For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
Because I had miraculously achieved the position of service editor at Penthouse magazine, responsible for articles serving the deep-pocketed advertisers’ needs, Kawasaki had treated me to an all-expense paid junket to Finland to test drive snowmobiles, four days of lovely, nose-hair-freezing, bracing winter weather and four nights of drunken hijinks with the all-male, all-Midwestern snowmobile press.
Kawasaki graciously did not browbeat me for an article in return for my free trip; my boss, Jim Goode thought it was one thing for me to enjoy myself buzzing around the hills of Lapland, but quite another to run a puff piece on snowmobiles in his magazine. Jim believed that the men who bought Penthouse were much more interested in reading 10,000 word articles on “The CIA’s Secret Plot in Chile” or “Taxes We Should Never Pay.”
It was a blessing that I did not have to come up with an article. I scrolled sheet after sheet of typing paper through my battleship grey IBM Selectric, stared at the same blank whiteness as those Finnish ski slopes, came up with a few headlines — “Going (Sno) Mobile,” “A Lapp around Finland,” “Where are the Snowmobiles of Yesteryear?” — and then got lost in the memory of a long table covered with dead soldiers, and a bunch of guys and me pounding our fists and feet as we hollered “To the shores of Tripoli!…” letting the nice Finnish families around us, there for a quiet cross-country skiing vacation, know that Kilroy Was Here.
I was suffering from my first case of writer’s block, triggered when I got off the Finnair flight and trudged through JFK airport, my eyes drawn to the monitors hanging above me, offering so many destinations: Amsterdam, Cairo, Athens, Buenos Aires…
That trip to Finland was my first time outside of the United States in years; now all I wanted to do was to get back on a plane to anywhere. In my ascent from secretary to editor my salary had reached $15,000 a year, not enough for anything more exotic than an egg drop soup and arroz con pollo at an 8th Avenue Cuban-Chinese eatery. The only vacation my artist boyfriend Michael and I had been able to afford in our time in New York City was to a borrowed house on Cape Cod.
The next press invitation I received, to an MG-sponsored road rally in Wales, I sullenly handed over to Jim Goode, who as executive editor of Penthouse claimed the captain’s share of the loot.
“Why the long face, Haaauubner?” growled Jim, as he pawed through the inserts in the invitation, printed on heavy card stock and engraved with the MG logo, promising airfare, first-class accommodations, gourmet meals, and drinking to excess in the best British tradition.
“I got to go on one measly trip to Finland, and you take all the rest,” I pouted, consciously ignoring the fact that wrong-way driving and roundabouts would be the death of me.
My small, sullen insurrection was not worthy of a response from Jim. “Find out if I can bring the dogs,” he ordered, and I was dismissed.
The next morning my phone rang, and there on the other end, as if I had willed it to happen, was another press junket.
“Buenos dias! I’m calling from the Spanish Olive Oil Consortium. Do you know much about Spanish olive oil?” asked a softly accented, trilling voice.
I had to confess my ignorance about olives in general.
“That’s why we’d love to have you join us on a tour of olive groves in Andalucia!”
Had this woman or any other member of the Spanish Olive Oil Consortium ever seen a Penthouse? Some of the models gleamed like they had been liberally anointed with oil, but outside of that…
Yet Andalucia! Granada, Seville, Cordoba! I girded my loins to face Jim again.
My carefully prepared spiel never got a hearing. As soon as the word “olive” fell out of my mouth, the full wrath of Jim was unleashed.
“Food, Haaauubner? Food? You will never see an article on food in this magazine,” Jim ranted, punctuating each word by banging his index finger on his desk. Food was not one of Jim’s pleasures, or even interests. Eating impeded the effect of his martinis; it was something that had to be faced twice a day, like tooth-brushing. Jim put down his size 13 work boots and “Spanish Bombs” stopped playing in my head.
I called the nice olive lady back. “I am so sorry, I have to decline. Olive oil doesn’t quite fit in with our editorial strategy right now.”
“That’s too bad. You know, I also represent the Tourism Board of Spain and I’m putting together a press group to attend the opening of the new Madrid casino. Perhaps you’d be interested in that?”
My mouth dried up in speechlessness; I managed to squawk out “Thank you can I let you know?” before hanging up the phone in wonder. This, I thought, is a sign. The universe wants me to go to Spain.
I campaigned like a crooked pol to get Jim to let me go on this trip. I spent hours on the phone with underlings at the British Embassy, in a doomed effort to get Jim a special waiver so he could bring his damn dogs to England. I picked out the choicest, most expensive items from my haul of gifts from advertisers and presented them to Jim on bended knee. I volunteered for more than my share of Take-Jim-to-Lunches, and managed to set a new record in keeping him out of the office longest.
After a four-martini lunch at The Magic Pan (dubbed The Tragic Pan; its thin, scantily-filled crepes barely qualified as a meal), I sprung the question.
My strategy was to convince Jim that an article on casinos would be a sop to Bob Guccione, something to weigh against Jim’s anti-fur crusade and his other nutty hobbyhorses. The office rumor was that Guccione was planning to funnel some of those Penthouse millions into a casino in Atlantic City, even though the Penthouse casino in London was under investigation by Scotland Yard, and Atlantic City was just barely beginning to shake off its seedy, down-on-its-luck reputation.
“So if I write a piece on the opening of the Madrid casino…” was my reductio ad absurdum, and Jim was too drunk to refuse and too stubborn to go back on his promise after he sobered up and I was headed to Europe.
I met my fellow junketeers, accompanied by the nice but now rabidly frantic woman from the Tourism Board of Spain, at the check-in for Iberia Airlines.
These representatives of the fourth estate were as mismatched as a sock drawer. There was only one other person from a national publication, a stringer for Women’s Weekly, which I thought was a knitting magazine. There was a freelancer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; on the plane he passed me some pages of his work-in-progress to read, which I thought was complete crap and became a best-selling horror novel. There was a man so drunk, so often, I never even caught his name, much less what magazine or newspaper or handbill he represented. There were two older women from competitive Philadelphia Jewish weeklies; they were locked in a Semitic death match, refusing to even make eye contact. Plus some other freeloaders too dull to remember.
The PR woman was frantic because she had just learned that the Madrid casino was so far from being complete that all we junketeers could expect to see was a hole in the ground. We flew to Madrid anyway, then rushed on to a small plane bound for the island of Mallorca. The Tourism Board of Spain thought it better to show us people throwing away money somewhere then to cancel our trip. “There’s a casino in Mallorca,” promised the poor PR woman.
And some Louis XIV, Xanadu, Versace, Mad King Ludwig shit that was. El Casino de Palma Mallorca was stupendously palatial. An excess of immense crystal chandeliers blazed down from ceilings painted with chubby nymphs and cavorting cherubs. The towering walls and the thick Corinthian columns holding up nothing were made of richly veined marble, yet all the raucous noises of gambling were reduced to the soft chink of dice, the swishing of cards, the ticking of a roulette wheel, thanks to the thick-as-fur carpet that caught my high heels with every step. Anything that could be gilded was. I made sure to keep moving; if I stood still I might have gotten the Midas touch myself. Every man in the casino outside of our motley crew wore black tie; all the bone-thin women smoked and clutched tiny jeweled evening bags. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Our Man Flint had showed up, shooting his cuffs.
Mission accomplished, we had been to a Spanish casino. Not one of us honorable members of the press risked our own money gambling, and to our dismay, free chips were not part of the junket. Just seeing the casino was not enough though: we had to dine there every night in a private room.
“Why are those men standing around us?” I asked the freelancer/novelist from St. Louis. “They look like extras from The Student Prince.”
“I think this is called Russian service” he said, which I learned required waiter after waiter delivering course after course, always starting with oysters and going on to entrees as heavy as the sterling: forks, knives and spoons that marched endlessly on both sides of the disappearing and reappearing plates.
My St. Louis friend also told me that the PR woman was scrambling for activities for our group; had we gone to Madrid to admire the hole in the ground we would have seen the Prado, Toledo, El Escorial. Outside of the casino, the island of Mallorca was best known for catering to drunken, sunburned Brits on package holidays.
Our PR senorita filled our schedule with meals. In the mornings hotel waiters delivered full, artery-clogging English breakfasts to our table. Lunch was at white-washed, red-tiled restaurants perched above the sea and was always freshly caught and always deep-fried fish; we washed the olive oil grease away with cold, crisp vino blanco and then took a group nap on the bus back to the hotel.
I hit the eating wall on my next-to-last night dinner, kicking off my shoes under the long mahogany table so I could race to the marble and gilt ladies’ room, undone by lobster bisque and beef wellington. The kind ladies’ room attendant did not hold my hair and pat my back, but she did have a cool towel ready for me when I finally was able to lift my head from the toilet.
We spent one afternoon at a non-eating venue, the Caves of Drach; we drifted in rowboats through a garishly lit underground grotto, while violinists floating alongside serenaded us with Italian arias. It was ghoulish and charming, like a tale from Hoffman.
The Philadelphia ladies finally set aside their professional and religious differences to request a visit to the Majorca pearl factory, the rest of us dragged along like kids on mom’s boring shopping trip. We learned that Majorca pearls are not real pearls from oysters. They are made from fish scales, billions of fish scales; the whole place stunk like a giant can of tuna left out in the sun. We all balked at the offer of a tour inside; the Philadelphia ladies bought their souvenir jewelry as quickly as possible and we fled back to the bus.
Having exhausted the wonders of Mallorca, our PR lady arranged a day trip to Ibiza and turned us loose on the island. The poor thing was probably wiped out herself having to improvise a press junket on the fly.
Our undistinguished group huddled for a minute in the square, then my fellow junketeers bolted off in search of souvenir shops or bars. I stood alone, entranced by the combined scents of patchouli oil and pot that streamed behind the handsome bearded boys who strolled arm in arm with long-haired smiling girls dressed in kaleidoscope clothes. I followed “Are You Experienced?” down a cobbled street lined with stores offering tie-dyed tops, batik trousers, and patchwork skirts, bongs and chillums and flavored rolling papers, black-light posters, herbal teas, and van trips to Afghanistan. I had died and gone to hippie heaven.
Jimi Hendrix led me to a waterfront café and an icy Estrella beer. I side-eyed the man at the next table, a shaggy blond with a deep tan, dressed in a blue and white striped pullover, white jeans, and deck shoes without socks. I wasn’t expecting the American voice that asked, “Mind if I join you?”
Another beer and a below-the-table joint appeared and my life was complete. The blond was from Florida and worked as a captain on a private yacht; he pointed out a very large boat gleaming in the marina.
“We hardly ever see the owner. Most of the time I move the boat to another port and he doesn’t even show up.” He gave me a head to toe appraising look and asked “Can you cook?” I blinked.
“Our crew cook just left. Nothing complicated. Eggs in the morning, sandwiches, burgers, fish if we catch ‘em. The owner always brings his own chef, so then all you have to do is sit around in a bikini.”
My better angels were banging in alarm on my brain, which was already mapping out the wine-dark seas, the white towns of the Greek isles, the turquoise coast of Turkey.
“We have a lot of fun,” Captain Blond continued, popping one small pink pill in his mouth and offering me another.