When help arrived this far-gone family’s mental resources were DONE
And when I say “done,” I mean that arguing and shrieking could be heard from the driveway. Anna, the specialist who’d soon be knocking on their front door, had been given detailed instructions and a description of the wits’ end she’d have to deal with. Slowing for the address, Anna pictured having to talk her way past a police perimeter or finding the family of seven tossing its furniture into a bonfire on the lawn. These were panicked people.
Not one of them knew which had been child zero, the one to bring the louse home. They only knew that dad couldn’t go to work; the kids had been removed from school; and no one had so much as put on a sock in four days. They all wore towels, the only cloth they believed wasn’t contaminated. Each was driving the others nuts with complaints and tantrums – let alone living the misconceptions of their predicament.
When the 14-year-old shaved parts of her head with the wailing martyrdom of St Ludmila of Bohemia, mom finally called a head lice removal service. Where she’d once been too proud to dial Hair Whisperers, Lice Lifters, The Lice Squad, and especially an outfit called Lice Schmice, at this point she’d been reduced to begging.
And now, at last, someone was parked closer to the house then even the mailman was willing to go. Except the car had been sitting in the driveway for a good five minutes. Why wasn’t the person getting out? Seven faces pressed against every one of the home’s front windows.
Whoever you are, c’mon already! Protective amulets? Hostile magic? We don’t care! Rid us of the demon! Free us from this castigation!
These were Anna’s very first clients at her very first house call. She’d only recently answered a Craigslist post offering $30 an hour without really saying why –not unusual for jobs on Craigslist– but she’d replied because it just didn’t matter anymore. She’d already answered fifty others, with each being as absurd as employed people might expect. What the hell. After this she’ll have put in her time for the day: the rest belonging to her 12-year-old.
The woman on the other end of the phone explained that the hourly wage was compensation for head lice removal. Anna would have to buy her own gallon jug of olive oil (an apparently important part of this specific remedy), lice combs, and set of hospital scrubs, which would serve as her uniform. The rest of the job would take care of itself: customers were usually so desperate that the mere sight of medical scrubs rendered them compliant and grateful. Anna would need only to be gentle, polite, impartial to politics, and –if possible when examining someone’s scalp– never say, “OH MY GOD, THAT’S A BIG BUG!” Previous employee turnover had been high because many people crossed these lines and more. Yet Craigslist, it was mentioned, was the only source for recruits that could keep up with demand.
The job broke down like this: After watching some online videos, Anna, along with four or five other “specialists” on the team, would receive text notifications of families or children in need. Mileage is paid and tips are common. The first team member to answer affirmatively gets the job. Some do well; others flip out; some hang up halfway through the initial interview; and a few stick around.
She asked, “Would you agree it’s been rough for me? Paying the rent; keeping the kid fed and in school; car payments; insurance; food – all of that?”
“I would agree. You’ve done a great job.”
“And would you agree that I’ve taken on some pretty crappy gigs to keep things afloat no matter what?”
Her most recent job had involved testing Apps, but the start-up had its funding yanked. Its location in Greece should have been considered, but I didn’t want to be discouraging.
“Yes. Absolutely. One hundred percent.” I answered. “My favorite was when you were the ‘Activities Assistant’ at the old folks home.”
Anna giggled. “Okay, good. ‘Cause you’re gonna love this one. You ready?”
It wasn’t always like this. Anna left behind a career in the entertainment industry where some big names benefited from her creative vision and stubbornness. I can’t tell you what she did or which notables might’ve thrown themselves between her and the phone had they known she was going to answer that Craigslist ad, but I can tell you you’re familiar with her work. Even your kids likely know the names of those on the receiving end of Anna’s career highs.
We’re only talkin’ 11 or so years ago, but on the month she learned she was pregnant, Anna gave it all up. She wasn’t running from rehab, debt, or crazy ex-boyfriends. She’s just somebody who flung herself off a cliff in order to be a mom. She told her baby’s father of her disinclination to marry, but then she encouraged him to visit. He’s nice enough, but no deal-breaker.
Besides, Anna was already married – to her profession. And she was so committed to it that, when she hit this particular fork in the road, she chose the life of her child and an unmapped future instead of compromising her work. Despite much of the rest of the world not needing the skills Anna had learned in Hollywood, she left her native L.A. for a part of the country where money stretched further and where only the people she chose to tell would know who she was. Once her money ran out, the real fight for character began.
Anna could’ve run back to L.A. and made a few phone calls any time. Instead, after difficult days, lots of sacrifices, and jobs that came and went (each a little further from her vocation ’til no trace of Anna’s former career remains), she got out of her car and knocked on the door of a crazed family whose bodies were infected with lice.
The mom answered and apologized for the appearance of the home. The place was nice – very nice. These people had money. And Anna was just as nervous to admit it had come to this for her as the mother was in exposing her personal Lord of the Flies.
So, literally and figuratively tiptoeing through her first squirmy experience with lice removal, Anna repeated the only line she could remember: “It’s okay, I’m here to help.” Like cops, firefighters, and soldiers do, she clung to her training. Okay, okay…cops, firefighters, and soldiers don’t train by watching YouTube clips, but you get the idea. “It’s okay, I’m here to help.”
Back in the front seat of her car on the driveway, Anna had bargained with God a little the way many of us do before pretending to know what we’re talking about for a paycheck. It’s not really praying; it’s more like hedging a bet. But Anna asked for only one thing: to not humiliate herself. When she told me this I got choked up. I was proud of her and proud to know her.
Personally, there’s no way in hell I would’ve gotten out of that car, let alone started measuring my shame so late in the game. I mean, by my calculation, Anna had gone past the point of humiliation when she answered the ad. But there she was, hoping not to embarrass herself after having already demonstrated a huge willingness to be humble and teachable, to start at the bottom, to suit up and show up. I listened with admiration as she told the me the rest.
The family members had slowly emerged from under things and around corners. The ordeal took eight long hours, but Anna followed all the steps correctly and was a calming presence in the home. They gave her a $100 tip and offered a glowing report to Anna’s new boss, who coughed up the hourly as promised, and told of weaker constitutions cracking under far less of an inaugural outing. And if Anna’s interested there’s plenty more work crawling around on people’s heads out there.
As it was three days before Christmas, Anna took her pay-day home to her daughter with a big smile. They’ve been existing for so long with so little that this was a huge improvement from last Christmas.
So what, you say? It’s true these are the duties of any decent parent. But this isn’t about parenting. It’s about somebody with a lot less than I have whose personal challenges saved my Christmas from my own excuses to bitch ‘n moan about the holidays (now there’s something to be embarrassed about).
Happy holidays. Happy New Year. Happy life.