In the downtown Seattle library several years ago, I saw two very peculiar women. They were wearing complicated head coverings — cloth veils that went from the forehead, back over the shoulders, in front of which was a layer of bangles that seemed to be comprised of many pieces of jewelry — rings and broaches — linked together. I didn’t want to be rude, or incur their wrath, by staring, so I just got the briefest of glances of them. Nonetheless, I could see that they looked pretty odd. I was intimidated.
A few months later, I saw the women on a Number 10 bus, going to North Capitol Hill late at night. When I got off the bus, they were the only passengers left, and I watched the veiled women, dressed in black this time, ride away in a fully lighted Metro bus, like eerie sentinels in a post-apocalyptic landscape.
After that, I began to see the women around town more often. I discovered they were mother and daughter. Esther, the mother, looked somewhere in her 40s; Yolanda appeared to be in her early 20s. As I saw them more often, I saw more closely how elaborate their outfits were. They didn’t wear the same clothes all the time, but they were consistently adorned with elaborate costumery. After my Boston-Seattle Greyhound trip, this was really welcome.
One night I was walking to a bus stop downtown. Waiting for a light, I looked over to see Esther. I made some idle comment and she began talking a blue streak. I can no longer remember how exactly the conversation began, but I was immediately pulled in. She wore a huge sort of amulet thing around her neck which looked like a giant pretzel that had been spray-painted gold and shellacked. She was pushing a luggage cart upon which sat a cardboard box with one side cut out and covered with a glassine pane. Inside the box was a multi-faceted form made of cardboard — the sort of thing you see in a geometry class in the morning.
In the course of the conversation, I had with her over the following hour and a half, she explained that the pretzel and the rhombus thing were imbued with some spiritual significance. Her religious philosophy (for lack of a better term) was pure hooey, but at least the hokum was seemingly learned and clearly passionate, if not always very coherent. She cascaded a stream of terms from Judaism, Gnosticism, and any number of eastern religions, not to mention scores of garden variety Christian references. She seemed obviously nuts, but interestingly nuts. Unlike my other Seattle friends.
As we talked, she led the way, walking all over downtown and the Denny Regrade, meandering at random. Esther’s daughter, Yolanda, was wondering too, but on her random route. Occasionally their paths would cross. It was rather late out, and I asked her if she felt vulnerable walking around downtown in the middle of the night. “No, I know martial arts. So like I said to my friend Bruce Lee — we were on a plane coming back from China after having lunch with Mao Zedong. I said, ‘Bruce Lee, will teach me some martial arts moves?’ And he agreed.”
“So you knew Bruce Lee, huh?” I asked her.
“Yeah, he and Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and I had a consulting firm back in the sixties.” Such outrageous statements were fairly characteristic of the whole conversation. Esther spent a lot of time explaining the federal government’s nefarious plots on her life, and her destruction of the assassin robot they had deployed to kill her. The story culminated in her triumphantly calling the government people to say: “I killed your mothafuckin’ robot — whatcha gonna do now?” By the end of the conversation, she was imploring me to help her enlist the support of a lawyer in her fight against the government. I really wish I had a tape of the conversation. She was speaking so quickly, and discursively, that I remember only tiny snippets of the whole.
I’ve seen the two of them several more times over the years. Most recently, I’ve noticed that they have a van, which they’ve covered with an irregular, mottled coat of gold paint — just like Esther’s pretzel. I have no idea how they survive. I don’t really know if they’re mentally unbalanced, or just enjoying keeping everyone else guessing. But I’ve come to find it reassuring to see periodically that they’re still around, doing what they appear to enjoy. I imagine what it would be like to see one of them in a line at Starbucks, for instance, chatting on a cell phone or punching on a palm pilot. That would be troubling.