Next time you move cross-country to Los Angeles, do it the Elaine Soloway way. (The SoloWay?) Pack whatever you can into flat-rate Priority Mail boxes from the post office and mail them over a period of six months. Get a place on airbnb.com in a hip L.A. neighborhood, close to shops, restaurants and the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv comedy theater that reminds one of their connections to Chicago’s Annoyance Theater. Don’t bother with the expense and hassle of a car; use your own two feet, a public transit pass, Uber and Lyft. Arrive in L.A. on a Friday, and find community by Saturday morning at Temple Israel of Hollywood’s weekly Torah study. Live close enough to your daughter and grandsons to be in their lives regularly, but never underfoot. And don’t worry about that bookstore reading of your new book, “Green Nails and Other Acts of Rebellion: A Life After Loss” … you may be new in town, but it will be standing room only.
“Be sure to mention my age,” the petite 76-year-old writer/blogger, PR and social media consultant urged me. “I don’t ever want people to see their age as a deterrent.” After one conversation with Soloway, there’s no chance you will.
After a lifetime in Chicago, Soloway uprooted herself to be closer to her daughter, Jill Soloway — the creator of the wildly popular Amazon dramedy “Transparent”— and two grandsons. Those of us who are familiar (or obsessed) with the show already know the Pfeffeman family, and that Shelly, the matriarch (played by Judith Light), endures two major life shifts: her first husband comes out as transgender and her second one suffers from a debilitating illness.
Although “Transparent” is a work of fiction, it has some biographical elements. When the show won best television series, comedy, at the Golden Globes, Jill Soloway thanked “my own ‘trans parent,’ my Moppa,” referring to Elaine’s first husband, who came out as transgender. And, as Elaine’s second husband, Tommy, fought a little-known dementia called frontotemporal degeneration, she was his primary caregiver. As she watched her strong, independent husband’s decline, becoming someone who was unable to speak and who needed round-the-clock care, Soloway wrote about it in her blog, The Rookie Caregiver, which, after Tommy’s passing, became The Rookie Widow. Those two blogs served as foundation for “Green Nails,” which brings the author’s book total to three (in addition to “Green Nails,” she’s written a memoir, “The Division Street Princess,” which started as a blog, and a novel, “She’s Not the Type”). She also contributes to the blog Never Too Old to Talk Tech — Soloway used to work at the Apple store in Chicago and helps people learn how to use their tech devices. Some Internet digging reveals some additional blogging efforts, including Soloway Stories, and a professional website, elainesolowayconsulting.com, offering services in public relations, coaching and technology.
Shortly after the book reading, Soloway launched another blog, The Rookie Transplant, chronicling her experiences as a newbie making her way as she always has — independently, taking L.A.’s roads less traveled, specifically, bipedal locomotion and public transit over the expense (and convenience, some might argue) of a car. One recent Facebook post chronicled her trip to the Apple Store: “My visit to Mecca at the Grove. Took the 780 from Hollywood and Vine. 30 minutes.”
“Because I walked so much in Chicago, I walk here.” She explained how she has mapped her neighborhood by walking it, using trips to Ralphs or to the bank as an excuse for what she calls “functional exercise.” When she’s not on foot, she’s on a bus, watching the landscape go by and listening to people’s conversations. “You miss the world if you’re in a car.”
While her most recent move happened after Tommy’s death, Soloway has been charting her own path for decades. At 51, yearning to learn more about Jewish life, tradition and Hebrew, she organized her own course of adult bat mitzvah study, performing the traditional bat mitzvah tasks and planning her own party. At 60, “to proclaim a new me … an audacious me,” according to her blog account, she got a tattoo on her left biceps — “a wildly-colored, 5-inch picture of a chubby heart, musical notes, rays of sun and roses, intersected by banners bearing the names of my two cheeky daughters, Faith and Jill.”
Soloway also doesn’t let mortality get in the way of regularly conversing with those who have passed on — primarily her husband Tommy and her parents — using them as characters in her essays and blog posts. One recent post was about her deceased mother wanting the new iPad. “It’s all a way into conversation,” Soloway observes. “The main thing about people who die is that we shouldn’t forget them — this way, they’ll never fade away.”
As someone who had been in Los Angeles only a few months, Soloway had expected 10 people to show up at Skylight Books in support of “Green Nails,” but the reading drew more than 60, including a few from the “Transparent” crew, among them actor Lawrence Pressman, who played Shelly’s ailing husband, Ed. Although her daughter’s network undoubtedly was responsible for a few of the folks in the room, the packed house had more than a little to do with the auteur herself, a master marketer who expanded her skill set as technology developed, incorporating her insatiable curiosity for computers into decades of solid public relations and marketing experience.
“I love pens and spiral notebooks, but I also love the mystery of computers,” she said. “Social media saved my PR business; I hated calling people on the phone to pitch, but by following journalists on Twitter and sharing columns with them, I built relationships. These days, you have to know all the bloggers.” When it came to the book, she again blended classic and modern methods: running a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to get the book made, mailing personal notes to backers, and sending promotional postcards about book readings to ensure her message reached everyone.
Now the septuagenarian Soloway is looking ahead and hoping for companionship. “I’ve been widowed for two years; I am interested in meeting a man my age who is seeking a companion, not marriage. He should be healthy and able to drive — at night would be a bonus. But, at the top of this list is: He should make me laugh.” Until that man comes along, Soloway is counting her blessings for the Los Angeles friends and family who have made her feel at home.
“This crowd is funny as hell, and it’s wonderful to laugh,” Soloway said. “I’m so grateful for this brand-new adventure.”
Esther D. Kustanowitz was once a carless rookie transplant to L.A. Now she blogs at myurbankvetch.com and writes about social media and communications at her professional site, EstherK.com.
Letters to the editor: Matzo Ball, Barbara Boxer, French Jews and more