I was shopping in the bulk section of my local organic market — an area chain with human-scale storefronts, not one of those monsters like Whole Foods or Wild Oats — and the whiff from the herbs rack sent me tumbling back in time to the third shit job I had after college. Ford, then Carter, if you were around. There were a lot of shit jobs out there, especially if you were a literature major who couldn’t stand sitting still.
It was the dawn of a new age, as the voice-over says in the Babylon 5 titles, and organic food, herbs and the like were still mostly the province of people who parted their hair in the middle and wore sandals. Only the adventurous were popping things like saw palmetto for their prostates or doing “detox diets.” I was just coming to grips with the dissonance between the promise of medicine as I had read about it when younger — Alexander Fleming, Louis Pasteur — and the apparent helplessness, worse, disinterest, of contemporary doctors in the face of real, intractable problems that I ended up having to solve myself, armed with a copy of Adelle Davis and a GNC ad torn out of the Sunday paper.
(We’re not talking dandruff here, by the way; my issue was an IUD, the infamous Dalkon Shield, which had gone septic right up to my ovaries. After several rounds of antibiotics which did nothing but leave me allergic to penicillin, and a dungeon horror experience with a bunch of hmphing male GYNs who talked past me while shooting isotope-laced oil up my Fallopian tubes — they really hated it when I said “careful with that tenaculum” — I was ripe for the health counterculture, where I still dwell, really.)
So I went to work in the Herb Shop (gods! it sounded so full of tranquility and wisdom) of a natural-health combine that included a food store, restaurant, and book store, perched over the C & O canal at the gateway to DC’s Georgetown, which used to be funky — a patchwork of bars, repertory film theaters and bookshops, snooty clothes stores competing with holes in the wall where anyone could afford something. Sic transit gloria mundi.
The manager of the herb shop was named something like Suzy Hinky and she explained to me during my first interview that she was CELIBATE. (Thanks for sharing, I guess.) We were to be the entire staff of the herb shop, working out lunch breaks and the like between us.
The office reeked of valerian, a fantastically effective herb which will knock you out more soundly than Ambien or Valium. The only thing that has kept it from sweeping the market is that it smells like fermented sweat socks. There is nothing that can offset the aroma of valerian; you just have to smother it, and since we had it shipping in two pound paper parcels, we shoved it to the back of the office and hoped for the best. Also in the office was the picture of Meher Baba, to whom my new boss was apparently devoted. Her best girl friend, with whom she spent hours on the phone, was a Guru Maharaj Ji chick, but I guess they agreed to disagree.
I found that my new boss was increasingly scarce. She was fond of quoting Meher Baba’s “don’t worry, be happy” mantra at me when I asked where she had been in the two hours since she had told me she’d be back in the place. I mean, in two hours you can get to really need a pee.
Organic Nazis abounded in the milieu. People would come in and, finding me alone behind the counter, harangue me about their health and spiritual insights. A woman with an indeterminate Eastern European accent asked me, impertinently, if I was a vegetarian and as the answer at the time was no, I said no. “You shoult pee a fetchatarian!” she scolded me, thereby probably delaying my decision to stop eating meat for another five years. Druggies floated in to ask me if Golden Seal would really help you beat a piss test.
I leafed through the herbal manuals of John Christopher, apparently the go-to authority for this particular storefront. As best I could tell, according to Dr. Christopher, everyone who was sick had flouted the law of God in some way and ought to be content to accept a schedule of herbal remediation so joyless and life-devouring that I would have as soon cut my throat. He was big on colonics. So, I found, was my boss, and by the way I have known people who benefited massively from having their nether plumbing syringed out, but they were classy enough not to sit on the phone at work and tell their best gal pal, the Guru Maharaj Ji babe, about the wonderful enema they had that morning and the way their little dog frolicked with the enema equipment, in full earshot of the hired help.
One day the celibate Suzy Hinky left for a lunch engagement of some kind and came back around four-thirty in the afternoon, explaining that she had lost her shoes and had to go buy another pair and that was what held her up.
The next evening she was still not back when it was time to close the store, and I checked out, leaving the day’s receipts in a deposit bag at the register, along with my resignation.
I got a job modeling jewelry. In a velour body suit.