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.

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.

Pepper Spray, Football, and Other Words that Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

Last night, as Army Guy and I sat down for a late dinner at Galway House, tables filled with (mostly) large (mostly) men shouted at the plasma screens as men in tight pants ran around and jumped on each other*. Eating at Galway House is like eating in your uncle’s rec room, if your uncle were Irish and liked Pabst Blue Ribbon and had a lot of boozers for friends — and liked to cook you really tasty food.

This was the first time I’ve been there during Monday Night Football season. Football, cheerleaders, and NASCAR aren’t really my thing, but I do love the Galway, in part because you’re as likely to find a Lesbian Avenger at the booth next to you as you are a member of the IBEW. And as Jamaica Plain follows the same path of gentrification that Cambridge and Somerville have, I find myself more and more drawn to the places I avoided when I was younger and upwardly mobile.

Last night we had to shout to hear one another, though, which was less pleasant. And looking back on the evening, I find the context of our conversation that much more disorienting. Surrounded by middle-class Americans enjoying a quintessential American pastime (drinking beers and watching football), Army Guy proceeded to explain to me the meaning behind the innocuous-sounding headlines I’ve been hearing on the radio. It wasn’t tabasco they were spraying on the faces of those kids who linked arms and sat down at U.C. Davis. It was a chemical compound 15 times as strong as a habanero pepper. And they didn’t just spray it at them. According to U.C. Davis Professor Nathan Brown’s open letter to the school’s Chancellor (which has since become a petition):

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

There’s more. This article in the Atlantic documents use of “less-than-lethal” force against OWS protesters across the country. The Washington Post also reports on “esclating protests”.

Our police are attacking our own citizens — our own children — with chemical weapons and clubs because they linked arms and sat down and refused to move. I turn on the news and I don’t know whether I’m hearing about Cairo or California. History is happening before me, and I’m watching it from the sidelines, more confused than a schoolchild will be in forty years reading about it from a book.

“It’s been fifty years since the 1960s,” I shouted across the table last night as our neighbors drank beer and watched football.

“Yes? And?” he replied.

“I guess it’s time for another round.”

We paused and contemplated the flat-screen TVs, the tinsel snowflakes and shamrocks that dangled from the ceiling.

“All those years ago in the 80s when people were telling me I was born too late while I ran around with a long skirt and a peace sign around my neck… I wasn’t born too late, or too soon. I was born at just the right time.”

I think about language, and how the language we use betrays our beliefs. As the bifurcation of America continues, I wonder how long it will be before we can agree to use any of the same words at all. Nonviolence or nuisance. GLBT or homosexual. ObamaCare or health care reform. Austerity or social injustice. Pepper spray or chemical agent.

And I realize something about myself, something disappointing and also something that makes me settle deeper into a sense of who I am. My days of protesting are over. I won’t be camping out in Dewey Square, although I will donate money and materials to those who do. I’m not brave enough to link arms and sit down in front of men in uniform holding weapons. But I trust that I have a purpose, some bit part in history to play, even if it’s a stack of journals in a dusty attic and a neglected little blog. And I will cheer my team on the plasma screen as I eat my steak at the Galway.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that at least one screen was dedicated to the Bruins (hockey) rather than the Patriots (football). There is no line of sight in the Galway that does not include a plasma screen TV.