We stayed at the Black Hawk Hotel in downtown Cedar Falls that first summer in 1983, before it was renovated. It’s considered a higher grade hotel these days, Then it was decent and respectable, but there was a common bathroom down the hall, rather than one for each guest room, which caused a lot of groaning among the agents. Clearly it was not the norm for the crew, and I have never known Ronnie to arrange such accommodations since. Anyway, even that time, to me it did not seem such a big deal.
One evening a community orchestra set up chairs in the closed-off street in front of the hotel, and I attended the concert and visited with one of the citizens there. It was a quiet, mild summer evening with dusk light falling on the cobblestones: not dramatic, but about as beautiful as any of the many traveling experiences I have had.
Cedar Falls is where Mike came out on the bus from Wisconsin to meet the crew. Fred was Ronnie’s lead manager in those days (later Donald became another), and Mike’s mother was Fred’s wife as well as a friend of Ronnie’s from way back. Ronnie never hired minors through ads or encounters along the road, but Mike’s mother had approved his coming out, under his stepfather’s protective eye, during one of his summer vacations from high school.
Now if I was green, I think Mike was three shades greener even though he was black. In case you are wondering, Leslie easily accepted him as did everyone. He was wide-eyed and full of excitement at this chance to see the world, and I didn’t think I had ever met anyone, no longer quite a child, who seemed so uninitiated.
We went out to many neighborhoods together. Ronnie would usually be car handler in those days, and later Donald or Fred or an agent might do that. In the early years Ronnie drove us around in a classic model vanilla yellow Oldsmobile convertible. He would talk to us about all the people in the houses who would be eager to hear from us and make a purchase, and probably tell Mike to take one side of the street, and I the other, and both of us would “T” the side streets or work them one block deep. The car handler would then drop us off and tell us to work back the way we had come, and he or she would then go make some sales on his or her own before coming back to pick us up and fill orders a couple of hours later.
If we reached the appointed meeting place before the car handler returned, Mike and I might sit together at the curb and compare experiences at houses and talk about whatever else there was to say. Not just Mike and I; also Lisa, Terry, others I can’t recall right now. But Mike and I walked all the way around Clear Lake in Iowa (over multiple days) selling soap.
Sometimes we worked other configurations too, whatever made sense to the car handler at the time. It didn’t make any difference except that sometimes, if you were supposed to work all the way around one block and then another, for example, it could get pretty easy to lose your bearings. Then you might work over someone else, or knock over again on the same door you had already been to, and people would become quite irate That would be unpleasant.
As the years went by, Mike worked with the crew when he wasn’t at school, and he became more and more successful as a salesman. He married a girl he had met out on the road, continued to travel and sell for a while, and also spent some years working in other kinds of employed positions. He was always earnest and kind to others, and he did quite well in other ways. I realized at one point I may have underestimated this slight, sweet, very, very young man and what he might accomplish.
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You met all kinds of people. Sometimes it would be easy to feel a personal connection with them, and sometimes you could feel like such a stranger in an unknown land. The streets could be so quiet and empty just as the lawns were so green and the houses so white. These were not days when people still sat on their porches. I recall wondering, if anything were to happen to me out here would anyone figure out who I was? (What? What did I think would happen to me? I didn’t know, but if something…)
One day in Waverly no one was buying. No one was even letting me have a conversation or do a demo. Somehow they all had to hurry to get ready to go to a funeral, but they didn’t seem to be moving that fast. Then suddenly there was a police officer speaking to me from his car on the street.
No, I didn’t have a license. We were marketing a new cleaner, that’s all. This is what we had been told to say if necessary. Not a lot of time had been spent on this point, but it came back to me then. I understood the English language well enough to recognize the word “marketing” was undergoing some considerable stretching here, but I had not confronted straight-on the untruth of the statement. Now, unprepared, without any other idea what to say, I was speaking it.
I don’t recall exactly what the officer said about that. He didn’t approach or arrest or ticket me. He did verbally warn me about unscrupulous crew managers who abuse agents, especially abandoning them, I think – the first I had heard of this kind of thing. I told him I couldn’t imagine the people I was working with doing that to someone. That day, the officer expressed some combination of doubt and hope that I was right in this, and he drove on. My heart was pounding, and the street so quiet and empty, the grass so green, the houses so white.
This incident unnerved me considerably at first. But I was already living a pattern of daily activities, and in the rhythm of this life I soon forgot it for most of the time. Then when suddenly I would remember it again, even many years later, the memory would make me very uncomfortable for a moment, and then would be forgotten again.
Ronnie Matus is a man of empathy than one of principles. He would never abandon or beat someone or constrain someone’s liberty because he would hate to have someone do that to him. On the other hand, he had been sent out to peddle without a license many times, and it hadn’t bothered him. So he would not think too much about sending others out in the same way. That kind of transgression, we did plenty of it.
In my teenage years I had begun to swim less and less. I do love the water and somehow I am more alive in it, yet swimsuits can be a problem. At Clear Lake, I did pull together my resolve, don a swimsuit, and swim some laps between markers in the lake with zeal.
Years later, a counselor recommended that I recollect feelings and perceptions I had at this time in my life, and that remembering has driven and shaped some of this writing. It also stimulated me to ask my husband why he had been attracted to me. He said that he had reached a time in life when he thought he would like to get married, become a father, raise children together. When I went swimming, he watched me, and he tells me he thought that a woman who swam “like that” would make a good mother.
He was so serious when he asked me out, and I so startled and unsure what to make of that. I think I did not know whether I would like going out with this man but figured the best way to find out would be by accepting and giving it a try. We ate dinner at a restaurant, the Pheasant Run I think, and then went to the Surf Ballroom where the “Guy Lombardo Band” was playing (even if Guy himself was not). He was so terribly serious and a little awkward at dinner. (I was awkward too, I am sure. But I always am.) I remember that he told me his intentions were honorable, that he was a one woman man, that he was interested in marriage and children.
Honorable. I think I wondered how many men actually said that on a first date anymore. I kind of felt like my intentions were honorable too, even if at this point I was just figuring out what I wanted.
The band that still bore Guy Lombardo’s name in his retirement played often at The Surf, and clearly they had a clientele of highly skilled, senior citizen dancers. Ronnie is a good dancer, and I a clumsy one, but I recall even he felt a little bit out-danced by them. Still, our focus was on each other, and it was okay.
There you have it, Daniel and Elizabeth. You were the ones who brought your parents together. Does that not sound so much like your father? I hope I did well for you as a mother, better than my swimming which is really only medium. I hope I still do well for you in your adult years too. I certainly always tried to understand what you needed, what part of that you needed from me, how to nurture you, protect you, and let you find your own way, build your own life, when you were ready.