The friend who walked

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Once in this lifetime I had a friend who was so much like me I thought I was listening to myself. But she was also less like me than any friend I’ve ever had. It’s the perfect kind of friendship – as familiar as my own hand except that she was unfailingly interesting.

Her name was Jan, and she sometimes talked about wanting to be called Jo. She told me it started when she was a girl during her first reading of Little Women. She thought Jo was more fitting than Jan.

I’d known her for 30 years by the last time I saw her, which was in 2011. She was having trouble breathing – she’d smoked most of her life and given it up only 10 years prior. I hadn’t seen her for about five years, but she looked as I’d known her for all those decades – straight silvery hair parted in the middle and hanging to her shoulders, no makeup, aviator sunglasses indoors and out, a loose, soft blue silk blouse, jeans and sandals. She was an old hippie.

We seldom talked on the phone; we sent letters. I could barely read her writing – it was a long slant toward exclamation marks. Often I could figure out only the letter ‘t’ because it was one of the vertical loops that was crossed. Now and then I corralled my husband into zeroing in on her scrawl; with his detective eye he deciphered a word here and there, but many of her missives might as well have been secret code that no Enigma machine would ever unravel.

She was a published poet and a playwright – one play performed once. In her old age, she began painting portraits of people she knew only in her mind. They are all women, all colorful, all unusual in their looks and expressions – kind of like her, although none of them look like her. She said she had no idea what prompted them, the idea just came one day and off she went, inventing portraits out of air.

She read randomly and liked to question everything. She enjoyed philosophizing about the lives of her cats – she had three – and her dog Alfie’s humanity. He was named Alfie because of the movie “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

This was her favorite question and perhaps what drew us together. She liked having a few friends over for beer and whiskey and talk – about where we came from, what we were doing here and where we were going. She was endlessly interested in querying her friends about their ideas on the conundrum of human existence. Some of these evenings broke up at dawn, no settlement of the question at all, but she never let it go. It intrigued her; I think it defined her.

She was 10 years older than I, which gave her license to think I was an innocent. She never poked fun, but she could show her wry humor in a heartbeat. A friend asked, “Who’s smarter, you or Colleen?” “Well, me, of course,” Jan said as she petted Alfie. “But I let her think she is.”

She divorced in her youth after a couple of months of living with her military pilot husband. He hit her once, and she walked, never to marry again. She said to me, “If all women would just walk, pretty soon the men would figure it out and have to quit hitting us.”

She became a teacher, and for 20 or 25 years did that. One day about two years short of retirement, she got fed up with administration, cleaned out her office and walked again, this time out of academe forever. She bought a Victorian and rebuilt it to its original integrity, sold it and did it again. Eventually she quit that and walked again, into the flat-out buying and selling of real estate. She made a bundle. She was not an acquirer of stuff, unlike many of us, and for most of the time I knew Jan, she lived in a trailer with three cats and Alfie the dog.

She liked to travel, especially to Mexico, because she liked the people. When she was a realtor, she worked with a Mexican immigrant family to buy their first house, proud of the fact that she was the first to sell the first house to a Hispanic family on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. There were many Hispanics working in the hotels and casinos. The selling of a place to an immigrant was ground-breaking. And long overdue.

She had guts. Or courage. Or maybe it was mainly a true-north moral compass. At her storefront realty office, she gauged the walk-ins quickly: if she suspected moral shallowness, she told them nicely to walk out. “There’s a realty office a block north; try them,” she’d suggest. She was one of those who felt it unnecessary to explain.

Or ask permission. She told me, “Everyone knows this: If you ask permission, the person says, ’What?’ Or ‘We’ll see.’ Or ‘Hmm.’ Or ‘No.’ So just do what you need to do and if someone complains, or catches you, or whatever, ask forgiveness. Tell ‘em you’re sorry. Walk away.”

She had the most interesting friends and acquaintances. For example, every day, she talked to the somewhat barmy woman who walked past her realty shop on her way to the Safeway. “Virginia” lost her husband years before and had descended into an imaginative world of her own. Virginia wore vintage clothing — cloche hats and fox boas with the feet and head and eyes and all. Often, she walked with her cat draped across her shoulders instead of the fox boa, and sometimes she knitted as she walked. She liked to talk about her husband Charlie, who any day now was going to land his plane on the boulevard, scoop her up and fly away. He was running from the CIA. Some days he was the CIA.

One afternoon I stopped at Jan’s office to say hi, and Virginia was there. She eyed me suspiciously but said to my friend, “Ask her to come for cake.” And she left.

So I got to go with Jan to Virginia’s for “cake.” I believe that no one except Jan ever took Virginia seriously. We knocked on her door and she yelled, “Door’s unlocked.” In we went. There were eight dining room chairs in two rows facing a blank wall. Virginia yelled from the kitchen, “Sit down!”

We sat.

She called out again. “What would you like to drink?”

Jan called back, “Scotch and milk.”

I looked at her, wondering about that because I’d never seen her drink it, and she said, “I forgot to warn you.” I yelled out, “Beer!”

Virginia came in with a tray of three short cocktail glasses filled with a milky-tan liquid. She set the tray on a chair, gave a glass to both of us, took one and sat down on a chair behind us. We drank our scotch and milk. It wasn’t bad.

My friend said, “So, Virginia, what’s new?”

“Charlie should be here any minute.”


She got up and went back into the kitchen. “Cake, cake or pie?” she yelled.

Jan yelled back. “Cake.”

I yelled, “What kind of pie?”

She came in with a tray on which sat three plates of cake. We ate our cake.

When we were done, she picked everything up, said, “Good-bye.”

And out we went.

“What was that about?” I asked as we drove away.

“That was about my friend Virginia,” Jan said.

That next summer, Jan had friends visiting from San Francisco, so decided she wanted to do a Fourth of July potluck. She asked her friends to wear costumes.

“For the Fourth?” I asked.

“I like the Fourth better than Halloween,” she said.

Because I had made the mistake of telling Jan that I’d been a twirler in high school, she was perennially after me to twirl something. That day, she gave me a broom and asked, “Can you twirl this?” She organized a parade of her motley-dressed friends and carrying a tiny American flag brought up the rear of the costumed “band” of which I was the drum majorette, with my broom.

She was reared mostly by her grandmother rather than her busy parents, and perhaps that is what made her wise as well as humorous – proof that a steady influence of grands molds children to earlier maturity and a sense of what’s really important in life. Her grandmother was smart and fun, good at making up games. I thought it was because of her that Jan was fun even in the midst of her serious pondering.

And now she has walked for the final time.

And I am sharing her with you. I wish you could have known her, for she was an original — partly because she grew up in Hollywood to a father who drove Goodyear Blimps for movie stars, partly because her grandma reared her, partly because she was unafraid at the age of nine to take the Los Angeles Red Car Line alone to San Pedro because she wanted to go to the beach. She lived a life not spectacular, but singular. I liked her thoughtful ways, her acceptance of herself and those she loved, her complete absence of judgment and materialism, her candor and her integrity.

Because she had so many friends, there are a lot of stories about her; each friend will have several. She walked an ordinary but unusual life. We miss her already, and I for one wish I could walk with her for a while, pondering her questions, knowing that now she’s probably walking toward the answers.

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