Eighteen years ago, a 20-something woman, wearing a new $17 Levi’s jean jacket, holding one small piece of luggage, said good-bye to her mother at 5:00 a.m. on a brisk April morning. Departing on a Greyhound bus, bound for Northern California, it was a move of desperation to protect herself from an abusive, stalking, estranged (now ex-) husband.
She would travel for four days by bus, stopping in a variety of bus stops along the way; in towns she never knew existed, as she ventured further toward the West Coast. She was befriended by a couple of guys during her journey. The trio quickly became friends and to be honest, it was nice not to be so alone.
A time came when she had to make the choice to continue onto California, for a sales job, or accept the offer of one of her new friends and continue on with him. She eventually chose her original path and was in awe as the bus made its way into California. Sacramento was the first city where she saw palm trees and she thought of the movie Beverly Hills Cop. Granted, that took place in Southern California, and she was no where near there, but that was what came to mind.
The bus made its way to the Greyhound station in the East Bay. The woman had no idea who she was meeting. It was dark out when the bus pulled into the station. Luckily, the party she was meeting, found her. So began her new life in the Golden State.
Fast forward a bit…the sales job didn’t work out, esp. when she learned she’d be moving back East as the company was headed to Chicago. Back East? Back to being closer to her husband? No, not possible.
Three thousand miles away from family and friends and faced with the possibility of being on the streets because this job wasn’t didn’t turn out as she thought it would. After making some calls, she found a homeless shelter in Newark. She was able to live there for a month to figure things out. It wasn’t ideal, but it was an option. Part of the rules was that the residents had to be out of the facility for a certain number of hours each day. Some went to group counseling, which was free, as many of them were substance abusers.
The groups weren’t a bad place to be; killed time after all. There was coffee and some food, so she didn’t need money to eat. The shelter also provided bus tokens. She would use those to go to the local unemployment office. Back then, you could go in and search for work on their computers.
As it happened, she found a live-in, housecleaning job. Having grown up in a tourist town, she was familiar with picking up after strangers. She’d been employed, several times, as a chamber-maid. Yup, that was the term before everyone switched to “housekeeping”.
She was earning $1500.00 a month plus a small room, which held a twin bed and had a small closet. It wasn’t much, but it was a safe, warm place that provided a paycheck. Working for those who come from money is an experience. The wife/mother of this family was very out of touch with reality. She treated people as if they were beneath her. The husband, a heart surgeon, grew up poor and had a different perspective on life. By their interactions, you’d be surprised they were married.
That job lasted several months until the woman expressed interest in continuing her job but living in her own place. She was fired, by the secretary one afternoon, because she refused to take a spoiled teenager shopping at the mall, during rush-hour traffic, for her birthday (3 months away). The woman was in the middle of doing her job, which was cleaning the house. The teenager was calling her mother and complaining about not being at the mall. Welcome to the life of living in excess and no boundaries.
So there she was, homeless again. This time she had a little money but not enough to get her a room anywhere. She called the guy she had met and had been dating. He came, picked her up, and paid for her to stay at a local motel. Back to looking for work. She found a waitressing job. The owner, upon hearing she was from NY, hired her immediately. It seems New Yorkers have a good worth ethic, even if they are abrupt and blunt in their interactions.
She would have to take the bus and walk a couple miles each day, but at least she was working again. She was able to rent a room in about a month with what she was able to save. She still didn’t have access to a car, so more walking and bus riding. It wasn’t ideal, but it was what needed to be done.
That waitressing job led to other hospitality jobs, including working formal catering jobs. Working in some of the finest venues and homes in California was an experience. The highlight of the catering jobs including meeting Wolfgang Puck, working a wedding for a local chef, working parties at the home of the Chancellor of Berkeley, working in a Senator’s home and being a bartender on Alcatraz.
Fast forward many years later, the woman is now married, has a beautiful daughter, a house, a good job and has defied odds that would have crippled many. While I, yes me, the woman in the story, will always remember my New York roots, I have graduated to being a Californian. This is my home.