Winter Wanderland

Philadelphia. Circa 1989. Mid-January. Massive mounds of filthy, encrusted snow lined the slick streets. The air was numbingly cold. Valerie wished she had worn an extra pair of socks. Her feet were starting to feel the burn of the cold by now. Heading into the frigid wind, she pushed her thick scarf up over her mouth and nose, with an awkward mittened hand. Her eyes watered, and her nose was starting to run. Miserable. It was miserable. The depths of an East coast winter. The aftermath of the holidays. Dead and cold. Bitter and cruel. Monotone and lifeless.

Valerie had moved there 2 years earlier to take a job at a prestigious university library. It was really her first professional job, and she loved it. However, the pay was meager, since she was entry level, and there wasn’t much room for advancement in the near future. Needless to say, between her rent, bills and basics, she was always strapped for cash. In addition, she had a looming college loan to pay off, and it was already starting to accrue interest. Every Sunday she would scour the paper, looking for odd jobs to supplement her income. Occasionally, she would find a one-day gig cleaning someone’s closet, or doing housework. She even had a job painting apartments on weekends for a couple of months with an artist from Croatia (Yugoslavia). But these were all temporary, and inevitably she ended up back at square one over and over again.

This Sunday, she was on her way to interview for a job at a day spa. The ad said that they would train the right person to do massage. She thought this sounded perfect, since the hours were flexible and there were cash tips to be made as well. When she had called, the woman had sounded eager to meet her, and they had set up the interview for the same afternoon. She headed there with mixed feelings of curiosity, hope and a bit of trepidation. She had been walking for 15 minutes, which felt like an eternity in the frigid air. Finally, she could see the building ahead. It was located above a laundry mat, just like the woman had told her. She could see the delapidated building, with its grimy fluorescent lit laundry-mat glowing at street level. Dim lights were flickered in the upper windows.

As she crossed the street towards the address, she saw the small entryway. As the heavy door swiftly slammed with a vacuum seal, she welcomed the blast of hot air surrounding her. She pressed the ancient metal buzzer that said “Day Spa”. There was a static noise, and a woman’s garbled voice told her to come upstairs. The latch released, and she pushed open the second door to enter into the dingy hallway.

She suddenly felt broiling hot. Taking off her mittens and scarf, she stuffed them into her backpack, before heading up the rickety wooden stairway. A musty smell permeated the hall, along with a hint of Lisol. Once she reached the landing, with it’s faded and torn wallpapered hall, she saw a faded red door at the end of the hall that just said “spa” in small uneven vinyl blue letters. As she walked over, the door opened. A very young woman, maybe 18, looked her up and down. “Valerie?, You are here for job?”, she asked with a heavy eastern European accent. Valerie told her yes, and that she had an interview with Marie. The girl lead her into the waiting area, which was lit only by one tiny cheap looking table lamp. Next to the lamp was a lopsided miniature Christmas tree with strands of multi-color lights sloppily wrapped around it. There were a few holiday greeting cards under the tree and one awkwardly stuck between the branches. The young woman told Valerie her name was Irene, and that she would need to wait for the boss, Marie.

Valerie followed her through the waiting area, down a dreary hall, into a fluorescently lit laundry room, where there were a couple of other girls. One sat on the dryer, smoking a cigarette, and the other sat on a stool folding towels. They both looked tired, barely acknowledging her as she walked in. The one with the cigarette, glanced up long enough to give Valerie a dirty look, and proceeded to blow smoke in her direction with a hard stare. Irene, opened a mini-fridge in the corner and took out a can of Tab. She passed it to Valerie, and told her to sit down and wait until Marie came out. Valerie sat down, sipping her soda. She took her scarf from her backpack, and folded it slowly, wrapping her mittens inside of it. Mostly because she wanted to seem busy, and avoid eye contact with the other girls. The air was tense. The only sound was the dryer, and a small radio playing top 40 hits from the 80’s.

Finally, she heard a door open down the hall and footsteps, along with the sound of a man and woman talking and laughing. Then the front door opened and shut. She heard the sound of heavy heels on the wood floor, and looked up to see a stocky blonde woman, wearing a cowboy hat. Her shirt was unbuttoned to reveal an ample cleavage sprinkled with freckles. It was tucked into a pair of tightly belted high-waisted jeans. Everything was very snug, accentuating her curvaceous figure. She looked unnaturally tan, and this was set off by her frosted pink lipstick, and heavily lined sparkling blue eyes peering out from under the brim of the hat. Valerie got up and the woman laughed, and said, “Hi, I’m Marie, sorry you had to wait, but you know how it goes.” She smiled and flashed a smile revealing a diamond imbedded front tooth. Valerie reached into her backpack, and pulled out an envelope, handing it to Marie. “This is my resume.” She told her. Marie laughed loudly. “Honey, I don’t need that! Follow me, and lemme tell you about the job.”

Valerie followed her through the waiting area, down another darkened hallway. Marie’s clunky platform wooden clogs lead the way along the floorboards. She opened a door to the left and let Valerie into a windowless room, which was all white. There was a massage table in the middle, and a bamboo screen on the side. On another side table stood a container of Clubman talc, and a large bottle of generic baby oil. Marie hoisted herself up onto the massage table, letting her clogs fall loudly to the floor. She looked at Valerie seriously, “Okay honey, listen. This is a massage parlor. You gotta give a good massage. I could interview you, but what I need to know is can you give a decent massage. So, basically, what I’m saying, is, you gotta give me a massage, and then I’ll know if you can do the job. After you finish, I’ll give you one.”

Valerie felt like leaving, but it was so cold out, and what could it hurt to give this lady a massage anyhow. She quickly justified the odd interview request, deciding that it might be worth it if she could make some money here. Anyhow, Marie was already taking her shirt off. Then, she took off her hat, stuffing the shirt inside of it, and tossed to the far corner of the room. Next, she stood for a moment, swiftly unfastened the tooled leather belt, and peeled off the jeans, throwing them over the bamboo screen. She kept the high-cut shiny red panties and giant matching brassiere on. Valerie let out a barely audible sigh of relief. Marie climbed onto the table, flipping onto her stomach, saying, “okay sweetheart, go ahead, gimme all you got.” Valerie, pushed up her sweater sleeves, and reached for the baby oil. She warmed it between her hands and took a deep breath. She massaged Marie’s thick freckled shoulders and neck, being careful to move the bleached blonde hair out of the way. Beneath the hair was a large faded tattoo of a rabbit on rollerskates, with the name “Lou” beneath it. Valerie kneaded deeply and slowly over the dense upper back, being sure to take her time. Marie moaned, and said “Oh, yeah, baby. That’s what I’m talkin’ bout. Mmm hmmm, you know what? You’re a natural. I can tell. Can you just massage my legs a bit and then we can switch.”

Valerie, massaged her thighs, with long sweeping strokes, steering clear of the panty line area. Meanwhile, she asked Marie, “so, um, how does it work in here? I mean, what kind of massage do you offer clients. Do I have to learn Swedish, or other types? How do they pay?”  Marie sighed. “Oh yeah, I practically forgot about the fact that you’re here about the job, I was gettin’ so relaxed up in here. Well, basically it’s up to you how much money you gonna make, you know.” Valerie asked what she meant. Marie laughed. “You know, some guys they like you to dress up like a nurse, or whatever, you know. You can say yes, or no. But, if you really wanna make the big money, you know what I mean, um, yeah you can do what you want. You know. I can’t tell you, ‘cause it’s really up to you, but you know what I’m sayin’.”

Marie let out a heavy smoker’s cough, saying, “You can stop now, it’s my turn, lemme show you how its’ done.” Valerie quickly answered, “no, thanks, it’s okay, I got it. I have to get going.” Marie smiled, “oh, yeah, well, baby, it’s your loss. Anyhow, if you want the job, you got it. And, did I mention it’s all cash? Yeah, honey, in this business you can walk out of here after every shift with a fat wallet if you play your cards right. You know what I mean. Alls you gotta pay out is a house fee flat, or do a 50/50 cut, the choice is yours. Most girls pay the house flat fee. You keep the rest. Tips are really up to how happy you make the client. You know what I mean.“ Winking a heavily lashed eye, she laughed boisterously, as she fluffed out her big blonde hair. Valerie, laughed too, and told her that she would think it over. Marie, got back into her outfit, adjusting the cowboy hat on her head. She climbed into her clogs and opened the door into the hall, allowing Valerie to exit first. As she walked into the hallway, the young girl who had answered the door, Irene, passed by, headed towards another massage room, followed by a client, a 60 something man, with a large protruding stomach and thinning hair. He had sunglasses on, which she found odd, considering how dark it was in this place. As they got to the waiting area, Marie excitedly whispered to her, “that guy there, well, you know who that is, right?  He spends a shitload of cash up in here. He’s one of our top clients. We got plenty, honey. Politicians, cops, traders, rockstars, all kinds of famous rich guys. I’m telling you, kid, you can do real good in here. Might not look like much, but what you see ain’t always what is seems, you know. You think it over, and call me. You won’t regret it. I can guarantee it.”

Valerie thanked her, as she pulled on her down coat, and wrapping the scarf around her head. She grabbed the mittens out of the backpack, making sure she was well protected before heading down the hallway towards the stairs. She could see it was getting dark out already as she reached the foyer of the building. Exiting to the right, the frigid wind pelted her cheeks with icy rain. It was sleeting again. She stopped at a corner deli to get a coffee for her walk home. Her mind raced. She needed money and Marie had been convincing, but the girls there sure didn’t look like they were doing very well. She sipped her coffee as she walked as fast as possible along the slick sidewalks. Finally, she saw her street. The light shining from her brownstone entry had never looked more welcoming.

Opening up the door to her apartment, she smiled and looked around. She didn’t have much, but it was cozy and homey. She felt grateful as she flopped down on her second hand sofa. Her tabby cat, Pierre, came over and purred against her leg. She noticed the blinking light on the answering machine, and picked up her home phone to listen to the messages. One from her mother, the usual Sunday check in, and one from her boyfriend Nick. She smiled as she listened to his message. He said he wanted to come over later, and he would love to treat her to a relaxing massage.

 

Calzones

Rene had just turned 18, and was living on her own in Boston sharing a grimy one bedroom apartment with a mentally unstable roommate, but that’s another story altogether. It was the early 80’s, and although some people might have been benefiting from Reaganomics, Rene and her friends were definitely on the other end of the spectrum. They scraped by to pay a meager rent in the roach infested one-bedroom apartment. Not having much job experience, Rene set out to find herself a restaurant position. Maybe she could work as a waitress or hostess. Even a dishwasher. At this point, anything would do.

Someone recommended she try the North End, where there were plenty of small Italian cafes and restaurants. So, she decided to go check it out on foot. Walking through the quaint neighborhood, she saw a handwritten sign in the window of a small place called Café Pompeii. There were a couple of guys sitting at a small metal table in front, smoking and drinking espresso. They gave her the once over, and she looked down at the ground while walking in. She was very shy and awkward at 18, and extremely self-conscious. She forced herself to stick to the plan. Inside, the place was classic Italian, from the red and white checkered tablecloths, to the counter case with its shelves full of fresh pastries. The cafe also offered some of the best gelato in Boston. She quietly asked the girl at the register if she could apply for a job. The girl told her to have a seat, and she could get her an interview immediately for the waitress position.

Rene felt her heart beat faster, as she flushed with nervousness. Of course she would wait for the interview. She was excited and scared, since she had never actually waited a table in her life. But, she needed a job, and how hard could it be anyway?

A large masculine looking woman sauntered over. She introduced herself in a husky voice. Elena was the house manager. She asked Rene some brief questions about her experience. She seemed to understand that this was to be her first time waitressing, and told her she could have a day of training. She said that the job was pretty simple, and she was sure that Rene would catch on quickly, since she seemed to be such a smart girl. Not like the last girl, who was, according to Elena, a total dimwit.

Elena showed her the menu, and explained the system, pointing up the ceiling where there was a table number correlating with each table on the dining floor. Rene must have had a worried look on her face, because Elena quickly emphasized that after a while, the numbers would become second nature,  but until that time, you just needed to look up to make sure you had the right order. Rene was hired to start immediately.

The next day she got up extra early, put on her makeup, along with the requested black pants and top. She hopped on her bike and rode across town, taking side streets to avoid traffic, all the way to the North End. She locked her bike in front of the café, so that she could keep an eye on it. It was her only means of transportation, and she was fearful of ever losing it. Looking up, she noticed storm clouds rolling in. In her excitement about actually making some money, she had forgotten to check the weather report.

As she entered the café, the place was buzzing. There were already customers at tables, most of them men. Loud conversations overlapped. Mostly in Italian. Elena motioned her to hurry up and put her backpack behind the counter, since they were already backed up. As Elena briskly pushed by Rene, she told her go take an order from table #6. Panicking for a moment, she looked up to the ceiling to find the number #6 table location. She looked down to find a table shared by two older Italian men. They gave her the eye and smiled as she walked over. Caio bella, che carina. They chit chatted, but she had no clue what they were saying. They seemed to be ordering, but she still didn’t understand. They asked for “doo caltz” and she had no idea what this meant. Just as they were starting to get annoyed, Elena intercepted with a quick offering of fresh bread, and grabbed the order form to scribble down 2 calzones. Rene tried to breathe and just focus. Elena barked at her to get to table #3. She had to look up again to the ceiling, and as she searched for table #3, Elena yelled at her to follow-up with table #6, then go give bread to table #9. Rene started getting flustered. She felt dizzy from looking up and down. The place was loud and customers were glaring at her. Mostly men, with the occasional younger woman. One of the men started calling her stupid in Italian “stupida”…this she could understand. She felt the tears welling up in her eyes. No, no she didn’t want to cry! Her face turned red as she walked over to the counter to compose herself.

She sniffed, and looked up to see a tall dark-haired, handsome man standing behind the counter reaching for her hand. He told her he wanted to talk to her and she needed to follow him. His name was Arturo. He was the owner’s son. As she walked with him, he told her he knew that the first day would be hard, it always was. He led her by the hand through the small café, past the mural of Naples on the wall, to the far left side, where just below the painting of Mount Vesuvius, was a door. He opened the door, waited for her to go in front of him, then slammed it shut and locked it. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. She looked around a dark large room painted black. There were two pool tables where a few young men were arguing over whose turn it was. The air was laden with smoke and smelled musty. There was music playing from a juke box in the corner, and a few guys sat around on leather sofas deep in conversation. She couldn’t understand a word, since it was all in Italian. Arturo led her through this room. As they walked through, 2 large dobermanns ran around them once, pausing momentarily to sniff her leg, and continuing their rounds. Arturo opened another door, this time he entered first. She looked inside to see a large 1960s painting of a naked woman on the wall. The woman had a huge blonde bouffant hair-do and was barely covered with a fur wrap. She forced a come hither stare under baby blue lids, along with her parted hot pink lips.

As her eyes shifted down from the painting, she saw an older man with thick grey hair and a mustache, easily over 70, seated at a large elaborately carved wooden desk. He smiled at her and told them to come in. He dismissed Arturo with a hand gesture, and Rene felt a twinge of fear come over her, as she was left alone with this stranger. His name was Joe. He told her to come over to sit by him. She obliged. He pulled her close to him on a chair and put his arm around her in a fatherly way. He proceeded to tell her that if she wanted to stay here, she would want for nothing. If she ever had a problem, he would take care of it. If she needed any money, all she had to do was ask. He offered her full protection. She was really not sure how this all happened so fast, since she had been such an epic failure as a waitress. But, he seemed sincere and very convincing that she was worth it to him.

She got quiet, and really didn’t know what to say. She was young 18. Naive. Maybe another girl would have jumped at this opportunity, but Rene felt uncomfortable with it. He told her to think about it and let him know. She said ok. He pressed a 100 dollar bill into her hand and closed her fingers around it. He then picked up his phone and called Arturo, who reappeared to take her back to the restaurant. By this time, it was getting late. She continued to try to wait tables, and actually began to get the hang of it. The kitchen staff began to leave, since the place was closing now. Elena told her she just needed to help reset the tables for the next day. As she set up the last table, she realized that everyone had left, and she was suddenly all alone in the dining area. She could hear the rain coming down and she looked out to see her bike being pelted with raindrops. The street looked black and slick.

Music was still playing. It was classic Italian romantic music, which she hadn’t really noticed until after the crowd had died down. The soft mandolin and vocals were a relief to her ears. Her mind drifted as she laid down the last utensils and straightened the tablecloths.

Finally, it was time to go. She took her backpack from behind the front counter, and set it on a chair. Pulling out a rumpled jacket, she put it on. As she brushed her long hair into a ponytail, she heard the back door opening. A man cleared his throat and she looked up to see Joe heading in her direction. Tesora? Where you go?  Why was she leaving him, he wanted to know. She told him she needed to ride her bike home, and it was getting late. He was carrying a bottle of champagne and two glasses. He told her he wanted her to stay and have a toast with him. She started to feel trapped. No, she said, she had to go. He insisted and came closer to her. He touched her arm and told her he needed her to stay. She reached for the door, and looked out into the rainstorm. He asked her why she was going to leave him. He just wanted to spend time together. Something propelled her to rush out the door to her bike. He stood in the doorway, watching her fumble with her bike lock. The rain was torrential, and within minutes, she was drenched. Wiping the water from her face, she pulled up the hood of her jacket, awkwardly glanced at Joe, then hopped onto the bike and rode away in the downpour into the dark streets of Boston.

Occasionally,  Rene looks back at that moment as a missed opportunity, but ultimately, she knows in her heart that she probably dodged a bullet.