Modelling in a Sleazy Motel

November 14, 2016 at 10:31 pm | Posted in Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories, Modelling Stories | 3 Comments
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At the end of June 1962, I resigned from my secretarial job in West Los Angeles and moved into the Hollywood Studio Club, expecting to work as a model a minimum of ten days a month.  Two months had passed and I’d been hired only once.  My dream of working full-time in the field had failed.

I’d been modelling for photographers part-time since January 1962.  Although a Canadian immigrant, I looked like the archetypal blonde California girl and initially obtained plenty of bookings.  Now, however, photographers were reluctant to hire me because my photos had been sold to many well-known Los Angeles publications.  Magazine editors wanted new faces, new bodies.

A cute girl could survive by combining short-term pinup work with nude photographic sessions.  Not live well, but survive.  Unfortunately, I discovered belatedly, my agent, Bill M., lacked the relevant contacts needed to make such arrangements.  He knew most of the photographers who shot nude layouts in Los Angeles because he processed their colour film.  He didn’t know other “power brokers” who hired pinup models – for example, to work at trade shows as greeters, appear in advertisements for flimsy lingerie, and pose as “sweater girls” in local business newsletters.  In late August 1962, after quarrelling with Bill, I stopped modelling completely.

That was when I walked into the Hollywood office of Capitol Records, applied for a job as a secretary, and was immediately hired for $375 a month – the same wage I’d received two months earlier.  My new life was pleasant.  Accommodation and two meals a day at the Hollywood Studio Club cost $86 a month.  With the Capitol office only seven blocks away, I could leave my car in the Club’s parking lot.  Work was easy in the record company’s laid-back atmosphere and the place offered a glimpse of glamour.  I passed Bobby Darin when entering the building one morning; he was exiting after an all-night session.  My co-worker had her picture taken with Nat King Cole.

I loved living at the Studio Club among friendly, ambitious girls whose goals and personalities were similar to mine.  But my son and my mother had returned to Canada when I decided to follow my modelling dream.  I missed them and, in December 1962, I left Hollywood and drove to Canada.  Had the Canadian economy been better, I might have remained there, living in my mother’s house in Burnaby, a municipality adjacent to Vancouver.  But the only job offer I received paid $200 a month – as a secretary for a used car company.  After Capitol Records?  Not likely.  In early April 1963, with my unemployment insurance nearing expiry, I drove back to Los Angeles.

While living in Canada, I saved money by dying my hair black – it was naturally dark brown and reverting to a brunette shade eliminated the expensive touch ups needed every two weeks to keep it blonde.  When I departed for Los Angeles, I kept my hair black so I could promote myself as a “new” model.  To maximize my earnings, I planned to work as a secretary in temporary positions and model part-time.  My new goal was to earn enough to pay the air fare for a trip to Africa, a dream I had entertained, on-and-off, for more than six years.

I already had a place to live; Studio Club policy was “once accepted, always welcome.”  So I moved back in and immediately started working for an agency that provided temp workers for Hollywood-area businesses.  Finding modelling jobs was not as easy.

***

A couple of weeks after my arrival, another resident at the Club told me about an advertisement for nude models.  I phoned the photographer who had placed the ad.  His name was Bill Crespinel.  I had never heard of him but my knowledge about the business aspects of pinup modelling was superficial, even after having worked in the trade for eight months.  Few pinup models knew exactly how it operated.  We relied on agents to find us jobs.

When I described my background to Crespinel on the phone, he said he thought he could use me and we arranged to meet at a motel.  After introductions, we talked.  He sat behind a table near a kitchenette, his hand brushing a camera on the table; two additional cameras lay near his feet.  Other photography equipment – floodlights and a tripod – stood in a corner behind him.  A double bed was pushed against the wall at one end of the long room, a sofa sat in the middle, and the kitchenette, an alcove containing a small fridge and some cupboards, was opposite the entrance door.  Near the head of the bed, a folding door concealed a closet that bulged slightly; it was filled with clothes.  Past the foot of the bed, a closed door concealed a bathroom.  I suspected that Crespinel lived in that motel room and that it wasn’t just a place for meeting models.

I showed him my set of modelling photographs.  In them, my body was displayed in a variety of poses, although my hair was blonde.  Crespinel could view with his own eyes how my face looked when framed by black hair.

Crespinel had a Playmate application on the table and he asked me to fill it out.

“I can’t be a Playmate,” I said.  “I’ve appeared in several magazines.  They only accept applications from girls who’ve never been published in the nude.”

“I’m looking for a Playmate,” he said.  Had he told me this on the telephone, I wouldn’t have bothered to make an appointment.  I turned to leave but then he asked, “You’ve never modelled as a brunette before?”

“Not ever,” I replied.

“So maybe Playboy will accept you.”

“I don’t think so.  They keep their eyes open for those things.  They’d recognize me. Even with a change in hair colour.”

As I started again to leave, he said, “Wait.  I’ll hire you.”

When making the appointment, I had expected it to be an opportunity to look me over and, if found suitable, to set up a future modelling session.  Consequently, I hadn’t brought my bag of accessory garments.  Crespinel had a few props – a white baby-doll peignoir, a pair of white bikini panties, and a string band that circled my hips and was attached to a tattered, red-and-white, heart-shaped cloth that covered my pubic area.  When I saw the last item, the heart-shaped cloth, I thought how tacky, but obediently put it on.  I posed in all his props as well as in my own black bikini underpants and the white and green dress I wore to the meeting.  Sometimes I was completely nude.  We spent several hours in that narrow room and I used all the modelling tricks I knew.

Heavily-curtained windows blocked out the sunlight.  When taking indoor pictures, photographers generally relied on natural lighting supplemented by carefully placed artificial illumination.  Crespinel had no natural source of light; he used flood lights but didn’t have a diffuser to soften their glare.

When we finished, we once more sat opposite each other at the table and Crespinel pushed a model release waiver towards me.

“I get $50 for a modelling session,” I said.  “First I get paid, then I sign.”

“I don’t know whether I’ll be able to sell these,” he said.  “I’ll pay you when I sell them.”

I thought he might be right, that he might not be able to sell these photos given the room’s dowdy, tasteless furnishings and my general impression that he wasn’t a good photographer.  But I wasn’t going to sign a model release without being paid.  So I crossed out a portion of the form and added, in my own handwriting:  “These photos cannot be published until I receive a $50 payment from the photographer, Bill Crespinel.”  Then I signed below.

For the next three weeks, I got office work through the temp agency but no modelling jobs.  Then, I reconnected with my former agent, Bill M.  He found me work with Mario Casilli, Michael LeRoy, Keith Bernard, and Elmer Batters.  With these modelling sessions and work from temporary office jobs, I was meeting my financial goals, earning around $450 a month – and saving a good portion of it.

After two months with no word from Crespinel, I had almost forgotten about that seedy modelling session until I received an angry telephone call from Michael LeRoy.

“You told me you had never worked as a model with black hair before you worked with me,” LeRoy said.

“I didn’t,” I replied.

“I just received a letter from Jaguar.  They said they had recently purchased some photos of you and were sorry now because they liked my photos better.”

I thought about this and then told him the story of my session with Bill Crespinel.  I’d never mentioned that one because I thought Crespinel had been unable to sell the photos he took of me.

“He can’t sell those photos,” I said.  “He never paid my $50 modelling fee and so doesn’t have a valid model release.”

Now calmed, LeRoy realized that I had been cheated.  At my request, he provided information about the person I needed to contact at Jaguar magazine.  Later that evening, I wrote a letter to Jaguar.  I explained that Crespinel had not paid my modelling fee and therefore didn’t have a valid release to publish those photos and that, consequently, the magazine could not print them.

Within a week, I received a letter from Jaguar saying that the photos had only recently been purchased and that I would no doubt hear from the photographer in a few days.  I waited ten days, then again wrote Jaguar, stating that:  Bill Crespinel has not contacted me and I do not know how to contact him.  You cannot publish those photos because neither he nor you have paid me the $50 I am owed.

Two weeks later, I received a $50 cheque from Jaguar.  No letter.  No form to sign.  Just the cheque.

Shortly after that, Michael LeRoy phoned me again, this time in a joyful mood.  “I sold your photos to Monsieur,” he said.  “You are going to be a Monsieur girl-of-the-month.”

I told LeRoy about my correspondence with Jaguar and their subsequent payment.

“Good,” LeRoy said.  “Now he’ll have trouble selling any photos.  Word about his dirty tricks will get around and he’ll be blacklisted by magazine publishers.”

Crespinel never contacted me.  I assumed his photos would appear in Jaguar given that I’d cashed the $50 cheque.  How fortuitous, I thought, that both Crespinel and LeRoy had submitted my photos to the same New York magazine.

***

I drove back to Vancouver in October 1963 and flew to Africa in November. Consequently I never saw published layouts of me as a brunette when they first appeared on the newsstand.  In fact, I didn’t see any until 2007 when I started collecting vintage magazines containing my photos.  Jaguar and Monsieur were easily obtained on the Internet and so I purchased them soon after initiating my search.

Interestingly, the Jaguar pictorial by Crespinel was not published until November 1965, about 21 months after the Monsieur set by LeRoy.  Typically, a five- to seven-month gap occurred between the purchase of photographs by a magazine and their publication.  I don’t know what occurred at Jaguar to produce a 29-month gap between the sale and the publication of the Crespinel photos.  I can only guess.  Probably Jaguar had to obtain the photographer’s model release and then have its lawyers examine all documents before the managing editor approved publication.  Jaguar was a prestige New York magazine and would not want to be sued.

The story should end here – but there is a postscript.  As photos were posted to my folder at My Archives, members of that website discovered four additional vintage magazines containing Crespinel’s photos.  These were in low-distribution, short-lived periodicals.  One or two issues of these magazines would appear on the newsstand and then the company distributing them would dissolve.  The lowest tier of the men’s magazine market operated like contractors who construct a few shoddy buildings and then go bankrupt, reforming with the same main players under a new name.  These bottom-feeder publishers didn’t care if photographers had a valid model release because by the time the model discovered her pictures, if she ever did, the company that had printed them had gone out of business.  The photos in these magazines consisted of unknown girls plus rejected shots from sessions with better-known models.

Later, I found pictures in another magazine distributed by the same company that published Jaguar.  Prestigious publications often purchased more shots than they needed for a layout and then printed the leftovers in a less prestigious periodical at a later date.

So most of Crespinel’s photos were published, two relatively good sets and four layouts containing many terrible shots.  In the poorer layouts, harsh lighting sometimes made my face almost unrecognizable.  In one bad photo, the angle of my body plus shadows from the floodlights made me appear to have three legs.  Another, a colour photo that might have been attractive, was printed even though it was blurry – Crespinel had moved the camera when he clicked.  Plus I was featured in two magazine centerfolds wearing that tacky, red-and-white heart over my pubic area; in both pictures, I was wide-eyed, looking completely bewildered.

Centerfold in Frenchy, v1, n3.

Centerfold in Frenchy, v1, n3.

Keith Bernard, the Photographer I Forgot

February 29, 2016 at 10:03 pm | Posted in Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories, Modelling Stories | 1 Comment

Soon after I stopped modelling, I forgot the names of several photographers who hired me. After 45 years, however, I could still recall facts about the sessions – the approximate ages and general appearance of those taking my pictures and, usually, a few short conversations. I remembered shooting styles: some worked slowly, setting up equipment with care, aiming for perfect lighting and composition; others wore several cameras around their necks, clicking quickly, striving for a carefree, spontaneous effect. Certain photographers were more sharply etched in my memory than others, but I remembered at least a few details about each.

Except Keith Bernard. I forgot him completely.

I worked with Bernard when I had black hair. I had started modelling in January 1962 and from then until August of that year, my hair was light blonde. Then, an eight-month break. When I started modelling again, my hair was black. After three months, I lightened it to strawberry blonde and modeled for one more month, finally ending my career in August 1963.

Top-tier magazines usually published their pictorials about eight months after the pictures had been taken. In 1962 and 1963, I purchased a number that contained layouts of me as a blonde and stored these copies along with photos I received from photographers. I left North America before any brunette photographs were published and so didn’t see these layouts until I started collecting vintage magazines in 2006.

In 2008, I discovered a pictorial of me with black hair in a 1964 issue of Ace, a New York publication. Ace called me “Susan Norman” and didn’t identify the photographer. I assumed this was another layout by Michael LeRoy. LeRoy had called me “Suzy” in a 1964 feature that appeared in Monsieur. Like most New York publications, Monsieur didn’t identify its photographers but I knew LeRoy had taken that layout because it included two pictures he had given me. As LeRoy had taken photos in several rooms of a large house, I thought he had used separate rooms for the two different magazines.

The Ace and Monsieur photos differed in style but I ignored this because I was sure I had worked with only five photographers when I had black hair. These were, in order, (1) the guy who didn’t pay me (whose name, I discovered later, was Bill Crespinel); (2) Gaylord Davis (an amateur who took photos for my portfolio – only one nude, the remainder being photos of my face or full-length shots in various dresses); (3) Michael LeRoy; (4) Mario Casilli (who shot photos of me wearing a blonde wig – the session is described here); and (5) Elmer Batters (the session is described here). While modelling as a brunette I never cut my bangs and so, with each new assignment, they increased in length until, in the set shot by Elmer Batters, they fell over my eyebrows.

As I accumulated more magazines, I came across additional black-haired photos in which I was called “Susan Norman.” Several were shot among trees and, as LeRoy had photographed me outside in a treed lot as well as inside the large house, I continued to believe all were taken by him.

LeRoy contacted me in 2012. During the course of our email communication he stated that he had not taken the Susan Norman photos I attributed to him. Upon close examination of my bangs, I could see that LeRoy took his pictures prior to those published under the Susan Norman name.

A mystery. If LeRoy hadn’t taken those Susan Norman photos, who had?

LeRoy had difficulty finding his negatives of our shooting session. He wrote that initially they had been filed under “Gloria Dawn,” my true modelling name, but Keith Bernard had told him to file then under the name Susan Norman and LeRoy complied, leaving only a note in the Gloria Dawn file. When he hired me, LeRoy explained, he had just completed his apprenticeship under Bernard.

Eureka, I thought when I read this. The forgotten photographer most probably was Keith Bernard. I must have merged my memories of working with LeRoy with those of working for Bernard. Any facts I retained about working with Bernard were stored as part of the LeRoy assignment.

For example, I always had retained a memory of shooting pictures beside a pool. The photographer and I heard voices coming from the other side of a nearby fence, realized the area was too open to take nude photographs, and reluctantly retreated behind some trees. When we heard the voices, we both sighed a sad “ooh.” We had been enjoying the photo opportunities offered in this setting and were downcast when we had to leave it. I never forgot this feeling of disappointment when we had to depart from the pool deck but “remembered” it as being part of the LeRoy session. Only after seeing all of LeRoy’s photos did I realize that it couldn’t have happened then because LeRoy took his photos in a yard that didn’t contain a pool.

When I suggested to LeRoy, during our back-and-forth emails, that Keith Bernard must have been the photographer who shot the Susan Norman photos, LeRoy wrote, “Impossible.” From the length of my bangs, we had established that LeRoy had taken his photos first. “I never got to use a model before Keith,” LeRoy wrote. “I was the apprentice. I got the ones he didn’t want.” LeRoy remembered that my agent had left a four-picture sheet at Bernard’s studio, a sheet that Bernard had handed to LeRoy with the comment, “You might be interested in this one.” So initially Keith Bernard had not been keen about employing me as a model.

Why would Bernard change his mind? Maybe, after seeing LeRoy’s photos, Bernard decided I was a good model and that he could take different, better pictures.

LeRoy never believed that Bernard was the Susan Norman photographer. We stopped corresponding when LeRoy entered a hospital. One year later he died. Soon after that, I found one Susan Norman photo with Keith Bernard identified as the photographer. Then, in 2014, I purchased a 1963 issue of Adam that contained a Susan Norman layout, and again Keith Bernard was identified as the photographer. After examining settings and analyzing the photographic style, it was easy to see that Bernard had taken all the Susan Norman photos.

Other than the pool deck episode, I don’t remember anything about working with Bernard, nor did I experience a sense of recognition after seeing a picture of him. Yet I know I was enjoying my session with him from my feelings of disappointment when we were obliged to leave the pool area. So why did I forget him? Possibly because both Bernard and LeRoy took their photos in similar types of houses with similar treed yards (except that the one Bernard used had a pool). Also, they both worked at the same studio. From examining my hair, I can surmise that the job with Bernard took place about two weeks after the one with LeRoy. It is easy to understand why my memory merged those two sessions into one. As I had more interactions with LeRoy – he hired me first, gave me prints with his name stamped on the back, and phoned me twice in the month following our shoot – the merged memory was stored as an ongoing sequence of events involving LeRoy.

I might have forgotten Keith Bernard but he didn’t forget me. He continued to sell my photos until 1968.

Gloria Dawn by Keith Bernard, published in Ace magazine.

Gloria Dawn by Keith Bernard, published in Ace magazine.

 

Gloria Dawn by Keith Bernard, published in Carnival magazine.

Gloria Dawn by Keith Bernard, published in Carnival magazine.

Floundering in the Forest with Sam Wu

January 2, 2016 at 8:05 pm | Posted in Modelling Stories | 3 Comments
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Some modelling experiences stayed clear in my memory. Others were blurred – a short scene or two retained, nothing more. I remember the early ones well: the sessions with Peter Gowland, described here; my first assignment with Ron Vogel, when we shot the cover for Carnival in his studio, followed by a series of outdoor photos in Malibu.

My memories for these two experiences were constantly refreshed whenever I viewed the B&W prints Gowland and Vogel gave to me or the two magazines – Cavalier and Carnival – that published the pictures taken during these sessions. These 1962 prints and magazines were keepsakes, stored and occasionally revisited.

Scenes that occur at the beginning of a sequence, such as my experiences with Gowland and Vogel, are likely to be retained. Also, those that are retrieved and reviewed, and those that are unique, are seldom forgotten. Another factor associated with the long-term recall of events is emotional arousal. Some people say they best remember happy occasions; I am more likely to retain clear memories of unpleasant experiences.

That is why I have always remembered my session with Sam Wu, even though I didn’t see the photos he took for 45 years.

The session occurred in early August 1962. Until July, I had modelled on Sundays and worked as a secretary during the week. Then I quit my job and moved into the Hollywood Studio Club, hoping to become a full-time model.

Prior to this change, my agent, Bill, had always phoned to arrange a new assignment; I never took the initiative to search for new jobs. A week after moving into the Studio Club, having not heard from him, I phoned to prod him. Two months had passed since my last modelling session.

“I’m settled,” I told him. “I’m available to work on weekdays now, not just on Sundays.”

“I’ll get back to you,” Bill replied.

Four days later, he phoned.

“Go to see Sam Wu tomorrow morning at ten,” he said. “He wants to look you over.” Bill gave me Sam’s address, which was only a few blocks away.

After hanging up, I wondered why I needed to be looked over. When I started modelling – yes. Both Peter Gowland and my agent wanted to take test photos. After that, I never again had to audition for a job.

I’d never heard of Sam Wu. In retrospect, I can see how naïve I was about the business. I didn’t know the important photographers nor anything about the magazine market; I simply relied on Bill to find me jobs.

The next morning, I walked five blocks to Sam Wu’s studio on Sunset Boulevard.  I paid little attention to my hair or makeup, using, as always, only eye liner, eyebrow pencil, and light lipstick. If my wavy blonde hair got tousled by the breeze and my eye liner smeared a bit while strolling under the August sun, it mattered little to me; I was a proven commodity, an experienced figure model.

But I was impressed upon arriving at Sam’s studio. In the windows were pictures of dozens of magazine covers – True Story, True Romance, True Confessions and similar women’s romance magazines. All featured faces of beautiful young women.

After entering and introducing myself, I asked, “Did you take the photos of those covers?”

“Yes,” Sam replied.

I thought but didn’t say, I would love to be a cover girl. Instead I asked, “How much do you pay a magazine cover model?”

“Girls come to me. They walk in off the street and work for free.”

Sam turned away from the cover display and examined my portfolio pictures. He never asked me if I would be interested in posing for a cover, although I wanted him to. I’m not pretty enough, I thought. I’m cute. I’ve got a good figure. And that’s why I get modelling work. But I’m not a cover girl beauty.

After inspecting my photos, Sam looked carefully at me.

“Tomorrow morning,” he said. “I’ll pick you up at nine. Fifty dollars.”

I left, happy that I had a job.

The next morning, the ride alongside Sam was long and tedious. Generally, photographers drove to a spot near their studio. Generally, photographers tried to get me to relax because a relaxed model was a more flexible one. Once at ease, I would talk and talk – and talk. No one who knew me considered me shy, but I was an introvert who needed someone to break the ice. Ron Vogel put me at ease immediately, as did my Studio Club roommate, Adrianne. Nothing more was needed than a few words of encouragement to calm my apprehensions.

Sam Wu offered no such encouragement. He remained silent and, therefore, so did I. Sam drove for over an hour. Finally we entered a hilly area where I saw a sign by the roadside – Angeles National Forest. Immediately I became wary. In 1962, the laws against public nudity were strict and I would be arrested if found nude or semi-nude in a public place. On my first shoot with Ron Vogel, he was taking photos in Malibu on a deserted beach in front of a private residence. Ron wanted some topless photos and so he kept watch on a small group of people in the distance. When it became obvious they were not going to leave, he gave up on the idea of topless beach photos and shot his nudes in the back yard of the private residence.

The Angeles National Forest would offer no private secluded area. I hoped Sam knew where he was going.

He didn’t appear to. Twice he slowed the car, peered down a ravine, then moved on. He was obviously looking for a place he must have scouted earlier but was not exactly certain where to turn off. Finally, we stopped. He parked the car and we walked down a narrow path with our gear. He carried his camera equipment, a blanket, and a bulky coat and pants; I carried a bag containing my usual modelling accessories – black bikini panties, black front-opening bra, open-toed gold shoes, tight blue sweater, low cut blouse, and white shorts.

My modelling apparel was not needed because once we reached our destination, Sam wanted me to completely disrobe. The clothes I was wearing were placed on the blanket, along with the bulky jacket and pants. In bare feet, I tread cautiously on ground that was mostly sand and rocks with a few tufts of grass. Although sunlight filtered through the trees, it was cool in that gorge. A long branch had broken from a tree, stretching over a sandy basin. Maybe during the rainy season a stream ran through there, but now it was dry.

Sam asked me to stand in the sand holding that branch while he took photos from behind a camera secured to a tripod. After shooting a few, he walked up to me, moved a leaf on the branch and lightly brushed my breast at the same time. I shivered. The photographer was not supposed to touch the model. That was the rule. Sam’s movement was so quick – he immediately returned to his camera – that I wasn’t certain whether this was deliberate. Had he meant to touch my breast?

Then we heard voices. Hikers. I quickly dressed in the thick jacket and saggy pants that Sam had carried.

The hikers passed close by but we didn’t see them and they didn’t see us. We must have been close to a hiking trail, although the sandy gorge was not directly on the path.

When their voices could no longer be heard, I again undressed and once more approached the branch. This time, Sam wanted me to put my leg over it. How do you straddle a prickly branch when you are naked? Carefully. I stretched my leg alongside it, not completely mounting the branch, and tried to look sexy while being poked by twigs. Sam took a few more photos.

Then we heard more voices. Another group of hikers. Quickly I put on the jacket and pants. Again we didn’t see the hikers and they didn’t see us, but from the sound of their voices, this group came closer. I didn’t want to remove the pants and jacket. I shivered and said I was cold. It wasn’t really that cold, just a bit cool, but I was frightened of being discovered nude in a public place. Sam took a few photos of me balancing on the branch while wearing the jacket and pants. A few more with the jacket open to show my breasts. Then we heard voices from a third set of hikers. Sam gave up trying to film in the gorge. We gathered our belongings and returned to the car.

Sam drove further down the road, looking for a place to shoot. He stopped when he saw, some distance from the road, a shady tree near a mound of large boulders. After walking to what was a relatively secluded area, he again laid down his blanket, had me disrobe, and started taking photos. He had taken very few, when he walked up to me and moved my arm, softly brushing my breast with the back of his hand. I tensed up. Shortly after he returned to his camera, I said I felt ill under that hot, early afternoon sun. I trembled and shivered and put on Sam’s bulky jacket.

A car drove slowly down the road. We watched, but it didn’t stop. Still, this was the last straw for Sam. We packed up and took the long drive home.

We arrived at Sam’s studio around three in the afternoon. I just wanted to sign a model release and get paid but Sam wanted to take more photos. Normally a session ended around four. So Sam improvised with items he had in his studio and took a few photos of a very sullen, uptight model. I didn’t smile, didn’t stand on my tip-toes, didn’t attempt to look sexy. Finally, Sam finished and wrote my cheque. I left the building without glancing back.

I never mentioned the episode to my agent because I was uncertain whether Sam had meant to touch my breasts. If he had groped them, I would have been indignantly angry. But he moved so quickly, touched so lightly, that I couldn’t be sure.

A week later, my agent drove me and two other girls to Palm Springs to take part in a bikini contest. That evening in our motel room before the contest, the three of us bonded, telling each other stories. One girl, Paula Angelos, had modelled for many of the same photographers that I had, including Sam Wu. When I mentioned that he had touched me, she said that he had touched her also, but she thought that was because he was Oriental and Orientals liked to feel things. Paula was sweet but naïve.

He touched her and he touched me, I thought. He’s a pervert. I was glad I had disrupted his planned modelling session.

I didn’t see any of Sam’s pictures until 2007, when I found a centerfold layout in a 1963 issue of Nugget. Three-quarters of the double page displayed a colour photo of me with my leg stretched alongside the branch. The photo was nicely composed and I was standing on my toes so I was still trying at that point, but my expression wasn’t sexy and my hair was disheveled. In the top corner of the double page layout was a small colour picture – me standing behind the branch looking perplexed. The rest of the layout contained B&W photos of me wearing the bulky jacket and pants, one where I was fully clothed while straddling the branch, two others where I was posed behind the branch with my breasts slightly exposed.

A while later, I discovered a full-page B&W photo published in Figure Annual, and again I’m leaning on the branch. My poise and relatively neat hair suggest that this was one of the first shots Sam took – an attractive picture that is a harbinger of what might have been had he not upset me.

Since then, I’ve seen a small colour photo of me with the branch published in Gent and a colour photo taken in Sam’s studio that was part of an erotic playing card collection. One fan sent me a B&W photo that appeared in a photography book Sam published; I’m sitting on a blanket, shaded by a tree, eyes glaring.

Sam must have made enough money to cover his expenses for that day but he probably didn’t make a profit.

Wu_Figure_Annual

Gloria Dawn by Sam Wu, published in Figure Annual.

p36_r1_f_r_j

Gloria Dawn by Sam Wu, published in Nugget.

Sam Wu - in darkness_r_f_j

Gloria Dawn by Sam Wu, published in Sam Wu’s photography book.

Leo, Part 1

April 30, 2015 at 5:46 pm | Posted in Africa Stories | 10 Comments
Tags: , ,

Dar es Salaam
April 1964

No letter from Leo today. One usually arrives each week but sometimes two weeks go by between them. When he left Dar es Salaam at the end of January, he said he’d be gone “four weeks, six at most.” That was three months ago.

I look up from my desk and my gaze lands on the whirring air conditioner that blows cold air into my face, gently stirring my blond hair. Dar es Salaam is survivable in this cool office. The work isn’t hard; my boss is pleasant.

When our United Nations bureau closes at two in the afternoon, I stroll three blocks along Independence Avenue to a door nestled between two shops; it leads upstairs to an apartment. A South Asian family resides there – a mother, father and three daughters – and I rent a room from them. I’m nearly always the only white person on the street, the commercial centre of town. Although the avenue includes a few major buildings, such as the United Nations complex and Barclays Bank, it is largely lined with small shops. Colorful clothes hang in storefronts, pots and pans rest on tables, and spicy odours drift from chai cafés. I hear boisterous voices chattering in several languages. I pass Asian women in richly hued saris and some clad in typical western dresses. I see African women with multi-coloured cloths wrapped around their bodies like sarongs. Some African women, Muslims, wear black, full-length, translucent drapes covering their heads and clothes; they clasp the black shawls, holding them up to their faces, yet seldom completely conceal their features; I often glimpse their gleeful eyes and laughing mouths.

But now I’m in my office, which opened this morning at seven. It’s around nine and coffee break doesn’t start until ten. Hearing a quick knock on the door behind me, the one leading into a hall, I spin my chair around and see my boss. That’s unusual. Generally he comes to the other door, the one that connects his office to mine. His eyes appear dazed and his lips are pulled taut. Something is amiss.

“Someone…someone wants to talk to you,” he says. “Will you please come out to see him.”

What have I done now? I probably made an inappropriate remark – occasionally I do – and am about to be chastised by a senior officer.

Rising from my chair, I walk across the room and enter the hallway. There, behind my boss, stands Eduardo Mondlane. I recognize him immediately, even though we met only once, five months earlier, when Leo took me to meet him – at Mondlane’s request – the day I arrived in Dar.

My boss gazes at him in awe. Not me. My back straightens. What does Mondlane want? He and Leo are now adversaries.

Mondlane and I never meet because we participate in different community circles. He and his wife socialize within the upper echelon embassy circle – a group that includes Tanzanian cabinet ministers and high-ranking diplomats from the U.S., U.K., Sweden, Denmark and Canada. I get together with members of the mid-level diplomatic corps, a group that includes representatives from Sudan and Ethiopia, Tanzanian junior ministers, and embassy attachés.

Eduardo Mondlane is president of Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO), a political party formed in 1962 that is fighting to free Mozambique from Portuguese rule. Dar es Salaam serves as home base for FRELIMO. Dar is also serves as headquarters for other liberation groups: SWAPO and SWANU (groups formed to liberate South West Africa, later called Namibia); ZANU and ZAPU (groups formed to liberate Rhodesia, later called Zimbabwe); and South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC). The ANC office is on Nkrumah Street, directly opposite FRELIMO’s headquarters.

I arrived in Dar in mid-November 1963. At that time, my fiancé, Leo Milas, held the position of “secretary for defense and security” in FRELIMO. Near the end of January 1964, Mondlane dispatched him on a trip – ostensibly to garner support (and raise funds) from Arab countries. Six weeks after Leo left, Mondlane arranged, through political connections, to bar him from re-entering Dar.

Mondlane is a former U.S. university professor, age 43, and almost bald, with his remaining hair neatly trimmed. Like most liberation activists, he wears the requisite khaki shirt and pants. But he looks too clean, too stately, to be mistaken for one of the rumpled freedom fighters who roam the streets of Dar. Married to a white American, Mondlane lives in a bungalow in a former all-white district of Dar (still primarily a European enclave that now includes a few prominent Africans and Asians). Leo once told me that Mondlane is a diplomat but not a warrior.
My boss leads us to a small room containing a table and four chairs but no air conditioner. He asks Mondlane if it is suitable and when told that it is, shuts the door, leaving me with Mondlane. We sit face-to-face with the desk between us. It is cool enough. The U.N. building is chilled by vibrating air conditioners in the occupied offices.

Mondlane introduces himself – as if I don’t know who he is. I politely acknowledge the introduction and, for once, say nothing more. My silence forces Mondlane to begin the conversation.

He clasps his hands loosely on the table and says, “Leo Milas. He is an American named Clinton Aldridge.”

I remain silent. Mondlane ought to know that I’m aware of this rumour. Several people have mentioned it in my presence.

“Surely you don’t still believe he is a Mozambican?” Mondlane asks.

“I only know what people have told me. He says his family immigrated to South America from Mozambique when he was young. Others say he has no ties to Mozambique. I met Leo in Los Angeles where all the Africans I knew said he was Mozambican.”

“But I have seen documents that prove he is American.” Mondlane’s voice grows more forceful. “You must believe that.”

“I don’t know the truth,” I reply.

I don’t ask to see the documents. Now is a natural opening for Mondlane to produce them but he doesn’t. Instead, he says, “You don’t want to remain with him. He is not who he says he is.”

“I still love him, no matter what. But I don’t know whether he is African or American.”

“How can you love him? He is an imposter.”

“I love him because he is a good man.”

Mondlane continues speaking, using the same words, the same sentences, asking why I don’t break off our engagement. He never follows up on my “he is a good man” comment. While he talks, I continue to say, “I don’t know.” Sometimes I add, “I still love him no matter whether he is African or American.” And this also is true.

It becomes a merry-go-round conversation. Mondlane repeats; I repeat. Round and round we go. Why does he care whether or not I remain with Leo? I’m not important.

I had always believed Leo was African until I heard the rumours. Then I mulled over our interactions and remembered a couple of incidents suggesting that he could be hiding something. Not until hearing those rumours had these incidents caused me to doubt anything he said. They are such small things. My mind must make several tenuous connections for them to signify anything, so they may mean nothing at all. I will not mention these to Mondlane. Will not give him any additional ammunition to use against Leo.

Mondlane fails to intimidate me, possibly because he looks too smooth and acts too composed. Although tall, nearly six feet one, Leo is taller, six foot five. Mondlane is black, but Leo’s skin is blacker. And Leo does look like a freedom fighter – rough, imposing, frightening. He has never frightened me. But I have observed the way others look at him and how easily he intimidates most people simply by his visual appearance and austere manner.

Mondlane persists. He wants me to say that I will break off my engagement to Leo. All the while I wonder why this is so crucial. Mondlane is a prominent man with powerful political connections. I refrain from discussing politics and don’t get involved in African political activities – unlike Mondlane’s white American wife, who is engaged in activist projects and sometimes rumoured to be working for the CIA. Recent rumours – probably spread by Mondlane’s faction within FRELIMO – have hinted that Leo is a CIA agent. But my gut feeling is that whatever he is, he isn’t a deep-cover CIA spy. During our time together, I’d picked up a number of subtle nuances suggesting he views the U.S. tendency to meddle in African politics with disdain. And, if anything, Leo is somewhat pro-Marxist.

Mondlane tries for almost an hour to get me to say something other than “I don’t know” and “I still love him.” Finally he pushes back his chair, stands up, and calmly ends the conversation.

I return to my small office by passing through my boss’s larger one, and smile. My boss smiles back and now appears placid, his usual expression. Later I would discover that Eduardo Mondlane once held a high ranking post at the United Nations New York office and was still considered an important man by many U.N. administrators. This explains why my boss was so astounded when Mondlane asked him to arrange a private meeting with me, his 23-year-old secretary.

 

Victoria
March 2008

I want to write about living in Africa and, in particular, describe my relationship with Leo. Events remain in my memory, names do not. I remember, for instance, that during our meeting in the U.N. building, Mondlane used the American name attributed to Leo; I forgot that name soon after hearing it.

The letters Leo wrote me are useful for reference but now the internet helps to fill in missing details. Using Google, I discover that Milas is a common surname throughout Africa. After five pages of listings, with roughly 15 different websites on each page, I find three almost identical documents. All state that: Leo Milas was an American CIA agent who infiltrated FRELIMO in 1962; his American name was Clinton Aldridge; and he was expelled from FRELIMO by Mondlane in August 1964. One of these documents has been released by a U.S. intelligence agency, one is published by a Swedish “charity” foundation, and one is an old FRELIMO bulletin. All three documents probably acquired their information from reports written by Eduardo Mondlane. They provide the name I forgot, Clinton Aldridge. Also, they state that Leo was not expelled from FRELIMO until August 1964, but I know that Mondlane used his political clout to prohibit Leo from re-entering Dar in early March, thus preventing him from speaking with other party members prior to being expelled. Before August of that year, Mondlane must not have had a strong enough grip on FRELIMO to make the expulsion official.

The internet contains many articles on Mondlane: his biography; several photos, including a good portrait taken around the time I knew him; a description of problems he encountered in 1968 because FRELIMO was making little headway against Portuguese rule in Mozambique; a picture of his wife and three children surrounded by dignitaries at his funeral after his assassination in Dar es Salaam on February 3, 1969.

But nothing on the web mentions Leo’s activities after August 1964, activities he described in letters to me. During that time, he wandered from Cairo to Nairobi to Khartoum, where he lived for two years as a political activist until being imprisoned for seven months. After leaving Khartoum, Leo moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he became a lecturer at Haile Selassie I University in early 1968. From then on, he seemed to have abandoned his political aspirations, preferring to concentrate on his teaching career and future with me.

I arranged to travel to Ethiopia in June 1969; we were to get married. But shortly before I left Canada, he wrote, “Put your travel plans on hold.” The FRELIMO executive had accused him of being involved in Mondlane’s assassination. Following Mondlane’s death, internecine fighting – always present in FRELIMO – broke out in earnest and anyone who stood the remotest chance of challenging the main players was rendered powerless or murdered. Leo was dismissed from the university and threatened with imprisonment.

In October 1969, Leo wrote again; he sounded desperate. He asked me to sponsor his application to immigrate to Canada. He didn’t include the two required passport photos with his application, so I wrote back, requesting these photos. He didn’t reply. Our correspondence had been disrupted for months while he was imprisoned in Khartoum, but he got back in touch with me as soon as he could; this time, as well, I expected to hear from him – eventually. He knew he could contact me through McGill University where I had two more years of study for my PhD. But he never wrote again. At first I thought he had been imprisoned, but slowly, as years went by and I failed to hear from him, I began to accept that he was dead. After all, he loved me and, if alive, he would have found a way to get in contact.

When using Google, I normally scan six or seven pages and stop searching. One evening, I keep scanning. Was anything else ever written about Leo Milas? After 22 pages, I find a reference to a report written by Seifulaziz Leo Milas. I’m taken aback. Jolted. I had forgotten that Leo added a new first name in 1964. Initially it was Seif Al-Aziz, an Arabic name matching a travel document issued to him by an Arab country (he never told me which one). After leaving Khartoum, he changed it to Seifulaziz. He signed his letters, “Love, Seif” and my letters to him always began “Dear Seif” but in my mind, he was always “Leo.”

I enter “Seifulaziz Milas” into the search engine and find references to a number of websites. Several contain papers written for InterAfrica, a research group based in Addis Ababa that publishes scholarly reports on Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudan. Seifulaziz Milas wrote four papers between 1999 and 2007.

Possibly his son, I think. Leo was living in Addis when last I heard from him. By 1999, he would have been 66 years old – too old to be starting a scholarly career. But Seifulaziz is not an African name. Leo sort of made it up, although he could have passed it on to a son.

Then I come across a reference in a book entitled Me Against My Brother, which was published in 2000 by Scott Peterson. On page 45, Peterson recounts an anecdote about meeting “Milas Seifulaziz, a very tall, lanky Mozambican consultant with Unicef” in the late 1990s. The tale revolved around the fact that the left lens of Milas’ eyeglasses was smashed but, because of his poor eyesight, he nonetheless wore these glasses. This short passage perfectly describes Leo – older but not changed much in appearance or manner.

He’s alive!

I feel a dull ache in the center of my gut. For 50 years I believed he was dead.

To Be Continued…

(Hopefully within six months)

This photo was taken in my U.N. office by a colleague.  You can see that I am wearing the same dress that appeared in several of my agent's photos.  That means it was taken not too long after I arrived because that dress disintegrated in hot, humid Dar.  My hair was straight because I took three showers a day.  The photo was just a quick snapshot; no special lighting.   Just me as I looked in my office that day.

This photo was taken in my U.N. office by a colleague. You can see that I am wearing the same dress that appeared in several of my agent’s photos. That means it was taken not too long after I arrived because that dress disintegrated in hot, humid Dar. My hair was straight because I took three showers a day. The photo was just a quick snapshot; no special lighting. Just me as I looked in my office that day.

Zanzibar Holiday – Part 3

February 4, 2014 at 11:55 am | Posted in Africa Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | 1 Comment
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On our way to Prison Island in a motorboat, we roared past slow moving dhows and fishing boats.  As we neared the island, I saw several buildings in front of a forest, but not until we landed did I grasp why the place was special.  Dozens of giant tortoises lumbered along the shore.  I was enchanted.  One looked up as I approached it and Eddie persuaded me to climb onto its shell.  It didn’t move while I perched on it and Eddie took my picture.  Posing for this photo was much easier than holding awkward postures in a modelling session.

After enjoying a romp with the tortoises, I glanced around.  Large shade trees with thick trunks and wide-spread root systems sheltered us from the heat of the sun.  The old prison was still intact, its walls weather-beaten but its door secure and windows closed, protected by bars.  Several bungalows surrounded the prison, their doors locked and windows veiled by curtains.  But no people.  Just the smell of salt air, the nearly inaudible rustle of tortoises moving slowly over sand and grass and, in the distance, the faint hum of fishing boats.  For once, Eddie appeared uninterested in examining his surroundings; he simply watched me.  I remembered that, in his letter, he had written:  “I am working on a secret job and require quiet, so I am not in Zanzibar Town tonight, although I can see it over the waves.”

“You were working here,” I said quietly.

He looked into my eyes and nodded.

After about an hour on the island, we returned to town, and once back at Eddie’s apartment, he said, “You should rest now.  I promised an Arab friend that I’d take you to his home for dinner.”

*

Shortly after arriving in Dar, I was escorted to a concert at the home of an Arab, and warned that I would be seated with the women.  During the event, females huddled together, surrounded by a black curtain, unable to view the males or the musicians.  I didn’t enjoy the experience.

However, this time Eddie said his male friends wanted to meet me, so I would not be sequestered.  Eddie knew all my dresses were sleeveless and knee length – clothing generally frowned upon by Arab Muslims – but if Eddie thought it okay, it would be.  (Most Muslim women covered their arms and legs, but not all covered their hair or faces.  Ismaili women wore saris and, in Dar, they frequently wore western-style clothes while working in offices.  An acquaintance, the wife of the Second Secretary at the Sudanese embassy, wore colourful long garments that covered her body from shoulders to feet, and draped a scarf over the back of her head, but left visible her exquisite face.)

Shortly before nightfall, Eddie and I picked up Omar who lived in another part of town.

“Let me ride with the lovely lady, Eddie,” Omar said.  “You can drive us.”

He held the door as I hopped out of the front seat and into the back.  We chatted as Eddie drove east, towards the other side of the island.  I was surprised by Omar’s appearance.  His complexion was as brown as many coastal Africans, and his hair more frizzy than curly.  So I asked how Zanzibar Arabs differed from Zanzibar Africans given their similar appearance.

Omar replied, “Some families have a tradition of being Arab and others have a tradition of being African.”

Identification based on a tradition.  They looked alike and had the same religion.  Some were descended from Arabs who profited by trading between the Arab peninsula and the islands; some were descended from Africans who profited by trading between mainland Africa and the islands.  Both groups played a part in the slave trade.  The Arabs fathered children with African women; these children adopted Arab traditions and so were considered Arab.  Sometimes these children married the children of African traders and were considered African.  This ethnic mixing blurred the distinctions between these two groups.  However, those identified as Arab owned most of the land and were generally wealthier than those identified as African.

Later, after my trip, I discovered the revolution in Zanzibar had been led by an African from Uganda.  Once the Sultan and his cohorts fled, this Ugandan was shoved aside and eventually barred from returning to Zanzibar (after a trip to the mainland), and then barred from Tanzania once Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged.

This meant that Zanzibar was now controlled by an African political group that differed minimally from the Arab group; both parties had similar ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.  The African group, representing a larger number of poorer citizens, espoused a socialist policy, not unlike that advocated by Julius Nyerere, President of Tanganyika until its merger with Zanzibar and, after the merger, the first President of Tanzania.

Arriving at our host’s home after a 20-minute drive, I wasn’t sure where we were.  The house sat in the middle of a field that might have been a spice plantation.  Our host and his friend (possibly a relative) had lighter complexions than Omar.  They were both young, around 35, just a bit older than Eddie.  We were invited into a large living room, furnished with many comfortable sofas and chairs, coffee tables, table lamps, oriental carpets, and ornate wall hangings.  The bright rich tones in the carpets and wall hangings mixed tastefully with the softer shades of the furniture.  Relaxed in a large cushioned chair, I felt at ease surrounded by the four men.

The host, his friend, and Omar asked me questions – about Canada, my family, living in Dar, and why I came to Africa – and I felt like a star.  They were charming and appeared to have a genuine interest in my responses.  So I smiled and answered to the best of my ability, not trying to be demure or evasive.  Looking back, I must have been glowing – a friend used to say that I “bubbled” whenever I became the center of attention.

We moved to a large rectangular table in the dining area, where two young women joined us.  They wore black cloaks flowing from the top of their heads to the ground, but no face veils.  Once we had seated, the host rose, went into the kitchen, and came back carrying a fork, its prongs a bit bent, which he presented to me.  Everyone laughed.  Arabs ate with their hands.  I felt like saying that working-class Canadians often grasped food with their hands as well, unlike pompous Europeans with their multi-cutlery settings.  I picked up the meat and some vegetables with my fingers, as they did.  But I couldn’t match the deftness at which these Arabs – and Eddie – scooped the rice using only their hands.  For rice, I used my fork.  Between courses, servants brought bowls of water and cloths so we could clean our hands.

With regards to how it tasted, the meal was a bit of a disappointment.  Having become used to the hot curry and cool fruits in Indian cuisine, I found it rather bland, with its emphasis on lamb, vegetables and rice.  I did enjoy the sweet dates served for dessert.

After dinner, we returned to the living room and the two women accompanied us, although they sat in a corner and never spoke.  Everyone was in a hearty mood, teasing each other and plying me with more questions.  For once, I was tired of talking about me – there was not that much more to say – and I noticed the host’s collection of conch shells displayed on a low table between the sofas.  I had purchased two similar shells from street sellers in Dar, but had never imagined such a variety.  I enthusiastically praised his beautiful collection and the ingenuity of their placement, each with unique markings, arranged by size.

The host immediately offered me one as a gift.  I was astounded, not believing he meant it.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, yes.  I want you to have one.”

“Which one?”

“You choose.  The one you like best.”

My hand hovered above the display and I was about to pick a large one with unusual markings when Omar whispered, “Take that one.  It’s rare and one he prizes.”

Omar gently pushed my arm towards a small shell.  Like an imp, I chose it.  As I picked it up, I caught a flicker of pain in the host’s eyes, followed immediately by a smile.

Soon after, Omar, Eddie and I took our leave, among profuse expressions of gratitude for a most enjoyable evening.  The host presented the shell to me, carefully wrapped.

Years later, I realized that I had committed a cultural gaffe by praising the host’s collection.  Traditionally, Arabs will offer an object of admiration to a visitor as a gift.  Not to do so would lower the host’s esteem in the eyes of his companions.  I didn’t know this, and Omar used my ignorance to play a joke on our host by encouraging me to pick a highly-prized shell.

I have since realized that among these people, one-upmanship was a game, and that was the reason I was invited to dinner.  My host had dared entertain in his own home this strange blond woman who broke many cultural taboos.  It was a way of outshining the community’s more conservative Arabs.  They would have something to talk about for months.  And, indeed, in a letter I received from Eddie six weeks later, he mentioned that an Arab who had not been present that evening had asked him about me.  On this small island, there seemed little to do except entertain each other with stories.

*

Back at Eddie’s place, we again relaxed in his living room.  He told me a bit about Prison Island, how the main building was used as a quarantine station for years; how more recently, the island had served as a getaway for city residents who sometimes used the bungalows for overnight shelter.

“Since it is no longer a secret, I might as well tell you.  I was working on Zanzibar’s budget.  That is why I needed a quiet place.”

He had worked in Zanzibar for years beginning as a clerk when it was a British protectorate.  He called himself a Zanzibari, but he had no family here, just friends.  Again he mentioned his wife and two children who were now living in Nairobi.  Although his government contract included a five-day leave to visit Nairobi each month, he had not been allowed to go in June or July.  Expecting to take the trip early in July after completing the budget, he initially told Solange he would not be in Zanzibar during the Saba Saba holiday.  Later, however, he was informed that he could not go until Cabinet passed the budget, which would likely take another month.

I again told him about my boyfriend who had left Dar at the end of January, supposedly on a one-month trip, but had been barred from re-entering Tanzania due to political infighting with his former colleagues.

Both of us were alone, and lonely.

“Well,” I said.  “I still have Solange.  I wonder how she spent her vacation.” 

“I don’t like Solange,” Eddie said.

“You don’t know her well.  She’s very kind.”

“She should have stayed here.  You were sick.  She should not have left you alone.”

“But Joseph and his family had made arrangements.  She had to honour them, even if I couldn’t.  I improved rapidly, and thoroughly enjoyed touring with you and Dick-Dick.”  And to myself, I added, “Plus I wanted to stay because you had a real toilet.”

*

The next morning we moved quickly.  I worried about missing the ferry; only one ran each day between Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.  I fretted about getting through immigration and the possibility, however remote, that officials on the mainland would find reason to deny me entry.

Eddie remained calm and had me out the door in plenty of time.

“Are you going directly to work after you leave me at the ferry terminal?” I asked Eddie.

“Yes.”

“You told me in your letter that you would have to work ‘round the clock’ this weekend.  Instead you showed me around the island.”

“Now I am going to suffer.  I’ll have to work all day and all night to catch up.”

“You aren’t going to work straight through the night?” I asked.

“Yes.  I must.”

Passing through the market square, we could see a long line-up at the terminal, even though the ferry would not be leaving for 45 minutes.

“Oh,” I said, “I forgot to buy my scarf.  Can we stop?”

Eddie looked at the line-up and said, “I’ll get it and mail it to you.  Or maybe I’ll be able to give it to you in person.  I must go to Dar for meetings on the budget.  But I don’t know when.”

He drove up to the main gate.  As I hopped out, Eddie said, “Don’t forget to send me a note to let me know you got home safely,”

I spotted Solange and rushed to greet her.  I turned to wave goodbye, but Eddie had already curved his car away from the melee.  The smell of sweating bodies.  The noise of people jabbering in several languages.  It was all so familiar.  Yet for two days I had peace and the luxury of intelligent conversation.  Already I missed it.  Only the familiarity of Solange lulled me.   She was, as I’d told Eddie, very kind – though by no means sophisticated or brilliant.

We easily passed through the immigration queue and, after we settled on the ferry, I started telling her what I had seen – the old town with its narrow alleyways, the slave cave, and Prison Island with its giant tortoises.

Solange interrupted.  “I’ve seen plenty of giant tortoises in the Seychelles.”

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“I met lots of people.  We walked around town and visited.”

Probably Solange believed I should have returned to Joseph’s house once I felt better, that Joseph had plans and Eddie kidnapped me.  But I thought my holiday had been more fun.  Eddie knew what an outside visitor would want to see.

Heading home, we said little more, but unlike the ferry ride three days ago, when I was quiet because I felt low, I hummed to myself as we bounced over the sea.

A photo of a dhow taken on the way to Prison Island.  Photograph taken July 6, 1964.

A photo of a dhow taken on the way to Prison Island. Photograph taken July 6, 1964.


Approaching Prison Island.  Photograph taken July 6, 1964.

Approaching Prison Island. Photograph taken July 6, 1964.


Shannon Moeser on Tortoise on Prison Island.  Photograph taken July 6, 1964.

Shannon Moeser on Tortoise on Prison Island. Photograph taken July 6, 1964.


Eddie and Dick-Dick on Prison Island.  Photograph taken July 6, 1964.

Eddie and Dick-Dick on Prison Island. Photograph taken July 6, 1964.


My Zanzibar scarf.  Photograph taken February 3, 2014.

My Zanzibar scarf. Photograph taken February 3, 2014.


Close-up of my Zanzibar scarf.  Photograph taken February 3, 2014.

Close-up of my Zanzibar scarf. Photograph taken February 3, 2014.


My conch shell.  Photograph taken February 3, 2014.

My conch shell. Photograph taken February 3, 2014.

 

 

 

Zanzibar Holiday – Part 2

December 11, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Posted in Africa Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | 1 Comment
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Rejuvenated by my long slumber in Eddie’s guest bedroom, I wanted to explore Zanzibar and asked Eddie to take me sightseeing.  He was reluctant because he thought I might have a relapse, but I insisted and promised to tell him if I felt tired.

Off we went in his car, after he made a telephone call.  A few minutes down the road, we picked up Dick-Dick, who was around my age.  Looking back, I realize we were introduced but much of what was said quickly faded from my still-hazy mind.  All I saw at the time was that he was devoted to Eddie, a follower.  Later I discovered that he was a young lawyer working in the Zanzibar Attorney-General’s office.

Dick-Dick was dressed immaculately in an orange cotton shirt and pressed white pants.  Eddie wore black pants and a white shirt, its sleeves rolled up, just as he had the evening before – not the same clothes, just ones that were almost identical.  In tropical Africa, clothes were regularly washed because, by the end of the day, they reeked from perspiration.  That was why I wore sleeveless dresses: perspiration evaporated into the air and I didn’t need to wear perfume, a common cover-up used by women who wore dresses with sleeves – even short sleeves – that soaked up sweat.

We drove down the short hill and, after a few turns, were in a maze of streets, most so narrow that Eddie’s car left only a slim gap on each side.  These must be one-way streets, I thought, until we met another car face on.  Oops.  A two-way street wide enough for only one car.  No wonder we were driving so slowly.  Eddie backed up onto another road while the other car continued on its way, then he eased into a dead end lane, parked, and we started walking.

Tall stone buildings lined both sides of the road, leaving it in shade, but what fascinated me were the thick wooden doors.  I rushed from door to door, running my hand over the ornate wood carvings surrounding their frames and rubbing the heavy brass studs jutting out from the door panels.  No two entrances were identical.  An entire street filled with plain stone walls, barred windows, and unique portals.

Above the door frames, a few had elaborate rectangular borders, but the largest, and most richly decorated, were crowned by carved semi-circular arches.  One door was partially open; we peered inside, but could see only a stone staircase leading to the floor above.  Alongside of one richly polished door were a number of brass plaques indicating that its owner carried on a business within the premises.  My picture was taken in front of that one.  These were astonishing entrances into what appeared to be stone fortresses; all had the look of guarding prized possessions.  I asked Eddie what the carvings on these doors represented but he didn’t know, nor did he know what lay behind them.  He and Dick-Dick seemed as captivated by these mysterious buildings as I was, yet they lived no more than ten minutes from this labyrinth of treasures.

A woman in a black burka walked down a side lane and hurried away; Eddie quickly took a photo of Dick-Dick and me to so he could capture a silhouette of her in the background.  Then another car drove by and I snapped its picture.

Except for that one woman and the two cars, the streets were empty, silent.  Afterwards, I would find out that this area was home to the wealthiest, most powerful Arabs, the ones targeted by the African revolutionaries who overthrew the Arab government.  Just six months earlier, thousands of Arabs had been massacred in the uprising.  The turmoil had stopped but the bare streets suggested ongoing wariness.

We walked back to the car and drove to a market square near the ferry terminal – a five-minute ride.  Cars roared and people bustled about.  A street vendor squatted on the sidewalk encircled by the fruit he offered.  Open-air shops sold food and clothing, and Eddie purchased mangos and chapatti (Indian flatbread).  At a kiosk, I examined a gold silk scarf decorated with images of Zanzibar – a dhow, the beach, an Arab coffee seller and an ornately carved door like those we just saw.  I wanted a souvenir of my Zanzibar trip.  Should I buy it?  With one more vacation day left, I might need my shillings for something else.  Eddie suggested I wait.

“It will be here tomorrow,” he said.

*

Eddie and Dick-Dick discussed plans for an evening dinner, after which we drove back up the hill, dropping Dick-Dick off at his home.  At the apartment, Eddie and I relaxed in the living room.  The furniture was minimal – a wooden sofa with cushioned seats, a matching chair, small coffee table, and a floor lamp.  No ornaments, pictures, wall decorations, or carpets, nothing to suggest that a family once lived here.  Eddie told me his wife had fled with their two children shortly after the January uprising.  Although the insurgency was aimed primarily against the Arab leadership, some Asians were also killed.  Consequently, many Indians departed when the governing Arabs fled.  Eddie said his wife managed to move most of the family wealth to Nairobi.

Curled on the sofa, I talked, primarily about my life in Dar and my family in Canada, but also about my uncertain plans.  When I arrived in Africa, I was determined to make it my permanent home.  Now I wasn’t so sure.

After shifting in my seat, I glanced at Eddie to see if he was paying attention.  He gave a small nod of encouragement, so I continued describing the difficulties I was experiencing in my quest to settle down and get married.

If Eddie were not already married, I would have considered him a possible candidate for a husband.  Although not conventionally handsome, he did have a rugged, world-weary appearance, and he was about 30, the perfect age for me.  But most important, he was intelligent, decisive, and possessed an eager mind – all qualities I found attractive.  But he was married, and so I didn’t flirt with him.  I knew how to turn the wattage up and how to turn it down.  With Eddie, I turned it down.  There were no coy smiles, no fleeting glances into his eyes – tactics I used with potential romantic interests.  Instead, I acted normally, smiled appropriately as a friend, and spoke in my customary tone, telling Eddie stories about my life, not attempting to cloak myself in mystery.

On his part, Eddie said he liked the way I spoke my mind, clearly and without pretense.  This communication style was how I had always talked, but during the past couple of years it had slowly dawned on me that speaking this way – forthright, blunt, and often lacking reserve – turned many off.  People seemed to prefer light banter and feigned compliments – a conversational skill I’d never mastered (and never would).

After talking for over two hours, we got ready for dinner, then picked up Dick-Dick.

*

During our two-hour tour through old Zanzibar, Dick-Dick seldom said a word to me.  I knew he was being included because it would not be proper for Eddie, a married man, to be seen escorting a single woman.  Yet Eddie didn’t seem worried about what Joseph might say.  I don’t think that Joseph belonged to the same Asian community as Eddie and Dick-Dick.  In East Africa, there were Ismaili, Goan, Parsee, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, and Christian groups, all descended from workers who arrived from the Indian subcontinent.  To an outsider, the groups were difficult to distinguish; they dressed alike and had similar names and customs.  But different communities seldom mixed socially.   Eddie had made it clear in his letters that Joseph was not among his friends.

When we left for dinner, I wondered if we would run into Solange.  Zanzibar Town did not have a large population and Eddie certainly had known where to find us the night before.  Solange and I couldn’t communicate by phone because Joseph, like most Tanzanians, did not have a home telephone.  Eddie had one, but he also had a car, both signs of relative wealth.  Still, given Zanzibar’s small Asian populace, I thought we might encounter Solange on our evening outing.

We didn’t.  This reinforced my assumption that Joseph belonged to a different Asian group than Eddie and Dick-Dick.

At the restaurant, we didn’t mention Solange or Joseph, nor talk about families or work.  We had a carefree conversation about life in Dar, recreation in Zanzibar, and food.  Eddie ordered a curry fish dinner and I requested a moderate level of spiciness for my portion.  I could still remember the dinner prepared for me seven months earlier at an Indian café in Dar, my first curry meal.  Although hungry, I took two bites and couldn’t eat more; my mouth was on fire, a burning sensation that lasted for many hours.  Since then, I’d learned to tolerate a reasonable level of spice by smothering the dish with cool fresh fruit – slices of bananas, mangos, and avocados in particular.  Luckily our fish curry was accompanied by many cooling fruit sauces, which I piled on my plate – and then I ate the entire feast.  Tangy and sweet at the same time.  Delicious.

*

 The next morning, Eddie said, “After breakfast, we can take a trip to see the slave cave.  Dick-Dick has told me he knows where it can be found.”

Dick-Dick greeted us wearing a white shirt, white shorts and polished sandals.  I smiled to myself; he was dressed like Europeans in old colonial Africa, so unfashionable in the new Africa.  I wondered who he was trying to impress – Eddie or me.  Eddie, as usual, had donned another white shirt with rolled up sleeves, and black pants.  I imagined his closet: a row of black pants and white shirts with rolled up sleeves – a uniform suggesting nonchalance when in fact, I was beginning to realize, he was anything but carefree and easygoing.

We drove north, hugging the coast, gazing down on white sand beaches nestled amongst rocky cliffs.  Once we left the city, the road was empty; we might have gone by one or two other vehicles, but mostly it was just us, the highway, and a spectacular view.  Then the route jagged inland, passing through fields dotted by tall coconut trees amid shorter brush-like foliage.  We stopped to watch four African women working the rough land.  They were wearing western-style print dresses, which suggested they were Christian rather than Muslim.  African Muslim women wore black chadors – open cloaks flowing from the top of the head to the ankles, which were held together by clutching the loose sides with one hand.  Often, on the streets of Dar, I could see them laughing from behind this partial face veil, when they held the cloth away from their lips.  In Dar, non-Muslim African women wore brightly colored African-printed cloths wrapped around them.

   The four women walked towards the car, saying nothing; we probably appeared as extraordinary to them as they to us.  I pulled out my camera and they stood in line.  Unlike the Arab woman who had scurried away yesterday, they wanted their picture taken.

One of them, an old woman, displayed stretched earlobes and wore a faded African-print cloth slung over her shoulders like a cape.  The stretched earlobes and cape were traditional adornments used by the Maasai and other tribes living in the Tanzanian interior, but not by coastal Africans.  Like the Maasai, she had very short hair, slender facial features, and a proud gaze.  How had she ended up in Zanzibar?   Could she have been a former slave or the daughter of a former slave?  Zanzibar had a flourishing slave trade – one of its main sources of income – until slavery was abolished near the end of the nineteenth century, but the island continued to keep and export slaves, surreptitiously, for another 40 years.

My reflections were interrupted when Eddie started the car and Dick-Dick, in the back seat, consulted his map.  I’d always believed that Zanzibar was one large island.  Instead, Eddie explained, it was a group of islands, two large ones surrounded by many tiny ones, most of which were uninhabited.  Even the two large islands were relatively small, as each could be driven from tip to tip in less than three hours.  Their primary industry was agriculture and they were often called the “spice islands” because they exported cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black peppers.

After consulting his map, Dick-Dick said, “I think we turn here.”  A dirt road curved back towards the coastline.  There were no signs, the road got rougher, and Eddie asked, “Are you sure this is the correct way?”

We chanced upon the ruin of an old Arab house, its crumbling walls mostly intact although its portals – former windows and doors – were hollow.  Eddie walked around it, thoughtfully examining the inside layout, and then spoke to an Arab sitting on the ground in front of the gap where once a door stood.

When we got back into the car, Eddie said, “According to that fellow, the cave is a bit further down the road.”

Soon after, we stopped at the cave entrance.  Dick-Dick and I descended steep steps cut into the limestone rock.  Eddie took our picture, and then followed us.  After a 90-degree turn and a few more stairs, we were on sloping, uneven rock, the only light a dim beam seeping through the narrow slit at the entrance.

I cautiously took a few steps, moving downward towards the sound of running water.  The air smelled musty, damp.  Tentatively I advanced a bit further until it was pitch-black.  In my imagination, a row of chained slaves stood beside me.  How fearful they would have felt in this dark hole.  My mind echoed with their cries of despair, their wails and moans.  And although only imaginary images, I became frightened.  I moved back towards the light, where I would not be disturbed by eerie visions.

But Eddie continued downwards, moving meticulously among the rocks, caught up in the adventure, not at all disturbed by the blackness.  He reached the water.  This cave had been created by a natural stream flowing to the sea and was used clandestinely after slave trade was officially abolished.  The tunnel led to the ocean and slaves could be held in the chamber until safely loaded onto a boat.

Dick-Dick had joined me, and we waited together under the faint light until Eddie returned.  Then we all climbed back into the brilliant sunshine.

*

With no stops, we were back in town in 30 minutes.  At the market, we ate lunch while Eddie and Dick-Dick discussed plans for the afternoon.  They had expected the cave tour to take longer than it did.

“Prison Island,” Eddie said.

I overheard Dick-Dick say, “Restricted … no visitors allowed …” but didn’t hear Eddie’s reply.

Eddie turned to me and said, “We have decided to take you to Prison Island but first we must make a stop.”

We drove to the front of a three-story, white, colonial building, with balconies surrounding the second and third stories, many square windows, and an arch over the main door.

Eddie entered, followed by me, then Dick-Dick.  As we walked along quickly, I kept my eyes on Eddie but in my peripheral vision noticed rows of desks, and sitting behind them were clerks.  All males.  Most were African.  They stared at our small procession and I sensed hostility.  What was this foreign female doing in a restricted government building?  Eddie was oblivious to the stares.

We reached the top floor and Eddie entered an office while Dick-Dick and I stepped onto the balcony; I snapped a quick photo – looking down on buildings in the heart of Zanzibar.

Eddie returned and our procession wound down the stairs and across the main floor.  A few hostile stares lingered but most workers had returned to their tasks.

Eddie had obtained the keys to a motorboat owned by the government.

Shannon Moeser in front of Zanzibar door, July 5, 1964.

Shannon Moeser in front of Zanzibar door, July 5, 1964.


Dick-Dick and Shannon Moeser in front of open door in Zanzibar, July 5, 1964.

Dick-Dick and Shannon Moeser in front of open door in Zanzibar, July 5, 1964.


Dick-Dick and Eddie in front of Zanzibar door, July 5, 1964.

Dick-Dick and Eddie in front of Zanzibar door, July 5, 1964.


Dick-Dick and Shannon Moeser in Zanzibar street, near woman in burka, July 5, 1964.

Dick-Dick and Shannon Moeser in Zanzibar street, near woman in burka, July 5, 1964.


Car in narrow Zanzibar street (this was a two-way street), in July 5, 1964.

Car in narrow Zanzibar street (this was a two-way street), in July 5, 1964.


Fruit seller in Zanzibar market, July 5, 1964.

Fruit seller in Zanzibar market, July 5, 1964.


Four Zanzibar women on road to slave cave, July 6, 1964.

Four Zanzibar women on road to slave cave, July 6, 1964.


Arab ruin on way to slave cave, July 6, 1964.

Arab ruin on way to slave cave, July 6, 1964.


Dick-Dick and Shannon Moeser descending into slave cave, July 6, 1964.

Dick-Dick and Shannon Moeser descending into slave cave, July 6, 1964.


Rooftops of Zanzibar town taken from the third floor of a government building.  (Unfortunately the film was overexposed.)  July 6, 1964.

Rooftops of Zanzibar town taken from the third floor of a government building. (Unfortunately the film was overexposed.) July 6, 1964.

Zanzibar Holiday – Part 1

November 24, 2013 at 8:35 am | Posted in Africa Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | 1 Comment
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A hole.  The toilet was a hole in the ground.  I wasn’t prissy.  As a teenager in Canada, I’d often used my aunt’s outhouse and just wrinkled my nose to block the stench.  This hole was more sanitary – there was water flowing into it – and didn’t smell nearly as bad as that outhouse.  But my western body had not developed the muscles needed to rise from a squatting position.  The wall was not close enough to use for balance; if I crouched too low, I would fall on my bum.  I peed – a bit – not very efficiently.  Luckily there was a shower nearby, so I washed.  But what would I do for the next three days?

*

Three weeks earlier, Solange had said, “Let’s go to Zanzibar for the Saba Saba holiday.”

And I thought, “Why not?  I’ve lived in Dar es Salaam seven months and haven’t seen hardly anything outside the city.”

So I helped Solange compose a letter seeking a place to stay – a note to Dr. Coutinho that included our photographs.  I’d never met him but Solange told me he often visited the U.N. office where we worked  A few days later, Solange mentioned that Dr. Coutinho had written to say he would not be in Zanzibar during the holiday, and so instead she’d made plans for us to stay with her friend Joseph and his family.  Joseph was part of Solange’s circle, not someone I’d have encountered through work or social functions.

On June 22, 1964, I received a letter from Dr. Coutinho.  His small, neat handwriting contrasted with his lavish, unrestrained prose.  After thanking me for “my very sweet letter” and describing how he was on a “secret job” that required quiet, he added:

How pretty Solange is – and you, wow!  Incidentally, I am married, although my wife is permanently in Nairobi – not divorced nor separated – but allowing me the liberties of life so soon.   

Then he continued:

My friends were disappointed that you and Solange were to stay with Joseph – that’s his name I presume.  They were planning to take you two out on a picnic to a neighbouring island … and on my suggestion would have shown you around Z’bar Island.  All that unlucky for me and without me.  You could then have had Monday with your host.  But your host will not like that, I am sure – too bad!    Nevertheless, please do write and let me know how you feel about it all.  Say what you want done – rub against the magic lamp – and my fair lady thy will shalt be done.

 He signed it, “Eddie, that’s me name.”  One small slip, me instead of my.  His first language would be one of the Indian dialects, his second probably Swahili.  English was likely his third language, yet he made only one error in two pages of dense handwritten prose.

When he previously responded to Solange’s request, possibly he had made a similar suggestion – that he could arrange for his friends to take us on a picnic and tour of the island.  If so, she hadn’t mentioned it when telling me that Eddie (Dr. Coutinho) would not be in Zanzibar during our visit.  Maybe she knew that accommodation with Joseph also meant that Joseph organized our entertainment.  Eddie’s mocking comment – too bad – suggested friction about his proposed scenario.  That could be why he was now writing directly to me.  Still, the trip had been Solange’s idea and she was making all arrangements, so I wrote Eddie a short note, thanking him for his concerns, and stating that Solange had already set up our schedule.  What I didn’t tell him was that I was feeling listless and was just going along with whatever Solange planned.  I attributed my low spirits to the fact that my boyfriend had been away from Dar for almost five months.

The day before we left, I received another letter.  This one was brief.  Eddie said he would be in Zanzibar during our visit.  He wrote:

I was not allowed by my Minister to go to Nairobi yesterday.  I must stay here for a very urgent job that entails ‘round the clock’ sessions.  I am still being hopeful that I might meet you – but if not do please be my guests some other time.

*

  Solange and I worked at the Dar es Salaam United Nations regional office.  Dar es Salaam was the capital of Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika).  Tanganyika was granted independence in 1961.  Of the approximately 4,500 Europeans who had been living there,  nearly 1,000 departed.  This exodus resulted in a shortage of English-speaking office workers.  Within a few days of arriving in Dar, I quickly obtained a job as an executive secretary, with my own private air-conditioned office, even though I was only 23.  Solange had no secretarial skills but spoke fluent English and Swahili, and easily found employment as a receptionist at age 20.

In Dar, there were three major racial groups – European, South Asian, and African.  Each had its own residential sections (one for Europeans, several for Asians and Africans).  This segregation was initially established by colonial policy and continued after independence through neighbourhood housing preferences.  Although I was European, I lived in the South Asian downtown area, boarding with Muslims – an Indian Ismaili family.

Solange was part African and part European, with possibly a bit of South Asian as well.  She had emigrated from the Seychelles with her mother and several younger siblings, living with them on the outskirts of the city, in an area accommodating many Christians – both African and Indian.  Solange was a devout Catholic.

Both of us had African boyfriends, but mine was no longer living in Dar and Solange was in the process of breaking up with hers, so a short vacation would help us forget our troubles.

East Africa in 1963-64

East Africa in 1963-64

When I arrived in Dar es Salaam, it was the capital of Tanganyika; now it was the capital of Tanzania.  Initially, Tanganyika was one of four countries forming British East Africa, the others being Kenya, Uganda, and Zanzibar.  Tanganyika was the first to gain independence – in 1961.  Independence was granted to Uganda in 1962 and to Kenya and Zanzibar in 1963.  A bloody coup occurred in Zanzibar on January 12, 1964, just one month after attaining independence.  The Sultan (with his Arab government) was overthrown and replaced by an African-led Revolutionary Council.  This occurred while I was living in Dar but all I remember about that incident was a bit of tension in the streets for a couple of weeks.  My work and social life carried on as usual.

Less than four months later, on April 26, 1964, Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged, forming a single country – Tanzania.  That was just six weeks before Solange suggested visiting Zanzibar during the Saba Saba holiday.  Saba Saba (Swahili for seven seven) was a festival held on July 7th in Dar es Salaam.  Our office would be closed Monday and Tuesday, July 6 and 7.

As the finishing touches of the alliance forming Tanzania had not yet been completed, Saba Saba would not be celebrated in Zanzibar this year, making it easy for Solange to find us accommodation.  For me, it was a great opportunity to visit another part of Africa at a relatively low cost.

*

On July 4th, Solange and I worked until noon, our usual Saturday quitting time, and then caught the ferry.  I carried a small navy bag containing two extra cotton dresses, a robe to wear when visiting the bathroom, extra underwear, a toothbrush, toothpaste, lipstick, and my camera.  My purse held my passport and a few shillings – enough money for a small emergency, not so much that I would worry if it disappeared.

For three hours, we suffered on uncomfortable wood benches.  The sky was deep blue, the ocean calm, but still our boat bobbed and rolled.  My stomach uneasy, my mind a bit hazy, I said little.  Usually we talked incessantly about work, our love lives, and our families.  Unlike most young women in Dar, we two were free – allowed to work, date, dance, travel alone, and make choices without male interference.  We wore simple cotton dresses, sleeveless, fitted to display our legs and the natural curves of our bodies.  This was what we always wore in Dar, which was cosmopolitan, even though about 65% of the population was Muslim.  We never thought that our attire might not be appropriate in Zanzibar, a conservative Muslim town seeped in Arab tradition.  The immigration officer, however, was surly, especially to me.  He eventually stamped our passports but we were restricted to a four-day visit.

Joseph, a South Asian, greeted us at the Zanzibar landing dock.  He had hired a cab to drive to his apartment, a short distance away, close to the sea and the town centre.

At Joseph’s apartment, we met his wife, who showed us our bedroom.  She said, “We have only two beds.  Our daughters can share one and you can share the other.”

They were twin beds.

I didn’t expect luxurious accommodations and had assumed that Solange and I would share a bed, but I worried about its size.  In Dar, I had learned to lie in the middle of my bed, with no part of me touching the mosquito net.  By sharing a small bed with Solange, parts of my body would brush against the net, and those blood-sucking fiends would land on vulnerable areas of my anatomy.  Throughout Joseph’s house, I could hear the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes, just waiting.

Nonetheless, after the long ferry trip, I just wanted to relax and soothe my queasy stomach.  I plopped on the bed besides Solange and we napped.  When we woke, I headed for the bathroom, and discovered the hole.

*

Our host had arranged to take us to dinner at a restaurant.  Solange and I wore our simple dresses; Joseph had donned a crisp new cotton shirt and his wife a light blue sari.  We strolled down the street, talking and laughing until we reached the restaurant, where Joseph was greeted by friends.  He had brought special guests – Solange and me.  In front of us were mangos, papaya, bananas, and guavas.  There was curried chicken and rice.  Plantains cooked with peanut curry. Lively music.  Non-stop chatter.

A man slipped into the seat beside me.  Unlike the others, he was dressed informally, wearing a simple white shirt, his sleeves rolled up.  He spoke only to me.  Eddie.  He was taking a break from work and would return to his office after dinner.

 In the middle of the festivities, I felt dizzy, sick.

“I need fresh air,” I said.

Outside I vomited.  On the sidewalk, thank God, not in the restaurant.  Eddie stood beside me.  I saw Solange, maybe Joseph …

“I need to lie down.”

Everything was a blur.  Eddie took charge.  I was in his car, then in a bedroom at his apartment.

“Lie here while I get a doctor,” he said.

How would he find a doctor on a Saturday night?  I only needed to rest awhile and I would be fine.

I removed my dress and draped it over the back of a chair.  Then I crawled into bed and covered myself with a sheet.  A few minutes later, Eddie arrived with a doctor, who examined me while Eddie hovered in the background.  “Malaria,” the doctor said.

How could I have malaria?  I took my quinine pill each morning.  But I had been feeling low lately.  Thought it was because I was lonely, my boyfriend now living in Cairo.  Maybe I had also been fighting an infection.

The doctor gave me medicine; I swallowed, and fell asleep.

*

In the middle of the night, I woke and saw the shadowy outline of a man.

Rape!  I’m going to be raped.

I vaguely remembered the doctor leaving as I fell asleep.  I was in an empty apartment with a stranger.  I didn’t move, though my eyes were open.  Did he realize I was awake?

As my vision adjusted to the darkness, I saw the figure clearly through the mosquito net.

Eddie sat on a chair.  His brows were furrowed, his gaze focused on my face.  He didn’t move, just stared like a grief-stricken father.  He barely knew me but he was worried.  He was watching over me, making sure I didn’t take a turn for the worse.  I relaxed, closed my eyes, and fell back to sleep.

*

A soft breeze blew through the window cooling the humid air.  Through half-opened eyes, I saw my navy bag by the door.  My mind was no longer groggy, my stomach no longer upset.  Still, it was my full bladder that impelled me to push aside the bed sheet, untuck the net, slip on my robe, and find the bathroom.  Relief.  Eddie had a real toilet.

Back in the bedroom, I dressed and then ventured into the kitchen.  Eddie sat at the table, writing.  He looked up and smiled. Not a broad smile, just a gentle, quizzical half-smile.

“I feel better now,” I said.

Eddie got up and sliced a banana into a bowl.  He suggested I try to eat while he fetched the doctor.

I ate and still felt hungry.  Eddie returned with the doctor who examined me, said my temperature was normal, gave me another pill, and told me to take it easy for the next few days.  Then the doctor left.

Eddie prepared us a small breakfast – a mango, sweet rolls and coffee.  I thanked him for looking after me and fetching my bag.

“Solange did the packing.” he said.  “I hope nothing is missing.  I invited Solange to come along and join us but she wished to stay with Joseph.”

When speaking about Solange’s decision, the tone of his voice implied criticism. Without addressing the topic directly, Eddie conveyed the message that he expected me to stay with him.  I knew that if I insisted, he would drive me to Joseph’s place.  But I didn’t really want to go.  Here I had my own bed, fewer mosquitoes, and a real toilet.

Solange and me in Dar before we went to Zanzibar.

Solange and me in Dar before we went to Zanzibar.

Solange in August 1964

Solange in August 1964

Nude in Black and Blonde

March 13, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Posted in Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories, Modelling Stories | 14 Comments
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It’s 1963 in Los Angeles and I’m twenty-two and restless, bored by office work and trying to revive my career as a figure model. Pictures of me as a blonde have appeared in a dozen men’s magazines, so my hair is now black. Change the hair colour, change the name and readers will think it’s a new girl. That’s what people in the business believe.

My agent books me with new photographers and between sessions I work at one- and two-day office positions for a temp agency. When not on a job, I share stories with other girls living at the Hollywood Studio Club. We’re all young and employed – or trying to find employment – in the entertainment industry. A few of my friends seek stardom, but most, like me, are just looking for a bit of glamour, some excitement. Figure modelling is not a long-term career. My future, I believe, lies in finding the right man, but since my “great romance” disintegrated eight months earlier, no special man has turned up.

Black hair may be hindering my quest for a new relationship. In my case, it appears true that “blondes have more fun.” But as a brunette, I’m getting more bookings.

In mid-June, Bill, my agent, phones to arrange a modelling session with Elmer Batters. I met Batters once, in Bill’s office, and vaguely remember seeing the two men hunched over my photographs. A matched pair, I thought, two middle-aged jowly men, with forgettable faces, thick waists and thinning hair.

The next morning, Batters parks in front of the Studio Club and I slip into the passenger seat clasping the leather hatbox that stores my modelling accessories: black bikini panties; black garter belt; black bra; sheer pink baby-doll peignoir; tight blue slacks; blue sweater with buttons opening down the front; open-toed gold shoes with two-inch heels; and a makeup kit containing eyeliner, mascara, eyebrow pencils, and several shades of lipstick.

I’m wearing white bikini panties, a white garter belt and an armour-like white bra designed to support large breasts. Its clasps are unfastened; when they are hooked, the bra’s straps pull tight, leaving deep red grooves in my shoulders. So I’m wearing a dress over a loosely swinging bra. My long-sleeved, flowing shirtwaist dress is white with a green leaf pattern; it’s office apparel, not a modelling accessory.

Elmer Batters drives east towards the San Fernando Valley and then beyond into the desert. He says little. Most photographers attempt to put me at ease by conversing prior to a shoot.

We ride for an hour until we reach a desolate road, finally stopping at a derelict movie set. Not much remains except scruffy wooden planks and crumbling plaster buildings. Beside this deteriorating structure is a railway track leading nowhere. A gurgling stream runs nearby; no other sound permeates the silence.

From the back seat of his car, Batters pulls out black nylon stockings with seams that he asks me to exchange for my pale seamless ones. He also hands me a pair of black stiletto shoes. But he doesn’t want me to remove my dress, just my bra. He shoots pictures of me in the dress, top buttons open, with my breasts revealed but still supported, making them appear full and firm. I pose on a concrete ledge dangling my legs over the creek, leaning against the front of his car, sitting on a faded wooden sidewalk and standing in front of a tattered screen. Finally, he asks me to remove the dress. Now I’m wearing only white panties, white garter belt, black nylons and black stilettos. With no support, my breasts droop.

Behind the buildings is a rusty dump truck, its front wheels propped on blocks. I’m beside the truck. Click. My foot rests on the high step below the cab. Snap. After Batters covers the tattered seat with a towel, I sit sideways. Clack. I’m inside the cab, curled in the grungy passenger seat, my feet resting on the dashboard. Whirr. Was it only a week ago that I was lounging seductively on a red brocade sofa?

I rely on photographers to tell me how to pose my body; I control the tilt of my head and facial expressions. But sometimes Batters shoots photos before I’m ready – so there’s no seductive smile, no sparkle in my eyes. And he doesn’t seem to care about my sagging breasts.

After I climb down from the cab, he leads me to the railway track where I totter on one rail wearing the stilettos. No longer worried about my looks, I concentrate on keeping upright. My feet are sore. I’m wobbling. The shoes must go! Returning to the car, I remove the hated footwear and change into my low-heeled pumps. Batters sighs. Then he guides me to a cluttered room with a low ceiling and slight mouldy odour. I straddle a rusty bathtub in my stocking feet, balancing on tip-toe. A dirty mattress covers much of the floor. Batters rolls up his towel to make a pillow and I lie on this mattress, but my body is stiff and I don’t smile or look towards the camera.

Batters snaps his photos quickly. Then we leave that stuffy cellar and head for the car. While he stores his cameras and tripod in the back seat, I fold my dress, carefully pack it in my case and then slip on my pants and sweater. Despite being parked in the shade, the auto is hot. Batters opens all four doors. When shooting in the crisp desert air, a gentle breeze cooled my semi-naked body. Now sweat runs down my forehead. Batters rummages through his back seat, finds two Coke bottles and flips off the caps. Although the pop is warm, I sip mine gratefully.

I start a conversation and Batters responds. We talk about the weather and then I introduce the topic of models and their looks. My ideal is the Playboy image – the glamorous, full-bosomed beauty.

Batters presses his lips tight. He says, “Men don’t want to look at fake women.”

“They aren’t fake,” I respond. “Men like to look at pretty girls.”

“No, they don’t. They want to look at the type of girls they see every day. Ordinary girls … naked. Girls they know they can get.”

He twists to the back seat, gropes around, and pulls out a magazine. Flipping it open, he shows me a page. “Look,” he says, “She is my most popular model because she doesn’t look special. She looks like someone a man can date.”

I glance through his photos. The model is average-looking, but she does things with her mouth that remind me of oral sex. When I point this out to Batters, he doesn’t respond, but instead tosses the magazine into the back seat and starts the car.

We stop at a bungalow in the San Fernando Valley. Most of my modelling stints occur in houses – places belonging to friends of the photographer – but previously these have been upscale homes, tastefully decorated. This is a shabby one-bedroom cottage with cracks at the bottom of the door. Its furniture appears to have come from a thrift shop: pink sheers covering the front-room windows, a matted sheepskin rug in front of an old tan sofa; a starburst clock above the fireplace mantel; a lime-green lamp; and, in the bedroom, purple curtains matching a purple bedspread.

I smell no whisper of perfume, no whiff of food. The place feels unoccupied – another forlorn setting, different from the desert but emitting the same sense of loneliness.

Before shooting begins, I hurry into the bathroom, splash water on my face, dab it dry, reapply my lipstick and touch up my eyebrows. I attempt to fluff my hair but my bangs stick to my forehead. In the desert, my hair had a soft wave; it flattened in that hot car. No hope for the bangs; backcombing gives the top some lift. Batters may not want me to look pretty – but I do.

I emerge from the bathroom wearing black underwear and embodying a new resolve. When he seems about to shoot, I lower my eyelids and don’t raise them until I’m ready. Dipping my chin, forming a half-smile, I look into the camera lens; this is my technique for simulating sexual desire in my photos. I hold my chest high and my shoulders back, raise my arms whenever possible, and thus make my breasts curve upward and appear fuller. Batters takes photos of me sprawling on the bed, stretching over the sofa, and sitting, cross-legged, in front of the fireplace. In only a few shots am I totally nude; in most, I’m wearing black panties, garter belt and nylons – and sometimes my open-toed gold shoes.

A lot of the time, Batters’ head is bowed while he views me through cameras. When he looks up, he doesn’t meet my eyes. Is he shy? He seldom speaks, simply waves an arm to direct my movements.

Finally we finish and he drives me back to the Studio Club; I have just enough time to clean up before walking downstairs to join friends for dinner.

That night in bed, I cannot stop thinking about Batters’ comment. He takes pictures of “ordinary girls.” In person, I do look ordinary as a brunette. In photographs, it’s different. The contrast between dark hair and my pale complexion can appear dramatic. That’s why some photographers place me in lavish settings: kneeling by an electric blue wall, reclining on a red brocade sofa, or huddling among lush green foliage. But I have large eyes, a stubby upturned nose and rosebud lips – childlike features, not dramatic ones. In person, with dark hair, I do not look striking. Men never fawned over me before I became a blonde.

Photographs be damned. I hate vivid colours. With fair hair, pale makeup and subdued clothes, I feel at ease; men notice me. I want to be blonde again.

The next day, I purchase hair supplies. To save money, I’ll do it myself. I’ve watched hairdressers bleach my hair for five years. How difficult can it be?

***

I have orange hair. Bright. Orange. Hair.

Around my scalp is a one-inch halo of pale yellow hair. The rest, the part previously dyed black, is now orange. I mix another package of bleach, cover the orange for an hour, then wash it out. My hair is a slightly lighter, even brighter, orange.

I wear a wig to dinner and consult with girls at several tables.

“You should go to Clairol,” one suggests. “They’ll know what to do.”

Unknown to me – and most other people – Clairol maintains a private salon in Hollywood where new products are tested. The girls chosen as models receive free hair services.
The next day, at Clairol’s beauty parlour, a colour expert examines my hair. She says, “You should have used a colour stripping process before you tried to bleach dyed hair.”

I’ve never heard of their colour stripping product. It isn’t sold in regular stores with their bleaches and toners. If I’d gone to a hairdresser…

The colour expert applies the stripping solution, waits an hour and washes it out. My hair is a slightly dimmer orange. “There’s no way to get the dye out now,” the expert says. “We’ll have to use a toner to mask it.”

Miraculously, she finds one, a dark blonde toner that turns my hair golden. A stylist trims the frizzled ends and I leave the salon with an appointment in two weeks. I will be their training model for “what to do when disaster strikes.”

I visit my agent to show him my new look. He takes four head shots, examines the prints and says they appear fine. He doesn’t have another photo session lined up but says, “There’s a big job coming soon. A soft core movie. It’s going to be another Immoral Mr. Teas.”

I know that Mr. Teas was a surprise hit featuring bare breasts and humour. However, Bill’s contacts in the entertainment industry are limited to photographers; he processes their colour film. A year earlier he couldn’t arrange trade show employment for me. Now he thinks he can get me a movie part?

I visit the temp office and they have a two-day job with a talent agency, one that evolves into a two-week position. My first day there, Martin, an entertainment lawyer, drops by, notices me and asks me out. Maybe I don’t have model bookings but I’m having fun, as Martin escorts me to restaurants and nightclubs. I’m blonde again. My social life has revived.

A month later, Bill calls. The movie job has come through. A four-day booking. One hundred dollars a day, double my usual rate. Fantastic!

Later, I reflect. How did I get this job without an audition? Topless girls in a soft core movie don’t need to act but they must look alluring on the screen. How a model moves in front of the camera is just as important as breast size.

Two days later, I drive to the studio, a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley. A makeup artist applies foundation to my face and neck (but not my body), and then skillfully highlights my lips and eyes. She is followed by a hair stylist who backcombs my weakened hair to give it volume. I join two other girls. We’re all clad in skimpy black satin underpants and black nylons (with seams) that have tight elastic bands to keep them from falling down (so no garter belts). I’m wearing my gold shoes with the two-inch heels. The three of us are standing outside the makeup room, awkwardly staring at walls, because there has been a delay in shooting our scene; the crew and movie camera are in another section of the warehouse, filming an episode that was supposed to be completed yesterday. Shivering in the cool hall, I drape my blue sweater around my shoulders and clutch the top.

A familiar face appears. Elmer Batters. He catches my eye, holds up his right hand and crooks his finger to indicate “come here.” He leads me to a room containing two large beds and begins taking photos, this time working with me, watching my eyes, waiting until I’m ready. He is the film’s still photographer. I know now how I got this gig.

Helena

May 17, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Posted in Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories, Other Stories | 7 Comments
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When I phoned last night, Helena said, “You won’t tell anyone who you are.”

“No, I’ll say you were my mother’s friend.”

Helena didn’t respond, so I spoke again.  “I’m looking forward to our visit.”

“Me too,” she whispered.

Helena developed mental health problems at 29 while working as a pharmacist in Vancouver.  After returning to Saskatoon to be with her family, she was assessed as schizophrenic.  She spent 17 years in the North Battleford psychiatric hospital, then 21 years in group homes as an outpatient.

I learned this when I wrote Saskatchewan Social Services looking for contact information on my birth mother.

Whenever I imagined her—which was seldom—it was as a peaceful housewife with two or three children—my half-siblings—wondering, perhaps, what happened to me and hoping I had found a good home.  I had; my adoptive parents were loving and kind.  So I never initiated a search for my birth parents, even after adoption regulations were eased and records opened to reveal their secrets.

Mom died ten months ago, leaving a package that included my adoption certificate.  As her gnarled, arthritic hands sealed the packet, did she wonder if I would search for my birth mother?  Around 15, I stopped asking about my biological parents.  Over the years, I learned to accept my strengths and many, many faults; they were consequences of decisions I made, not behaviours imposed upon me by genetics or nurturing.  Yet, holding the certificate in my hands roused my curiosity.  Did I have a sibling who shared my interests?  More important, could I acquire a genealogical health history?  With middle age came the realization that my future well-being depended on my ability to identify health risks, many of which had a genetic component.

The discovery of Helena’s mental problems should have been a shock but I felt nothing except a minor ache when I realized I had no siblings.  Maybe watching Mom wither under the onslaught of cancer had made me numb—shockproof.

As a psychologist, I knew schizophrenia had a familial genetic component but, at 45, I was well past the age it was likely to develop.  The only mental problem I had experienced was depression, which occurred sporadically but never severely enough for me to seek treatment.

What a coincidence, I thought, that Helena was in Vancouver, my home town, when I was a child.

“If you still want to contact Helena, send me a letter addressed to her,” the social worker wrote—so I did, describing my childhood in detail, telling Helena about my son, her grandson, and adding a bit about my education and work; I finished by stating I would like to meet her.  So she could see me growing up, I enclosed seven photos taken at different ages.

The social worker drove to North Battleford to evaluate Helena’s mental condition and gave her my letter after their discussion.  “I didn’t expect her to remember you,” the worker wrote.

Helena’s answer arrived.  She grew up on a farm with five siblings and a widowed mother, moved to Saskatoon, and was 22 when I was born.  After my birth, she entered the University of Saskatchewan, graduated with a pharmacy diploma, and worked five years, first in Saskatoon and then in Vancouver, until her problems.  After a stay in the hospital for “a while,” she lived in a group home where she met a friend, Anna, another outpatient; they recently moved to a new residence operated by Kay.  Helena wanted to see me.

She enclosed a portrait taken two years after my birth.  With her dark hair parted in the centre, heart-shaped face, and eyeglasses straddling a broad nose, she looked serious—and innocent.  I saw no resemblance between us.  My face was square, my forehead higher, my eyes larger, my nose thinner, and my lips fuller.

***

I have been visiting my son in Calgary.  When planning this journey months ago, I thought it a perfect time to squeeze in a trip to Saskatchewan.  But now, the prairies are in the middle of a deep freeze.  As no commercial airlines fly to North Battleford, I am speeding through farmlands on a bus, an arduous ten-hour drive.

I shift to relieve my aching back and cramped legs.  The droning motor lulls me—except during infrequent stops when the door swooshes open and cold air enters.  Brushing mist from the window, all I see are flat white fields, isolated houses, and scattered snow-covered trees.

By the time we reach town, it is night—and minus 38.  My nose and cheeks sting as I rush from the bus to an idling taxi.  Wheels clunk through hushed, ice-covered streets and soon we stop at a split-level bungalow.

The taxi driver honks his horn before I hurry up the stairs; by the time I reach the top step, the door flings open.  A smiling woman, her brown hair flecked with grey, says “Hello, I’m Kay.  We’ve been expecting you.”  Behind her, in the shadows, stands Helena.

“You’ll want to talk in private,” Kay says, leading us to a small, plain room containing a desk and three chairs.  I settle into the chair nearest the wall, expecting Helena to sit near me.  Instead, she slips behind the desk, putting a barrier between us.

Thick eyeglasses dominate her face.  Deep furrows run from the corners of her nose to her sagging chin, giving her mouth the appearance of a frown.  I try to project the picture of the innocent woman with smooth skin onto the ruin of her current face but fail.

Her formerly dark hair is now blond like mine.  To break the ice, I make a trivial remark.

“You bleach your hair also.”

Helena’s voice is soft, restrained.  “Anna does it.”

“Anna.  Your friend.  You met her 20 years ago.”

“We liked living on the farm … You won’t tell Anna who you are.”

I reassure her and she sits back in her chair—but says nothing.  So I introduce my main interest, family health.  “You wrote that your father died from the flu when you were four and your mother is dead now.  When did she die?”

Helena hesitates.  “I don’t know.   I was in the hospital.  Martha would know but she died.”

Her oldest sister.

“Martha often came from Saskatoon to see me.  She took me shopping.”

“What about your other sisters?”

“Dorothy … she visited a few times.  Elsa moved away—to Ontario, I think.”

I ask if she sees any other relatives.

“No … but I get Christmas cards.”   Her brows furrow.  “You’re not going to call them, are you?”

“Of course not.  I don’t know their names.”

Helena waits for me to ask questions, which she answers to the best of her ability.  She “doesn’t know” many things that occurred after her incarceration, probably because patients in psychiatric hospitals were heavily sedated.

Talking to her is a challenge.  I must ask specific questions because she doesn’t enrich her conversation with details, doesn’t move from one idea to a related topic unless prodded.  As I know nothing about her family except for the brief description in her letter, my attempts to gather information flounder.

Since Martha died, Helena seems to have had minimal contact with her relatives.  My quest for a genealogical health history has hit a dead end.  But I can still get to know Helena better, so I ask why she left Saskatoon for Vancouver.

“To find you.  I knew you were in Vancouver.  I never wanted to give you up for adoption.  Mother made me do that.  I wanted to keep you.”

Startling information!  Unwed mothers seldom kept their babies in the 1940s.  But after my adoption, why would she search for me?  Was it her mission to ensure I was thriving?  Or did she expect us to be reunited?  I was six when she arrived in Vancouver and wouldn’t have wanted to leave Mom and Dad.

“How would you find me?  Did you know the name of my adoptive parents?”

“No.  But they were from Saskatoon.  I thought … asking around …”

I remember the social worker writing, “In Vancouver, she met a man she thought might be your adoptive father and was unsure what to do.”

I see my gregarious father, who often stopped at a bar after work, introduced to a woman from his home town.  Talking.  Showing her a picture of Mom and me—he always carried one.  How happy we are, he would say.

“Did you meet my adoptive father?” I ask.

“No.”

Where did the social worker get her information?  A psychiatric report?  Helena appears to have forgotten the incident.  Or she doesn’t want to discuss it.  Yet I believe that now I understand what happened.  Helena determinedly pursues her goal:  find her baby.  She begins her search in Saskatoon, discovers I went to Vancouver, and spends a year there looking for me.    But when her goal seems within her grasp, she doesn’t know what to do.  She never visualized me as a seven-year-old, the happy daughter of another woman.  The mental conflict precipitates an emotional breakdown.

Helena sits passively, hands folded on the desk, awaiting my next question.  The conversation should be steered towards a less painful topic, so I ask about her last group home, the farm where she lived for 20 years.

Helena neither acts nor talks like a schizophrenic.  Schizophrenics frequently have trouble following a logical conversation.  They get “off topic” easily.  Ramble incoherently.  Helena is reticent but able to follow a complex discussion.

A sudden insight.  I think, not schizophrenia but a deep, destructive depression.   Withdrawal from the world.  I have skirted its fringes—only recognizing it once the danger passed.  Helena probably was diagnosed incorrectly.

Behind coke-bottle glasses, her eyes are sharp and intense.  But every crease in her sagging face is etched with grief.  I again attempt to engage her in a meaningful conversation.

“What do you like to do now?”

“I love reading.”  Corners of her mouth form the semblance of a smile.

“I read a lot also.  Mainly murder mysteries.  What types of books do you like?”

“Lots of books.”

Tired of trying to pull answers from her, I describe my work as a university professor and my life in Newfoundland, then add, “St. John’s is cold and windy.  I wish I could move back to Vancouver.”

“I wish I could move back to Saskatoon,” she says wistfully.

Kay knocks on the door.  It’s after nine and the home has bedtime rules.  Weary, I welcome the interruption and ask Kay if she can recommend a nearby hotel.

“You can sleep here if you like, in my daughter’s room.  She’s away at college.”

Her daughter’s room is on the main floor while Helena sleeps downstairs.  I say goodnight and add, “We can talk again tomorrow.”

I fall asleep as soon as I snuggle under the down duvet.

Next morning I meet the other members of the group home:  two thin men who mumble greetings and Anna who welcomes me warmly while scanning my face with bright blue eyes.  During breakfast, Kay talks, Helena answers questions, and Anna adds a few words.  The men say nothing.

After breakfast, Helena quietly clears the table and washes dishes with Anna’s help.  The men disappear.  I continue my conversation with Kay, then notice that Helena and Anna have gone.

“They’re outside, on the porch, having their cigarettes.  I don’t allow smoking in the house,” Kay volunteers.

“Outside!  In this weather?”

“They must have their smokes after breakfast and dinner, no matter what.”

Kay has operated a group home for years, but just recently started taking in former mental patients.  Previously she sheltered foster children and she describes caring for them—children left in a hot car for six hours, children starved for days, those forgotten when parents relocated.  One, a native girl, stayed four years until Kay was allowed to adopt her.  This is the “daughter” whose bedroom I occupy.

I tell Kay stories about Mom.  Not yet fully recovered from Mom’s death, I find talking about her provides catharsis.

I don’t notice Helena and Anna slip downstairs.  When I ask about them, Kay replies, “They have chores in the morning.  They’ll be up shortly for lunch.”

Talking to Kay is relaxing.  This is how strangers get to know one another, by sharing stories.  I would have enjoyed hearing Helena’s stories—about growing up on a farm, playing with her siblings, working as a pharmacist.  But she seems incapable of telling stories, although she clearly remembers the period before her incarceration.  Institutionalization has damaged her ability to share her memories with strangers, and I am a stranger.

At noon, the four arrive upstairs.  We eat; then I accompany Helena downstairs.

The above-ground basement contains two bedrooms, a bathroom and a sitting room.   The men share one bedroom, the women the other.

“It’s nice here,” Helena says.  “We have our own TV.”

The others invite me to join them, so I sit between Helena and Anna on an old, comfortable couch, with the two men ensconced in equally ancient cushy chairs.  We watch Wheel of Fortune.  When it ends, The Price is Right begins.

Not a fan of daytime TV, I ask Helena to show me her bedroom.  As we enter, she says, “I must take my pill.  I can’t forget.”  She takes a pill from a bottle on her dresser, adding, “I must take five pills a day.”

Antipsychotic drugs?

Helena’s ankles remind me of tree trunks.  Do drugs cause this edema?  Are those pills the reason she has difficulty moving from one idea to a related one?

The room contains two beds, two nightstands, two dressers with mirrors, and a chair.  No closet.  Walls are bare.  I thought Mom lived frugally during her last ten years but at least her small bachelor apartment was cluttered with pictures and souvenirs; she had cable TV, her own bathroom.  Helena has nothing.

I perch on the bed, Helena settles into the chair, and we continue our conversation from the previous evening.  With no desk between us, she seems more accessible.

“Besides reading,” I ask, “what else do you like to do?”

“I take long walks.”

“Not in this weather!”

“No … but in the summer, it’s nice.”

We talk briefly about North Battleford, and then, taking a deep breath, I ask, “Who was my father?”

“Gordon G—,” Helena replies promptly, as if expecting this question.  “He was a railway conductor.”  She stops, then adds in a sobbing voice, “He forced me!  He forced me!”

When I say nothing, she continues, “He left Saskatoon.  I didn’t see him again.  But a few years ago I saw his name on a poster.  He was running for Parliament.”   She spits out the last sentence.

“Are you sure it was him?  Did you see his picture?”

“Just his name.”

“How do you know it was the same Gordon G—?  It might have been another man with the same name.”

For a moment, her mask lifts and I see brightness in her eyes, a mental click as the suggestion registers.

“Yes,” she agrees.  A fragmentary smile.  “Maybe it wasn’t him.”

My suggestion comforts her.  She has no fond memories of this man.  Even the possibility that he didn’t thrive raises her spirits.

I ask if she has any pictures and she removes an envelope from her dresser drawer.  In it are photos of Helena in Saskatoon, smiling beside university friends and work colleagues; several of her laughing on a fishing boat in Vancouver.  Only one is recent.  Taken two years earlier, she sits glumly beside her sister.  There are no photographs from 1947 to 1983—35 missing years.

A Vancouver “street snapshot” captures my attention.  Helena is striding along Granville, head held high, eyes focused forward, long hair framing a determined face.  Only in this picture do I see a resemblance between us:  in the concentration of her face, tilt of her head, and firm grip on her purse.  With a tailored suit showing under her swinging coat, she looks successful.  The date scribbled on the back reveals this photo was taken only a few months before her breakdown.

Anna knocks on the door.  “It’s time for dinner.”

As we eat, both Anna and Helena talk to me, albeit hesitantly and quietly.  The food is simple but wholesome—meat, potatoes and two vegetables prepared with care.  Cake for dessert.

Helena and Anna again wash the dishes, then go outside to smoke.

On Kay’s mantelpiece are pictures of her family.  Her husband died a few years ago; she has a natural daughter who lives outside Saskatchewan and seldom sees; but most of the pictures display her adopted daughter and Kay talks mainly about her.  While she talks, I think, the bond between mother and child is forged not by blood but by shared experiences.

Helena cannot share her experiences with me.  Not even a bond of friendship can be formed.  Once she was a successful professional.  Had she continued on that journey, had she not been locked in a psychiatric hospital, we could have shared stories, maybe discovered kindred souls, possibly established a friendship.  But what might have been cannot be because her journey was halted, her life destroyed, when she was classified as schizophrenic.  I believe, although I can never know for sure, that she was misdiagnosed.  Would her life have been different if she had received treatment for depression?

Helena comes inside and I stop her before she disappears downstairs.

“I’m leaving early in the morning, before breakfast,” I state.  “I want to say goodbye in case I don’t see you again.  Thank you for inviting me.”

Helena replies, “I enjoyed meeting you.”  I give her an awkward hug and she hugs me stiffly in return.  We are strangers, tied by blood but without shared memories.

“I’ll write,” I say.

“Me too,” she replies.

***

Helena doesn’t answer my letter.  We have nothing in common and she lives far away:  Our encounter shifts to the back of my mind.  Nine years later, I receive a message stating, “Your biological mother has died.”

Helena never told her relatives about our meeting, although they all knew about her baby and the adoption.  Martha’s granddaughter had moved to North Battleford and visited her, but Helena kept her secret.  However, she told Anna her story and Anna gave her family my carefully preserved letters and photos.

Suddenly I have cousins, second cousins, and an uncle inviting me to meet them.   Martha’s daughter provides a detailed genealogical health history that is very useful.

I ask Martha’s daughter, who was 17 when Helena became ill, what symptoms she displayed.  Did she hear voices, have delusions, speak gibberish or possibly stop talking altogether?  Helena showed none of these symptoms, my cousin says.  She would go on long walks and not return.

I learn that Helena initially returned to Saskatoon because she began crying uncontrollably at work.  All her symptoms suggest severe depression—certainly a serious mental disorder, but not one that required detention in a psychiatric prison.

I discover that the North Battleford psychiatric hospital, originally built to accommodate 800 patients, contained 2,000 during the period Helena was incarcerated.  Wards of seventy patients were supervised by three nurses.  Patients with relatively minor issues were placed with the severely psychotic.  There were no chairs or sofas, no pictures or mirrors—only grey walls, cement floors, and wood benches.  When not huddled on benches or the floor, patients slept two to a bed on straw mattresses.

I wish she had told her relatives about me and—during the last nine years of her life—saw me welcomed into the family.  They gave me her photographs.  There were seven new ones, all taken since my visit.  In these, she is smiling.

…………………………………………………………………………

ADDED NOTE:  I wrote this about two years ago.  Since then, I have discovered (I think) my birth father’s family.  Helena would have been pleased to know that he died at a relatively young age, about 20 years before I visited her.  He did live a happier life than she did, but it was also a short one.  I received a couple of pictures of him from his family.  There was also a picture of him among Helena’s photos, albeit a photo in which he was difficult to recognize until I saw the other photos of him.

Helena, age 24

Gordon, mid-twenties

Shannon Moeser, age 19

Shannon Moeser, age 21

Wigged Up

April 24, 2012 at 4:45 am | Posted in Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories, Modelling Stories | 10 Comments
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My agent phones right after breakfast.

“Mario Cassilli wants to use you,” he says.  “I told him you’d be there at 10:30.”

Great, I think.  Maybe I’ll appear in Playboy.

A quick brush of my teeth, light touch of lipstick, thin stroke of eyeliner, and I’m off.  Cassilli’s studio is a ten-minute drive through congested Hollywood streets.  A one-story, white building with a rear parking lot, its front façade has no door or windows, no sign indicating the nature of its business.  But the back door – the entrance – displays Playboy’s famous rabbit-head logo.

Cassilli has a pleasant face and a bushy moustache.  When he sees me, his smile disappears.  “I need a blond,” he says.  My agent failed to mention that I had dyed my hair black.

After a pause, Cassilli says, “We’ll rent you a wig.”  He tells me exactly where to drive – a Max Factor boutique specializing in wigs – and gives me a voucher for a one-day rental.

An hour later, I’m sitting on a chair in the back of the store.  The woman takes one look at me and says, “You have a very small head.”  She doesn’t need to measure; she has fitted thousands of models and actors.

She moves to a storeroom and returns ten minutes later.  “Right now, I have only one that will fit you.”  After she adjusts it, I examine myself in several mirrors.  My hair is now light blond, four inches long, with a soft wave.  Exactly right.  It looks natural.   When I brush my hand across the top, it feels coarse.  My own hair has fine strands and flattens easily; the thick strands on this wig will remain bouncy.

“I’ll take it,” I say, giving her the voucher.  She reminds me that the wig must be returned within 24 hours.

By 12:30, I’m back in Cassilli’s studio.  He likes the wig.

In a small, black leather case, I carry my modelling accessories:  black bikini panties, white bikini panties, a front-opening black bra, black garter belt, white garter belt, extra pair of nylons, and gold, open-toed, high heels.  A makeup kit contains bright pink lipstick, bright red lipstick, pale coral lipstick, eyeliner, black eyebrow pencil, brown eyebrow pencil, and mascara.

For makeup, Cassilli wants me to use coral lipstick, brown eyebrow pencil, eyeliner, and mascara.  For clothes, he requires only my black bikini panties and gold shoes.  He provides the other props – a gunfighter belt and quick-draw holster, plus gun.  I tie the holster’s drop-loop around my leg and point the gun at the camera.  It reminds me of playing cowboys and Indians as a child.

After Cassilli takes several photos, I remove the gunfighter outfit and he arranges his lights and camera tripod for a close-up.  He instructs me to hold my right arm across my upper chest and my left arm at a 90-degree angle.  He spends time getting me to hold my arms and hands exactly right.

I’m worried.  Cassilli viewed my body a year ago.  Since then, I’ve lost five pounds.  My legs are slimmer, my bum less prominent, but my breasts have lost some fullness, and consequently have a more pronounced droop.  I know how to hold my body to hide this defect but the pose Cassilli wants, with arms pushed forward, emphasizes my less-than-perfect bosom.  As Cassilli tells me to move my arm “a bit lower” or “a bit to the right,” I feel uneasy, even though I’m smiling.

We finish by four and Cassilli hands me a $50 cheque.  I’m too shy to ask where or when these photos will appear, but see that the cheque has been issued by Playboy.

I have time to return the wig but instead drive home to the Hollywood Studio Club.  At dinner that evening, everyone admires the wig.  Next morning, I buy it.  The store applies the rental fee towards the purchase price, although the $150 is still high on my budget.

***

For the next year, I search through each month’s Playboy but I don’t see the photos.  Rejected, I think, because of my flabby boobs.

A year ago, I finally saw these pictures.  They were published in the September 1964 Topper.  Cassilli must have sold rejects to Topper.  I almost didn’t recognize myself in the wig.  Although it looked like real hair and not a wig, it was fuller than my natural hair, and this fullness altered my head shape.  In the gunfighter scene, I appear between the legs of another gunfighter – a parody of Gunsmoke.  In the close-up scene, boxes of beer were drawn between my arms.  Cassilli had placed my right arm across the top of my chest, which hid the fact that my breasts drooped.  But although my mouth formed a toothy smile, my eyes looked sad.  I forgot that  emotions felt by a model show on the photo being taken.  The photographer didn’t screw up; the model did.

Image

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