Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Nineteen Eighty Four - Rego Park, Queens


It's fall of 1984 and I'm living in a basement apartment in Rego Park Queens. I found it by looking in a newspaper, finding an agent and giving my parameter of $500/month rent max. I still remember this unusual guy and he said "I have a PALACE for you..it's an enormous PALACE! He drove me to this kind of ugly 3 story newish building in the heart of Archie Bunker style Queens houses. He took me to the basement, and it was indeed, enormous - enormous and fully furnished with a vintage 50's stereo cabinet. There was a little window over the bed that let in light from the backyard and he sold me on the value per square foot. Also it was close enough to a subway stop to get me to my job at 61st/Madison so I signed a years lease. Without going in the stürm and drang of my first few months in the city, here's the cliff notes: I moved to NYC upon graduation from UT in late summer of 1983. I stayed on the Upper East Side with G for a few months and decided I needed to live on my own. I had mailed out tons of resumes to film companies and got a few letters back, and some calls (pre cell phone and internet days kiddies!). I ended up getting a job with a high end watch wholesaler who had been handed my resume because it said I spoke French, and the company was based in Paris. My boss was a chain smoking, smolderingly handsome Portuguese man named Carlos. This was my first non fast food, first big girl job, AND it was in NYC and I was excited/nervous. I wanted to be perfect and was terrified of authority and of making mistakes. A condition that would haunt my work life for many years.

For six months I went to work 9-5 every day in stomach clinching fear, mostly hungover, and not knowing how to do my job very well (and not knowing that I needed help or how to ask for it). I had only an electric typewriter, and my boss would yell at me constantly and was always on the phone schmoozing to people in French or Portuguese, wrapped in a cloud of cigarette smoke. He was trying to get his watches in all the high end retailers in the city and I was writing the letters to the head buyers. He said they looked like crap and made me redo them. I sensed that he liked me and was trying to have a jokey and fun time with me but I couldn't go there. I was a highly boundaried (not in a good way) employee who felt I was so below a boss, and deathly afraid of making mistakes. I can't even really remember why I was so scared but I think I had to do a lot of accounting stuff with an adding machine (10 key by touch!)...and I am not confident with my math abilities so when I didn't know what to do instead of asking a question I would just get scared and hide what I had done. Carlos would eventually find a mistake and blow up at a me. After he blew up he'd be over it and ready to joke and laugh...whereas I would be completely traumatized and would not be able to recover until I plunged into the Irish bar across the street from my office every evening. (The antics at this bar I could write a book about - I had to stop going because of how much trouble I got in).

It was unfortunate that it took a very long time (my last boss I was terrified of was from 2000-2003), but I no longer cower with bosses. I have several male bosses now and I get up in their faces and bare fangs if they overstep. I say NO a lot. And it works. They respect me. O the suffering I could have avoided if I'd learned this lesson as a wee one. Punch back at the bully. But to continue...

I hated going to the office and just got sicker and sicker fantasizing on how I could escape or quit. It never occurred to me that I could just quit - I was so obedient and conditioned to focus on a powerful and scary person's needs and to squash my own that that was how I was at work. Outside of work I had boyfriends, lovers, friends come stay with me from out of town, wild debauched early 80's new yorky stuff (white) all around me and had what I thought was fun at the time, but looking back I think I was pretty lost and just didn't know it because I was so busy feeling like a trapped animal by day and going wild at night. I recently told a friend who knew me at this time (he was in grad school at NYU) what I was doing on my weekends and his mouth was hanging open in shock. He got serious about his studies after we hung out my first few months and I was off onto the dark after hours underbelly at night.

I am finally getting to point of this long (yet endlessly interesting to me) and rambling post: one Sunday about six or seven months into this job I decided I was going to call in sick on Monday. I had never called in sick to work (and now, 36  years later, can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I have called in sick, and most of those times I was not actually "sick"). Something in me just said fuck it I need a break from this relentless cycle of hell of this confusing job world. I was nervous all day planning how I was going to do it and what I was going to say, and early Monday morning I left a message on the office answering machine that I was feeling ill and wouldn't be in. Then I unplugged my phone.

I had noticed one of those old art deco single screen movie theaters in my neighborhood and that was where I was going to spend my day. I decided I would go to the afternoon feature no matter what the film was. I was a terrible film snob at the time and did not see current Hollywood fare but told myself I was gonna go no matter what was showing. I walked to the theater and bought a ticket for "Footloose". I remember how cheesy and goofy the film was and how silly the music but I didn't care. I had decided I gave no fucks for Carlos and his stupid watches and this Monday was my own and he didn't own me. I wish I could remember more about the day but what I do remember is going back to my basement apt. and seeing the red light on my answering machine blinking a bunch. I had about 14-30 messages from Carlos. He had been compulsively calling me all day, utterly dependent on me and my cheap labor (I had looked at the file of applicants when I applied for the job and they had all asked for twice to three times as much money as I had). His calls were ridiculous and creepy...acting like he wanted me to call and talk about what I was doing (so weird to me), but he was scared I wasn't coming back. He needed me. And I had flipped him off by being not contactable.

I did not call back, and don't remember exactly what happened when I went back but shortly thereafter I got the euphoric news that the company was being sued and they were high tailing it to LA in 6 weeks. I had an out! Carlos begged me to move to LA and offered to buy me a car and partly subsidize an apt. I said no, but that I would go out to set up the office for two weeks. It was a hideous/hilarious two weeks of me staying with some friend of his (and her kids) in Beverly Hills, walking to work dressed in all black, having to hide in the home as there was some ex driving by threatening to shoot everyone in the house. I hated LA and knew that I would. My last day of working for Carlos ended with me treating my hostess to dinner, and while at this fancy restaurant she was telling me a story about a recent date she'd had (I had just drained a giant smoothie from a glass-this is important), she was describing his physical appearance saying he had a "lump" and I said where was the lump? And she said no, what is the word for it (English was not her first language) and she stood up and pantomimed a person with a bum leg. And I said do you mean a "limp?" And she said YES, A "LIMP!" We started laughing so hard that I started gagging...I still had smoothie in my throat when I started laughing and the gagging turned into I was going to throw up...she looked at me in alarm and held the empty smoothie glass under my mouth for me to hurl into. I filled up the glass to the brim. Goodbye LA! Never heard from Carlos again.

Yesterday when I was thinking about this memory before my writing class I started googling stuff in Rego Park, and I think I found the little theater I went to. Just like before I moved where I am right now, I have getting very very sentimental about a place I have lived before...looking at the house I lived in on google maps and seeing my subway stop. I don't know why this memory is so compelling to me but this is the 3rd time I have written it out in several weeks...it feels like time again to jettison the cobwebbed Austin life of the known and move across country again. And why not? I never lose anything when I do this -.  I just seem to gain, and I must be wired so differently than most people as they say they cannot imagine "uprooting" and moving somewhere and leaving all their friends. This is my soul's magic place...gleefulling getting rid of my stuff, packing my car and moving across county. If I have ONE friend there I am good - I will start forming a tribe or life pretty quickly...the clan I left behind in Oregon are some of the dearest people to me on earth. Six years in Oregon - only fond memories (though my diaries from that time show a screeching internal hellscape).

As a solo movie goer for my entire adult life, and as a daughter of a mother weaned and raised by solo theater outings (she has told me she went to the movies every day after school) it was (and still is) a solo act that has seems to have a high feminist and self care component - it's an act of courage for people who say they could never go by themself, and in these times especially, a few hours that one is utterly unavailable.

Postscript:

Some other things that happened at that first NYC job: I was sent on missions to interesting places all over the city for various errands. I slinked around inside what felt like the walls of Grand Central Station to find this ancient darling man in an ancient dusty office repairing and tinkering with old timepieces. I was sent to Hell's Kitchen (early 80's, scary) with a suede briefcase filled with expensive watches handcuffed to my wrist up a rickety walk up next to an abandoned building to meet "some guy" who wanted to buy "some watches." I was sent to luxurious high rise offices with views of the city that made me swoon. Carlos' famous finance (main model on the Price is Right!) came to the office and Carlos called to tell me to hide his condoms and cigarettes in his desk. Janice glided in and threw her mink into my arms. These are the things that stick with me...it was all good - the horrible and the beautiful. I almost miss being that naive and young and being so besotted with a place that I would put up with anything to be there.

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