By Naomi Serviss / New York City
Why do people ask kids
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s a dopey question.
How on earth are semi-formed humans
supposed to nurture
vocational aspirations when daily life
is spent dodging maternal hysterics
and brotherly bullying?
Speaking for myself, of course.
There have always been kids living
in sketchy families of origin.
My situation was not unique
to anyone but me.
Still, moving from one shoddy apartment
to another grew less adventurous
and more depressing
as the upheavals racked up.
My self-soothing thumb-sucking
calmed me until I turned ten.
The chaotic household I was tethered to
brought unexpected bonuses.
Like Tony, a barber-turned-hypnotist,
who latched onto my mother
or vice versa)
for six years.
He exuded a beatnik-y vibe,
and my mother was smitten.
He lasted the longest
of all of her gentleman callers.
We (my mother, two older sisters
and an older brother)
lived in Colonial Apartments,
a foreboding stone and red brick building
across from the Elkins Park railroad station.
It was a sprawling
poorly constructed apartment
with five rooms, dicey plumbing
and paper-thin walls.
After school, I escaped reality
throughout the familiar neighborhood.
A creek at the bottom of
Ogontz Jr. High School
faced a weeping willow tree
whose branches swayed softly in the breeze.
I felt protected and protective.
Hours spent losing myself
in zig-zagging current-guided paramecium.
Wading ankle-deep in pebble cold,
clear water that sang as it rushed downhill.
Stories bloomed everywhere I looked.
Didn’t take notes
but remembered later.
My wandering, creek-loving curiosity
fed an authentic self,
distant from the frightened child
trapped in shaky circumstances.
My mother was a hard-working wannabe nurse,
but waitressed instead
at Pauline & Eddie’s,
a neighborhood diner joint
with a counter.
Sunday was a special day at home.
A tablecloth appeared
and covered the dining room table.
An extra plate.
Tony was coming for dinner,
which meant we’d have roast beef, a rarity.
We were a big happy Norman Rockwell family!
Tony stuck around for three apartment addresses.
He played guitar
and won my mother’s heart.
School was sanctuary.
A respite from chaos.
Teachers encouraged me
to keep reading and writing stories.
So I have.
But not before having
a baker’s dozen
The worst included working
as a Kelly Girls temp
in Cambridge, Mass.
Kelly Girls was a employment agency
It was a terrible name for a company,
but not as bad as its male counterpart:
I became a red IBM Selectric secretary,
tapping out poetry on breaks.
Gazing out the Harvard Square window,
pondering the existential question
What am I doing here?
Trying to make rent in Boston.
A freelancer without a plan.
hadn’t yet manifested.
That would take years
and some major life events:
A move to Morrisville, New Jersey.
Work as the employee publications editor
for the New Jersey National Bank in Trenton.
Where I wall-plastered New Yorker covers
in my tiny windowless office.
For some unfathomable reason
the job included me being the treasurer
of the employee social committee!
Where I’d be responsible for tracking expenses.
I’ve never been a math whiz, so handling budgets
was not in my wheelhouse.
Since this was a bank
with scads of qualified money handlers,
couldn’t they please let me off the hook
and find a numbers whiz?
Don’t ask former English majors
with math anxiety
to handle and keep track of money!
One night before a monthly budget meeting,
I had a full-blown anxiety attack.
I think my ulcer-to-be germinated then.
The job required me to visit bank branches
and give a United Way spiel,
the goal of which
was to convince underpaid employees
to tithe a portion of their pay.
Automatically deducted from paychecks
the United Way’s coffers!
I knew this position was not a good fit
So landing a replacement job
was my next goal.
At the time, Lew reported for the Trenton Times.
Neither of us were in love with New Jersey.
Ours was an equal opportunity marriage.
So when opportunity knocked
from Washington, D.C.,
I was over the moon
when hired as a public-relations director
for a high-school student-exchange organization
based in D.C.
The job came with an office,
a secretary and a National Cathedral view.
It also came with a touchy-feely boss.
Before the era of “Me, Too,”
inappropriate behavior was commonplace.
Fortunately, Lew was offered a position
at the Orlando Sentinel newspaper
and we moved to sunny Florida.
What followed was motherhood,
as we welcomed Emily into the family.
Although Lew’s job was challenging,
we never felt at ease
in the Deep South.
Northeasterners at heart,
Lew applied and got hired as a copy editor
at Newsday, on Long Island.
He was made an offer he couldn’t refuse.
New York City was in our sights
and we moved once again.
After raising two kids,
where we’ve lived ever since.
Sometimes clichés are true.
It really is about the journey.
The path may be bumpy, but worth the trek.
And I’ve been taking
really good notes.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com