What Do You Do when the Good Times End?
My advertising career started in London and ended in Mexico City in 1990 when my boss persuaded me to take early retirement. I heard “corporate takeover casualties,” but he was so smooth that for several minutes I didn’t understand that he meant “you’re fired.”
After I agreed, in exchange for a hefty sum, to resign, he asked, “What will you do next?”
“I’ll get rid of my high heels, give away my business suits, let my hair grow down to my waist—and strangle you with my pantyhose. Then, I’ll open a restaurant.” I’d been toying with this idea for a while. Just needed the money to get it going. With my severance package, marketing savvy, and cooking expertise, I knew it would be a success. Provide me with an income for life. At forty-six, I had high expectations.
Handling millions of dollars of other people’s money was easy compared to handling my own. There’d always been someone to go to the bank for me and help with my accounts and investments. Now I had to do them myself. Maybe I had a flutter of unease when I invested all of my money in this venture, took out loans and used credit cards up to the hilt, but I never expected I’d lose it all. My heart was not in this business; it was more like a romance on the rebound after the end of a long-time relationship.
The restaurant folded after a year, leaving me broke, rudderless, with no idea of where I was heading except, it seemed, downwards.
One morning a sudden urge woke me before dawn and I wrote the first chapter of a novel that would become my companion for nine years. I completed a full draft in four-and-a-half months, right before my fiftieth birthday. Set in both contemporary and 18th century Mexico, my book had two protagonists and two plots. Overambitious, perhaps, but it kept me going through loss of business, money, status, and my home of 16 years. Gave me a goal. By my mid-fifties I’d be a published author and over this economic hump.
Catering provided an income though not enough to keep up my former lifestyle. I sold half my belongings and moved to an apartment with a view of the Valley of Mexico. This inspired me to enter a world of mysticism, witches, brews, spells, and past life experiences that all became fodder for the book. I taught business English and catered events until one afternoon an earthquake rocked my building and sixteen trays of hors d’oeuvres slid off tables and smashed on the floor. Lost my best client, my income plunged, and I fell behind with the rent. My landlord agreed to take my living room furniture and most valuable painting in lieu of what I owed him.
I downscaled to a bungalow, former servants’ quarters, and plodded through a second draft. I wrote my frustrations, disappointments, fears into the pages, and the book became Gothic dark. An aching hip slowed me down.
A friend offered me a three-month housesitting job in Santa Fe, New Mexico with the bait that I’d have time to write. I ended up stranded, sleeping at her home between housesitting gigs until she turned unfriendly. Tried pet-sitting. A client asked would I sleep with his basset hound, meaning on the bed with me. A large, solid, tank-like dog that dribbled? My refusal didn’t bode well for my career as a pet-sitter.
My computer conked out, so I wrote the old-fashioned way, by hand. My protagonists faced significant obstacles as did I. A doctor diagnosed degeneration of my hip. I needed an operation. When? A year at most depending on my tolerance to pain.
My hip deteriorated; I couldn’t walk without a cane. I exchanged Santa Fe for life as an invalid in my son’s apartment in Tijuana, a city on the Mexican/US border. A doctor promised treatment to help regenerate cartilage. For eighteen months I believed I was making progress, even as the biting pain in my thigh grew worse. I wrote another two drafts of my book, a masterpiece of drama, supernatural happenings, and sex. Since I wasn’t getting any, it helped to write about it.
My mother died and left a life insurance that covered a hip replacement. Within weeks, I set out on a job search in San Diego. With no business contacts there, no car, no phone, and almost no money it meant, at fifty-six, trudging the streets looking for work instead of inhabiting an executive suite.
First I interviewed in ad agencies where I came face-to-face with young MBAs bristling with Internet knowhow and new marketing techniques. Next, want ads. Not computer savvy. Not qualified. Overqualified. A “We’re Hiring” banner offered a stopgap measure—a job as a phone researcher. $8 an hour. What a comedown, but the 1 to 9 p.m. shift was convenient for commuting across the border.
I became Susan—my first name – J. Whatever happened to Penelope who worked in solitary splendor in an elegant office? Now one of the hundred interviewers in the phone room, I sat in a cubicle wherever supervisors placed me. Another low-wage worker.
For four months I commuted four-and-a-half hours until I saved enough to move to the US. My new home was a hotel room. I wrote an eighth draft of my book. Gave my protagonists some happiness. They deserved it after all they had gone through.
Easy work, easy life. A two-year trap in a nothing job. An offer to work as a Hispanic research report writer put me back on track. In two weeks I made the same as in three months in the phone room. A new career beckoned. I could afford an apartment with a view of San Diego Bay. I shelved my book and started writing a riches-to-rags memoir.
Time to move on to the next stage in my life.
PENELOPE JAMES: Anglo-Mexican-American. Born in England, moved to Mexico City at 10. Worked in advertising agencies in New York, London, and Mexico City and in Hispanic Research in US. Author of Don’t Hang Up! What Do You Do when the Good Times End? to be published this autumn. Co-writer of Barriers to Love, a memoir by Marina Peralta. Currently lives in San Diego, CA.
Former Spanish-English translator, copywriter, report writer, columnist “Insights into Mexico” for The Baja News. Has published nonfiction short stories. A judge for the San Diego Book Awards 2010 to date. Website: http://www.donthangupbook.com
SONIA MARSH SAYS: What a life you’ve had Pennie. I admire your courage and determination and can understand the frustrations you faced, and how you never gave up. Your passion for writing will pay off. I know how hard you’ve worked on your writing career.
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