Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path

A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”

It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.

At Vassar I worked in the Financial Aid Office, the Student Employment Office, the Summer Programs Office, the Powerhouse Theater Box Office, and the Bursar’s Office (student accounts) — those are the offices I can remember. And those were just my summer jobs.

During the school year, I worked the late shift for Campus Patrol because you got an extra 50 cents an hour if you took the after-midnight shift. Campus Patrol was the highest-paying job on campus that didn’t involve taking your clothes off, and I did it until a fellow English major busted me one rainy night for reading Henry James in my booth for longer than 10 minutes.

The highest-paying job on campus was working as an artist model for the studio art department. That paid $8 an hour. For my first gig, I stood up on a pedestal in thigh-length red stockings – which the instructor asked me to remove because they were too distracting — and nothing else. One student pulled his chair behind me, and I told him it cost extra to draw my ass. This was years before I understood the effect that my ass would have on some people — I was mostly just terribly nervous. I was a talkative and sassy mode, and probably lost work because of it. Working for the Vassar studio art program was just the beginning, though. I parlayed that experience into off-campus modeling gigs at Bartlett House (I was happy to see that this community-based arts education center in downtown Poughkeepsie, NY is still running strong), Dutchess Community College, and the home of a private art instructor who lived a few blocks off campus. I’ve carried a single nude sketch from that instructor’s basement across hundreds of miles and it’s taped to the wall of my study today. It’s occurred to me that I should frame it before it meets a terrible end.

During my freshman year I worked as a research assistant for a cranky old philosophy professor who would leave me handwritten pages of citations (not uncommon for those days). I would look up the articles in the college library system and make copies of them for him. What’s now done digitally involved a fair amount of legwork back then. I thought I was pretty crafty when I learned how to log on to the library catalog system via VAX (older folk will nod their heads knowingly here) to see which items were in the stacks and which would require a special order before I left Rockefeller Hall to brave whatever craptastic weather upstate New York felt like throwing at us.

It was because of the work I did for him and for another professor named Uma Narayan that I found a place to stay that first summer after my freshman year. I’d been ready to leave home when I was a sophomore in high school and didn’t really want to spend a hot, sweaty summer in my hometown answering phones for a bunch of stuffed shirts. Professor Narayan quite graciously let me stay in her flat across the street from the main campus while she was away doing awesome professor things in the summer. It was the first time I’d had a quasi-place of my own. I used the futon in her study rather than sleep in her bedroom and with all the innocent clumsiness of youth moved all her carefully sorted papers off a set of iron shelves so I could store my clothing somewhere. It was such a wonderful revelation to have my own kitchen to prepare meals in. Looking back, the apartment wasn’t anything special, but to a 17-year-old raised in the projects, it was ultimate luxury.

I remember watching the 1992 Democratic National Convention in her living room, feeling like a grown-up for the first time. I’d just turned 18, and the ’92 election was the first time I ever voted. That was the first of three summers I spent on the Vassar Campus between terms, and the summers contain some of my favorite memories from those years.

I also transcribed interviews for professors in the Philosophy Department, and later for Professor Steven Moore, who was starting an English Department-sponsored literary magazine called the Vassar Review of Arts and Letters. The transcribing machine had a foot pedal you could use to play, pause, rewind, and fast-forward through the tape. With my foot on the pedal and my hands on the keyboard, I would imagine myself as a sort of living conduit between two machines. I did my best to keep up, and I’m sure it improved my typing skills a great deal.

My experience with Professor Moore and on the board of the student-run lit-mag Helicon led me to meeting and working with Jason Stern and Amara Prolansky at Chronogram. A the time, it was a fairly new monthly publication of cultural events in the Mid-Hudson Valley — mostly a calendar of events and ads. In 1995 — the year I graduated — Jason asked me to help Chronogram develop a literary section. I selected poetry and edited articles that went into that first issue. It was also the first time I ever telecommuted for work: Amara drove from New Paltz to my tiny apartment in Poughkeepsie with an AOL disk and set me up with my first non-college internet account. Nowadays, anyone with an AOL email address pretty much screams “not tech savvy,” but back then the choices were pretty much AOL and CompuServe (whose email addresses were always numbers) — if you were lucky, there was a local ISP in your area.

The year after I graduated from Vassar, I worked a variety of temporary secretarial positions — except that I insisted people call me an Administrative Assistant. By far the most bizarre was Blocksom & Company, a small manufacturer of mattress components with its home office somewhere in Indiana. The manufacturing process was fairly simple: bales of coconut fiber (that hairy stuff you see on the outside of a coconut) came by train to the factory. Forklift drivers unloaded it and placed it next to a giant machine. Workers cut open the bales, fed the fiber into the machine, and out the other end came flat mats sized for twin, full, queen, or king-size beds. These were then bundled together and set on the loading dock to be trucked to the mattress factories that ordered them. My most important job was to print the labels placed on the finished jobs. I also prepared the Bill of Ladings for the truck drivers. But mostly my job involved avoiding the wrath of my manager, a cranky, heavyset woman of Italian extraction whose misery and rage affected everyone in the front office.

The entire plant was surrounded in a cloud of brown dust, an unfortunate side effect of chopping open bales of coconut fiber all day. In addition, a good number of people who worked at the place — front office or back — smoked on the job. The vast majority of the men (and they were all men) who worked on the factory floor were African American. They earned minimum wage or just above it. White men occupied all the higher-paying jobs: foreman, forklift driver, plant manager, salesman — all white men. One of them, however, turned out to be a closeted drag queen. Every year on Halloween, he would go all out and dress like a woman. He took it very seriously, shaving and making himself up, so that I could tell he wasn’t doing it for a joke. He used to drive me to work every day, and once when we was visiting with me and April he asked us if we would help him “become a woman.” Neither April nor I were particularly enlightened about transgender issues at the time. I think of him from time to time now, regretting that I wasn’t a better ally and hoping that he’s found some love and support in a part of the country where queers are very isolated.

It was during the few months that I worked at the matress factor that I learned how much straight men like lesbians — and not in a “sure, I’ll help you move in with your girlfriend” kind of way, but in a “can I watch, and maybe join in?” kind of way.  It was also during that time that I learned the effect that my posterior — or, as my girlfriend called hers, “el hugamundo gluteus maximus” — had on men of African extraction. The attention was flattering, of course, but I was also hugely aware of the cultural and class differences that separated me from my coworkers there, regardless of race. Poughkeepsie was a lonely, lonely place to be a leftish lesbian in the mid 1990s. That was the only job that I ever had the satisfaction of quitting on impulse — and I have never regretted the decision.

As I write these words, more and more stories from that first year out of college rise in my memory:

  • The parolee who disappeared after he got his first paycheck, only to call three days later, saying “I can’t drink in safety.” I felt badly for him and remembered my own father who died of alcoholism before he was 40.
  • The large, well-made floor worker who made advances toward me, whom I later learned had nine different children by five different women. I had the satisfaction of filling out the paperwork that would ensure they received child support payments. Such enforcement mechanisms hadn’t been in place when my mother was raising two children three thousand miles away from her abusive ex-husband.
  • The man who accused me of trying to scare him away because I used the phrase “empirical evidence.” Later he tried to seduce my girlfriend away from me. He was sure I must have corrupted her but that he could lead her back into the fold of Jesus or something — this in spite of the fact that she’d been out of the closet years before me.
  • The man who called the office from the state mental hospital asking for his last paycheck (It never did materialize, and my boss was certain that he was trying to swindle us out of another one). By that time, I’d already seen the inside of psych hospitals three different times. I started to visit him, bringing him magazines and cigarettes and shampoo. He’d been put there for depression after his daughter died, and as an uninsured black man — and a big black man at that — he definitely received a very different kind of care than I had at the tender age of 15, covered by my mother’s health insurance. Months later, he saw me on the street and came running toward me, his face joyful and open. I didn’t recognize him, but he remembered me and thanked me profusely, gave me a terrific hug. After he left, April turned to me and said, “You never said he was so good-looking!” Honestly, I hadn’t noticed given the context in which we met. He had one time stolen a kiss from me, but I’d scolded him soundly about it and he never tried it again. I’d wanted to relate to him from a place of friendship and mutual experience, not in an erotic or romantic way. And we did. Seeing him come toward me with that open, happy face was one of the best rewards I’ve ever gotten from someone for being of service. We were able to connect across the cultural divides of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class because of our mutual experience of suffering. It’s an experience that’s stayed with me for two decades.

During that first year after college, I spent a lot of time and effort applying to publishing jobs in New York City. I did the two-hour train ride from one end of the Hudson Line to the other multiple times but never landed a job, and perhaps that was for the best. My life was imploding under pressure coming from many different directions: our joint income didn’t fit the federal definition of poverty, but it sure felt like poverty to me. Aside from friends we knew at Vassar — most of whom had left town after graduation — we had few queer friends. We were young and stupid and didn’t really know how to have a loving partnership with one another. I bounced from temp job to temp job, resenting the fact that April earned less money than me as a journalist while I subsidized our rent. Eventually, things went far enough south that I gave up and moved back to Connecticut. I’d expected to move in with my Mom, but she surprised me by giving me enough money to get my own apartment. I took over her paper routes in gratitude while I looked for a day job in Hartford.

Through a series of fortunate events, my job application at the Hartford Courant ended up in the hands of a former employee. She hired me as a writer and editor for this newfangled thing called a website. You can read a bit more about my writing chops on the About the Gardener page.

I hadn’t given up the hope of becoming a New Yorker, and there were lots of “content provider” jobs in the New Media industry at the time. I interviewed for a few, but my experience and salary requirements took me out of the running for most of the entry-level jobs, and I didn’t have the confidence (or, quite frankly, the chops) to apply for the more senior openings. Eventually, I set my sights on Boston. It seemed like a more manageable alternative. By happy coincidence, I met a woman in P-town who lived in Boston. While we were dating, a took a new job at a multimedia firm in Norwalk. It paid more, but boy did they get their money’s worth. My 40-hour work week ballooned to 60-70 hours, with an extra three hours of commuting on top of it. After about six months of that, it seemed like a no-brainer to move in with my girlfriend in Boston.

Unfortunately, content jobs — especially ones that don’t involve marketing copy writing — are a lot harder to come by in Boston than they are in NYC. My career took a right turn into web development. It’s much more lucrative than writing, but money isn’t everything. After 20 years in the field, I’m making plans to return to my first love. I expect it will involve a massive pay cut, but I’m fortunate enough to have a partner who’s willing to take that risk with me — something I never expected or wanted, but for which I’m incredibly grateful. More will be revealed.

Okelle’s Guide to Online Shopping for Curvy Ladies

Despite the fact that my blog is mostly devoted to poetry and other arcane topics, the top search term bringing people here lately is “North Style.” Back in April I posted a strongly worded letter to North Style — a company I’ve never actually done any business with. They send me catalogs on a fairly regular basis though, like a lot of other companies do. That’s because I do, in fact, buy clothing from catalogs.

“Why buy your clothing from catalogs?” you ask.

“Funny you should ask,” I reply.

About two or three years ago I made the switch almost entirely from brick-and-mortar stores for pretty much one reason: I am fat. That’s right, I said it. I am a fat fatty. I have a fat belly, a fat ass, fat-ass thighs (which, admittedly, some people like), big fat tits, and miscellaneous fat distributed across the rest of my physique. In the world of fashion — and in the world in general, if you are to believe many people — this is a deadly sin, deadlier than anger, pride, greed, lust, sloth, envy, and gluttony combined. And since sinning fatties aren’t entitled to the same dignity and respect we accord to, say, people who cause massive financial crises, that means we have to pass by all the really cute outfits offered at reasonable prices on our way to the back of the store, where we can choose from a black polyester tent or a purple polyester tent for twice the prices a “normal” person would pay.

Thanks to teh Intarnets and to other fat fatties who like to look cute, I have other options. Also, I got some extra cash back after paying off a debt and discovered a few places who offered free shipping. Et voila! La belle femme sans honte est arrivee.

Applied to marketing, this means that any retailer who thinks I might possibly buy their stuff sends me catalogs regularly. If I actually BUY something from their catalog, I get a veritable deluge of the things. And I keep the damn things laying around because

(a) at the age of 38, I’m finally willing to admit that I like pretty clothes;
(b) I still covet pretty clothes;
(c) I actually have the money to BUY pretty clothes;
(d) the really clever retailers include all of these TOP SEEKRIT codes for free shipping and stuff.

The resulting flood of glossy pamphlets featuring smiling women and their collarbones reminds me a lot of B.F. Skinner’s experiment with the pigeons. He did quite a few experiments with pigeons actually, but the one I’m referring to showed that random positive reinforcement results in the highest payback. In other words, if a pigeon didn’t know when its next meal was coming, it pecked at the pigeon-food button more consistently and more often than in any other scenario.

To extend the metaphor to its breaking point (which is something I’ve been known to do), these are the pigeons I enjoy feeding:

  • Simply Be: A retailer from the UK with lots of cute, on-trend clothes. They used to offer free shipping and returns, but that seems to have changed as they become more popular. They often have specials for new customers. Their customer service people are awesome. Their price points are higher, but the quality of many — not all — of the clothes makes up for it. And if you wait for the sales, you might not find it in your size!
  • IGIGI: A San-Fransisco-based boutique with FAAAABULOUS dresses, skirts, and accessories. Most of their stuff is very feminine and therefore not always career-friendly, but they do come out with a few business suits every year. I scored a killer pantsuit from them last season that sees plenty of wear. All of their stuff is made in San Francisco so you’re paying San Francisco prices, but if the dress fits you will wear it for years and years. Plus, they have some of the hottest plus-size models I’ve seen. So there’s that. Shipping will always cost money but their standard method is FedEx which means you get it pretty quickly. Returns cost money, although I’ve never returned anything I bought there.
  • Woman Within: Good for staples like t-shirts, leggings, nightgowns and the like. With discounts and special offers, many items are insanely cheap, which probably means you’re supporting a sweatshop in China that beats its workers and makes them sleep in dormitories with windows made opaque by coal dust. But hey, times are tough.
  • Ulla Popken: If you believe their “About Us” pages, they were one of the first retailers to go into the plus-size business. Their styles lean toward the matronly and the tent-like, but you can find some good career pieces and many of their items (especially the tunics) have lovely detailing. Higher on the cost side unless you catch their sales. They don’t offer free shipping very often and their returns cost money as well.
  • Sonsi: This is the new-ish multi-brand website started by Lane Bryant and a few other retailers you’ve probably seen in storefronts (Catherine’s, Fashion Bug, etc). You can also find more obscure brands like Igigi and Kiyonna here — often with good deals. Shipping and returns usually cost extra but they often run specials and sales that make up the difference.

When I decided to make the switch to online shopping, I had to make some adjustments in the way that I think about buying clothes. I had to give up on the notion of instant gratification. I had to give up on the idea that everything I ordered would work out (this one was the hardest, and is why I still prefer free shipping and returns when I can get them). I had to get used to the idea of ordering clothes for the next season one or two months in advance. And I had to give up on the idea that online shopping is any more convenient than shopping at a brick-and-mortar store. It’s just a different kind of inconvenient. I also had to learn how to make allowances for the cash moving back and forth (I recommend setting up an extra bank account just for online shopping).

While the adjustment was difficult, it was well worth the effort — not just because more than a few friends have commented on how well-turned-out I am these days, but because I feel more confident, sexy, and well cared for.

Now that I’ve got a solid wardrobe put together, I’ve really got to get back to my old frugal-fanny ways when it comes to clothes. Which means that more of those glossy collarbones are heading right to the recycling bin. And that I’m less likely to take a risk with a retailer like North Style.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: With all due respect to fat fashion bloggers, who help make the world a more fabulous place, my only relationship to the retailers mentioned in this post is as a paying customer or a potential customer. I received neither money nor free stuff from them.]

Rest in Peace Adrienne Rich: Fellow Poet, Feminist, Queer Woman, Trail-Blazer

Last week, I was about to board a plan to San Francisco when I saw Adrienne Rich’s obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

It’s hard to describe Adrienne Rich’s impact on my life with grace and brevity. That’s because my relationship to her work mirrors my relationship to the literary establishment as a whole. I first heard of her when I was a junior in high school, young poet full of promise and bereft of friends after the class of 1989 graduated and scattered off to college. A precocious freshman named Deborah, with reddish hair and presumptuous mannerisms, was shocked to learn I hadn’t already read and loved her work. What Deborah didn’t know (and neither did I) was that I’d been raised on the literary canon, comprised then as it is now almost exclusively of men. Five years later I wrote my senior thesis at Vassar on her work and the arc of her life. Seventeen years later, Margalit Fox‘s obituary said it better than I ever could.

Reading Rich’s obituary in the Times last Thursday, I had two startling and humbling realizations: first, that Rich’s life paralleled and sometimes intersected with my own in odd and surprising ways; second, that she too was deeply troubled and even embittered by the literary establishment. From her New York Times obituary:

For Ms. Rich, the getting of literary awards was itself a political act to be reckoned with. On sharing the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (the other recipient that year was Allen Ginsberg), she declined to accept it on her own behalf. Instead, she appeared onstage with two of that year’s finalists, the poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker; the three of them accepted the award on behalf of all women.

In 1997, in a widely reported act, Ms. Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s highest award bestowed upon artists. In a letter […] she expressed her dismay, amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” that the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Art, Ms. Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

In addition to our avocations, the odd parallels between her life and my own have to do with geography and also with love. In college, folks used to refer to me and my girlfriend as Adrienne and Audre. Quick used to go to parties in Boston with Audre Lorde, Rich’s girlfriend. Both Rich and I traveled between the coasts. We both railed against facts of American society that most people seem to take for granted.

The biggest difference, of course, between Ms. Rich’s life and my own is that she succeeded in storming the walls of the literary establishment — the same walls that have rebuffed my own advances.

Five days after her death I stood on the beach in Santa Cruz, the town she died in at the age of 82. I wonder what weird twists of fate wove our lives in parallel to one another, never quite intersecting, and called us both to journey from the placid waters of Long Island Sound to the crashing waves of the Pacific. I never even dared to hope to meet her in person. But that doesn’t stop her from being my ancestress, the one who dove into the wreck before me, found some way to navigate the murky waters, and held up a light for me to follow.

Open Letter to Get in Shape for Women

Dear Get In Shape for Women:

Thank you so much for your congratulations on my new house! Nothing says “welcome to the neighborhood” like a postcard from a company that found me via an automated report from the United States Postal Service. I’m also touched and gratified that you care enough about my health to offer me an affordable, convenient option for losing weight so close to home.

Here’s the thing:

I don’t want to lose any weight.

I have no interest in losing any weight.

And if I decided I *did* want to lose some weight or join a gym, your marketing approach has completely ruined any chance of your getting my business. I’ll spare you the diatribe about the way constant media messages and images screw with women’s perceptions of what constitutes a normal, healthy body. I’ll refrain from quoting the statistics that show how much money the weight loss industry collects from women in their vain attempts to lose weight and keep it off.

I will even take a deep breath and avoid getting hot and bothered as I explain to you the way doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and the Surgeon General’s office manufactured the so-called obesity epidemic overnight — simply by changing how obesity is defined. I will not be getting up on my soap box to rail against the arbitrary, sexist, and scientifically questionable charts and indexes that our society uses to define whether a woman is “healthy” or “overweight.” I won’t be sending you to the Flickr photostream that shows photographs of real people alongside their weight definition on the BMI charts.

Nor will I be getting on my high horse to tell you that companies who try to market their products to women by playing on their insecurities should be rounded up and forced to watch MTV and the Fashion Network for 48 hours straight.

I will simply tell you that I am a healthy, active woman with no need or desire to “lose 10-15 pounds in three weeks.” And I will ask you to immediately remove me from you mailing list. If I continue to receive your mailings, you can expect to hear more from me and from the FCC.

Sincerely,

Me

Mohja Kahf: The Marvelous Women

Below is a good example of why editors are important at every step of the publishing process.

All women speak two languages:
the language of men
and the language of silent suffering.
Some women speak a third,
the language of queens.
They are marvelous
and they are my friends.

My friends give me poetry.
If it were not for them
I’d be a seamstress out of work.
They send me their dresses
and I sew together poems,
enormous sails for ocean journeys.

Her gorgeous paean to her marvelous friends continues, until just at…

Come with me, come with poetry
Jump on this wild chariot, hurry–

…the page numbers skip from 52 to 21. I flip through the entire edition — lent to me by a man who attended one of my 2009 salons, then moved away before I could return it — and find pages 21 to 52 repeated twice, then a skip to page 85. I wanted to get on that wild chariot, dammit!

Pages 52 through 85 forever lost in this edition, suspended in limbo, caught in the aether. Someone in the comments below has provided the missing text. I’ve removed the rest of the lines above because I don’t want to be accused of stealing her work — please check out Kahf’s book Emails from Scheherezad for the full text. I’m sure the mistake has been corrected.

Finding this flaw, I think of three things in quick succession: the importance of editors, how poetry and writing is a group effort in some way, even as it is a solitary act. And how mistakes must have happened even before 1995, before the advent of the Internets and e-books and e-readers and the growing respectability of self-publishing. And how social media and the Internet have simultaneously connected us and isolated us. And I want to know the end of the poem.

The poet is Mohja Kahf, the name of the poem “The Marvelous Women,” the name of the book E-Mails from Scheherazad, the publisher University Press of Florida. I suppose I might find the full text through a simple Google search, might even be able to contact the poet (her bio, circa 2002, places her at the University of Arkansas). But part of me revels in the mystery, the hovering moment of a poem cut off before its conclusion.

April 15 Haiku: Oya and Aphrodite

oya
shrew. harpy. witch. dyke.
fallen woman. take the words–
reclaim their power.

aphrodite
fair aphrodite
dancing in the cooling breeze
early spring, white pine

Marguerite Guzman Bouvard — Night Strides Across Borders

Excerpted from After Maillol

Night

Night strides across borders.
Hush, she commands the barking dogs,
the searchlights, the buckling barbed
wire fences. She cradles
the earth in her gleaming limbs
until the only sounds are those of mingled
breaths, the quick intake of the child’s,
the drawn out sobs of the aged
and the ill. Beneath her steady wings
soldiers dream of tilling fields,
prison doors slide open.

— Marguerite Guzman Bouvard
The Unpredictability of Light
Word Press. 2009: Cincinnati, OH.