual, the pretty Hispanic woman, who sat beside me on the middle bench, informed me that she was a lawyer specializing in family law. On the bench next to me was an Eastern Indian, and he didn't own a Burger King or a Holiday Inn Express, he wasn't an IT programmer, and his last name wasn't Patel. He was an auto mechanic and had a last name that I can't recall, but it wasn't Patel. The young African American male who was driving the Mercedes with the spinning rims sat to the left of me. From his cellphone conversations, I learned that he was a med student at UCLA.
After being there for two hours, I was in the zone, witnessing without any preconceived notions all types of people coming and going. How much more interesting was it to let the stories unfold in the moment and to not decide beforehand what the characters thought, how they would act, or what they might say. For years now I've been editing stories that are filled with gross generalizations and ugly stereotypes, changing false attributes of a group to honest characteristics of an individual. I plan to continue to do that, and I'll always use humor to dispel the untruths. I'll also always use humor to be more gentle with myself when I forget some of the edits that I've made in past.
"How much do you tip the guy?" I asked the chubby, caramel-skinned woman who sat down as I was about to leave. She looked at me with no expression and then said, "One dollar for me, since I'm Mexican, and they know me. Five dollars for you, since you are white." I smiled, "Alright then," I said. She laughed, holding her jiggling belly.