Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Music, music, music pt. 2

I was 27 years old when I got home from the Peace Corps.  If I had any doubts about what I would do next, the stultifying, nothing-ever-changed atmosphere of hearth and home convinced me:  singing was a way back into my own life as much as anything else, an escape from the conventional everyday-ness of living in suburbia and looking for a career in some office.  (I admit I was in for a pleasant surprise from my parents when I sat down with them to tell them of my plans.  They were entirely supportive of the singing idea--perhaps out of relief that I had settled on something as I marched toward the big 3-0; perhaps because they identified somewhat with the performer in me and wished they'd had a chance to do something like it themselves.)

A friend from my time in Ghana had settled with another friend of hers in Boston and had already told me I'd be welcome to join them.  Boston, with its abundance of university students, and all those coffee houses with all those open mikes, was the ideal venue for a budding singer.  So off I went, seeking my fortune.  But I wasn't all starry-eyed, oh no...I knew it would be a good month or so--maybe even 6 weeks--before that music-fueled fortune started accumulating, and that some sort of job would be necessary to tide me over during the interim.  A solution arose out of necessity:  I had to get some maps of the city, so I went to the downtown office of the auto club--the AAA.  The people who worked there were mostly young and cool looking, and I figured the work couldn't be too bad, talking to the public all day and interacting with copasetic co-workers, so on the spur of the moment I asked if they were hiring.  They were, and they took me on, practically on the spot.  Thus began my first life lesson, Reality 101.

It turned out that what I saw in the walk-in part of the AAA office was the mere tip of an enormous iceberg.  Walk-ins were served in the lobby of a building in which the AAA occupied another floor, and the folks working in the lobby rotated in and out of it, probably as a tacit admission on the AAA's part that being able to see outside every now and then is a necessity for the maintenance of sanity.  Most of the employees were working in what can only be called a public-service sweatshop.  Upstairs, there were row upon row of tables in a windowless room where people did nothing but put green lines on maps, fulfilling orders for Trip-Tiks that AAA members had called in.  There was a bank of 6 phone cubicles, staffed by other employees who answered phones all day, taking orders for routings or giving advice about tourist sites.  (We kept a list of the crazy requests we got:  a driving route to Bermuda--we told the member the bridge hadn't been finished yet; a "drive along the coast" from Boston to Los Angeles; a route that could get you from Boston to California in 3 days, hitting the Grand Canyon along the way; a tour of the "Fingering Lakes of New York....").

No matter where you worked in this tourism factory, there was a strict and universal dress code.  Even if the public never laid eyes on you, men had to wear a tie, and, in 1972, pant-suits for women were forbidden. 

The scariest part of the AAA experience was the lifers there--the middle-aged people who had never done anything in their lives but work at the AAA, and who were dead serious about the organization and the concerns of its members.  It was quite an eye-opener after having spent two years on a life-changing adventure. I looked at these pale people whose imaginations carried them no further than the next order of Carlsbad Cavern brochures, and whose eyes were weakened from gazing at too much small print, and felt dread.  Could I ever be one of them???  There's nothing like a scary alternative future to spur your ambition in another direction.

But I was in for another shock.  I discovered I was emotionally exhausted after playing the good, buttoned-down AAA employee by day and didn't really feel like pounding the open-mike pavement at night.  I did hit one or two, and I succeeded at least in being invited back, but in the process of "succeeding," I quickly saw that singing wasn't something you did for a mere 40 minutes once a week or so.  Singing--show business--is a way of life.  It requires faith, utter determination, overpowering ambition and the willingness to see yourself as a commodity in a competitive market place.  

And you need to be young.  The people I met singing were kids who did nothing but sing.  They hung around with peers who had the same burning need for recognition.  They compared notes on which venues were best, and they sang for and to each other.  They were either fresh out of college or had never even attended, having committed to this life as teenagers.  They were willing to live on the edge of poverty in their late adolescence on the chance that they would strike gold before they were 30.  But I was already on the warm side of 30 and facing the fact that I was tired of being poor.  I wanted nothing so much as a stable roof over my head and the predictability of an ordered life.

So there I was.  The one "career" idea that had fed my imagination for years had come a cropper.  I was stuck in a soul-deadening job that didn't even afford me the ability to drive to the places I was describing every day, digesting the discovery that I may be a singer but I lacked an important corollary attribute to make a living at it:  complete, all-consuming ambition.  I was clear about what I didn't want--the AAA was a great teacher.  But what did I want?  Whatever it was, it wouldn't be conventional.  (Order I needed.  Convention was still anathema, as it remains.)  Returned Peace Corps Volunteers often jokingly ask, "is there life after the Peace Corps?"  In my case, it turned out there was.  And it was back at the Peace Corps.


Anonymous said...

Nice story. I was hoping a little more on your introduction to full time Peace Corps. Keep that for another post. AAA? I'll have to say the two girls I dated loved working in the DC office. They both married that company.

Ralph said...

Gotta stick with the music for now, Z&M. It's working up to the present, I promise.