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May 2012

I Can Hear You

One of my favorite things about waiting tables are the short relationships you get to have with people who come in and out of your life, your shift, your tables, your care. I get to learn more about humans every time I go to work.

And one of the very best things about these fleeting relationships is that each one is unique. Each one lasts, typically, about an hour. Yet in that hour I am privvy to incredibly private and sensitive conversations, if only the snatches I overhear as I approach or walk away.

Here are just some of the bits of conversation I've overheard of late:

  • "They were fucking each other's balls."
  • "How was it?" / 'It was awesome. There were naked boobies everywhere.'
  • "I told my dad I didn't want his wife in my life. And that's when my dad and I started to get really close."

And then there are the things people tell you outright when you ask if you may clear their plates. For instance:

  • "We just got back from our first marriage counseling session. So we're still talking."

It's always incredible the sorts of sensitive information people will reveal to their server. Or even just around their server. My aim is always to provide attentive but unobtrusive service. In doing this, I can often be viewed by tables as invisible, just a ghost collecting unneeded butter knives who they think can't hear the heartbreaking language about how their mother's life is ending.

So, Yesterday I Got Stuck in an Elevator and Nearly Lost my Mind

I don't think about getting trapped in an elevator every time I get on the elevator, but I think about it most times I get on an elevator. And yesterday, one of my very worst nightmares came true--for two minutes.

Two minutes is long enough! Two minutes is long enough be seized with terror and to size up your lift mate then determine on the spot whether you'd kill him with your bare hands if you had to. Because it might come to that.

I was on my way to work (and early, I might add, feeling all cocksure and responsible) when I swept into the elevators when a girl got off. I pressed 4. It went down to C, the carport, and I kicked myself for not checking to see if the elevator was going up or down. A young man got on the elevator at level C. [I told Beth this story earlier, and she pointed out that old ladies say 'young man.' He was a young man. I stand by this in my walker.]

Then the elevator moved, but then it stopped. Then the display began FLASHING. Then nothing. No movement. No opening of doors. Just the silent flashing of the following:

_ _

After about 30 seconds I began to jab wildly at the Open Doors button, even though I've been told by numerous know-it-alls that that button is impotent and does nothing. Still I stabbed at it like a frenzied murderer. 

Then the elevator began to ascend, maybe descend, it was hard to  tell, because the elevator began to move while still FLASHING the ominous:

_ _

"Are we moving?!" The young man had both palms flat against the side of the elevator walls and his eyes bulged from his face.

"I don't knowwwwhatthefuckisgoingon?!?!?," was my approximate reaction.

The quickness with which I began to lose it was astounding. I immediately had trouble breathing and when I realized I might be stuck inside that elevator I knew I couldn't do it. I knew my whole body would shut right down. 

I began to have the first inklings of a panic attack.

"I'm freaking out. ARE YOU FREAKING OUT?!" I was pleading with the young man with my eyes to tell me everything was fine.

"Yes. I'm freaking out." He said it as much to himself as to me.

Then, in what seemed like a slow stretch of time, pulled thin like taffy, I kinda lost my shit. Then bam, the doors of the elevator slid open and we were on the 8th floor. My terror-mate and I ran out them. 

"This is where I need to be." He said it with such relief.

"Wait! What? No! I have to go back down. I'm going to 4. Don't leave me."

And he laughed. He laughed! We almost died together SECONDS AGO, and already he was laughing.

I mustered up all my strength and got on a very different elevator and went down to 4 and walked into work looking like I'd seen a ghost. It took me a full half hour to recover.

Looking back the saddest part of this entire episode is that I didn't take the stairs down. Didn't occur to me. Besides, I was going to be late.

Marshall, Who Lives on Polk Street


I went in because it's going to close soon, or so say all the local papers and internet websites featuring news events about the City. Landlord dispute. Like many legal battles involving tenancy in San Francisco, this saga has been playing out for many, many months.

For now the cocktail waitresses still pop their boots up onto that rung at the service well to plop tiny red swirling straws into drinks. The red velvet banquettes with high backs dimpled with gold-colored buttons are still stuffed with backpacked tourists resting their feet hoping to get a gander at colorful locals who drink hard in the day time.

There was a rickety sliver of a table at the end of the red velvet banquette, near the door. The chair was missing from the other side, so I snagged that spot immediately. A blonde woman appeared within seconds like magic. She asked for my ID, but fetched the Irish coffee anyway while I fished it from my wallet. 

Irish coffees are, to me, a San Francisco drink. I had my first one when visiting on vacation in my twenties, and I thought it tasted terrible. This one tasted terrific--strong and no-nonsense. The glass mug took perch on the upper right hand corner of the table while my pocket-sized notebook and my elbows crowded the rest. 

"You gonna drink on that all night?"

He was sitting to my right, huge but not imposing. He looked not at me but at my dwindling beverage. "I'll buy you another one."

"Ha, well, thank you. I'm good for now."

His eyes and nose and lips and hands and head and body were enormous. He drank a margarita rimmed with salt. He sat rocking at the red banquette. 

I turned my gaze to a deeply frowning man decked out in a navy polo shirt, belted khaki shorts and new white sneakers. He appeared so tired as to almost be absent. He sat in front of a large framed painting of a beautiful woman in a red, feathered dancing dress. The artist did his model no favors, however, as this woman also appeared to have a mangled leg and club foot, which is no condition meant for a beautiful dancer. 

The carpet in that bar was once a vibrant red, but now it's a stomped-down shade of mauve pocked with gum chewed decades ago. Well-stuffed stools were populated by the knees of girls leaning over to talk into ears.

The huge man beside me spoke again. He motioned his head down toward the notebook I'd been filling. "You must have a lot on your mind." 

His large eyes looked wet and heavy. "Personal question: boy trouble?"

"No. I'm working on a book."

"Oh! No shit?! A writer. That is the ultimate in my book. Makin' people think. Good for you." 

I learned that his name is Marshall. When I told him I might write a book about waiting tables I found out he is a retired chef. He was a chef at hospitals and nursing homes and even a jail.

I wanted to write, so I didn't talk to Marshall for long. While most people there had wandered in in groups, he and I were the only people there drinking alone. When he wasn't talking he rocked himself in his seat at the red banquette.

"You come here often?" He asked me this without looking me in the face. 

"No, almost never. You?"

"I came in once and turned around. But today I saw you come in here, so I came in here, too. You were like a magnet." He was still looking at the stomped-down carpet.

"Are you serious?"

"Yes, ma'am."

I didn't know what to say, so I said, "That's funny."

"And it's true," he replied. "I saw you in that blue dress. It set off your complexion and I was done. Done."

He asked me to take his number. He was still not looking at me, so I did. I entered 'Marshall' into my phone and then ten digits I never intended to dial. 

"I'll take you to a light lunch or dinner." Marshall broke my heart just a little with that, so I lied: "I have a boyfriend."

It's a lie that's been told and told and told, but I cursed myself for not being more creative. I was glad he was always looking at the floor.

"I'm not surprised. Not surprised. If that boyfriend ever gives you a lick of trouble, you use that number I gave you. Because I love you. And I just met you. But I love you."

After Marshall left I noticed my Irish coffee had gone cold and that the cheapness of the whisky was now digusting and that above me the chandelier with globed, upright lights burned so fat and bright that the whole thing was sure to fall.

[Photo by Richard Bakare]

I Got Nothing, but I Got A Lot

I'm at a cafe writing. A different cafe from my usual, my "local." The best thing about my local is that they serve beer and wine. There are lots of other great things about it like that yam sandwich (and the coffee is always really well made), but the very best thing is that I can find my sweet spot for a torrent of writing.

Said sweet spot involves one double cappucino followed by a cup of black coffee for sipping. Paired with a mimosa. (Fine, FINE, sometimes two.)  That, my friends, is the sweet spot. It is the perfect frequency, Kenneth. It is just the right amount of get-up-and-go combined with that giddy little buzz that sparkling wine always brings. This combo facilitates the most words and often the pieces I am most proud of.

I find I must leave the house to get any writing done. I am still considering a writing desk in the little laundry room that overlooks our back yard, and while that is an ideal location for a lot of reasons, it is also where the cats shit. So, I've been taking to going to coffee shops to write almost always.

I know. I know how it sounds. I'm sorry, but the change in scenery and people watching and caffeine consumption serves its purpose, despite the glaring cliche. I'm not sure how I feel about this need to leave the house to get good work done, but I suppose it is like going to the office. That makes sense.

I overthink this writing business an awful lot. That is a risk, I guess, when you turn down $75,000 a year jobs to wait tables and throw everything into writing. You tend to analyze that decision a lot. Most days you are fine with it, happy even, but then there are days you stare at a blinking cursor and curse yourself for being so goddamn stupid. 

My Work Desk

Fact or fiction? Long form or short form? Articles or concentrate on a book? Will snicker if I write a memoir? How could they not? But fiction feels a little like fraud when only the names and dates are changed to protect "the innocent."

I write and write and write, but rarely re-write. Editing my own stuff feels impossible. I'm letting the words pile up and up and up (I write a story a day.), and I'm scared to death that's all they'll ever be. Sometimes I get a burst of self-confidence, often when I'm around other creative people who produce on a daily basis, and I think: collection of short stories, released serially, self-published. Start there. Then I sit down the next day and the personal, memoir-y stuff comes tumbling out and I'm back to self-doubt about self-indulgence.

Which is to say: THIS IS REALLY HARD. I don't know where it's all going, but there is furious scribbling behind the scenes. And most of it is unadulterated shit, but even I can see a few real gems shining out from excrement. 


That is all. Fow now.

[Photo by David Joyce]

Even Momentarily

If you truly love a girl, you shouldn’t ever want her to feel, when she sees you greet a secretary or a girl you both know, that humiliation of wondering if she was someone who caused you to be late coming home, nor should you want any other woman to be able to meet your wife and know she was smiling behind her eyes as she looked at her, the woman you love, remembering this was the woman you rejected even momentarily for her favors.

-Ronald Reagan, in a letter to his soon-to-be wed son

11:59 a.m., May 13, 2012; Atlas Cafe, Second Table from the Door on the Left Near the Magazines

"You are extremely important in my life. I was thinking of you back when you were living with Jessica."

"Really? Really?!," her voice is a squeal, that of a girl who has just been told she's won a pony after wanting a pony all her years.

"Yes, really. I've been thinking about you for six months."

Their forearms are locked across the table. They stare at each other and talk and laugh, but something happened. Something went wrong.

"I don't know if I told you this, but I went to a clairvoyant. And she told me the next six months of my life were going to be really important."

She says this to him through a stuffed nose. It's not the nose of someone with a cold. She's been crying and hard. She's swiping at her nostrils with the cuff of her shirt. Her hair is short and thin and pulled into wispy pigtails touched with purple dye in messy streaks. Her eyes are ringed in violet and they're swollen and bloodshot.

He's wearing a stiff, clean cap and his beard is newly trimmed short. His eyes are not swollen or red.

He stands up suddenly but smoothly, leans over the table and kisses her hot, wet face. She gives in to it completely, over half-eaten smoked trout on a sesame bagel.

"Let's go," he tells her.

She floats from her chair. He positions her in front of him by grabbing her at the shoulders. Her posture says she'd be a puppet for him.

He leads her body out the door crowded with late morning brunch seekers. As he crosses through the door frame his gaze falls on bare shoulders, darker than hers.

It Would Be Better

"It would be better," she told me. She told me several times.

She came in alone, requested a table for one and she carried a thick book. I took to her immediately. One of my own; a woman after my own preferences. I also enjoy a table for one accompanied only by a big book.

She wore a knitted cap the entire meal. It's safe to say she made it herself. It sat sloppily on pale hair cut in the style all women seem to adopt after the age of 55. The hair shook beneath the handmade hat.

I encouraged her to order the most delicious pasta and she did, especially when I told her it would be gone soon. Out of season. The time was ripe. 

She said she wanted red wine. I asked her if she wanted it with a big body or a light body and she said big but not too big so I directed her to something fitting and she nodded her approval. When I went on to describe more about the wine she stopped me rudely and said, "I know the wine." She repeated, "I know the wine." Her tone was patronizing, but her voice was soft.

I asked if she'd like bread with the pasta. She asked, "Whose bread?" I told her it was our own, homemade foccacia, and she said she would. I brought it at the same time her dish arrived hot from the kitchen. 

After leaving her to tuck into her meal, I came by later to inquire about the quality. A thumbs up and a smile pleased me and I left her to dine in quiet.

Later I cleared her used dishes and presented her with a dessert menu. She accepted it without a word.  On my next trip near her I saw her credit card was lying flat on the edge of the table. She was holding her open book, her arm outstretched away from her body.

"I'll bring your bill right back." I said it softly and quickly, unobtrusively.

At this point the woman put her hand, her pointed finger, in my face. She was signaling for me to wait. She finished reading the page in front of her while I stood waiting.

"I was absorbed in my book. It would be better if you had just taken the card." Her voice was coated in contempt. 

"I don't like to grab people's cards without a word. Most like to see a total before paying."

She then smiled at me, but her smile was matched by narrowed eyes. Her voice was ice.

"Just take the card. And bring back the receipt."

I was livid. 

Rarely do I let people get to me--each of us is fighting our own battle, and people don't mean it, they're just having a bad day, et cetera--but this? This pissed me right the fuck off. 

This guest had an air of eccentricity from the beginning, but it became quickly apparent that she was also quite particular. I'm fine with that. I like the challenge.

But if someone feels that they are above talking to me, I'm done with them. If someone thinks they shouldn't have to communicate with their server, especially about something as crucial as taking her money, then I don't know what to say to that. Except how dare you think you are too good or too busy or too absorbed to exchange a few words with someone whose job it is to wait on you. I mean, really. Fuck that.

This woman went so far as to complain to the hostess on her way out of the restaurant. "The meal was fine until she insisted on talking to me about my credit card."

To her credit, the hostess replied, "We are really big on communicating with our guests here," to which the woman sort of growled and walked out.


She didn't even have to talk to me. She could have nodded. But she couldn't be bothered, and instead made me feel incredibly small. Part of that is my own fault. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent, but goddamn. They can certainly try, and that's exactly what that woman did to me that day.

I'm over it now. Had I written this entry the afternoon it happened it would have been a fire hose of cursing so intense you'd have been in awe. I couldn't believe that someone stuck her finger in my face, had me wait nearly a minute, only to dress me down. Why would someone do that?

That's where it gets complicated.

[Photo by Robert S. Digby]

Dear Mom: A Mother's Day Present

MomandmeMy mom's mom died when my mother was just four years old. She barely remembers her.

This was a fact I often forgot when my mother was overly protective or when the punishment was too harsh for the crime or when I wanted a hug and instead got advice. It was hard for me to remember that my mom didn't really have a mom and that she was doing this whole mothering thing without even the thinnest semblance of a roadmap. 

My mother's not perfect, and neither is yours. But goddamn, did my mom do a good job. I can quickly tell you about the times she disappointed me, but overall, my mother busted her ass at being a mom, and she did the very best she could. Just thinking about how much effort and sweat and tears and sleepless nights she put into figuring out how to best care for my sister and me puts a lump in my throat the size of boulder.

My mom was 24 when I was born. 24! I was 24 an entire decade ago, which means at my age my mother had a ten year old daughter (and another kid, to boot!). I try to imagine having a ten year old child, and I simply can't do it. I can't fathom being solely responsible for another human being. 

Despite divorce and financial hardships and some really nasty treatment from people who were cruel beyond all imagination, my mother perservered. She shielded my sister and me from things I'll never know the full extent of. She scratched my back to put me to sleep well into my teens. She sacrificed god-knows-what so that her girls could have. She instilled in me a love of writing by filling my head with books from the very beginning. 

She is so much of who I am. I am so much of who she is.

There is nothing I can buy right now for my mother that she can't easily afford herself. Flowers seem silly. Besides, she's going to be out of town this Mother's Day. She's traveling, one of her new, later-in-life loves.

Instead I'm giving her this: a public acknowledgement. I'm giving her a piece of writing that attempts to encapsulate just how much this woman means to me. This writing will fall miserably short.

I'm thankful for so much of what my mom has given me. It would be laughable to attempt to list them here. When I think about how much I love my mom my whole chest fills up and my eyes well up and I can barely stand it.


You wouldn't know it, but my mom is an amazing writer. I still have the hand-written letter she gave me when I graduated from high school, and it is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read in my life. She may have been guarded, she may have been less affectionate than other mothers, but never, ever for a single second have I doubted her commitment to me, her unabashed devotion, her selflessness at so many turns.

My mom has no pretenses. She never puts on airs. She's an honest woman who works her fucking ass off. My mom and I are different in a million ways, but if I ever carry myself with the level of humility and absolute realness that this person who raised me does, then I'll have become a better human being.

She gave me life. She gave me crayons. She gave me baths. She gave me groundings I badly deserved. She gave me Barbies and when I asked her, "What do you do with these?," she replied honestly, "I really don't know." She gave me permission to cry in my room while I cursed her from the other side of the door. She forgave me when I mocked her elaborate Christmas morning scavenger hunt when I was 15 and an asshole. 

I love this woman more than I know how to handle. I don't tell her enough. 

So, happy Mother's Day to one mom, my mom. For someone who didn't have a mom of her own, she knocked that shit out of the park.