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Woman on the Road – Part 2
Once you make a decision to live a life of constant travel, that tether that binds you to people starts to unravel. I admit my ties that bind were pretty weak anyway. I was a delinquent runaway at age seventeen, divorced in my thirties, lost my house and went back to college shortly after.
I had a pretty stable support group of friends until I started working in theater. Once I went on the road, those friends fell away one by one. That day when my car broke down in the Columbia Gorge, I could hear it in my best friend’s voice when I called her to let her know what happened.
“Are you still going to go?”
“I’m going if I have to take a bus to get there.” That was the last I ever heard from her
I could hear Linda Ronstadt singing in my head, “Everybody loves a winner: but when you lose, you lose along.” Deep down I knew she was already seeing me as a loser. With no job and no money, I was no longer the strong abandoned woman putting herself through college, brave and alone. Employers weren’t impressed and friends were let down. Where was the success I was supposed to have become?
But in theater, they don’t care who you are. They just care if you can show up and get the job done. I didn’t have much time to think about it then. I just had to drive. During those years, driving saved me a lot of times from sinking into a total morass of depression. No time to think about loneliness, just survive.
And I was surviving. I had chosen a college major that had zero financial value. The current mantra was, “Do what you love, the money will come,” It would have been better to have a caveat, “But don’t forget, life isn’t fair.” Ironically, the one area that everyone agreed had less potential than my chosen major was theatre. After one failed office job in Portland, the next job landed was with a local professional theatre.
I had worked in the costume shop in college and even designed a show, but the regional theatres were spread out across the country. I figured I couldn’t even afford to interview. How I worked there for three years and never found out that wasn’t the way things worked is beyond me. But it never came up; so how was I to know?
One night when hanging around at an after party with the crew, the assistant stage manager announced she had landed a job in Germany. My jaw dropped! How had she done that? Everybody was shocked that I didn’t know there was a trade publication where all hundreds of theater jobs were advertised every month. Still thick headed, I asked, “ But how can you manage all those out of town interviews” I earned my laughs here. Miracle of miracle, they did phone interviews. A month later I was on the road headed for Minnesota.
Here I was, Assistant Costume Shop Manager, on my second theater assignment. A good start and a learning experience. The intense schedule and mass production required for the big musicals that are summer stock’s bread and butter breaks in many a young theatre person. It can make or break you right out of the gate. I had the advantage of maturity that allowed me to be able to stay calm under a workload that sometimes seemed insurmountable. I had also been sewing since the age of nine. With that experience and the training I’d gotten in the university costume shop, I was in my element. Corset? No problem! Cod piece? You’ve got it! 1920s flapper dresses? A walk in the park!
What I wasn’t ready for was that there would be more drama behind the scenes than on stage. Tantrums by ‘wanna be’ leading men and women. Costume fitters that behaved inappropriately. And sex as the main off stage entertainment. I could ignore it as long as it didn’t affect the shop. But these things have a way of spilling over onto the work life.
That summer job got my foot in the door. But I left two weeks early to avoid being a witness in an ethics committee investigation of the theater’s employment practices. Like many people in the business, I thought I would get black balled from theater, if I told what I knew. It’s not like that.
Now I had to follow the one tether that I still held in that no man’s land called the Midwest. I had arranged to visit my mother at the end of the season. So, I headed toward St. Louis. I guess it’s in my nature to hit and run. But I always feel better once I’m on the road. The road is now. The past is literally behind you. And anything can happen.
It was late July by that time, and a typical hot and muggy day in the mid-west. I got caught in a downpour in the Wisconsin Dells in a small town, whose name I never learned. There was a hotel will a no vacancy sign and one motel. The motel at first said they were full. After asking after other places I could go, they realized there was no other place. I could not go further in this storm. So, I might be car camping in their parking lot. I guess they thought better of that. They had a room that needed work on the shower, but said I could stay there if I didn’t mind. I didn’t. I just wanted a place to dry out and rest. They didn’t charge me much, since they weren’t planning on renting that room until after the plumber came. It wasn’t too bad; old and run down like the rest of the town, but clean with a shower that just kind of drizzled.
The next day I headed south through more mid-west farmland. Just before Beloit, I saw a sign – “Mexican Restaurant 3 miles.” Mexican restaurants weren’t that common and it was nearly lunch time. I turned off the main highway expecting to find one of those restaurants that are so often next to a gas station near a highway. But the road narrowed and at three miles there was a nicely kept building with a dirt parking lot. Aah! Mexican food! I missed the west coast.
I was dressed for the road, not as a tourist. But I realized as I walked into the restaurant, I didn’t look like a mid-westerner. My hair was braided and I had put on a loose peasant blouse and a big skirt to stay cool. I hate how shorts ride up at the crotch on a long car ride. A skirt is much cooler. But now I realized this was exactly the kind of skirt Frida Kahlo would have worn, a full circle in three layers of gathered panels. Big abalone hoop earrings finished the outfit.
There was no one else in the restaurant and the three employees stopped dead when they saw me. They were Mexican, and I was obviously not; but I was unintentionally dressed like someone from out of their past. They were quiet people and there was no verbal harassment, like I might have gotten in L.A., just polite service and fantastic food.
I seldom stop in a restaurant when I’m on a road trip. I usually just keep up my energy with caffeine and carbohydrates from convenience stores and make up for it when I reach my destination. So, I was hungry and I ordered a full Carne Asada dinner. This was authentic Mexican food, not Tex-Mex or California style. It was the best Mexican meal I have ever eaten.
I could probably never find that restaurant again, if it still exists. It was surrounded by farms and not visible from the highway. There were just the two signs and the distance to guide you there. It was a nice surprise, but not unbelievable. Lots of Mexicans come to Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin during harvest season. In Minnesota, the State encourages them to stay by having liberal welfare benefits and housing. They want to keep the best workers there. If they have to go back to Mexico or live illegally the farmers lose their best works the next season. I don’t know about Wisconsin’s labor laws, but in my imagination, this was a family that came north, worked in the fields, maybe even cooked for the summer workers and eventually opened a restaurant. Whatever their story, it must be a good one in my book. They had a business and I had a great meal in a place far from any fancy restaurants with stars behind their names. It was a fair exchange in my book.
I wonder what story they made up about me after I left.