Elf

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It was the end of a long hot day of trying to sell hemp jewelry and shiny rocks on the side of the highway. (Total sales for the day: $36.) I was eating dinner and reading a copy of the David Sedaris collection Holidays on Ice I’d picked out of a free pile behind a thrift store.

Holidays on Ice
The first story in the collection is “SantaLand Diaries,” a memoir of the pre-Christmas season Sedaris worked as an elf in NYC’s Macy’s store. Early in the essay, Sedaris recalls how he imagined his life in the Big Apple. Of course, his life didn’t go the way of his imagination, and he writes,

But instead I am applying for a job as an elf. Even worse than applying is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn’t even find work as an elf. That’s when you know you’re a failure.

Ouch. That hurt.

I had applied for a job as an elf some years ago. Like David Sedaris, I applied to be a Macy’s elf. Unlike Sedaris, I did not apply for elfhood in NYC.  I was in the Pacific Northwest, where I’d recently moved to live with my boyfriend in an apartment his parents had paid a deposit and a month of rent on. The boyfriend didn’t seem to be concerned about finding work (I suppose he’d had a long history of mooching off his parents), but I was scrambling to find a job, any job.

First I called Manpower, the temp service I’d worked through for three years in the medium sized Midwestern town from whence I’d come. The Manpower employment specialist (or whatever they call themselves) who took my call seemed absolutely bored. I asked him if I should go into the office to meet with someone. No need for that, he assured me. There weren’t really any jobs anyway. (No jobs? I wondered. In a major U.S. city? No temp work at all?) He said I could email my resume if I wanted to. They’d keep it on file, but there were currently no jobs.

I dutifully emailed my resume to Manpower. I never heard another word from the Manpower office.

I dutifully spent hours looking at the online employment ads. I dutifully sent off my resume any time I found a position I was even marginally qualified for.

I discovered the bowling alley near my apartment was hiring but didn’t want anyone with visible tattoos. Since when was a bowling alley so concerned about the image of its employees? I could cover my tattoos (so I dutifully sent off my resume), but it seemed like every second person in the city had visible tattoos. Maybe I’d get hired by virtue of my undecorated skin. But no. No one from the bowling alley ever contacted me for an interview.

I discovered the regional chain of convenience stores was hiring, but planned to do a credit check on all applicants. I’d never heard of a potential employer doing a credit check on a job applicant. How could a person with poor credit pay the bills if s/he couldn’t get a job because of poor credit? The no visible tattoos bowling alley tipped me off that the job market was tight, but the credit check for folks applying to work not for a bank or an accounting firm or the freaking CIA  but for a convenience store really convinced me the job market was in the employer’s favor.

I continued to read the want ads, complete online applications, send out my resume, but my phone didn’t ring and my inbox was empty. I started to grow panicky.

Then I saw it: Macy’s was hiring elves. I’d read “SantaLand Diaries,” and thought, If David Sedaris can do it, I can do it to! In fact, I was qualified for the job.

Qualification #1 I am short. I’m under 5’5”. Sedaris recognized the importance of (lack of) height to a career as an elf. Despite being pretty sure he failed his drug test,

still they hired me because I am short, five feet five inches. Almost everyone they hired is short.

If Macy’s was looking for short, they were looking for me!

Qualification #2 I’ve worked with kids. I spent my first two summers out of high school working at a camp for kids with disabilities. Sure, that had been 20 years ago, but I’d done some babysitting since then. I didn’t think kids could have changed too much, even in 20 years.

Qualification #3 I knew a thing or two about taking photos. I’d worked as the assistant to the photographer my first summer at the camp for kids with disabilities. The second summer I’d been promoted to head photographer. I was sure I could handle whatever camera system Macy’s used to take souvenir photos of kids with Santa.

Qualification #4 I’d worked in high volume, high stress retail situations before. I’d been the cashier on multiple occasions during Mardi Gras and Jazz fest at a t-shirt shop on Bourbon Street. I doubted screaming, shrieking, bawling, pissing children and their bossy, rich parents could be any worse than drunk tourists.

I dutifully answered the questions on Macy’s online elf application. I took the application very seriously. I attached my resume. I did my best. It was only a seasonal job, but it could get me through until the next employment opportunity came along.

Macy’s never contacted me, not a phone call, not an email. Nothing. Of course, not hiring me was a good move on Macy’s part because during the first week of December, my boyfriend convinced me we should ditch the apartment and travel the world on foot and via Greyhound.

Still, I was devastated. I didn’t even make the first cut for a temp job as an elf, a job I was actually qualified for.

I’d felt like a failure then, and here was David Sedaris, eight years later confirming that indeed, I’d been right.

Suffering

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It doesn’t matter why we were in Fresno, CA at 9am on a Friday morning.

I was jacked up on coffee, it is true, and I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before, but the sun was shining and the temperature had dropped on that first day of autumn.

I’d exited Highway 99 to get breakfast at Taco Bell and use the internet. When it was time to get back on the 99, we could see the highway, but due to the one-way street we were on, we couldn’t get directly to it. The Man was working with Google Maps to get us to our destination, and I found myself driving through an industrial part of the city that looked sketchy to my no-longer-accustomed-to-an-urban-environment eyes.

Make a left, The Man told me.

Here? I screeched. I could see railroad tracks, but no street.

Here, The Man confirmed, and I turned. There was a street there, narrow and running next to the tracks.

It wasn’t a place where I’d expect to see people walking around, so I noticed the woman near what appeared to be a warehouse. There was rubbish piled all over, and while the woman was standing, she seemed somehow hesitant, as if she’d stumble if she took a step. I didn’t get the impression she was drunk, but imagined she’d recently awaken and emerged from a nest in the trash. Maybe she wasn’t fully awake and still unsteady on her feet.

I glanced at her and made assumptions about her in a second or two while I was driving, then put my eyes back on the road. When I looked at her again, I realized something else.

She was an African-American woman, thin, wearing a red ball cap and a long red shirt, but I’m pretty sure she wan’t wearing pants. I didn’t see any private parts or underpants, and maybe she was wearing short shorts under he long red shirt, but I don’t think she had on pants or a skirt or any sort of bottoms.

Some people would make a joke here about a woman who forgot to put her pants on, but I didn’t see anything funny, only felt profound sadness.

After telling her about the woman, Nolagirl said in a text, She probably has some mental illness which makes it hard to remember you need pants. That’s probably true.

It shouldn’t happen to anyone—mentally ill, living on the streets, sleeping in a pile of trash, no pants or the recollection that pants are a necessity—but it’s not a way of life we associate with the developing world, not here in the good ol’ US of A.

I know people are homeless, I’ve seen them, and I’ve been one of them, but even I can be shocked when confronted. No wonder so many folks who’ve never lived on the streets can pretend it’s not happening in their country and can believe those homeless people are different, a foreign other.

In seconds, we had passed the woman. The Man never even saw her. Out of my sight isn’t out of my mind, though. The woman haunts me. I wish I could have done something for her, but what?

What could one stranger passing through, a stranger in her on edge-living situation really do to help? I suppose I could have given her a couple of bucks or a pair of pants, but would either of those things have really helped her? My tiny offerings would not have changed her life. Still, I feel as if I should have done something.

 

 

Nice Day

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Toward the end of the camping season, the mercantile was closed for inventory. The manager worked with two ladies from the corporate office to count everything in the store. Apparently four people would have been one too many for the task because when I showed up for work, I was told my services were not needed. The Big Boss Man didn’t want me to lose pay, so he told me I could work in the campground to make up my hours. I walked over to the parking lot where The Man had my van and changed into a cobbled together camp host uniform. Back at the campground, I cleaned restrooms, raked campsites, collected access fees, gave directions, and had a very nice day.

guide, idaho, mapFor a slow parking day, I gave a lot of directions. So many people who pull into the campground or the parking lot are unsure of how to get where they’re going at best, but usually out and out lost.

I talked to a lovely young woman who wondered if she and her guy should take the time to visit the nearby national park. I told her they totally needed to visit. As I told her, while our trees are beautiful, the national park is like a magical fairy land of giant sequoias. That’s what she wanted to see, she said, so she and I discussed the best route to take.

The next people who needed directions were an old couple from West Virginia. They were totally lost. They were supposed to meet the woman’s brothers in a national park, but followed their GPS (which had been programed to our coordinates while they were still in West Virginia) to a campground hours away from where they wanted to be. I told them how to get where they wanted to go,, and they hoped the brothers would still be there.

Another older couple pulled in later in the day. I noticed their big ol’ Chevy conversion van right off. I explained the access fee of $5, and the woman in the passenger seat asked if her Golden Age card would cover it. I said it would not cover parking, but it would get them half off camping. Most people who want to use an access pass to pay for parking don’t want to camp, but this couple decided to do it. I told them what sites were available, and they drove through the campground to pick one.

I talked to them quite a bit that afternoon. The man said they were from Illinois, and when I asked about their Southern accents, he said they were from southern Illinois. I thought he was joking until he told me they do their grocery shopping in Paducah, KY. (I always forget Kentucky borders the Midwest.) They also spend a lot of time near Gulf Shores, AL, which I’m sure also enhances their accents.

I asked the fellow about his van, then told him about mine. He and his wife aren’t full-timers, but they do travel extensively in their van. Las year they’d visited the area (their daughter lives nearby) in a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, but the mountains destroyed its transmission. They already owned the conversion van, so this time they decided to travel in it. The minivan was really too small for two people, they agreed, and they were really enjoying the extra room in the larger van.

The fellow asked me if I watched YouTube videos, and I said not so much. He said he really liked watching van-build videos. He talked more about van builds, and some part of our conversation led me to say, If you go to Quartzsite, AZ in January, you can go to, and we both said, the RTR. He’d heard of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous! He said he’d never been but would love to go. I told him I’d been to three RTRs, and I became something of an instant celebrity. He was quite impressed to learn I’d been where he wanted to go.

When The Man came to the campground to pick me up that afternoon, we went over to the couple’s campsite. I wanted to introduce them to The Man, and I wanted to give them my business card with the name of my book (Confessions of a Work Camper) and my blog address on it. The four of us had a good conversation about minivans and transmissions and traveling. When we left, I said, Maybe I’ll see y’all at the RTR someday. They agreed that maybe I would.

Between meeting the people in the conversion van and going home that afternoon, I met a group of adventure, camping, forestyoung people on a birthday celebration camping trip. I showed them to their campsite and told them how to get to a secluded waterfall. They were mellow stoners—love kids—and I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the area.

It was fun to be a camp host again, especially on a slow day near the end of the season. I didn’t have to work too hard, and I met nice, interesting people. If every day as a camp host could be that good, I’d never want to do anything else.

Photos courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/map-navigation-guide-108942/ and https://www.pexels.com/photo/forest-trees-adventure-tent-6714/.

I Don’t Like People

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The black SUV pulled into the campground early one Sunday afternoon late in the season. The Man and I were working as camp hosts there, and I’d stationed myself near the overflow lot to collect access fees while he worked the main parking area.

The fellow driving the black SUV was rocking the wet look; he’d gelled his curly dark hair to within an inch of its life.

I asked the man if he wanted to park so he and his passenger could walk the trail. Curly said yes. I told him about the access fee and pointed to the dirt area where he could park. He gestured in front of himself and asked what was all of that. I told him it was a campground. He asked if there was any parking in the campground. I told him the parking in the campground was for people camping.

My confusion must have shown on my face because the woman in the passenger seat said, He doesn’t like to park by other cars.

Yeah, curly agreed. I don’t like people!

O-kay! I thought, but I found a spot where he could park the SUV away from other vehicles.

As I wrote the parking pass, Curly explained himself. It wasn’t really that he didn’t like other people. I’m a people person, he proclaimed. The problem was door dings. He didn’t like door dings, and people are just not careful with car doors. It was ok if the wind flung a door; he understood the wind sometimes caught doors and crashed them into other cars. However, he didn’t want to park near people who might be careless with their doors.

It’s going on three years, and not one door ding, he said proudly.

The woman in the passenger seat just grinned. She had heard this all before.

I don’t really understand the preoccupation with keeping vehicles “nice.” I live a rugged life and my material possessions—including my van—show wear and tear from the way I live. But to each his/her/their own. If Curly wants to spend his time and energy worrying about door dings, that’s his business.

Before paying me for his pass, Curly jumped out of the SUV and ran around to the other side to open his companion’s door. After the exchange of payment and pass, I watched Curly and the lady walk away, one of his hands in hers, the other carrying a picnic basket. I was glad I could help him have a nature experience free from the worry of coming back to a dinged door.

 

Spittle

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There’s a certain noise a person makes before spitting up a wad of phlegm. I have no clue how to convey the sound in writing, but I’m confident my readers have heard it before. It seems to come from deep within the body. It sounds nasty, just plain gross.

I was walking down St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans when I heard the noise we Cajuns call crache. It was a sweltering summer day, and I was rocking shorts, a tank top, and a cute cap my friend in the National Guard had given me. The cap was originally camo, but I’d died it black and removed the bill. I thought I was hot stuff.

I heard the sound and knew someone was about to spit, but I just kept walking. Someone else’s mucus was none of my business.

The mucus became my business seconds later when I felt something hit my head. I looked around and saw an old African American man who seemed nervous and embarrassed. His spittle had just landed on my cute little cap!

Ahm so sorry, ma’am, he drawled.

He produced a paper towel from some pocket and began dabbing at my cap.

I didn’t mean to do that, he said.

I never for one second thought he’d purposely spit on me, but that didn’t make my situation any less gross! Oh dear lord, the man’s mucus was on my person!

Ah can’t see right, he continued, ‘cause Ah got this cataract. He used the hand not swabbing at my cap to pull down his lower eyelid.

I found myself looking at an eyeball both milky-cloudy and bloodshot. Ewwww! Why did he have to show me his sick eye? The situation was getting worse by the moment. God forgive me, but I just wanted to get away from the man.

It’s ok, I said.

No problem!  I told him

He continued to apologize and smear his bodily fluid all over my hat.

I finally extricated myself from his apologies and ministrations and went home to scrub my cute little hat with hot water and lots of soap.

Seven Magic Mountains

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I first saw Seven Magic Mountains on my way to Las Vegas (NV) in December of 2016. I was heading south on I-15 when to my right, out in the desert…What is that? I wondered.

The Seven Magic Mountains art installation from a distance. I know this photo only really shows six towers, but trust me, there are seven!

In the middle of undeveloped nature rose several bright, multicolored pillars. They rose up from the desert floor, no other signs of humanity near them. What in the world could they be?

By the time I saw the pillars, I would have had to backtrack to visit them, and I hate to backtrack. Besides, I didn’t know if it was possible to visit the pillars or if there was an admission fee. Also, I was excited to get to Vegas and see my friends, so I decided to just keep going.

I tried to describe the pillars to The Poet and The Activist in hopes they could offer some explanation. They’re bright, colorful blocks stacked on each other in the middle of the desert…

My friends knew exactly what I was talking about. It was an art installation called Seven Magic Mountains, they said.

Wow! Large-scale art installations impress me, and this one was so brightly colored. Both the size and the colors of this one were awesome. The bright colors made each block look as if it had been sculpted from Play-Doh, but such an endeavor would have taken a lot of the modeling compound. Even though I hadn’t gotten close to the pillars, it was obvious that each block was huge.

While I was out and about in Vegas, I found a free informational card dedicated to the installation. I picked up the card and learned a few things about Seven Magic Mountains.

The artist responsible for the piece is Ugo Rondionone. On the card, Seven Magic Mountains is described as

a large-scale, site specific public artwork…

made from

This photo shows a closer-up shot of one of the magic mountains.

locally sourced limestone boulders stacked vertically in groups ranging from three to six. Each stone boasts a different fluorescent color; each individual totem stands between 30 and 35 feet high.

The card also gave the dates of display of the installation as May 2016 to May 2018. I felt sad I hadn’t stopped to see the installation when I was passing by. I hadn’t realized the towers would only be there for a specific period of time. I wasn’t going to pass that way when I left Vegas, and I didn’t know when I’d return to Vegas via I-15. I may have missed my only chance to see the art up close.

As luck would have it, I ended up heading to Vegas again in October 2017. As I left Baker, CA and got closer to Vegas, I remembered the bright towers. I texted The Poet and asked her

Are those giant colorful blocks still out in the desert between here and Vegas? If they are, I probably should stop and see them.

She wrote back

yes they r. last I saw. magic mountains something like that

That was enough information to get me there.

Right before exit 12 for NV-161 toward Jean/Goodsprings, I saw a small brown sign simply reading Seven Magic Mountains so I took the exit. When I reached the stop sign, there was a second brown sign, again reading Seven Magic Mountains and pointing to the right. I turned, came to a stop sign, and found no indication of which way I should go. How are visitors supposed to know which way to turn? I guess the sign posters figure if drivers don’t see the art to the right as they approach the exit, they’ll know to turn left at the unsigned intersection. I thought I had maybe missed the art, so I pulled into the casino parking lot and turned on my GPS to get me there.

The Google Maps lady on my phone (I call her Mildred Amsterdam) told me to take a left onto Las Vegas Blvd. I drove about five miles, then saw the colorful blocks on my right. This was it! I was almost there.

Signs along the road warn drivers not to park on the shoulder. There’s a fairly large parking area, just follow the signs to get there.

Once I was parked, I put on my hat, locked up my van, and walked out into the desert toward the art.

First stop was an sign with some information about the installation. These are some of the things I learned:

The artwork extends [the artist’s] long-running interest in natural phenomena and their reformulation in art. Inspired by naturally occurring Hoodoos and balancing rock formations, the stacks also evoke the art of meditative rock balancing.

As I walked closer to the installation, I counted the columns. I only saw six. Wait. What? I thought. This is supposed to be Seven Magic Mountains. Are their only six?

I stopped and counted again. Only six. Then I moved to the right, and the seventh mountain appeared! There are seven columns, but from different perspectives some of the columns line up and only six of them are visible at once. Ah, the artist was playing with the viewers. Fun!

This photo shows all seven of the magic mountains, plus the bonus natural mountains in the distance. Notice the size of the human visitors in relation to the limestone boulders.

The desert floor was almost empty as I approached the art. Only small, scrubby bushes grow in the area. I guess venomous snakes are an issue because there were a couple of signs warning visitors to watch out for them. I didn’t want to end up like my friend who was bitten by a rattler, so I was careful where I put my feet.

It was really cool to walk among the totems. I enjoyed looking up at them and seeing the bright colors against the blue sky. Everyone out there seemed to be having a good time.

The pillars are totally incongruous and also totally right. The colors stand out against the earth tones of the desert environment, but the size of the columns fit in the wide-openness of the desert. Their scale is just right. I guess Ugo Rondinone knew what he was doing when he decided to put the bright boulders out there.

That’s me in the hat, looking up and up and up and up.

I took all the photos in this post, except for this last one, which was taken by a very nice visitor lady. The older woman who was with the nice lady who took my photo said this was all very “interesting.”

Little Free Library (Taos Youth & Family Center)

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My first Little Free Library was in Los Gatos, CA. Later, I discovered one at a dog park in Santa Fe. I wondered why there wasn’t a little Little Free Library in Taos, but it turns out I simply wasn’t looking in the right place.

The first Little Free Library I found in Taos was at the Youth & Family Center. The Man and I went there to shower. Tea had told me all about it. The center had a swimming pool and in the locker rooms, there were showers. For only $2, anyone could shower at the center.

I was really excited to take a shower the first time we went to the Youth & Family Center. It had probably been a week since we cleaned up, and I was looking forward to hot water and soap.

I got an added bonus surprise as I walked up to the front entrance of the center: a Little Free Library! This Little Free Library was a re-purposed newspaper vending machine. So clever! The machine had been painted white and labeled “Little Free Library” so no one could doubt its purpose.

I looked at the books on the shelf of the Little Free Library, as I always do. I can’t remember if I found anything I wanted to read that morning or if I dropped off any books I had finished. I did file away the library’s location in my memory so I could drop off books in the future.

It wasn’t long before I had a pile of books to donate to this library.

The best thrift store in Taos is the one run by the CAV (Community Against Violence). They price the fancy clothes a little high for my budget, but they always have plenty of clothes for just a dollar. Also, I believe in the work the CAV folks are doing, so I feel good about giving them my money.

CAV’s mission is to foster and support a community free from all forms of domestic and sexual violence.

CAV offers a 24-Hour Crisis Hotline (575.758.9888) for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. We provide legal and medical advocacy services, counseling and support groups, children’s programs, community prevention and outreach programs, and are able to provide information and resources for those in need.

CAV also has an on-site emergency shelter for adults and children, and offers short and long-term transitional housing programs.

All Services are FREE & Confidential

However, as much as I like shopping inside the store, I always take a look at the dumpster before I leave the parking lot.

Not long after I discovered the Little Free Library at the Youth & Family Center, I found a half dozen boxes of books by the dumpster behind the CAV thrift store. What? I don’t know if people had wanted to donate the books on a day when the store wasn’t accepting donations so instead hauled everything to the dumpster or if the thrift store volunteers didn’t think the books would sell and dumped them all for trash pickup. In any case, there were a lot of free books out there.

I went through all the boxes and found books I wanted to read, as well as a stack of books for Tea and some to give away through BookMooch. I am ashamed to admit I didn’t think of the Little Free Library when I found the book windfall.

All the free books stayed on my mind. What if it rained? They would get wet and be wasted. If only there were a place they could go where they would stay dry, where people who wanted to read could be sure to find them…Sometime in the night, I had my a-ha! moment. I could transport books to the Little Free Library.

The next day, I went back to the CAV dumpster. Many of the free books were gone, but there were still plenty for me to transport to the Little Free Library. I snagged all of the books for kids and young adults because I thought young people would be the main patrons of that particular Little Free Library. I also grabbed a few books I thought adults might like. I drove the books the mile to the Youth & Family Center and placed each one in the Little Free Library. I felt good knowing I’d done my part to get the books out of the trash and and into the hands of the people.

I took all the photos in this post.