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Scraping by in the Big Eighties

"Natalia Singer has captured the '80s perfectly--the real, tough '80s that serve as the prelude to our current rightward plunge. But more than that she tells two timeless stories: a hard one about what it means to have a crazy mother, and a sweet one about what it means to come to terms and to come of age. Her writing is blessedly funny, relaxed; her story is unexpectedly beautiful and resonant. A book not to miss."

--Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature.

"With the authority of a prophet, the street smarts of a stand-up comic, and the compassion of a saint, Natalia Rachel Singer leads us into the fractious corners of an America she will not allow herself or us to ignore or forget. Writing with wit, élan, and rare insight, Singer captures the collisions of a splintered personal world in an equally splintered culture. Never didactic, she is simply a chronicler of the times of the highest literary order and an unflinching memoirist, someone who deserves the widest of audiences."

--Robin Hemley, author of Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness.

"Singer's book is a memoir, but it is also social commentary, political critique, and a portrait of its times that, in its best moments, can stand beside something like Joan Didion's The White Album or Slouching Towards Bethlehem."

--Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After and Half a Heart.

"A portrait of a time that doesn't jibe with so many of the official versions, in which the eighties were halcyon days filled with milk and honey, kindness and plenty, happiness and political harmony. Ms. Singer's work stands up to those lies and more."

--Bill Roorbach, author of Writing Life Stories.

Scraping by in the Big Eighties
by Natalia Rachel Singer

Kirkus Reviews
The charmingly personal becomes the mightily political in a muscular, well-wrought series of essays that move chronologically through an appalling decade of public and private self-indulgence. Singer (English/St. Lawrence Univ.) was 22 in 1980 and “ready to let the transcendence begin” when this brand-new Northwestern graduate moved to Seattle with boyfriend Joe. Her plan was to get laid off and become an “evolved human,” except that Ronald Reagan was about to be elected, ushering in a war on big government and a “crisis of faith in Team America.” Singer’s younger self, the first-person protagonist of these essays, worked hand to mouth in restaurants, at an emerging HMO dubbed Group Death, and in an under-the-table hippie sweat shop assembling jewelry boxes, observing with cunning eyes the unfolding of the decade’s horrors. “Voodoo economics” (a phrase coined by the elder George Bush), which accompanied Reagan’s huge escalation in the Pentagon budget with drastic under-funding of social services, to the author meant cutbacks in the mental-health care required by her unstable and increasingly dangerous mother back in Cleveland.

Singer nails the advent of televangelists and other desperate religious strivings with her account of a visit to Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s holy state outside of Antelope, Oregon, in the essay “Shelter.” She chronicles her newly yuppie friends’ transformation into Ollie North clones and her own resemblance to “scary babe” Fawn Hall. The crises of AIDS, Chernobyl, and the Challenger explosion are all couched within Singer’s own personal toils: heartbreaks, abortions, head wounds from a bicycle accident. “How I Survived the Crash” finds a metaphor for the country’s lack of “structural integrity” in an account of shopping for a bra with her mother in Northampton, Massachusetts. Singer has certainly done her homework for this entertaining refresher course on the decade of big hair and small mercies: the acknowledgments alone offer an excellent bibliography of an era that many readers who lived through it would rather forget. A palatable history lesson, by turns funny, stern, and often sad. Agent: Emma Parry/Fletcher & Parry.

Chapter One:
Soul Work in the Age of Reagan

“Purple is the color of transcendence,” a woman announced from her open doorway when she heard us gasping at the mailboxes, newly painted in honor of our arrival. The duplex Joe and I had signed a lease for was white with faded gray trim, but now the front steps, mailboxes, and porch were all this same eye-frying plum, the handiwork of our downstairs neighbors, apparently. “It’s the color of the seventh chakra,” a male voice explained. To our left on the front porch, a balding, blond man in his late twenties was sprawled out in a hammock reading a book called Life After Death. I half-hoped he’d leap up to help us move in, but he stayed horizontal.

“We’re Vicki and Glenn,” the woman called up to us almost as an afterthought, as though names did not matter in the world she inhabited, only colors, chakras, essences. A quick glance had already told us that purple was the color of the neighbors themselves: their gauzy shirts, her thick eye shadow and long, flowing Indian skirt, even the hammock.

Joe, in his usual Keds and jeans, hummed The Twilight Zone theme song, but I was charmed. I had always longed to lounge in a hammock (though preferably on a beach in Mexico), and I was inspired to see that Vicki, whose accent screamed Brooklyn, had morphed into some groovy New Age priestess out here in the hinterlands of Seattle’s Ballard District. Having denounced the Midwesterners of my past and their color schemes--my mad mother in Cleveland (polyester stretch pants in red), our career-obsessed classmates at Northwestern (crew-neck sweaters in navy, gray, or pastel)--I could learn to like purple if it would help me mellow out. That was exactly what I’d moved out west to do.

Joe and I had set out for Seattle in separate driveaway cars: giant gas-guzzling Cadillacs that attracted scowls of disapproval from the other drivers lining up at those OPEC-embargoed pumps. I arrived first, when the blackberries were still on the vine, and Joe made it in time for my birthday in October. We could have gone together but depending on a guy on the road did not jive with my feminist notion of how to become a free spirit, so I depended, instead, on the kindness of strangers (to quote the subject of my senior honors thesis): in this case, two grumpy best gal-pals who sought out a ride-share passenger just to cut costs. I was pining for Joe by North Dakota, but given that neither of us had savings, furniture, cookware, or outfits appropriate for 9-5 work, necessity dictated that we depend on the kindness of strangers through the first fall and winter. I loved the couple I rented with--an artist named Claudia who supported her unemployed philosopher boyfriend on her scandalously low teaching wages--but their daily battles about money were wearing. Joe was equally fond of the young marrieds he bunked with, but their colicky baby screamed half the night. We sought refuge from domestic discord on each other’s lumpy foam pads, imagining our utopia à deux.

And so we’d hustled, toiling away at uncool desk jobs to come up with the requisite first, last, and security deposit, plus all the supplies for our love shack. Now, as we emptied our just-bought 1963 Buick Le Sabre station wagon (monkey-dung brown, with rust) I felt the weight of our new loot--the shiny pots, Pyrex casseroles, toaster, blender, the price tags still on--as the physical expression of those long months of tedium and pantyhose chafing. I was ready to let the transcendence begin.

It was March of 1980, and even as a Republican presidential candidate named Ronald Reagan was plotting revenge on all the able-bodied lazies living off big government, I was scheming to become one of them. I was twenty-two, a little young to be contemplating a sabbatical, but back then when our world seemed poised for nuclear war, contributing nothing to the fluorescent-lit, acronym-ridden, anesthetizing, military-industrial complex seemed like the most productive but subversive thing I could do.

The plan was to get laid off, go on unemployment, and become laid back, while meanwhile training myself to write and publish the most important bildungsroman of the late-twentieth century. It was a tall order, a seemingly incongruous mix of ignoring the call of hustle and material ambition while meanwhile pursuing a lifelong dream with the focus of a pole-vaulter. But I was used to contradictions, and most of all, used to scraping by on next to nothing. I was kind of macha about it.

I hadn’t always aspired to live on $330 a month, the maximum I’d be eligible to draw (I had checked). From the age of six I had done my homework, studied for tests, written for school publications, nabbed the scholarships, pulled all-nighters, read all assigned texts and recommendeds, crafted to-do lists and five-year plans...until something shifted around the time my friends started hearing back from law schools and buying job interview suits. I began to feel that I’d somehow been duped by my liberal arts education, that all the Emerson and Thoreau and even the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had been the lures into a club in which everyone wore the same uniforms and were lumped into the same marketing niche. Weren’t we all, here on Island U.S., nothing more than buyers and sellers? And wasn’t it, finally, death we were peddling: the Cold War products and byproducts of mass extermination, and consumer culture’s products of catatonia, complete with laugh tracks?

This crisis of faith in Team America coincided with a parallel crisis of self. While I was writing my tome to Tennessee Williams’ tarnished heroines I made the realization that no amount of good grades or college prizes could fill up a certain bottomless hole. I had “baggage,” as they said back then. Most of it had to do with my mother, a paranoid schizophrenic who read my every move towards independence as a rejection of her, and my father, who was off who-knows-where cobbling together a life as a writer and a painter that I romanticized and was looking to emulate, minus the alcoholism. In the wake of his abandonment, my mother, younger sister and I had limped along on welfare and whatever handouts in the way of food and shelter my mother could finagle from her folks in Cleveland: our affectionate, leftie grandmother (whom we adored), and our violent, misogynistic grandfather (whom we had wished dead on so many occasions that when his cancer finally came, we felt like assassins). In my psyche, feelings of suffocation, guilt, rejection, shame, self-loathing and its compensatory arrogance competed for floor space with a wide-eyed bohemianism that only occasionally grew sharp with the awareness of the possibility of personal and collective doom.

Mostly I wanted, in Seattle, to become a more evolved human. I’d done the hedonism thing, but now I got up early and ate healthy, or tried to. I was reading literary magazines, novels by women and people of color I hadn’t been exposed to as a student, and also books about history, philosophy, politics, and Eastern mysticism. Inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, I was hoping through my writing to find some link between the personal and the political, the political and the spiritual, art and politics, all the schisms and Manichean opposites that in our bifurcated Cold War world seemed unbridgeable. I was open to any text I thought would expand my worldview, classic or kooky, from Virginia Woolf to Edgar Cayce and all the occult classics Glenn was inhaling in that purple hammock. I wasn’t sure about life after death, but life after Group Death (my nickname for my place of employment) was certain to be sweeter.

I had always been a dreamer and what got me to Seattle was a dream, literally. A few weeks before graduation I had found myself soaring like a condor over a map of North America towards the Northwest’s dense green pockets of spruce and cedar. I was flying, then I was falling, and I woke up bracing for impact.

Joe did not call me a flake for reading my R.E.M. imagery as a summons. While his roommates began to dress for success he hung onto his red-flecked beard and shoulder-length brown hair. We had met in a Romanticism seminar our senior spring and decided that Romanticism was not just a literary movement: it was a lifestyle choice and it would be ours.

Together, we were denouncing the values of our soon-to-be-labeled yuppie generation. We were rejecting late-century industrial capitalism. We were abandoning the industrial Midwest of our childhoods: the steel mills of Pittsburgh, where Joe had been expected to become a miner like his father or Protestant minister like his older brother, and Cleveland with its chemical factories and self-igniting river. In their stead we were embracing nature, art, funky cafés, and the time to partake in such havens.

Seattle was the perfect, moist setting to give succor to a young, romantic heart. A shopping expedition downtown through the endless stalls of produce and crafts at the Pike Place Market could take all day if you indulged yourself, letting your nose lead you from fresh crab to wild blueberries; to avenues of cheeses pungent with pepper or chives; to herb stands aromatic with lavender, sage, and myrrh. You could relive the Gold Rush era in Pioneer Square, whose dark, wrought iron benches and handsome old saloons and shops had barely escaped the flames that demolished the city in the great fire of 1890. When your feet were tired you could sip lattés in the cozy cafe of Elliot Bay Books and gaze at the shiny new hardbacks feeling happily agitated: so much to read, so little time.

For nature lovers, there were countless mountains in the vicinity--the Cascades, the Olympic Range, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker, and more--the only rain forest in North America, and lovely city parks and beaches. Whereas I’d grown up near a junkyard of rusting cars, our new digs were just a jog from a place where salmon swam upstream to spawn.

I loved Seattle’s coffeehouses, the cappuccino and pastries. I loved the neighborhood diners. A late leisurely brunch might offer avocado omelets, cinnamon rolls as big as box turtles, and primo people-watching. You could seat yourself at the splintered counter or at wobbly tables with sticky chairs, while big, hairy, slow-moving men in aprons served up cheap hippie fare and braless women with jangly earrings wrote down the recipes if you asked nicely. The drone of flies and bees dive-bombing the honey jars were perfect accompaniment to the scratchy old Traffic tapes and conversations about silversmithing or the Dalai Lama. You could work all this atmosphere into your novel.

Newcomers in their twenties were arriving every day, all with their big backpacks and clunky hiking books and chewed-up poetry volumes and dreams. There was still a pioneer mentality at work, the belief that you could start over, live cheaply and well, and become a calmer being than the anxious striver you’d been in the industrial wasteland you had fled. If you wanted to be a writer, there were several live reading series that brought in the famous but seemed to welcome all comers; if you wanted to be a painter, there were new galleries springing up everywhere and openings almost every night. There were so many plays and foreign films and art happenings and lectures to choose from that even though Joe and I went out several times a week, we were always pining for the amazing cultural moment we had missed. In fact, one cent of every tax dollar went into the arts: public sculptures, murals, poetry-on-the-bus, and free concerts and plays, the one catch being that most of the theatrical freebies took place during conventional work hours. Who were these lucky people who could catch the new Sam Shepard at the Tuesday matinée?

Well, a lot of these theatre-goers were the unemployed and underemployed, we’d soon discover. Seattle’s infrastructure was in flux. During the Boeing plant closings of the early and mid-seventies, people had left town in droves with bumper stickers saying Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn off the light? and leaving behind attractive middle class houses that could be rented now for a song. The counterculture’s influence was strong, the result being collectively-owned businesses, food co-ops, women’s health care cooperatives, and a burgeoning alternative spiritual community--all this before the New Age was a cultural cliché, before the first Windham Hill record was even cut, let alone used as mood music to sell luxury cars on TV. As a girl who hailed from the land of white bread, these innovations seemed revolutionary. The real revolution of the baby boom--young people uniting to end an unpopular war, bring down a villainous president, declare equality among men and women of all colors and persuasions, and protect the spotted owls--well, that had all happened just before I came of age and I was sorry I had missed it. Now it seemed that the best way to help the planet was to lead a thoughtful, balanced life in a peaceful place. I wasn’t satisfied with the social progress we’d made but I could live with this worldview, in a pinch.

Joe and I thought it was cool that when Seattleites asked us what we did they were usually referring to our free time. Did we know that a mile from our new home was a beautiful beach called Golden Gardens, where a path along blackberry-festooned railroad tracks led to the even-prettier Karkeek Park? Had we discovered the joys of roller-skating around Green Lake? Were we ready to watch Mt. St. Helens blow her top? Had we been to the Seattle Psychic Institute to hear of other future seismic events and to find out what we been “called” to the Northwest to do?

Almost everyone we met--from outdoors enthusiast to table-tapper--was engaged in something called “soul work.” Soul work was a lifestyle and a worldview, a goal and the path itself. To engage in soul work was to apprentice oneself to an art form while also learning to bake organic bread, meditate and do yoga, get some form of daily aerobic exercise, learn the names of local trees, write down random thoughts and feelings daily in a journal so as to ferret out hidden motivations and unresolved hang-ups, read everything, and record one’s dreams in a separate journal made of hand-made paper and studded with inspiring quotes from Rilke, Yeats, Shakespeare, Goethe, Margaret Mead, Freud, and Jung.

Fitting soul work around a forty-hour-a-week job was simply out of the question.

After we’d unpacked the kitchen and cooked up our first utopian supper of black beans, avocado, and rice, Joe and I sat at our five-buck garage sale dining room table and marveled at our good fortune. “To new beginnings,” I said, clinking our Rainier beer bottles together. We toasted every appealing detail of the apartment: the knotty branches of the giant monkey puzzle tree knocking against our leaded windows; the views of snow-capped Mt. Rainier to the South and the Cascades facing the Northeast; the converted darkroom that would be my study; the tiny cubbyhole in the living room, (perfect for storing Joe’s fermenting home-brews); the dark, cavernous bedroom so conducive to lucid dreaming; and above all, the miraculously low, $230-each rent.

“To the wilderness,” Joe said.

He unfolded a map and plotted our upcoming hike through the Hoh River Rain Forest, where the ancient, moss-cloaked cedars and Douglas fir in the guide book photographs looked as gnarled and enchanted as Arthur Rackham’s trees in Alice in Wonderland. My sister was flying in soon for her spring break from The Chicago Art Institute and I’d managed to wrack up enough comp time at work to take her to the Olympic Peninsula for a four-day weekend. When Joe’s miserly employers had told him he couldn’t go, he simply resigned.

“To freedom,” I said.

“To the end of devo jobs forever,” Joe said. Devo was a word he had appropriated from the New Wave band by the same name, who performed in sterile white jumpsuits, with gas masks. Joe defined devo as “de-evolutionary, de-humanizing, demonic”--all that we were rejecting. Joe’s job processing bank forms in a windowless cubicle on the tenth floor of an ugly, gray high-rise fit the description to a tee. Having moved all this way to live near mountains, it was an abomination to be trapped inside a building that hid them from its employees while ruining everyone else’s view too. After our wilderness excursion, he vowed, he’d line up something more humane.

I laid out the last details of my get-rid scheme to Joe as the moon rose. If luck had given me my devo job, luck would take it away.

Some back story on the luck part: I’d cut things close to the bone when I moved to town, and after paying my first month of rent I had only $30 to spare. I blew all of it on the only job-hunting outfit I could scavenge from the Bon Marché basement: black vinyl shoes with cardboard soles, and a two-sizes too big polyester floral dress with a ruffled bodice like something a lactating Sunday school teacher might wear. The temp agency I visited that afternoon lined me up a typing gig the next morning at one of the nation’s first HMOs—an acronym I’d never heard before--a sprawling brick complex called Group Health. The temp lady warned that my petty, supervisor-to-be was still complaining about the last “idiot” they’d sent, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, but I figured that even if I only lasted a day, I could eat. I was taking things one grocery bag at a time.

My boss turned out to be a thirtiesh, shaggy-haired man whose Wisconsin accent and slightly gooney name of Wayne Leloo put me at ease. What may have appeared to his former underlings as an anal-retentive perfectionism was a passion for the English language and a hatred for the jargon and peppy slogans of corporate-speak. He loathed acronyms and was appalled by the practice of using nouns as verbs. Our very department’s name--Word Systems, or WS to management--was ridiculous to him. He longed to write The Great American Novel as I did, but the financial pressures of family life and home ownership had squashed his shot at it for the moment. We recognized each other as kindred spirits and by the end of the day he had hired me to work full-time--not as his secretary, but his assistant technical writer.

Suddenly, literally overnight, I had landed a professional job with great benefits during a year of double-digit inflation and unemployment, a year when many young people with B.A.s were washing dishes. Everyone told me how lucky I was, but that didn’t stop me from feeling sorry for myself when the alarm rang at half-past-six.

I, who had never even touched a computer, was now a writer of computer manuals. My task was to translate into humanspeak the programming functions my colleagues described as they automated each area of the hospital wing by wing. I didn’t understand why they had to computerize their records at all; it seemed awfully devo. I was not good at this kind of writing and unwilling to work overtime to improve.

Wayne seemed grateful just to have someone around the office he could talk to about literature. He never once complained when I let my Word Systems communiqués pile up while I typed up my short stories on the company’s dime, never took offense when I put my feet on the desk or when I renamed our place of employment. Perhaps if he had been a boss and not a buddy, he could have kept his job. That Christmas the management fired Wayne for “low productivity,” putting me, the queen slacker, in charge of all in-house publications, with the caveat that there’d be no money for me to hire an assistant, and that I’d have to do all of my own typing because, well, I could. All this at my same assistant’s salary, I might add.

Laden with guilt over my role in Wayne’s demise and panic about my new responsibilities, I began to throw the I-Ching (an oracular tool my first housemate, Claudia, had turned me on to); I was looking for the sage’s way out. I kept getting image 41, Decrease, and the judgment, “Decrease combined with sincerity brings about supreme good fortune without blame.”

What I wanted was for my boss to decide not to fire me, which would hurt my future prospects, but to lay me off to save the department money. But how would I pull this off when I was the lone, overworked writer?

Then one day a salesman arrived wheeling in the ten volumes of a wonder-product with the laughably redundant name of System Development Systems, and I knew the road to redundancy was clear. I used reverse psychology on my boss. I sent him a memo excoriating him for thinking that this set of three-hole-punched forms that forced the programmers to document their procedures step by step could replace a human being.

I also let it slip that WS could acquire the SDS for only 2K less than my yearly salary.

Management saw at once that the SDS would do a better job than a flawed human. The SDS didn’t need vacations or health insurance. The SDS didn’t call in comp time to take its sister on nature hikes. The SDS didn’t sneak out for two-hour lunches at the collectively-owned Cause Célèbre Café, then skulk back sullenly, longing to lose the suit and don a beret. The SDS did not think it was a sad and absurd indictment of the times that its initials, which now evoked regimentation and standardization, had once stood for a national student radical group. The SDS was simply glad to be of use and could, if reinforcements of its kind were needed, be cloned on the office Xerox machine.

I would not stand in the way of progress: I would allow myself to be replaced by an acronym. If hastening the dehumanizing trends in the work world would give me time to enrich my own humanity, so be it.

“Here’s to the Great American Novel,” Joe said, and we clinked bottles one last time.

We unfurled our foam pad bed and hung above it Joe’s poster of Che Guevara, whom he resembled, and my Arthur Rackham print of Alice in Wonderland, whom I resembled. We moved my desk into the slanty-ceilinged extra room; found shelf space for our books; hooked up the stereo and put on some theme music. I chose Joni Mitchell, whose songs about the “free, free way” were to be my soundtrack in the months and years to come as I kept trying to become a free spirit (oblivious at first to the oxymoronic quality of this goal). Then Joe put on the new Devo album and we slam-danced around the apartment, jumping up and down on the bare hardwood floors, kicking around the empty boxes, commemorating our last gasp of Devodom until we remembered our purple-clad neighbors downstairs.

“Well, let’s hear it for transcendence,” I whispered as I turned down the stereo and clinked my empty bottle to his.

I had no idea what I was inviting into my life with that toast, and also how little, how very little.