We were strictly browsing the day my friend Nancy and I popped into Pebbles, a funky strip mall boutique, sandwiched between a German deli and hemp store along Santa Monica’s Main Street.
The rows of batik tunics and sundresses that hung in color-coded groups were adorable, but our bellies were too full from lunch to try anything on. We did a quick sweep through the tiny store and were just about to leave when I saw it: a single strap backpack in fine black leather, studded and covered with flowers, mushrooms and peace signs.
The bag was a mash-up of "Easy Rider" and The Doors, as if a Hell’s Angel and Jim Morrison groupie dropped acid and got a hold of a Bedazzler. I lifted it over one shoulder, admiring the details close-up. One of the appliques was the word “love” in red patent leather.
“It’s totally you,” Nancy said.
Who better to judge than the friend who had known me as a wild child in college, a rebel among our fellow Northwestern sorority sisters, albeit a rebel with a penchant for designer handbags? It seemed so long since those carefree days, listening to the Grateful Dead and dreaming of the future along the lakeshore in Evanston.
I could almost hear “Truckin’” as I ran my fingers over the bumpy brass studs. The bag was one-of-a-kind, the sales clerk said. It was hand sewn and signed by a local artist named Robert Warner in the hippie enclave of Topanga Canyon. I unzipped the main compartment to reveal a fuchsia paisley satin lining, the perfect touch of feminine luxury to contrast its rugged exterior. I was seriously into this purse/backpack/whatever you want to call it. If the bag had been human, I would have bought it a drink.
An inner pocket housed a card with the price scribbled discreetly in ballpoint. $1,400 clams. Not exactly a Hermes Birkin, but definitely out of my budget at the time. Cue the record-scratch sound effect. Cut the Jerry Garcia vocals. It was time to get the hell out of there. I started to lift the bag over my shoulder.
“Don’t take it off,” a voice said. It was a deep radio announcer’s voice belonging to a tall older man in a jaunty hat. He had appeared out of nowhere, or so it seemed, wearing an eclectic mix of clothes and accessories that looked like they came from a thrift shop.
“You should buy it,” he said. What’s stopping you?”
I just came to browse, buddy, I thought, not to be put on the spot by some guy who could be crazy or homeless or both. I tossed off some comment about groceries and the mortgage taking precedence over nonessentials, thinking that would shut him up.
But then the stranger did something really crazy. He handed the sales clerk his credit card. He wasn’t homeless. And he was going to buy me the bag, unless I stopped him.
“I appreciate the offer, but I really can’t let you do that.”
“Why not? Obviously it makes you happy,” he said.
The man was easily my father’s age, maybe older. I wasn’t sure what his angle was, but I have never been in the habit of letting strange men buy me gifts. I mumbled something about my husband and the man assured me there were no strings attached. Yeah, right, I thought. Maybe it’s because I’m a city girl, or just my suspicious nature, but I doubted that he really wanted nothing in return.
Then the sales clerk piped up. “It’s okay. I know him,” she said. She introduced him as Henry Jaglom, a film director who gets a kick out of making people’s dreams come true. In fact, he had put her in a movie just last year (though clearly not a successful one, since she was still working retail).
The credit card hung in Henry Jaglom’s outstretched hand, a regular visa, not a black card or Amex platinum. Could he really afford to drop over a thousand dollars on me? I wanted to do the right thing, but my resolve was weakening.
The chemistry between us (me and the bag) was strong. I looked at the clerk, the man and my friend. Nancy has a strong moral fiber; she always does the right thing. She thought I should let him buy me the bag. So I did.
Later that day I Googled my benefactor, who turns out to be a controversial independent filmmaker. As a graduate of both Northwestern and USC film schools, I was a little embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of him. Jaglom is a rebel against mainstream Hollywood who distributes his own pictures (because he can, he’s independently wealthy).
He has worked with well-respected actors such as Vanessa Redgrave, Dennis Hopper and Orson Welles. He currently directs plays in Santa Monica, not far from Pebbles boutique. Some people think Jaglom’s heavily improvised films suck; some think they’re brilliant. He doesn’t seem to care what people think. He just keeps making the art he wants to make.
Looking back on that day in Pebbles, I finally get it. His gift wasn’t based on pure altruism. He’s a director who loves improvisation, and when he saw the opportunity, he decided to direct that scene in the boutique. He presented me (the actor) with a dilemma and dared me to take a chance by allowing a complete stranger to solve it for me. He showed me that sometimes getting what you want means being open-minded enough to challenge your own preconceived notions. And he taught me that the best gifts come from unexpected places.
That was two years ago. I still get stopped by people on the street every time I wear the bag. Some may find my handmade treasure over-the-top, or even ugly. But when I wear it I feel cooler, more confident, one-of-a-kind. It’s not just a bag. It’s a story that, without my taking a risk, would not exist.