My all time favorite columist of the LA Times is Steve Lopez. Sometime ago, he wrote this wonderful story about amazing Mae.
From the summit of Marine Street and 4th in Santa Monica, it’s a steep drop straight into the ocean and Mae Laborde, 93, is gunning down the hill in a canary yellow 1977 Oldsmobile the size of the Love Boat.
I’m Mae’s passenger, and I don’t know if I should watch.
The road is narrow enough as it is, but there’s a truck coming up the hill, and a car just blew a stop sign in front of us on 3rd Street. I can’t tell whether, at 4 feet 10 inches tall, Mae is looking over or under the top of the steering wheel.
“Oh, I hate that,” Mae says, calmly braking behind the car that has just cut her off and threading a needle to squirt past the truck. “I sure wish I had the time to write down his license number. He didn’t even stop.”
I had gone to see Mae right after an appointment with my eye doctor. The vision is starting to go, and I figured if anyone could advise me on negotiating L.A.‘s roadways in my graying years, it would be Mae, who got her driver’s license in 1926.“
Oh, honey, I still drive three freeways,” she told me.
In my last pass through L.A., I lived on the Venice-Santa Monica border, and Mae was my neighbor. The first time I saw her yellow car go by, I thought it was a runaway, because I couldn’t see a driver. As it drew closer, I could see a little tuft of white hair, and then a set of eyes, as if a cricket were driving a tank.
The Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale has a hood the length of a shuffleboard court and, given Mae’s line of vision over the distant grille, her focal point had to be roughly six blocks up the road. But she handled the car like a champ, and she was no light foot either.
Even after I moved away, Mae stayed in touch, reporting virtually every single development in her life.
She was selling her homegrown tomatoes to Michael’s restaurant. She was in a Sears commercial. She was on a TV program on KCET. She won a gumbo cooking contest and was flown to New Orleans. She was on the Santa Monica College advisory board. She was on the radio with Mr. KABC. She went dancing at Pepperdine. Her tamale pie recipe was featured in the L.A. Times. She graduated from the Santa Monica Citizens Police Academy. She got an ovation at the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna for not missing a show in 48 years.
I always feel like a slug when I talk to Mae, who has twice my years and three times my drive. I don’t know a better time than Thanksgiving week to tell you about her, because no one is more thankful to wake up each day and hit the gas.
“I don’t feel an age gap between us,” says Judy Lee, Mae’s 47-year-old neighbor and pal. A couple of years ago, Mae told Lee she ought to check out this Ricky Martin character.
“I really dig him,” Mae said at the time.
She used the word dig? I ask.
“Yes. She said dig.”Lee, an advisor to international students at Pepperdine University, often takes Mae to school weddings and social functions.
“There’s no keeping her off the dance floor,” says Lee. “At a recent wedding, the whole room lit up when she started making eyes at the deejay and using her finger to lure him onto the floor to dance with her. He looked like he was in his 20s.”
When I called Mae about my eye problem, I wasn’t sure she’d be able to squeeze me in. She agreed to give me a Driving for Seniors lesson on two conditions:
First, she wanted to read my tea leaves again. (Mae cranks up the yellow bomber and goes barreling all over Los Angeles, fortunetelling for a growing number of devotees. When she read my leaves this time, she saw a plane trip in the very near future, and I was on a plane within a week.)
Second, the column couldn’t be exclusively about driving. Mae wanted her life story in print.
It’s like dealing with a rock star.
Mae moved south from Fresno as a young girl and got a job at the Kress store in downtown L.A. After work, she’d hop aboard a Red Car for the ride back to her aunt’s home in Venice, and a conductor would flirt with her. Mae married Nicholas Laborde and they had a daughter who died in her 40s. Mae lost her husband a short time later. “I eat a very nutritious diet and I think positive thoughts,” says Mae, who worked as a secretary for Lawrence Welk for several years, which explains the dancing bug. “And I don’t drink or smoke, honey. Make sure you get that in there somewhere.“
Back behind the wheel, Mae is cruising Santa Monica in the Delta 88. Throw a bouquet of flowers on the hood, and we could be a float in the Rose Parade. With her eyes barely skimming the top of the dash and my head scraping the ceiling, we’re getting stares from other drivers.
She’s my driving instructor, I want to tell them. You got a problem?
“You have to drive more defensively as you get older,” Mae advises, saying I should assume that everyone else on the road is a maniac. “It’s a speedway out here, and people don’t even look where they’re
I ask Mae to drive me to Michael’s on 3rd Street, so I can check out her tomato story. She double-parks the Delta 88 and I run inside, where general manager Mark Goldfarb greets me.
“They’re high-octane tomatoes,” he says. “We use them in our gazpacho, our appetizers, the heirloom tomato salad. You mean she’s out there now? She’s her own little PR machine.“Goldfarb dashes out to say hello to “our little celebrity.” Mae smiles, then hits the gas.
On Wilshire, she sees someone exiting a parked car half a block away. “You see that leg coming out?” she asks, applying the brakes.
If there’s a center lane, Mae advises, take it. That gives you a little more maneuverability, especially on the freeway.
I ask Mae if she’s caused an accident in 77 years of driving.
“Oh, honey,” she says. “I never even hit a bird.”
The heck with driving in my old age. I may just hire Mae as my chauffeur.