May 082017


My father said I didn’t need a college education, even though my brothers had university degrees and he’d grudgingly allowed that I was just as smart as they were. He thought I should be a secretary, marry the boss, have kids and be a housewife like my mother and aunt, the grandmas I’d never met and generations of bored, angry women before them.

This was not an unusual way for a European immigrant to talk to his American-born daughter in 1967, a year before urban feminists organized a protest at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City that made Women’s Liberation a national force that would eventually change my attitude toward my appearance, housework, birth control and workplace inequality. In the meantime, as a consequence of my father’s meager plan for my future, I didn’t learn to type well, which limited my job opportunities in subsequent years.

I loved reading and writing and had always done well in school, encouraged by enthusiastic New York City teachers to continue my education. At thirteen I’d won a city-wide short story writing competition and was awarded a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works, illustrated by Rockwell Kent, which convinced me I was destined for great things. But first I needed to go to university.

The compromise I finally reached with my dad was that he’d cover my room and board if I agreed to live at home and find a job to pay for tuition, books and incidentals. The best deal in town in terms of cost was the City University of New York, so I applied to the nearest branch, Queens College, and began to look for work at once.

High school graduation

We lived in Far Rockaway, close to JFK Airport and edging the Queens-Nassau County border. It was so far off the beaten track that when you exited the subway at Mott Avenue, the last stop on the “A” train, you had to pay an additional fare—an indignity that continued until 1975. Rockaway Beach and its boardwalk on the Atlantic and a popular diving spot my brother Stan explored in wet suit and scuba gear for many years were the area’s main attractions, plus Rockaways’ Playland, in the middle of the peninsula, with its famous roller coaster. There were rickety wooden bungalows in the Rockaways that people used for summer getaways, and Patti Smith mentions in her memoir M Train that she recently bought such a house, damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The trip from my home to Queens College in Jamaica took nearly two hours by bus each way. Along the route to the campus on an endless highway was a large shopping center, and this, I decided, was a good place to find work, even though I had no usable skills and my most notable attributes were a large vocabulary and what my father referred to as a “fresh mouth.” None of this mattered, I soon learned, when looking for minimum-wage, highly undesirable jobs. I was hired on the spot for anything I applied for on the strength of my high school diploma, my ability to add numbers, speak nicely and smile a lot.

The author’s father cycling on boardwalk, 1966

.Practice Jobs

I signed on for a full-time job the summer before starting university in the Womens Clothing Department of a downscale store on one side of the highway. There was no apostrophe in “Womens,” I noticed, but was smart enough to keep that detail to myself. Dolly was my manager, a slim, petite woman in a body-hugging skirt and a blouse with a few buttons shockingly undone at the top. She was older than me, but not by much, a dark-skinned Hispanic who laughed easily and walked adroitly on high heels, something I admired because it was beyond me. She never explained exactly what I was supposed to do and often left the department for half-hour breaks, but by watching another girl on my shift I determined that my main task was to empty the fitting room. This involved tidying clothes on hangers and putting them back on racks on the floor, over and over again.

The author’s brother in wetsuit and scuba gear

Occasionally a customer would ask for assistance and I’d help her search for a garment in a size we invariably didn’t have or bring her something else to try on while she was half undressed in the fitting room. I was mesmerized by much of what I saw there—loose, large breasts with dark, intimidating nipples; pouchy bellies; thick waists; enormously wide hips; doughy, dimpled thighs. I was still only a tall, leggy, wee-breasted teenager with limited knowledge of other female bodies, aside from my mother’s. I knew more about young men because a couple of boyfriends had instructed me in the unpaid work of giving them hand jobs and the occasional blowjob so they could get their rocks off without the stress of full performance.

When Dolly was actually in the department, she spent her time trying on clothes in the fitting room. My role was to say how terrific she looked before rehanging the items and returning them to the floor racks. She did, in fact, look great in anything she put on, though I knew, because I had sewn things myself from Vogue patterns, that everything we sold in the Womens Clothing Department was poorly cut, badly stitched, unattractively designed and made of cheap fabric that crackled and sparked when you pulled it on or yanked it off. That didn’t bother Dolly at all, and I envied her confident self-absorption and the fact that as a manager she didn’t have to stand around doing achingly boring work.

My feet were killing me. Aside from two short breaks and a half hour for lunch, I never got to sit down on an eight-hour shift. Sure I was young but I had a design flaw—easily tiring legs—and knew I wouldn’t last past the end of summer. But when I finally told Dolly the job wasn’t working out, she came to my rescue. “Mr. Thomas can use a smart girl like you,” she said. “No one ever shops in his department, so you can sit on a chair and read.”

And so that fall I transferred to the Linen Department, where Mr. Thomas was my boss. He was a very tall, very skinny black man in a silky white shirt and floppy trousers that slapped his legs when he moved, and he spoke in a lilting accent I couldn’t identify. Something Caribbean. He walked me around the floor, reciting measurements for sheets and blankets that went straight out of my head, and gave me a crash course in quilts, pillows, mattress covers and pads. For some reason the Linen Department sold roller window shades, and when he showed me the cutting machine I shot to attention.

First the wooden slat at the bottom of the shade was removed, measured and cut with a blade pulled down on it, and it broke with a delicious snap. Then the rolled-up vinyl shade, locked in a narrow trough, had to be carefully measured against a ruler guide. Any excess was sliced off exactly with a jaggedy-toothed electric blade that made a satisfying roar. Precision work, indeed. Here was something I was actually proud of, a bona fide skill that would open a world of future hardware store positions for me.

There were very few customers, as Dolly had promised, and when I wasn’t cutting shades I sat on a chair by the door of the linen stock room and scribbled notes for my Freshman English essays. Dolly would often appear out of nowhere to discuss something or other with Mr. Thomas, and I would greet her happily. Sometimes they would vanish into the bowels of the stock room, closing the door behind them, and I’d be told to summon Mr. Thomas only in an emergency and left to handle the floor myself. I was honored by his faith in me, pleased to have the chance to play department manager, and didn’t grasp that I was really playing lookout.

The stock room was a dark, cold, two-story labyrinth with packages of linen on open latticed shelves and a clanky, metal staircase at one unseen end leading to the second story. I almost never went inside, preferring to tell a customer we were out of stock than to search for something on the shelves. A more-or-less innocent seventeen-year-old, I was never quite sure what was happening with Dolly and Mr. Thomas in the bowels of that scary place, though I could hear them climbing steps to the upper level. Maybe they were just friends, just chatting, killing time. Well okay, maybe more. Possibly they’d made a bed of quilts on the narrow metal walkway and were actually “doing it.”

One day Mr. Thomas failed to show up and I was told he’d “moved on.” Dolly, who got along extraordinarily well with the pudgy store manager, continued running the Womens Clothing Department, but I was summarily “let go.”

My hurt, nausea and outrage at the unfairness of my dismissal throbbed in my throat, but I got over it soon enough and found work in a rival department store on the other side of the highway.

Cooking in the backyard, Far Rockaway


.The Refunds Department

This was truly an awful job. I was told I would “interact with the public,” which meant I got to stand behind a chipped and ink-stained Formica counter in the Refunds Department, a windowless room with walls painted the sickly yellow-beige of the paper my mother’s butcher used for wrapping meat. In front of me, for as far as I could see, was a bunched-up line of pissed-off customers holding various packages and items of clothing with limply hanging sleeves and pant legs. It was just after Christmas and the line was inexhaustible. I was slow to check people’s receipts and the condition of their bundles, slow to open the ancient register and return cash, and by the time anyone finally got to the counter their face was a bursting sausage of fury.

Once again my feet were killing me, and I slouched behind the counter with one hip cocked. Why wasn’t there so much as a bar stool I could use? Given my height, no one would even know I was sitting down!

At regular intervals my boss would quietly emerge from the back room to pat between my shoulder blades and admonish me to stand up straight and smile. She never helped advance the line by dealing with customers herself.

I hated her. She was middle-aged, curveless, a head shorter than I was and didn’t make small talk. She always wore wool suits in muted colors with skirts inches below her knees, and although every outfit clearly cost more than I earned in a month, I found them all ugly. Her hair was dyed white-blond, her eyes and mouth tellingly small, her skin only a shade lighter than the overbearing walls. I missed Dolly and Mr. Thomas with a pain in my chest like love.

After a few shifts I was called into the back room and led to a chair by a desk, and my boss instructed another girl to take my place at the counter. The girl hissed a nasty word at me as she elbowed past.

My reward for doing good work—for abiding the verbal abuse of customers, taps on my back and endless achy hours on my feet—was the joy of sitting down awhile in an airless alcove to tally receipts and expenditures under the glaring eye of a desk lamp. Alternating between the front counter and back room, I thought I could slog through until something better turned up.

My shame and downfall came at the hands of an elderly lady. Her fingers were arthritically clawed, her rubber-soled shoes worn, and her twisty varicose veins bulged under her stockings. I felt bad for all the time she’d spent in the line-up. She approached me grinning, a rare thing, and I found myself grinning back, my heart suddenly leaping. “I hope you’re having a nice day,” the old woman said, and I wanted to vault the counter to hug her.

What she spread before me was a stiff yellow girdle that was certainly many years old. She had no receipt, she sighed, because it was a present from her much-loved husband who’d died over Christmas—which Christmas, she didn’t say—and now she couldn’t wear it because it made her think of him, which gave her palpitations. She asked me for two dollars.

I only paused a sec before clanging open the register and handing her two wrinkled one-dollar bills. Quickly, guiltily, I swept the girdle into the Returns bin under the counter, and when I looked up the woman was gone.

My boss laid a hand lightly between my shoulder blades and leaned in close. “You’re fired,” she whispered.

Cycling on the boardwalk


.The Best Job Ever

Back across the highway, in a self-serve discount shoe store, I found the best ever part-time position. This was not a practice job, like the others, but the real thing, a perfect job, and one that lasted the rest of my university days.

Women’s and children’s shoes were arranged by sizes on open racks here, and for reasons unknown, customers would often separate pairs of shoes, leaving one on or near the proper rack and dropping its match elsewhere. My main task was to locate these “orphans,” as they were called, and return them to their right spots.

I was actually paid for this.

Of course there were benches everywhere so people could try on shoes, and I could sit down as often as I liked, pretending to straighten or dust the display racks.

There was a stock room with a metal door opened to the outside for truck deliveries, which allowed fresh air to waft into the store, as well as the odor of pot smoked by the stock boys. Bob, the store manager, was a thirty-something good-looking guy in a nicely cut suit and tie, someone I felt sorry for because he was stuck in a nothing-job—unlike the stock boys, who assured me they’d be gone soon—and so unhip he couldn’t identify the smell of marijuana. The regional manager sometimes sniffed the air when he came by now and then, but Bob always told him he was smelling incense or exhaust fumes from the trucks.

Now I wonder if Bob knew all along what he was inhaling and simply enjoyed it.

I hardly interacted with The Shoe Shelf customers or their kids, other than to point them toward appropriate racks, and left Bob to deal with complaints. Mostly I wandered the aisles in a dream-state on my dream job, slightly stoned from second-hand smoke, thinking about a paper due in my Shakespeare course. I planned to write an essay about the role of horses in Richard II, a fairly ridiculous topic, but I figured I could dash it off. Working several weekdays after classes and long shifts on Saturdays, I didn’t have time to think weighty thoughts.

On Far Rockaway beach, 1968

The stock boys kept to themselves, I was the only clerk on the floor, and Bob stood up front at a desk, ringing up sales. When business was slow he’d pace back and forth or gaze out a floor-to-ceiling window at passing cars. I think he was lonely and needed a friend.

Sometimes he’d call me up front for no reason other than to talk about what he was reading or ask about my studies. He was always polite, never prying, and had a gentle, appealing manner. He also had a girlfriend and wanted us to double-date. This never happened. He said he was a cracker-jack cook and wanted me to join him and his friend at his house for dinner. That didn’t happen either. He wasn’t at all sleazy and I wasn’t afraid of him—in fact, I found him attractive—but I didn’t have time for socializing with someone I believed peripheral to my forthcoming, real and amazing life.

I knew I would graduate in a couple of years with a BA in English and find a job in Manhattan better than the one I had at The Shoe Shelf. Bob, I imagined, would always be stuck in Queens, and I wouldn’t find him interesting after I became a cosmopolitan feminist. I wanted an adventurous life filled with daring, gob-smacking experiences, and really there was no room for a shoe store manager friend in such a life.

Maybe I was too harsh. But I forgive my teenage self, cloudy-eyed with optimism, anxious for independence, determined to be the writer I knew I was meant to be. What I secretly hoped for was suitably undemanding work—not unlike my job at The Shoe Shelf—that left me energy enough to write novels late into the night, but naturally one that paid a good deal more.

With such dreams I staggered forward and formed a life. An interesting one, as it turned out, true in many ways to what I’d envisioned as a girl in Far Rockaway; different in ways that were then unimaginable.

Which is how a life goes.

—Cynthia Holz


Cynthia Holz is the author of five novels and a collection of stories. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, and her essays and book reviews have been widely published. Born and raised in New York City, she lives in Toronto. Her website is


Apr 022017



My first real job was in a hematology clinic in the late seventies. The office, located on Eight Mile Road in Detroit, was a small beehive of rooms where three clinicians saw patients, with five women acting as support staff. There I fell under the spell of one doctor who was everything admirable: a scientist, a professor, a musician, and also a little goofy. I was seventeen; we were perfect for each other.

My job wasn’t demanding: I called patients in from the waiting room, watched as the tech drew their blood, weighed them, and then led them to an examining room where I gave them a dressing gown and asked them to undress. The difficult part was seeing critically ill people day after day. But by the time I realized, my stint had ended and I returned to the summer vacation of the rest of my life.

I’d just graduated from high school, which sounds very flags flying and trumpets blaring, when in fact I’d limped through my senior year until I finally stopped going months before graduation. My psyche had snapped. I couldn’t tolerate the people at school, the hubbub, the drama, the flat wooden desks, the washed-out teachers, the cacophony of the lunchroom, and the emptiness I felt there. Instead I stayed home in my room with its red carpet, wrought iron table, black and white bedspread, and woven headboard I’d spray painted black. There, in my twin bed, I read or wept until my mother demanded I do a household chore. The school must have mailed diploma.

Then in July, Henny, the office manager, asked me to return to the office as a full-time worker. My parents, who didn’t know what to do with me, probably saw the job as a godsend; a safe place where adults would watch over me instead of having me hospitalized.

Without the internal starch to resist, I zipped on a white uniform and showed up for work the following Monday. From then on, I slid on my virginal garb and performed the role of someone who functioned in the world during the week. One perk of showing up was seeing my hero in action. He was spectacular. He listened to others, treated them with kindness, ministered to their illness with a light touch, and sent them off hopeful.

I wasn’t alone in admiring Dr. A. The four other women who worked there also thought he walked on water. The office manager, Henny, led the pack. She was a Chihuahua-sized person who acted like a German shepherd. She scheduled appointments and collected payments from patients, scaring them into paying their bill with her blood red nails and dark scowl. The front office where she stood had a sliding window that opened onto the waiting room. Most of the time she kept the glass shut. She knew how to act professionally, yet without warning she could say the cruelest thing. Afterwards, in an Oscar-winning act, she’d disavow responsibility for her words. Scary stuff. I tried to stay out of her way.


Barb, the typist, also worked in the front office. She was a wiz at transforming dictation into typed pages, as if she were part machine. Though maybe seven years older than me at most, she seemed born of another generation. At lunch she did needlepoint and talked of her mother constantly, with a country twang that belied the fact she’d grown up twenty miles west of Detroit. She also loved hair spray; by Friday amber beads pearled the strands of her red hair. Sometimes she’d show me a passage from one of Dr. A’s reports. His writing was lyrical, cogent, and humane. Barb never mentioned the reports of the other two doctors whose work she also transcribed.

The insurance gal worked in the back section of the lab. She was a tiny person born in Wyandotte, a blue-collar town downriver from Detroit. She was sort of pretty, but there was an off-putting dark cast to her personality. If she didn’t agree with something I’d said, she wouldn’t say so; instead she’d give this snarly, bark kind of laugh that was both derisive and dismissive. She barked around Henny a lot.

Bernice, the lab technician, was the heart of the office. She had dreamy purple-blue eyes which were often red-rimmed from either allergies or husband troubles. She’d been married a few times and had a couple of kids. She and Henny often held hushed conversations in the mornings.

While the other women shuffled paper, Bernice did actual medical work. She drew patients’ blood, made slides, filled hematocrit tubes and set them in the machine to spin. Most of her day was spent peering into a microscope, identifying and counting good and bad blood cells. She showed me an example of a sickle cell once and explained that, unlike a healthy circular red blood cell, this was half-moon shaped and therefore carried less oxygen through the body.

Bernice was my direct superior. She taught me everything I had to do in the office. And though I felt low as linoleum, I tried my best because I wanted Dr. A. to think well of me.

He was smart and funny, and unlike my father, heard everything I said the first time. I wanted him to adopt me; he already had three sons, he needed a daughter. One morning he demonstrated what he’d be like as a father when a delivery guy boldly looked me up and down. Dr. A. saw this and was outraged, which I translated to mean he’d protect me from louts and any other misfortune.

Dr. A. always made a point of engaging me with some nonsense before we entered an exam room. He’d jiggle his eyebrows like Groucho Marx or tell a joke, and after I’d laughed he’d put on his serious face and tap on the door.

While he conversed with the patient, I stood by the wall willing myself invisible. His patients were usually milky pale with rumpled skin and hollowed-out eyes. From my spot at the wall I saw a woman with a surgically smoothed chest. At first I admired her flat chest, envied it almost, and then the penny dropped and I realized both her breasts had been removed. However, if she was seeing Dr. A., the disease still hounded her. She’d given her breasts to cancer but it wanted more. It made me wonder what cellular bombs were brewing beneath my own elastic skin.


During the exam he’d listen to the patients’ heart and lungs, palpate their bellies, and check the lymph nodes under their arms and at their groin if necessary. Then he’d say one of three things: how well they were doing, that they needed a blood transfusion or chemotherapy, or that Henny would arrange for them to be admitted to the hospital.

By now I was eighteen, and five days a week I watched people wheel their loved ones into offices where they hoped for good news. In contrast, my pain and confusion had no precise diagnosis though it made me stagger as I worked through the day. I struggled in silence, tamping down my despair as I tried to keep up with the new tasks added to my evolving job.

For instance, Dr. A. performed bone marrow extractions in the office. The sterilized white package, wrapped like a package from the butcher, held all the necessary items for the procedure. As I watched, he’d inject an anesthetic into the area, talk to the patient as it took effect, and then plunge a long, hollow metal needle into the patient’s sternum or hip bone. It was sort of like coring an apple but instead of apple seeds, he brought up a tube of moist bone marrow. The apparatus he used looked both barbaric and elegant. Once he’d finished, I had to clean the instrument, wrap it in white cloth, secure it, and then set the package in the autoclave, a small box like a microwave that hummed as it sanitized what was inside of it.


Bernice also taught me how to use a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope to measure a patient’s blood pressure. To start, I’d wrap the cuff around their upper arm, then support their arm as I squeezed a rubber ball that pumped air into the cuff. Once the cuff was tight, I’d set the bell of the stethoscope at the crease in their elbow, turn the knob at the base of the ball to release the air and listen through the stethoscope for a sound. The first whoosh signified their systolic pressure and, when that sound ceased, the diastolic pressure. Afterwards I’d quickly note each number. However, the sound and lack of it were often faint. Since I was unsure of what I’d heard, I’d ask the patient if I could do it again. These people were so agreeable. They were used to being poked and prodded by someone wearing a white uniform, and my costume signaled an expertise I didn’t possess. I felt awful about doing it a second time, but I had to be sure it was correct.

As if this physical intimacy weren’t enough, they next asked me to learn how to draw blood, something Bernice usually did. I guess they thought if I did it, Bernice would have more time for her other work. Since I thought Dr. A. had suggested it, I agreed to become a phlebotomist.

The morning training was held at Sinai Hospital, where I’d been born. We began with shoving a needle into an orange, which I didn’t mind. Then we moved on to people. I could hardly hold a conversation with someone and now I had to swab their skin with alcohol, tie off their arm with a rubber tourniquet, and jab a needle into them. It made my hands sweat to touch their skin as I searched for a vein. For a while I hid in the bathroom, but that strategy was short-lived; eventually I had to stick and be stuck by someone else.

As the morning continued we refined our new skill with more instruction. The needle had to be jabbed quickly to reduce the pain, but couldn’t be pushed too far or it would drive through the vein causing blood to leak into the surrounding tissue. Once needle handling was sort of mastered, the trick was to locate the vein. Men’s were easy to find–they often rise above the skin’s surface–while women’s veins often hide. The instructor told us to press our finger in the crease of the elbow until we sensed a line of resistance, i.e., the vein, and then clean the area and slide the needle in. Sounds simple enough. But veins are easily lost. They can roll, be thin as thread, or flatten out if someone is dehydrated, which sick people often are. Somehow I made it through the training.

Back at the office, Bernice wanted me to practice my new skill. She stood by as I tied a tourniquet around an older man’s exposed arm. He had dry, wrinkled skin, where once he’d had taunt muscles and a tattoo. But like a horse, I shied at the jump and Bernice had to finish it while I hid in the back lab.

Mornings Henny sorted the mail. Among the bills and letters were envelopes from the hospital, which held slips printed on pink paper. They were referred to as pink slips and were death notices. When one showed up she’d read off the name of who had died and we’d groan in recognition. However, if a cluster of pink slips arrived, the women would crack jokes in what I thought was a disrespectful manner. After months of this reaction, I came to see that they were struck by the patients’ deaths and black humor was their collective way of handling it.


Dr. W., one of the three doctors, saw the sickest patients. His face reminded me of Richard Nixon or a rubber mask version of Nixon. After I’d learned how to draw blood, he asked if I’d fill injections for his patients who needed chemotherapy. I was caught. I had the time, and if I didn’t do it Bernice had to do it and I’d already let her down by not wanting to do the phlebotomy thing, so I said yes. This new job was done in between weighing patients, getting them settled in a room, taking their blood pressure, and filing glass slides. It was also kind of fun to do.

When a patient required chemotherapy, Dr. W. would give me a Post-it listing the name or names of the medication to use. The medicine was stored in boxes in the lab refrigerator in between staff lunches and a carton of half and half. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein, pumping 5ccs of sterilized water into the rubber gasket of a tiny bottle and watching the crystals dissolve. Another med was a form of mustard gas used during WWI. The third, referred to by its acronym 5FU, came in glass ampules. The tops were pretty easy to snap off, and then I’d draw the liquid up into the tube of the syringe. To be on the safe side, I’d rest Dr. W.’s Post-it on a small tray along with the syringes.

Yet even with these precautions, I more than once filled the syringe with the wrong med. After I’d taken the tray into his office, I’d have this impulse to check the trash and if I saw a glass ampule lying on top of a paper towel instead of a tiny rubber-topped bottle, I’d hurry to Dr. W.’s office and hover in the doorway to see if he’d already given the patient the injection.

If he had, I’d back away and go into an exam room where I’d yank the used paper off the exam table and pull a fresh sheet over it. As I did this I’d think how to tell Bernice what I’d done. Then I’d lined up the stethoscope, the reflex hammer, and the prescription pads before heading for the lab.

There I’d watch her perched on her stool, her eyes plugged into the microscope as her finger tapped the counter. She’d done it for so many years she could count and listen at the same time. After I’d whispered my mistake, her finger would stop and she’d pull her face away from the microscope and take a swig of coffee. Then she’d say, “Go tell Dr. W.”

Of course I wanted her to handle it. I was the youngest member of the office, whose job description kept expanding. I made the coffee, made sure the bathroom stayed tidy, picked up after the patients, stacked magazines in the waiting room, treated everyone nicely, and screwed up the medication. I was sure they’d call the police, so I locked myself in the bathroom. I wanted more than anything to off-load the blame, but I couldn’t. I’d been moving too fast, I hadn’t triple checked the Post-it against the medicine. When someone tapped on the door, I had to open it.


Dr. W. sat in his office behind his desk. I explained my mistake. As he listened, his rubbery face lengthened. The silence that followed multiplied, had children of its own who had weddings and spawned more children. Finally, he said something like, “These people are very sick, one injection isn’t going to kill them.” I wouldn’t say he was casual about hearing this news, yet what could he do? The chemicals were rushing through their bloodstream. They’d already left the office. Obviously he bore final responsibility for my actions, but the mistake haunted me. I didn’t know how the body would react to potentially clashing meds. Would it make them sicker?

A few weeks later Henny read out the pink slips, including the name of the woman I’d given the wrong medication. The line was direct: I’d mishandled the meds and the woman had died. I was an uneducated eighteen-year-old. I didn’t know if there was a relationship between the medication and her death, and no one put me wise either way. I felt raw with responsibility and in that state couldn’t ask for clarification.

And in that darkness, came some light. Dr. A. invited me to join his family at their vacation home in upper Michigan. I was thrilled to be asked but puzzled by how little he spoke to me while we were there. Most of the time I hung out with one of his sons.

Winter passed, as did spring, and June came round again. I’d spent a year at the hematology clinic, in whose rooms I’d practiced becoming more of a person. I’d seen patients with punishing diseases come and go, and now it was time for me to go, too. Whatever romance I had with medicine died in that.

—Roberta Levine

Roberta Levine lives in rural northwestern Pennsylvania where she writes about art, the environment and education. She earned a BFA at the University of Michigan and a MFA from The Vermont College of Fine Arts. She contributes to Kitchn/Apartment Therapy, writes short stories, and teaches in an arts enrichment program offered through Allegheny College.


Jul 092016

StratfordTrainCirca1971The Author circa 1971 on the Stratford Train.


By the time I was seventeen, I was a singer-songwriter—a tumbleweed riding the wind, barely making ends meet. I sang a lunch set at the Penny Farthing coffee house for my lunch and dinner. And I lived in a downtown Toronto rooming house across the hall from Murray the Speed Freak who, according to the Addiction and Research Foundation, should have been dead six months ago. I needed a steady job to afford a better place to live.

So I applied to work at the University of Toronto where, I was told, jobs were plentiful. I presented myself to their administration offices with no skills, no experience and no references because I was not yet eighteen, still legally too young to work full-time. I lied about my age and likely other details I don’t recall. They hired me for the Wallace Room, the undergraduate reading room in the Sigmund Samuel Library. My first full-time job required me to be in the same place, all day, five days a week. What a shock.

9-5 Blues by Mary Rykov  [1:48]

My first full-time job was also a serendipitous good fit because I love to read. I’m told I recited the entire Tale of Peter Rabbit as a two-year-old. And I have fond memories as a five-year-old walking with my mother to the public library each week to exchange books. I felt grown up when she went off to choose her books and left me alone with the children’s librarian to choose mine. I love books, libraries and even the musty-dusty smell of some old books.

I can’t say I enjoyed my grade school library, where choices were limited. Mrs. Copeland ruled that library with a sign-out system that encouraged us to read the classics. The deal was to alternate between reading a book from her list and a book of our choosing. Fair enough.

When given the choice, I read about animals. Sometimes my choice overlapped with Mrs. Copeland’s book list, but not often enough. When I eventually read all the fiction and nonfiction animal books on the Grade 1, 2, and 3 shelves—interspersed, of course, with Mrs. Copeland’s literary canon—I chose an animal story from the Grade 4 shelf. But I was not allowed to read the Grade 4 books because I was still in Grade 3.

I balked at the injustice. I was following the rules and living up to my side of the bargain, but Mrs. Copeland was not playing fair. In protest, I stopped reading all books in Mrs. Copeland’s library. The school thought I stopped reading. They didn’t know I was reading — without restriction—the children’s books that lined my piano teacher’s waiting room.


The Wallace Room

The Sigmund Samuel Library was constructed in 1910 on the east perimeter of King’s College Circle to replace the original University College library that was gutted by fire in 1890. The Wallace Room, named for Chief Librarian and scholar-historian-editor W. Stewart Wallace (1884-1970), was located in a new wing added to the north side of the 1910 building in 1954-55.


The library building was then named for—and significantly financed by—Sigmund Samuel (1868–1962), son of a wealthy British industrialist who successfully grew his inherited family business. His generous philanthropy was responsible for the library enlargement, as well as the Canadiana collection at the Royal Ontario Museum (Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada), contributions to Toronto Western Hospital, and numerous other community projects. Samuel became a Governor of the university and laid the cornerstone for the new library addition. With no disrespect intended for Samuel’s significant contributions, the oversight of indigenous perspectives that characterizes Eurocentric-colonialist “Canadiana” constitutes an unsettling and incomplete historiography by today’s standards.

The Wallace Room housed open stack books for all undergraduate disciplines, as well as short-term course reserve loans. After the Robarts Library was built on St. George Street in 1973, the humanities and social science holdings moved there. Today the old Wallace Room is a reading room in the Gerstein Science Information Centre, which takes up the entire Sigmund Samuel building. But during my 1971 tenure, I bolstered my high school dropout education with the full range of undergraduate disciplines.


Wallace Room 2016



My Wallace Room desk duties rotated between the sign-out desk and the front desk. At the sign-out desk, I ensured that sign-out slips were completed correctly. Then I date-stamped both duplicate parts of the slip, placed one copy in the pocket pasted to the back inside cover of the book, and the duplicate copies accumulated in a box to be filed later.


Duties at the front desk entailed answering questions, retrieving course reserve books, receiving book returns, and collecting fines. We were allowed to excuse overdue fines under $50.00 at our discretion, depending on the circumstances. I always pardoned fines for students who told me about a family death or other emergency, but not for students who told me the maid swept the books under their bed. We admired some of the stories that accompanied overdue books. Who doesn’t enjoy a good yarn?

During down time at the front desk, those duplicate paper sign-out slips were meticulously filed by date and call number. Book returns were processed by removing the paper sign-out slips from the back pockets, finding the corresponding filed duplicate slip, and discarding the matched pair.

The returned books, once processed, were placed on wheeled trolley carts according to the call number printed on their spines and by the green, orange, red, blue, purple and yellow dots that signified the call number section.


My favourite task was shelving books from the trolley carts in the back of the library stacks where my reading was not so easily disrupted. I read everything from Herodotus’s Histories (all nine volumes) to Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. I didn’t steal the books; I read them. And I particularly enjoyed the marginalia comments and arguments.


Herodotus interested me because I like archaeology and ancient history, myths, legends, and old things in general. I enjoyed talking to the students and read what I saw them reading. I was allowed to sign books out, and did. But most of my reading was done on the job. I read slowly and deeply (still do), cover to cover, including forewords, introductions, and acknowledgements. The marginalia was like a conversation speaking to me, although I can’t remember exactly what was said. I just enjoyed the discourse and that someone was moved—and cared enough—to respond to the writer. I still read marginalia.

My Wallace Room supervisor was librarian Jeanette Anton, a childless Estonian WWII refugee in her 50s who spoke with a musical accent. I likely projected onto her the character of Mrs. Copeland, my grade school librarian, who more closely resembled the wicked-witch-of-all-libraries past, present and future. In fact, there was no comparison. When Mrs. Anton smiled, her blue eyes twinkled. Mrs. Copeland also had blue eyes, but she never smiled. At least, not at me.

Mrs. Anton was kind, but she was also precise, demanding and did not suffer fools kindly, as the saying goes. She seemed to have had eyes in the back of her head, which gave her the uncanny ability to catch you doing something wrong—even if you never did it wrong before and never did it wrong again. She knew. Also knowledgeable and competent, Mrs. Anton was grandfathered into the library profession without having had formal training. She furthermore frightened me because she was very tall and towered over me.


Dress Code

I was (am) tiny, not five feet on a tall day. I could never find shoes small enough for my feet, and clothes didn’t look the same on me as they did on store mannequins. My long chestnut-auburn hair was never styled. Besides, I often rode my bike to work and didn’t preen. Mrs. Anton tolerated my jeans and sandals with a patient, maternal kindness. She also offered unsolicited wardrobe advice.

“So-o-o-o, my little one,” she would say, “they came out with a new fabric not long ago called Crimplene. It comes in all sorts of pretty colours — pink, blue, yellow, green. Solids and prints. You can throw it in the washing machine and dryer and it won’t need ironing. Crimplene!” I used to imagine Mrs. Anton with her very own TV commercial.


For readers who missed this 1960s fashion phenomenon, Crimplene was a thick, wrinkle-resistant polyester that was ideal for A-line mini dresses. The Crimplene name alone used to make me cringe almost as much as my coworkers’ snickering as Mrs. Anton extolled its virtues to me. While she raptured on, they stood behind her with fingers to their lips as if to vomit, trying to make me laugh. I learned to keep a straight face—a useful skill when fabricating excuses for being derelict in my duties. Read on.


Paper Records

Libraries in those days functioned on paper. Everything did. Books were requested, acquired, signed out and signed in on paper. Overdue fines were recorded on paper. My hours worked, all recorded on paper. But I was too young and feckless to care about company loyalty, much less duty, or pride in work well done. On busy days when I was too hot, bored or hungry—or hot, bored and hungry—I would tire of filing or retrieving all those paper sign-out slips. My eyes glazed over.

So I became the library fine faery.

Sometimes I excused library fines just because I didn’t want to record them. Other times I “disappeared” the paper sign-out slip duplicates by filing them temporarily in my pockets instead of in their respective file boxes. Later I would file them permanently down the toilet. Unfortunately—or fortunately—my tight blue jean pockets could not hold much.


Front Desk as War Zone

One spring morning, with cherry trees in full blossom, Mrs. Anton gathered us around her for a strategy meeting. Convocation ceremonies were scheduled, and students who had not paid their library fines would not receive their diplomas. They attended convocation, but their diplomas were held hostage until their fines were settled. Mrs. Anton knew this ritual well. She scheduled extra front-desk staff to address the onslaught.

You’d think these students would know who they were. You’d think they’d come in ahead of time to pay up. Some did, but many did not. Maybe they considered their overdue fines were hollow threats now that they had completed their studies and had no use for library privileges. They underestimated the ransom power of unpaid library fines until they found themselves at graduation, all dressed up in gowns and mortarboards, with just empty handshakes. No diplomas.


After the ceremony, the convocation carillon rang out like a starter pistol. We watched the would-be grads sprint straight across the King’s College Circle lawn from Convocation Hall heading in our direction—caps in hand and gowns flowing behind them in the wind. We took our positions behind the front desk as they arrived in droves, while Mrs. Anton maintained order in the lines-ups. Ha! Gotcha!


The Book Stacks

As mentioned, I enjoyed shelving and reading the books on the trolleys. On hot days, the book stacks in the back were darker and cooler than the sunny western exposure of the reading area in front. The old library building was not air conditioned back then. And when I was shelving books alone in the back book stacks with nobody looking, I would lie down on the floor to feel the cold marble on my hot arms and legs.


One steamy summer day I fell asleep there. I woke, startled, with everyone standing over me wringing their hands. Before I could leap to my feet—afraid I was really in big trouble this time—I realized they thought I had fainted. I was not allowed to stand up until I drank some water and ate a snack. Then I was sent home in a cab.


I Sleep Late (Most) Thursdays

Yes, my sleeping was a problem. More specifically, I had trouble waking on Thursday mornings because every Wednesday night I worked a late shift. I didn’t mind taking my turn and working late, but not when I had to start work at 8:45 am the next morning. My Wednesday late shift alternated between 10:00 pm one week and midnight the next week. Regardless, I still needed to be at work by 8:45 am on Thursday mornings.

I usually (but not always) managed to arrive on time after working until 10:00 pm. But on Thursday mornings after working until midnight the night before, I often failed to wake on time, even with three alarm clocks. And when I (or anyone) did not appear by 9:00 am, Mrs. Anton phoned. By then I had moved to a large shared house, living student-style with six others. And when I slept in and Mrs. Anton called, I had to dash from my third floor bedroom to the second floor telephone before my sleeping housemates were roused.

One Thursday morning after a midnight shift, I woke right at 8:45 am. Late again! But this time I dressed quickly, took the telephone receiver off the black, rotary-dialed base, and stifled the beeping with my pillow and blankets. I ran two blocks to the payphone at a busy intersection. Out of breath, I called in late from there.

“Where are you?” I’m asked.

“I just witnessed an accident, Mrs. Anton,” I say.

“Oooh, you must be upset,” she answers. “Go have a cup of coffee.”

“Okay,” I say.

So I walked home and put the telephone receiver back on the hook. After a leisurely bath—we had no shower—I made coffee and breakfast for my housemates. I finally sauntered into work around 11:30 am, in time for lunch.

“What happened?” they all asked.

Hmmm, I should have anticipated I would need further details to account for myself. But I was too young to be responsibly irresponsible. At first I tried saying I was too upset to talk about it. I hemmed and hawed, stalling, until they finally wheedled this story out of me.

“It was such a glorious morning, and I was a bit early,” I lied. “So I decide that instead of getting off the southbound Yonge subway at College and taking the streetcar west, I would exit a stop earlier at Wellesley so I could walk across Queen’s Park and enjoy the beautiful spring flowers,” my fib unfolds. “And while I stand on the northeast corner of Bay and Wellesley Streets waiting out the red light before crossing to the west side, I see a popcorn man wheeling his bicycle cart south on Bay Street.”


By now there was no turning back or stopping. My story continued, as if on its own. So I included hand gestures to illustrate. “As the popcorn man pedals into the intersection, the Cadillac car behind him starts to make a right-hand turn west onto Wellesley Street from Bay—and knocks the poor, old popcorn man over with its left rear tail fin!”

I was awed by my own audacity. Had I read so much Wallace Room fiction I was beginning to make up my own? I covered my face with my hands because I laughed so hard I actually gasped. And as I gasped, I cried. So I carried on, embellishing an awful scene with the popcorn man and his cap and his popcorn and peanuts and chestnuts and cashews and taffy apples spilled all over Bay Street, balloons billowing in the middle of the morning rush hour traffic. Of course I stayed with the popcorn man until the ambulance arrived. His name was Giorgio. Then I went to the police station with the officers to give my report. And months later when I slept in again—I was in court, serving as witness for Giogio’s case.


My First Job Legacy

Dumbfounded and relieved, I somehow passed my three-month probationary work period. How? No doubt due to Mrs. Anton’s compassion and affection. Mrs. Anton, may you rest in peace, and thank you. But three months after passing probation, I slept in so often that I exhausted all my toothache and dead relative excuses. No sequels to the popcorn man fable followed.

Unable to manufacture as much fiction as I consumed, I resigned from my first job because I assumed I would, eventually, be fired. I resumed playing music and did manage to land some television and radio spots, thanks to the Canadian content (Cancon) government regulations set out by the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in the early 1970s. Once I opened for Lenny Breau in an after-hours jazz club. I even sang at the Myna Bird as an opening act for the strippers, which might have been easier had I stripped. Oh, well.


As I fumbled on towards adulthood, I came to appreciate my path was paved with more kindness than I was aware of at the time.

—Mary H. Auerbach Rykov


Mary H Auerbach Rykov is a Toronto music therapist-researcher, editor and educator. Her work appears in literary and professional venues.



Jul 112011

My First Job

by Steven Axelrod

Salesmen Wanted

It was the summer of 1971 and Manhattan was molten in the summer heat. The air wavered over the softening asphalt and walking the furnace streets I felt like I’d been dipped in grease and dredged in grit. My girlfriend Marian and I were living in my Mom’s apartment on 82nd Street, looking for jobs. I’d been turned down everywhere.

It shouldn’t have been my first job, anyway: a nineteen year old should have some kind of résumé, even if it’s only delivering pizza or babysitting. But my summers had always been devoted to leisure. At least I did my school reading and kept my room clean.  It was my mother’s idea. She figured I’d be working most of my life and wanted me to look back fondly on these sun-dappled, unstressed months between school years, when I had nothing to do but dawdle and dream. I was grateful for that, but those years were emphatically over.

Still, I couldn’t find a job and the newspapers were no help. The New York Times ran plenty of ads for medical technicians and school superintendents,  and ‘systems technicians’, but I couldn’t imagine even faking a résumé for any of them.

So I was ready on a humid Thursday morning, when I saw the ad for “Encyclopedia Salesmen Wanted”. Marian was just as desperate, so we went down to the office together.

Read the rest of this entry

Jun 162011

Editor’s Note: Melissa Fisher’s “My First Job” essay won the 2012 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize competition judged by Gish Jen. Gish Jen wrote: “This memoir of growing up in Vermont begs to be turned into a book. At once deeply universal and deeply strange, it is wonderfully unpretentious, completely appalling, and appealingly clear-of-heart.”


Melissa Fisher, already “a person of interest,” as the police say, for her satirical photo essay “And the Sign Said” now offers us a “My First Job” in which she manages to insert blood, mayhem, drunkenness (not the author), underage driving, romance (the brown-haired boy) and a gorgeously hilarious picture of growing up a girl in rural Vermont. Nothing more to be said. Read it.



Out There

Growing up with eight older brothers, I had a feeling that I could do anything.  I was keeper at soccer (not afraid to get kicked in the head if it meant making a save) and played first base, feeling pride in the shocking sting across my palm whenever anyone fired one in my direction.  It was the Fishers vs. anyone else in the neighborhood, and I was always the only girl on the field.

When we moved to Vermont, expanding our summer camp into a home, we traded neighborhood friends for trees. Thousands of trees. Our nearest neighbor was a mile south down a single-lane dirt road that was often impassable in the winter.  From our house-in-progress on Cram Hill going west, it was two and a half miles to asphalt, and the first house that way, a log home belonging to the Potters (their name spelled out in stones at the end of the driveway), appeared in the last half-mile.  We had a quiet view of Granville Notch to the west without a structure or speck of light in sight for miles across the panorama.  When weather shifted, a gray sheet of rain would spread across the valley toward us providing a 90-second warning to get the laundry off the line.  Some days the only hint of civilization was a distant loon-like call of the train whistle twice a day, southbound in the morning, northbound at night.

The electric and phone lines didn’t reach us, and cell phones didn’t yet exist.  We had a CB radio for emergencies.  In summers when humidity was high, a skip allowed my father (his handle was Preacher Ed) to talk on the squawk box to southern drawl truckers hundreds of miles away. These were our only conversations with the outside world. We were out there. .

First Babysitting Job, Starts with the Pig Blood in the Yard

So when I was 10, perhaps out of boredom or arrogance, I didn’t see any reason to say no when I was asked to babysit two kids of a couple I didn’t know well (they also lived in a house without electricity).  Later, I saw many reasons why this was a terrible idea, and I also questioned my parents’ judgment in letting me go. But the lure of two dollars an hour trumped any good sense I might have held.

My mother dropped me off in the driveway and backed around leaving me to walk to the house alone along a stone path that led by a stump steeped in blood with fresh blood lying in pools all around. Perhaps, I thought, I should have asked more questions, but how to prepare for this?  When the father, John, opened the door, I turned back to wave and watch my mother’s car head down the driveway back home, realizing suddenly that I was a bit homesick, scared, or both. John explained the blood—I had just missed the pig slaughter.  I wondered if I’d been expected earlier to help out.

The boys, blond-haired and shy, watched me suspiciously.  This was our first meeting so I reached out to them slowly, the way I had with the stray before he became Snowflake, my mother’s favorite cat. It didn’t work with the boys as well as with the cat. Their mistrust lasted long after the parents left for the wedding, and we spent the afternoon only half-playing, half-wondering when the parents would reappear.

I was ten. I didn’t know what a babysitter did. I fed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we went outside and threw rocks. Boys like throwing rocks. When they’re not eating them they’re throwing them. We stayed well away from the front yard, the stump, the blood.  I didn’t ask about the pig.

The afternoon dragged on. I only wanted to go home but had no idea when that might happen.  I hadn’t been forward enough to ask exactly when John and his wife would return. They were vague. I had the impression it was going to be just a few hours. In my mind, they were coming home at two or three in the afternoon.

The boys moped, grieving abandonment.  “Do you want to read a book?” I asked.  “I want Mommy to read it to me!” “Do you want to go outside with the trucks?” I asked.  “Mommy take me outside!”

By hour five, I had started to watch the driveway incessantly.  I couldn’t call home, of course—in my world calling home wasn’t an option to consider–and I wondered why my parents hadn’t come looking for me.  The boys weren’t the only ones feeling abandoned.

The boys refused to nap. I wondered if I should I walk them half a mile to the closest neighbor?  I didn’t want to get the parents in trouble.  Were they in trouble?

After 10 really, really long hours, and long after dark, headlights finally haphazardly probed up the driveway. When the boys’ parents came stumbling in, I was already at the door ready to go home. The mother drunkenly waved her arm (really her elbow) in the air and disappeared to bed. John’s head drooped. His eyes stared out without focus..


Heading Home, the Body in the Backseat

When we finally got into the beat up Toyota wagon, he mumbled something about watching my feet.  At first, I didn’t know what he meant, it was dark, but soon I realized there was a hole as big as my foot in the floorboards.  We didn’t talk.  Something kept clunking in the back.  Turn left, clunk right.

When we hit the pavement, I suddenly could see light at my feet.  I watched a blur of the road between my heels.  Lines would appear, some double yellow, some white.  Back on the dirt road to my house, the clunking returned. Turn right, clunk left.

The driveway ended at the garage, but John drove across the lawn to the front steps. At last, with the dome light on, I could see a large mass in the back seat. I had been afraid to look. I had no idea it was a person. A toolbox maybe. When you live on the back roads things always clunk and roll around, but this was a big clunk.

“My brother-in-law,” John growled.  “He’s a waste of oxygen.”

John walked me to the door—I was only ten. And all I remember after that is going straight to bed, climbing the wooden ladder to the curtained loft room that was mine. But my parents must have seen John’s condition because they invited him in and made coffee. At some point, the brother-in-law wandered in, disoriented either from the repeated head trauma or the unfamiliar surroundings..


Aftermath, More Babysitting, Animal Attacks, I Scar a Child for Life

Afterwards, my parents never said anything about that night, whether they wondered if I was okay.  They rarely said what they felt.  They seemed to accept John’s drunkenness without judgment. Oh, that’s just John… Somehow I can’t imagine parents being that open-minded today. And a few years later, when my 17-year-old brother arrived home late after school completely bombed on strawberry daiquiris, my father expressed his disappointment by grounding my brother for a month—a month alone out in nowhere without a phone; it was like solitary confinement.

It didn’t strike me odd that we’d have a drunk or two in the house. Rod, a neighbor well-known for his hundreds of junk parts cars in various stages of impermanence, would wander down the “thrown up” road (now more of a path) from his trailer a few times a year. He refused all food, lived simply on 16 oz. Budweisers or whatever other version of beer was handy.  He was friendly, smelled of urine, booze and cigarettes, and said Jesus Christ more often than my father ever did in the pulpit. Rod had a bony chest and his Dickies hung belted at the waist, cinched around fumes.  Rod’s granddaughter, Belinda, once bit me on the arm because I was using the bathroom. I wasn’t babysitting her.  She was just visiting.

What does (did) surprise me is that my parents ever let me baby-sit again.  But they did, many times.  Through trial and error I learned valuable tips such as Kool-Aid is more complex than Tang and requires infinite scoops of sugar.  And sugarless Kool-Aid on a picnic will destroy a child’s day and will ultimately be tattooed to his or her memory for the next 20 years. (I know because 20 years later I saw this person on the streets of Montpelier and his first words were, “Remember when you (tonal implication of ‘you moron’) forgot to put the sugar in the Kool-Aid?”)

B-Bet (short for Elizabeth) fast became one of my favorite watches and not just because I got to saddle up her mother’s tar-colored brute of a horse, Mischief, from time to time.  Mischief tried to buck me off more than once and would very reluctantly go for halting walks. On the way home he’d gallop if given the chance.  In my limited riding lessons I had only made it as far as a delicate posting trot on a pony. I was afraid even to canter, but I’d learned to hold on like hell.

B-Bet always had to come out to the car when I arrived to save me from Gus and Geezer, the geese watchdogs.  Gus was one-legged and cranky. Geezer was particularly vicious and would make a spear of his body, aggressively flap his wings and repeatedly stab my legs with his beak. I’d yell to no avail.  Two-year-old B-Bet would shake her finger at him, scolding, and he’d ashamedly retreat.

My best friend/rival Beth also babysat and we had our regulars.   One of her families had a cute rhythmic ditty that the father sang to lighten moods:  “Me-lis-sa-Fi-sher, ate-her-ki-tties.  Me-lis-sa-Fi-sher, ate-her-ki-tties.”  I have no idea where this came from.  I had never spoken with this gnomish furniture-maker, though I knew he crafted beautiful stuff. Understandably, his kids never spoke or made eye contact with me, either..


Crossing the Line into Criminal Behavior with Accomplice and Small Children

The family I babysat for most often had two charming girls, one of whom once fondly asked me, “Why are you so fat?” At first, I’d put Meredith to sleep in the crib and then read to two-year-old Stephanie.  She would make me read every single book at least once and instantly scream if I stopped for the briefest moment, threatening to wake the baby.

After they were both in bed, I’d engage in battle with the wood cook-stove. I never understood the drafts.  My two options were to keep it wide open, meaning the temperature in the old schoolhouse would quickly escalate to 95 degrees, or damp it down and fill the house with smoke until the fire choked out. Either way, I’d end up opening all the windows and doors.

I loved their parents, Steve and Jude.  At nights on the drive back to my parents’ house, Steve would holler out, “ENGLAND!”then swerve and drive for half a mile on the left side of the empty road, a great belly laugh shaking out of him.

Stephanie and Meredith were terrible secret-keepers.  Once, when I was 14, their parents left me the car keys for the day—for emergencies.  Or perhaps so I could run to the Roxbury General Store for milk.  Along with milk, the store had two well-stocked coolers of cheap beer, gas, a dome-covered cheese wheel, flies, penny Swedish Fish, Charleston Chews—best after being stuck in a snow bank and frozen solid—more flies and Atomic Fireballs but not much else.

I didn’t drive to the store, not at first anyway. Instead I called a brown-haired boy.  Technically, he lived in the opposite direction from the store, but that’s fine. I just figured this would catch his attention.  I loaded the girls in the car, popped in the Genesis Land of Confusion tape I found in the glove compartment, and headed for his house—choruses of “Where are WE GOING?” rising from the backseat.

I was actually a pretty good driver with three years of experience.  My father had taught me to drive his Jeep when I was 12. Given where we lived, he’d been careful to explain about driving on washboards, how to do a hill start on loose gravel, and where to pick up the firewood he’d cut up down the road that needed to get stacked in the shed.

The truck I learned to drive in.

When he handed me the keys, Steve, the girls’ father, had pointed out that the car’s low gas light was on. But he was pretty sure there was enough to get to town and back if we had to.  So when we picked up the brown-haired boy—and not wanting to get stranded—we carefully poured in some gas from a red can in the barn. Then, a bit horrified (a sinking, Oh shit! moment when the gas warning light FAILED to come on), we realized it was too much and proceeded to spend the afternoon driving every dirt road in town until the yellow dot on the dash reappeared. (Okay, it WAS a nice realization that we would sneak around all afternoon, driving unlicensed and free. And 14!)

We weren’t worried about cops. I had never heard of the Roxbury town constable doing anything more than grudgingly volunteering for the position at town meeting.  Also I had heard and fully believed that regular laws didn’t apply to dirt roads (I think my father the minister was the one who told me this questionable fact).  The locals who usually hung out on the store’s porch were in and out of jail for various bits of misconduct—we were known as an outlaw town—but I was never sure how they got incarcerated (this reminds me that my friend Anna used to call jail “Three Hots and a Cot”). When my mother and the planning commission tried to clean up the village, Dave Santee, who lived next to the store, fired up the “Uglification Committee” and promptly hauled a toilet, two rotting dormers, and a one-wheeled tractor to his front yard.

I was aware, yes, that I was taking advantage of the situation, and, being a respectful minister’s daughter down deep (very deep), I was really afraid of being caught. Steve, the father, was a playful and irreverent ex-hippie. He loved it when I was a little bad—he’d say, “Oh, I bet that pissed off Ed and Ellie” and laugh. I adored him and looked up to him, and I hated the idea of losing his esteem. Not to mention the fact that my father might have had some feelings on this one, too (though, clearly, he TAUGHT me to drive at the age of twelve and, if the truth be known, wasn’t averse to a bit of rule-bending now and then either).

Late in the afternoon, when it finally occurred to me that Steve and Jude would be appearing in the driveway any second, we headed for home. I threw the brown-haired boy out of the car at his mailbox, barely stopping. Then I casually, airily (and very carefully) discussed with the girls the fact that what we had done all afternoon was perfectly fine, normal, unremarkable and not worth mentioning to ANYONE. There was no reason to say anything about it to their parents, and besides, their parents wouldn’t care.

We pulled into the empty driveway, unloaded, and were lingering on the lawn when Steve and Jude arrived moments later.  I was in a panic, the hood of the car was still hot, but ALL was well.

Then, suddenly, the girls were dashing toward their parents, screaming, ”Mommy, Daddy, Melissa drove THE CAR! We drove EVERYWHERE and finally the light came BACK ON! She told us not to tell you.”

I thought, Oh shit.

Steve said, “Is that right?” He looked right at me and laughed.

—Melissa Fisher


Melissa Fisher is a writer and college administrator still living in Vermont.


Jun 042011


Once again Natalia Sarkissian goes cutting edge, writing the first in a new Numéro Cinq memoir series called “My First Job”—to go with the terrific “What it’s like living here” and “Childhood” series already under way. In the essay, Natalia recounts her early career as a Good Humor man, the ins and outs of customer base development, the advantages of having an ice cream truck for driving your friends around on weekends, and the day she made so much money she was throwing dollar bills into the freezer because there was no room left in the cash box. This is a piece of Americana—still in the evenings in my neighbourhood, we hear the musical notes of the Mr. Ding-a-Ling truck (our version of Good Humour). My sons don’t rush out anymore, clutching their dollar bills, but still we look up at each other smile. As with her earlier essays, Natalia brackets off a piece of her life and serves it up to the reader. If you read through all her NC texts (glance at Nonfiction contents page), you’ll see a life emerging: mysterious, scarey, adventurous, sad and triumphant.


My First Job 

(In which I break into the food industry, drive a truck and  learn about business)

by Natalia Sarkissian



The Search

In the swing, on the shady side porch, with the sun breaking through chinks in the trellis, I’m thumbing through the Stony Brook newspaper, scouring the help wanted ads. I’m nineteen years old and it’s a silky June day in the late 1970s, one of those days when the light shines strong and white in a glowing sky while the breeze is still cool and fresh. Wafting up from the Long Island Sound, a rush of that cool, fresh air rustles the leaves overhead and the hair on my neck but still, I’m perspiring. Time’s running out. After three weeks hunting, I’m still jobless. On September 10, I’m to fly to Italy to spend a semester studying art. Such plans require significant cash. Although I have a student loan to cover tuition and airfare, I need spending money. It’s Italy after all. I need lots of spending money.

Turning the page of the paper, jostling the swing, I find an advertisement that catches my eye.

Sell pots and pans! Make $200 or more per week!

So. They’re back but their name and location have changed. Last year, when I visited their office in Great Neck and signed up to be a rep and plunked down $65.00 for a starter kit that never materialized, they were Deluxe Kitchen Gear. This year, they’re Culinary Designs in Smithville. Well, I’m a year older. A year smarter. No con’s going to swindle me out of another chunk of change. I continue to search but nothing I’m remotely qualified to do materializes.

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