Claire Went There

And wound up here

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Smell and the World Smells With You

Several years ago a friend mentioned her new habit of looking waiters and cashiers in the eye when she spoke to them. She said she realized that they were always looking at her, but that she was looking at her bag, or the table, or just somewhere off in space. She was happier now that she was acknowledging and actually engaging with those who were helping her. I, too, had recently become an aggressive smiler – grinning at everyone, all the time, and I was also much cheerier and more open to the people around me. It only took me 45 years or so to adopt this ridiculously obvious habit.

My grandmother on the crazy side had a full-blown facial tic that caused her to look like she was smiling maniacally all the freaking time. She would stretch the corners of her mouth back, show her parted teeth and squinch up her eyes – kind of like The Joker if that helps with the visual. This happened maybe 6-7 times a minute. A minute. And while I can assure you that this woman was most definitely not smiling that much, everywhere she went people smiled at her. I can remember being very little and hearing my Mother and Aunt chuckling because Grandma did not like or understand why the shopkeepers or gas station attendants or anyone really, was acting so damn familiar with her. But she was “smiling;” she looked like the kind of person she absolutely was not.


Grandma looks nice

I have one of those faces that looks bitchy in repose. When all of my features relax, or when I’m concentrating, or not actively engaging my facial muscles, I appear unapproachable or maybe downright mean. There was a time when I cultivated this look. I guess I thought it made me look tough yet sexy, or bad but intriguing like Pat Benatar or Madonna. I made 80s bitch-face for 20 years.


I would smile all the time if I had that “shirt.”

Then one night during my power suit decade, I stopped at a Quickie Mart after work to buy cigarettes (which added to the working-girl-gone-rogue vibe). The cashier rang up my purchase then looked at me with his head tilted and said, “You smell.”

You smell!
What? I don’t smell!
You smell! Smell!
No! Stop!

The cashier then turned to his co-worker and said something quickly in another language that uses lots of hand gestures. The co-worker stepped to the counter and said, “He wants you to SMILE. He says smile!” His friend nodded his head and said “Yes! You smell more and it makes you nice!”

Three things came from that night. First, I tell the story all the time because it’s awesome and sweet and funny. Second, I smile all the time, at everyone. 18 years ago some dude from a faraway land working at a Quickie Mart on a busy road off I-75 told me I smell and has since changed everything about how I greet life and people, and how other people perceive me.

And third, I stopped smoking, because it’s possible that I did smell.


Maybe You Can Call Me Maybe!

Quick, what’s your nickname? You have at least one, right?  Congratulations, someone loves you.

I am among the nicknameless, the not-chosen ones, the ones who leave the “likes to be called” line blank.  I told Coach that I was going to write about how I have never had a nickname and he spent nearly 20 minutes saying “that’s so sad!” and telling me all of his, which I already know. I can tell when someone met Coach by the name they use;  Haji, Wuss, Big D, Cool Breeze, Coach, or his name plus “y.” He’s special and obviously much adored.

Here are the few, very lame, efforts others have made to give me a pet name: Clara, Clarabelle, Clayer, Clairey.

First, Coach is the only one who can call me Clara and get away with it, but even that depends on many factors, like distance, mood and what he wants.  My sister will say or write “Clayer,” which might be an homage to my 2nd grade mis-clap, or is perhaps the way she pronounces it. One friend – one – calls me Clairey. And then there’s Clarabelle, which is truly distressing because…

clarabelle clown

This is Clarabell

And this is Clarabelle

And this is Clarabelle

Who knows how much my lack of a tag would bother me if I hadn’t experienced a crisis in my middle grade years. During recess, I would stand outside against the wall poking at rocks with a stick, and listen to the Mustang cheerleaders practice their cheers. The fascinating “Roll Call” mocked and tortured me the most, and is the cheer that woke me up to my dilemma. In a call-and-response chant the girls would introduce themselves and their pet names. 

My name is Karen! (yeah!)
They call me Care (yeah!)
‘Cause what you’re handling (yeah?)
Is very rare! (CHECK IT OUT!)
Sha boogie, sha sha shaboogie, ROLL CALL!

I spent many tedious hours working through this cheer in case I ever tried out and was chosen for the Mustang Cheer Squad (SPOILER ALERT: didn’t happen). But the second line tripped me up every time.

My name is Claire (yeah!)
They call me Claire (yeah!)
‘Cause no one has ever (yeah?)
Called me anything other than that (CHECK IT OUT!)
Sha boogie, sha sha shaboogie, ROLL CALL!

My last chance at a fun epithet was motherhood – of course I’m mama, mommy, mom, but that’s what I AM, so it does not count. For a while the junior child called me Mamalee, and the more worrisome and random “Mother O’Brien,” neither of which had anything to do with anything at all.

And now my nickname ship has sailed. There is nothing else to call me. Either I never did anything particularly memorable or I am just not very pettable (I know which one it is, thanks).  For 38+ years the Roll Call cheer has taunted me. If you can finish it for me in a way that makes sense AND rhymes, please do so. You’ll be my best friend.

Guano and the Guru

When spring arrives in Washington, DC, all of the pasty faced lawyers, politicians and tag-alongs like to leave the halls of their fluorescent offices and get outside. I worked in a building on the Potomac River and whenever the weather turned, the deck surrounding Washington Harbor was flooded with men and women in power suits, doing important things over salads and martinis.


People lawyer here

One warm spring afternoon, the deck was especially crowded and the servers were busy grabbing extra tables and chairs, scooting everyone closer and closer together. Squeezed in at the table to my right was a young man who was very obviously on a job interview. He was nervous and fidgety and ill at ease. Three jolly lawyer-types were working him over, and his discomfort could not have been more obvious. His chair was practically vibrating against mine.  Sometime during lunch, I felt him jump and his chair knocked sharply into my side. I looked at him with open-mouthed irritation and saw that a bird had just dropped a mid-flight poop on his shoulder, and the poor kid was doing everything he could not to let his potential employers know. His face was red and he was trying to maneuver his napkin to the mess on his suit without attracting any attention at all.


This is bird poop, FYI.

I started to giggle and looked at my lunch mates, but they were oblivious to the panic and hilarity by my side. I looked around at the rest of the tables and was met by the steely blue eyed gaze of a very amused Ted Koppel. Our eyes locked, and still grinning, he lifted his finger to his lips, looked straight at me, and made the “shhhh” gesture. Immediately, I felt the gravity of Mr. Koppel’s wisdom and benevolence, and I understood. I was not to report this development, funny and awkward as it was. This was off the record, young cub. I returned to my lunch, silently reminded by my lunchtime mentor that the misfortunes of others are not always mine to share.


I have no idea if the guy got his job or if anyone ever noticed his defaced shoulder. I noticed, of course, but am only retelling the story here, 20 years later. And as for my 3 second apprenticeship with Ted Koppel, the lesson was invaluable. When he talks to me now from the television, I remember that beautiful day, that petrified young lawyer, and Master Koppel telling me, “Shhhh, grasshopper. Shit happens.”

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