“The Main Setting”
Let’s remember that when Mary Richards shows up in Minneapolis, she’s a stranger to us. Soon, we’ll learn she’s had a steady boyfriend for the last two years. We’ll discover Bill let Mary “nearly support him” throughout his residency. We’ll come to understand they were planning to get married until Bill, testing the perks and prestige of his fresh M.D., posed the question, “Why rush into things?”
But where were they living, and what kind of work was Mary doing, and how did they meet in the first place and when, and who did Mary love before Bill, and if he was her First Great Love, who was her first not-so-great love? In other words, after cheerleading for Roseburg High and the white strapless formal she wore to Prom with the date who turned out to be allergic to her corsage, what happened to Mary Richards? Who was she in the snowy-deep antecedent of Now?
Let’s remember that when my beloved and I arrive in Pittsburgh, we’re strangers to the place and to the people, too. We don’t have so much as a Phyllis for close to a thousand miles. Sign a lease for us? The prospect, in retrospect, sounds grand. We could be women from anywhere, seeking anything. We’re writers after all. We could spin quite a yarn.
But some stories would suit the fringes of Penn’s Woods better than others—campfire stories, something to roast a marshmallow to. These people are going to keep asking, “Are you sisters?” “Are you cousins?” “Are you very best friends?” These people are going to keep asking, “Where do you come from, and why do you come here, and why are you traveling together?”
And where were we living and what kind of work were we doing, and how did we meet in the first place and when, and who did we love before each other, and were we each other’s first great loves? What happened to us before the Keystone, before the long tunnel through the mountain and the three rivers and the delta? What happened to us before the glassy sky like a snow globe and the city with all the bridges inside?
We open the cover and read aloud the first line of the dedication page. Soon, they are shaking their heads; soon, they have stoppered their ears.
It’s true there was a man I might have married, but I didn’t. It’s true there was a dress I might have worn to my wedding, but I didn’t. There was even a ring I took to the pawn shop at the eleventh hour, hawked for small potatoes so my new love and I go could for Thai food and have the sushi, too. There was a phone call with my parents that didn’t end well, another dial tone reverberating in my ears. Can you be fired from a family? There was a ceremony where we could have walked together in our newest caps and gowns, but we didn’t. Instead, a hotel, and in the hotel was a bed, and in the bed was a world we were remaking in our image. No, we never wanted to get up. No, we never wanted to part those curtains and face that world.
Let’s recall the lyrics from the first season song: How will you make it on your own? Girl this time you’re all alone. There were two of us in the Ford Taurus wagon we called Stella, but we were wondering the same thing as we drove into that twilit city, roads slick with summer rain. How would we make it on our own? This was my first car and Angie’s fifth. We bought it from a shady auto dealer in Oak Harbor. He rushed the sale, and we signed our names because it had a big trunk and seats that could fold down. “We’re moving across the country,” we said.
These were the days when bravery and bravado sounded the same. We signed our names because we were late for a poetry reading and had to get back. This was the kind of trip you can only take once, the ultimate carpe diem tabula rasa amor vincit omnia. We signed our names because we didn’t know when, if ever again, we’d be bound to each other this way: two women linked and equal by law, their names paratactic on a single page.
Like Mary, we drove to a new metropolis with no place to live, no jobs to report to first thing Monday morning. But we were unlike Mary, too, in ways that would come to matter more: we were women not seeking or open to romantic attachments with men.
Angie knew about Mary by then. She had seen the archive, watched the episodes, heard the stories of the way my life tilted on an MTM axis all these years. “Some people just drink to excess,” she quipped, but then she was serious. Her eyes were impossibly blue: “Most people have a repressive family, and they rebel. That’s what I did. They feel at odds with the world around them, so they lash out, or they self-destruct. But I’m not sure I ever met anyone who—what—recast herself to make her whole world more habitable?”
Speaking of habitable: I had copied verbatim these notes from the MTM set designers:
A room. Actually, an entire apartment, but a single large room. There are some—mostly of the working-girl variety—who would consider this place a “great find”: ten-foot ceilings, pegged wood floors, a wood-burning fireplace, and, most important, a fantastic ceiling-height corner window. Right now the room is totally empty, but it won’t be for long. It will be the main setting for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. So God Bless It.
And what were the odds that on our first morning in this unfamiliar city we would come upon a FOR RENT sign in the window of a charming Squirrel Hill apartment building? “It’s the third floor,” I murmured, like Mary’s, and when the man from the realty company came to meet us, we followed him up the stairs and waited as he unlocked the door, and then we entered the enormous empty room and stood beguiled—the high ceilings, the wood floors, the fireplace with its little hearth, and the fantastic atrium in the corner with its tall windows and crystalline doors.
I wrote in my journal: THE MAIN SETTING—we have found it!
I walk two miles from our new apartment to the private women’s college, and by the time I arrive, the thin white copy of my résumé has wilted in my hands. My hair is wet as if I have gone swimming, and for the rest of the afternoon, sweat continues its steady trickle down my spine.
Humidity: another initiation.
But I take as a good sign that my interview for the position of “Public Safety Secretary” has been scheduled in an old Victorian house with a woman’s name: Lindsay House. I would have preferred Mary House, of course, but the job-seeker in the new city cannot be choosy. Her past has been reduced to a soggy lily in her hand, and all her references live in different time zones.
“Are you Julie?” the man in the polo shirt with the College insignia inquires.
“I am. Are you Bernie?”
He nods and extends his hand. “Boy are we glad to see you!”
I glance around the foyer, but there is no one else there—only Bernie, who wears an empty holster at the hip of his navy Dockers. “Right this way.” He holds a door for me, and I step into his sunlit office.
“I’m going to level with you,” he says, collapsing with a dramatic sigh into his desk chair. “We’re in a bit of a pickle. The school year’s about to start, which means the front office is going to be jammed with faculty, staff, and students all trying to purchase their parking permits. We’re the campus police department, but we also handle permits—and of course, parking enforcement, meaning tickets, too.”
“OK.” I am still concerned about the holster at his hip, scanning the room as discreetly as possible for some sign of the missing gun. “I brought my résumé, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the heat—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bernie says. “I already read what you uploaded to the Human Resources portal. That’s why I called you in.”
“OK.” I nod again. “I feel confident that with a Master’s degree in English, I can facilitate whatever paperwork—”
“Sure, sure, sure.” He waves his hand as if to say, Your qualifications don’t really concern me. “It’s not a hard job exactly. I mean, we only require a high school diploma. The issue is more dealing with the public. It’s a customer service kind of thing.”
“Well, I have a lot of retail experience, too, and I’m generally pretty patient—”
“I don’t know if I made this clear on the phone, but our last Public Safety Secretary died.” Bernie’s pale face is turning mauve now, and I realize that the tone I hear in his voice is not empathy or compassion but undeniable irritation.
“I’m not a superstitious person exactly, but if I didn’t know better, I’d say she did it on purpose. Left here in a huff on a Friday afternoon—early, I might add—shouting about how I was going to give her a heart attack, and the next thing you know, we get a call that she’s died of a heart attack. Took her work keys with her, and no one in her family could find them. Had to break the locks on all the filing cabinets. The whole thing has been a real mess.”
“Hmm.” I try my best to channel Linda Breuer’s tranquil face, but my eyes still search for the gun.
“She was a difficult person. We’ve had a lot of difficult people in this job. We’re looking for someone to put a—how can I say this?—a nicer face on Public Safety. People mostly come here when they’ve got a problem, so the person in your position can’t be the problem, do you see what I’m saying?”
I nod again and smile. Bernie’s thin blond hair cannot conceal the way the mauve tides have risen and spread across his head.
“I like that. I bet you’re the kind of person who doesn’t have to be told to smile. We can use some of that positive energy around here. And you’re about to be a graduate student at the University? Is that what I read?”
“Yes. I’m a writer.”
“Well, that’s terrific because we have a log you’ll need to update every day, documenting incidents—criminal, medical, etcetera—that the police officers were called to investigate. Sometimes it’s broken air-conditioning units in the dorms or ducks blocking traffic on the road. You can’t believe some of the things people report.”
He leans back in his chair now, stretches his arms, almost as if he’s forgotten I’m here. Then, he says, “You know I really like the Seattle area. That’s where you’re from, right?”
“Yes. It’s beautiful—as I’m sure you know.”
“Well, I haven’t actually been out west,” he says, “but I got pretty deep into the whole Twin Peaks thing in the ‘90s, and I just love Frasier. Those guys are a hoot.”
I decide it isn’t wise to tell him I’ve never seen either show, so instead I say, “I’m kind of a classic TV buff myself. I like Perry Mason and Get Smart—” he’s grinning now, as I guessed he would be—“and my favorite of all is Mary Tyler Moore.”
“That Girl, right?” he says, snapping his fingers. “I like her, too. Lots of pep. And what was her boyfriend’s name?”
It’s all I can do to suppress my groan at this unholy comparison. Ann Marie was to Mary as Wonderbread was to stone ground wheat. She was Cool Whip to Mary’s real whipped cream, milquetoast to Mary’s milkshake fortified with fruit and flax.
“Oh, that’s Marlo Thomas actually. Her boyfriend on the show was named Donald, I think.”
“Right, right. Donald!” Bernie looks pleased, as if we’ve been discussing an old friend of his. “They were great together.” He pauses for a moment, leafs through some papers on his desk, then asks me with a look of fatherly concern: “Did you really move all the way across the country by yourself?”
“No, I—” I never said I did—“I moved here with my partner.”
Bernie mulls this information over for a minute before he replies. “Well, this job is twenty hours a week, and I’m happy to hire you for it, but only if you’re sure you have the time to commit.”
“Absolutely! Time management is my strong suit,” I pledge with gusto.
“Well, let’s hope so—what with graduate school and a whole other business on the side.”
“So what did you say after that?” Angie is still unpacking boxes as I stand with my back to the fan and slowly peel off my clothes.
“It took me a minute to really understand that he didn’t understand what I meant by partner. I said I didn’t have a side business, and then he asked me what I had a partner for, so I said love and companionship, and then he got all pink again—really flustered, you know—and said he’d show me where the Public Safety Secretary sits.”
“Is that really the job title, in 2003?”
“It really is. Says so right on the main door.”
“Well, at least there’s a bright side,” Angie says, grinning at me.
“You’ll be working in your favorite era!”
“The Mighty Ohio”
The city of Pittsburgh is mentioned only once on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but even that fact is a surprise. The moment is memorable because the city is used as one of the show’s most inventive comparisons. Georgette tells Mary that she and Rhoda are “like Pittsburgh,” a simile Mary tries to ignore, but her curiosity, like ours, soon enough gets the better of her.
“All right, Georgette. How are Rhoda and I like Pittsburgh?” Georgette goes on to explain that Pittsburgh is the place where the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River meet. By themselves, these are just “two skinny little rivers,” but when they come together in Pittsburgh, they form the mighty Ohio River, which is far more powerful than either can be on its own.
“That was my first geography lesson about the mid-Atlantic,” I tell Angie as we stand together in Three Rivers Park. “I wrote it down in case I ever happened to be in Pittsburgh.”
“And now,” she says, with ta-dah hands, “here we are!”
We don’t know yet that we’re going to make friends in Pittsburgh, or that I’ll publish my first poems and essays while we live here, or that Angie will become a librarian. We can’t imagine that in another decade, there will be a landmark civil rights case declaring Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and when that happens, we will become eligible to marry and to receive federal recognition of our marriage. Such things seem unthinkable now.
We don’t know yet that Angie’s sister is going to have children who will become our niece and nephews, though we do know that aunts are important. Mary Richard’s Aunt Flo, played by Eileen Heckart, was one of the women who inspired her to pursue a career in news, and then of course Mary went on to inspire Bess not to lose her mind over her mother. Years from now, our niece Evie will announce that she wants to write “stories of other people’s lives and also autobiographies.”
“Did you know that Mary Tyler Moore’s real-life aunt was the one who gave her the famous tam? It wasn’t part of the script or anything. She just knew Mary was going to Minneapolis to shoot the opening credits and was worried that she was going to be cold,” I tell Angie.
“No, I didn’t know,” she says, catching on quickly. “But if we ever have a niece, maybe we should give her a tam.”
All we know right now is that we are two women alone on a delta. Angie is the Allegheny, and I am the Monongahela, and somehow together we must become the mighty Ohio.
“What is Julie Wade Really Like?”
Sometimes I find myself standing on a crowded corner in the city, and I want to feel it—that extraordinary surge of freedom and independence that prompted Mary to twirl and toss her tam. But then I think I see my mother in the crowd, and she seizes the day in a different way than the saying intends. I freeze with fear. I fail to cross with the other pedestrians.
Or sometimes I think I see my father in a row of men waiting for the bus, and I want to run up to him and ask if he really believes my life is a sin. Or that woman there, in the café window, who could be my grandmother: I know in my heart I’m never going to see her again. Or that woman there, feeding the meter or feeding the birds: she could be my aunt Linda, who still has time, I think, to come around.
“You know, your grad school insurance might pay for you to see somebody,” Angie suggests.
“Do you think I’m flailing?”
“No, but I think you’re struggling more than you have to be. It was a big step telling your parents you wouldn’t move home and get help for your—‘homosexual tendencies.’” We put a lot of things in air quotes these days because so many words don’t feel like our own.
So I find a therapist in Squirrel Hill who mentions “family trauma” and “LGBT” on his list of specialties. I climb the narrow stairs to his office every week. I take some comfort in the fact that his last name is Weise, which when pronounced aloud is indistinguishable from “wise.”
After I have been seeing Dr. Weise for several months, he stops me mid-sentence one morning with a gentle splay of his palm: “You know, Julie, you don’t have to tell me what you think I want to hear. You can tell me what you think you want to say.”
“Do I seem disingenuous to you?” I ask, concerned.
“No. It’s more that you seem like you’re holding back, not wanting to say the wrong thing or make me uncomfortable in any way.”
“I haven’t always been like that, believe me. I used to say whatever came into my head.”
“Everything? No filter at all?” He looks surprised.
“Well, I mean, not everything—and certainly not to everyone—but more than I say now.”
“What kinds of things didn’t you say, growing up?” I notice that Dr. Weise always sits very straight in his chair, and though he sometimes makes notations on the yellow legal pad, he never fidgets. He always seems fully present in the moment at hand.
“Gay things, I guess.”
“Like, attraction to other girls?”
I nod, and even though I know I am one of his specialties, I still feel awkward naming it, that thing which has the power to divide us.
“You didn’t confide in anyone, even your best friend or your mentor?”
“Well, it’s different being an ally than it is being the person who needs the ally. I mean, I didn’t even know the word ally when I was growing up, but I wanted to be a good person, and I thought that meant being kind and open-minded, like Mary Richards. But if you’re an ally, you still hold most of the cards. It’s not as vulnerable a position because you’re choosing to show compassion. I feel vulnerable all the time now because I can’t trust who my allies are.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Sure.” I shrug. “Every day is an example. I go to work at the Public Safety Office, and there are all these police officers there, and they seem to like me well enough, but they don’t know how to talk to me. Heather is young—she’s close to my age—and she always tells me about her dating life, and then she says things like ‘You wouldn’t understand’ or ‘You don’t have to deal with things like that.’ And there’s this middle-aged officer named Dennis who saw me wearing a tie one day—I always wanted to wear a tie, and I found one I liked at the Goodwill, so I wore it with a white button-down shirt and a long corduroy skirt. It made me think of the episode where Mary wears a suit to work on the day she’s going to be interviewed about what it’s like to be the only woman in the newsroom. Dennis asked, ‘So are you wearing that because you’re—you know—’, and then he couldn’t finish the sentence because nothing he was going to say would have been appropriate, and he already has some strikes against him for protocol violations. Finally, after a lot of stammering and throat-clearing, he said, ‘Do a lot of women you know dress that way?’ I told him ‘Just Mary Richards,’ kind of as a joke, and he said, ‘Is that your girlfriend?’ No one there can even remember Angie’s name.”
Dr. Weise uncaps his pen, as if he’s going to write something down, but then he doesn’t. “You know, I’m an ally—I mean, I think of myself that way—but you’re right about something important I hadn’t thought of before. I do get to choose to be that way, and I suppose I could choose at any time to be another way. There are different consequences for you, having chosen to be out of the closet. You can’t control how other people are going to react.” I’m not the best at reading upside down, but I think he sketches Agency? on the page.
“I’m struck by the fact that we were talking about ways you might censor yourself or hold back parts of yourself you’re concerned aren’t pleasing to other people, but the examples you gave are more about other people censoring themselves around you, displeasing you.”
It isn’t a question, so when I don’t reply, he tries again. “What do you think people are missing about you? What is your family missing about you? What is Julie Wade really like?”
I smile at him broadly now. “That’s the name of the episode! The one where Mary wears the suit! It’s called ‘What is Mary Richards Really Like?’”
“If you want,” Dr. Weise says—“if it’s easier, you can tell me what Mary Richards is like first. Just don’t forget that this is your story, so we have to come back to you at the end.”
“There are 446 Bridges in Pittsburgh, and Mary Richards is One of Them”
The scene opens with an aerial view of Pittsburgh, taken from Mount Washington. The triangle shape of the city is visible, along with many of the bridges, and prominent in the foreground is the iconic red tram of the Duquesne Incline inching its way up the hill. Cut to a silver station wagon with Washington plates passing through the Fort Pitt Tunnel as we hear How will you make it on your own? Show the faces of two young women in the front seat of that car, then pan out to show the confluence of the three rivers. The station wagon heads east on Interstate 376, passing the downtown skyscrapers as we hear This world is awfully big (make note the PPG building that looks like a glass castle, crenellated at the top), and girls this time you’re all alone. Cut to the apartment in Squirrel Hill with the tall windows and the wood floors. Let the camera sweep past the tiny bedroom in the back, showing only one bed—cozy with blue quilt and green blanket—and the wicker IKEA chair in the corner. Now the partners are in the kitchen pulling their first Thanksgiving turkey from the oven as we hear But it’s time you started living. They’re running together down the steep slope of Panther Hollow in their summer clothes (tank tops, shorts)—try to pick up the purple quality of the heat as the air seems to swaddle the trees—then transition to the partners still running but now in their winter clothes (fleeces, gloves, tights) as they pass through Schenley Park and alongside the stunning Phipps Conservatory in sync with the words It’s time you let someone else do some giving. Now they’re in their work clothes on the city bus, standing and gazing out the window as they approach the Cathedral of Learning. We hear Love is all around, no need to waste it as the camera takes in the magnificence of this gothic structure, students and tourists alike flooding the doors. You can have the town, why don’t you take it shows the partners getting coffee at Kiva Han. You might just make it after all guides the transitions to a letter in the mailbox, Julie’s key turning the lock, and then her hand reaching inside. In the final transition, she’s running up the stairs outside the Mellon Institute where Angie has just stepped outside. Julie’s waving the letter, and we can see that she’s been admitted to a PhD program in Louisville. You might just make it after all is repeated as they embrace at the base of one of those dramatic columns. It’s winter, and they’re both wearing swing coats. Julie puts her hands into Angie’s pockets, and they’re kissing, leaning against the column, as the music fades.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of eight collections of poetry and prose, including the recently released Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press). A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.