Something most of us get told early on in life is that the really influential, important people in the world are ones like politicians, policemen, professors, preachers, pontificators – the ones who make a lot of noise, a lot of money, a big impact and get the most publicity. They’re the ones who affect us most, evidently, make a difference to us, govern us, tell us what to do, keep us in order, advise us, even get us jobs … that sort of thing. But my experience tells me something different. My experience tells me that the most significant and influential people in one’s life are not the ones mentioned above, but quite different ones. I call them friends in high places. As a matter of fact, I often found them in very low places!
On my OE during the ’70s and ’80s of last century, new to Amsterdam, I got a job (illegal) as a breakfast waitress in a seedy little hotel on one of the canals. On my first day, shouted at by an irascible Dutch boss, hassled by diners, and struggling with unfamiliar tasks, I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the dishwasher, who was apparently always late. In walked a personage who was to effectively change the course of my life. He was a black American of extraordinary grace whose way of dealing with the dishes clearly demonstrated that he was no more a dishwasher than I was a waitress. When I eventually plucked up the courage to ask him what his day job was, I learned that he was a dancer.
I was 29. Was that too late to learn dance? “No”, was the firm rejoinder. And so I joined a class in African Jazz and thus began a long and sometimes painful confrontation with my physical self – a self I had never felt comfortable with. Prompted by my new friend’s complete acceptance of me, I was able eventually to accept my body and, by extension, myself.
The transformation from Palmerston North Sunday School teacher to dancer reached its acme in Paris a couple of years later, when I landed a job in one of the most famous music halls in the world. New in town, and I was in another of those low places – a bar near the Place de Republique. The barman, picking my rookie status, and trying to be helpful, asked ‘What do you do?’ I hesitated, before saying that I was a dancer. ‘They’re looking for girls at the Folies Bergere,’ suggested the barman. ‘You might try there.’
That tip off got me to a stage door, thence into the presence of the Artistic Director, to an on-the-spot audition – and the offer of a job in the chorus line. I spent two years in the rarefied atmosphere of Parisian cabaret, learning such essential things as how to get every inch of myself covered with body make up, what made false eyelashes stick, and how high a G-string should be hitched.
Back in New Zealand, I’ve had to look for different kinds of low places. Some years ago, I fell into what’s commonly termed depression. It lasted a long time and nothing – the administrations of psychiatrists, extensive medication, the care of friends – seemed to have any effect. Then a friend made a suggestion. “You need Rex,” she said simply. When I asked why, she said “You’ll see.” And around came Rex.
Here was a homeless man, who as a child had endured violence at the hands of his father, had lived on the streets for years, knew gang life, had slept where he could, and endured the kind of deprivation my well-heeled middle class background should have shuddered away from. Against the advice of family members and friends, I took him in. He moved into my spare room – the deal was he would buy and cook food in return for accommodation. Rex did a lot more than shop and cook. He set me an example. Here was someone with every reason to feel hard done by, hopeless, victimised by poverty and circumstances.
And how did he behave? With unforced courtesy, a natural cheerfulness born of a mission of service to others, with a sense of humour grounded in an accurate perception of human foibles, with a readiness to help in any situation where he spotted an opportunity, a willingness to speak well of everyone, and avoiding only those he knew would drag him down.
I got well – fast.
Rex, and the others mentioned in this story, have enhanced my existence on this planet – indeed, helped me to create it. They have my undying gratitude.
Important people in my life? Politicians, policemen, professors, preachers? – Huh!
Margaret Austin has experienced much, written a bit, and is grateful for a lot. She has published a memoir, three books of poetry, and a few articles in national newspapers. None of these equal the value of what she describes in this piece, “Friends in High Places”, because without them, nothing would have been possible.