THE LADY IN THE PARK
By Ilona Saari
I relate to Kinsey Millhone the heroine of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries.It doesn’t matter that she solves mysteries and I write them or that she’s younger than I am, we both love junk food (though I prefer Carl’s Jr.’s Western Bacon Cheeseburger and she’s a Big Mac girl) and we both get “high” from our week day morning jaunts.Of course, her jaunt is a three mile run around the streets of Santa Teresa, California that’s exhilarating and meditative – my jaunt is a three mile “power” walk around a track surrounding empty baseball diamonds in the San Fernando Valley that’s neither exhilarating nor meditative.My walks, however, help me burn off those cheeseburgers and that box of reduced fat Cheez-Its I eat late at night watching Charlie Rose interview the people I would love to know.
Kinsey also notices people.I notice people.Lately it’s the lady in the park.
As I mentioned, I do my power walking most week day mornings.Not always at the same time, but always within the same time frame--- between 9:00 and 11:00 am.Sometimes my husband joins me, sometimes a friend, but whether I’m walking alone or with someone, I see many familiar faces who have become part of my morning “crowd”… a small compact middle-aged man with black hair, listening to his walkman who now nods when he passes me as we go around and around the track; a rugged looking guy about forty in jeans and cowboy boots walking and talking with a thin blonde woman about the same age who’s dressed more for shopping on Rodeo Drive than working up a sweat; an older black man who I’ve come to learn is a personal trainer who jogs for hours greeting everyone with a cheerful hello and a smile as he passes by; plus assorted elderly people who walk in pairs and a few new mothers who run as they push their infants in carriages trying to lose those last five pounds of “baby” fat.
One morning, shortly after the new year, the lady in the park joined us.The first time I saw her she drove up to the curb of the track’s adjoining parking lot in her not-that-old Chevy blue van, slid open its side doors, pulled out a fishing rod and a folding “beach” chair and sat herself down right on the track.The rod didn’t seem to have a line, though as I breezed by her it seemed she was trying to thread one in.When I passed her the second time, she had now taken out a cooler so I guessed that, because it was a lovely January day (this is sunny southern California after all), she had come to the park to have a picnic.I didn’t wonder at the time why she hadn’t carried her chair the fifty yards or so to the grassy knoll part of the park that actually had picnic tables, I just figured she like to be surrounded by the “action.”
The next morning the lady in the park drove up again, this time wearing matching powder blue cotton sweatshirt and pants.The day before, her sweat ensemble had been tan.As I completed my first half-mile, my lady had placed her beach chair under a tree on the edge of the track and was sitting contentedly doing nothing, with a cheerful pastel quilt surrounding her…the Valley is still a desert, after all, even if our Los Angelenos forefathers “rerouted” water from the north to irrigate the land for orange groves.Winter temperatures can fluctuate twenty degrees in one day.Yesterday was a glorious seventy, today a brisk fifty.She smiled to no one as I whisked by and wondered if her long platinum hair, parted in the middle, with Buster Brown bangs was her own or a wig.By the time I finished my second lap, she had moved her chair into the sun.Seven minutes and thirty seconds later as I approached her again, she was standing by her van, the doors wide open, and I could see that it was filled to the brim with “stuff.”It looked like the vans that are open for business at flea markets.
She’s been coming to the track every morning now for five months, each day with a different cotton sweat suit.My personal favorite, which made its debut right after Easter, is pink.Not light pink or dark rose, but cotton candy pink and while I marveled at the color and wondered why anyone her age would wear so much of it, I began to really wonder who the lady in the park was.Like Kinsey, I ran through my mind what I knew.She appeared to be about forty, give or take five years, she had an array of colorful sweats, she was probably blonde, drove a van that was at least ten years old but in good condition and she was clean.
Unlike everyone else running and walking in circles to keep fit or alive, the lady in the park just sits (her fishing pole and cooler have not been seen or heard from since that first day).During my thirty-minute walk, she often moves her beach chair from under the trees to along side her van, then back again.She does nothing else of note, except fill her water bottle from one of the baseball diamond fountains or sit in her van and watch.Watch what, I can only surmise.
At first I thought she might live with all her belongings in her van… an upscale San Fernando Valley bag lady... but I couldn’t figure out how she could keep so immaculate.Where does she wash her hair (or wig)?Where does she do her laundry?How does she pay for gas?
Nope, she isn’t an upscale bag lady… she’s an undercover cop surveying the baseball diamonds and track for drug pushers, gang bangers, terrorists or possibly just litter-ers.Or maybe she’s a P. I., keeping a clandestine eye on my fellow walker in the cowboy boots because he’s having an affair with Ms. (or is it a definite Mrs.?) Rodeo Drive.I mean really, who walks laps around a track every day in cowboy boots?Would Kinsey sit day after day in plain sight watching her prey?Would she disguise herself in pastel sweats and a blonde wig?Wouldn’t she at least read a book as she sat vigil?I’ve thought of talking to the lady in the park, but as I cool down and my muscles scream in pain when I use the bleachers as a ballet barre to stretch, I watch her watching us joggers and walkers and decide I really don’t want to know.I don’t want to know that she’s homeless, if she is.I don’t want to know if she’s lonely or sad and comes to the track to escape her life and be surrounded by strangers.I want to continue to believe that she’s a lady of mystery… a lady who has an exciting life with many friends and loved ones and it’s then I understand how truly different I am from Kinsey Millhone.Fictional Kinsey lives in the real world, I’m happiest in my fictional one.
Ilona Saari says, "As a freelance film/ TV writer, I have served as Production Consultant for A CENTURY OF WOMEN, the Emmy-nominated and award-winning 6-hour documentary mini-series for TBS, about the history of American women over the last 100 years. I've also written several episodes for television sitcoms, as well as comedy-variety shows, informational and magazine shows.
For feature films, I've was commissioned to write a romantic comedy titled, BATTLE OF THE SEXISTS for producer Aaron Russo, and have two other films under option, THE JANE GANG and 44 SUNSETS.
In politics, I was a consultant and press liaison for two Democratic National Conventions, was Deputy Press Secretary for the 1980 Carter-Mondale Presidential Re-election Campaign for the State of New York, and a speech writer, specializing in the environment and women's issues for various celebrities who spoke across the country in support of the '92 and '96 Clinton-Gore Presidential Campaigns.
I can currently be seen as an on-air guest Design Consultant/Artist for HGTV and
periodically appear as a guest columnist in newspapers as diverse as the NY Daily News, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and Raivaaja, a Finnish American weekly."