I remember the day I stopped reading Cosmopolitan. The article was called “When You Don’t Get Along With His Pets”. I could see how eventually there would be such an article in Cosmo, but I wondered how the people involved who orchestrated the accompanying picture got through it without either quitting on the spot, or dying from laughter. The photo showed a park bench. On the left side sat the angry sexy Girlfriend, legs and arms defiantly crossed, red dress, red lips, sick red heels, even sicker cleavage, looking off into the distance. In the middle sat the “Arrrgh! What do I dooooo?” Boyfriend, his head in his hands, heart splitting two ways, hair delightfully Dylan McKay crunchy. On the far right, a Great Dane sat on the corner of the bench, looking out on the (photographer’s assistant holding a treat) horizon dramatically thinking: “It’s me or her… Dear God… Please pick me, Oh Captain, My Captain… Pick ME!” Leave it to Cosmopolitan to inject some high-octane sexual tension into a picture of a dog and a lady having an argument over a guy. How stupid did they think we all were? I got through half of the article before declaring out loud to the magazine that I had given Cosmo many chances, but this was it: “When I was nine, you provided me with some good laughs at the word ‘vagina’ in your advice columns. When I was 20, you provided me with some ‘mind blowing’ techniques from your endless Mind Blowing Well. I’m even going to miss how often you use the phrase ‘Mind Blowing’ on your covers. Now that I’m 26, it’s time to part ways. I haven’t outgrown you Us Weekly, but I’ve outgrown YOU, Cosmopolitan Magazine. I plan to use the money that I’d be spending on you, toward getting a real phone in my studio apartment. I will, however, continue to keep blowing minds in that apartment with everything I’ve learned from you. That’s a mind blowing promise.”
The main promise to myself though, was getting a telephone. Between rent, utilities and foodstuffs, I was freshly-ish divorced and still hustling for cash working part time at The Gap and exotic dancing a few nights a week. A few months into this routine, I picked up an extra club and got more dancing shifts. I eventually phased out all of my Greetingwhoring at The Gap altogether. The money was better, but I still couldn’t afford a landline due to an astronomical phone bill balance left to me by my ex-husband. I needed a way out of having to call my clubs every day (up to five times) from the payphone three blocks away to see if they needed me when I was on call or to find out if I could pick up a double. This was especially frustrating during Portland’s monsoon season when my umbrella would get me more wet inside the phone booth than if I just stood out in the open. My scheduler suggested a simple pager; I could get a very affordable one that would allow people to leave messages as well as the standard call-the-number-displayed feature. After a trip to Radio Shack, I had a pager!
The pager was compact and Royal Blue. The weight felt good in my purse and its ring (set to a sharp ‘chirp!’ alert) made me feel like James Bond. I at least felt ‘official’. I made sure it was easy to grab, so when it would ring in public, I would snap it out of my bag with the adroitness of a close-up magician. “Sorry, I have to check this”, I would say, sometimes even to strangers or when I was alone. The pager and I worked as an efficient team; I only spent quarters knowing that I had a reason to call and my work was able to keep me in the loop. My club people felt confident giving me shifts because I always called back right away and always showed up early and prepared. I would call back within five minutes and cheerily say: “I hear Felony’s got strep. I can be there in twenty!” One of the clubs would call me more often simply because I wasn’t drunk and I didn’t play what they called ‘weird music’. (Weird in this case being that one of the ‘girls’ – who was about fifty years old – would play, I’m not even kidding, Calypso by John Denver.) I was definitely a Golden Girl Scout of stripping. If you looked in my apartment, you’d see that a gal with an honest and strong work ethic and a love of Michael Shayne mystery novels lived there. There was nothing illicit and nothing that would suggest that I was irresponsible. Or would suggest that maybe I was a powerful college drug dealer.
A pager made me feel responsible, but to the apartment that looked directly out at the phone booth, it made me look suspicious. In the beginning of the pager days, I would run down to the phone every time the pager chirped. In addition to getting work messages, I also had a very active social life, so I got quite a lot of calls especially on weekends. I always had quarters, so there were days I would go to the phone upwards of eight times. Sometimes I would let the messages build and just respond to the direct number calls to save some quarters and trips (and also stay dry), but every time I went to the booth, I felt an eye on me from the apartment inhabited by an elderly couple a few feet away. On one particular day, it really dawned on me that maybe these people thought I was a drug dealer. Now, if they were strictly in ‘judging book by its cover’ mode, then I guess I couldn’t blame them. When I got back to my apartment, I looked at myself. Wow. Where do I begin?
Upon hearing the chirp first thing on some mornings, that would get me up right away and I’d throw on laundry day clothes or just something to cover my eyes and head. I lived in a college neighborhood on the edge of downtown, so at least if I wore sunglasses, then I wouldn’t have to look any college students in the eyes. On this day, I wore what I had been sleeping in, cocooned in a grandpa sweater with holes. I threw on cowboy boots, a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses. I was your Uncle Larry with Alzheimer’s who thinks he’s Holly Golightly at the rodeo. The sweater wasn’t fooling anyone – that thing was basically a polycotton dirge. It was time to have a kind of… I don’t know… ‘phone booth makeover’?
If I was mindful enough to carefully apply lipstick before going to the Plaid Pantry for my smokes, Apple Jacks and magazines then why couldn’t I do the same to make my calls? It was because for a while, I truly believed that if I didn’t interact directly with anyone then they didn’t see me. The polished lady with the slick ponytail and winning smile who went to Plaid Pantry was a goddamn supermodel compared to the freak show on the corner who answered her pages – and I was both. I started pulling clothes just for early morning paging emergencies. These looks were put together, but not too put together. It was a college ‘hood after all, so I added a prop to bring with me to the phone booth: a thick smart looking book. If I was going to be perceived as the Pablo Escobar of 13th & Clay, then I was going to be well read. The thickest hardcover I had that was manageable while writing down my schedule was a thrift store copy of Peyton Place. I took the cover off so it could easily be a book about math theories, science or Jesus Deeds if ever asked by the elderly apartment dwellers. All of my other books were either little vintage pulp novels or gigantic coffee table books about movie stars. I would buy someone who just happened to have a book with them when they got paged… you know, because they were reading it, but I wouldn’t buy someone casually lugging around a colossal ten pound beast of Grace Kelly wedding photos. That’s unnatural. Even for me.
About six months passed and I finally got a landline. This was at the height of my ‘party supply store’ decorating aesthetic, so I bought a beige thrift store telephone and painted it gold so it would pop against the red Mylar South Pacific talent show cruise curtains. It was a huge relief to finally have a phone – mostly for my parents who were in Sydney and couldn’t understand how I lived. Every time I would call them from the booth, they would ask me why I didn’t have a phone and it would lead to an argument about money. I was honest though; they knew what I did for a living (the hardest conversation I’ve ever had to date) and in what financial state my ex-husband had left me in, but I wasn’t going to ask them for cash again. I had before, but it was time to dig myself out. Having a landline gave them some peace – or as much peace as they could allow themselves, given that I had put them through hell in my twenties. At least they could call me and I could call them. On the Goldfinger phone, we started some repairs on our relationship.
I loved how when my phone rang, I didn’t feel the desperate race against the clock to run to the corner to return calls. I could answer or not answer. The times I answered, I stretched out like Ann Margaret in Bye Bye Birdie, gabbing and feeling a teeny bit of success as I thought about my diminishing debt, and that I was taking care of it on my own.
And then there were the days when the phone would call and rain would fall. Cozy indoor, dry and with no umbrella to struggle with, I’d put John Denver on the record player, dip into a bag of weed and just let freedom ring.