Wednesday, March 7, 2012

You can't get there from here

I am a waitress. That is something I do not admit to in writing or aloud, even though this fact of my life is well known. My reluctance to say that word stems from the fact that it was supposed to be a temporary job; a stepping-stone to bigger and brighter things. It became a stone across a raging river, a wobbling rock that ended up being out of reach of the next stepping-stone. Then and today I find myself standing on the damp, moss-covered rock looking for others to jump to that barely visible next rock, hidden beneath the water, gleaming with slippery growth. 
I liken this vision to standing in the middle of the bustling restaurant that I have been employed at since the age of nineteen. How do I write about my job and not appear bitter, dramatic or pessimistic? I find myself at the age of thirty-nine, still waitressing; waitressing in the best place around, yes, I mean that-a diamond in the rough, an eccentric, bohemian restaurant, housed in an old Victorian House, but still waitressing.  The restaurant has been a landmark since 1977, and has been continuously owned by the same man. He is by far one of the lead characters in the joint, as well as a prominent character in my life thus far. The owner is a hard working, loving, micro-managing pain in the ass with a huge heart, Jerry Garcia-ish, sixty-five year-old, Arab, eccentric, cheap hippy. I have had a twisted and entwined relationship with this man that will unfold thorough out my story.  I am at my twenty-first year at the restaurant, with several year long hiatuses. The place is classified as a middle-eastern restaurant. The Victorian house holds hoarder residue, some of it is classic, some of it is junk. The shelves are lined with dust, and items from the World’s Fair, estate sales and, of course, from the garbage. All different types of people come to the restaurant. The food is unique, kooky, and out-of-the-ordinary in this affluent Connecticut area, where everyone else seems to be aspiring to fit into some kind of mold. They flock to the restaurant to get a bit of realness. Some of them even expect to get a little of that outspoken, rough-on-the-edges, flighty but smart waitress. What they get is a good meal and something else that they may not quite be able to put their finger on.
When I began working at the restaurant I had just come clean from hardcore drug use. I came from a dark place, mentally and physically. Previously, I was working at a dirty little truck stop on the side of highway. They closed their doors for various reasons, and my mother suggested that I walk down the hill to that Middle Eastern restaurant. I walked in wearing a full-length, flowing skirt with bells attached at the waistband. I had a flower tucked behind my ear and was doused in patchouli oil. I informed the owner that I had just been laid off at the truck stop. I told him that I lived around the corner, and that I knew how to work. He then told me to start the following day. As he turned around to walk away to continue his usual business, he turned his head back and said: “Oh and Heather, don’t ever wear patchouli in my restaurant again.”  
Work has always had a small part in saving my life, or rather saving me. I was shy and had a low self-esteem. Waitressing forced me to interact with other people. I felt comfortable bringing people what they needed, and taking care of them even before they could ask for it. I have over the years harnessed this talent, and it has helped me with my sometimes dwindling self-worth. Being drawn to hard work, physical labor and a fast pace, I have never minded the restaurant business. Although, as I always said, it is okay now, but I do not want to be doing it when I am forty. My fortieth birthday is in April. 
Over the years, I have worked with many different women, some of these women I hold very dear; others, well, there will always be others. I have watched these women from years ago through a young stoner haze. They were jaded, angry, and burnt out. I have caught myself several times holding back that bitterness.  My story is  different: it is one of connecting with people. I think about all the people in my life who have shared part of my journey. They have changed me, as I have changed them. The restaurant has been part of all of it. It has provided me so many stories, and many of the startling and raw moments of my life. I have made many dear friends there, and many of the people I hold close are the ones I waited on so long ago, and continue to do so to this day. The nights I wait on those people are good nights, and they help with the rougher ones, like the one I had last night, Monday night.
I work alone on Mondays. I can generally handle the fast pace, even when the entire dining room fills up. I found myself in the first few hours of that evening feeling tired. It was a deep tired from not fully recovering from the previous night of working eight hours on a rough Saturday night, and then running a fifteen and a half mile race Sunday morning.  I arrived to work late, and went through the motions, starting my shift unprepared. I became the woman that I described above: bitter, angry and shut down to any new, potential connections. I think of myself as someone who can quickly come out of my own self and be present for another person. This person may be a friend or a woman waiting for a salad. I concluded a few things last night that I have observed before, but I also realized a few new things. The general public is hard to deal with. They are demanding. They are often times rude, inconsiderate and cheap. There are the ones that walk into a busy restaurant and sit down, and tell the waitress they are ready to order regardless of the several tables in front of them. They are the ones who call you over WHILE you are talking to another table; the ones that do not say thank you, or please and, ultimately, they are the ones that leave a waitress three dollars for a tip on a forty dollar dinner bill. I had quite a few of those types of customers last night, and they nearly broke my already fragile self. They were demanding, interrupting nasty people. They were people who could care less about connecting with someone else. They would ignore any opportunity to be kind. I tried to reflect and recited  something my mother often told me: "Maybe they had a bad day, maybe they are ill, maybe someone just died." The list goes on. I realized last night that these same bad apples are the same people that would cut me off at a stop sign, or push past me at the grocery store.  
What matters ultimately though is how I am. In every situation. I try to sit back and remember to open myself up, knowing something else will come along and sweeten the bitter taste these apples have left. It seems that no matter how broken I become I will walk up to a table, noticeably shut down, busy and tired, and someone will look up at me and say: “And how are YOU doing?” 
I will connect. I will thank them for noticing I was tired, or that my child was there with me, waiting patiently as he often does into the later hours of my shift. This piece could easily digress into a rant about the people that tip poorly, the people that treat me as a “waitress,” as a servant, or as a person not worthy of eye contact, consideration, a please or a thank you. I don’t want to dwell on that behavior though. It will only serve to infuriate me. It will make me want to chase someone out the door and force them to see my life, my struggle, my job, and to try to force them to care.
This story is about why I enjoy my job and how I have come to see it as the stepping-stone that I am supposed to be on. I think about the people who bring me out of a bad day, who force me out of myself and make me see them, or when I too forget to see others. When I am open, I see beautiful families, couples, strangers and friends. They leave me with much more than a tip. They leave me with my spirit in tact, with hope for a brighter day; with that sense of a connection we all need through whatever means it comes to us. It is what gives us strength.
My job has its ups and downs. The good and bad of my workplace has become my way of life. It has become a kind of necessity for me. I will probably never make those not-so-great people change. I won’t be able to make them all of a sudden see another human being the way I see them. The familiarity of my job gives me comfort and, at times, a false sense of security. We all may have a nagging feeling that there is more: more to a job,  more in our capabilities, our minds, our relationships, our connections. My job and the people that make up my workplace are full of truth. They provide me with a sometimes a stark reality, be it there’s or my own. That reality is now, 
That reality is constantly evolving.
 At least in my life it is.

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