What to Wear

Every full time working mom is inevitably asked the question: “How do you do it?”

The answer is time and space management with a good dose of planning and organization. I am a partner in a criminal defense law firm. I am a wife. I am the mother of two amazing girls. I am a friend. On this particular day I experienced all four, separate and distinct, one after the other. The challenge of playing these distinctly different roles, one after another, all in the same day, was what to wear.

I had committed to be a chaperone on my daughter’s fourth grade field trip. It was early on in the school year and I was ambitious. “Sure”, I said, “I can do it” with little or no thought of exactly how my cavalier response might affect that particular day.

As the day of the notorious field trip approached it became clear that I needed to pay a visit to my client being held at the Los Angeles County Jail. I have a particular soft spot in my heart for this client, only 19 years old with no criminal history. A top high school student in New York, he steadily spiraled down upon entering U.S.C. on a full scholarship. The culmination of the spiral happened when he was arrested at a U.S.C. frat party with a gun one week after the Virginia Tech massacre. A sweet boy, looking to please everyone with bright eyes and confused thoughts I was determined to save him. And so, in my quest to save him I needed to visit him regularly. It made geographic sense to do the jail visit after the science museum - and that became my plan.

Things got slightly more complicated when I realized that I had opera tickets for that night, also in the same geographic vicinity - downtown LA.

So, the night before, I packed, literally.

I arrived at the science museum solo, in my car. Taking the bus with 60 fourth graders was more than even I could bear. I dressed appropriately in sneakers, nice black jeans, a twin sweater set. As I drove into the parking lot it seemed kind of empty but as I walked closer to the museum itself I could see many school groups. Now, to just find mine. After a fruitless search I determined that they weren’t there yet and located instead other impatiently waiting parents from the class. After what seemed like a rather long time the bus with the kids arrived. Unfortunately, the teacher who had organized the trip was absent. This was scary. No one had a plan. It got even scarier when the “plan” became that each of us volunteer parents would take 8-10 kids, go where we wanted in the museum, act as a docent (a docent???), and meet back for lunch. As I had thought I was just along for the ride I was slightly terrified to realize I was now in charge. I adopted my military voice and posture and quickly told my group of kids that if they behaved I would reward them with candy - nothing wrong with a bribe.

We went to the “feelings” exhibit. As soon as we got to the entrance they all, all 10 of them, shot off in different directions into a dark cavernous room. As my greatest fear in being in charge of kids is losing one, I panicked. I then painstakingly sought out each and every one, swore them to remain in the cavernous room, and confirmed with each of them that we would meet at the designated area at the designated time, ignoring the fact that these kids didn’t wear watches.

Getting them all to gather so we could leave was challenging. As soon as I got 4 or 5 together, they would run off to find the others who would come back and then run off to find the others, and on and on.....

Finally, with my troops assembled we marched out to the lunch meeting place. I’m a sucker so I bought candy and gave them all some, not because they deserved it, but because I didn’t want them to think they didn’t, and I was truly grateful I hadn’t lost any of them. We all ate our lunch on a round platform with stained glass overhead. As the sun moved the rays shown through the glass causing streaks of color to appear on the children. It was the most peaceful and beautiful moment of the day.

When lunch was over, I walked my amazing daughter to the bus, gave her a kiss, and headed toward my car knowing that this was just the beginning of my day.

As I was driving toward the jail I decided to make a pit stop to look at fabric for a couch I needed to re-cover. This is when I moved from my role as “mom” into my role as “wife”.

The fabric store is located in an area of LA called the garment district. Hoards of people are always on the street and the spoken language is primarily Spanish. Clothes and fabrics, shoes and luggage, all kinds of stuff is sold here for cheap. The colors are bright and everything is displayed right on the sidewalk.

There is a guy on the street every half block with a sign that says “Park Here”. I randomly picked one, parked my car, and headed into the fabric store.

Inside the fabric store there are rolls upon rows of bolts of fabric on the perimeter walls. The center is filled with tables laden with bolts stacked upon each other 4-5 high.

I chose some samples and headed back to the car. Now it was time to play “lawyer”. As I drove across downtown to the jail I couldn’t help but think what a long, long day I still had ahead of me.

Arriving at the jail, I paid my obligatory $7 to park and easily found a parking space. The parking lot is dark and disgusting. There are puddles of (I hope) water in various areas for no apparent reason. While still in the car I switched out my sneakers for a pair of high boots and my button up sweater for a blazer. Now I looked appropriately “lawyer-ly”. I walked out of the shadows of the parking lot into the sunshine and across the street to the jail.

I’ve been to many jails. Some are nicer than others. All of them have mothers with their children mulling about waiting to see fathers, husband, brothers. My heart always breaks for the children, but when I look in their eyes it seems that to them visiting the jail is just another part of their lives, like Sunday dinner at grandma’s. No matter how else I feel when I leave, I always feel a sense of relief.

This particular jail is newer, very sterile. The deputy at the front booth never smiles, never says “how are you” even though he sees me every week. This only makes me more determined to break him so I always say “hi” in my most chirpy cheerleading voice, “how are you today?” and whatever other mundane thing I can think of to say.

After carefully examining my identification, which is another thing I don’t get as he sees me every week, I am allowed to pass through the metal detectors and walk down the bland looking hallway to the elevator. The hallway is linoleum floor and cinder block walls which are both a dull shade of curdled cream. The elevator is steel and very big with a steel floor and a lot of buttons. I push number 4. The back door of the elevator opens. I go to the uncomfortable metal chair, sit down, and wait. Eventually a guard brings my client. He is smiling and happy to see me, as always. Sometimes I feel like I’m his mother, as opposed to his lawyer. We talk for awhile, he likes to talk about the books he’s reading and the latest Oprah show he saw. I try to direct the conversation to the case. It works for a awhile and then we’re back to Oprah. This goes on for some time. Eventually I can’t take it anymore and it’s time to leave. I feel bad leaving, guilty, like I get to walk out but you don’t. But that’s the way jail is. I tell him I’ll see him next week. I can feel his eyes on me as I turn my back and walk away. I don’t turn around, I push the button for the elevator and hope it comes fast. I get in. I go down. I enter the curdled cream again, walk past “Mr. No Personality” behind the desk and with a bright “See you next time” I’m out the door.

At this point I’m not sure where the day has gone. It’s time to meet my friend for dinner. I drive the short distance to the Music Center. Before I dash into the restaurant I switch out my work blazer for an elegant cashmere pashmina and wrap it gracefully around my body. I sweep my hair up, fix my makeup, and I’m off.

The restaurant is a buzz as it always is before the performance. What a contrast all of this is to the jail. The dark wood of the bar, the white tablecloths, the waiters with their little aprons, the snooty young hostesses, the well dressed diners, all speak to a place so different then the three other places I have been in during the course of the day. My friend is elegant as well, she always is. Such a gift to know her. She is 20 years my senior but we talk like sisters.

After a well timed dinner (can’t be late for curtain call) we walk outside and up the stairs to the pavilion. In the center of the courtyard, the resplendent fountain is spouting water 20 feet into the air. People are milling about, so refined, so well dressed, so cultured. As we enter, the chandeliers sparkle with the kind of beauty that money buys.

We take our seats and as the curtain goes up my mind flashes to 10 kids running in different directions, what the light looked light as it was filtered through the stained glass over lunch, the bright colors and big accents of the garment district, and the somber jail, the moms and children there, always there. And now here I am at the opera.

I’m glad to be here and I’m glad I was everywhere else.

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