You could say this is an employment memoir, what happens when work and personal life repeatedly collide. For years I was a serious poser. Most of my adult years on Mondays through Fridays I arose from bed each morning, dressed in “professional” attire, maneuvered through rush hour traffic and arrived at various office buildings where I dwelled a daily minimum of eight consecutive hours while shuffling papers from one desk to another. Although my most common title had been Administrative Assistant I was a mere Paper Shuffler who desperately desired to be elsewhere, perhaps on a stage performing show tunes or juggling bananas. It is befuddling to me how I consistently pretended I was someone I clearly was not without imploding. On second thought, I imploded multiple times. I was not one of those employees who skipped to work or whistled along the way while holding a triple latte with two shots of vanilla extract and a dash of nutmeg. There was absolutely no humming to the radio for me. Instead I could usually be found snarling and growling at the fellow commuters with their awful driving habits, no eye contact tinted windows, gargantuan tank-sized SUV’s and heavy braking. Increasingly I began to feel like I was a part of some kind of highway cult, stuck in an endless sea of brake lights all headed in the same direction—vocational prison—tethered by our redundant bills, our helpless integration and our fears of separation.
Perpetually I was the intense malcontent in the office that looked as if I would rather be somewhere else. I was the worker who spent weekends abolishing thoughts of Cubicleville from my mind the very moment they appeared. I would literally get depressed and weepy on Sunday evenings because after a 48-hour break from Misery, Inc. it would be time to assemble those five “professional” outfits, think about transportable lunches, put on a subservient face and avoid the evils of the vending machine all over again. I had major issues with working not only dead-end jobs but particularly with being surrounded by bland beige and gray partition walls. Why, I was a flower bursting with color plunked in a wheat field. Unlike so many other workers, I never possessed a can-do attitude and I think the term “team player” is for assimilators. Upon close observance of certain coworkers and herds of cows or sheep I have found them all to be quite similar. It’s no wonder office workspaces are increasingly referred to as cubicle farms. I regard the workplace as The Establishment, oppressed and robotic workers as The People and the generously compensated executive brass who reign over us all, including the entire government, as The Man.
While reflecting on all of the jobs I’ve held throughout the years, I tried to discover where I got my views of working, what adults were around me as a child growing up in theWashington, D.C. area, and how they felt about their own jobs and careers, what I perhaps learned from them. What I found was both interesting and tragic. Not one adult I knew followed their dreams; instead they just worked dead-end jobs. I cannot recall one person who walked out of a job they felt didn’t suit them or was crushing their soul. They were a mix of passive white collar and blue collar workers who were, for the most part, just happy or proud to be employed. Now I am not insulting these working class people—they did what they had to do the best way they knew how. They worked hard and persevered even when the only end in sight was twenty or thirty years down the road to retirement. So sure, these were noble working people. But I noticed there weren’t words or terms used in relation to working like “passion” or “five-year goals.” I also didn’t know any artists or writers or any eclectic people, for that matter. In fact, the most colorful and fascinating adults I observed while growing up were people I’d seen on television, people like Carol Burnett and Cher. There were no bells and whistles surrounding the working life, no hope, no evidence of a vocational Promised Land. Adults just went to work and they didn’t talk about it much except to say things like “Gotta make a living” and similar enigmatic breathings in children’s presence. “Work” was a mysterious place adults disappeared to each morning and returned from in the evenings, and somewhere in the mix there was a monetary payment in exchange for labor. Children were merely admonished to get a “good job” when they grew up. There were no hopeful wings clipped on, no yellow bricks roads pointed to, no grand possibilities to strive for.
As a child who lived back and forth between family and even foster care, I bounced around a lot from house to house and town to town primarily within the Washington, D.C. area. For the first eight years I lived with my maternal grandparents and their two youngest kids who for years I assumed were my mother, father, brother and sister. My grandmother had been a nurse and by the time I came along she was home raising kids while degenerating from Multiple Sclerosis and my grandfather, a congenial easygoing man, simply worked a blue collar job “at the government.” He got up early each morning, put on a dark green uniform, featuring a long-sleeved button-up shirt with a sew-on badge bearing his last name, and headed toward the Navy Annex 26 miles north in Arlington, Virginia. It’s not like he sat down and explained his job to us kids in any detail because we couldn’t have cared less about labor and boring daily routines. In contrast, it’s amusing that today there is a Take Your Kids to Work Day. In my childhood, kids played with big plastic Fisher Price toys and adults came home in the evenings carrying bags of groceries and occasional sweet treats. As long as there was shelter and sugary cereals provided, we kids were giddy and content and clueless of what it took to supply such trappings. The two worlds were always kept separate.
I don’t recall my grandfather ever complaining about his job. There were no “Down with The Man!” comments or “I hate that job; pass me the classified section” grumblings over pot roast and potatoes. On the side he often worked handyman odd jobs for several wealthy movers and shakers in Washington, D.C. He would paint the walls of their Capitol Hill residential investment properties and fix their loose doorknobs. In addition to what he called “pocket change” they would give him all kinds of stuff he deemed treasures that he would bring home and pile up around the house, in the shed and in the yard, much to my grandmother’s disgust and us kids’ complete embarrassment. For too many childhood years we rode around in his ultra slow burgundy station wagon with crap stuffed to the gills all around us in the seats. It was common to have debris protruding from the mess, merely two inches from our eyelashes or a box filled with God-knows-what poking us in the shoulder in the back seat. Red lights were particularly humiliating; we would duck down pretending to tie our shoes while hiding our very faces; long red lights were super grueling. And Daddy, he was such an easygoing man that it never ever bothered him that people were gawking at his car, at his “treasures” protruding from the windows, at him. He would just sit there with one hand on the steering wheel and the other tossing oyster crackers or roasted peanuts into his mouth, humming to himself while chewing. At one point he was not-so-affectionately deemed Fred Sanford by neighbors he was such a junk man of magnificent proportions.
Across the street from us there was a husband and wife who were both janitors who cleaned the local public schools at night. For many years I didn’t realize what they even did for a living; I just knew they had a job of some sort because they left out each afternoon wearing similar uniforms. The wife was a real fancy lady who often wore bright red lipstick even when she was at home, and she spritzed herself with perfume regardless of occasion. The husband, in addition to being a janitor, worked at the local ABC store selling wines and liquors. This couple had one of the nicer houses on the block, a brick rambler with a bay window rather than the typical vinyl siding on most of the other homes. It also had the coolest bathroom I had ever seen; the wallpaper was funky with raised patterns made of maroon velvet that seemed to be pressed onto aluminum foil. Sometimes when I went over to their house to play with their daughter, my friend Finola, I would ask to use the bathroom just so I could run my hands along that bumpy velvet wallpaper. It was aesthetic delight to my six-year-old eyes. In contrast, our bathroom had a lopsided floor and a drafty window over the tub that faced an enclosed side porch that was filled with junk. The janitor couple also had the first circle shaped bed I had ever seen; I didn’t even know a bed could be in any shape other than rectangular.
Right next door to us there was a perpetually ornery woman who worked at the post office and her husband chauffeured a limousine for a female Mars candy magnate. He drove a sporty Corvette so I assumed he made good money. Whenever he hopped into his car with its roaring engine, all the kids on the block, including the adults who were outside, would stop dead in their tracks to see that bright red bullet roar by. It was so loud and powerful the asphalt beneath our sneakers would vibrate and tremble.
Precisely what the rest of the people on my block did for a living was a blur, mostly blue collar jobs that kept them afloat. They were the earliest vocational zombies in my life with their esoteric jobs and heavy sighs and uniforms and schedules. Years later I observed even more working adults and still not once can I recall any one of them saying anything interesting about working, nor did I hear talk of anyone who truly lived their dreams. I soon learned that working was a mere mandate, something that had to be done in order to have a roof over your head, a car in the driveway, food, clothing, ice cream and band-aids. I never once viewed working as something a person could actually love; work and passion were not and could not be synonymous.
I also don’t remember being pointedly asked as a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Perhaps I was asked by a teacher in a general classroom setting but no one looked me in the eyes and asked anything futuristic. I guess most of the adults who surrounded me were too busy trying to make ends meet than to teach kids to dream bigger dreams than they had dreamed for themselves. To this day when I hear an adult tell a child that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, even President of the United States, I find it rather amusing.
The very first dream I had was to be a singer. Now this had nothing to do with whether or not I had pipes; I just loved music and I would lip-synch, putting on one-person shows in my grandparent’s living room nearly every weekend and all summers long. With mock microphone in hand I did moist renditions of Helen Reddy’s Ruby Red Dress and Paper Lace’s Billy, Don’t Be a Hero. The lattermost was a show stopper; even my perpetually busy grandfather would be howling by the end of that number. I can’t even talk about my interpretation of Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn. Or John Denver’s Country Roads (Take Me Home), and his Fly Away made me nostalgic at seven years old. I was completely and utterly into John Denver to the point of obsession; the very sound of him playing guitar was a salve to my young soul. I mean, his Rocky Mountain High made me duck into the seclusion of my bedroom and weep. There were regular live concerts and one-person skits on the hardwood living room floors featuring Me. I would duck behind furniture, put towels over my head to create long hair and gyrate myself into pretzel shapes to the delight of everyone under the roof, including our Dachshund. I grew up on comedy skits in the 1970’s. There was not only the Carol Burnett Show but Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Sonny & Cher, Captain & Tenille, Tony Orlando & Dawn and the Flip Wilson Show. By age six I was a musical sketch comedy maniac. All that was missing was a grand piano I could drape myself over. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be a singer as much as I wanted to put on a show and make people fall over laughing. Performing made me lighter and just seeing the howling laughter that my performances incited made me feel wonderful and at times necessary.
Naturally my interests varied throughout my childhood. As early as the second or third grade I demonstrated track and field ability so I spent the next decade or so running relays and jumping hurdles and winning ribbons at local track meets. Several times I outran adults with really long legs and the first time I ever jumped the long jump my P.E. teacher asked me to do it again and again, apparently astounded at how far I could naturally propel my entire body forward. I eventually dreamed of becoming a gold medal Olympian. I pictured myself in a colorful tank top and shorts with jazzy stripes and Nikes on my nimble feet running to the finish line so fast I would be compared to the speed of light. If I was wearing green there would be a mere flash of green on the field. If I were wearing red and white only a streak of pink would be seen. I learned the story of Wilma Rudolph as a child, how she had overcome childhood illness to become a track and field Olympian and for a handful of years I became infatuated with her. I knew all of the track and field stars of the time by name and style—Edwin Moses, Bruce Jenner, Evelyn Ashford, Mary Decker, and later, Carl Lewis andFlorence “Flo Jo” Griffith-Joyner. By 1984 I quietly had my eye on the 1988 Olympic Games but because I didn’t have a trainer and since I moved around a lot there were no seeds of tenacity planted so that dream soon shriveled and dried up.
I spent a summer determined to be the Bionic Woman. I even became a member of her fan club, (I actually received an autographed headshot by Lindsay Wagner herself) but the mechanical movements were getting tricky to imitate so that dream fizzled as soon as it appeared, not long after the TV show went off the air.
By fourth and fifth grade I discovered books on a whole new level, books that simply floored me and carried me through all kinds of fires like The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson and The Pistachio Prescription by Paula Danziger and anything by Judy Blume, but especially Blubber and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Far too many books to mention or recall. I was sent to Maryland by my increasingly ill grandmother to live with who I call the Evil Conduit, also known as my biological mother, who had put me up for adoption in the first place, and I lost nearly all of my personal things from the move (she made me throw out nearly everything I owned for no apparent reason) but I was able to salvage one book in particular, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. That book helped me through many hours of loneliness and boredom and I still have it tattered but in one piece to this day. It’s the very reason I know what a dumbwaiter is. Years later I came across Rosa Guy’s writing and Edith Jackson and The Friends almost slay me. All of those juvenile books with their relatable stories and unforgettable characters soon awakened the writer in me. In high school I started writing essays and poetry that was met with rave reviews by both teachers and classmates. I won several Maryland statewide poetry contests and was even placed in an advanced writing class.
Then it happened.
In a literature class I was introduced to the classic The Catcher in the Rye and my literary life as I knew it changed forever. I loved that book so much I wanted to meet the author Jerome David Salinger the very day I finished reading it and for a while I started writing in the cautious voice of the protagonist Holden Caulfield. The book was so relevant to a pimply teenager filled with angst, that was lost and displaced and unstable, a sort of misfit like myself. In part because of that book and thanks to those teachers and friends who read my latest fiction installments in biology class, the writer in me was solidly awakened. Then I discovered James Baldwin whose If Beale Street Could Talk gave me literary goose bumps and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. So many books inserted themselves into my very soul and stirred up things that were unknowingly dormant in me.
By the time I turned eighteen I was serious about writing having written several book-length stories with hokey titles like Poof! And It’s Forever Gone and Meagan & Clyde: 2gether 4ever; stuff containing really gushy adolescent torment. I would also sit and watch television sitcoms and commercials and rewrite them or mentally tweak them. Soon I was writing comedic skits that I got small groups of friends and cousins to perform. The more people read my stuff and started calling me a writer, the more hopeful and confident in my writing I became, perhaps overzealous. I still have the “rejection” letters from 1985 when I naively wrote to several big-shot magazines, including The New Yorker, inquiring if they were receiving work from new writers. The New Yorker! The magazine that people who have written major pieces of literary work haven’t even appeared in. Surely the seasoned editor who received my correspondence chuckled and sighed as he kindly rejected my super amateur letter of inquiry.
All three of those dreams stayed with me for many years—singing/performing, track and field and writing—while I vacillated between which and how to pursue each one. In the end they were just dreams I had, mere fantasies, except writing. With singing and track and field I needed the help of others (coaches, parental support) to bring them to fruition; with writing I only needed a pen and paper alongside passion and imagination. Well, life got in the way as it often does and I soon began a self-defeating cycle of putting all of my dreams on hold and heading to the NOW HIRING signs to begin a series of dead-end jobs while whole chunks of me withered beyond recognition. It would be decades before I woke up and sloppily rebelled.
Chapter 1 In Pursuit of Lemonheads
Have a little faith in me. – (song) John Hiatt
My very first job was in sixth grade when I was eleven years old delivering the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper in my northern Virginia neighborhood. I inherited the paper route from my best friend, Adrianne, whose mother had decided for some reason that she couldn’t do it anymore. The newspaper Boss Man would arrive at the foot of my driveway and plunk down a banded stack of weekday newspapers and I’d haul them a short distance with my little notebook in tow to deliver them carefully to the subscribers’ doorsteps. The job not only made me feel a sense of responsibility, it made me feel older and a tad mature. My grandparents were proud, proud, proud of me, all of eleven years old with my real job that I got on my own moxie. My sheer goal with the money I earned was to afford a “gold” with “diamonds” tennis bracket shaped necklace charm that probably cost a whole ten bucks that would surely turn green against my neck after eight wears. Most likely I had seen it in one of my grandmother’s Lillian Vernon catalogues. I didn’t even have a chain to put it on but it was a charm, a real charm! The rest of the loot I earned was spent on Lemonheads, Boston Baked Beans, a fake vomit glob and Zotz candy. Now this was back when Five & Dime stores existed with vast choices of penny candy, so a few bucks went a long way in terms of attaining sugar bliss. I stuffed any money left into my jewelry box atop my bedroom dresser, until something more desirable entered my mind of which to purchase.
The job was fun enough, except for when it was cold outside or pouring rain. I’m sure it was pleasurable to me because I didn’t have to pay rent or buy my own food yet. Working when one isn’t required to makes all the difference in the world. From what I can recall the job paid pennies on the dollar but having never earned any money before, there were afternoons in my bedroom when I felt rich as the dollar bills added up and I spread them across my bedspread counting and recounting the bills. Life was good and frivolous then, delivering papers to doorsteps for an hour each afternoon and I had the freedom to quit any time I chose to. Now I have to consider housing costs, car insurance, electric bills, printer ink cartridges, whole grain bread, vitamins, Lysol, laundry detergent and shampoo. Not to mention getting rid of odd muffler noises. If there’s money left I can maybe get some Lemonheads.
A year passed and a lot happened between that newspaper route and the next paying job. I was sent to live in Takoma Park, Maryland with my nefarious birth conduit (once again, herein referred to as Evil Conduit). My grandmother’s Multiple Sclerosis was getting increasingly worse and she figured maybe the Evil Conduit had changed, improved even in her attitude and horrible treatment of me. Unfortunately she hadn’t.
In seventh grade I soon found myself after school sitting with a sickly older woman, Mrs. Biffin, whose condition I wasn’t quite sure of. Her hands were curled up in fingered knots and she was bedridden. She was a large pleasant woman who resided in a hospital bed that was set up in her street facing bedroom where she watched television all day long. Several times a week after school I would arrive at this woman’s home mere blocks from where I lived, her adult son would let me in and then leave for work while I sat with her until her adult daughter, a church acquaintance, came home from work at a local hospital. Each day when I first entered Mrs. Biffin’s dark home it was as if I were stepping into a cave having left the brightness of outside. Her shadowy living room with wood paneling, mix-matched furniture and old carpet was sullen and stuck in time. The smell of aged house would hit me from the front door and I knew the odor would still be clinging to me when I left. Mrs. Biffin’s bedroom itself smelled of Vicks Vapor Rub, random ointments, poop and urine. It was like a hospital room, a medicine room converted into a private residence bedroom with slapdash old paintings on the walls, miscellaneous family photos in frames here and there and a cluttered dresser top. Mr. Biffin had long passed away and his picture gazed at us from her dresser top, stern and still and unblinking.
Mostly I just sat in the chair at Mrs. Biffin’s bedside and watched television with her. At the time I arrived each day The Guiding Light would be in full effect followed by the local news. When the soap opera was on we talked only during the commercials. She would ask me about school and the weather and she would give me a certain look whenever she needed me to push her heavy body on its side while she held onto the metal bed rail and I stuffed the bedpan under her rear end. Helping a disabled person with their utmost personal excretions wasn’t entirely foreign to me having done similar duties for my grandmother for years as she deteriorated from Multiple Sclerosis. Mrs. Biffin never ever complained about her condition and because of this I found her to be fascinating. I would come in from off of the cold street blowing my hands and wiping my nose sometimes with wet shoes from the snow or rain feeling aggravated and Mrs. Biffin would be laying heavily and helplessly in her hospital bed and greet me in her sturdy mountaintop, rose colored voice. After each sitting, she would reach into her change purse with her gnarled fingers and quite arduously dig out a few dollar bills for me.
“See you next time,” she would sing.
Though I cannot remember how long I stayed or why I stopped sitting with Mrs. Biffin, it ended and I soon found myself babysitting. The gigs were mostly jobs I’d secured through the various, often single, women who attended my church. I found babysitting to be simple enough; I showed up at the house, made sure the kids didn’t stick objects into electrical sockets, kept them away from matches and the stove, and fed them when they demonstrated hunger. Most of the time I just watched television and talked on the telephone with my friends about all of the cute boys at school and which pair of jeans we desired; Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt or Calvin Klein. However, babysitting then wasn’t as easy as it is now. Back then we didn’t have cable television with its Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon and there weren’t even videogames invented yet so babysitters were left to use their imagination and creativity to keep their subjects happy until their parents returned home. I remember big, ugly, noisy plastic toys and playing Hide ‘n Seek a thousand times a day while pretending I didn’t see the entire half of kids’ bodies sticking out from behind couches as they “hid” from me. Why, there are kids today who don’t even know what Simon Says means because they are raised on battery-operated toys and have computers in their bedrooms.
At one point I was babysitting for a single mother nurse who attended my church. She had two kids, a boy and a girl, who were probably three and five years old. She worked the night shift so I basically spent the night with her kids and got them ready for school. When she came home from work each morning she scooped all of us up and drove me to school. It was a sweet deal for she paid me like $40 a week to basically sleep over, talk on the phone, eat all of the food I could and I got a ride to school rather than catch the slow, cranky public bus. At some point Evil Conduit started taking the money from me, every penny of it, and I soon found myself resenting working and having to just give away the money I earned. At least with Uncle Sam you get to keep some of it; this witch took every cent of it. She herself had some sort of clerical job at a local hospital, though I had no idea what it entailed.
Thankfully within a couple of years I was emancipated once again from Evil Conduit’s abuse (I contacted a local social services agency after she’d beaten me to a near pulp) and I started bouncing around from place to place, wherever I could safely stay, mostly with church acquaintances. I transferred schools and started babysitting again. These were mostly jobs I found on the career office job board at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland during tenth grade. I would call an ad’s telephone number and show up at the address given which was usually within blocks of the school. On one of the first gigs, after mere moments of the mother observing me holding her newborn followed by various instructions, I was left with a pink baby who couldn’t seem to keep his head from bobbing all around. I was horrified of being responsible for a newborn’s life. Sure, I had babysat kids, beings that could walk and talk and chew but a newborn was of a different cloth. It was terrifying. One night a baby I was watching wouldn’t stop crying no matter how much I cooed and bounced her. The parents had gone out to dinner and a movie and these were the days before cell phones and pagers so I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. As I held and bounced that wailing baby that was turning redder by the minute, I almost started crying myself. It wasn’t long before I was looking elsewhere for employment.
Soon afterward I got a job in the school store where we mostly sold stuff like notebook paper, ink pens, soda and candy. The mixture of cool, hip and young coworkers who loved Michael Jackson and the current Thriller album as much as I did, and being surrounded by all that candy, chips and soda, was beyond love. It was a sheer joy to go cover my shifts during lunch and directly after school. The four of us who worked there were candy pushers and everyone who walked up to the counter—all the cool guys and everyone in between—were always in a good mood. There were Snickers and Almond Joys and Skittles and Bubble Yum and Starburst, a regular candypalooza. We ate so much candy and drank so much soda our teeth nearly rotted out by the end of the first semester. In part because of our constant sugar high, we would stand in the small space of the store and pop and moonwalk and gyrate trying to out-dance one another. On top of all that fun, we received a small stipend every two weeks or so. It was surreal.