January, 1982. Five months after I turned 18, my folks moved away from our San Francisco-bay-area town to a one-stoplight-Podunk, east of Sacramento. I decided not to accompany them. Instead, I’d find a full time job, a share-rental, a way to stay where my friends were … because my friends, the streets, the creek, the orchards were home and I couldn’t take them with me. But Photomat wages didn’t go far in “The Bay.” Nor did my let’s-live-together-enthusiasm go far with my boyfriend who, turned out, preferred the long-distance thing. A girlfriend without the maintenance and unobtrusive (which is to say, not around) during his cocaine-fueled house parties. So, to the Podunk, I eventually drove my ’68 V.W. Beetle and the red suitcase I’d intended to live out of.
The new environ was flat, dry, and cow-pied, featuring sidewalks that curled up by 6 pm — the antithesis of cradling, thickly-treed, interconnected valleys I’d grown up in. The people under my roof were familiar enough, but family genes had mutated in me, and I’d always felt more foreign than native. Transplanted, my differences stood out all the more. As did the fact that the new burg wasn’t home. Not remotely.
Groundless, friendless and jobless, I scoured the local paper’s employment section to no avail. No avail except for a ski resort near Tahoe that was looking for kitchen help and offered “affordable housing.” And since I didn’t know where home was anymore, I figured “housing” might be indicative. So what if I’d never skied. I’d be off the flatland, nestled in valleys again. Higher ones, flanked by peaks and rivers and pines and everything John Denver sang about when I was ten, watching the sun glint on the creek behind my house.
The Greyhound bus dropped me off at a snowy embankment along Highway 89. Squaw Valley was another mile in … so, red suitcase in hand, I began walking, my newish red-laced hiking boots crunching their way through the day-old snow. Arriving in the somewhat run-down hotel’s lobby, I announced that I was “here for the job.”
“What job?” the front desk guy asked.
“The one in the paper.”
Turned out, the kitchen job had been filled but the head of Housekeeping was willing to interview me. I’d been cleaning house since I was in grade school, I told her. Besides, I was, as I’d announced at the front desk, here and had no way to get back home that night. She took pity on me, the housekeeping lady did, or saw someone desperate enough to spend nine-hours-a-day doing back-breaking work for peanuts. By nightfall, I was paired up with a couple of veteran bed makers who showed me how to make hospital corners and would soon introduce me to a six-chambered bong. That evening, I was also shown to my “housing” — a cut-into, scribbled-on box on the top floor of a two-story bunkerish building. A shared bathroom with too few stalls sat midway down the main hall. The women, I was told, had the second floor. The men, the first floor. The separation, I’d soon find moot, as pink and blue blended, nightly, into an Everclear-fueled wash of purple. (Everclear: 190 proof grain alcohol, 95% ethanol, scored at the Nevada border … I’m not kidding.) The place was what I figured a college dorm might be like — if the school was “of hard knocks.” The student body featured an array of hippiesh-burnouts, bikers, divorcees, people on the run from other people … and people like me, in limbo, not knowing quite where they belonged. Despite this, or because of it, my first night there, I felt embraced — by the mountains, the trees, the blanket of snow outside my window, the murmurs of my new neighbors — potential friends, who’d gathered a few doors down. I opened my window to the night, tuned my Sony Walkman to a station that pulsed across the Great Basin — all the way from an exotic place called Idaho. I listened to the radiator creak and slept like a baby. In the morning, I woke to the holy silence that accompanies a coat of new fallen snow. Basking in waves of cold and warm air, courtesy of the radiator and the open window, I resolved that this would become my new home, evidenced by my finally-unpacked red suitcase. Beyond my door, the new landscape would become familiar. So would the people there. Maybe as familiar as the ones I’d had to leave.
By evening two in my new abode, my first new friend presented himself at my door. A guy in granny-glasses, late- twenties, bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Lennon, leaned with one arm on the door frame. Hey, he said, or something similarly monosyllabic. Hey, I returned, with feigned nonchalance. He introduced himself. We exchanged a few moment’s pleasantries. Then he offered me a quarter gram of crank for the assuredly low price of fifteen bucks. I’d never used crank before, but had heard it was like drinking lots of coffee. Fifteen, he repeated, and I handed it over – because I was codependent like that and didn’t want him to go away unhappy. My new friend left abruptly, money in hand, and I spent the next three days speeding through my assigned hotel floor, rustling beds into ship shape, scrubbing vomited-in toilets to a pristine glow, sliding fresh towels into their chrome shelves, and trying to vacuum a la an odd little sweeper with rotating brushes and no actual suction. At break time, I’d steel off into the supply closet for a snort, then emerge to seize the next bed, the next toilet, the next grimy bathtub. By day four or five (whichever was my first day off) I crashed. Slept for 16 hours straight. Woke disoriented and done with the crank thing. Coffee seemed the much better deal. Cheaper and, even given cafeteria-served Folgers, a little flavor.
I didn’t see the faux John Lennon again. I think he got kicked out of the place soon after I arrived. Probably for selling crank to clueless, barely-18 year old girls. No matter. I’d made other friends by then. The guy with the bong, for one, who was actually quite kind and, for reasons I didn’t ask about, had lost some of his hair. I tried his bong (and its contents) once and was granted an epic, Sensimilla-induced panic attack. So epic, I called my mom from the pay phone and asked her to talk me down. My mom and her annoyed but steady voice. My mom, at home that wasn’t home.
My accumulating new friends included a biker with “Fuck the World” tattooed onto his bicep and another guy we called “the grinnin’ linen man,” who was big, slow, a little off — and, in keeping with his name, stocked linens in the supply closets. The biker said the linen man had a crush on me and I’d better be careful because, though he was slow, he had a quick temper. The advice didn’t stop me from going with the linen man on an Everclear run one night. Feeling a little unsettled halfway to the Nevada border, I got him to sing “Take It To the Limit” with me on the drive … which, thinking back, was apropos. By luck or maybe because the rumor wasn’t true, we got our booze and returned without incident … unless you call drunk driving on a winding mountain highway incidental.
With the exception of one girl who dressed like a goth-gypsy and coveted my Stevie Nicks poster, the females weren’t as nice as the males, which seemed often the case back then. So, in addition to the gypsy, I befriended only two older women, a 50-ish divorcee who was probably an alcoholic, and another woman with graying hair — who was quiet, had an accent, and went to bed early. All in all, there was plenty to like about the place, at least for an 18-year-old looking for home. The snow was so high that the downstairs room’s windows opened into a snowbank, which most of the guys dug out, creating highly-functional beer coolers. As for my alcohol, I hung it in a bucket outside my upstairs window, along with my milk and yogurt. We may not have been in real college, but ingenuity wasn’t lost on us. We worked hard. We played hard. We ate heavily-carbed food from the buffet. We bore witness to the drama that accompanies Everclear and those who drink it.
One of the older women acted a lot like the house mother — part nurturer, part confidante, part scolder. True, she initiated a night of pantsing — the girls being the pantsers, the boys the pantsees — but I chalked it up to the powers of 190-proof ethanol liquor that, literally, could have fueled a combine. Yep, we were one big, happy family — an extended Brady Bunch. The off-camera Brady Bunch, where Greg slept with Mrs. Brady and Marsha. Okay, maybe our version included Bobby sleeping with Alice. As I said, ethanol liquor does things to people. Either way, I set my sights on the elusive kitchen job. I’d work my way out of housekeeping, maybe ascend to the realm of prep cook, and, finally, wind up typing in the front office. Home and work, all in one package. It was possible, wasn’t it? If, in the meantime, I’d be called upon to strip a guy to his underwear, that was do-able. And violence? A little of that was negotiable, too.
Case in point: a skinny blonde girl moved into the dorms a couple of weeks after I did. In short time, her leather-clad boyfriend came ‘a lookin’ for her … to the tune of kicking down a dorm room door (or two) with his boot. For reasons I don’t recall, I was the only one upstairs the afternoon he arrived. “Where the hell is she?” He yelled, pacing the hall. As politely as possible, I said I didn’t know, bolted downstairs (the way one bolts when one pretends they are easing casually away), and ran to the cafeteria. I heard they made up that night, the door-kicker and the blonde, and by morning both were gone. I also heard he’d been packing a handgun and had shot a hole in something. A car? The side of the dorm building? A squirrel? Everclear punch makes that sort of thing barely shrug-worthy. And, after all, there’s no place like the place that’s replacing home.
Hedonism didn’t limit itself to the “help’s” dorms. We worked at a hotel, after all. Sometimes, in the throes of passion, my “Maid Service!” knock went unheard … and I saw things. Usually butts and a flurry of sheets. Once, my key got stuck in a rollicking couple’s lock (not talking metaphor here). “I’m sorry,” I repeated through the open-then-closed-then-open-again door, as I pushed and pulled on the key. “I’m so sorry …”
Sometimes I felt less like part of the off-camera Brady Bunch and more like Dorothy plopped down into a foreign, surreal land. But I wasn’t sure who I’d call the Tin Man, The Lion, or the Scarecrow. Most everyone there had heart, courage, and brains to spare … only we didn’t recognize them and, thusly, misdirected them a tad. Still, lost as most of us were, there was an underlying kindness and good humor among us — the kind that’s shared by the uncertain. The kind that was missing from the bulk of folks we cooked and cleaned for, at least to our collective outsider eye.
When you work at a ski resort, you’re not dealing with workaday travelers or weary business people. You’re dealing, more often, with yuppies and their entitled offspring. “Ski bunnies,” we called them when we gathered at mealtime, suspecting they called us worse. Mostly, encounters with the guests weren’t unpleasant (unless they failed to heed my “Maid Service” call). Knowing our places in the social hierarchy, we gave each other a wide berth. As such, I beheld the ski bunnies’ Monty-Pythonesque fangs only once. I was doing what we called a “changeover.” (In housekeeping language, that meant that the guest wasn’t leaving, so I was to simply make the bed, refresh soiled linens, and generally tidy up.) Sometimes, while the maid is doing this, the guests remain in the room. In this case, two girls, looked to be about my age, clad in mock turtlenecks and fleece hair bands, remained. They reclined on the bed I’d just made, watched T.V., ate sunflower seeds, whispered, and giggled the way only the mock-turtlenecked can. I had the vague feeling that the T.V. show wasn’t the source of their glee, but I kept to the task at hand. This was my job. Good or bad, this was what was keeping me in the closest thing to home I had. Plus, despite a decent-sized chip on my shoulder, I tended, even then, to give folks the benefit of doubt. Only upon blatant mean-spirtitedness did I became inclined also to give folks the benefit of my face all up in theirs, as it were.
“Nice shirt,” the brunette said.
I was big on concert-T’s back then, and was wearing my favorite from Heart’s ’79 Tour.
“Thanks,” I replied.
The girls: Giggle. Chortle. Giggle.
Into my gut slid that eck feeling, the one you get when you realize what you believed was a compliment wasn’t that at all.
The girls: Whisper. Snicker. Giggle.
My face felt hot. They’re guests, Terri. As I began packing away my vacuum that wasn’t a vacuum, one of the girls spat a wet sunflower shell onto the floor. Adrenaline shot through my limbs. This is your job, Terri. My teeth clenched all the way to the back of my neck. This is your job. Then two more shells landed about a foot away. They’re not worth it, Terri. Then the shell that broke the camel’s back arrived near the tip of my foot. I spun on my hiking boot.
“You wanna’ step outside right now, bitch?” said I, in a chip-on-shoulder-meets-good-excuse way.
A snort issued from the brunette.
“Or would you rather meet me in the parking lot when I get off work?”
A pause hung in the air then … “Nice shirt,” the other girl repeated, still on the bed.
We exchanged a few more words — mine included “fucking” and “kick” and “your” and “ass.” We arranged to meet in the parking lot when I got off work, if you can call “Meet me in the parking lot and I’ll kick your fucking ass!” an arrangement. I made good on my words — the “meet me” part. The girls didn’t. No doubt, they had better things to do, like night-skiing the nearby slopes or sipping hot cocoa in the lodge, moon boots crossed before a crackling fire, toned college boys massaging their shoulders. By the next morning, they’d checked out, along with the parents who kept them in mock turtlenecks.
Aside: I wonder, writing this now, if karma has bit them in their preppy asses, perhaps via a sunflower shell (or two) festering in their small intestines. But then I sigh and forgive. We were, after all, kids. Perhaps, after both girls entered recovery in their late 30s, waylaid by Vicodin addictions (what with all the strain skiing puts on one’s knees), they listed “the maid at the ski resort” on their 8th step inventories and, given the chance, would issue the proper amends. Yes, I know, I’d also have to make amends for aforementioned word choices. That’s fine. Namaste’ and all that. Seriously.
A potential parking-lot fight wasn’t worth packing my red suitcase anymore than the faux John Lennon’s crank was. Anymore than the girlfriend-hunting-gun-packer was. Anymore than crappy wages and long hours were. So I continued to nest. When we weren’t in our rooms, my new-family-o-friends and I gathered in the downstairs lobby, the equivalent of our living room, where a genie-bottle-shaped fireplace perched on a brick hearth. There, we’d play music, tell stories, and rub each other’s feet. Foot-rubbing seemed to come with the whole nature-loving, hippie-ish scene. I’d seen it done in Boulder, Colorado a few years before. Long-haired men and women sat on the sidewalk there, where they laid aside dulcimers in favor of strumming nearby feet. I figured the ritual was a hybrid of Christian foot washing, something to signify peace or service. But here, in our dorm that wasn’t really a dorm, it also hinted at if-I-can-make-your-foot-feel-this-good-imagine-what-I-can-do-to-other-parts-of-your-body.
Sufficiently rubbed down, we’d sometimes go out for walks under the clear starry sky. One night, we made our way to a natural hot spring. (I say “made our way” because, like many nights between January of 1982 and March of 1982, I don’t remember the ride.) Here’s what I do remember: By the moonlight, we squeezed ourselves between two strings of barbed wire that we took turns holding agape for each other. We then set out across a high, snowy meadow that was also a cow pasture and, somewhere in the middle of it, a chest-deep, clear-watered hole punctured the snow. It was the size of a large Jacuzzi. A steaming-hot stream fed into the pool and was capped off by a board that we lifted when we wanted more heat. That night, Jupiter was aligned in such a way that a radio-psychic had proclaimed the world’s end. We lounged in the spring discussing the pros and cons of armageddon. (The number of “pros” mounted in accord with Everclear consumption.) We emerged unscathed, however –from the hot-spring and the night. Unscathed with the exception of a very non-cosmic case of pneumonia I acquired in the wake — likely spurred by flopping out of the hot water and rolling in the snow, repeatedly.
There’s nothing like Pneumonia to show you whether or not you’re really home. When my biker pal accompanied me to the doctor, brought me broth from the cafeteria, and whacked my back to help me get the phlegm out, I decided that, indeed, my suitcase would remain unpacked. When he also suggested a shot of the omnipresent 190-proof, I began to reconsider. Pneumonia puts a damper on housekeeping. And inability to do one’s job for a week puts a damper on paying room and board, and suffice to say the hotel offered no sick pay. It didn’t even offer a ski pass for its own slope.
There was also this:
What the hell was I doing, anyway? Was this my life now? Cleaning toilets for wealthy ski bunnies? Suffering spat sunfower shells? Bracing myself for another angry, door-kicking dude a’ lookin’ for his girlfriend? Drinking engine fuel with pantsing-divorcees and rubbing whatever foot was presented to me? Yes, in fact, this was my life. One I knew had to end, hopefully without the aid of Jupiter. Trouble was, I didn’t know where to go. I still didn’t know where “home” was or if it existed anymore. It had long ago ceased to be my parents’ house, which, six years later, I’d draw in art therapy — with a huge jug of Dad’s bourbon or Mom’s wine raining down onto it. It could no longer be my neighborhood, the streets, the creek, the mustard fields, the road to the Photomat where I’d worked — not without someone rousting me with a broom handle or a polite, “It’s time to move along dear.”
My life was a Talking Heads song. As much trouble as there was in staying, going offered no less of it. Just a different brand.
,Finally, amoxicillin in hand, I said goodbye to my new friends and the place I’d hoped to nestle in for the long haul. Our time together had been short. Part of it had been– if not sweet, recklessly fun, but I knew it all amounted to going nowhere fast. I wished I could click my red suitcase together three times and wind up in a sepia-toned room, where Auntie Em would tenderly nurse me back to health. Where old pals would stop by my window just to check in on me. Instead, I left the way I’d come: alone via Greyhound.
I remember the bus ride back to the podunk town more than the one away from it, the way my heart sank as the glaring white landscape I’d grown used to dissolved into red dirt halfway down Highway 80. When my mom and sister arrived at the bus stop, they found me clad in a gauzy skirt I’d found at a thrift store in King’s Beach and my now-worn hiking boots. My arm was looped in a wreath of dried roses and baby’s breath and I was coatless. At the sight of me, my sister wept, not in relief that I was back, but in “who the hell is this even-more hippie-fied version of my sister?” She needn’t have worried. The pendulum one clings to when one has lost center would soon swing the other way. Within the span of seven months I’d find myself in pantyhose and hand-me-down suits at the business college in Sacramento, still uncertain where home was. Still trying to find the fastest route back to where it might be. Still looking for it in places I didn’t belong. Not realizing that “home” was something I carried within me — a notion my therapist would underscore thirty years later. Thirty years later when I’d long known the truth of it … but still had not managed to arrive … safe, warm, befriended in that place I carried.