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Don't Call Me Ma'am!

[whitespace] illustration
Illustration by Jerry McLaughlin

Choose salutations wisely when addressing well-seasoned local women

By Sarah Phelan

TODAY WAS GOING well, really well for a 41st birthday, until the muscle-bound cutie in the coffee store went and called me "ma'am." I was standing in line, feeling smug because--unlike the rest of the bleary-eyed customers--I'd bicycled into work. Smug and relaxed, because before leaving that morning I'd taken a long shower while singing loudly to myself.

For years I've felt embarrassed to sing because I'm tone deaf, a fact that even the most dedicated lovers have felt compelled to mention the minute I've even so much as hummed the opening bars of "Jingle Bells." The bastards. But now I live alone again, thank God, and don't have to worry about anyone when I sing, apart from my cat, who has the wisdom to say nothing at such times. So it was that I stood under the shower head this morning, uninhibitedly bubbling out "Happy Birthday to Me" while rivulets of water ran down my face like tears.

The sky was a rain-washed blue, with the promise of morning sunshine, as I pulled my bicycle out of the shed. Squadrons of pelicans were patrolling West Cliff Drive, looking for a dive-through breakfast, while below the ocean shifted and sparkled with a million points of reflected sunlight between here and Monterey. If this is 41, then I'm in. I could say good-bye to 40, when that zero hung heavy around my neck, a millstone of past failures and future expectations.

As I pedaled toward downtown and deeper into my fifth decade, I felt fearless, or so I believed. Inside the café, I watched the guy with the buzz cut and the nose ring as he worked the espresso machine. Pity he's only 20, I thought, eyeing how the veins stood out against his skin like roads across a desert.

"What can I get you, miss?" he inquired of the woman ahead of me, flashing her a cocksure glance. His flirtatiousness was infectious, and when my turn came, I gave him my best smile. But instead of turning up the charm, he stonewalled me with a neutralizing "Yes, ma'am?"

Suddenly, I hated him and how his miss-ma'am singsong categorized women as young or old, as if we were cattle at the fair. Granted, our baby-faced Adonis didn't invent the terms. Women have been classified as good or bad breeding bets, I suppose, long before some miss--or was it ma'am?--made love to this stud-muffin's father one cold but otherwise uneventful night a mere two decades ago.

Then again, maybe he was a Southern boy, just trying to be polite--in which case someone should tell him that locals call themselves Moondust or Mahatma, but never Ma'am.

At that moment I glimpsed my wrinkled face, unmercifully reflected next to his flawless visage in the mirror behind the cash register. It was a rude reminder of the ravages of time, one that made me grab my order, eyes downward, as I slunk away into the shadows. I felt like a hideous hag who should never have ventured out of her hovel.

Trainbonking Derailed

SEATED IN THE FURTHEST corner of the café, I fingered the lines that time has etched into my skin. Maybe I should avoid smiling, I thought, taking a few sorrowful sips of my drink. But as the caffeine flooded my system, I began to perk up: I am glistening with sweat from a bike ride that would have killed half the people in this goddamn coffee shop, I lectured myself.

Striding out of the store, I tossed a "Thank you, sir," in the direction of the coffee boy, but the poor lad missed my sarcasm completely. He was too busy pulling levers like a sailor on a fast-rolling vessel to do anything but nod vacantly, as if blowing off a distant aunt.

Halfway to work, I realized it was my attitude to ma'amdom, not his, that was eating me up. Until now, I had imagined ma'ams as dried-up aunties and tight-lipped teachers lacking any sense of humor, all past it when it came to riding motorbikes, doing back flips or making love on transcontinental trains.

At that moment, I spotted my less-than-amused reflection in a shop window and began to wonder if perhaps I was a ma'am
after all. If that was the case, it was time to throw out the misconceptions and acquaint myself with the new, improved ma'am--a modern woman, full of life, love and adventure.

But that was easier said than done. Slogging into a biting headwind on my way home, I barely noticed the crashing waves until the ocean spat a salty gob of spray into my face. As I wiped myself dry, I remembered I needed a bottle of wine for a birthday dinner at my girlfriend's house. I rode over to the shopping plaza and fumbled with the lock on my bike--probably the onset of arthritis, I grumbled.

In the liquor store, I searched for an inexpensive bottle--why waste money celebrating my own demise? But as I headed for the checkout, my heart sank. There stood another obscenely young guy, not a wrinkle or scar on his freshly shaved face. Careful to neither frown nor smile, I placed my selection on the counter.

He looked at it, paused, then smiled: "Sorry, miss, but I need to see your ID."

Of course you do, you charming young man, I thought, and for a moment I contemplated hurdling over the counter and kissing this delightful youth for unwittingly boosting my ego. But then I remembered how I wrenched my back last year doing a handstand to impress my 5-year-old nephew. So I pulled out my driver's license instead and proudly pointed out my age before upgrading my purchase to a more expensive chardonnay.

Then I dashed off into the night, invigorated, like a vampire who's feasted on young blood.

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From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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