Do you know what I’ve discovered? It only took me 24 hours to determine the answer to the most repeated question from everyone I see: Do you think you’ll like being retired? Well, the verdict is in:
Yes, Bitches, I love that I’m no longer “workin’ for the man”!
I am officially retired as of last week, had all the parties, and received the gold watch (not really—damn aftermath of the recession has affected everything), and I am doing a dance of unmitigated joy. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked my job and I’m going to miss the Benjamins (it was a great gig as jobs go), but it was still a job working for someone else, following someone else’s commands, and multi-tasking to the beat of someone else’s drum.
Image from studiohelper.com
Besides, because I was born a poor black child, I’ve been working ever since I was five years old, and the concept of work for work’s sake lost its novelty around age six. Contrary to nasty-ass Newt Gingrinch’s campaign idea of abolishing child labor laws and making poor kids work as janitors in their schools to give them a sense of purpose, other Ayn Randians tried that 60 years ago on me, and it didn’t make me any more purposeful—it just made me fucking exhausted.
The other day a twenty-something college journalist, who is the daughter of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of mine, dropped by my “Ask Dalai Mama” Show (formerly “Ask Big Mama” Show) and interviewed me for her college newspaper. She was fascinated with the concept that I was doing the “Newt Gingrich Dream Act for Poor Children” long before he thought of it—just when he was only eleven years old in Georgia and having newly escaped poverty, fatherly abandonment, and his god-awful christened name: Newton Leroy McPherson. The young reporter noted that the thing that seemingly kept Newt from my child labor fate, and thus ever thinking that his future sorry-ass concept would be a good campaign idea 60 years later, was the appearance of a stepfather who adopted him and the color white that saved him. Had he walked a mile in my shoes, the pathetic child labor idea would have never crossed his mind as an adult.
REPORTER: “Dalai Mama, I am so excited about interviewing someone who has reportedly been working since she was five years old. What job could you have possibly gotten at that age?”
DALAI MAMA: “Baby, I had two jobs. A five-year old could get any job in the inner city of Cleveland that they could master by standing on a crate so that they could reach the bench, the table, or in my case the washing machine or the ironing board to do their jobs. My mother, my baby sister, and I ended up homeless in the dead of winter in 1953, and a woman who owned a boarding house in East Cleveland had pity on us and took us in. It just so happened that there were several cottage industries operating under the roof of that boarding house: a kitchen beauty shop, a laundry, a neighborhood pick-up site for illegal numbers runners (the legal game we now call Lotto), and the selling of stolen goods. My two jobs in that house of horrors were as a two-step laundry assistant. In the first job where I was responsible for wringing dry the shirts from a barrel washing machine, I would stand on a wooden crate in the basement, pull out the wet white shirts and insert them into the wooden ringers on top of the washer. Because I had to lean into the machine to reach the shirts at the bottom (forcing my feet off the crate and suspending my legs in mid-air on the edge of the washing machine), I would almost always get my chubby little fingers caught in the wringer with the shirts as I fell against the rollers. It’s a wonder I still have use of my hands. I believe I learned and utilized my first swear words at the age of five:
“Somebody help da po’ child! Dis fuckin’ monsta is eatin’ my fingas like dey was chicken bones!”
Image from myauctionfinds.com
REPORTER: “Oh my God, I can’t even imagine that torture. I had a hissy fit when my mother tried to get me to clean my room on Saturdays and make my bed. She never did win that battle. Wasn’t the electric wringer invented by an African-American woman in the 1800s?”
DALAI MAMA: “Yes girl—go on with your bad self! Her name was Ellen F. Eglin and she was from Washington, DC, but she never patented her invention and sold it for $18 to a white man who made a considerable fortune. Ain’t that a pip? Ellen Eglin once said that she thought white women wouldn’t use the machine if they knew a black woman had invented it. Personally, I hated that machine and wished it had never been invented. I’d like to have a little chat with her when I see her on the other side and tell her how her stupid wringers were known for catching hair, clothing, and fingers (a four-year old reportedly choked to death from one), and almost dismembered me several times as a child laborer.”
REPORTER: “What was your other job as a five-year old?”
DALAI MAMA: “One that was equally as dangerous: I had to stand on a wooden crate and press stiffly starched shirts with flat irons that were heated on the stove. They were so heavy that it took both my hands to lift the irons whose handles were wrapped in towels (one was heated on the stove while the other was simultaneously used to press the garment), and I always ended up burning the easily scorched shirts because I would get tired and couldn’t lift the iron fast enough. But I didn’t keep that job very long. Once I discovered that starch burned quickly, one day in a fit of anger, I staged the youngest labor strike in the history of man and performed scorch art all over the paying customers’ white shirts. We lost the business, and I lost the skin off my ass for many months from endless beatings; but it was worth it, because I never, ever had to do that job again. To this day I hate to iron clothes. If the cleaners in town didn’t iron my husband’s shirts, he’d have to go to work looking like he slept in his clothes.”
REPORTER: “Didn’t you tell me in our pre-interview that you once worked for the Mafia when you were a child?”
DALAI MAMA: “Yes. Talk about working for the man! Yep, after I lost my ironing job, the landlady’s aunt (ostensibly my babysitter) decided I would make a great “bag-girl” to carry the numbers bets from the boarding house to a drop-off point which was a store that sold peanuts and cheese. Numbers runners were constantly being killed by heroin addicts or other numbers runners or they were being shaken down by the “po-po” (police) when they transferred the money to their contact further upstream. What better decoy could they use than a six-year old with numbers slips and cash pinned inside her overalls or winnings hidden under peanuts in a bag on the return trip home. Other residents in the house said that the numbers game in my neighborhood was ruled over by “Don (The Kid) King,” who, for the last four decades or so, has gone “legit” as the fighting promoter of people like Mohammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and Evander Holyfield to name just a few. I never met him because he was too high up the food chain, and I doubt if he ever knew who transferred the money from my boarding house to the peanut/cheese man, but the year I almost lost my life and most definitely almost lost my mind was the year I worked for his operation as a bag girl. It was also the year “Don (The Kid) King” killed a man in his house for stealing his numbers stash and got away with it because it was considered self-defense in the then strongly Mafia-run Cleveland. But you can find out all that well-documented information from The Life and Crimes of Don King by Jack Newfield or watch the movie, “Only in America”—a phrase I think the infamous gambling lord coined about himself when he went legit and became world-renowned.
Don King with Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie by his side, King speaks at a 2004 victory celebration for newly re-elected President George W. Bush||cnn.com Getty Image
REPORTER: “Wait a minute. You brushed over something intriguing when you said you ‘almost lost your mind’ while working for the man—Don King. I’d like to explore that some more.”
DALAI MAMA: “No can do, darlin’. I’ve got to save something for my memoir.”
REPORTER: “Well, surely you didn’t work through all of your childhood. Didn’t you catch a break at some point?”
DALAI MAMA: “Nope. Because I was considered a “Ward of the Court”—no parents sane enough or alive enough to take care of me—I drifted in and out of a group of foster homes that always saw me as cash flow in their pockets and a maid and nanny in their homes. I’d go for a preliminary visit with my very naive social worker all throughout my teenage years—usually a young lady about your age who had good intentions but had never seen the underbelly of Cleveland’s inner city. The foster-mother and father would be all, ‘Welcome to our humble abode. We’re such good Christians and Christ has led us to open our homes as a respite to these abandoned chilren—our home is your home, you po’ sweet motherless child.’ But as soon as the social worker would leave, the smiles would fade from the foster parents’ faces faster than a roach fleeing an airborne fly swatter, and they’d let the true boss-man or boss-lady emerge: ‘Get your fat ass off my good plastic-covered furniture (I better not ever catch you in here again or your ass is grass). You ain’t here for no vacation—you here to work and learn some responsibility. Go on and get that mop and bucket and start cleaning the bathroom and moppin’ the kitchen flo’—and don’t take all day if you want to eat! Fried chicken and biscuits is being made for my real chilren but you gets bologna sandwiches and milk if you scrubs these floors so spotless that I’ll be able to eat off ‘em. If you don’t make this place spotless, you’ll be going to bed hungry—I promise yo’ sorry-ass that much.’ Newt Gingrich would have been very proud that his idea of child labor had been instituted in the ghetto before his time with such demoralizing success that it helped turn me into a productive citizen.”
I am discovering that everything I’ve done throughout the last 60 years were “jobs” to pay the bills or help me and mine survive the suffering of the outrageous slings and arrows of life’s misfortunes. I’ve been a secretary too many times to count, a music school teacher, an actress, a singer, a voice-over talent, a maid (not a very good one), and a nanny (also not very good). I am not ungrateful for those opportunities, it’s just that there is so much more to me, and had I been born a Kennedy instead of a poor black child, I probably would have fulfilled that potential. Most people go through life only working at jobs—a small percentage pursue careers—but only a blessed handful of people become artists. Ever since I could first dream, I always wanted to become an artist—to be consumed by art without any interference from having to leave my art and go “work for the man.” Well, now is my chance. I want to exit stage left (to die) as an artist. I want the epitaph on my tombstone to read: Here lies Eleanor Tomczyk. She started working for the man when she was five years old and had to tarry in that field until she was sixty-five years old. But when she died, she died an artist.
“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist”—Louis Nizer
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