Saturday, February 28, 2009

Behind the Pointy Hat

Cue the music for "Behind the Music"... this is an expose of the "dark" side of witchcraft.

A good friend, LeAnn Lewis, agreed to write about her experiences working at the Salem Witch Museum. LeAnn and I were in the same writers group in San Francisco for years; I had no idea until recently that she had this “witchcraft” background. Upon learning it, I of course begged her to do a guest post for me. She now lives in Paris and very kindly agreed.

Without further ado, here are her hilarious ruminations on one of the best jobs ever!

The Official (Slacker) Witch of Salem
By LeAnn Lewis

I have had many jobs in my life before obtaining the current one that I have had now for five years, that of teacher. On average I was able to hold a job for three months. That is approximately what it took before someone was forced to let me go, without being legally responsible for firing me. I am really good at job interviews; I always know just the right tone to hit, what to wear and I myself get caught up in my own enthusiastic falsehoods. People were so sorry when they hired me. And I felt sorry for them as well, and convinced that I could change…If I could only make a job out of job interviews---I really do think I have crafted it to an art.

In my late teens and early twenties, I was a bartender, waitress, bike messenger (with no bike), headhunter, diet counselor, personal trainer, human resources consultant, psychic hotline operator, ice cream sundae smoosher (you know, at one of those places that custom mixed in the Snickers bars), secretary, and witch. Yes, I did say that, witch.

Not only was I a witch but also again I only lasted the three months of witch-in-training before they hired someone else at the Salem Witch Museum. Apparently I was not nice enough.

I was a Slacker Witch specifically. I think the people who hired me should have known that I would not work out. Firstly because I did not even apply for the job; I got it through the back door, by being Replacement Witch when my friend Spring Break SubWitch was too hung over to show up for work. It was sort of an “acting” job: tour guiding. So one could also say I was also an “actress,” but you need to make the air-quote sign with your fingers.

To understand this job fully one must understand the epoch. It was the ‘80’s: neon colored T-shirts, bangles, Big Bangs. So Big that they were ready to pierce the sky. Big Bangs that I still wore as a Witch. The job was designed to supplement my alcohol budget, Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam cassettes, and spray needs for my Big Bangs.

At the time we were both in college and very excited about our illicitly-obtained I.D.’s. Going out every night was essential. Spring Break SubWitch “was,” according to her lost/stolen I.D., a 40-year-old woman with prematurely grey hair named “Carol.”

I “was” a blonde with blue eyes that did not fit my brown hair and hazel ones, and my I.D. read “Shayna.” We secretly thought Shayna was a stripper, because she kind of had a louche look about her. "Carol" was jealous because my photo was sexier. "I look like a.... like a mom," she would complain, as if this was the worst fate imaginable for anyone. "I wanna be Shayna!" I, however, was jealous of hers because Carol seemed normal, whereas Shayna seemed the type of woman destined to drive intentionallyfast into all life's bad turns. Who knew what would become of a woman like that?

We would often forget to call each other our new names in front of overweight bouncers and we would make dramatic eye rolls to express our fear that we would be discovered as 19 and kicked out of Trackside, the bar everyone went to. But nobody cared; I.D. was a formality to get in the door.

However, that summer in Salem was also my first summer as an Adult: I had just had to file taxes for the first time, pay for my own health insurance and portion an amount of my paycheck to pay for Rent (!), Food (!) and a mimosa-colored towel set, my first adult home purchase at Kmart (being the burgeoning alcoholic that I was, the big joke was that I could only describe colors by comparing them to cocktails, a trait I still share with “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” hosts, apparently). Being a Witch therefore was also part of the plan to Be. An. Adult, and thus pay my own way.

I would work the morning as a Witch and the evenings as another version of a witch: a constantly stressed out waitress at the Hawthorne Inn.

Soooooo my first day. I showed up as Replacement Witch in jeans and my wrinkled Absolut Vodka T-shirt that some publicity company had given me the night before and explained that I was subbing for my friend because she was “sick.”

I told my new potential bosses that “Carol” and I had both been in the same production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest;” had they not seen me? I was, I assured them, as my new “bosses” nodded confusedly, a big star in Salem at the dinky community theater. Did they not see me? (This was true. I had been in the production, but “star” was stretching the point). Finally they made out amongst my confused babble that “Carol” was not coming, and since the door was opening soon, I had the job!

Yes they had seen me, they assured me, and they thought that I was a good enough “actress” to do the job. Just for the day. They asked me if I had my script. I did. I dug it out of my jeans. It was written on a cocktail napkin before “Carol” passed out the night before. I had memorized it on the bus.

Sort of.

The gist of the meaning of the lines.

My job was to act on a stage with one other “actress” and nine paper mache dummies with voice-boxes (because there was only a budget for two live people). We would re-enact a trial scene from the Salem Witch Hysteria for busloads of tourists and then give them tours. I was Ann Putnam. The other actress was Goody…Something. My job was to say my line and time it correctly to be responded to by either Goody Something or the paper mache dummies’ voice boxes. Could I do that? For $9 an hour?

“Cool.” I said. “No prob”.

I couldn’t wait to tell my friends that I was a real actress. It was the most money per hour that I had ever made.

They gave me my uniform. A ankle-length dress, petticoat, and bonnet with attached fake curls coming out of its sides like Nellie from Little House on the Prairie (that looked mysteriously like my I.D....) My bangs made the top of the bonnet look Teepee-ish. Then they ushered me into the barn theater where my “debut” would take place.

A typhoon of searing heat blasted me, and this was how I discovered that the stage was not air conditioned in the 100-degree Salem heat wave that occurs every summer in Massachusetts. I slumped into the green room and met Goody Something, a 56-year-old early retiree who had had a health scare recently, which, upon her being cured, saw her quitting her high-paid financial job in Boston to move to the North Shore and take classes at Lori Cabot, “The Official Witch of Salem’s,” Crow Haven Corner (which is now franchised to someone). She was busy reading some book on chakras and gave me a perfunctory nod as we passed though. I was told by my new employers that I would also be conducting a tour through the “dungeon” below the barn after the show and then coming back to repeat the performance. 10 times. Where would Goody be?

“Oh, she just does the show. We like the younger girls to give the tours. She will just wait in the green room”.

I already did not like this job, ageism that did not favor me. Why did she get to read about chakras while I was slavin?

“Anything else?”

“Yeah. Uh. How many tours?” I asked.

There was tour every 40 minutes and the show lasted 15 minutes. I would have five minutes to recoup and slug down a Crystal Light. I would be there for a six-hour shift.


“Uh, yeah.”

When the curtains came up I was confronted with my first audience: an entire tour bus of Floridians with large lapels of sunflowers on which were marked the names of Marge, Leon, Geraldine...there was even a Carol that looked like “Carol” but no Shayna. They all smiled sweetly. I started my speech, looking down nervously at my crumpled Trackside napkin. A little old man tottered to the front and heaved a video camera that was the same size of his body in my face and stage whispered in an echo, “Excuse me, dear, could you please speak up? The video is a present for my granddaughter’s birthday. She likes witches.”

“While what-for with, my good man,” I improvised gratefully but I was slightly disturbed with my ability to suddenly channel a former life Renaissance Faire Wench so easily.

I stumbled through my lines, instantly forgetting what I had memorized on the bus, replacing old English with “the gist” and interrupted various voice boxes.

“So he be-eth…er, I see-eth, um, the point is that he is, is-th, uh, a witch, a um witch-eth?”

However, I still, 25 years later, remember the first lines that I was able to actually memorize: “My name is Ann Putnam. I be a single woman of Salem Village who has been aggrievedly abused by Goody Something who, while the good lord left me lie sleeping, did visit me and performed with my person ungodly acts!”

At this point, Goody Something would interrupt me to say “No, NO!” Then the voice box of the Judge would continue “Now, fine people of Salem…”

Then, after several minutes of this dialogue, I was to throw myself on the floor, convulse as if I was having an epileptic seizure, while accusing her of bewitching me so as to avoid being persecuted myself. Then the curtains closed.

Goody would leisurely pull out her chakra research or open up a bento box complete with matching plastic Hello Kitty chopsticks and begin to pose bits of sushi delicately in her mouth while I tripped down a creaky stairway in my skirt and bonnet to try to usher arthritic oldsters through a very cost-efficient dungeon in a record amount of time. Usually I had to push them on to get them out in time for the music, which, once it was starting, was a sign for me to get on stage and for Goody to wipe the wasabi off her bonnet ribbon. The curtains would fly open, the voice boxes would start to accuse and then I would commence “My name is Ann Putnam. I be a.…”

Somehow the job continued. Spring Break SubWitch was on a bender, so I substituted the next day. And the next. I tried at different points to get Goody to do her fair share by hiding her bento box or spilling my Dunkin Donuts iced coffee on differing chakras, but she held firm. She was not willing to do the tours.

On humid days sometimes the voice boxes would get stuck and drone out the same lines and I would have to have my epilepsy a bit closer to the paper mache judge, to “accidentally” kick him to stop it. The moisture also did damage to their forms and often the limbs of the mannequins would fall off in the middle of my “soliloquy.” This wasn’t too hard to handle: I would just accuse Goody Something of bewitching them too.

I have a low attention span. Once I master something, I need to be challenged. After a day I mastered my “script,” I started improvising. Goody reprimanded me. I told her that she was hindering my creative growth and that this was Strasburg method acting. Or was it Stanislavski? Or Spanikopita acting? Something like that. Even Brando knew it.

She told on me and I got written up. I invited my boyfriend and his friends to come see my “professional acting” and they threw spitballs at Goody in revenge and oooohed and guffawed (as only 21-year-olds can do) when the voice boxes, or I, repeated the words “ungodly acts” which I had not noticed, until then, was so prevalent in the script or so salacious sounding…. Goody complained, and I was warned that my friends could not come and see me “on set.”

Then there was also the problem with my other job at the Hawthorne Inn. Despite the lack of a bonnet, I was still recognizable as the witchly tour guide. One night while waitressing, I approached a table and the youngest started screaming and hitting the banquette.

“What is it, honey?”

“No, I don’t want her giving me food! She is a witch!”

I had to explain to my boss what that meant. He was annoyed; now he understood why I was not flexible to work lunches. My temper started getting shorter in the heat. I was getting madder at Goody Something. I was spitting out my lines to the audience and screaming into their video viewfinders, “I BE A SINGLE WOMAN IN SALEM!”

This turned out to be true when my boyfriend dumped me for a blonde that looked like my wig. She was uncomplicated and did not have to work two jobs. She had time for him.

“Besides, you keep saying your lines in your sleep. And then you have your convulsion sometimes too. It’s freakin me out. Have you thought of just taking out a student loan?” he mumbled.

The fall leaves began to blow across Salem Center Park. Laurie Cabot, the “Official Witch of Salem,” switched her summer pointed hat for a sturdier winter one, and a black long shawl. Goody Something started to bring soup instead of sushi. It was the dreaded time of year; the re-start of school and homework, the end of my first summer with Shayna’s I.D., the horrible possibility of running into the blonde and the boy who had broken my heart and the end of the sun. My costume was not causing me to sweat anymore; in fact, there was no heat in the barn and it was freezing. One day I slunk into my costume feeling sicker than usual, despite not having drunk the night before. I could not understand why. Then, I remembered.

It was the three-month review.

“You have done a very nice job and we really appreciated all your help this summer, but we think we are going to start with another girl. You know, I think you have really gone above and beyond our expectations; you have actually merged with your character,” my boss said, smiling only with her mouth.

Then she showed me a few customer complaints. I was rude, curt, too mean on stage, and brusque during the tour.

“You really did find a witch, didn’t you,” said one.

I hung my bonnet up and walked past Goody Something slurping her soup, as haughtily as only a 19-year-old can. She was there. I was movin’ on to better things, I told myself. I wouldn’t end up like her, defeated, desperately clinging to illusion, fleeing my day job. I was a Real Actress. My life would hold better things for me…and it did, but getting older myself now I realize that she too was doing her own thing…. courageously.

One never knows where life’s turns take you, to New York, to San Francisco, to other countries, even, all the way from the North Shore. And looking back now, there are worse places to come from, and worse ways of spending a teenage summer, than being the Official (Slacker) Witch of Salem, Massachusetts.
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Thursday, February 12, 2009


Throughout The Witch's Trinity, the main character Gude remains conscious of extending gratitude to the things in her life that sustain her: the water in the river, the buds under the snow, the meat on her plate.

Today I came across a news story I wanted to post... about a 40 year old woman who tracked down the firefighter who saved her life as a newborn. Evangeline Anderson told Boston Globe reporter Maria Cramer:

I didn't want him to leave the earth, or I to leave the earth, without saying thank you.

They were reunited yesterday for the first time, 40 years after firefighter William Carroll crawled on his stomach through an apartment black with smoke, to find baby Evangeline in her crib unconscious with soot dusting her face.

It's an emotional read, and I invite you to read it here.

And then for one moment, think of something you are intensely grateful for. Blessings are falling out of our fingers, and we need to number them.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Witchvox essay

I'm happy to say that the witchcraft website Witchvox has published an essay I wrote for them. You can read it here.

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