Wanted: A Job That Pays Me to Read Books

Mid-December, for any seniors who applied early to schools, is notification time. The few weeks before we break for the holidays, students come in each morning high-fiving one another or offering consolation. It’s equal parts jubilation and heartbreak and then there’s the fear, the anxiety that even my most accomplished students have: What happens next? How do I make all the decisions that await?

Friday, one of my students in the back of the room raised her hand. “Ms. P?” she said. “Did you always want to be a teacher?”

“Oh God, no,” I said. “Never.”

But my nephew Jason had finished parochial school in eighth grade and had entered Westerly High School as unprepared as if he’d been dropped into a modern day Man Vs. Environment reality show wearing nothing but a loincloth and brandishing nothing more helpful than a can of oven cleaner. My sister was desperate, and I was home from college with nothing to do besides get in a good disco nap and head out with my cousin Susan and my friend Karyn to dance until the place closed and we headed off for a 4AM serving of  pancakes at IHOP.

Yes, I had been a good student (not counting Algebra) and I had a degree in hand, but college during the Reagan Era meant lots of people scrambling to get into the business school, late night study sessions for statistics, a pre-accounting exam vomit session in the bathroom, the dread of some microeconomics professor nicknamed D+ Pugh. WSBE kids (the acronym for the Whittemore School of Business at the University of New Hampshire), didn’t meet us at 5AM for green beer on Saint Patty’s Day. They didn’t answer the midnight summons to play snow football on the tundra that was the winter lawn of Hetzel Hall.

And God forbid they did attend a party and meet you at the garbage pail punch bowl some stranger was stirring with a lacrosse stick. Just before they headed back to their rooms to cram for the Strategic Management midterm, they’d ask you your major.

“English?” they’d gasp, as if you must have been too drunk already to consider dipping back into that witches’ brew. “What the hell are you going to do with that? Step in dogshit?” Well, really they said, “Teach?” but the tone was the same. And, since I had no earthly intention of ever doing so, I felt justified snorting and saying, “No way!” and then slinking back into the crowd in search of fellow Liberal Arts rejects.

So home I came after it was all over, back to the farm where my father could always use help and where other job prospects would surely abound. For example, the very first newspaper I read ran an ad inviting me to the Mystic Hilton to learn about an opportunity in sales that could lead to jobs in management, five-figure commissions, the chance to work for one of America’s most successful companies.

“They want you to sell vacuums,” my brother said. Just to prove him wrong, I went, and, okay, my brother was right, but the image of the organisms living inside my pillow will haunt me always.

“Something else will come up,” my mother said.

Before I could get a job managing a clothing store, I had to master dressing mannequins in store windows while ignoring seriously creepy comments from passersby. Entry level positions as receptionists meant I had to sit there staring at the elevator doors in case someone important came in. The way I would know if he was important? He would ignore me. If I happened to try reading The Awakening, for example, to pass the time, I was viewed with derision by certain lawyers who checked to make sure I was not holding the book upside down. I took a bartending course which was fun but if I worked nights, how could I dance?

Meanwhile, as I waited for a Forbes 500 company to discover me at Septembers nickel night, Jason and I sat at the kitchen table amidst his sisters’ coloring books while my sister cooked and several cats ran in every time the door opened and several more ran out. We studied a little bit of everything but our biggest hurdle was an American Studies test. The era escapes me as do the facts that, somehow, we both committed to memory. But I do remember it was fun. We weren’t exactly serious, but we did work hard. When Jason got the test back, he’d earned a B+. I baked a cake in the same shape as his grade and we blew off the day’s homework to eat it and feel pretty damn good about ourselves. When my brother-in-law Jerry came home from work (several cats trailing him through the door, several more dashing outside), he cocked an eyebrow at the test as if someone had just shown a true skeptic the latest photograph of a shadowy Sasquatch.

“You know,” he finally said. “You ought to go into teaching. You get summers off.”

Summers off? How could I have overlooked that?

It still took me a few more years to step in front of my first group of students. When I did, clutching my handwritten, color-coded introduction to Julius Caesar, my upper lip froze so completely, I thought I might be having a stroke, but somehow, the bell rang and I regained feeling in my face.

It’s funny for me to think of it all now. The years between me and the absolutely right profession for me. But my own path might not be as helpful to those students who sit before me every year at this time fretting over the arrival of news that they think will define them. How do I explain to them that sometimes, it’s something much less momentous: some time to kill, someone who needs you, a kitchen filled with a revolving cast of cats.

How We Came to Be the DOR Girls: Chapter 1 — The New Girl

We moved off the farm in October of 1987, a few days after my mother had to bury her mother. There was no time for mourning and there was a lifetime for it, but there was no lingering for me. After a weekend of emptying out a place I never considered leaving, I headed back to Boston to begin my first job as a Telecommunications Specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. My friend Lauren, intrepid Financial District veteran, took me to Frugal Frannie’s to try on suits. When I got stuck in one and had to be surgically removed from it by the store’s (not so customer-is-always-right-oriented) seamstress, I interpreted it as a sign: I had no business in the world of business. I didn’t even have any idea what a Telecommunications Specialist did.

But I showed up anyway. Seventh floor of the Saltonstall Building, Government Center, Boston.

A little known fact about Capricorns: a) we are innately aware of social hierarchies, and b) we don’t like to be anywhere but at or near the top of them. Okay, so it was an entry-level job, and my first career had been shovelling cow shit, but that didn’t mean my manager shouldn’t impress me with his status. “Steve”, I learned very quickly, was the kind of person who snorted at his own jokes. He had a thick, and not entirely clean, mustache, red-rimmed watery eyes, and bowl cut. Perhaps, when he made the rounds to introduce me to the other employees, the pity I sensed was only my imagination and not my Capricorn antennae. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just keep busy. When I asked him what I should do to get started, he handed me a thick binder full of information on telephone systems and said, “We’re renovating the office starting tomorrow, so you’ll be stuck in the conference room for a few days anyway. Might as well have something to read.” All day, as in plural days? As in, eight hours each day? Well, not if you count the coffee break where Steve and his office bff “Bob”, head of security, asked me to join them for the state employees’ mid morning coffee break. They treated me to a Warburton’s muffin and a cup of tea. In exchange, I listened to the intricacies of the birthday banners “Bob” made on his dot matrix printer. Oh God, I thought. These can’t be my friends here.

The office was, in fact, teeming with young people who marched off to lunch (and to the afternoon state employees break) in pairs and congregations, but no one asked the new girl. Especially after they saw her returning wedged between Steve’s polyester suit and Bob’s bulging sort-of-white shirt from an all-you-can-eat buffet at an empty Chinese place, a shred of scallion clinging to Steve’s mustache. During renovations, the employees sat in a small theater which was fitting. I sat with my binder and watched the show, the star of which was a highly disgruntled young woman named Jeanne Something Wicked Italian, in the kind of high heels that made it clear she did not grow up on a dairy farm. Although most of the managers disappeared to who-knows-where, Jeanne’s manager, a Puritanical rail of a girl, marched in quite frequently to give Jeanne an order. As soon as she did so and turned to leave, Jeanne rolled her eyes and pursed her mouth so that I thought (hoped!) she’d spit at her. If you were not Jeanne’s boss and you asked her a question (something I never attempted), she’d cock an eyebrow and say, “Whaddaya, stupid or something? I just said that for Chrissakes.” And then she’d strut off, incapable of imagining that, in those highrise heels, she might stumble. When she walked by my seat in one of the back rows and mumbled, “Asshole,” I concentrated as hard as I could on the bullshit in the binder and murmured a prayer to the gods of invisibility.

The renovation itself was organized by one of the project managers. The Department of Revenue spanned all the floors of the Saltonstall, and satellite offices all over the state. Our specific office was called OFM, the Office of Facilities Management. We designed and re-designed spaces, ordered supplies, maintained security (when Bob wasn’t making birthday cards) and, once in the nine months I worked there specifically for this purpose, sent out bids for new telephone systems. Robin dressed in the kind of suits I had been stuck in only weeks before. I had an idea she never got stuck in one, however. She oversaw cubicle assignments and carpet colors with a brisk, take-charge attitude that was an anomaly in a place where the managers spent a great deal of time in the computer lab alphabetizing their x-rated VHS tapes and re-designing the heading for department memos that mostly advised us on the new memo headings. But Robin also had a sense of humor. She rolled her eyes like Jeanne, but you weren’t so afraid she’d kick you in the groin with her pointy-toed shoes if you asked her a question she thought an idiot would know the answer to.

Luckily, I got a cubicle beside her. We hadn’t been there long enough to get a window seat like the other Jeanne, Jeanne Kelly, who smiled at we aisle girls but ignored us on her way out to Filene’s basement several times a day. Robin didn’t need a view since she kept herself busy with — miraculously — actual work, but I spent lots of time re-arranging the pushpins on all the squishy cubicle walls around me and wondering what I was supposed to be doing.

The answer was provided to me a few days later when yet another new girl, Melissa, received a tour of the office from Cathy “Cat” Lange, so-named, I thought, because of the cat-eyed glasses she wore beneath a startlingly orange crop of hair. As they passed my cubicle, I overheard Cathy say to Melissa, “That’s another new girl, Cawlah (Cathy was from New Jersey). She doesn’t have a real job, but no one’s told her that yet.”

I Always Wanted a Cow Named That

Tum-A-Lum Black Eagle Kelly, 1977. The photographer came to the farm that day to take pictures of our champions, but Kelly and I snuck in.

Tum-A-Lum Black Eagle Kelly, 1977. The photographer came to the farm that day to take pictures of our champions, but Kelly and I snuck in.

Recently, The Westerly Sun ran a story about my new book. Because Westerly is my hometown, no one was surprised when the article included a reminiscence about my cow Darcy. (Here’s the link, in case you’re interested: http://www.thewesterlysun.com/entertainment/entertainmentnews/6153131-129/writer-carla-panciera-to-speak-at-bank-square-books.html) It wasn’t Darcy’s only ink. Darcy was a red carpet kind of cow. She was so unmistakably grand, that once, in a 2400 square foot barn filled with 200 shit splattered animals, a stranger pointed to her lying in a stall and said, “Who is that?” Her sister, Marlene, struck me more as the Marilyn Monroe type. But Darcy was definitely a bovine Garbo.

However, Darcy was never my favorite. In fact, her perfection daunted me, an 85 pound kid with acne, thick glasses, and a mop of pot-scrubber hair. And Darcy wasn’t really mine at all. She belonged to my dad. I inherited her, but it felt a little bit like cheating. My cow, my very own imperfectly lumbering, lazy, bull-headed ox of a cow was Kelly.

Kelly’s mother was also a champion, a junior one which means her glory days occurred before she had any calves. When I was five, my father let me lead Shelly around the ring at the Rhode Island Black and White Show. Shelly won a trophy that I brought to show and tell. “I don’t own her,” I said, bitter, despite my classmates’ envy. I said the same thing every time my father mentioned Shelly’s haul.

“Oh, all right,” he finally said. “First heifer she has is yours.”

Tum-A-Lum Model Shelly, 1968, with my sister Patty at the halter, me with the trophy, and Pam Hawksley, RI Dairy Princess (and my future 4-H leader).

Tum-A-Lum Model Shelly, 1968, with my sister Patty at the halter, me with the trophy, and Pam Hawksley, RI Dairy Princess (and my future 4-H leader).

 Kelly was a mostly black baby with a fat white triangle in the middle of her forehead. We had several litters of puppies and kittens every year. For Easter, I routinely received ducklings and rabbits. But the first time I saw Kelly I thought: My god, was there ever anything more beautiful than this?

Kelly was never her mother’s daughter. No blue ribbons swung from her halter. If they had, they would have swayed in time with her cud chewing (Darcy would never chew her cud in public). Kelly had to be tugged around the ring. She lay down every time a judge approached. Flies loved her because she had little interest in swishing her tail to shoo them off.

Whenever we worked with show cows or had to approach the bull pen or were forced to place ourselves between an escape route and a charging 1500 pound animal, my father had one piece of advice: Just show ‘em who’s boss. Fearless, incapable of imagining the scenarios in which trampling might occur, he maintained his philosophy. But I was never Kelly’s boss. When she was hungry (she was always hungry) or she’d had enough of sun and snapping cameras, she shoved me out of her way and headed back to the show barn, judge be damned.

She grew into a boxcar of a cow. Big boned, continuously pregnant, and starved. She ate so much, in fact, she had no energy left over to milk. “Laziest goddamned cow I’ve ever seen,” my father would say, as I stood in the manger feeding her corn cobs from the palm of my hand. And, okay, it did become harder to distinguish her hip bones, but she was a presence, her coat a glossy, midnight black. If Darcy was Garbo, Kelly was Liz Taylor much later in life.

Kelly spewed heifer calves every thirteen months. First Kitty who needed two operations for a misplaced stomach, but who would wrap her head around you when you leaned against her shoulder. Kandi could unlatch the milkhouse door with her muzzle (For some reason, this trick never amused my father as much as it amused me). Kathi came when I called her (she was usually in the corn field trampling stalks). Deer-boned Krissy mostly stayed out of trouble. Every time I lifted the leg of Kelly’s newborn to check the sex, my father groaned. “Going to have a goddamned herd of her,” he’d say, and Kelly would butt him until he filled her manger.

When I came home from college one semester break, my father greeted me before I headed outside. “Just so you know, honey, your cow isn’t doing so well.” By then, I had enough cows for a herd of my own, but I knew who he was talking about. Kelly’s last calf had been a bull. Her recovery had been slow. She was more than ten years old and so thin, that when I finally gathered up enough courage to go look for her, I mistook her for another animal, one that always milked the meat off her bones.

“You get too attached,” my mother always told me. But how to resist a face like Kelly’s? Or those hoofs as big around as dessert plates, that giant head lifted towards me whenever I entered the barn? How to ignore how still she stood while I pressed her belly feeling her calf move, rubbing the tell-tale knob of its knee? How not to love her absolute and total insistence on attention as if she wasn’t a member of a stinking herd? Kelly taught me, a painfully shy kid, a great deal about how to be the boss of whatever world you’re in, how to hold your head up and barge right in.

Her mother, Shelly, had died the day after a difficult delivery of her third calf. I had stayed up late to watch my father pull the stillborn calf out and dose Shelly with IV fluids afterwards. She was alive when we left her, but the next day when I returned from school, my father sat me on his lap: “Got some bad news, honey,” he said. It was my first lesson about the heartbreak that is also farm life.

Many years later, I watched Kelly walk towards the freestall barn, hipbones finally prominent, her triangle still blazing white in all her incredible blackness. “I don’t want her to suffer,” I told my father, but later, I never asked if she had. I left shortly after and eventually returned to a herd full of animals who ignored me when I offered them a corn cob from the palm of my hand.