CHARACTER ACTOR: An actor who lacks some of the admittedly subjective physical attributes associated with movie stars: too tall, too short, unattractive, overweight, or somehow lacking an ephemeral “star quality.”
Most incoming freshman have only a vague idea of how dining services operate, how to register for classes, what those classes should be, or how to schedule those classes around Days of Our Lives and All My Children. Ideally, parents travel with eager new students to a summer orientation where said student is tossed into a sea of colored pamphlets and information overload. Hordes of preppy, soon-to-be sophomores guide them around singing praises of the school, zealously demonstrating their membership in Brown Nosers of America. Students unable to attend summer orientation catch a last-minute session a few days prior to the start of fall classes (sans parental units). I was one who waited until the later orientation, and so had to register for classes over the phone. Somehow, I wasn’t instructed to sign up for freshman English—who knew? Talk about poor planning. I was doomed.
If your parents didn’t go to college—and mine didn’t, in fact, my Dad only made it through the eighth grade—then there is little or no concept of the college experience. Orientation? Care packages? College savings? Huh? Mom filled out the financial aid forms and, after that, I was on my own. On campus I got lost trying to find this magical orientation and so dismissed it entirely, losing out on vital information about securing work-study positions to supplement my student loans and non-existent savings. I was up crap creek without a paddle or a lifejacket or any ability to swim. I swore I wasn’t going to work in a fast food joint again, and I wasn’t sold on the idea of wearing a hairnet in the cafeteria. It was bad enough I had braces on my teeth and a body I cried about every night before I went to sleep; I didn’t need a hairnet and fry-pimpled skin to completely rule out any chances of companionship. But I was fortunate enough to have a car, and just down the street from my dormitory was a place advertising several delivery positions with flexible schedules and lots of tips. Tips. I gazed to the heavens, dreaming of bulging pockets and endless trips to the vending machines for Twinkies and cheese sandwiches. I would get my tips.
The business was brand new, started by a former student bored with having been limited to pizza and sub delivery while in college. He created a service that delivered food from a large selection of restaurants—even diners and ice cream shops. My Le Car would be a trusty steed for delivery. Young women have strange relationships with 4-cylinder engines and stick shifts. I felt as though I ruled the world, zipping and darting and shifting and beeping and laughing at my auto-efficiency and self-proclaimed bad-assery because I could drive a manual transmission. So I zipped and darted down the street to Hungry Cyclone’s headquarters for my first shift as a delivery driver in a city I had lived in for less than ten days.
I ended up with just three delivery runs that night and $7 in tips. Ouch. That was far less than the thirty or forty dollars I had been hoping for—even if I figured in $4.25 an hour plus ten cents a mile.
Apparently the owner didn’t think about the fact that the rib restaurant, the ice cream shop, and the cookie store had no experience in high volume takeout service. Drivers were left waiting while rib juice leaked into our upholstery and French fries stunk up our cars. It was chaos for everyone involved. I got lost without exception and each time showed up with cold food (or warm, whichever was least desirable). Lobbing burgers to last-call drunks from behind the safety of a stainless steel counter sounded like paradise as the hours passed and the pizzas chilled.
After my first night I arrived at my dorm room in a cranky mood. My roommate Beth was all smiles.
“A package came for you today, Sandy. It’s really heavy.” I looked at her pale face. An unknown stress had manifested itself as cold sores that circled her mouth and crawled into her nose. I wondered what she looked like at the end of a semester.
“Thanks.” I took the box and set it on the bed. “Hey, this is from my Granny Idela. It’s a care package.” I could only imagine what was inside. As a child, I thought all grandmas had faux-leopard walls and faux-leopard furniture, and dressed in sequined gowns and blonde wigs and looked a lot like Dolly Parton. I thought all kids went to dive bars on the Jersey Shore to hear grandma sing and play drums in her country band, Idela and the Country Cream. I even tried to emulate her musical prowess that semester by auditioning for and landing a spot as a snare drummer in the university orchestra. I loved walking to campus with drumsticks hanging out of my back pocket. Maybe I should become a classical snare drummer? That would be cool. Except I quit—rather, I quit showing up—after just two rehearsals, mortified that I had to count in silence through 117 measures of rests, only to play a single par-a-diddle or flam before counting 60 more. Ugh. Boooring.
Looking down at the box, I noticed her usual salutation: To the Most Beautiful and Talented Granddaughter in the World. Each of we granddaughters was the most something, it depended on her mood. Grandma employed a ruler to guide her handwriting and all the letters were flat on the bottom, the tops were curls and swirls. I used a knife to cut the half-dozen layers of tape. “Are you ready?” I asked Beth.
“Sure, whatever,” she said. “I just hope there’s chocolate.” I removed the contents of the box one thing at a time and piled everything in the center of the room. Three-fourths of the stuff was wrapped in tissue, wrapping paper and ribbon. Beth’s eyes bulged as I removed the following from the 16″ x 16″ x 22″ box:
- 1 wire-bound college-ruled notebook, 50 pages
- 1 wire-bound wide-rule notebook, 40 pages
- 1 wire-bound college-ruled notebook, 50 pages
- 1 wire-bound wide-rule notebook, 40 pages
- 2 5-pack index dividers w/tabs
- 1 wire-bound college-ruled notebook, 5 pages
- 1 8-ounce pack Gevalia coffee
- 2 13″ x 7″ x 4″ plastic Sterilite storage boxes w/lids
- 1 cassette tape “Kings of Swing” big band swing
- 1 miniature screwdriver set
- 1 Electrex quartz travel alarm clock
- 2 lightbulb magnets (blue and yellow)
- 2 self-adhesive plastic hooks
- 1 purple pencil sharpener
- 1 chip clip
- 1 100-tablet Walgreen’s multi-vitamins (expired)
- 1 Golden Choice sesame cookies with honey
- 1 rose petal perfume (1/2 oz)
- 1 silver-tone bracelet
- 1 silver-tone ring with abalone hearts
- 1 silver-tone ring with oval abalone
- 1 silver-tone mesh bracelet with abalone ovals
- 1 small denim pouch
- 1 brown beaded necklace with faux pearl doves
- 1 pair brown beaded earrings with faux pearl doves
- 1 silver-tone necklace with half spade decor
- 1 small powder-blue washable feather duster
- 3 6-packs AA batteries (expired)
- 1 giant bottle Eau de Jontue fraiche cologne
- 2 toothbrushes (1 soft, 1 medium)
- 1 pink and teal vinyl pouch (reversible)
- 1 nightlight
- 2 mini spiral notebooks
- 1 pack Blackhorse Tavern playing cards
- 1 strawberry Kissing Potion
- 2 loose AA batteries
- 1 pair high-tech toenail clippers
- 1 tube Hair Away
- 1 bonus pack (30% more) Thin Mints
- 1 Belwood alarm clock radio
- 1 pack loose-leaf paper
- 1 flower-embossed leather purse
- 1 bottle 100 tablets Theragran M (expired)
- 1 bottle 30 tablets Theragran M (expired)
- 1 flowery compact with mirror
- 1 auto maplight
- 1 auto spotlight (plugs into lighter)
- 1 plastic hanging hosiery caddy
- 1 red, yellow and blue placemat
- 1 threaded sewing needle
- 2 pins with purple and blue heads
- 5 safety pins
- 4 mini threads
- 1 pair scissors with rubber finger guards
- 3 packets powdered Alpine spiced cider
- 2 packets Carnation hot cocoa mix
- 1 Revlon white plastic comb
- 1 wooden back scratcher with brass hand
- 1 bag rubber bands
- 1 one-cup coffee brewing device
- 4 shopping list coupon caddies
- 2 pencils
- 1 shower clip with plastic handle
- 1 Quantas travel toothbrush w/ paste
- 1 vinyl travel bag from Time Magazine
- 1 even bigger vinyl travel bag from Time Magazine
- 1 tan wash rag
- 1 tan hand towel
- 1 white hand towel with Christmas tree
- 2 moss-green bath towels
- 1 pink and black alien-head key chain
I sat back on my heels and looked at Beth. “Have I mentioned anything about my grandma?”
I coasted down the street to my second shift at Hungry Cyclone and grudgingly loaded empty cold bags and a hot box into my car. The hot boxes were kept warm with a Sterno; a tin cup holding flammable gel that warms when ignited. A few hours into this second shift of zipping, careening and pissing people off with lateness, my mighty LeCar filled with creamy smoke. The Sterno had tipped over and its weak blue flames had ignited my car seat. It quickly burned through the upholstery and started melting the foam underneath. The acrid smell caused me to swerve around corners, barely missing blurry pedestrians as my eyes burned and squirted tears. I managed to pull over and pound out the flames, tipping a pizza on its side and spilling hot Sterno gel as I threw the hot box to the floor. I immediately headed back to the shop and—like a true drama queen—explained my plight to the owner, cut my shift short, and raced out the door.
I didn’t take another job that semester; instead, I tried to be frugal with the tiny amount left from my student loans. I partied like a true freshman. I wanted to recreate my earliest recollections of getting drunk, when my body hummed and my face felt sparkly. Unfortunately, I seemed to continue skipping over the fun part and went from slightly buzzed to passed out cold. I spent entire weekends with crippling hangovers. Halfway through the semester I quit going to classes because I decided I was going to be an actress. Why not, I thought; I was in plays in high school. Sampson was already in New York City and was urging me to audition at the theatre school he was attending (I think he just needed a roommate). And Granny Idela needed a grandchild to gain the fame and fortune that had somehow eluded her.
I figured I would need to lose some weight if I was to be an actress (I had packed on 50 pounds in the past year). But instead of abstaining from excessive eating or engaging in exercise, I borrowed twenty dollars from my roommate to buy laxatives, thinking I could shit out all the donut calories. I went so far as to spend an entire afternoon lying in bed, dangling a hammer over my face, thinking if I broke my jaw just a little I could get my mouth wired shut. Liquid lunches would guarantee a stage-worthy body.
Only I couldn’t do it. Not only was I was afraid of the pain, but having a hammer fall on my face would require a fairly elaborate explanation, not to mention a lengthy trip to crazy town. I’d just have to be a character actress. So after a single semester of college I returned to Estherville to prepare for my audition at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. In the interim I’d have to return to McDonald’s and apply at the local egg processing plant where they always had openings.
I told Mom about the new plan and she said, “Whatever you want to do, Sandman!” Her habit was to always tell me I was the smart one (I wasn’t), the one who could do anything I tried (I couldn’t), the one who would be rich and famous (I’m still hopeful) and—I always found this a curious declaration—the one who would buy my own jewelry. What little guidance I’d been provided had long before been withdrawn. I knew only what was expected in the end.