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.

5 Comments:

At 8:22 AM PDT, Anonymous gila said...

This is one of my favorite entries. That summer, everything seemed to shift - in a good way. Though I wasn't with you, reading this brings me back to a time that makes me feel carefree and cool (though at the time, it seemed as if we had the weight of the world on our shoulders). Perspective...

 
At 5:26 PM PDT, Blogger eastmoormom said...

bravo...the perfect interlude for me between bath time and bed time!!

 
At 8:56 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason I took my waitressing job at was because of you and Unos! I learned alot from that job. There is something to be said for having a job that you don't have to think about when you are not there. Oh, and the cash was great too! - T

 
At 2:50 PM PDT, Blogger Janya said...

Oh...to be 19 again...

What a great tale down memory lane :)

 
At 4:33 PM PDT, Blogger beri said...

it's amazing how we all share that same summer job experience and memory, yet no one can express it or capture it quite like you. thats why i love you aim...for that and so much more.

 

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