Thursday, June 12, 2014

Protective Masks

I am an impostor. From my family, I learned that appearances are everything. From the bullies in my neighborhood, who took every opportunity to attempt to pound me into the pavement, I learned that a huge helping of bravado mixed with bluster can be a life-saving strategy.

So, I perfected my impersonation of a tough girl. This ruse involved walking like an axe murderer and talking like a sailor. Not that I’d actually met axe murderers or sailors but an active imagination is the most essential trait of a successful impostor.

My rough and ready persona kept me safe in that deepest circle of hell, commonly known as high school. It came with its own rewards, especially after I expanded it to include the use of interesting drugs, cutting school and shoplifting.

In the mid-seventies I migrated to California to be out as a lesbian and away from Ohio, my father, and his new wife and life that he'd taken up after my mother’s death. These were hard times for me both financially and emotionally. The Mission neighborhood of San Francisco was crime-ridden and I didn’t own a car. Being young and into the bar scene, I was often on the streets late at night. My walk in combination with my leather bomber jacket served me well.

One night on my way back to my flat I ran into a sleazy looking dude who began with a slightly menacing, “Babe, what are you doing out on the street this time of night?”

“What are YOU doing out here, hon?” was my response. He kind of chuckled and we walked together for a bit, me trying to show him my take-no-prisoners pose. I suppose he was sort of intrigued by this odd woman with an antagonistic attitude and a butch stride.

Before we parted ways he asked, “Tell me, what do you really have in your pocket?” This question caught me off guard. On the street at night, I would always walk with my hands in my pockets. The fact that people might think I am carrying a weapon had never even occurred to me.

            “You don’t want to know!” was all I said as I moved on into the night.

It dawned on me that if I could make people give me a wide berth, perhaps I could also use my skill set to land a job I really wanted.

I had always dreamed of being a graphic artist, even took a course in it at City College. I decided that I would try to pass myself off as an experienced layout and paste-up person at my next job interview. It didn’t go all that well. I had to actually perform the task at the end of the interview. I was slow, clumsy and didn’t know a thing about the latest time-saving techniques, which they then showed me. Of course, I didn’t get that job.

But during my next interview, I really sounded like a pro and, it turned out that they didn’t even require a demonstration. I was hired.

When the graphic arts gig became a bit frenetic and boring, I wanted to move on. I succeeded in convincing a job training panel that my experience in design was perfectly suited for their program to learn drafting.

I then wormed my way into an Architectural firm and later branched out into Civil Engineering. When it came time to learn the new technology, CADD (computer-aided design drafting), I knew exactly what to do: Just claim that I know how to use the program until, in fact, I did.

When the entire field of drafting died with the advent of computers, It was time to go back to school and get some real training. I interviewed all my friends to see if they were doing anything I might find interesting. Since one of my primary pleasures was reading I decided to become a librarian.

I called professors in the Library accredidation program to find out what exactly they were looking for in a Master’s Degree candidate. After duly noting their emphasis on technology, I wrote two recommendation letters tailored to their needs, in different voices, of course. The third, my best friend penned for me. Then, wonder of wonders, I was accepted into the Library and Information Studies program at Berkeley and once armed with that degree, I became more able to make my way with safety and competence through the dark streets of life.  

I have been retired from my librarian job for over two years now. In my present incarnation, I blog and send out my epistles in the form of poems, articles and stories. I still have no weapon in my pocket, no magic up my sleeve. But when people ask me what I do, I just look them straight in the eye and state with utmost sincerity, “I’m a writer.”