Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
14 July 2016

It wasn’t my time on death row that changed me – but the strange girl with the bag of rags

I was in my early twenties, in a lesbian haven, spending the days after my internship musing on the beach. 

By Susan Calman

Two decades ago, when I was in my early twenties, I won a scholarship to work in America with prisoners on death row. You might expect me to write with gusto about the crusading lawyers or serial killers I met while being a cut-price, shorter Jodie Foster. But the encounter I remember most clearly from that time is of a more mundane, gentle nature.

My time with those convicted of capital crimes in North Carolina – shuffling through high-security prisons and, on a couple of occasions, having firearms pointed in my direction – was, unsurprisingly, stressful. So after my internship finished, I decided to escape up the coast of America to a place called Provincetown. Before returning to Glasgow to continue my studies in law, I needed some time to reflect and decide if my life was on the right course. P’town, a picturesque New England enclave at the tip of Cape Cod, commonly known as a lesbian haven, seemed exactly the right place. It’s sort of like Hebden Bridge but with more sunshine and less tea. There were so many women, I had so little confidence.

I slept on the floor of a friend of a friend of someone I knew at university and spent my days sitting on the beach, reflecting, musing and being downright maudlin.

One day, apropos of nothing, a woman sat down next to me and introduced herself as a shoeshine girl. It sounded like one of the world’s worst chat-up lines but it was true. She had with her a small kit of cloths and pastes with which she would shine the shoes of anyone who had a few dollars. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me that someone would live like this, transient but focused on one specific act.

I saw her most days as she worked her way through town and, one overcast afternoon, she asked if I wanted to go to a party in one of the large houses on the coast. She had been invited because she was the shoeshine girl, and who could have a party without her?

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The night itself was remarkable: full of glamorous celebrities, drinking and debauchery, and right at the centre of everything was she. As I sat, observing with a sense of horror born out of a repressed Scottish upbringing, my future crystallised in my mind. I needed to give up law and become a beachfront shoeshine girl.

Of course I didn’t. I sobered up, got on a plane home, carried on studying and spent seven years as a corporate lawyer, then gave it all up to be a comedian. But I never forgot her and the freedom she had. And, strange as it seems, I smiled when I handed in my resignation, wondering if she’d be pleased with what I had done. My one regret is that I can’t thank her, because I never asked her name. And, to be fair, she didn’t tell me. She was just “the shoeshine girl”. What a glorious thing to be.

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM