When I was twenty-eight I saw Jesus Christ give a speech from the back of a pickup truck.
Immediately I called my husband and told him to get his ass over there so that, like me, he might also bask in the glory of Christ. Plus, I needed a witness. Someone my family trusted.
We were in the parking lot of LA Panavision, a motion picture equipment company I was working for at the time. A sizable crowd had gathered, and I made sure to stay at the very front so as not to miss the action.
I watched the robed figure in awe, amazed that I should be a few yards away from greatness. But even more so, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I could call my mother and tell her about this encounter, and she would finally be delirious with pride. Everyone would know, because she’d tell them.
And that was the most important thing.
Back then my relatives belonged to a group of immigrant families with a long history of unhealthy competition. Most had known each other from the old country. But even after they had moved to America and their lives had transformed into something decidedly non-Eastern European, the collective desire to show off remained just as fierce.
Accomplishments were a yardstick by which they measured a family’s worth. And since most of the older generations could not properly maneuver the Demolistic (democratic-capitalistic) utopia of the U.S., they used us kids as their race horses.
And the race was always on.
Back on that parking lot I knew my chance had arrived. It was my time to shine. During lunch break I called my mother.
“Mom, you’ll never guess what just happened,” I said.
“You won the lottery.”
“Better. I just saw James Caviezel.”
“You know. The guy from Frequency. He’s gonna play Jesus in that new Mel Gibson movie. They were shooting a scene from it today at work.”
“I have no idea who that is, but did you say Mel was there?”
I should’ve known. James didn’t score high points because he wasn’t famous enough, but Mel would put me in the lead for sure.
When my mother was convinced that yes, in fact, Mel Gibson had also been present, and that yes, we had exchanged words, she promptly ordered me off the phone so she could commence bragging.
I was the most popular person for the entire six months I worked at Panavision. In the eyes of my relatives, their friends, and their enemies, I had made it. Any news was big news. Like the time I almost ran over Tom Cruise with my car, or when I met the cast of That 70’s Show and discovered that one of the main characters spoke fluent Russian, or when Cameron Diaz hugged me for no apparent reason. My mother weaved these bits into lush, fancy tapestries of my ascent into stardom. She told me how jealous everyone was, and that made her feel so proud.
I did meet several fascinating and wonderful people. I loved shaking hands with them, eating lunch with them, joking with them like they were human. At first, it all went to my head.
But I had a husband and a two year-old son at home, and I hardly saw them. Every time I found myself in the company of Hollywood celebrities, my mind drifted to our tiny apartment where my own two stars were probably building Lego castles without me.
And ever so slowly the star struck feeling dissipated.
I felt quite unaccomplished and confused. Wasn’t this the dream job so many people would kill for? Was I unappreciative of the opportunities presented to me? Was my family’s idea of an accomplishment fundamentally different from my own?
After a while I started to hate my job. No matter how much I pretended to enjoy the business, I felt nothing for it. The glitter didn’t blind me, the whirlwind didn’t whirl. I was putting my kid and husband and myself through hell just to impress family, and once I admitted that to myself I knew what had to be done.
I quit. Walked out of the place that hundreds of people would sell their firstborn to get into.
The relatives still ask me why I did it. When I tell them, they give me knowing looks, always suspecting more controversial reasons.
But the truth is simple: I had accomplished so much more by walking away