Saturday, November 27, 2010

Michelle

She likes the pulled pork sandwich with melted Swiss cheese, extra crispy fries with extra seasoning, no onion rings, no pickle, a large side of ketchup and a large side of mayonnaise. On the weekend, it’s the American breakfast with melted cheese on scrambled eggs, extra crispy bacon, well done English muffins, no sausage, two large butters at room temperature and a side of honey. 

Michelle is one pain in the ass, but we love her. She has been coming into the Asgard for as long as I have worked there and well before those two years. But, it was not until recently, after pouring her two large iced teas (extra ice, no lemon with Sweet and Low) that I slid my butt up next to her at the bar and really got to know this women who gives you hell if you dare place her drinks on napkins instead of coasters. All of us knew Michelle had been a boot-camp instructor at one point, but we didn’t really know what she had been through. I told her to tell me everything, starting with when she entered the Marine Corps. 

Michelle told me that back in the early eighties, her boyfriend at the time, who was entering the Marines himself, had given her an ultimatum to get married in order to stay close to each other. She accepted, but not too long after, at the age of twenty-four, she herself entered the Marine Corps because she wanted to finish her degree and did not want to be a dependent. Michelle scored high on the entry tests, guaranteeing her military occupational specialty. She soon got rid of her husband and joined the Marines at Paris Island, South Carolina where she would first endure the rough experience of boot-camp before going on to work as a budget analyst. 

I made sure to tell Michelle my secret dream of wanting to go to boot-camp, JUST boot-camp, and asked her how it was. What she described was nothing close to a fun obstacle course. Aside from the extreme physical component, Michelle conveyed the pressure of having to constantly attend to her uniform; ensuring that there were absolutely no loose threads or wrinkles. She went to bed at eight o’clock in a dorm of fifty other women and woke up at four in the morning with twenty minutes to get ready and another twenty to eat. She said it was stressful to learn about the history of the Marine Corps, how to fire an M16 rifle, get in shape and do field practice all in the short time period of just eight weeks. But Michelle persevered and made it to the next eight week long course of her accounting training. 

She graduated and began working as a budget analyst in 1981. Within four years, Michelle received a Navy Achievement Award, the highest non-combat award in the department, for designing a computer program and was meritoriously promoted twice, the second time to the position of Sergeant E5, in which she was asked to go to the drill field to train new recruits. When asked was it was like to be a trainer, after going through boot-camp herself not too long before, she replied: “Well, it was a power trip for one thing!”. She said that she, and the other trainers, knew damn well that the new recruits could probably kick their ass if they met in a dark alley but they listened and were respectful. She said it was nice to witness young girls come in off the street with purple hair, learning manners and making their families proud. Unfortunately, due to a bad knee, Michelle returned to her budget analyst job after two years on the field, only to soon become discharged in 1988. 

Michelle told me that after being discharged, she was actually quite comfortable in South Carolina with her own home and several dogs and cats, so she started her own business; a paper route serving 1400 customers and a contract with Pepsi and Coca-Cola, in which she purchased products for soda machines that she owned and kept the profit. She did this for six years, bringing in about $1000 a week; a sum which Michelle admitted was good for the 90’s. In 1994, a gambling habit that had developed three years prior caused Michelle to lose her house and give away her pets. She packed up and moved to North Carolina where she worked in an auto part factory and was the assistant manager at a Burger King for a year before she decided she wanted to be a truck driver. 

Michelle said she loved being a trucker because for one, she was able to see the country but what ultimately destroyed her, was gambling. After six years of trucking, making pit stops at casinos and missing sleep in order to get loads delivered on time, Michelle was hospitalized for psychotic episodes and bipolar disorder. 

Michelle stayed in a homeless shelter for six months until, at the referral of a social worker; she came to a program in Boston for women veterans with substance abuse and mental health issues. In Boston, her Social Security Disability that she was waiting for was finally approved. Now, Michelle lives in subsidized Cambridge housing with her dog, Boston and works part time at the VA Medical Center, managing a call center. Michelle reflects on what could have been, telling me that if it was not for her knee, she would have hopefully stayed with the Marine Corps, retiring after twenty years of service and possibly never having triggered bipolar disorder. But, it was a good experience that was worth it for her. 

Michelle was also very happy and enthusiastic to tell me that she is going back to college in the fall to get her Associate of Science in Digital Computer Forensics, which she says is a new field with many opportunities. It was pleasant to sit down with Michelle and learn more about her life before coming to Boston. She can be damn picky, but she is friendly and her experience in the Marine Corps was interesting to hear as a change of pace from the usual “This is not the right iced tea glass!!”

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