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.

Henrietta

I remember very little from the years between 1973 and 1980. There’s a simple reason for this, but one that omits a large part of the story. In the years between my birth and our unintentional immigration to the East Coast, I was busy learning how to eat, how to walk, how to use the bathroom, how to dress myself, and how to talk. I was learning about the world that surrounded me, and about my place in it. I was learning what kind of a person I was, and what kind of people had brought me into this world.

In the first decade of the 20th century — a decade variously referred to as the ’00s, the naughts, the oughts, the aughties, and the naughties — the big buzzword in psychological circles was resilience. Resilience was the word used over and over again in the days following the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013. It’s a word that contains within it a kind of boundless optimism often lacking in the discussion of trauma, PTSD, and recovery from same.

“Resilience” is a word my own mother pulled out during a rather uncomfortable conversation in the drawing room of my partner’s parents’ house one Christmas Eve. I’d asked my mother to tell the story of the chickens who lived in a pen behind our house in Sunnyvale, California — the non-fictitious town of my birth and early childhood. I was fascinated with these chickens, as I was with all animals. I could pet the rabbits in their hutch on the other side of the back yard, and their fur was the softest thing I’d ever felt. I was sure that the feathers of our bad-tempered chicken Henrietta would also prove soft and pettable, and with the boundless optimism of toddlerhood I was sure I could win her over just as I did all the grown-up humans I’d encountered.

Henrietta had other ideas.

As soon as I opened the door of her pen, she began running after me, making evil chicken noises I’d never heard before, her wings akimbo and her sharp little beak ready to peck at my fat little toddler legs. We began a breathless circuit of the back yard. I screamed as loud as I could for my mom, keeping one or two chicken-steps ahead of Henrietta and her wicked beak.

This is where the actual events of the day have probably become blurred by countless retellings, and also by the dominant narrative of my childhood. As Mom tells the story, she stood at the kitchen window and laughed and laughed at the sight of a three-year-old girl being chased by a chicken. My own memory of the event from this point forward is a blurred mix of terror and bewilderment. Where was my mother? I could hear her laughing, but she wasn’t there to protect me. In the mind of a toddler, being pecked by a chicken looms as large and horrific as being mauled by a grizzly. It is perhaps the first time I felt alone and abandoned in the face of terror.

Mailbox

This is the sort of memoir piece I aspire to write. It’s also a wonderful reminder of a few of the advantages I took for granted growing up. Compassion grows from an understanding that we are more alike than we are different.

I shall be a toad

MailboxI was 20 or 21. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older. I can’t remember his name. Once a week, we would meet at the Trenton soup kitchen. I was volunteering. He was forced to be there. One of the conditions of his probation was that he would work toward his GED. We had a long way to go. He didn’t know how to read.

I had heard of people who went through life not knowing how to read, but the concept was completely foreign to me. I struggled with reading in 1st and 2nd grade. They even held me back a year. But I had a great teacher the second time I was in 2nd grade. I had an incredible mom who worked with me at home and read with me every night. And I loved books. I loved books so much I…

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Day 13: Nothing Lasts Forever, Not Even Guns & Roses

Five things I’m grateful for today:

  1. The guys who called to request “November Rain” by Guns & Roses after a day installing sheet rock.
  2. The DJ on 100.7 who played it during a particularly hellish commute home this evening — through cold November rain, early November dark, and crosstown Boston rush hour traffic.
  3. The excellent speakers in my car so I could blast Slash’s solo in the last two minutes of the song.
  4. The peculiarly layered sensation of hearing the song in my car now, the memory of the first time I saw the music video on MTV, and reliving in an instant the twenty-plus years between the release of Appetite for Destruction, their brief stardom, their decline into obscurity, and their return as retro metal stars. The whole concept of retro metal still boggles my mind. Those years in the late 80s when hair metal ruled seem preserved in amber, out of time.
  5. I will never have to live through the winter of 1989 again.

Chaucer’s Virtue, Dr. White’s Bathwater

“of switch vertu engender’d is the fleur” is one of the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Even though I haven’t read Chaucer in years, I hold his work — and the Canterbury Tales in particular — very close to my heart, in part because it was probably some of the first college-level literature I ever read. In high school, AP English was famous for a few reasons. For an aspiring writer like me, it
represented the apex of academic achievement in high school. But it was also notorious because of the woman who taught it: Dr. White. No one got to be head of my high school’s English department without earning a PhD, and the head of the English Department was usually the only Doctor in the building. Dr. White was a towering inferno of a woman, lumpy, swarthy, with a mass of greying black hair spilling down over her bona fide hunchback.

My brother and his friends told stories about her, imitating her screeching voice and her derisive comments. I was entranced. I wanted to be her — I wanted to have a doctorate in English, head up the
English department of a fairly well funded public high school, and I wanted to teach other people about Chaucer. I wanted to bathe in poetry all day.

Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t get my wish. It might be sour grapes, but looking back over the course of my life and talking with other poets has helped me realize something I didn’t get when I was 17: that poetry is a rare, intense, sweet thing, like chocolate. And like chocolate, I find it best served in moderation.

Lammie

lammie
Lammie, alive and well in 2013

I don’t remember exactly how Lammie appeared anymore, but he probably came in one of the boxes Grandma Donovan would send every few months. Usually, these packages were stuffed with gorgeous clothes two sizes too small for me. But Lammie wasn’t too small at all. He was huge — almost too big for an eight-year-old girl to put her arms around. He must have come in the spring, along with the swiss-dotted Easter dress that I couldn’t zip up and the Easter card with the flowery script and the lilies embossed with gold. He was a rather minimalistic interpretation of a sheep: a rectangular puff of cream-colored fleece with four black stubs for legs and a black snout poking out between two fleecy white ears.

The best thing about him was his bell, a real honest-to-goodness sheep’s bell tied around his neck with a thick ribbon. For months and months that was Lammie’s voice, a ding-ding-ding every time I sent him into the slightest motion. I carried him around in my arms, comforted by the full, round way he filled my embrace. On bright Saturday afternoons the entire family would retreat to beds and couches and immerse ourselves in books. I leaned on him like a pillow, until his great round flanks flattened from the weight of my head.

At night he kept watch at the foot of my bed, a-ding-ding-ding-ing with my every toss and turn. The sound of Lammie’s bell drove my mother’s boyfriend to distraction, kept him awake far into the night. He asked if there were a way I could muffle it, but the mere thought seemed like sacrilege to me. Lammie’s bell was Lammie’s voice, and hearing his gentle ding-ding-dings as I turned under the covers made me feel safe and protected. One day I came home to find Lammie’s bell missing from his neck. I discovered it under a pillow, reattached it with its length of now-ragged ribbon. Eventually his bell disappeared entirely. But I still have him, 30 years later, still pull him into an embrace beneath the covers, and still hear in my mind the distant ding-ding-ding of his voice lulling me to sleep.

Mother Lil’s Jesus

“Try my Jesus,” she said. “My Jesus is your Jesus.”

She had the warm, rounded curves of a mature Jamaican woman. She wore white — white tunic, white pants, a white head wrap. Her name was Mother Lil.

When I arrived at the store, the woman at the counter gave me a slim, hardcover book bound in green. “Have her read Psalm 23,” I heard Mother Lil tell the woman.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want

I’d been raised on Bible verses. The Franciscans sang the entire mass, in a chapel suffused with Sunday morning sunshine. But what I remembered was Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians. What I remembered was the dingy gray Cathedral where a fat Archbishop in a gaudy dress rubbed oil on my forehead and told me to go forth and be a soldier of the Lord.

The Franciscans were kind, but they weren’t the ones who confirmed me. That fell to St. John’s Parish. Sister Christine ran the Religious Education program at St. John’s, and to this day I think she honestly believed every one of her little charges was going to grow up to be a drug dealer. She wouldn’t let the girls enter the church without a skirt on. Once, she dragged me down to the thrift store in the basement, picked out some moldy old thing, and forced me to put it on over my jeans. The word “genuflect” still makes me think of her.

They still used the Baltimore Catechism in my CCD classes — and that was in the 1980s. “What is the nature of God?” it asked me. And then gave me the answer in one paragraph. Even at the age of 12, I knew humans had been asking and answering that question since the dawn of time.

The Roman Catholics told me my body was dirty and bad. They told me I should be silent in church. They told me to marry a nice man who would take care of me if I submitted to him, but I knew how well that had worked out for my mother. And I loved my body. I loved other women’s bodies. There was no place for me in that church.

Here, in the Hope and Love Botanica, on Main Street in Poughkeepsie, New York, I hoped to find the secrets of that other church. I wanted to unlock the faces of High John the Conquerer, of Yemaya and Obatala.

“What goes on here?” I asked the woman at the counter when I first came in.

“What goes on here?” she echoed. She raised her eyebrows at me, this young white girl in the cheap blazer and the high heels. With my Vassar education and my computer skills, I thought I could cut into the secret practices of a religion born of the slave trade like you cut into a stick of butter.

“Yes, what sort of tradition do you practice?” I asked.

“Well, we are affiliated wit’ the church,” she replied. And I had to ask her to repeat that, because the Jamaican accent, and the notion of the Catholic Church tangled up in this, this thing I wanted so pure and sacred and separate… I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

“Do you teach classes?” I asked.

“We do spiritual readings.”

So I made an appointment for a spiritual reading.

And that is when Mother Lil handed me the Book of Psalms and had me read.


The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside cool waters
He restores my soul
He leads me on the paths of rightousness
For His name’s sake.

Even if I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I shall fear no evil
For Thou art with me
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me

You prepare a table for me in the presence of mine enemies
You anoint my head with oil
My cup overflows

Truly, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
My whole life long

As soon as I began to read, the tears leaked out. Pipes opened by a vision of a loving God -– a Father, even — who would care for me like a shepherd.

But I couldn’t–I couldn’t. Not then, not for 10 years and more, could I open myself to such a Lord. That wasn’t the Father I knew. He was a Father of vengeance and hate. He never told us the rules, the rules changed all the time. And the rules that he set for us… they made no sense. You might as well tell the Irish to stop eating potatoes, the things he wanted me to do, and stop doing.

Mother Lil never said I had to take the Father, though. She offered me the Son.

“Try my Jesus,” she said, as I wept in the back room next to a table with a white candle and a bottle of fleur de lis. “My Jesus is your Jesus.”

She settled into a trance after an opening prayer so filled with lovingkindness it wrenches my heart today to think of it.

“Someone does spiritual work,” she said. “You do spiritual work?” And I nodded.

“The answer isn’t in the books,” she said.

I never paid her. She never asked for money, but I knew I owed it to her. I was living hand to mouth, right out of college, but nothing really prevented me from going back another day and dropping a $20 bill, a $10 bill, something, on the counter. The store is gone now. There’s no counter left where I can drop that $20. And interest accrues.

Gifts always come with a price, even if it is not money. My price is ministry. Because I cannot pay her back, I have to pay it forward, all the days of my life. Dwelling in the house of the Goddess, under the eye of Obatala, child of Brigid, child of Athena, child of Yemaya, child of Oya, I pay it forward all the days of my life.

Sometimes the whirlwind follows me, not goodness and mercy. I am not the Lord. I am not the Lady. I am a child of the gods as we all are. Any power given to me is borrowed. It leaks out of an imperfect vessel. Given the chance to lead, I’ve sometimes led us into deserts, not green pastures. But even deserts have their lessons to teach. And still I pay it forward.

I send thanks to Mother Lil for that first opening, for that first answer that didn’t come from books. I send thanks to Mother Lil for her Jesus, who is my Jesus, who is your Jesus.