Friday, April 27, 2007

A Life More Ordinary

My best job was working as a waitress at Pizzeria Uno's in Harvard Square. I know this sounds strange, heralding an experience that involves "The Five Minute Express Lunch" and mandatory khaki pants. But it was all part of the package - a great gift of independance and empowerment and keen understanding of what hard work really means.

I needed something to do over the summer before I turned 19. I was living in my first real home away from home with two college roommates and a strange boy who did not speak but was there for summer school. We were living in a dilapidated house in our blue collar college town. A friend who had his own car drove me to Harvard Square for my interview. "I don't know why you are doing this", he said, chastising me from behind the wheel of his brand new Lexus. "You don't need to work." Financially, he might have been right. I might have been able to get enough money from my parents to screw around for one last summer without real responsibility. Emotionally, he was dead wrong. Coming off a tumultous year, I needed the stability of every day work, to gain distraction from my own life's complexities and take on a role that was most unlike me. I interviewed with the restaurants manager, who was a terrifying spin off of Lenny from Laverne and Shirley. I would later learn that he won millions of dollars after being hit by a train, only to squander it all in a few short years. This is what I would grow to love about the restaurant staff. Everyone had a story. He looked me up and down with a stare that could cut glass, asked me a few cursory questioned and said "You can start as soon as you finish your training". Training?

Fast forward a few days and I was in a generic classroom amongst several other "students" of various ages. There was a blackboard, xeroxed packages of materials and teacher who may have been younger than me, had dandruff on his shoulders and wore an unfashionably skinny tie. We spent hours poring over the menu, studying ingredients, corporate policies and ultimately sampling every calorie laden item. It was pizza school. I graduated, earning a golf shirt with the company logo and a likely spike in my cholesterol.

Harvard Square was not easy to access from the house I was living in. It required the Commuter Rail to the T station. And the rail schedule was irregular at best. I bid farewell to my roommates hours before my time to punch in, walked in the summer heat to the rail as they dragged their hung over heels out of bed to start their jobs as Boston Trolley salespeople. I would finally make it to the Square, bustling with college kids and an assortment of others. The stores that butressed Uno's ranged from alternative rock music and The Limited. I don't know what I did over those hours, but it was the first and last time that I loved being alone.

Uno's was an Alice in Wonderland type microcosm. The staff was all under thirty (except for one or two "lifers"), each with their own compelling saga. One waiter had run off and married a fellow waitress when they both turned 18. Disowned by both their parents, they were making ends meet. John was a hulking frat boy with a thick Boston accent who was an aspiring actor and was known for making the best after hours ice cream concoctions. Evan wanted to be a comedian, much to the chagrin of his Russian immigrant parents. Joshua had lost over 100 pounds and often came to work stoned. I had a quick fling with Jason, who was caught in a love triangle with John over Emily, who was six feet tal, blonde, and finding herself after dropping out of Ohio State. It was nothing less than a soap opera. Much to the delight of my roommates, Rodrigo, the head chef, called me daily to ask me out. He was an attractive, yet abrasive almost teenager who clapped irritatingly whenever someone dropped a pizza. Which was not rare.

There's a well kept secret about Uno's pizzas. They are insanely heavy to carry. By the end of a shift, by arms ached, my legs ached. My shirt smelled of old cheese. I would often spend half my tips on a taxi home, armed with a leftover pie for my roomates, unable to bear the commute on foot. I loved that about waitressing -- the cash. I spent it almost immediately at Urban Outfitters, across the street from the restaurant. It was silly, but it was mine. The autonomy, the grown-upness of it all, was addictive. There were staff meetings and smoke breaks and W-2 forms and dates with customers who were in Boston on business at grown up restaurants. The click of my card as I punched in and out was the heartbeat of my redemption - a catharsis set in a silly chain restaurants, serving food with stupid names like Spinocolli. And it felt good to serve others, in a weird way, on hiatus from my own indulgent issues, to ask someone else "How can I help you", which was the constant refrain of those trying to save me from something.

It was a complete departure from my pampered, private school persona. I fantasized about a life like this, living in suburban Boston as a college dropout, waitressing to get by, getting drunk after shifts on overly sweet cocktails. The days felt full and meaningful, mainly because they were concrete. A good day meant big tips, not having to close, and making it to the table with a loaded tray without spilling anything. A bad day was a slow day, the manager is in a bad mood, the tips were left in condoms and cigarettes instead of currency. Nothing was left to interpretation. You did not turn in an "A" paper only to receive a "C". There were no worries about life in the real world -- you were already in it. And it felt smaller and more manageable than in my nightmares.

When the summer succumbed to the always too early autumn, I returned to the dorms, to frat parties and term papers and larger expectations. I quit without notice, the most irresponsible act of my whole summer, sending the volatile manager into a tailspin. The grease stains, unfashionable uniform, dropout colleagues and general waitressing life did not mesh well with the polish of my year round pursuits. But I missed it desperately and often still do - a job where what you put into it is exactly what you get out of it -- limited surprises, minimal disappointments, a pocketful of cash, living a life more ordinary.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Cinematic Struggles

I have a Love/Hate relationship with the movies. At movie theaters, specifically. Unless I am exhausted, which lately is all the time, I have trouble focusing on one thing for an extended period. And in those cases, I need a couch to sprawl on, not a narrow seat with plastic armrests and sticky floors. I like to pause and pee. I have restless EVERYTHING syndrome.

I also have trouble suspending reality. I can't get caught up without that cynical voice whispering "THAT would never happen." And because I am an writing enthusiast, I am hyper critical of the dialogue, the character development, even the cinematography which I have no business commenting on.

So to be trapped in a dark room full strangers, in a stiff seat with the greasy odor of popcorn surrounding me as I try not to listen to my inner critic was not always my idea of a good time.

Things began to shift in my youth when going to the movies became the sole vehicle for any type of social life. At a private, religious elemantary and high school, dating was haphazard. There were no school dances or homecoming games. Left to our own devices and the likely need to catch a ride with our parents, movies were as risque as it got.

My first movie date was an accidental double date with a friend and her "boyfriend" and another boy whom I did not care for. I was 12. We saw Moonstruck. What struck me was the fact that if you don't like a boy, you like him even less at the movies, when you are hoping he does not try to hold your hand on top of an unused cupholder. In the blinding light of day, outside the multiplex, I was thrilled to get away -- from him and that freaky wooden hand that Nicholas Cage sported in the movie.

And then things changed, as they often do when you leave the pre teen years and enter the true teens - when clearasil and frizz give way to Victoria's Secret body splash and tight jeans. Group outings to the movies with boys had a heightened sense of appeal. It was rarely a one-on-one venture (still at a religious school), but the darkness felt more electric amidst their oversized varsity jackets, cologne with names like Drakaar and Farenheit stolen from dad and the awareness that they wanted to touch more than your hand. And that would not be too bad. We saw movies with erotic undertones that would still be acceptable by our parents. And we would twist in our seats, giddy with the taste of adult life.

Through the dating years, when it was good, movies held a great excuse to sit close in the darkness and concentrate on the rhythmn of each others laughter and breathing, if nothing else. When it was bad, you are trapped. You could learn alot about a date by going to the movies -- is he a center aisle guy or more of the side show type. Obnoxiously loud or a suprise crier. A friend had a date pay for himself with a free movie voucher and left her to her own devices -- I need not comment here. One of my more memorable movie dates was the one whose Mercedes had heated seats, who paid at Concessions with $100 bills and asked me not to judge him on superficialities. He wore Calvin Klein Escape. I sure wanted to.

My husband has made me really love the movies again. It is our only real way to journey outside our own busy life, and take on the lives of others -- if only as cynical spectators. I like eating bad things in the dark near someone who I love to touch. He laughs loudly but not obtrusively, and he'd kill me for saying so, but he cries in those anonymous surrounding more than he ever does in the light of day. We both like to finish the snacks during the previews and he always gives me the better seat and a separate one for my coat. It is as alone as we can get, and it only happens every few months, which adds to the appeal. Sometimes he will let me dissect the nuances even if it means ruining a perfectly good script. Other times, we walk home in silence, mourning the end of the fantasy but eager to return to reality -- larger than life. Our happy ending.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Upon watching me post shower and shave, my 20 month old hiked up her pants, extended her leg, and asked for lotion.

Boy, am in for it.

Only in New York

1. Scene takes place at diner. Young Korean woman is screaming at her non-Korean boyfriend about the state of his cuticles.

"Are you using the cream I gave you?"
"Yes! You see me use it in the mornings!"
"Look at that one, (inspecting finger). It's disgusting!"
"I do everything you tell me to! I use the cream right after the shower!"
"You need oil. You need a cuticle brush and oil. Do you hear me?? Will you use it??"
"Yes. I'll use it."
"You better use it. I am going to spend over $10 on that oil!"
"I will! I promise! Can we talk about something else?"

2. In Duane Reade baby section. I am shopping for coloring book to cheer up child who has been sick at home for a week. Greeted by cute young mom looking type who is in diaper section.

Woman: "Excuse me?"
Me: "Yes?"
Woman (looking at my handfuls of crayons and Purell). "I was wondering if you could help me, since you are a mom."
Me: (Chest swelling with pride over my apparant air of motherly know how.) "Of course! How can I help you?"
Woman: "Um, I am having a problem with these diaper sizes."
Me: "Yes, they can be confusing."
Woman: "Well you see, I need to buy these diapers for my DOG. We are going on a long trip. He has a 14 inch waist. Which should I buy?"
Me: (Recovering quickly): "Well, how much does he weigh?"
Woman: "About 15 pounds."
Me: "Well these go up to 16 pounds. That would be your average five month old, I think."
Woman: "Well, what was the waist size of your baby when it was five months?"
Me: "Um, um. I actually have no idea. I don't know what her waist size is now. But if you get them a little bigger, you can always pull the tabs over, or, tape?"
Woman: "Oh! Okay!"
Me: "Did you try Petco?"
Woman: "Their diapers leave a hole that's too big for my dog's tail".
Me: "Of course. Well, I would go for these store brand, because they are awfully expensive".
Woman: "Ok, thanks. Wow, you have been so helpful."

In the words timeless words of Liz Smith...Only in New York....

Friday, April 06, 2007

Second bests

The last time I was pregnant, it was sublime. Despite the morning sickness and the expansion of all of me, I reveled in it. I loved the miracle of it all, the excuse to eat anything, the total ignorance and blind anticipation of what was to come. I felt as if pregnancy had annointed me with some sort of special gift, one that I sported proudly. I bought pregnancy clothes the moment the second line appeared, opting for bright colors instead of my standard black. I consumed all things organic and every piece of literature written about pregnancy. I never studied so hard for any final -- hoisting myself into awkward positions on the windowsill of Barnes and Noble, gobbling up "What to Expect When You're Expecting" along with my obstetrically-sanctioned snack.

This time, it's all different. I look pretty much the same, but I feel huge. And I have the physical woes of a huge person - my legs ache and itch, I can't breathe through my nose, my back aches. I never drink enough water, and have subsisted on a steady stream of Sunkist and Starburst. I know too much - and worry incessantly - about how we are going to handle everything and the infinite "what ifs". I already have a baby at home, who I am obsessed with in a manner that makes me wonder if love really is limitless, or if I have used up my stash and this next baby will be left with the dregs. I fear the unknown instead of reveling in it - and wonder if we were too arrogant in spinning this wheel of chance again.

And then there's the guilt. Does the new baby, floating around in a fluid filled with my poor food choices, feel less loved already? Does he wish he came first, when I had the time and energy to do things like walk on the treadmill, read baby name books and count down the days? Is he destined for a life of second bests? His toys will have been prechewed. Is there such a thing as hand me down love?