Career girl

Beth Lisick’s new short story, an SN&R exclusive, proves that writing a best-selling book carries no weight with angry elves

Illustration By Leela Corman

When SN&R interviewed Bay Area author Beth Lisick in 2003, she was balancing her responsibilities as writer, comedian, mother and temp-worker extraordinaire while negotiating the sale of her third book, Everybody Into the Pool. Two years, one deal with Regan Books and three weeks on The New York Times best-seller list later, Lisick’s quirky memoir of Northern California life—from homecoming dances to homosexual encounters—has garnered impressive reviews. Having completed a nationwide book tour, sold another book to Regan and been profiled in The New York Times, Lisick seems to have successfully transcended the boundaries of the Bay Area’s indie-lit scene and grasped national recognition.

However, royalties sometimes lag behind reputation. For the time being, Lisick continues to support herself with a varied schedule of performances, readings and odd jobs. With the trademark candidness that infuses her books, Lisick wrote the following piece, a true tale about a recent temp job, especially for our paper. For more of her unique writing, catch her appearance at Luna’s Cafe this Friday.

—Becca Costello

I’m in my car, headed toward a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony at an outdoor luxury mall in San Jose, and I can’t decide what the better punch line is: That it’s not even Thanksgiving yet? That it’s 77 degrees outside? That I’m about to begin my 11-hour workday?

I’ll spare you the details of my dire financial situation and simply say that I have chosen to accept the position of green-room manager, as offered to me by an upscale event company based in San Francisco. The fact that the job takes place in the suburb of my birth is comforting to me. Unlike many of my city-slicker co-workers that day, I do, in fact, know the way to San Jose.

I arrive at the job site at 12:20 p.m.—20 minutes late—but I still blow everyone else out of the water. Over the next half-hour, people straggle in laughing about “freeway exits” and “parking garages” and “the South Bay’s premier living, shopping and entertainment destination” as if they were participating in a cultural-exchange program.

I always enjoy watching the lengths to which people will go to divorce themselves from things they think are uncool. People who don’t watch TV often do this, constantly over-emphasizing how they are unaware of the programs and characters populating the most influential household appliance in the history of mankind.

“Yes, we are at a mall,” I want to say. “You in your faux-vintage Urban Outfitters T-shirt and you with the $6 energy juice and me with my towering vat of weak-ass coffee, we are all at a suburban mall together. I promise not to tell anyone I saw you here.”

After locating my personally designated event binder, I discover that my main job will require a lot of “familiarizing.” I am instructed to familiarize myself with the layout of the mall, the location of the various stages, the performers, and the green room itself. If I am reading the spreadsheet correctly, the timeline gives me three hours to do this.

I start to head outside, wondering when the next movie starts at the megaplex, but I am kneecapped when I see that the green-room manager’s primary objective is to remain in the green room. Everyone else trots off to their stations, which are located outdoors in the sunshiney sunshine, as I hunker down on the concrete floor next to a barrel of sugar cookies. I look toward the windows, though not through them, as they have been whited out with a bar of soap. Ten hours to go.

Five minutes later, I have finished all the familiarizing one can do by paging through a binder. I have seen maps and call times and performance fees. My first big blow comes when I realize that the evening’s hosts, a married team of local news anchors, do not have to report to me. After being picked up at their home, they will be whisked directly to the main stage for the tree lighting, skipping my domain altogether.

I see that the jazz singer is getting $150 for her set, which seems reasonable, until I notice that her “set” is four hours long. Ouch. That’s a lot of “Let It Snow” to sing on a promenade outside of The Container Store. I eat two sugar cookies and close my eyes.

Around 3 p.m., I hear the door open and jump to my feet, pretending to busy myself with an empty rolling clothes rack. Without acknowledging the intruder, I scoot the rack to one end of the space and delicately slide it into a corner. I step back and fold my arms across my chest, regarding it with a look that says, “There! Much better!”

“Thanks so much, Beth,” a voice says. I turn around and see that it is the head of the event company, a small, attractive blond man with one of those vague Euro accents. “It’s great to have you here to keep everyone on their toes!”

I smile nervously and suddenly remember another one of my duties: keeping my area tidy. I remove my coffee cup from a table, wipe my hand over the wet ring it has left, and toss the cup in a garbage can.

“Maybe I can put you to work here,” he says, bringing me a set of empty baskets. “Why don’t you fill these up with candy canes? In an attractive manner, please.”

I spend the next hour pulling hundreds of candy canes out of boxes, where they’re wedged snugly into individual holsters. I try to decide the most aesthetically pleasing arrangement for them. Do they look better scattered? How about all the hooks to the left? The right? Half and half with a pyramid built in the center? I do this until 4 p.m. when my first responsibility, in the form of a 65-year-old security guard named Roger, arrives.

“How do I know who to let into the green room?” he asks. “Are there passes or laminates of any kind?”

“Not that I know of,” I say.

He looks agitated. “I don’t want to get fired for letting the wrong people in!” It’s obvious that this has happened to Roger before. I try to make him feel better.

“I don’t know what I’m really doing here either,” I say. “We’ll just try to make sure nobody walks off with anybody’s instruments or anything.”

This sets him off. He’s been leaning against a pole, and he starts scratching his back on it like a bear. “Musicians are crazy about their gear!” he says. “Have you ever heard of the group called Chicago?”

I put my mouth on hold and nod. “I was working at the Cow Palace once when one of their guitars went missing,” he says. “Bad scene.”

I consult my binder. “I think all we’re responsible for in this room is …” I flip a few pages. “A junior-high flute ensemble, a men’s chorus and some elves.”

Relieved, he stops scratching for a second and laughs. “Bet you didn’t know Janet Jackson travels with her own personal Porta-Potty, didja?”

Just as Roger looks ready to lay some more insider dirt on me, a middle-aged woman dressed in balloony Christmas-themed overalls comes charging through the door. Her hair is in pigtails tied with red and green yarn, and her cheeks are painted with big red circles.

“I need my area!” she barks, dragging a steamer trunk behind her. “We’re going to need to section off a whole corner for ourselves!”

I rifle through my binder trying to figure out the name of her group. Is she with the children’s theater? The woman straps on a fake nose and snorts through it at me, “We’re only the stars of the whole show!”

There is no recourse but to laugh at her openly and then turn my back. As her team of sinewy thespian types arrives, I radio my supervisor to figure out what the deal is.

“Show business!” a man named Reggie says. He holds out his hand to me, and I shake it. “I get to be Rudolph tonight! Yessss!”

Around 5 p.m., a group of 35 male senior citizens in black-checkered vests arrives. I usher them to a spot where they can do their warm-ups, which involve vocal exercises coupled with 1950s-style calisthenics.

I want to enjoy their stunted yet soulful ritual, but someone taps me on the shoulder. “We’re the carolers,” a woman with fiery red hair says. “We usually wear Victorian costumes, but we were specifically requested not to.”

“Really?” I say, eyeing her turtleneck sweater and deep-purple scarf. “I think the costumes would be pretty cool.”

“Well, I hope this is all right,” a male caroler adds. “They told us to dress like we just came out of sacks.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You know, Saks Fifth Avenue,” the woman says.

“Oh, man,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”

Over in the thespian corner, Father Christmas, a snow queen and a couple of elves are doing that theater thing where they stand around forever, talking while half-naked. Rudolph is already suited up. I help him navigate out the door, watching him get mobbed by dozens of kids.

My radio buzzes. The stage manager can’t find the men’s chorus. “They left the green room 10 minutes ago,” I say, “but they’re pretty old.”

Then I remember my voice is being broadcast on all 15 radios. “I mean, they’re moving slow is all.” Was that better? “It’s dark,” I offer.

“Copy that,” comes the disembodied voice.

An hour passes by. The only work I do is adding fresh ice to the beverage tub, which takes me 14 seconds. I eat another cookie. Finally, a clan of chubby elementary-school mice walk in and go straight for the candy on the table.

“The nutcracker says he has a ‘previous engagement,’” one of the moms stage-whispers. “Can you believe it? What else could be happening on a Tuesday night?”

I go outside for a second to bring Roger a cold drink. The head elf charges toward me, her pigtails flocked with fake snow.

“You have to do something about the snow,” she says. “My whole face-painting station is getting ruined by that machine.” I promise to try as Rudolph comes in for a break.

I still have two hours left, but helping Reggie take his head off energizes me. He looks at me, covered in sweat, and says, “This is the greatest business in the world.” His earnestness floors me.

“I hear people complaining out there,” he says as he wipes his forehead with a fuzzy paw, “but if any of us could get paid to do this all over again tomorrow, we’d do it in a heartbeat. No problem.”