Today is the birthday of Soleil Esperanza DeSalle, one of the main characters in my novel, Three Chords One Song. If Soleil was a real person, she would be 34 today. When I “interviewed” her at the start of the novel, she “told” me that she was born on November 2, 1978. I had planned to write about her today, but after several false starts and after yesterday’s events, I decided to write about myself instead. What was I doing on November 2, 1978? Fortunately, it was easy to find out, as I have kept a diary since January 1, 1970, three days before my 13th birthday.
It wasn’t a very eventful day. I washed my hair and did laundry. I went to the hospital to visit my Aunt Elizabeth. I went to Hills, a department store similar to the Target of today. And I got a call for a job interview at Miller’s, a high-class ladies’ fashion store at South Hills Village, the local mall. In the fall of 1978, I was 21 and unemployed, having left my very first job, in retail sales, a few months before I graduated from Pitt, so I could devote my time to finishing my final term papers. I had spent the last few months looking for work and contemplating a life-altering decision. Two weeks later, I would get a job at Gimbels, a department store where I would work for the next year and a half, making some lifelong friends. The adventure of my adult life was just beginning, even though I didn’t know it at that time.
On November 1, 2012, my photo appeared in the online version of the New York Times, along with a few sentences from an interview I had with reporter Catherine Rampell on October 11, about issues affecting the long-term unemployed. The interview came about because a year earlier, I had sent one of my essays (a version of “Driven to Tears” is in the July Archive) to the National Employment Law Project and indicated that I would be willing to be interviewed by the media concerning unemployment issues. The interview took about an hour, but the text used in the article was three short paragraphs. The article didn’t mention the problems of finding work when potential employers required credit checks and the possession of “reliable personal transportation.” It indicated that after losing my apartment, I had stayed “occasionally at train stations.” Now, I don’t consider two nights spent sleeping at Union Station in Los Angeles to be “occasionally,” but I guess it sounded more interesting than my real LA experience of staying in emergency shelters for six weeks, staying in transitional housing in South Central for one month, and staying in a Santa Monica hostel for two weeks. But I am grateful for the publicity, even though I would rather my Times debut would have been on the Best Sellers List. I sent out e-mail to my friends and posted the link on my Facebook page. I gritted my teeth and even read some of the comments about the article on the website. (FYI – the article will be in today’s print edition of the paper.)
When I started work on the novel that would become Three Chords One Song, I knew that one of the main characters would be a female musician. After selecting the name from a song on Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans, I visualized a tall, beautiful multicultural woman with the voice of an angel and the shredding skills of a demon. Soleil was created as a microcosm of many women I have known over the years, both personally and professionally. She is the descendant of the blues women I have admired, from Bessie Smith to Baby Washington to Romaine, a friend of my parents who used to visit when I was a little girl, who could coax magic from my old upright piano. Soleil’s story of tragedy and triumph is duplicated in the lives of women everywhere. She is all of us, with a bravado forged from fighting to make a name for herself in her world. As I was writing the book, I found Soleil to be the character that I was drawn to. Maybe in some ways she became my alter ego – the woman that I could only imagine becoming. Maybe she was the daughter I might have had if things would have been different 34 years ago.
Maybe years from now, I’ll look back on today’s diary. Maybe I’m embarking on the next adventure of my adult life, embracing my inner Soleil – whose middle name means “hope” – but I don’t know it yet. Today is also the birthday of keyboardist Keith Emerson. As ELP used to say, “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.” Maybe the show is just beginning. Only time will tell.
My eBook Three Chords One Song is now available on Amazon.com.
The New York Times article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/business/economy/lingering-unemployment-poses-long-term-risk.html