My Living Resume: On the Road to Nursing
It’s been a lifelong occupation of mine throwing myself fervently into work — no matter the job.
Eschewing college for the big bright world, I started out of high school at Allen’s department store behind the glove and scarf counter. Three weeks later our neighbor Dr. Harvey Greenblatt offered me a job. He trained me as his Dental Assistant and between his small tantrums tossing the college pliers across the floor, certainly because I’d handed him the incorrect instrument, he was somewhat amiable while working fiercely at molding me into the kind of assistant he was looking for. But I left there too. As his affair with the competent and perky Patricia, the office Hygienist who lived with a South Philly Italian Stallion, became evident to 17 year old me, the neighbor girl who knew his wife and 3 daughters, things got less comfortable. The denouement? The Italian stallion barged into the exam room dropping even farther the jaws of the patient in the chair and the open-mouthed neighbor girl (me) as he went on a tirade of epic proportion. His rant, partly in English, partly in Italian, was accompanied by manic hand gestures, his flailing arm fanning the pages of the indelible agent of revelation: Patricia’s diary.
Both Harvey the Dentist and my own father encouraged my hasty retirement from the dental profession. The prevailing male sentiment was what happens at work stays at work: a good example of my formative training.
Hail to the Patriarchs for my next professional attempt at self-support: receptionist at La Boutique de Coiffure. It was a blue-haired salon in Center City with a cumbersome French name run by two staunchly heterosexual South Philly Italians — Michael and Joseph (aka Joey). They were responsible for the little-discussed hair debacle of 1975: my permanent wave.
I rode that wave right down Market Street and over to Vine to cross the bridge on my way to the west coast some 3 months later. I decided marrying Joey and being nanny to his 2 weekend warriors, products of his loins and his divorce, was not part of my vision. From the vantage of my dry-docked surfboard, I saw adventure, blue skies, and the promise of Joni’s California.
What I didn’t see were the three part-time jobs I would need to pay the California rent. My extraordinary years as a cheerful and disorganized waitress in Isla Vista, California led to my invitations back into the kitchens’ of two very different restaurants — each a delicious opportunity to learn the trade. It was there that I developed my own passion for cooking. Short order breakfast and prep for lunch at Paula’s Place in the mornings, and prep/ wait staff at The Rhythm Cafe afternoons and evenings. The Rhythm was a communally owned restaurant, very seventies healthy-hippie, quasi-Mex, quasi-French cuisine, manned by two chefs and a maître d’, Tim. Paul was a Brit who graduated from culinary school; Michael was a short-order Tex- Mex aficionado. I was the first outsider ever hired and only hired because of Michael’s acrimonious split with his beloved Barb, my predecessor on the floor and in the kitchen.
The Rhythm provided me with a hearty musical diet as well. The commune was all about reggae. The restaurant would close for field trips to concerts to which I was often invited. We went up to San Francisco to see Mighty Sparrow. We saw Tosh, Cliff, and Marley and dreadlocks of lesser-known Rasta bands. This was a benefit of my employment: the Cafe bought all our tickets, all the gasoline, and its occasional share of cocaine and weed.
My exodus from California was fueled by my breakup with my first serious boyfriend. I flew east for five weeks to be present for my father’s second surgery after cancer. I ended up working in my friend Lauren’s mother’s drugstore in Center City for three weeks to supplement the money I needed for my return ticket. Meanwhile, my live-in honey decided
1. to share our bed with two different Philadelphia women friends passing through, and
2. to not renew the lease on our apartment
Upon my return, this promptly placed the sum total of our discord, backpacks, and toiletries in his blue microbus — along with a couple of sleeping bags and pillows. That went well.
I liked the upper west side immediately. I slipped into an apartment, a job and a neighborhood almost seamlessly. My good fortune stemmed from a natural and lively investment in a friendship in California. Paule, a native of Laguna Beach who graduated with a music degree from UCSB, went east a year before me. It was she who offered me the roles of roommate and receptionist in one fell swoop. I now made my way to work with all the other 116th street straphangers pacing themselves for the surge out of the train and up the stairs into daylight, the marvelous morning throng almost decrying the need for caffeine. The Burlington building on Avenue of the Americas now claimed my weekdays. This is where I met Gloria Vanderbilt, Norma Kamali, Valentino, Zandra Rhodes, Jaclyn Smith-and the ever-curious bookies, Mr. Green and Mr. White.
This marked my entry into the licensing industry where I cut my teeth on the telex and sharpened my pencil culling Women’s Wear Daily and knocking off-color trend forecasting reports for a Hong Kong conglomerate.
This rather flashy phase of my education included studio 54, the Russian Tea Room, The Carlyle Café & Bobby Short, a delivery to John Waters’ apt, a party at the French Embassy, Andy Warhol & Carmen Electra, drinks with Carol Channing at her apartment, and Cuban cigars. I also walked the dog, made plane reservations, and wrestled damp couch cushion covers straight from the Chinese laundry back onto their rightful mates. I was Girl Friday of the burgeoning fashion licensing corps: Infinity Group, spearheaded by Chip Rubinstein (Anne Klein’s widower), Leo Gore (Leslie and Michael Gore’s Dad), Ruth Manton (former Executive Editor at Vogue) and a fourth business person Dick, whose last name escapes me now, whose penchant for the track brought Mr. Green and Mr.White my way weekly. I can still hear him screaming from his office, “K A R E N!” for his executive secretary from Brooklyn, with the ready-for-red matte lipstick — always a dab for her front teeth. Karen, invariably klatching with Bertha from Sheep's Head Bay, Chip’s “girl” of thirty years, would run dramatically down the carpeted hall back to her office yelling loudly, “Dick, I’m coming already, I’m coming! Stop your yelling!” That’s what we were called, Caridad, Delia, Paule, Karen, Bertha and me — we were the girls — and more specifically we were somebody’s girl, except me — I was everybody’s girl in the beginning, then I was Hermine Mariaux’s girl. That job was book-length.
At first, I was the darling of the reception desk, 20 years old and eager to learn, unpolished and unscathed by the wiles of the fashion industry. Chip Rubinstein sent me to typing school (I failed to pass the 40 words per minute final and disappointed Bertha terribly) in the hopes that I would stay on and move up to secretary status. The very kind Mr. Gore took me down to Valentino’s 7th Avenue sample racks and let me pick out a winter coat of my choosing (coming from California coatless as I had). He told me the bill would come later but that I could afford it. The bill never came.
We had a design studio en suite where designs for belts, jeans, and jewelry were rendered by three young designers. Their work was subsequently delivered for approval to the licensed designers such as Klein, and ultimately if selected sent for manufacture. Timothy, the head ghost designer, died of AIDS in the first wave before much was known about HIV. I learned about tree trimming from Timothy. He had us to his Christmas party and when we walked in and saw his tree I was stunned. It was magic in low light. He had white and red velvet bows instead of traditional Christmas balls — and lots of red bulbs and tinsel. That tree danced. I have trimmed my trees with red velvet bows for years, foregoing the tinsel but always remembering Timothy.
Gloria Vanderbilt, bless her generous white-gloved heart, bought me and another secretary tickets to Swan Lake trying to culture the under-sophisticated pearls. Delia fell asleep next to me with a whisper-pitched snore as the white tulle ballerinas circled en pointe across the Lincoln Center stage.
After the fashion industry wrung me out and I grew Manhattan weary several years in, I made my move back to my employment roots: I took a time out and returned as a 23-year-old camp counselor to a small Quaker camp in Pennsylvania. I traded borrowed Calvin Kleins and Donna Karans for peasant blouses and red tag Levis.
That fall I migrated up to Ithaca with a new man by my side — the summer camp’s program director, Jay. My fashion industry job skills had less value in rural western New York State. My first job in Ithaca was as a cocktail waitress at a bustling local club. I lasted three days. I had trouble balancing the drink-laden trays above my head while creating a passage through the crowd. I never lost a glass, but I had my ass pinched a couple of times and the tips were pathetic. This was not my calling. I gave immediate notice on the third night without much objection.
I finally found employment answering telephones in the business office of the JW Rhodes department store. I was also the gift-wrap department at Christmas time, moving downstairs to an isolated counter in the back of the store. I became intimate with tape and scissors and a plethora of husbands and boyfriends beleaguered by their Santa Clausian efforts. JW Rhodes fell on hard times financially and found its doors closing.
I was quickly offered a job by its competitor, Rothschild’s on the Commons. There I met Jules Lichter, my champion and my boss, born and raised in New York City. He used to say I was the lousiest secretary he’d ever had but the greatest person and invaluably creative. Together we pulled off Rothschild’s in-store fashion shows, which were a blast — I got my first and only modeling gig and a lot of laughs. Mr. Lichter kept me on despite my inability to type, until Rothschild’s too, succumbed to the decline of the American Department Store, slipping into chapter 11 and then failing altogether. Mr. Lichter and his family left for Florida, snatched up by Federated or United to manage another store and then a region. We stayed in touch until the week he died in 2014. He was a true friend with the best family ever. They welcomed me into their home in Florida and in later years he showed my Mom and my Aunt a jolly afternoon replete with lunch when they went to visit his store in Orlando. Everyone loved Jules. On his birthday he would cut out a circle in the center of his cake and eat that piece — that was his approach to life and it was infectious.
I stayed on at Rothschild’s to coordinate the going out of business liquidation sale with Lenore, the head of Human Resources (she was H.R., actually). We were a little in over our heads — Lenore not much older than I and newly from Australia. This was a tremendous responsibility and quite an education. Here I honed organizational skills.
The doors closed and through the window dresser, Susan, I got a job at Harold’s Army Navy. We had Cornell students stocking the shelves — the brainiest and zaniest crew of women I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing hourly wage grunt-work with. My longtime friend and blue jean-folding colleague, Dr. Weinstock, has by now relinquished her role as cashier and shelf stocker to publish books and chair conferences, and to profess Human Development and Family as well as Women’s Gender Studies at UVM.
Harold’s saw potential in my managerial skills and offered me my own store in Canandaigua. It was a huge move from Ithaca. Not a thriving, creative college town at all, Canandaigua was haves and have-nots: working class, agricultural and the very wealthy west lakers. We sold blue jeans to farmers and local families. We sold work boots to factory workers and water bottles and packs to hunters, we sold Oshkosh bibs and de-pinned hand grenades. I lasted through a move to a new storefront, a position on the downtown business association, two stints as the Easter bunny walking up and down Canandaigua’s Main Street green waving at cars, Easter basket and oversized eggs in hand, and finally, Manager of the year — I won the color T.V.. At 31 I felt as though I had peaked in the high school graduate job market. Soon after, I opened the want ads. It was clear this would require formal education: Let the books open.
I applied to the local community college and found that before I could think about applying to their nursing program I would need to take chemistry and statistics — a good fourteen years out of high school. I continued to work days and attended night classes to complete the prerequisites I needed to enter Nursing school.
Throughout nursing school I did work study for the English Department coding student papers for a study, and as a Nurse’s Aide weekends in the local community hospital on the orthopedic/respiratory floor. Both jobs prepped me well for Nursing.
My single most significant work decision at that time was answering an ad in the newspaper to work as a Volunteer with the dying. I was trained and paired up first with an older gentleman who collected Nazi paraphernalia; then with David, a young gay man in full blown AIDS who had had a drag act as Diana Ross on weekends in the city. Jay and I had the honor of a performance in our living room the weekend his caregiver mother was able to attend a church retreat because we were able to invite David to stay with us; by that time he had an AIDS Dementia and his care needs were escalating. Then there was Janet, my age mate who went through two bone marrow transplants before her body failed completely. Her Mom worked food services at the hospital and left for work by 5 am. I would head over a little later in the morning, once Janet had awakened, to help her to the bathroom, to get her dressed and to put on her make-up, which is amusing in that I have rarely worn make-up and had no talent for the art of it. She gave me direction and I improved.
The list lengthened and I started attending more funerals. Many of the people I have met in this Hospice world have become my family and some my mentors. This experience set my course for nursing school from which I graduated in 1991. I gave the graduation speech for our class on stage in front of my Professors, the widow of the Nazi paraphernalia guy, my dear Judy who brought me to Hospice with her compassionate and insightful Volunteer Training, with a handful of friends, and my parents. I feel deep satisfaction with the work of human service. I‘ve made a good life in end-of-life care. I won the really big T.V..
(As Mr. White and Mr. Green saw fit to do so have I: several names have been changed to preserve privacy.)