The La Reunion years. It’s hard to know where to start with that organizational adventure. It was simultaneously one of the most serendipitous and yet alarmingly challenging projects I ever worked on. Within a month or two of my friend “C” asking me to start a artist residency with her, we concocted the name La Reunion. We felt that it encapsulated an international feel with a nod to all things Dallas and “Reunion” - Reunion Tower, Reunion Arena and so on. But we had no idea when we named it La Reunion that there was actually a colony of artists and musicians that had settled in Dallas in the mid-1800s that called themselves “La Reunion”! The Swiss, Dutch and French settlers brought the first piano, brewery, botanist and more to North Texas after a difficult passage from Europe. They failed miserably as a Utopian colony because they weren’t prepared for the difficult soil and harsh weather conditions, however they left a vibrant and artistic legacy in North Texas.
With serendipity as our guide, we somehow secured a 35 acre tract of land through an odd set of phone calls one day. The owners of the land loved our idea of an artist residency and invited us to explore establishing the La Reunion vision on their property in West Dallas (very near where the original colony settled!) As an organization with a proper Board of Directors, we went on to develop all sorts of programs on that land while we worked diligently behind the scenes on all the nonprofit infrastructure. We filled out the 45 page form 1023 nonprofit application with the IRS. We started working with artists almost immediately on environmental land art out on the site. We hosted community clean up days. As time wore on we executed an impressive architecture competition called Make Space for Art that yielded 69 entries from 19 countries around the world for what we envisioned: a totally green, almost off grid compound of live-work spaces for artists.
So many top-name collaborations too: Girl Scouts, Student Conservation Association, The Nasher Sculpture, The DMA, the local public media company where I would someday work. Art Con’s second event even filled the La Reunion coffers so we could have enough steam to launch everything. (Subsequent years the Art Con money went to other orgs. La Reunion got the money that year because I was essentially running both organizations. I'd go on to form and chair the board for Art Con, officially leaving after year six.)
During the La Reunion years I also hustled on the side like mad. I put on huge art shows in abandoned warehouses. I launched Pecha Kucha Night in Dallas with my friend Brian, which we ran together for several years together. I took on several paid curatorial events for small organizations that needed someone to “make the art part happen” for their event. Sometimes I even showed my own photography work.
I also somehow landed a top secret and super strange gig working as a personal assistant for an ungodly wealthy couple. Both were attorneys and they lived in one of those fancy Turtle Creek area high rises. I ran standard weekly errands for them but also executed several large projects. One time it was a complete overhaul of their entertainment technology - TV, speakers, wiring, cable, all that! (Not my strong suit, but I did it.) Sometimes I’d manage their private dinner parties and take coats from their guests and collaborate with the kitchen staff on meal service. And they had the most interesting guests for their dinner parties! I did all sorts of crazy things for this childless couple and they couldn’t have been nicer. I loved being a part of their lives, even though we only communicated through handwritten notes in the kitchen and I only saw them in real life like 8-9 times over the several years I worked for them. They were incredibly generous and probably have no idea how much that side money helped my family and me.
The La Reunion / hustle years were wonderful and challenging. Again, extremely lean times and the whole time we were also committed to homeschooling the children. Mostly Paul at this point though. At some point the challenges with La Reunion were too great for me to handle as Executive Director. There were land survey issues with the property that made it obvious I needed to step aside and let someone else run it. So I took a deep breath and after about 4 years of devoting my blood, sweat and actual tears to this project, I groomed someone else to take the reins.
I was moving on. To do what, I had no idea. I applied for a job with the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, thinking this would be a good “next thing” for me but alas, I didn’t get the job because the other candidate had a Master’s degree and I didn’t. In German. A specialty not even remotely related to the position. Huh. All I would have needed was a piece of paper? I decided on the spot to look into getting a Masters degree.
But they’re tricky, you know? Masters degrees. So many programs to choose from, each with varying entry requirements, like the GRE. In the end, I settled on a program at SMU where I got to essentially create my own degree. It only mattered that I had a Bachelor’s Degree. No testing. Just a written entrance essay and a few other moving parts, but it wasn’t bad. Because if it didn’t even matter what the degree was in, like the recent job interview experience had taught me, then why not study exactly what I wanted to? And I would figure it out as I went along? The year was 2010.
Disclaimer: I may have a few things out of order in this entry. These years are very blurry to me. The kids were little and well, anyway. I did my best.
All the while I was working at the Birth Center, I was also cultivating my photography and darkroom skills. I was a film-only photographer back in those days and did all my own printing. I was very experienced at this point in what I would call “event photography” what, with the college year book photography job and now having photographed so many childbirths. And I also was getting a bit more artsy-fartsy with my personal work. And I even began to venture into portrait and wedding work here and there.
After I left the Birth Center, Paul went back to work so I could be home. We were committed to homeschooling our children and I would be their teacher. And thus, homeschooling and caring for our children became my main focus with photography and art stuff as periphery. The children and I had a lovely daily-weekly rhythm and both of the children thrived during this time. Also it turned out that I was a great teacher for my own small children. I ran a tight ship and always made sure that they not only completed formal studies in math, reading, handwriting, science and more but also learned how to cook, how to clean, how to use public transit, how to use the library and other human skills of that nature. We also played at the park a lot. No screens on smartphones (they didn’t exist yet), no TV, no computer, nada. I don’t know how parents do it now with all those distractions.
These were very lean years financially and when I look back, I’m not sure how we made it but as mentioned I had started printing black and white artwork in earnest and putting myself out there to take photographs for people. Slowly but surely I garnered a steady stream of photo clients during those years and many would go on to be repeat clients year after year.
At some point I got an idea to take some artsy behind-the-scenes pictures at the independent art house theater and hang them in the bar lobby as a sort of meta-art exhibit. I approached the theater manager and he liked the idea and with that, I installed a gorgeous photo exhibit of my own black and white prints. This was when the movie business was still completely film and to document the film-platter infrastructure was a very unique experience. I sold almost the whole show and had several artist friends ask if I could also produce a show for them. It was then that I realized that I had a knack for being bold and making something happen with artsy things.
And so I started to produce shows for my artist friends. They loved it because their work had more eyes on it than in a traditional gallery and I loved it because I made a small commission on these works. Pretty soon, I met an art scene acquaintance named “D” who could see that I had a gift for selecting and showing artists and he asked if I wanted to go in on a space with him in the Expo Park area.
I remember the request clearly. We were in New Amsterdam Coffee House (now known as 8 Bells Tavern). He asked if I wanted to open a gallery in a space he was looking at renting. He couldn’t quite afford the whole rent and so the offer was for me to sublet the front of the space for $200 per month while he lived in the back. It was a stretch financially at the time but after sleeping on the offer, I decided to go for it. And thus, my beloved IR Gallery was born. (The “IR” stood for Integration Research and I’ll just let the name rest here as it is. A much larger narrative is behind the name but I don’t feel called to get into the details about it at this time.)
I showed my own photography work at the gallery’s grand opening and then moved on to other artists I’d recruit through studio visits and referrals. The website is now defunct, which is a shame because the artists (and musicians!) I showcased there were incredible. Fortunately I saved a hard copy scrap book of all the invitations and articles written about that space. (I can show you if you’re ever curious!) Seriously, I was able to lure a who’s who of whoville to show their amazing work in my space.
Soon enough, I was running the movie theater gallery and then also my actual gallery-gallery. It was around this time that I met a gal named “N” who was doing something similar with alternative art spaces. She had a small roster of venues that included a hair salon and a catering company. We smartly joined forces and combined our efforts and created this amazing thing called “Pigeon-Stone Project” thusly named for the slang term for public art sometimes being called “pigeon stones.”
PSP was wildly successful and we transacted several thousand dollars in art, all sold in small businesses using underutilized wall space. We garnered tons of press and again, fortunately I have all the press clippings from this time period. The artists loved it because we treated our artists as real artists. We hosted receptions, sold their work, invited people to attend and so on. The businesses loved us because we brought fresh people into their establishments. And we could accommodate almost any type of work because at our peak we had like 13 venues and were working with dozens of artists. To give you a sense, we had a church, a tattoo parlor, the movie theater, a loft building lobby, a couple of restaurants, a hair salon and more. The other neat thing is that “N” and I trained others interested in curating and producing shows to take over some of the venues and learn how to do what we were doing.
The year was now 2005. Hurricane Katrina had just happened in August and several of us were feeling very helpless. We wanted to do something and make a difference. Our city had been flooded after all with Louisiana residents evacuating. My friend Jason asked me if I knew about ten artists that we could get together for an art show. I responded, “Ten? How about a hundred! You’re thinking too small, man!”
With that, Art Conspiracy was born, completely by accident but inspired by the idea of helping others. Jason worked on securing the bands while I worked on recruiting the artists. And of course I knew a ton of artists because I ran an art gallery and this Pigeon-Stone Project operation. Word of mouth spread and we cobbled together a group of friends and found the perfect space: the Texas Theater. It’d been locked up for decades prior and a group of neighborhood folks had slowly been working to restore the bones of the building. Our event Art Conspiracy would be the first time the doors opened in years.
And the name. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Not only were the artists and musicians of Dallas conspiring to do something good, we were using the famed location of where Lee Harvey Oswald was watching the movie War is Hell after he allegedly shot JFK.
Oak Cliff was dry at the time so I recall personally driving to TABC and asking how we could have booze at our event. It would have to be a BYOB event and so to make money on it somehow we invented something we called a “beer check.” Similar to a coat check, but with coolers and alcohol. Looking back it was utter insanity.
The artists were invited to come onsite to the Texas Theater to create work the day before our big fundraising event. Having worked with so many artists, I know what a touchy subject it is to always be asked to donate, donate, donate artwork. So we flipped the script and said “look, bring your art supplies and we’ll give you a piece of plywood. You only have a couple of hours to make your piece and then get out of here.” We asked for TIME instead of expensive unsold inventory. The theme was just “art conspiracy” and the artists could interpret that theme at will.
The result was much more amazing than any of us could imagine. 100 gorgeous pieces of art were auctioned live the next night while five bands played over the course of the evening. The fire marshal came because the theater was packed to the gills and guess who had to deal with him? Me! In the end, we raised a ton of money and gave it all away to the Children’s Health Fund (founded by artist and musician Paul Simon) because we figured poor kids coming to the North Texas area from New Orleans as a result of Katrina that had health issues would end up at Parkland and this was a good way to make an impact.
So while I technically made zero money on this event, it was an important milestone in my career journey because it would go on to be much, much bigger and one of my living master classes in how to set up and run a nonprofit, how to work with all types of people, how to navigate terrain that can only be navigated with artists and alternative spaces.
After this first Art Conspiracy, people came up to me (and others who led it) and literally begged for the next one. “Oh no,” we said laughing, “that was a one-off event!” Little did we know it would go on to help over a dozen small arts-related nonprofits through this annual event and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. So much more could be written about Art Con but now’s not the time.
During the Spring after that first Art Con, the key relationships behind Pigeon-Stone Project and IR Gallery sort of fell apart. Folks moved on. The guy “D” who I sublet the gallery space from had only signed a one year lease. The gal I ran PSP with, “N,” was up to other things and I had to let both of these ideas go with a measure of bittersweet remorse. I kept my movie theater gallery going for a while but eventually passed the torch to others who were interested in curating alternative art spaces.
In the meantime, I shared with another friend “C” that I was complete with my gallery and PSP. It was sad and I wasn’t sure what was next. I remember her turning on her heel in a quick pivot and saying to me “I know what you’re doing next! You’re going to open an artist residency with me!” And I naively asked “what’s an artist residency?” I had no idea. I’d never heard of such a thing.
Thus, the La Reunion journey began. The year was 2006. Keep in mind I was still on point and diligently homeschooling the kids but as time wore on and I got busier, Paul took the reins with homeschooling adventure. Our household income began to shapeshift once again. Here I sit in 2022 writing this and it’s a good reminder that we’ve been through “this” many times before.
I want to take a brief moment to recap this "Ways I've Made Money" writing exercise. I’m at a major crossroads moment in my life right now. In order to fully navigate the vocational aspects of my world, I’m writing in chunks about all the ways I’ve made money over the years as a sound boarding exercise for myself and anyone else interested in following along. Writing in this Field Notes location creates accountability for myself to power through and complete this personal writing mission. It’s my hope that these entries are a celebration of the neat things (and some of the not-so-neat things) I’ve had the privilege of doing. At the end of this exercise I hope to have a little more clarity about what I'd like to do next and be open to the opportunities that might come my way. This particular entry is about one of the most profound jobs I ever had and one that probably taught me the most valuable skill set of anything on my resume: remaining calm and centered in the face of total upheaval.
To pick up from last Field Notes entry, after I birthed our daughter, my midwife CB asked me to come work for her. She said I could bring my baby and I didn’t even hesitate. I had a full body YES and even though it paid half the wage of my last job, I didn’t care. If we’d tried to find childcare for our daughter and navigate all those logistics, it’s doubtful I’d have stuck with nursing her. In fact, it’s doubtful my hair salon job would have even paid for the childcare itself. Would it have even been worth it? I can’t really get lost in all the “what if’s” though because the hand I’d been dealt was to start working at a freestanding birth center where women could have their prenatal care and childbirth experience in an old, two-story house instead of a hospital. The building itself was over a hundred years old and it was furnished to look like a high-end bed and breakfast. To get to go there every day was a total dream. To support women through one of the most life changing events of adulthood was an honor and a privilege. And, bonus, I got to bring my baby to work with me every single day!
My time at the Birth Center was totally amazing and I have extremely fond memories of this time in my life. I’m friends to this day with many of the women I met who were coming there, just like me, to have their babies. I was the first person they talked to over the phone. I was the first person they met when they came for a tour. I scheduled prenatal appointments, filled out birth certificates, filed those certificates with the state of Texas, set up sonogram appointments, performed medical supply inventory, ran errands, helped host a monthly “Maternatea” for new moms, called insurance companies and generally learned every last bit of the birthing business during my years there.
I witnessed at least a few hundred births while working there because not only was I running the front office but I was also serving the midwives during the births. They took care of the laboring women while I took care of them both in equal measure. Eva went to work with me every single day and I nursed her right there at the front desk, not caring who walked in the door. It was a birthing center for crying out loud! In fact, my daughter (and later my son) also witnessed untold numbers of childbirths because she was strapped to my body in a sling the whole time I was bustling around during births.
And there are so many stories I could share. Births that went haywire. Births that appeared as though they came straight from a textbook. Births that accommodated crazy-ass family drama. Births that graciously accommodated foreign religious customs. Births that were utterly transformative to all of us witnessing and births that we were all glad to have gotten through. Pregnant women are super high maintenance. It’s a fact. And I could be compassionate about that because I’d just been pregnant and I’d just given birth myself. There was no one better for the women to confide in than me. As I mentioned, I’m still dear, dear friends with many of those women.
Eventually I’d learn to draw blood and even perform a pelvic exam. I even considered, for a hot second, to become a midwife myself since I was half way there already with a science degree but in the end determined not to. Having a new nursing baby was enough! I filmed countless births for people. I saw women’s vaginas do totally amazing things day in and day out. And I had to do it all with absolutely no reaction. The women and their husbands were watching our faces for how to be. I had to be centered and calm and even when I knew good and well this birth was going to be a transport to the hospital. It was literally my job to play the part and be a calm agent of transition for the mom, her family and probably most importantly, the midwives.
My dear sister-friend Lara also worked there. She and I were thick as thieves and delighted in tag-teaming our work with the patients and midwives. She had a young son too and our children essentially grew up together. Truly, it felt like we were a family working day in and day out in this giant two story mansion on Swiss Avenue.
When I became pregnant with our son, I kept right on working at the center. Paul and I had to do some creative rearranging of our schedules to accommodate our toddler Eva but we managed and when it came time to have our son Jiri, I decided I didn’t want to birth him at work (too weird!) so I got cleared for a home birth. He was born at our home in the bed we still sleep in. The year was 2001.
And then I got to take him to work with me. Eva was too old at this point and so me and my boy became completely conjoined in the baby sling while toddler Eva bonded even more deeply with Paul. I continued to nurse Eva until she was about five and it was fine because I was nursing her brother at the same time. For the record, I absolutely loved nursing my children. I loved being the example at the birth center for moms who were facing that sometimes difficult decision. I was a huge advocate for it and know in my heart many babies were nursed because I showed their moms it was not only possible but the best thing for them both.
There are SO many stories I could share about working at the center. Dramas. Foibles. Miracles. All of it. There’s the dildo story. There’s the foreskin story. There’s the sixteen year old gal, thirty weeks pregnant, who walked in off the street wanting an abortion and I responded by saying I’d adopt her baby right then and there. (Obviously that didn’t happen, there was another outcome, but still.) Those stories will have to be held for a later writing project. Lara used to joke (very seriously) that she could write an entire screenplay about all of us ladies working there. In fact, we used to fantasize about who would play us in the film. I learned so, so, so much from my coworker Lara, the midwives, all the birth assistants and doulas. The entire staff was female and the only men that even came into the building were fathers. Chief midwife CB was adamant that fathers caught their own baby. She said it bonded men to their children in unspeakably powerful ways. After witnessing hundreds of fathers catch their children, I can say that I agree 100%.
At some point I naturally started to drift away. Other possibilities were starting to take shape in our lives in terms of how we made money. And when my son became too big to come with me to work anymore, it was time for us to start shape shifting. The year was 2003 (or so).
And so picking up where we left off, where do you even start when you graduate with a degree in chemistry? I didn’t know either but first I wanted to get married. Paul and I had met while working at Whole Foods and had fallen for each other very hard. After a year and a half of dating, Paul and I co-decided we would get married. I was hellbent on having my hard-earned degree state my maiden name so the agreement was that I would marry him the very next day after I graduated. There was one other requirement that he had to meet: he’d been a bonafide rock star in a very well-known band for over a decade and hadn’t filed or paid a lick of taxes on that money. I absolutely insisted that he at least file with the IRS for all those years. We’d figure out a way to pay for it eventually but the point was I didn’t want my good name all mixed up in his bullshit-bad-decisions. Period. No way.
We eloped at the courthouse and took off to Spain a day or so later for a few glorious weeks. We had very little money so we hopped trains, stayed in hostels and took only one small backpack each. I was a pro at this lifestyle after living in Europe and essentially backpacking the whole continent just a couple of years prior. When we returned I was pregnant (whoops) and I knew I needed a “real job” with my fancy new degree. Not really knowing where to start the process, I interviewed with a scientific laboratory temp agency. After a rigorous interview process they accepted me and I was sent on my very first assignment: Frito Lay.
The Cheese Puff Lab was next to the Rold Gold Pretzel Lab and down the hall from the Cheeto Lab. I was issued a white lab coat, a security badge and with that I reported to work each day around 7am or so. The drive was horrendous with over an hour of driving and multiple stops on the old school toll road to deposit quarters. Something in me learned early on that this would not be sustainable.
Our important assignment was working with cheese puffs made with olestra. What’s olestra, you young'uns may be wondering? It was a fat free oil that was all the rage in the 90s but it was only fat free though because your body literally couldn’t absorb it so it would come out as an oily, anal discharge. Right. So there we were, working with the olestra-cooked cheese puffs. A team of British scientists were in town working downstairs in the manufacturing plant. They would tweak the dyes in the cheese puff machine ever so slightly yielding cheese puffs that were varying lengths, curvatures and thicknesses. The chemical properties of olestra made the act of manufacturing the products slightly more difficult to match the lightness of “regular” cheese puffs. With each iteration of these cheese puffs, a numerically labeled garbage bag stuffed full of puffs would come up from the manufacturing plant via a dumbwaiter into my lab.
I’d receive a bag from the chute and begin my processes. Newly manufactured puffs look and feel like packing peanuts. They haven’t been baked yet nor have they been cheesed and our data sets always came from raw puffs. First moisture readings. I’d take ten puffs out of one of the numbered garbage bags and place them one by one into a little moisture reading machine. I’d record the number of the first puff and continue on the rest of my samples. Then I’d take another sample of ten puffs out of the same bag and do curvature readings. I’d place the puff on a chart and determine what the circumference of the puff would be if it were to expand into a circle. I’d record the numbers. Then I’d do the crunch testing. I’d take a ten piece sample from the garbage bag and head down the hall to another lab. I’d place the puff onto a landing pad apparatus and punch a key on the computer attached to it and a probe would descend and crunch through the raw puff yielding a graph of how crunchy that puff was. I’d record the data and do the rest of the samples. I processed dozens and dozens of numbered garbage bags of cheese puffs in this manner.
Then we’d bake each sample, cheese them, label them and get them ready for shipping for taste testing. In Spain. These were Cheese Puffs made with olestra for the Spanish market so the cheese was a little sharper to match the European palette. Wow, right? This is food science, people.
But it wasn’t all bad. Working in the Frito Lay headquarters was actually quite cool. The corporate art collection was totally inspiring and I spent most of my free time wandering the halls looking at the paintings, photographs and mixed media pieces that lined those walls as “investments” for the company. The cafeteria was really delicious and the campus itself was very nice. The actual job though? It sucked. I did this for exactly three weeks before walking into my supervisor's office and announced I was leaving. That this job was not for me. I didn’t know what was next for me but this wasn’t it. No way. Between the drive, the boring nature of the work and my morning sickness, forget it. I turned in my badge and lab coat and never looked back.
When I returned to the temp agency, I asked if there was something else I could do. Anything, I said, just not food science. With that I was sent to interview at a breast implant manufacturing plant. Uh, ok.
I showed up to a very nondescript manufacturing plant building and waited in a little room with a fake green plant in the corner. I was ushered into the facility with a hair net and face mask. We passed through the main hallway to look through glass into the labs where the breast implants are actually made. They’re sterile spaces so the scientists were dressed in full length white suits and using their own breathing apparatus. Eyes wide with amazement, I wondered if I'd get to wear a space suit. Next we looked into the “line” where conveyor belts whizzed around with various sizes of breast implants, packaging and other related items.
Finally we entered what would be my lab. It was a quality control laboratory. My job would be to, about once per hour, go into the line and grab a random, freshly packaged breast implant. I’d do some testing on the packaging itself, ensuring that it was in fact sterile. Then I’d take the breast implant out of the package and place it in a laboratory hood. (They look kind of like a big oven with a vertical opening door in case you’re curious.) My job would be to place the breast implant on the platform inside and close the front of the hood and then press a button. A plate would descend and apply pressure to the breast implant until it exploded. I’d record the pressure number, clean up the mess and do it all again. But here was the catch. This titty-smashing job offer was for the 11pm to 7am shift! OMG, I declined on the spot and just walked out. This isn’t why I studied chemistry. Goodbye, people!
Woefully ill with morning sickness, I struggled for a few weeks to do much of anything. Paul got a call from a friend asking if he knew someone because she had a friend who was looking for a new receptionist for a hair salon. But it wasn’t just any ole hair salon. It’s where The Who’s Who of Whoville got their hair cut. Very famous, very wealthy, very influential clientele and did I want to interview? Absolutely I did and soon enough it was my new job.
I took appointments, confirmed appointments, cleaned up after the colorist, helped get people settled and of course took their money. I balanced the checkbook and did all the inventory of coloring supplies. I met so many interesting (and crazy wealthy) people while there. It was a totally old school operation and the salon didn’t even have a computer. Everything was done by hand, which was interesting. The other neat thing about it was that the owners absolutely loved my black and white prints that I’d been printing. I had a darkroom at home in my laundry room after all and would print when I had the energy. They invited me to hang several of my photographs in the salon and over time I would get quite a bit of positive feedback from these super rich people. My only downfall here was that I refused to sell them at the time. Weird, right? Something to do with self-esteem.
Anyway, as my due date drew nearer and nearer the panic began to set in. How would I possibly continue to work after I had this baby? I’d been receiving prenatal care at the Birth Center and I’d gotten quite close to my midwife, CB. I’d shared with her some of my fears and concerns. She knew a lot about me by the time I went into labor.
Our daughter Eva was born in late February and the agreement with the salon was that I’d take six weeks off but at my 10-day postpartum visit, CB looked me in the eyes and said “I want you to leave that hair salon job and come work for me. You can bring your baby to work.” I burst into tears and said yes, yes, yes, I didn’t even care what it paid. Turns out it would be HALF of what the salon paid me but I didn’t care. I could be with my new baby all the time. And still work. Hallelujah! The year was 1999.
Moving on. Part of the tuition agreement at my university was this thing called work-study. It’s where, in exchange for 15 hours a week, a portion of your tuition is paid. Like, I didn’t get to keep the money because it went right back to the finance office. My job during my first year of college? Something called “Special Projects.” It’s one of these all-purpose jobs they give freshmen to tease out what we might be good at. Each day I reported to work and was sent out to do some random “special project”. Once it was a multi-week gig helping to edit a film. Another time it was weeks and weeks of re-painting all the light poles brown on campus. Yet another time I filed papers in the Registrar’s Office for a good long while. That type thing.
Needless to say my stash of cash from the Red-themed Lobster place ran out pretty fast and even though I was totally working on campus, I went and got another job off campus. So in addition to taking 15 hours of classes, performing work study for 15 hours, I also got a part time job at the Galleria Mall at a children’s clothing store for like 15-20 hours per week. (When did I study?) It was totally insane when I look back on it.
The children’s clothing store was a fascinating place to work if you’re into the anthropology of the extremely wealthy. It was a very high-end store and since we were at the famed Galleria mall, we had these wealthy families literally fly into the nearby private airport, take a car over and buy thousands and thousands of dollars of clothes for their children. It took a while to get used to because, if I’m honest even all these years later, it was astonishingly excessive in light of how quickly children outgrow clothing. Blessedly I got a discount working there and was encouraged to buy my work clothes from the corresponding women’s version of the chain. It was a decent gig I suppose and I made commission so wasn’t too vocal with my judgemental observations.
The summer between freshman and sophomore year I went back to West Texas, Lubbock this time, to live with my maternal grandmother. I waited tables again at the Red-themed-Lobster place. They hired me on the spot because I had already been trained in another restaurant. I made many close friends that summer and again, I built up my stockpile of cash. I was moving to Europe for the fall semester of my Sophomore year. It’s a long story that I don’t really want to get into but I was essentially on my own at this point. I had declared myself financially independent from both sets of my parents so that I would qualify for special loans and grants and so that they couldn’t “claim” me on their taxes. I was hellbent on going to live in Rome and ultimately getting my degree. I literally didn’t let anything stop me. Not even my parents!
And don’t you know, even though I was living just outside Rome, I still had to do the dang work-study thing to offset my tuition. This particular semester’s job was really cool though. I worked in the campus cappuccino bar and learned to make all the fancy coffee drinks. I got to travel all over Europe that semester and have totally amazing memories of long haul Eurail train rides, epic Alpine-Roman-Germanic-French-Greek beauty, art museums, youth hostels and so much more.
When I got home from this life-changing semester abroad, it was more work study - but this time I got to work as the school yearbook photographer. My best school friend Yvonne saw some of my photos from our European semester together and promptly recruited me. She could see that I had a good eye for framing, composition and content. I didn’t give those things much thought until she pointed them out to me and then I was like “Oh, I am a pretty good photographer, aren’t I? Wow! I had no idea.”
I shot university events, headshots, campus life and so much more. Pretty much whatever the yearbook editor told me to cover, I would shoot. And because it was a school job, I could use the fancy yearbook camera whenever I wanted for personal projects and I even got to learn to print in the campus darkroom. I loved that job and did it for my final two years of college. I totally fell in love with black and white photography, specifically processing film and darkroom printing. (My mother and step-father even gave me a full darkroom set up as my graduation gift and I’d go on to print for over a decade using that equipment in my home. I still have it but it’s all in the attic at this point. Paper and chemical scarcity have curtailed modern efforts to process and print my own work.)
The summer between my sophomore and junior year was its own special magic. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to West Texas and living with my grandmother again so I got creative. My dear college pal Yvonne (same one I’d also backpacked Europe with) told me about opportunities at Yosemite National Park. How you could get a park concession job, rent a tent and live your summer that way earning money. So what did I do? (This is pre-internet, mind you.) I literally called 411 information for Yosemite National Park in California. When I called them, they told me I actually needed to call the concession company that the National Park Service contracts with. I did that and then they mailed me an application to my dorm. I filled it out and mailed it back. A few weeks later I was informed by mail how to claim my job, when to arrive and basically what to expect. Did I mention the whole exchange was by mail? Totally astonishing, in hindsight.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune! I was moving to Yosemite National Park for the summer instead of Lubbock! Better yet, another dear college friend Amy had also applied and been accepted and so she and I quickly began making plans. Traveling to Yosemite with a literal trunk full of things needed for a whole summer was quite the adventure. We bought plane tickets to San Francisco and then we took a cab to the train station and slept outside overnight with all the homeless people. We boarded a train early the next morning for Merced, where we picked up a Greyhound bus that would take us into the park and right to the Human Resources tent.
Our work assignments were straightforward and we were assigned a fairly large shared tent to sleep in. It had a wooden floor with a heavy canvas top. Two cots. And that was basically it. Fortunately we were near the community kitchen for staffers and the women’s bath house. We lived in one of the many strategically located staff camps in the park called “The Terrace” for the way it terraced up the mountainside looming over Curry Village. Truly a prime location in the park and perfect for our Curry Village based jobs.
Amy worked in Housekeeping and I worked in the Camp Curry Coffee shop. I’d rise each morning at 4am, roll out of bed, roll a joint and smoke it during my 5 minute commute to the coffee shop. The team had about an hour to brew coffee and set up before the hard core hikers arrived. And this place was slammed the moment we opened the doors! We made coffee drinks, served pastries and more to a wide variety of park goers. By 9am it was time for my lunch break and by noon each day I was off work for the day. I spent my afternoons napping, especially up by Vernal Falls. I’d swim in the Merced river almost daily and never really felt the need to shower. In fact, I think I only took like three showers that whole summer. I’d cook in the kitchen using groceries I bought in the Yosemite grocery store. Being a vegetarian was effortless in this environment and I learned so so so much from other park employees about how to eat well and cook vegetarian. I took time off here and there and enjoyed several challenging, multi-day hikes.
The trek to Cloud’s Rest is one that really sticks out in my memory. The photo here is my friend Liz and me on top of Cloud’s Rest right before an epic summer storm. We were facing the most gorgeous sunset I’d ever seen while a thunderstorm billowed purple and blue behind us. Just as our hair started to rise (lightning alert!), we hustled down the bald peak of Cloud’s Rest and set up our primitive camp below the treeline. That summer totally changed my life and living in California with all the cool kids living in the park really opened my eyes. I was even invited to Burning Man that summer but declined only to totally regret that decision later on. (It was the tenth year of the festival and the infamous year they had live ammo on the playa!) Anyway, it was so bittersweet to head home. But my science studies called me. And I was committed. I’m like that.
Sometime in Fall of my junior year I needed to find an outside job beyond my work-study yearbook photographer job. I was technically on my own and with gas expenses, car insurance plus money to just be a college student, I applied for a job at Whole Foods. It was the OG location in the Dallas area and I figured it would be a good support for my vegetarianism and it might help me transition from the ultimate cool summer in California. Turns out I was right.
I started out in the coffee bar (since I had experience working in one on the Rome campus and in Yosemite) and migrated at some point to the bakery before finally landing in the Herbs and Body Care department. This was the best fit for me at the time I would soon realize. My degree plan was chemistry and working with the herbs, the vitamin vendors and the wicked smart women that had worked there for years (and years!) gave me access to this really cool body of knowledge that I could understand through my scientifically trained mind. I learned so much during this period of time about alternative treatments, what herbs are good for what ailments, understanding homeopathic remedies, flower remedies and so much more. I picked up several good resources during my time there that I still rely on to this day.
These college jobs didn’t really prepare me for the big world though, as I would soon find out. The year was 1998.
I’m at the crossroads right now in terms of how I make money in the world. As much as I would just love to write, perform Clearings, host Salons and fuss in my garden, the truth is I need to make some money. I’m a very grounded mom and wife. I own a gorgeous (albeit simple and very small) house with my husband. I contribute to worthy causes and am in several courses of study that require money. I have to eat and pay basic bills. At some point I need to make real money again. Because the job I just left paid the bills, people. Paid them well. It put two kids through college. It erected a new nine foot privacy fence on our property. It paid off all our lame ass debt. The job I’ve just left also gave us a small stash of cash to live on for a short time. But that same job almost cost me my freaking sanity. The Mercury Retrograde here at the start of 2022 (mark your calendars - January 14 through February 3) is the perfect time to reflect, revisit and dare I say celebrate all the ways I’ve made money over the years.
Here goes. Technically, my first “job” was ironing my father’s work shirts. He was a Methodist minister and the ironing of his shirts was seemingly endless and my step-mother needed help! So she paid my brother and me to do it. As a result, my brother and I can starch and iron a shirt to perfection. It’s been a helpful skill to have over the years but at $.50 per shirt, it certainly doesn’t qualify as a real job, now does it?
My first “real job" was at the mall in Odessa, Texas at a certain orange and white burger place that we all know and love. I was 15 at the time and was trained to work all the positions: cashier, janitorial support, fry cook, produce prep and the grill. For some reason I was really fast at cooking. I could flip a burger, dress it according to the instructions on the paper bag and get those orders out in freakishly fast record time. When we were busy I was inevitably at the grill station.
My coworkers were lovely and I got along with all of them. My uniform was navy pants, a light blue pinstripe shirt, an apron with the logo on the front and of course a visor. (I looked and looked for a picture of me in that burger joint uniform and alas, I can’t find it. But above is a picture of my mother and me during that time period. More about her later on. The Stories are a’comin’!) I have several funny memories at this job. For example, one time this gay couple came in and I’d never seen an openly gay couple before in my life until that point. (It was a different era, the early 90s in West Texas.) I was working at the register that day and I leaned into them after they placed their order and said “May I ask you two a question?” They nodded and looked at me expectantly. “Are y’all…. you know, lovers?” They bust out laughing and said “yes of course!” I was a little embarrassed because I couldn’t bring myself to say the word “gay” for some reason. Anyway, we laughed and thusly my gaydar was activated by the two nicest gay guys in the Odessa mall.
I remember that song Achy Breaky Heart playing on the country radio station in the break room. I remember using my time to chop onions in the back as time to really get into it and cry about something, anything. I remember hauling grease out to the trap and scrubbing the disgusting public toilets. I made about $6 per hour but once I got a $.07 raise!
And, importantly, blessedly, one of the most profound pivots of my life happened at this job. I remember this one evening when I was working as the grill cook and it was at the end of a very long day. The meat patties are stored in a refrigerated drawer under the grill after they’re pulled out of the deep freeze. That way they stay nice and cold while they slowly defrost because a frozen patty doesn’t cook as well. It's something you only learn through experience but there really is a sweet spot that the meat reaches in terms of temperature for optimal cooking. (#chemistry) Anyway, this one particular evening I reached into the drawer to grab one of the last remaining patties and had to swish around in a pool of defrosted blood to find it. I threw it on the grill. I watched it cook. I watched the blood bubble and spatter on the hot surface. I looked at my hands and they were covered in blood. I wiped blood out of my fingernails onto my apron. I ruminated on what was happening in front of me in real time. I’m not sure why, but I never really thought about what meat actually was before. It was an actual animal I realized at that moment. And to eat it wasn’t something I wanted to do. But there I was with its blood on my hands... I finished cooking that patty and sent the burger out. I cleaned up for the night and by the end of my shift I vowed to never eat meat again. It was just too cruel. I became a dedicated vegetarian in the moment. Still am 31 years later! Thank you orange and white burger joint!
Moving on, I knew all the people working at all the other stores in this mall because of this job. Fans of the orange and white burger place are really devoted, it turns out. One of the folks that would frequent our restaurant was the manager of the local athletic footwear store. (The green and white one, not the black and white striped one, just in case you’re a connoisseur of these things.) We chatted and at some point he asked me to come apply for a job since I’d shared that I’d become vegetarian. I guess he was serious because apply I did and promptly got the job.
I sold footwear for a while and as the only female employee and I made more commission than any of the guys. Turns out that a pretty, high school aged shoe sales gal is attractive bait at the athletic store. (I also ran track and cross country so the discount was awfully appealing.) Who knows, but it paid a little more than the burger place because of the sales commission. And for once being a female paid MORE in this environment. I roll my eyes now as I remember the guys huffing and puffing about it, LOL.
I didn’t last but six months or so at the footwear gig and I moved on to perform my first real grown-up service industry job. It was at the Red-themed Lobster place that has the delicious cheese biscuits. (Come on, you know the one.) It was here that I learned how to bank the money I’d make. Waiting tables in a midsize West Texas town at one of the nicer restaurants meant the tips were actually pretty exceptional. At least compared to minimum wage burger joints and the small-scale commission at the footwear place.
Working at this restaurant ensured my newfound vegetarianism took root very strongly. Crab legs, shrimps and even live lobsters couldn’t entice me away. In fact, I dug in deeper and completely astonished my family. Back then being a vegetarian wasn’t normal, it wasn’t easy and it was a huge pain in the ass for all of us. I’m pretty sure they all thought I would “grow out of it” but hey, I never did. I saved and saved my money and soon enough I was off to college with a nice little savings to get me going as a full time student in the big city. The year was 1994.
Periodic updates from Aurah in the Field.