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Carnett: 'Crazy lady' was eye-opener for 9-year-old

She hadn't crossed my mind in decades: the Mad Woman of Costa Mesa.

I thought of her the other day as I tied my shoes before embarking on my morning constitutional. Why she came lurking whilst I was engaged in interior self-talk I can't fathom.

But there she was, like a 1954 Turner Classic Movie, fully animated on the LCD screen of my brain.

I was a fourth-grader — 9 years old — at Lindbergh School on Orange Avenue and 23rd Street. I rode my bike to school daily. The most direct route took me past the Mad Woman's house. I could avoid her only by going far out of my way.

Each time my pals and I came to the Mad Woman's house, a couple of blocks from the schoolyard, we made certain we were riding on the other side of the street. Several times a week she'd accost us. Why? I never figured that out.

It made no sense.

We usually didn't see her on our morning ride to Lindbergh, but afternoons were a different matter. We'd see her two or three times a week at 3 p.m. as we rode home from school. She'd be in her frontyard watering the grass. Lying in wait.

For us kids, the anticipation of a possible encounter with the Mad Woman was both terrifying and exhilarating. High on adrenaline, we'd prepare to run the gantlet on our bikes. When she saw us coming, she'd begin yelling: "Hey you kids, stay off my property. Keep away, do you hear me?"

We heard her all right, and had no intention of getting within sniffing distance of her daisies.

During her diatribe, she'd swear like a furious mess sergeant. Her language was so rancid it could have turned fried green tomatoes red. Our parents protested to the school principal, but he instructed us to ignore her.

She'd run across her yard to the front fence, lean over the 3-foot barrier yelling all the while and wagging a finger at us. Her unprovoked anger was frightening. I'd never witnessed that kind of behavior before in an adult.

She was tall and thin and extremely old — like my mother — at least 30 or so. I'm not certain if she was married or had children. Her personal life was unknown to us.

If she still barks at children today, she does so as an ornery nonagenarian. But she moved from her Costa Mesa residence sometime while I was in high school, I think, and I've not seen her since.

We'd peddle furiously as she filled the air with screeching invective, but when we were safely a house or two beyond we'd turn and yell "crazy lady! crazy lady!" It was the best rejoinder we could come up with.

Looking back 60 years, I can't imagine what her issue might have been. Was she truly crazy? I think not, but I'm no psychotherapist. Maybe she'd been assailed by a pack of young ruffians, or perhaps juvenile delinquents had egged her house or damaged her flowers. I didn't once pause to consider her point of view on the matter, because fourth-graders are mostly incapable of quiet introspection.

What I did know was I'd been unfairly maligned. I'd done nothing except yell "crazy lady" when she'd cussed a blue streak at me. The experience showed me that even adults, whose position commands respect from a 9-year-old, can be unstable. She was obviously wrestling with inner demons.

Sometimes I'd see her from the safety of our family car while driving down her street.

"Look, mom, there's the crazy lady," I'd yelp.

"Don't pay her any mind," my mother would quietly advise. "Maybe she has bad days. When she yells at you, just continue on your way. Never say anything back at her."

I confess I didn't always abide by mom's edict.

The Mad Woman of Costa Mesa opened my eyes: Adults are not perfect. Thanks to her, I learned that at 9 rather than as a teenager.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.

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