By Elsa Panizzon.
Today I will be reviewing a book that few people have heard of, or ever will hear of. Which I kinda think is a real shame, because this is a memoir that pretty much blew me away. While yeah, a lot of self-published stuff can be iffy, this one's a keeper. It wouldn't fit into traditional publishing--both for length as well as subject matter/the author not already being super famous-- but I'm glad she finally got the story out anyway.
Elsa had a drastically different upbringing compared to most folks. She grew up in the middle of nowhere in the desert, and it sounds like she was pretty much marooned out there with nobody but her family except for trips into town. The closest anything to her was the Circle K, which was as close to heaven as a young Elsa knew of. She had to grow up VERY quickly, and by 15 was passing as over 21 in order to work in bars.
If anything isn't a shining gem in this, it's that Elsa tends to...hedge? Leave out a few details here and there? I'm not sure how to phrase it...I guess I'd say that she mentions things off-the-cuff and quickly like it's a fait accompli that you should know about this already/possibly not be concerned about it. Like saying that she was a 15-year-old bartender--she mentions briefly being homeless, and that at one point she's financially responsible for taking care of her mother (that one's never explained). You're like, what happened between story #1 and story #2?!?( Eventually she does explain more of this in Act III. Acts I and II are relatively lighthearted compared to that section. I normally am a fan of telling stuff in chronological order, but I think in this case, it was a good idea to break people in gently before going back in time and telling Act III.) But...sometimes the "skipping the details" did drive me nuts. Especially since this girl can usually give a lot of details and recap conversations when she wants to!
Here's the story rundowns:
- Heaven, I Mean Circle K: 10-year-old Elsa is determined to go to the Circle K, 3.3 miles away. At first her plan is to hop on a pogo stick all the way there, but when that gets nixed by her mother, she decides to borrow her grandfather's truck and teach herself how to drive just by watching and, y'know, figuring it out on the way... As someone who took an extraordinarily long time to learn how to drive, you can bet I sat up and paid attention to how THAT went. And it goes well....at first... but then she runs into trouble buying the gas (oh, so been there), starting what appears to be a long history of running into friendly men when she's having truck trouble.
- Sexy Gal: 15-year-old Elsa works in a bar, where nobody knows her age. She becomes a big hit with the local barflies, which annoys the bar owner across the street. Elsa dubs the other bar owner "SexyGal." SexyGal becomes veeeery interested in Elsa, which terrifies Elsa because she figures that SexyGal will figure out her secret. Instead, they hit it off in a fun and sweet way.
- Obi Wan Kenobi PhD: At age 17, Elsa's alcoholic boyfriend hits someone while driving and puts her into a coma. He starts drinking himself to death, and the guy's shrink (the title character) tells Elsa to run for it. So she does, finding a new apartment and roommate. But as for the boyfriend...well, Elsa refers to him as Darth Vader for a reason. This is the story of how she got out of that!
- Teenager: Elsa's got a new apartment, she's got furniture, and she's got a new roommate/coworker that she admires. She also has an honest waitressing job rather than illegal bartending. However, she and the other waitresses are being very skankily sexually harassed by a manager. Elsa rounds up a lawyer and other victims of the guy (including her roommate) to file a lawsuit. It's a triumph at first, but then life moves on and things start to fizzle, and Elsa's "pure" church-y roommate turns out to not be as pure as Elsa assumed. But when everyone finally meets with the lawyers, Elsa figures out what's going on and is determined to make things go differently.... You go, girl!
- Cranes! An Employment Interlude: At age 23, Elsa gets a job she has no qualifications or credentials for: secretarial work for a guy who runs a crane operating business. He's an asshole who admits to being an asshole. While everyone else she works with is friendly, Elsa freely admits that she has no clue as to how to run this type of business--or even how to operate the radio that she's (unbeknownst to her) supposed to be operating. Doesn't sound like she got trained either--but then again, the #1 credential for this job is being able to put up with a screaming boss and to keep his two best clients happy. One of them, who Elsa dubs "Aquarian," gets a crush on her. They go out, but find out they're romantically incompatible, as Elsa likes to actually have sex and Aquarian just wants to think about it. But they happily date friend-style anyway....despite having some awkward moments between them and the other best client. It's a sweet story with some scary moments.
- Trucks!: Elsa gets another job driving trucks for Frito-Lay. Her driving....well, I don't know if it's improved since she was ten, as she tends to damage trucks a lot. That girl must have a LOT of cute and charm going on to still have that job, I have to say. (I'm thinking of how the bus drivers here get fired if they just scratch a bus....) Damn, girl!
- Bonus Time: Elsa meets "Balloon Guy," who she hits it off with...but he's only in town for a night and wants to go out. Elsa doesn't want to be One Night Stand Girl, which she assumes he's going for. She turns down his offer, multiple times. But after a miraculous event of snow in the desert, Elsa takes the hint from the universe and goes to meet him. The fellow isn't nearly what she thought--he's got quite the life story of his own (think Richard in Texas from Eat Pray Love--I think those two would relate). Wowza. This section also has my favorite quote: "And it's because of things like this, I've learned to trust the universe. I'm pretty sure you'll never miss a bus you're supposed to be on."
After the flirting and fun of the first two sections, Act III is heavy stuff. We find out that Elsa's dad (who she calls W) was a psychotic abusive fuckwad, which suddenly explains a lot of things.
- For The Love Of Ketchup: at age 6, Elsa puts ketchup on her potatoes, which irritates her father so much that he literally breaks her wrist right there at the table...leaving her and her female relatives in the position of, how do we take her to the hospital when he says he'll kill all of us of Elsa goes? Dear GOD.
- The Day I Decided What I Decided: at age 8, Elsa's dad is beating her about five times a week. At one point she decides she wants to die...and then has the psychic intuition that she's going to live through this. Or hast to,anyway.
- Beating W: At age 10, Elsa's dad teaches her how to play cards, which she becomes very good at. She also starts figuring out how she's going to get free of her father someday once she can outplay him.
- The Juvie Guy: At age 13, W decides to haul Elsa to juvenile hall on a regular basis and beg/harass/flirt with everyone there hoping they'll take her away from him forever and ever. He knows his legal rights, he knows exactly that they can't turn him away. On the other hand, Elsa's a well-behaved straight A student that everyone outside of her house loves, so juvie isn't going to take her. The Juvie Guy of the title wishes he could help Elsa....but they're both utterly stuck legally for five more years. This will just infuriate you. Okay, all of act 3 does that, but...GODDAMMIT JUVENILE SYSTEM!!!!! Even when people want to help, they're not allowed!!! Reminded me of this Dear Sugar column.
- The Day I Left Home: At age 15, Elsa literally just walks out of there with nothing before she gets killed.
- The Last Time That W Hit Me: A few months after leaving home, Elsa's dad spots her at the Circle K and beats her badly--but this time in front of a bunch of witnesses.
Elsa is quite the storyteller--whether or not it's a happy fun story or a horrifying one. You admire the hell out of her pluck and gumption and survival instincts, given what she grew up having to deal with. I had the impression of her right off that she was always brave and kickass, but this story shows how she eventually developed into the person that she needed to be in order to escape and survive and eventually even thrive. If you've been in the shit--or never been in the shit--you see how she got out and that you might too. She's been through hell and come out the other side, and you are so glad.
I wish she'd write more stories from her life like this. From what I've heard this sounds like highly unlikely at best and more like never going to happen, but I wish she would. She puts many other memoirists to shame. This is mindblowing.