Tag Archives: childhood

Dancers Wanted

My love for reading started early. I read everything I could get my grubby little hands on: my own books, the Reader’s Digest Home Repair Book that frequently lived on our coffee table, classified ads. The classified ads were especially intriguing. Items for sale, homes for rent, job offers. I would spend hours splayed on the living room carpet of our row home, pouring over the “help wanted” section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Like many 8 year old girls, I wanted to be a dancer when I grew up, despite my inherent lack of grace or discipline. But it was the era of “A Chorus Line”, which was still running on Broadway & many local theaters. The advertisements were shown almost constantly on TV, and I played the album endlessly, singing along loudly in my tone deaf way, much to the dismay of nearly everyone around me, especially my oldest sister who was visiting from college.

“I HOPE I GET IT! I HOPE I GET IT! HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES HE NEED? HOW MANY BOYS? HOW MANY GIRLS? I REALLY NEED THIS JOB”

“Barbara Lee, you’re 8. You don’t need a job”, she snarled into the pillow on the top bunk in the room we were temporarily sharing while she was home, probably hung over.

I was undaunted by her irritation & danced out of the room, down the stairs & into the living room where I again, sprawled out with the Help Wanted section of the classifieds. Where I saw The Ad.

EXOTIC DANCERS WANTED. No experience necessary. Will train. Make $2000/week. XXX. Call 215-555-1234.

I COULD GET A JOB! And this was PERFECT for me. I didn’t need experience, but I had some experience, thanks to my weekly “jazz” class. So I already had a leg up, so to speak. And exotic? Aside from the Original Cast Recording of “A Chorus Line”, the other album that played often was Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits, which contained “Copacabana”, so I imagined myself in sparkly attire with feathers in my hair & a “dress cut down to there”. And obviously this was a nice place to work, because they ended their advertisement with XXX, which meant “kisses”. I imagined of all the things I could get from the supermarket foyer toy machines on $2000/week. Exciting prospects. I was beside myself.

My mother made her way through the living room carrying a basket of laundry up from the basement and noticed my unrestrained glee with the newspaper.

“I’m going to get a job, Mommy!”

She paused on the first stair that headed to the second floor & turned to me, “Really? What do you have there?”

I rushed over to her & showed her the ad, pointing out that I already HAD experience, so I was basically a shoo-in for this available position. She blinked rapidly, removed her foot from the step, put the laundry basket down & led me to the scratchy sofa across the room.

“Barbara Lee, this isn’t the type of dancing that you do. This is naked dancing. For men. These aren’t nice places. Ladies take their clothes off for money.”

I was CRUSHED, twisting the newspaper in my hands, sputtering about “exotic” & “feathers” & “kisses”. She shook her head at me, telling me I didn’t understand, which also was a  blow, as I was aware that my reading comprehension was well above normal. My dreams of raiding the supermarket foyer quarter machines circled the drain.

She sighed & took the laundry upstairs. I followed her, & upon seeing that my sister had dragged herself from bed, put on A Chorus Line again, to my then-favorite song “Dance 10, Looks 3”. While I sang loudly & unfettered to this ditty about having the skills but not the looks (without the help of plastic surgery) to make it on the Great White Way, I could hear my sister snickering from the shower.

“Tits & asssssssssss”, I danced around my room, posing in the mirror all the while, “bought myself a fancy pair. Tightened up the derriere. Did the nose with it. And all that goes with it! Tits & assssssss, had the bingo-bongos done. Suddenly I’m getting national tours.”

While my dreams of being an Exotic Dancer with feathers, spangles & kisses might have been dashed, I still held out hope for Musical Theater. My mother sighed loudly from down the hall, shut the door to the room & put away her laundry in peace.

Cheese & Spit

I’ve always worked in retail. Well, almost always. Save a two year stint in hotel hospitality which wasn’t really my forte, but yielded great stories, a few amazing friends & in retrospect, a wonderful sociological study of humans on vacation. But this isn’t about my time in hospitality.

I love working retail. I really do. I’ve had the good fortune to work in small local shops and big box national stores. All of them winners in their own regard, with important lessons & personal growth trajectories. I really do enjoy finding that “perfect thing” for customers, whether it’s a book or CD that might change their life, a new fragrance option they’ve never considered, a stunning piece of jewelry. While some might say that I lack ambition by “just working retail”, I can tell you that it started early.

There was a corner market in the town where I lived before we moved to the shore. It was an aging building, even in the late 1970s, with slowly rotting uneven wood floors and an aroma that was vaguely wet, sharp & decaying.

When I was about six,  I stood with my mother waiting for her cold cuts (“1 pound of american cheese sliced thin“). Bored by this shopping excursion, I wandered to the cheese case, which had been picked over. The blocks of cheddar, swiss, muenster & so forth were in disarray. It upset me. While my mother pushed the one of the market’s creaky, rusty carts through the aisles, I organized their cheese. It was satisfying, lining up the blocks in the proper slots.

When I stood back to admire my work, my gaze caught the deli case to the right, covered in condensation & fingerprints. So I did what any budding retail worker with a sense of order (and without cleaning supplies) would do: I spit on the glass & started using my sleeve to clean it.

I had just gathered enough saliva for round 2, and was preparing to shower the right side of the case when my mother bellowed at me from a few feet behind.

“BARBARA LEE! DON’T YOU DARE!”

It was too late, I’d already sprayed the case & had my sleeve at the ready when she yanked me away & spanked me in one smooth motion.

I was bewildered & surprised, as I was just trying to help. “I just wanted to make it nice!” I stammered through my tears, much to the bemusement of the market’s deli clerks, who had been watching my reorganization.

She marched me to the front of the store, snuffling & wiping my eyes with the same damp sleeve, where we paid for our groceries under the dim flickering lights. The ride home was silent, after I’d been chastised for spitting. I didn’t have the words to make her understand that I wasn’t being rude or gross, I was just trying to help.

During the next visit, after I straightened the cheese, my scrutiny again fell upon the deli case. Again, covered in moisture & prints. While I stood there anxiously, wanting to “make it nice” but not wanting to get spanked, one of the deli workers remembered me from the previous incident & offered me a rag.

“Want to clean the glass?”

YES! YES I DID!

It became a regular ritual when we shopped at the market: Reorganization, glass cleaning, and compensation in the form of a few pieces of American cheese. I was helping.

The retail seed had been planted. Although I’m now armed with Windex & paper towels, I still have the same mentality. A clean, neat shop is satisfying. I tend to “help” when I visit other small establishments: putting items back in their proper place that have wandered to wrong shelves, straightening books as I browse.

And I recognize the young “helpers” when they visit me, organizing the marbles or the display of tiny candles at their eye level. We always know our tribe.

the 5th Dimension & 5 Year Old Me

My mom had a copy of the 5th Dimension that I remember her playing when I was a small child.  One song stuck with me, making me think existential 5 year old thoughts.

The song? “One Less Bell to Answer”.

I remember sitting on our scratchy couch, half covered in a blanket my grandmother made (JGD always inserted into a corner), listening to Ms. McCoo sing about how she should be happy with one less bell to answer, one less egg to fry.  But all she could do was cry.

I remember thinking to myself, “Being an adult must be HARD.  He leaves and she cries.  No more laughter, no more love.”  I pondered that for the rest of the side of the album, not knowing anything about divorce at that time.  But would she be happy again someday? Would she find someone else? I mean she doesn’t even KNOW why he went away? I wanted to know why he went away too.

My attention was soon diverted when my mother switched on the radio.  The Starlight Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” filled the living room.  Awesome! It was the skyrocket song! I pretended I was a sky rocket in flight, making the appropriate “zoooooooooooooom” noise, the true meaning of the song going straight over my sweet 5 year old head.

I’d had enough heavy thinking for one day, anyway.