Where We Belong MICHELLE HAUSER
Michelle Hauser started working part-time jobs by the time she turned twelve. She could already tell: no one was going to take care of her better than she could take care of herself.
Instability inserted itself into Michelle’s life early. She grew up in Mason City, Iowa, a blue-collar town of twenty-eight thousand people located halfway between Des Moines and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The local hospital was the largest employer, but many of the residents worked in a variety of factories, including Kraft Foods, Armour, and two industrial door manufacturing companies. Michelle’s parents, Mike and Laurie, divorced after a nine-year marriage that was challenged by time spent apart. Mike worked long hours running a struggling diner owned by his alcoholic father. Laurie was a stay-at-home mom until Michelle turned three, when she began working part-time as a radio disc jockey. The couple’s relationship suffered under the weight of their busy lives. They divorced in 1988 when Michelle was seven. As agreed upon by the couple, she and her younger brother, James, stayed with Mike during the week so they could remain in the same school district. They spent weekends with Laurie. Both households had drawbacks: Mike was rarely home; Laurie was often at work, with friends, or disabled by untreated depression and anxiety. Michelle found solace playing outdoors. A sensitive child, she was drawn to tending to an injured bug or bird. She was also happy holed up in a quiet room.
“I was chatty if you got me into a conversation,” Michelle says, “but otherwise, I was interested in using my imagination out in nature or reading books and drawing. I was a very intellectual kid. I also spent a lot of time in the kitchen experimenting with recipes I found in cookbooks and inside my mom’s small metal box filled with handwritten recipe cards.”
Mike remarried a year after the divorce and continued to work eighty hours a week at the family restaurant. He took Michelle and James to the restaurant early many mornings and cooked them breakfast, bacon and eggs, before dropping the kids off a block away at grammar school.
“I’d watch him in the kitchen and ask him how to do things,” Michelle says of those mornings.
She was too young to be around sharp knives and hot fryers but was allowed to watch how the root beer was made in the basement of the restaurant. At home, Mike taught Michelle basic cooking techniques, even though she couldn’t reach the stove.
“I learned how to cook eggs,” she describes, “standing on a stool.”
In 1991, when Michelle was ten, her grandfather suffered a stroke and the family decided to sell the restaurant. Mike found new work delivering Pepsi products to businesses around town. Long hours continued to keep him away from Michelle and her brother, but the kids were grateful to have a consistent home base. The same couldn’t be said about home life with their mother. That year, Michelle’s mom gave birth to a baby named Zane. The father was a boyfriend who wanted no part of fatherhood, making Laurie a single mom with three children. Ten-year-old Michelle often cared for James and Zane when her mother went to work or didn’t feel well. While Mike worked steadily, Laurie supplemented her inconsistent income with public assistance. She used food stamps at the grocery store and also relied on trips to the local food bank for nonperishables.
“A box of government cheese, cans of peanut butter, containers of corn syrup,” Michelle describes. “Food was definitely not a guaranteed thing staying with my mom.”
If the pantry ran low, Michelle was not afraid to ask for help, because from time to time, her family had provided for neighbors in need. She remembers at least twice knocking on a door to ask for food.
“I never went hungry because I would go find a way to eat,” she says, “but it wouldn’t always be our food I was eating.”
Michelle is not completely clear on why her mother moved in and out of homes frequently, even several times within the same year, other than that it was sometimes for work. Laurie didn’t always let the kids know that a move was coming or that it had already happened.
“I kept everything I cared about at my dad’s place because sometimes my mom would move when I wasn’t around.”
Michelle says some of her mother’s relatives were involved with illegal drugs. Because the local factory jobs required drug tests, these family members worked as waitresses and shop clerks—or not at all. When one of the relatives watched Michelle and James at her house, Michelle says she sometimes sent them outside to play, locked the door, and used drugs. On other days, the relative used while the kids were inside.
“There would be trays of drugs lying out on the coffee table—methamphetamines or marijuana,” Michelle describes. “Sometimes the drugs were put under the couch, but if you dropped a toy on the ground, it would be easy to notice they were there.”
Laurie’s string of boyfriends brought additional anguish into the kids’ daily life. Michelle says one drunk boyfriend held a knife to Michelle’s throat as the two watched Jeopardy! on television. She was eleven. He was in his thirties.
“He would make me sit there and watch with him. He’d want me to say the answers, but then he would get mad and belligerent if I knew more answers than he did.”
The same boyfriend threatened to kill Laurie as he drove drunk with Laurie and Michelle in the car.
“I remember sitting in the backseat with a long metal flashlight—one of those heavy ones—and yelling at him that if he did anything I would beat him in the head with the flashlight. I had to be a survivalist. There were a lot of situations like that.”
Michelle couldn’t always protect herself. Both parents routinely dropped off Michelle and James at the home of a babysitter who had a son of her own. At age seven, over the course of several months, Michelle was sexually abused by the son, in his twenties.
“I didn’t tell anyone for the same reasons many people don’t,” Michelle explains. “I was embarrassed, ashamed; I was afraid someone would think it was my fault.”
While neither parent could know the sitter’s house was not safe, Michelle admits that her mother made some poor decisions about who she brought into their lives. She does, however, acknowledge that Laurie was raised by a mother who herself had a number of challenges.
“My mom had a more difficult childhood than I did. So, for her, she was doing a good job.”
Despite the chaos and lack of supervision, Michelle was a straight-A student. She didn’t need to study to do exceptionally well in school and on standardized tests. Learning was easy and books provided transport to a brighter, more stimulating world.
“I would just sit for hours and hours in my room and read book upon book. In my fifth-grade class we had to have a reading log over the course of the year. You had to read five books . . . I read one hundred and forty.”
When Michelle turned eleven, her mom moved to a small town—population eighty-two. Bored and untethered, Michelle and a friend walked eight miles up the railroad tracks to the nearest town, ate lunch, and walked back home.
“No one really kept track of me when I was little,” she says. “Even during my teens I had free rein. When I was sixteen I didn’t see my dad for nearly two weeks because our schedules didn’t align.”
By age twelve, Michelle had her first job. She worked alongside migrant workers picking strawberries.
“I don’t know how older people do it,” Michelle says, “because I remember having achy knees as a kid.”
She wanted to earn her own money; she needed to. “I knew I couldn’t depend on anyone else to do that for me, so I wanted to make sure I could if I had to.”
At fourteen, with a work permit, Michelle landed a job at a restaurant waitressing, filling the salad bar, and washing dishes. By law she was too young to work with heat or knives, but some of the managers ignored the rules and assigned her to the grill. Within a year, Michelle began to get caught up in the wrong crowd at the restaurant. Most of her coworkers were older and some used drugs openly and offered them to staff members while on the job. She began to sample pot, cocaine, meth, PCP, psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, and heroin.
“I hadn’t had a close-knit family structure or people I felt cared about me, so these were some of the first people who were accepting of me,” she says. “Looking back, I hung out with them because I felt like I belonged. It would be ten or eleven o’clock at night when I got off work and no one was regularly checking to see that I came home.”
Michelle’s drug use turned out to be a plus at school. It established a common bond with classmates who also used, which resulted in new “friendships.”
“They suddenly had an interest in talking to me and hanging out with me.”
Even with drugs in her life, Michelle continued to excel in school. She was working nearly a combined forty hours a week at the restaurant and also as a bill collector over the phone. Yet, although barely cracking a book, she maintained solid As. While Michelle’s daily life revolved around work and drugs, she believed her brainpower would eventually launch her out of Mason City and into a more intellectual environment.
“My main goal when I was younger was to not end up as an unskilled worker like my family members.”
Michelle’s secret dream was to become a doctor. A nurturer at heart, she loved the idea of caring for and curing people for a living.
“People would say, ‘Oh, you always seem to want to make everybody and everything feel better. You would make a good doctor.’ That kind of stuck with me.”
But how? Without role models, finances, or connections, how could a girl from a small town in Iowa whose daily life revolved around an unsavory crowd and double-shift work hours realize her ambitious dream?
“Every handful of years, someone would make the comment about how I was really smart, and those few comments were really what got me through,” she says. “If I didn’t have that subjective data, there was nothing else telling me I was going to be able to be a doctor.”
Nothing else and no one else. In her junior year of high school, Michelle had a meeting with her guidance counselor.
“When I walked into this woman’s office she said, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ and I said, ‘I want to be a doctor.’ She actually laughed under her breath and said, ‘Let’s find something more suitable for you to do.’?”
Even after the counselor looked through Michelle’s file and saw how academically gifted she was, she still advised, “I think what would be a great job for you would be to go work in a factory.”
But, by age sixteen, Michelle was determined more than ever to take control of her destiny by working hard and staying self-reliant. Still partying with friends, Michelle had two jobs and was paying for essentials like shampoo and clothes. She also bought a car and car insurance. Michelle told her father she wanted to move out on her own. Concerned about his daughter’s drug use—he knew only about the pot—Mike tried to set ground rules, which didn’t go over well.
“I felt like, I buy all my own stuff, I make my own money for future rent. You can’t just decide you’re going to make a bunch of rules for me now when I’ve never had any, especially when you’re not doing the things for me that most parents do.”
At seventeen, after she completed her high school requirements, Michelle began dating a man named Josh, whom she met at a party. He was twenty years old and they indulged in drugs together. Looking back now, Michelle understands why his “I love you” drew her to him.
“I thought he was a rare catch. Here was someone who cared about me. I didn’t realize it was very normal, that it’s what people should have in their life.”
Both quickly decided to stop using drugs and alcohol; they’d had enough. The pair was engaged in 1998 and Michelle agreed to join Josh at the Assembly of God church services he attended. By then, Michelle’s father had developed a small real estate business and offered them an apartment at fair market rates, which they accepted.
The next decision was one seventeen-year-old Michelle loathed making, but she couldn’t ignore the need for health benefits and a steady income. The cafeteria job she had at the local community college had ended, so she started work at a door factory located in town. Still, she didn’t lose sight of her dream to one day enroll in medical school and become a doctor.
“College was always in the plan, but, depending on the day,” she says with a soft laugh, “it seemed less or more feasible.”
Michelle was proficient at math, so factory managers assigned her the task of applying accurate measurements on each door to indicate where the hinges should be attached. She and another worker measured and marked, and the door moved on. Because measurements were required on both sides, a machine was used to flip over the door. Just a few months into the job, the machine broke on a day when Michelle and a female coworker were measuring an extremely heavy hospital door with a lead core.
“A supervisor yelled at me and another woman, demanding that we flip the door over by hand or he’d find other workers who would. I needed the job and I’d just gotten hired, and they told me that if I was ever late or did anything wrong I’d be fired, no questions asked. So, I tried my best to flip the door over.”
Something popped in Michelle’s back. So excruciating was the pain that she couldn’t move her arms. Michelle was transported to the emergency room for an X ray. She’d not broken any bones but suffered soft tissue damage. A general physician prescribed pain medication and recommended work restrictions regarding limited standing and lifting. Michelle immediately returned to work on an overnight shift but was unable to perform her duties. Within two weeks, weary of being called “worthless” and cursed at by a factory manager, Michelle quit.
Josh and Michelle were married that June in his parents’ backyard. His grandmother made Michelle’s dress and her father catered the low-key party afterward; their religion disallowed dancing and drinking.
In August 1999, following months of therapy on her back, neck, and arms, Michelle decided to honor her aspirations and go to college. She chose a Christ-centered Pentecostal school because of her immersion in Josh’s strict religion. Bolstered by academic scholarships and financial aid, Michelle enrolled in North Central University in Minneapolis, two hours north of Mason City. She decided to major in psychology (a way to treat people without requiring a medical degree) and biblical studies. The couple lived in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Minneapolis and both found work delivering pizzas. Always interested in cooking with her father and baking with her mother, Michelle also took a job in a gourmet deli located inside a high-end grocery store in the city. She was exposed for the first time to imported food and flavors from around the world. Michelle took a third job working as a chef’s assistant and inventory clerk at a local cooking store.
At eighteen, she had begun her journey toward higher education and even higher expectations for her future. Her mother was on board with Michelle’s decision, though distracted by a crumbling second marriage and subsequent divorce she was dealing with in Florida. Michelle’s father and stepmother, Rose, were silently skeptical about both the rigid religion and the Bible college.
“I’d gotten married very young to someone I hadn’t known for very long. I had gone from being a very good kid most of my childhood to having a few rocky years in high school, even though I still got good grades. Then I got involved in a new religion that was way out there. But they knew that if they said that they didn’t want me to do something, I would do it.”
By May 2000, two semesters later, even Michelle thought the religion-centered college was a bad idea. Put off by what she perceived as the school’s exclusionary views and severe doctrines, she left North Central.
“I thought, Well, maybe everyone was right. I’m just not cut out for college.”
She also left the Assembly of God church, opting instead to worship at a Baptist church.
Determined to continue educating herself, Michelle enrolled fifteen minutes away at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. She would complete an accelerated fourteen-month program that offered training in classical cooking methods, the art of French pastry, and professional baking. Michelle already felt comfortable in the kitchen and deduced that learning a sophisticated trade was at least a step up from remaining an unskilled worker. But, once again, Mike was not keen on Michelle’s plan.
“This was the worst for him. He’d been a cook and he knew that he’d slaved away eighty hours a week and he barely got by. He was hoping that I would do better for myself.”
With few opportunities for scholarships to Le Cordon Bleu, Michelle knew she’d have to work forty hours a week and also procure loans to cover the $25,000 tuition.
“The thing that has always kept my credit good is that one time my dad told me, ‘If I don’t give you any other advice, pay your bills on time.’?” She laughs. “Even though I was raised with zero financial planning information, there were a few things like that which really stuck with me, and that’s been super helpful.”
Classes started in September 2000, and within weeks Michelle knew she’d made the right decision.
“I really enjoyed it. I was excited to go every day, and there wasn’t a whole lot that had happened before this program that I was excited about.”
Michelle had gone through a rebellion-based vegetarian phase in high school and remained a non-meat-eater thereafter for ethical and health reasons. She did, however, sample every kind of food in cooking school. She excelled at the academics and the hands-on work. With a laugh she describes a day when the butchery teacher instructed the class to break down large pieces of meat into restaurant-sized servings.
“He was completely irate because people weren’t doing a very good job. He yelled, ‘The goddamn vegetarian chef is doing the best work!’?”
Halfway through the Le Cordon Bleu program, despite her success and enjoyment, twenty-year-old Michelle felt a distracting urge to look beyond the kitchen. Her real dream was tapping on the shoulder of her chef’s coat.
“I started to realize that if I was at the end of my life and looked back, I would really regret not trying to go to medical school. So, at that point I thought, It doesn’t really matter to me if I fail, but I would regret not trying.”
Josh backed Michelle’s idea to pursue medical school and a two-pronged plan was formed. Because the Le Cordon Bleu program required students to land a four-week internship anywhere in the world, Michelle searched for a restaurant that was also close to an affordable college with a premed program. She found the perfect pairing in California: Chez Panisse in Berkeley and, 280 miles north, Humboldt State University in Arcata. She would start classes at Humboldt once she finished her four-week cooking internship. Le Cordon Bleu would allow her to receive her diplôme through the mail and not have to fly home to Minnesota to graduate from the program.
Together now for nearly four years, Michelle and Josh were both excited about an adventure out west. In late August 2001, they drove their belongings from Minneapolis to Arcata and moved into a double-wide trailer with Josh’s brother and his brother’s friend, who were also enrolled in Humboldt. They then drove south to Berkeley so Michelle could do her internship at Chez Panisse (ranked that year by Gourmet magazine as the “Best Restaurant in the United States”) from October to November 2001. Though Josh had promised to get a job in Berkeley, Michelle says he instead met up with friends each day to skateboard. She focused on training at the award-winning restaurant.
Michelle was instantly captivated by the fresh approach to food and cooking at Chez Panisse. Chefs created daily menus that featured local, sustainably sourced, organic, seasonal ingredients.
“It was, hands down, the most delicious food I’d eaten in my whole life. I’d never had vegetables and fruit that tasted so good. That really inspired me to learn the techniques that allow you to create flavorful, healthful food.”
Michelle wanted to learn, literally, from the ground up. She asked her supervisors for permission to leave the kitchen for a few days so she could spend time at the main farm that supplied the restaurant and nearby farmers’ markets.
“It was so different from what I had seen in Iowa, with the monoculture and cornfields and hog farms. Here was a hippie farmer with a long beard and his field had a lot of weeds in it, which was not acceptable in my dad’s garden or in the fields in Iowa. We’d walk through the garden and this farmer would say, ‘Here are the carrots,’ and I’d think, I don’t see the carrots. But he dug under a bunch of weeds and said, ‘The sun is so hot it would scorch everything, so this is how I keep from having to water so much.’?” Michelle was fascinated. “I found all of it very eye opening. It made me realize that you shouldn’t assume things have to be done one certain way. There might be somebody out there doing it in a completely different way. It opened my mind up about a lot of things, not just food.”
By November 2001, twenty-year-old Michelle had completed the internship and secured her diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu. Months later, in January 2002, Michelle would begin tackling the premed program at Humboldt State in Arcata. Once more, a combination of academic scholarships, financial aid, and working forty hours a week would make Michelle’s college experience possible. Mike—again—was nervous for his daughter and what he saw as unnecessary crushing debt.