THE SUMMER OF BELONGING:
Strippers, Poets and Omar's Restaurant
My writing journey has been both long and short. By long, I mean I wrote here and there while marriage and a mortgage interrupted my dreams. I wrote stories from time to time that no one read, and on three different occasions, I surprised myself by getting published—once in a magazine about quilting and twice in newspapers. I started a blog and experimented with style and voice, eventually accumulating a hundred or so followers. But rarely during that time, did I consider myself a writer—even though I wanted to.
Coming into my sixties awakened me with an urgent fear. The years had caught up. If I didn’t dedicate myself to writing now, I never would, and it would become the great, sorrowful regret of my life. So I proclaimed to a small and select group of friends that I was going to write novels. I was sixty-three.
In a year and a half, I wrote and finished three novels, and they were all rambling narratives with pretty prose and some exquisite descriptions that never got near a real story. In that same year and a half, I studied my ass off, apologizing for myself all the way. I didn’t know where to place a comma or how I was supposed to use a semicolon. I’d been a horrible student in school, a dropout in fact, who managed to pick up the pieces in midlife and finally earn a high school diploma as well as a college degree in my late thirties. Real writers, I thought, were good students, nerds who’d attended good colleges and loved the English language.
In the summer of my sixty-fifth year, all the pieces came together. I finished my fourth novel, and it was good, a real story that hung together. My blog accumulated three thousand followers that year, and I achieved the rookie writer’s holy grail: a contract with a New York City literary agent. In that same heady summer, I got my first paid job as a writer.
The Rogue Valley Messenger is a small newspaper, a freebie found on street corners and in grocery stores in and around Ashland, Oregon. Like so many times in my scrappy life, I faked knowing what I was doing. And it was the best fake-out ever. Interviewing folks for the lifestyle section of the paper, I quickly learned from my beyond-patient editor what was expected of me. And each month, I banged out a thousand or so words, receiving a check for twenty to thirty-five dollars for each article.
In the middle of the experience, I learned about the writing craft, yes, but more importantly, I began to see my own condition mirrored back to me in the people I interviewed and whose stories I then told. They would touch upon the my long-held beliefs of fears and self-doubt, and hearing their stories helped me reclaim a wild, completely imperfect part of myself. Writing for The Messenger was an act of realizing all the possibility and potential that I’d pushed aside in the name of unworthiness.
There were lots of articles, some of them better than others, but three stand out. The first was an interview with a burlesque performer who’d named herself Kat Wondergloom. She said she wanted a name that was part whimsy and part darkness.
I loved her story. I loved learning that burlesque is more than just a tassel-twirling bump and grind where women shed their clothing. During the interview, Kat told me the thing that helped her the most on her quest to become a burlesque artist was being adopted by a group of drag queens who schooled her in everything from makeup to just where to place those rhinestones.
And when I asked her how burlesque dancing was different from being a stripper, she laughed. “A lot more glitter and a lot less money,” she said. I understood that. So much of what I experienced in the world was just glitter.
Kat Wondergloom and I weren’t that very different from each other. She was a proud, independent woman, making her way in a world that wasn’t always kind, but she was doing it without apology. Kat would never get a formal invite to the #metoo movement, but in many ways, her proud sense of sexuality and her determination, I found, was every bit as liberating.
When I finished writing the article, I decided that maybe it was time for me to stop apologizing for my past and begin to fiercely embrace my present. Workshops and writing books brought me a long way toward becoming a writer, but Kat Wondergloom gave me the missing piece—you gotta believe in yourself and own what you do.
The second article that stands out was an interview with a poet who would soon be visiting the small university in my town. Richard Blanco had been Barak Obama’s second inaugural poet—the first Latino and the first gay man to hold such a prestigious honor. I was intimidated by his writing credentials and thrilled that I got to interview him.
I worked very hard on the questions I was going to ask him. I read two of his books before the phone interview and prepared for days. We had a good, lively conversation about the ordinary within the extraordinary, and I wrote it up. After my article was published, and Richard was in Ashland teaching, he surprised me by inviting me to coffee. We spent an hour talking about writers and writing in a local coffee shop. I learned that his work had always been influenced by the themes of belonging and asking the question of what and where home is.
I’ve lived most of my adult life with the sense that I must have gotten off the bus at the wrong stop. What I learned from Richard is that it’s human nature to want to explore the question of home and belonging. It’s not a flaw or a failure.
I only wrote for The Messenger for a year, and then my husband and I left our home in Ashland, moving to Austin, Texas. One of the last pieces I wrote for the publication wasn’t about a person, but about a place: Omar’s.
Omar’s was an old steakhouse built in the 1940s that hadn’t changed much since. It was the only piece I’ve ever written where I hated how the editors chopped it up. Honestly, I didn’t really write a solid newspaper piece about a restaurant—about the steak and the fish that they served, about the wait and bar staff, some of whom had been there a couple of decades or more. I couldn’t get out of my own way and be a professional, objective journalist.
Instead I let Omar’s inspire me as a storyteller. Across the street from Southern Oregon University, the place was frequented by writers, professors, and diehard locals who could recite the history of the restaurant which hadn’t changed its menu since the 1940s. When I sat down in the bar, I halfway expected Raymond Chandler to sit down next to me and buy me a drink. I got lost in the red, cracked, leather booths and the dark haze of the cocktail lounge with its bar carved with initials from patrons who didn’t want to be forgotten.
The steakhouse invaded my imagination, pinning me up against the wall by my throat. Because of that, I knew that a dolled-up dame had written the name “Omar’s” on the sky with one red fingernail. That became the neon sign illuminating the darkness under a blue moon, just above a post that says “To Klamath Falls.” I loved the dark, seedy feeling of it all, and instead of writing the newspaper article on steak, I wrote about how the grittiness of the place reminded me of a Raymond Chandler novel with hard-boiled detectives and blonde bombshells. And I have to wonder how many writers had sat in those booths and construed stories that fit perfectly against the backdrop of its lit noir images.
To say that the article about Omar’s received a major editing and a requested set of revisions by my managing editor is not the half of it. I had written, or rather pieced together, something that was part noir wannabe and part restaurant review. Still, it’s worth noting that I could see how everybody needs an Omar’s, a place that knows you and welcomes you when you need to eat or rest, a place where the filters are off. Omar’s underscored a truth about me: I love a good story.
As my husband and I got on the road for our move to Texas, I looked for the ghostly outline of the dolled-up dame who had drawn the sign with her fingernail against the sky. I hoped she’d be standing by the doorway of Omar’s as we drove by for the last time. I didn’t see her, but I heard her whisper this to me, Own it!
That steakhouse was the place that put the exclamation point on the best summer ever—strippers, poets, and Omar’s. And damn, if I hadn’t become a real writer, traipsing around in search of my material. Real stories. Imagined stories. And the comfortable familiarity of being lost and looking for where I belonged.