Thankfully, the fashion misstep at my first temp job didn’t result in my being banned for life from the temp agency. Not long after, they found me another position, at a place called Ascom Hasler in the Old City section of Philadelphia. Ascom Hasler made mailing systems, and my job was keeping in touch with the sales reps in the fields, typing up agreements, and doing other clerical tasks. My supervisor was a young girl who looked as if she couldn’t have been older than twenty or so, and dressed like it, too. But I noticed she wore heels, so I made sure to wear my toe-pinching shoes every day. At least by then I had gotten my license and a car (a used Dodge Omni) and could drive to work, thus saving my feet.
But I still continued to feel as if I had dropped off the face of the earth for nearly 18 years, as if I’d fallen asleep, Rip-Van-Winkle style, and had awoken years later, a big gap in my knowledge of the world, of my home country in particular. Nothing unusual, you might say, for someone to live abroad as an expatriate for a number of years and then return home and resume her life. But in most cases, the expat would have maintained contact with her family and friends, and been aware of political and cultural developments back home. She’d have seen some of the movies, kept up with new albums put out by her favorite musicians, kept up with new trends. None of that was true in my case. For one thing, we didis were discouraged from keeping in touch with family or friends. For another, it was against the rules to go to movie theaters, so most movies came and went without our knowledge. I remember making an exception for E.T. I was in American Samoa at the time, well out of the range of prying supervisors’ eyes, so opted to go to the movies for the first time since I’d left the U.S. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, though I did have to struggle through some feelings of guilt for having broken the “no movie theaters” rule. The only other film I remember seeing in all those years was Home Alone, which I’d viewed crowded around a small TV with a bunch of other didis in our center in Germany. We’d rented the video and watched it together. We weren’t in a theater, we told ourselves, and there was no sex in the movie, so what we were doing was okay.
So when I got back to the U.S., there was this big gap, a black hole, in my knowledge about American culture. I was firmly stuck in the early 70’s. I liked Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, Carol King–but to me they were still singing what they’d been back when I was in college. And forget television and movies (besides E.T. and Home Alone). Just to give you an idea of how out of the loop I was, I had never heard of, let alone seen, Star Wars. This state of affairs was bound to trip me up at work sooner or later. And so it did, sooner rather than later.
One afternoon about a week after I’d started at Ascom Hasler, one of the sales reps came into the office and introduced herself. “You’re the new girl, right?” I assured her I was, thinking, Well, I’m no girl, I’m 43. A heavy-set woman with long black hair and lips prominently painted with red lipstick, she asked me my name. I told her, and then she smiled a big, big smile with her large red mouth and said, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” in a strange, singsongy voice, barking out a loud laugh, and looking at me as if she expected me to do something. I didn’t know what, so I just smiled. Then she went on her way, leaving me puzzled. The same thing happened a few days later. The woman came into the office, caught sight of me, and said, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” in the same strange voice, once again giving me a significant look. Finally, when this happened a third time and I failed to respond, she said, “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“The Brady Bunch. I’m talking about the Brady Bunch.”
“The Brady Bunch?” I said. “What’s that?”
“You’ve never heard of the Brady Bunch? The TV show? How’s that possible?”
It was quite possible. I mumbled something about having lived outside of the country for a number of years but didn’t go into any details (something I avoided doing for quite a while after getting back).
She then took her leave, shaking her head, as if finding it the strangest thing that I had never heard of The Brady Bunch.
I still get the “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” thing on occasion. Now, I laugh, as if I had watched The Brady Bunch all those years ago when it was on, instead of running around in orange robes in different lands intent on saving the world.