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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?

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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.

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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.

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