Ginseng, Yarn, Mime
Topanga Canyon was home in the late 1960s. My best friend was Stephanie. I only got to see her part time; with divorced parents, she lived mostly with her dad in a distant town; she and her brother flew down from the Bay Area once a month to be with their mom in Topanga. Just one weekend a month! I always felt this was unfair. I adored Stephanie’s mom. She was hippie chique. And she had a career. “Need any help here? I’m an RN,” she offered once, when we were out and about and a need for medical assistance arose. She was a beta-tester in the emerging field of holistic health, advocating supplements and natural foods. She wore beautiful bracelets that jangled. With long dark hair, she wore the lower half down and upper half in a wide bun, tied round with thin woven belts, a weave of color trailing behind her when she walked. It amazed me how she transformed from her nurse white self–including white hat, white nylons, white shoes–into her hip mom self by un-pining her hair, slipping on hip-hugger bell-bottom jeans, sandals, and jewelry. Her name was Nawanda, she’d changed her proper mainstream name to one that suited her new life. But at work, she was probably still called Claire. Both of Stephanie’s parents had re-married, so she had two step-parents. Another admirable aspect of Nawanda’s self-determination in the Sixties is that she married a black man, Jay. We all called him Jaybird. He wore sandals and African batik shirts. I loved his deep slow laugh, sounding like brook water babbling over rocks.
On Saturdays during the summer, there was an arts and crafts fair beside the Topanga General Store in a large lot shaded by sprawling oak trees. It was like having a small-scale Renaissance Pleasure Faire right in our own small town. Hippies sold pottery, hand made soap, patchouli oil, tie-dye and hand-sewn clothing, health food, herbs, beads, jewelry and other hippie supplies. Jaybird had a ginseng booth. Chinese medicine was being more widely appreciated and accepted through the syncretic hippie movement; Nawanda and Jaybird were early adopters and, though their work, part of the holistic health movement that was powerful component of the Counterculture. Stephanie and I loved to hang out in the ginseng booth, decorated Bohemian style with Persian rugs and giant pillows. All forms of creativity were encouraged with Counterculture kids; Stephanie and I took to finger crochet. We made small things like bracelets and rings with yarn and beads. Emulating the grownups, Stephanie and I decided that a small triangle of space between the ginseng booth and its neighbor would be just right for us to set up our own mini-booth to sell our jewelry. We stacked a few wooden fruit crates for a display stand, and tacked up a sign made from a round paper plate, reading: “Finger Croshay, 5 to 25 cents.” We carefully laid out our creative endeavors: colorful, wearable art from yarn and beads. Mostly people stopped and marveled at how adorable we were, admiring our simple fare, someone snapped a photo, yet we sold nothing. People commented on our sign as if we couldn’t hear them: “Oh, how cute. Look how they spelled crochet!” I was so embarrassed our sign was misspelled. Spell-check was 20 years ahead.
Enter the Mime. All hippie gatherings had music and movement; Topanga’s Saturday open market was popular for strolling minstrels and performers, as if a Chautauqua wagon loaded with Renaissance actors rolled into town. Working the shaded fair ground, the Mime had the requisite white gloves, beret, and white face paint, updated with a tie-dye t-shirt. On his rotation past our tiny booth, he stopped. With mime exaggeration, he approached and admired every piece of yarn jewelry we had on display, attracting a crowd. On another circulation, the Mime bought a ring for a nickel. Rolling it onto his gloved pinky he held his hand out to admire how the purple yarn looked on his gloved hand, as if it were a diamond ring. Throughout the day, when the Mime circulated by, we whispered to each other, “Look, he’s still wearing the ring!” He became our best customer. He admired a bracelet while placing around his wrist, and his attention generated a few sales. We sold most of our inventory and got busy making more.
Later in the day, the Mime returned to our booth. The way he smiled kindly at us, I could see past his greasepaint and into his eyes. Of course without words, I knew he genuinely adored us, wanted to encourage us. Admiring our new round of merchandise, still unsold, he dug dramatically deep into his mime pocket, and pulled out a nickel and presented it to us as if it was a gold coin. He dug into another seemingly bottomless pocket and produced a quarter, then he found a nickel behind his ear, and from thin air, a dime, and he bought every yarn adornment. The drawn-out transaction drew a huge crowd to watch the Mime, our tiny booth morphed into his performance space. The event was so magical that I recall it vividly to this day: the mime and his white gloves striped with multi-colored yarn bijoux.
On the wooden crate, Stephanie and I counted our quarters, dimes, and nickels. We stacked the coins by size, like pyramids. How gratifying it felt to have made something by hand and sold it. We earned our very own money! Money we could spend however we wanted. We didn’t have to report it to anyone. We put our booth away, then skipped over to the Topanga General Store and disappeared, re-emerging with ice cream bars in colorful wrappers. We quickly found a shady spot and delightfully devoured the cold sweet treats forbidden by our natural food mothers.