Back in the late fall of 1984, I was a new bride, a new graduate and a new apartment dweller in a first-ring suburb on the NW side of Minneapolis. My then husband was working construction about 15 miles further NW of the city and I was substitute teaching in several school districts. We had one vehicle – a 10+ year old pick-up truck that was almost more rust than not. We used to joke that as parts fell off (chrome trim, parts of the body, wheel well flaps, etc.) we needed to picked them up and throw them in the back so that we “at least have all the parts.” This hand-me-down vehicle got almost 10 miles to the gallon.
I would drive then husband 15 miles NW to the construction shop, drive to my sub assignment, teach, then drive back out to pick him up and go home. Depending on my sub assignment, that could add up to almost 100 miles a day. It was a lot of miles, and we probably filled up that truck 2-3 times a week.
A few weeks into the fall, I got a call from someone in the office of a Big and Important Music Organization in the city. It seems their brand new season in their brand new venue started off with a brand new work that required an accordion player. I was not a paid musicians’ union member and they had gotten my name from my former teacher, who was and who had declined the job because it really wasn’t up his alley. And also because they weren’t going to be paying scale.
I only had to play on one piece of this staged work and after a couple of conversations about rehearsal requirements and performance schedule I asked what it did pay. “I don’t know right now,” said the well-known musical director, “but we pay fairly.”
I agreed to the gig. I got the music. I practiced. I needed to attend several rehearsal in downtown St. Paul and then three weeks of 8 shows a week. This was a 50 mile round-trip commitment for me.
On the last rehearsal before dress rehearsals, the production manager handed me an envelope and told me that was my check for playing in the show. It was for $100.
I was stunned. Even in 1984, $100 wasn’t going to come close to covering the cost of gasoline for all those trips to downtown St. Paul.
I broke down in tears and told the stunned and awkward production manager that I had been told the pay “would be fair! This doesn’t even cover gas!” She muttered something I don’t remember exactly about checking to see what she could do and hurried away.
My visceral memory of that experience was feeling so dumbfounded and foolish that I had such a profoundly different idea of “fair” than they did. And the shame I felt for not having demanded an actual answer to my question all those weeks before about the pay.
I vowed not to “get caught” like that again. Always negotiate up front and get an understanding of what the paying party was willing to pay before committing.
I thought I learned that lesson, but it might appear that I have not.