Judy Garland. You can't say her name without conjuring up the iconic image of a gifted and uniquely talented teenager in MGM's classic The Wizard of Oz. She gave us each her heartbreaking "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in a pure and sparkling voice, achingly lovely, crystallizing the wish we have for a perfect world. Judy is still so much a part of the American pop cultural landscape, that whether you're 10 or 100, she'll always be connected to that song and that America that once was and will never be again. She'd have been 91 on June 10th but instead of celebrating her life, we'll be reminded of the 44th anniversary of her death a few weeks later. She was only 47 when she left us. Had she lived a longer life, she'd have been honored at The Kennedy Center and given a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and deservedly so.
I had my own brief encounter with Judy at the tail end of summer in a decade of turbulence, both personally and in the world at large. I was a young girl at the time with a part-time job at an amusement park in my hometown of Nantasket Beach, Massachusetts. Judy had given a concert on Boston Commons and was invited the next day to stroll around Paragon Park. My best friend's dad moonlighted as a security guard in the Park and I'd heard second-hand that he was going to escort Judy and her son Joe around the place. But as exciting as this news should have been, being the distracted, immature and completely self-absorbed tween I was and so very steeped in angst, the news didn't make much of an impression. Who the heck cared about an old lady from some dumb musical with flying monkeys (although I admit, I did think they were scary) when it was The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan blasting the airwaves?
Actually all that was on my mind that day was where exactly in the park I'd have to work. And next to that monumental decision was my concern that the really cute assistant manager who was a mere decade older than me would never stop treating me like I was 10 (which I was emotionally). Maybe some old faded star was walking around my place of employment, but I was more concerned I'd end up at the cotton candy stand where I'd be rooted to the same spot for 8 hours and have to pick blue spun sugar from my eyebrows, nose and hair all day long. Or worse while Rainbow Woman was riding the loop de loop with her kid, I'd probably be plunked down next to the manager's office where I'd be forced to feed the popcorn machine perfectly measured cups of kernels and what looked and smelled like diesel oil and where I couldn't screw around because the manager could see everything I was doing.
My assignment ended up being Snackarama which meant serving hamburgers, hot dogs and soft drinks to snotty little kids. I didn't care though because Snackarama was in the most isolated area of the park and while seated on my stool at the front counter, I could stare up at the roller coaster and watch people scream as they plummeted down from the peak. Perfect. I hated everyone any way and most of all myself. I was reminded daily by mom that I was not nearly as wonderful as my older sister who was a cheerleader and member of The National Honor Society and an actress and looked like Natalie Wood and whose underwear drawer was perfect with neatly folded panties and bras while mine was "disgusting."
Being invisibly embedded in Snackarama seemed like the perfect spot for me, away from the madding crowd, my own little private hell of self-imposed isolation and rejection. To lift a phrase from a Janis Ian song, I knew the truth at blah, blah, blah, that love was meant for beauty queens, which I was not or ever would be.
But fate and my girlfriend's dad conspired to interfere with my miserable life. From the corner of my eye, I spotted a woman standing at the counter wanting something from me. A tiny woman with intense eyes and a gravelly sweet voice was asking me for a hot dog. I looked up and it occurred to me that I'd seen her face someplace before. That instant recognition we have with celebrity faces hit me hard. I stuttered, "What?" She patiently stared into my eyes and raised her voice an octave, "A hot dog, please". "Okay", I stammered, not moving. We looked at each other for what felt like a decade of my up to this point loser life. "Do you want mustard or relish or anything?" I mumbled. "Speak up," she pleaded. "Mustard or relish? I repeated. "Anything to drink?" "No mustard, no relish. Just a hot dog." Then I realized that I, a nobody from nowhere, was about to make a hot dog for the one and only standing here in the flesh Judy Garland.
Seconds suddenly slowed down to nano seconds and then to milliseconds and then to the feeling of drowning in a vat of jello. Judy stared at me as I stood frozen in indecision. She cleared her throat which pulled me out of my stupor, something perhaps she had learned to do with fellow performers when they were frozen in panic on camera or the stage. I snapped out of it and tossed a hot dog onto the grille which missed the grille and ended up on the floor. I kicked it away and put another one on the flames. She stood waiting patiently and perhaps a bit nervously that I was about to go all ballistic or worse, smotheringly fan worshipping. (Let me digress here for a moment. I detest more than words can express the cloying celebrity obsession I witness daily in Los Angeles and have no intention of degrading Ms Garland's memory with more of the same) Instead I stared at my feet and then the roller coaster plummeting down to earth.
"What's your name?" she asked politely as she waited. "Jo-Ann", I mumbled which is what everyone called me back then despite the fact my real name was Josephine. "May I say you don't seem very happy, Jo-Ann". I shrugged and mindlessly snapped back at her in a habit of blunt observation that took me decades to unlearn, "Neither do you." "You have no idea," she said under her breath. "Wow", I thought. That was real. That was a moment, right? And then she did something so unexpected and marvelous in the manner only Judy Garland could do. She smiled and said, "It gets better. It really, really does." I held that expression, said just in that loving and deeply insightful way inside me for the next thirty years. I held it through miscarriages and divorces and rejection and loss of employment and wars and sudden deaths and illness and rage and unexpected love and successes and births and the joy that comes in appreciation of very small every day things. Because it was not just anyone who had said it to me. It was Ms Judy Garland and she said it like it was a simple fact of life as I flipped her hot dog, slid it into a toasted bun and handed it to her looking right into her soulfully pained eyes and she into mine.
I knew right then and there that she was telling me the absolute truth about life. I knew it as we both stared at the plummeting roller coaster and its dramatic rise back into the air and down again in its majestic route across the landscape. I knew as we both smiled at the wonder of the New England sky and the snotty nosed kids pushing their way up to the counter and my friend's dad taking Judy's arm that it would indeed most likely get better. And that sometimes, as I am certain she knew and was trying to tell me, it even gets great.
So on the anniversary of Ms. Judy Garland's birthday, thanks for the memory of that day long ago in an amusement park that has since disappeared with people looking on who are now long gone. You made it better, Ms. Garland. Not just for me but for a lot of people. You did that with your wit, your dancing, your unique beauty, that amazing voice and your commitment to your craft. That's why we call you a star. Happy 91st and many more up there in the firmament and over the rainbow, riding the roller coaster through the cosmos. I still hear your voice letting me know it gets better. And, fool that I am, I still believe it will. I'm definitely not one of those cloyingly annoying star worshippers but in your case, perhaps, I get a little sweet now and then.