Tuesday, December 4th, 2007
Nancy Matson has published a number of short stories in literary magazines as well as a middle-grade novel, The Boy Trap. She is now at work on Workin’ It, a collection of essays about her numerous jobs. “Negative Energy” is of these essays. If you’re a fan of pointless suffering, sexual inappropriateness, and invasive insects, this one’s for you.
I have held over sixty jobs in my life. I’ve tested videogames, bankrolled blackjack hands, and typed the words of celebrities in Internet chatrooms. I’ve colored comic book pages, torn tickets for a traveling circus, and gone undercover as a housing discrimination tester. I have lived large; more often I have scraped by.
Opinions vary on why I’ve racked up such a lengthy resume, but I will say this: if I could have peered ahead and seen the unstable work future looming before me and set out to develop the dubious skills that these constant workplace adjustments would require, I could not have chosen a better preparatory environment than my alma mater, Antioch College. Featuring a quirky co-op program requiring its students to work for school credit for six months per year, Antioch produced many street savvy, fast-on-their-feet college graduates using the same method neglectful parents employ to drive their children into years of therapy: by ignoring them completely. Though the co-op office would often provide a job in some far-flung city, accommodations and transportation were the sole responsibility of the student. If problems arose from being abruptly thrown into a strange city where a student knew no one—which, not surprisingly, they often did—there was little recourse beyond toughing it out.
When I signed up for my first co-op, an internship at a small non-profit in Los Angeles, I chose it on the basis of its location—near my boyfriend. The prospect of moving to L.A. itself did not entice me. Like most East Coasters, I had a negative view of the city, imagining it as a cultural wasteland populated by vapid blondes who grinned toothily as they ran you off the freeway, thwarting justice because their license plates couldn’t be seen through the smog.
I lived and worked in a small house on the outskirts of Koreatown with my employer/housemate, Betty. Betty was a fiftyish woman with a salt-and-pepper bob and a vision of the future as a collective one. Her one-woman operation acted as a clearinghouse of information for ecologically sustainable group housing.
Ironically, despite her professional focus, she was not the most easygoing roommate. Not that she wasn’t friendly. As soon as I got to my new home, she let me know she was at my service. “If you need anything, just ask me,” she said, “or if you want to know anything about sex, or birth control.”
Now those comments strike me as odd, though not particularly shocking; at the time I was aghast. Back home in Massachusetts, such subjects were not openly talked about with strangers, if with anyone at all. When I was ten years old and my mother, following the advice of one of her many child-rearing books, attempted to give me the facts of life talk I dismissed her from my room with a panicked “I already know everything!” I was fully prepared to spend a lifetime ignorant of the finer points human sexual experience if it meant not having to endure a conversation about them.
Either because she recognized my discomfort or because she took my claim at face value, my mother never broached the topic with me again. I was not as lucky with Betty. She either didn’t recognize my horrified reaction to her offer or consciously decided not to let my uptight New England ways encroach on her freedom of expression.
“Are you going to see your boyfriend this weekend?” she asked me a few weeks after I’d moved in. I spent most of my weekends with him in Pasadena at the Cal Tech campus.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I wasn’t very chatty with new people back then. I was still recovering from the shyness that had plagued me through adolescence. I was also fearful of what topics Betty might drudge up in a loose conversational format.
“That’s nice. I’m seeing someone, too. Gary and I have a sex contract.” Gary was a man around her age who was active with her organization.
Maybe if I hadn’t been so standoffish, I wouldn’t have had to endure as many of these awkwardly candid moments. Perhaps Betty thought offering up juicy details of her life would bring me out of my shell—a woefully misguided strategy.
She looked at me after her announcement, curled up on the couch in the semi-dark, awaiting my response. Since there was nothing I could say short of a complete non sequitur that would prevent this conversation from playing itself out. I went with the obvious. “What’s a sex contract?”
She brightened, happy to share. “It means we have to tell each other when we have sex with other people.”
Cursed with a literal mind, I imagined there was an actual document involved, something that required witnesses—perhaps even a notary. Would the notification occur before or after the extracurricular sex? Did this rule apply to sexual encounters that didn’t end in intercourse? Did Betty, a perfectly ordinary fifty-something woman distinguished only by her sun-toughened skin and her odd conversational style get so much action that a contract of this sort was required? The mind reeled.
I had many questions, and I don’t doubt she would have answered them. But there was no way in hell I was going to ask. I mumbled something about being tired and retreated to my room to watch TV. Behind my closed door, protected from further intimacies, I relaxed a little. Betty was nice enough, I told myself. She was just so L.A.
I’m ashamed to admit I spent most of my leisure time in one of the world’s most glamorous cities watching TV in my room. Betty kindly provided me with a small black-and-white set which got up to three channels, depending on the strictness of your reception standards. The picture was visible from up to five feet away.
I had planned on spending my free time exploring the city. For the first few weeks after my arrival, I was so ignorant of local mores that I did this by taking long walks, up to two miles in any direction. Since my starting point was Vermont and 3rd my self-directed tours took me past cheap Mexican restaurants and sketchy Laundromats peppered by the occasional down-on-his-luck type cradling a forty. I was nowhere near the beach, which I had pictured stretching miles inland, and there was nary a toothy blonde to be found. In my Latin neighborhood, the closest thing to a blonde was brown-haired me.
That was the problem. I would have been perfectly content to investigate the idiosyncrasies of my humble neighborhood if I could have done so unmolested; as a friendless outsider making minimum wage I was realistic about my entertainment options. But as perhaps the only youthful white female around—and a solitary pedestrian one to boot—I was an unavoidably conspicuous presence. I am not exaggerating when I say I was unable to walk the single block to my local bus stop without some guy whistling at me; I couldn’t go three blocks without being subject to an unwelcome personal comment. There was even one notable incident where I was walking up Vermont and some guy driving a pickup truck headed in the opposite direction spotted me, pulled the car over to park with a screech, ran across the busy intersection, slowed down to a casual walking speed and fell into step with me. “How are you doing?” he asked. It would have been comical if it weren’t so invasive. And that was in broad daylight.
My response to all these intrusions was the same: a cold, dead stare, accompanied by stony silence. It was ultimately effective in every case, though sometimes it took a few blocks to fully discourage the most persistent of the men in my neighborhood.
These encounters left me feeling drained, angry, and intimidated. It took only a few weeks for me to start cutting down on my exploratory walks and expanding my prime time viewing.
One day after I’d gone to buy syrup for pancakes at the nearby grocery store and was trailed back to the house by some creep, I decided to approach Betty with my problem. I thought she might actually welcome the chance to discuss it because of its vaguely personal nature. “I can’t go outside without being harassed,” I said. “It’s awful.” I wasn’t expecting a solution, just hoping for a little sympathy.
“You know,” said Betty, “when I was your age that used to happen to me. I had long hair, like yours. Men whistled at me.”
That’s when I recognized the undercurrent of all our weird personal conversations. I had unknowingly brought out some competitive spirit in Betty, compelling her to express that she, too, was a sexual being, she, too, was desired by others—or at least she had been before she cut her hair.
Why would she imagine there was some sort of rivalry between us? Was she jealous of my weekends hobnobbing with math majors, and the hours I logged in on weeknights frantically trying to get some sort of audio signal from the local CBS station? Did she honestly wish that she, too, was unable to procure a slice of pizza without being confronted by some lame come-on from one of our predatory neighbors?
I wasn’t some glamorous party girl living a life she, as a woman of a certain age, could no longer hope for. I was quiet and bookish. I suffered from a chronic sinus condition and an inability to make small talk. I was from New England, for God’s sake.
I responded with a toned-down version of the stony silence and dead stare that I used on the men in my neighborhood. For the first time, it went ignored. She kept on talking.
Not only had Betty lived alone for many years, she had worked alone as well. Volunteers came in to help her with the monthly newsletter mailing, and she took the occasional meeting, but mostly it was just us. She planned events, talked on the phone and conducted research all from her dining room table. I wrote articles for the newsletter, conducted administrative tasks, and penned the occasional press release.
She had little experience at delegating, and was not particularly comfortable with the concept. I learned this early on. Shortly after I started my internship she saw an ad for a free issue of a publication that was of professional interest to her and asked me to request it. I typed up a brief letter, stuffed it into an envelope, addressed it, stamped it, licked it shut, and placed it in the out pile. I then ran to the supermarket to pick up lunch. When I returned she had ripped open the sealed envelope and was waving around the letter around wildly. “This is not a professional business letter. We can’t send something out like this!”
It wasn’t very professional. I hadn’t used our stationery. I hadn’t even put it in standard letter format. But it was going directly to the subscription department. Was our professional reputation, if we even had one, really threatened by my bout of amateurishness? So much so that she felt compelled to rip open a sealed envelope the minute I turned my back to buy a frozen pizza?
I leave it to you to decide.
From then on I tried to do everything to her specifications. Some of her requirements were too bizarre to guess at in advance, though. I remember telling my boyfriend about one issue that came up when she read over a press release I’d written.
“She wanted me to take out the word ‘not,’” I said.
“Why?” he asked. Thus far I’d been unable to get him to take my side against Betty—he’d met her a few times and taken an unexpected shine to her. This time I had him.
“She said,” I told him, “that the word puts negative energy into the universe.”
This gave him pause. As a fellow New Englander, he couldn’t deny that was some serious new age bullshit. So he took the coward’s way out: denial. He eyed me suspiciously. “She didn’t really say that.”
This sort of behavior wasn’t unprecedented. When I’d attended Ithaca College my freshman year and had to contend with a mass of spoiled Jersey girls, he always accused me of exaggerating when I repeated their remarks to him. Like the time a girl on my floor called wearing white after Labor Day “a fashion risk.”
“Do you know how hard it is to avoid the word ‘not”? I asked him. “It’s a basic building block of the English language. She’s completely insane.”
“I like her,” he said. Easy for him to say.
When I got home that Sunday evening Betty tore into me. “You can’t leave your candy here!” she said, holding up an empty plastic bag which had contained half a pound of chocolate. “I ate the entire thing while you were gone! I never leave junk like that in the house!”
Now I’m a little more sympathetic to Betty’s situation than I was then. Still, it’s not as if she ever mentioned anything about not leaving unhealthy food around before that day, so how was I to guess it was such a problem? Wasn’t communication a key part of collective living?
All I knew at the time was: Betty ate all my candy. And there was no chance in hell she was going to buy me any more.
About a month into my stay I woke up feeling itchy on my thighs and butt. A quick check in front of the bathroom mirror confirmed that I was covered with dozens of tiny red marks.
As a lowgrade hypochondriac I imagined the worst. Perhaps it was a rare skin disorder, or a sign of malnutrition. It might be permanent and untreatable. I might stay itchy for the rest of my life, an unfortunate but laughable medical case, like those poor people who ended up in the Guinness Book for having the hiccups for decades on end.
I had to tell someone.
“Let me see,” said Betty after I’d described my problem. My fear won out over my sense of decorum, and I reluctantly lowered my pants.
“Oh,” she said. “It looks bad. Maybe it’s herpes!”
I had tiny red marks over by backside—not open sores on my genitals. I was also an incredibly unlikely candidate for a sexually transmitted disease given my limited sexual history. I should have been able to dismiss this theory instantly, but, young and scared, I was freaked out by her armchair diagnosis.
There is no question that the trip to the Hollywood Free Clinic that followed was the lowest moment of my co-op. The bus stank of urine and the sweat of homeless people; the waiting room at the clinic was about the same. After a long wait, my name was called along with four others. We all lined up by the main entrance where a woman held up a can with a slit in the top before sending us through. “Donations,” she said, shaking the can, which contained, from the sound of it, a single coin. It was obvious from her jaded expression that she didn’t hold out much hope of our generosity. She held the can in front of each of us individually. Most of my companions stuffed in dollar bills. When she got to me I shrugged apologetically; I didn’t know I’d be asked for money. I told you, I have a literal mind, and it was called the free clinic. I only had enough for bus fare home.
The look she gave me straddled contempt and boredom. There’s no pride in being the biggest deadbeat at the free clinic.
I was relieved when the doctor told me I only had scabies, bites from a mite infestation, generally in a mattress. He gave me a prescription for lotion to apply to my wounds.
I said it was the lowest point, but it was also the highest. It’s a sad state of affairs when the best moment in your co-op is when you find out you don’t have herpes.
Upon my return, I reported the results of my clinic visit to Betty. “I have scabies,” I said. “from mites in the mattress.”
“Scabies,” she said, her face contorted with disgust. It was a far cry from the childlike excitement she’d displayed when she thought I had herpes. “Maybe it’s from staying at your boyfriend’s.”
The likelihood of that was quite small. He didn’t have scabies; only I did. However, I’d given her the facts, and if that’s how she chose to interpret them, there was little I could do. I proceeded the same way countless co-ops students had before me: I rode it out. I slept on the same mattress for the rest of my time in L.A. Following my dutiful lotion application, my bites cleared up some weeks later.
The closer I got to the end of my internship, the more both my mood and situation improved. I took a screenwriting class at the local community college in the evening, which gave me something productive to focus on. I even interned at LA Weekly one day a week. Betty volunteered me for the position without consulting me, but I ended up enjoying it, anyway.
A few weeks before I left Betty started telling me about some ecological housing experiment in Norway that she was excited about. A few sentences into the subject she interrupted herself with a rare moment of insight. “You didn’t come out here to learn about cooperative housing, did you?” she asked. “You just came here to be with your boyfriend.”
I guess the co-op was disappointing for both of us.
Three months after I’d arrived, Betty drove my boyfriend and I to LAX for our flight back home to Massachusetts. She hugged me goodbye. “Maybe I can’t have roommates anymore,” she said as she let go. “I’m too used to being by myself.”
I moved back to LA in 1993. Sometime in the late 1990s I met a young guy who was interested in urban cooperative living and I asked if he knew Betty. He thought he’d met her once. “Betty?” he asked, “that cute little old lady?”
I winced for her, knowing she’d hate to be thought of in those terms. It was hard for me to imagine anyone thinking of the vibrant woman I’d worked with as a little old lady, regardless of her age. I guess she hadn’t told him about her sex contract or offered him any sexual advice.
I’m sure if he met her a second time she would cheerfully do so.