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How I Was Mistaken For Homeless By A Taco Bell Employee

Kuel Life Featured Images January 2023 5

Midlife Musings: Nancy Knight

I don’t always look my best.

Frankly, I’m reasonably confident I can be pretty when I need to be, but I’ve never really cared that much.

“I’m at least fashion-conscious enough to know that I don’t need paint stains on all my clothes.”

Beauty Versus Sleep:

Given the choice of arriving at work looking awesome with my face war-painted into a movie star facsimile of myself and getting an extra ten minutes of sleep — unless I’ve been told Spielberg will be there with his casting agent in tow, I’ve always opted for the shut-eye. (And, no, that hasn’t happened. Yet.)

My hobbies don’t really lend themselves to looking like I’ve stepped off a Fashion Week runway, either — unless it’s a special “Fleece, Stained Old T-Shirt & Neoprene” edition of Fashion Week (let me know when that is, BTW).

But that’s what you wear when you’re hiking, painting or scuba diving. Comfort and safety matter most with the first and last of those three, and as for middle — hey, I’m at least fashion-conscious enough to know that I don’t need paint stains on all my clothes.

Diving in particular doesn’t always help you look your best — except for those too-short minutes underwater, when your neoprene wetsuit makes you look like a sleek water nymph, squeezing nearly any body into a weightless Greek deity version of the sloven earth-bound creature you once were, untethered to the bonds of gravity and breathing through your nose. (Okay, you kind of miss the latter.)

Maintaining Equilibrium:

But once that pesky air tank gets low and you have to ascend to the surface, things can get a little ugly. Literally. It’s not just from the effort of maintaining equilibrium on a dive boat rocking to the rhythm of the nausea it’s inducing in your stomach while you peal off your urine-scented wet suit (hey, sometimes a girl just wants to warm up a little 80 feet down). Here’s a little story about how bad a great day of diving can screw with your looks.

“A few years ago one such weekend found us on a boat dive out in the Gulf of Mexico.”

I’ve made good friends diving, randomly paired with strangers for dive buddies and ending up staying in touch for years. But I have to apologize to those buddies who might be reading this — my all-time favorite dive buddies are my nephew Perry and his sister Gabrielle.

They’re both amazing young people of whom I couldn’t be more proud, and I like to think that I influenced them both to become certified divers. We try to get underwater together at least once a year, usually over the Thanksgiving weekend that sees us all down in Florida with family together.

Amazing Morning Diving:

A few years ago one such weekend found us on a boat dive out in the Gulf of Mexico. After an amazing morning diving with groupers, nudibranches and frogfishes, we wrung ourselves out as best we could before piling into my rental car to head back to the family compound in Central Florida.

Driving through downtown Clearwater was a bit tricky as the car windows steamed up with our warming bodies shoved in our wet bedraggled boat clothes, feet resting on our sopping wetsuits (yes, probably wet with more than just sea water).

I asked, “Anyone hungry?”

“Sure, and Boo?” Perry said, using the nickname all my nieces and nephews use for me. “You brought us diving so we’ll buy you lunch, okay?”

We Settled On Taco Bell:

“Sounds great!” I replied happily, masking my contemptuous bemusement about a quick fast-food lunch not exactly being financially equal to paying for two 20-somethings’ morning of scuba diving. But I love the little buggers so that was fine. At least they’d thought about it.

We discussed what would be a good quick option for us, what with Gabrielle being all but a Vegan, and settled on Taco Bell, right on the main drag of Highway 60. I pulled into the parking spot, and the kids hopped out, saying they’re gonna go order.

“Good plan, everyone agreed, so I popped the trunk to get my backpack, full of dry, clean clothes.”

I said, “That’s great, but I really want to change out of these wet clothes first, so just wait for me in a booth and I’ll see you in a sec, and I’ll order then.”

Good plan, everyone agreed, so I popped the trunk to get my backpack, full of dry, clean clothes. They commandeered a booth as I headed straight for the bathroom.

After a welcome employment of modern sanitary plumbing and not my own wetsuit, I changed out of my wet nasty clothes and into my clean ones, then gasped as I gazed in the mirror.

Diving Wreaks Havoc On Our Looks:

The “whites” of my eyes were veined nearly entirely in red after six hours of wearing the sea salt-encrusted contact lenses that I only wear when I dive. My hair was a scattershot mess pointing in every direction and then some, spitting out from under my threadbare dive cap.

The wrinkles lining my 50-something face were further accentuated by the imprint of my tight dive mask, thrust hard against my face by the crushing pressure of 90-foot-deep water (I always sport that deep crevasse well into the next day following a dive). Not wanting to soil my backpack, I piled my wet clothes haphazardly into my arms, slipped on my backpack and headed out.

I immediately spotted the kids at a booth near the door and walked over to their table. Perry reaches into his pocket for some cash, saying, “Yeah, we’re buying your lunch!”

Taco Bell Employee:

At that moment, a Taco Bell employee — an older woman, probably 10 years older than me, at least — intercepted me, jabbed a finger near my nose and stated emphatically into my face:

“Excuse me, ma’am? If you’re going to be asking customers for money, I need to ask you to leave!”

“She was just doing her job.”

I just stood staring at her, a huge grin slowly spreading across my face, while the kids shouted, “No, she’s our aunt! She’s our aunt!”  The woman instantly realized her mistake, practically bent over in two and stammered, “Omigod I’m so sorry I’m so sorry!”

The kids and I just started guffawing.  “No tip for you!” I said slowly with a smile.

We could not stop laughing after that. I went up to place my order, coincidentally from this same woman, who seemed properly mortified.

Free Taco Bell Lunch:

I really couldn’t blame her: There was unkempt, bloodshot me, carrying my wet, possibly pee-scented clothes in my arms while wearing a backpack, being offered a free lunch in a fast-food restaurant on a road infamous for its large un-homed population. She was just doing her job. And the irony of being mistaken for homeless because I’d spent the morning throwing away expendable income on one of the most One Percenter of recreational pursuits isn’t lost on me, either.

But for a day spent exploring the undiscovered world beneath the waves, or hiking the backcountry of a national park miles away from the closest road, or even dabbing paint on a canvas and occasionally wiping a tinted hand across your stomach — if the costs of those peak-joy inducing activities include bloodshot eyes, a grimy face and filthy clothes, those are prices I will gladly pay. Especially if I’m also paying for two of the young people I love most.

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About the Author:

Nancy Knight is a freelance graphic designer and writer. She and her wife of 30 years live on a farm in Western New York, where they are bossed around by one very spoiled dog, two ornery but adorable goats, about 23 chickens (give or take a few), three demanding but loving barn cats, and by the ongoing threat of Nature trying to reclaim her 53 acres of pasture and forest.