Back to the Old House

#WhereILivedWednesday: The Costume Shop

This past weekend was my 25th college reunion. I did not go. I never will.

I hated it there. It had been my safety school and I arrived with every intention of transferring after getting good grades for a year. Oh but plans can fall through as so often they do. After two rounds of transfer applications to at least a dozen schools, my choices weren’t better so I stayed put. While I had almost nothing in common with the vast majority of the students there (shallow, immature, young Reaganites looking to have the party experience they’d been too sheltered to have in high school), the university’s location in the Philadelphia suburbs was great. I could hop a train and be in the city in less than half an hour, I could ride my bike past centuries-old farms and enormous old houses, there were good record stores, and I had my work-study job at the costume shop.

The costume shop was my saving grace. I had auditioned for a play once during my freshman year but I discovered that because the university had a Master’s program in theater and they opened up their shows to anyone in the greater Philadelphia area, Equity actors even, I didn’t stand a chance of being cast as a middle-aged woman when plenty of actual middle-aged women (with much more experience) were also auditioning. My sophomore year I qualified for a work-study job so I went to the financial aid office and looked through the book of available jobs. There were two jobs at the theater, the box office or the costume shop. I looked into both but decided I could make more money in the costume shop and it looked like more fun anyway.

I was a dresser. The dresser is the person who gets all the costumes ready before the show, puts all the costumes in strategic locations backstage and helps the actors make those quick changes off stage. The rather less glamorous parts of the job included doing all the laundry and ironing and any mending the costumes required during the run of the show. You needed to be a jack of all trades in this small shop; wig maintenance, shoe repair, hat reshaping, hairstylist, always ready with a safety pin or a glue gun. Because I was pretty good at sewing I was allowed to help make the costumes prior to the show as well.

This was the real deal. The shop was run by a designer who drew what all the costumes would be and when we didn’t have something suitable in storage, we would build it from scratch. No Butterick or McCall’s patterns here, we would make patterns with muslin based on her specifications. We had several dressmaker’s dummies and an industrial strength iron and steamer, six or seven fancy Swiss sewing machines, a serger, two big padded and muslin covered tables around which several graduate students spent their days hunched over sewing costumes. If you were in the Master’s program, you had to do a practicum and you could choose building the sets, working in the costume shop, or doing dramaturgy. The set guys were pretty nice but the boss, not so much. The costume shop was definitely the life of the party.

I loved my job. I was good at it too. I took it seriously, unlike most of the other work-study students, most of whom only lasted a semester, a year at most, and were flaky and just didn’t think they really had to do anything. Maybe because I had once harbored dreams of being the one on stage, I felt you had better make damn sure everything was ready before the show and the costumes were all set up back stage because how shitty would it be to come flying off the stage and have less than a minute to get changed and back out there without help or without everything set up just so. I would set up the dresses so all the actresses would have to do is run off, I’d unzip/snap/button the dress they had on, they’d step into the next outfit, lying open in a circle on the floor, then I’d pull it up around them and zip them into the new dress. New shoes at the ready, hat, gloves, accessories, 1, 2, 3. Boom. Back out there. During a show’s run, I could easily rack up 50 hours of work each week.

The costume shop was my turf. When I walked across campus it was a toss-up whether I’d be ignored or laughed at by the other students but in the costume shop, I ruled. I had the key. I’d get there and open up before anyone else, then the actors would come in and be thrilled to see me. We’d talk, tell stories, and laugh. There was music and people and we were young and alive. To have a place where I was accepted and respected, by people who were way cooler than the big-hair/mullet crowd, made those three years tolerable. There were perks too. I never paid for doing my own laundry once I started working there because I had access to our private machines in the basement of the theater building. I scored some signature pieces of clothing, and found out where to buy my beloved shoes. I learned how to alter clothes and how to make fake blood.

When I left campus 25 years ago, I was relieved to be done with that place and haven’t missed it once since then. But I still keep the costume shop close to my heart.

#WhereILivedWednesday is a meme started and hosted by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants. Please check out her site for other stories.

Jack Ass Ginger

Poi Dog Pondering – Jack Ass Ginger*

#WhereILivedWednesday – Mt. Pleasant, Washington, D.C.

This is part of a series about places where you’ve lived, started by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants. I highly recommend checking out her site for more people’s stories.

For two years in the early 90s I lived in what was commonly called a group house in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C. My three housemates were like me, young women with jobs that didn’t pay all that well but that looked great on your résumé. D.C. was full of young people and it was an exciting time to be there, the end of the Reagan/Bush era and the start of the Clinton years.

Our house was a row house with four bedrooms and only one full bathroom upstairs, then a kitchen, dining room, living room, and a tiny little half bath on the first floor. A back deck no one ever used, just like the front porch, and a basement where the laundry machines were. The neighborhood was pretty mixed, some group houses, some old timers, some new young families, some of the houses had been fixed up, others were sagging a bit around the edges. Mt. Pleasant backs up to the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park on the western edge, Columbia Heights to the east, Adams Morgan is to its south, and sort of nothing to the north. Back then, the Green line of the Metro stopped at 14th and U St. and that wasn’t a neighborhood where you really wanted to spend much time (my how things have changed), so we generally walked across the park and caught the Red line from Cleveland Park.

Mt. Pleasant didn’t really have many stores that sold stuff you actually needed. There was a 7-11, where I would go for my Ben & Jerry’s fix during that period of time when I had my pint-a-day habit. It was summer and we didn’t really have air conditioning. It was too hot to cook anything and invariably I’d suggest to one of my housemates that we hit up the 7-11 for something cold. I admit, I was addicted to Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream. You know how when you dig in, there are these chunks of cookie dough, and then when you get down near the bottom, you think, well, I’ll just get that little chunk there. But when you move that one out of the way, a new little chunk would be revealed and eventually there wasn’t really enough to bother putting it back in the freezer so you might as well just polish it off. That was my dinner for a good three weeks straight. It worked out all right though since I rode my bike to work down at the Smithsonian and in that heat I easily burned off all the calories.

Mt. Pleasant wasn’t a great neighborhood but it felt moderately safe, especially when you consider D.C. had the reputation at the time of being the murder capital of the country. It had been the scene of the Cinco de Mayo riots in 1991 (and the anniversary mini-riots in 1992) and we jokingly called it Mt. Unpleasant. It was certainly better than Columbia Heights but if you were sensible you could get off the bus on 16th street and walk home without trouble.

That all changed though on the night of St. Patrick’s Day in 1993. Three of us were home, I was up, the other two were already asleep, and our fourth housemate, who had a car, had double parked to unload stuff and then went back out to try and find a parking spot. Shortly after she left I heard a loud bang and a car screeching off. I looked out the window but couldn’t really see anything. I told myself that screeching car must have backfired. But she didn’t come back, and it shouldn’t take that long to park the car. Then I saw flashing police and ambulance lights. I was too scared to move. One of my other housemates woke up to use the bathroom so I ran up and told her what was going on and convinced her to walk down the street with me to see what was happening.

A small crowd had gathered down the street where police had blocked off an area with crime scene tape. The ambulance had already left and after determining no one had seen anything, the cops tried to get people to leave. The crime scene tape was encircling her car and the sidewalk leading up to a neighbor’s house. Feeling like I was about to faint, I stepped forward and told one of the officers that it was my housemate’s car.

She had been shot in the head by an insane person with a shotgun, driving around our neighborhood looking for people walking alone. As we later learned, there had been previous victims but as they were men of color and those incidents had happened closer to the eastern edge of the neighborhood, they didn’t see any connection. They wanted to know if she did drugs or had an abusive boyfriend. No and no.

She lost an eye but otherwise pulled through amazingly well. Her father came down from NY and we moved my bed down to the dining room of the house where he lived for the next six weeks. I borrowed a foam fold out sofa from a friend and had that in my room. It seemed like the least I could do. Her mother had died only a year or so beforehand and her brother also lived in the area so their dad wanted (and needed) to be there.

A week after our housemate was shot, a white woman was killed by the same shooter about a block away while she was out walking her dog. Only then did they piece it all together and a curfew was imposed on our neighborhood. You had to be inside your house by dark. Things were bleak. I spent a lot of time holed up in my room listening to music. I was outraged about the cops just dismissing the first shootings as symptomatic of the area. I was worried about my housemate, and I hated being cooped up in the house. Headphones on. “Breathe deep, fill up with relief…”

I forget now how long this all lasted. It felt endless while we were living through it. Sometime in the spring she sent her dad back home and told us she wanted to move across town to be nearer to her friends and her brother. The rest of us didn’t really want to be there anymore either, even though the shooter had been caught. While I have fond memories of my years in D.C. and of all the things I did and people I knew, I can’t say I miss that house.

*This video is from a live show in 2006 but this song comes from their 1992 album and I saw them a lot back then and this song kicks ass live.

Burning Down the House

#WhereILivedWednesday: Mrs. Black’s House

This is part of a series of entries about places you once called home, started by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants. Check out the links on her site for more stories!

My mother started a new job in a small Maine town during the summer of 1983. Our house in New York was on the market but not generating much interest and the three of us still left at home needed to join my mother up in Maine by the start of the school year. When the first day of school rolled around, we were still living at a summer place an hour away, in the tiny beach town where we’d spent many summers of our childhood. After two weeks of making that drive with three reluctant passengers at 6am, my mother found someplace closer to school.

Our new temporary home was also a summer house, right down by the water, but in the same town as my mom’s new job and our school. It was owned by an old lady named Mrs. Black who cleared out after Labor Day and was happy to have some extra income by renting it to us. The reason she moved back into town then was because the house wasn’t winterized; a new term for me that I didn’t fully appreciate until later.

At first it was great. September in Maine is still beautiful, with the fall colors starting, and you could still look forward to warm afternoons. The house had a very large open room with a double fireplace smack in the middle. One corner was the dining area, the opposite corner had a big sofa and one of those lobster trap tables common in Maine summer houses. There were two bedrooms back behind the living room area of the open room, and one small bathroom. There was another bedroom tucked in behind the kitchen but it was a little creepy and we preferred to double up in the regular bedrooms.

Even though we were now in the same town as our school, it was about as far away as you could be and still be in the same district. We could have taken a school bus, and in fact my younger sister did start taking the bus home from school after a couple of weeks. But my older sister and I were New York snobs and absolutely refused to do anything so rural as ride a school bus. Besides, there was nothing to do at Mrs. Black’s house. It was lovely but remote. You could go for a walk past the deserted summer community and that was about it. My mother borrowed a black and white tv from a young guy in her office but again, being that far away from a broadcast center, you could get maybe two channels, no cable, no MTV.

September turned to October and the sun set earlier every day. Those crisp fall days everyone loves? Not so fun when your summer cabin has no heat or insulation. That big double fireplace didn’t really work. We tried once but just managed to smoke up the whole room. There actually was some kind of electric heat source, a grate in the floor blew hot air when you flipped a switch on the wall, but after my younger sister nearly set her sweater on fire by placing it on top of the grate to warm up one frosty morning, my mother declared it off limits. The bedroom my older sister and I shared had a little space heater that was basically like leaving the door open on a toaster oven. We were allowed to run it for a few minutes before going to bed to take the chill off the room so you could stand to change into pajamas. Under no circumstances were we allowed to let it run all night for fear of it shorting out and starting a fire. I think my mother was more afraid of us burning down the rental house than of our own personal safety but it was a pretty sketchy heater so we obeyed.

By November it was bad. Really bad. We now had no hot water either. It turns out that one night when it got really cold, the hot water pipe had cracked and every time we turned on the hot water, instead of coming out of the sink or shower head, it was dumped onto the rocks beneath the house and trickled down to the ocean. We wore long underwear, sweatpants, and flannel nightgowns, all at the same time, two pairs of socks, and mittens, when we went to bed. My mother and little sister started sharing a twin bed, for warmth, with the cat sleeping on top of them trying to get in on some of that body heat.

We lived out there until Thanksgiving. Our house in New York still hadn’t sold but we couldn’t stay in the non-winterized house any longer. A person my mother knew at work had built a new house and was having trouble selling his old one, just like we were. He agreed to rent it to us until he had a buyer or we managed to sell ours and finally really move up to Maine.

Hey, it’s my two-year blogiversary! I’ve got a tradition going now of posting Talking Heads songs on this day, this makes the third one. We listened to this album a lot that first year up in Maine, and the last song on the record is my favorite TH song, but that’s the song on my first post so I took this one instead. It seemed to fit better anyway.

She Divines Water

#WhereILivedWednesday: 4005 Pine St.

This post is part of #WhereILivedWednesday, started by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants. It’s my second post in this series and I love it. Go read all the other bloggers posting about their past homes linked on her site.

4005 Pine St. the half on the right.

4005 Pine St. the half on the right.

Summer 1988. My best friend and I decided that rather than each of us go to our respective homes during the break between our junior and senior years of college, we would live in Philadelphia and get jobs. I took the train in from my college in the suburbs and found a sublet just on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus where lots of old row houses were shared by students. I managed to line up a job at the Penn bookstore for the summer and figured my mother couldn’t say no, just look how responsible I had been so far.

Thankfully she didn’t say no, probably because job opportunities at home were slim and didn’t pay well. The bookstore job didn’t pay all that well either but it was a respectable job and would more than cover my rent and expenses so I would still be able to save up money for the fall semester. My friend and I shared a huge room that was big enough to have two double beds in it. A real luxury for people used to cramming themselves into dorm rooms with their weirdly extra-long single beds. I think we paid $200 a month, together, for our room. The first floor had a living room that almost no one ever used, a dining room (the two of us seemed to be the only one ones who ever ate our meals there), and the kitchen.

The second floor had our room, two other bedrooms, and a bathroom. The third floor had a similar layout. I loved all the intricate carved wooden mouldings and details in the old house. Our room had louvered shutters on the windows to keep the midday sun out but let the air pass through. I was thrilled to be in the city with a bunch of other young people, no parents telling us to be in by a certain time. It was my first time not living at home or in a dorm room with your meals provided.

We would bump into our fellow housemates in the kitchen mostly and get to talking, like you do while waiting for your pasta water to boil. Sharing our floor were two other young women, one named Tracey who had a thing for Bryan Ferry, and walked with a crutch. The other woman smoked and pretty much stayed locked in her room except for when she came down to make herself a Lean Cuisine. Her mother had recently become a convert on some diet or other and ate nothing but Lean Cuisine and made sure her daughter was equally well-stocked in frozen foods. From the third floor there was the Penn student who actually lived in the house year-round, and there was William. A tall, lanky, curly-haired Wharton grad, who had graduated in 1987, gone to Wall St. for a job, and got laid off in the great stock market crash later that year. He wasn’t too upset about it because he really didn’t like finance and wanted to be in a band instead.

We loved the freedom of living on our own in the city. We even loved mundane things like grocery shopping. It was great to be able to have the city right outside your door at all hours. Just at the other end of the block was a late night place called Billy Bob’s where you could get a Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak soda at 2:00a.m. if you wanted to, just because how great is it to buy something called Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak soda at 2:00a.m. from a place called Billy Bob’s?! There was a record store just down the street from Billy Bob’s, an all night Kinko’s another block down, everything you could want. Of course, city living had its downsides too, as a homeless man named David more or less took up residence on our front porch for a number of weeks. We decided not to tell our moms about that.

As great as the house was, the jobs we’d lined up sucked. I’d been hired to prepare all the textbooks for the summer session at Penn, and then to rearrange all the books for the fall semester. What they thougt would take me all summer to do, I finished in three weeks. One day, as I was flipping through the free City Paper, I saw an ad for bike messengers wanted. Guaranteed weekly salary of more than I was making at the bookstore plus the possibility of bonuses if you busted your butt. My friend’s job had her walking door-to-door in some really bad neighborhoods. So we both traded jobs. She took a job in an office answering phones and I took the job outside on the streets.

Luckily my outdoor job was perfect for me. The place that needed bike messengers was a reprographics firm with dedicated clients, mostly architects and engineers who needed big rolls of plans copied in the pre-everything-digital days. We would be given a log with a couple of places listed, either pick-ups or drop-offs, and we would stop at pay phones and call in to see if we should make any other stops before bringing back our loads. When we got back, more would be waiting to go out. The plans usually fit perfectly resting on top of my red bike‘s drop handlebars, held in place by the brake cables. Though I considered myself to be pretty familiar with the city already, I developed a real knowledge of its streets, including lots of areas that I hadn’t ever bothered to go to before. I learned which streets were one way and in which direction. I memorized the grid and knew where all the streets with trolley tracks and cobblestones were (both dangerous to a bike). I knew where the bike shops were and which ones would help out a messenger quickly in a pinch.

At the end of the summer we all headed back to our usual places. A friend with a car helped me move almost all my stuff back to my campus but my bike wouldn’t fit. I left it with William, who’d moved down the block once the Penn students returned, promising to pick it up on the weekend. When I came back to get it, on the eve of turning 21, with a summer of independence under my belt, I felt older, more assured. William wondered how I would get my bike home and I told him I’d take it on the train. He wasn’t sure they’d allow it but I was sure. Even if I was wrong, I felt I could talk my way into anything.

This song comes from an album I bought that summer at the record store around the corner. *Everyone knows about divining…

The Main Event

#WhereILivedWednesday: 440 9th Ave.

This post is part of #WhereILivedWednesday, started by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants, and as such is a slight departure from my usual video first format. The song is below and you’d better press play, it’s so worth it.

In the summer of 1979, my parents sent my older sister and me to stay with my Aunt Linda for a few weeks. They had arranged for us to go to a day camp at a private girls’ school in her town, where I could do gymnastics and my sister, tennis, in addition to your usual camp activities like batik, pottery, swimming, and the like. I wasn’t quite 12 years old yet so I didn’t realize that they were actually trying to get us out of the way while their marriage was falling apart.

We loved Aunt Linda. She was my father’s only sibling and we didn’t see her that often since she lived three hours upstate from our house. My dad was pretty stressed out and yelled a lot but my aunt Linda never yelled, she mostly laughed. She was so much fun and staying with her was going to rule. We had our own room in the old tower part of the house that even had its own sink.

Of course, all the bedrooms had their own sink since it was a convent. I don’t know about you but every convent I’ve been in has sinks in the bedrooms, and as I had another aunt who used to be a nun, plus my Aunt Linda, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in convents. The convent was an old house on a dead-end one-way street (I swear I’m not making that up) that had had renovations (for all the sinks!) and additions built onto it over the years. We had to go up these almost circular stairs, past a larger than life-sized Infant Jesus of Prague statue to get to our room but it was cool because it was kind of our own little hangout.

The Sisters also ran a day camp for younger kids, right there on the grounds of the convent. When we got home from our day camp, we were allowed to hang out with the campers who hadn’t been picked up yet, swim in the pool, play ball or jump rope on the black top. The other nuns were just as good at arts and crafts as my Aunt Linda so we got to make whatever things they had done that day, or learn fun camp songs (they weren’t even religious!). There was also another building with a teen rec room that had a juke box and a foosball table and even a soda machine! This was living!

The secret to all of the fun wasn’t just the amenities, however. These women were a riot. If no one had told you that they were all nuns, you would never have guessed it. Well, except for Sister Josephine who was kind of old and crotchety and still wore a habit (the only one who did), even indoors when she would shush us all because she couldn’t hear the Merv Griffin show despite the tv volume being turned all the way up. My sister and I didn’t have to go into their prayer session in the evening after dinner, we were free to hit the rec room or watch something besides Merv on tv. It was a pretty sweet set up.

They had a PA system at the camp so they could announce when it was time for the groups to switch to a new activity or come into the main camp building for lunch. One time at the end of the day, when we were already back from our camp, my Aunt Linda was getting ready to make an announcement only she didn’t realize the PA was already on. It must have been a long day and they were a little punchy. The big movie that had just been released that summer was The Main Event, starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and the theme song was getting a lot of airplay on the radio. My Aunt Linda grabbed the mike and did her best Barbra Streisand imitation of that song, getting all the way through the slow-burn intro before someone had managed to clue her in that she was belting out a mildly racy disco hit to the whole camp.
Press play, you won’t regret it.

That was one of the last times we stayed up at the camp/convent with my Aunt Linda. My dad moved out at the end of the summer and Aunt Linda and some of the other nuns moved to the midwest about a year later. But my sister and I have our memories of that great summer of ’79 at 440 9th Ave.