I wrote this one year ago today, when I lived in a far off magical kingdom known as New York City:
How NYC Has Changed Me
I woke up late. I wake up late a lot, but when I woke up today I was already late for work by two minutes.
I scared the shit out of my cats by tornadoing around my apartment throwing on clothes and chucking food into their bowl and beating it out the door.
At 9 am cabs in NYC are scarce. I got to the corner and stuck my hand out and watched two people dressed better than me get cabs even though they’d gotten to the corner minutes after me. When it was about to happen again, with two girls in their early twenties, I spoke up: “Excuse me, but I was here first.”
Turns out, though, that someone was already in the back of the cab. When one of the young women saw me turn back around toward the corner she let out this bitchy, exaggerated laugh.
I didn’t even think, I just spoke. “Is that funny?”
She turned away from me and stared at her shoes. Her friend looked at me and said, “What?”
“I asked your friend there if she thinks it’s funny.”
She grabbed her bitchy friend’s hand and they ran across the crosswalk.
I finally got into a cab and told him 30th and Park and, of course, there was crazy construction traffic the whole way. Once at my destination, only 24 minutes after waking in a frenzy, I was mere feet from work.
Then his machine broke.
“You have cash?” No, I told him. I have a card.
He started cussing and randomly hitting buttons and they would beep but not show a total. I looked at my phone. I opened the car door.
“WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” I told him I was going to work, that I was already late, and that this issue sounded like his problem.
“I HAVE TO GET MY MONEY,” he screamed.
“ME, TOO,” I yelled back. “That’s why I took a fucking cab to work. I’m already late.”
“You need to relax,” he told me.
He finally got the machine to work and I swiped my card and overtipped, as usual, and walked in to work and got settled.
Minutes later I hightailed it over to Bread & Butter for a quick bagel and coffee so I could fuel up and start my day. I got in line behind a couple and their teenaged daughters.
When the guy behind the counter said “next,” the father of the quartet began to speak in an adorable British accent: “Can you recommend a traditional American breakfast? I dunno, maybe bacon. Maybe pancakes.”
NYC delis are not known for their recommendations. You tell them what you want and they make it. The guy behind the counter looked at them with an “are you serious” face.
“Bacon and eggs?,” he offered, when I am sure he wanted to say, “I’m from Venezuela, I don’t know shit about traditional American breakfasts.”
There were more questions about the validity of the maple syrup. The girls wanted only two pancakes each, even though the menu item came with three. Patience oozed out my ear.
I wanted to spin them around and say, “You know what Americans do for breakfast? They order fast, and they get the fuck out.”
But I didn’t say that, in part, because it’s not even true. That is what New Yorkers do.
So, I was doing a little grocery shopping at the corner store because, even though it's more expensive, it's two blocks away and open until 2 a.m. I eat the cost difference and consider it serious time saved. It's fine. Whatever.
In my little hand basket were high-protein dry cat food, I Luv My Cat cans of wet food, pepper jack cheese, TP, paper towels, cat litter, grapefruit juice and sparkling wine for Midnight Mimosas*. While I was unloading all this stuff onto the counter this a young woman with streaks of blue in her hair that looked like it had been cut with a butter knife entered the corner store.
"Hey man, you gotta meet new girlfriend. She's rad. She rad, you're going to love her." She was talking to the guy behind the counter who began ringing up my things. "I got a new honey."
"That's what life is all about," the clerk offered. She clapped loudly in approval.
"Got some Fresh Step there." She poked at the bag of litter. "I have a kitty, too. You should get her the natural stuff."
"I usually do, this is just for in-between. It's 2 a.m. on a Saturday night," I said, though I don't know why.
"It's not 2 a.m., it's 12:30, but it feels like 2 a.m. It's been a long week."
The clerk gathered up my purchases, and I pulled two handled bags off the counter.
"Oh, one more thing," the guy behind the counter wagged nearly-forgotten paper towels at me and began to put them in a third bag.
"No, I'm good," and stretched my hand out to take them and stuff them into the two bags he'd already handed me.
The girl with the blue hair poked at the paper towels.
"I see you got all natural paper towels." She spoke loudly not to me or to the cashier. "Yeah, she's got it." I never made eye contact with the girl with the blue hair.
"She doesn't want to waste any more plastic," she spoke for me.
*My new Saturday night tradition. I close every Saturday night and am too amped up to go too sleep until well after 3 or 4 a.m., so I ease into slumber with a couple of Midnight Mimosas. Then I write blog posts.
Do you tip based on performance of service or do you almost always tip a certain percentage or amount regardless? Does the level of service really determine what you leave for a gratuity?
[Your answers will help me write my book. Comments highly desired.]
It's warm in San Francisco today, and the sundresses are on parade. I'd say it's hot in San Francisco today, but it's not hot to anyone who has suffered through even one day of 100+ degree heat this summer. It's merely warm, but oddly so. July is typically a month for overcast skies and windy, cool days in this city by the bay. It's only 73 or so degrees, but the breezes are scarce and the city's Mission residents are taking this opportunity to put on flimsy things with no bras beneath.
On warm days like today the air twinkles with the sound of bells on ice cream carts. Fruit pops and tri-colored ice cream bars are pushed around on wheels, typically by an older Latino man, and sold to pleading children who promise not to get it on their new shorts. I don't know how much this ice cream costs. I bypass the carts for the expensive, fancy ice cream with bourbon in it at the trendy shop on the corner.
In my head the ice cream bars in the carts on the street cost only 35 cents, but I can't afford them.
One of my strongest memories from elementary school were the afternoon ice cream breaks. At around 2:15, between social studies and math, some children in my class got ice cream. Some did not. Ice cream privilege wasn't determined based on attendance, good grades or good behavior. Instead, the children that got ice cream were the children who brought 35 cents to school.
This ice cream could be had every day, Monday through Friday, if you could afford it. Some kids bought and ate ice cream every day. Some kids only once a week. Some kids only a few times a year.
I didn't get to eat ice cream every day or even every week. I wanted to; instead I watched.
I remember watching LeAnn sometimes not finish her Nutty Buddy cone. She probably wasn't hungry after her mom-packed brown bag lunch complete with sandwich, chips, pudding and fruit. But she got a cone every day anyway. The trash can saw as much of that ice cream as she did.
I didn't deserve ice cream every day, anyway. Does any child deserve ice cream five days a week? Perhaps had I had ice cream five days a week this wouldn't be one of my strongest memories from elementary school, and I wouldn't be sitting in this coffee shop on this warm day watching girls straining sundresses, writing about ice cream.
Maybe today I'll finally buy an ice cream sandwich from the man with the cart, eat half, then throw it in the trash.
I wrestle with how much to share here.
"Hi, and welcome. Have you dined with us before?"
They looked up at me from their menus with smiles, "Okay. Where are you from?"
These guests who grew up in the South heard it instantly, what is left of my Tennessee accent.
It is not debatable that I have a Southern accent. I do. What is in question is whether or not it is detectable to most.
My roommate would tell you that absolutely, yes, it is. She is a Bay Area native with no discernable regional accent besides the patented California uptalk. To her, my accent is noticeable and pronounced. She now calls it "Tinnissee" rather than "Tennessee," because that is how I say it. I can't help it. "Pen" will always sound closer to "tin" than to "hen," no matter how hard I try to shake my drawl.
Not that I try to shake it. I mean, I used to, when I lived there. In fact, when I waited tables in Tennessee people often asked me where I was from since I didn't have the thick, honeyed accent had by many Middle Tennesseans. But since moving away I have naturally lost the Southern twang I acquired when learning to talk, at least to some degree.
I mean, when I call my family I am often surprised at how Southern they sound. My sister's voicemail message for the longest time was this amazing example of how a Southerner can turn single syllable words into a symphony of sounds: "Heyyy, the-is is Amy. Ahm naught here ra-ight nay-ow, but leave a message aind ah'll ge-yet back to ya." It was a thing of beauty--unabashedly drawly and Southern-sounding.
I slip into this style of speaking when I call home or when I've had too much to drink. When I visit my family my Southern accent picks up where it left off like it never disappeared. It takes days for the drawl to wear off after a trip home.
Certain words for me will always come out drawl-y, like "Tinnissee." Or "oy vey," which I inexplicably adopted after just 14 months in New York. But I've also developed that unsure California uptalk where every sentence ends like you are asking a question? As though you don't want to commit, because you are an open-minded, up-for-anything Californian? Quite the nasty little trifecta of speaking styles.
Most people tell me my accent is endearing, but I have no doubt many who don't speak up dismiss me as simple or stupid. The Bay Area is a well-educated enclave that can be quick to judge not only your university, but its location. And sadly, the South still carries a stigma of ignorance that even incredible institutions like Vanderbilt and Emory can't erase.
I don't really have a take-away or a conclusion to this post. But as a transplant, comments on my accent happen a lot. Of course, most of the time I hear no accent when I speak, and so I'm often suprised when somone brings it up. But the truth is, being Southern if very much part of my identity living in places like New York or San Francisco.
The other day I was introduced thusly: "This is Brittney. She's from the South, and she's awesome. She helped me fry okra the other day."
Sure as shit, I did. And I was proud to do so.
If I believed in curses, I would believe that I am cursed with losing things. I have always had this problem. When I was a child I couldn't hold on to anything. Library books, house keys, pens, homework (I often redid it at the last minute after losing it) and precious toys all went missing and no amount of tears or begging mom for another one could bring them back.
And still I lost things. I never learned.
As an adult the curse continues. I've lost my wallet or purse probably two dozen times. I was on a first name basis with the people on my college campus who would bring a slim jim and pop open your car if you locked your keys inside because I did this bi-monthly. I've left cell phones god knows where never to be seen again. Hell, I even lost my cat for 36 hours.
It always happens. And I never learn.
It happened again on Sunday. I met my friend Caitlin for lunch in the adorable Hayes Valley neighborhood at Bar Jules, a tiny place with a reputation for eggs and always a line. We chatted and caught up, then parted ways. She walked with me to catch a bus, and when we rounded the corner to see one with the potential to pull away, she ran it down. I caught up, gave her a quick hug, grabbed my wallet, paid the fare, then sat down for the bus ride home.
I don't remember putting my wallet back in my purse. I don't know why I wouldn't have, but I don't know if I did.
At Bryant and Division I realized I was on the 47-Van Ness, not the 49-Van Ness, so I deboarded. I walked a few blocks to 16th and Bryant and fished around in my purse for the bus transfer. I couldn't find it or my wallet.
I franticly began flipping through the items in my bag with panic. My heart raced and I dumped everything onto the sidewalk. No wallet. I wanted to throw up.
Because I am paid in tips I had, what is for me, a serious chunk of cash in that wallet. And, of course, my New York I.D. and debit card.
I called the bank and had my debit card canceled. Then I called my mom.
"Isn't this, like, the tenth time this has happened to you, Brittney?," she said. She said it matter of factly, not in a tone of judgement.
"I know. I can barely get mad anymore. I just want to know why this happens to me."
I hung up with her then decided to report the wallet missing. I knew it was a long shot; that someone would see the wallet, open it and see the inside fat with cash. (There were a lot of fives and ones in there.) Then they'd pocket the money and trash the wallet. That is how it is done, I thought, but I'd give it a go. I dialed 311, and almost immediately spoke with someone who was incredibly empathetic and thorough.
She asked me the size of the wallet, the color, the material, how many flaps it had, whether it had a name brand. She made careful notes when I said that Banana Republic was embossed in teeny tiny letters into the leather and said she was so sorry that I was going through this, that it must feel awful.
She gave me a tracking number and told me that she'd put a call out, which means she would alert the driver that a wallet went missing on his or her bus. If someone turned it in right away, I'd hear something back within the hour, she said. I thanked her and almost immediately gave up hope on hearing anything. I opened up the California DMV website to figure out it how much more this latest incident was going to cost me. I was sad and resigned.
Unexpectedly, a (415) number appeared on my phone's screen, and I immediately became excited. It had been about half an hour since I spoke with Muni about my missing wallet and so I answered the call with tentative elation.
"Someone turned in your wallet, miss. It's on the outbound 47 bus. The driver is in possession. I suggest you track down this bus and get your wallet today or it will be turned over to lost and found and it will be weeks before you can get it back."
I listened with my mouth wide. My wallet was found! And returned! I had to track down that bus.
"How can I find this bus?!," I asked her after thanking her profusely.
"I've got it right here on GPS. It's a Fisherman's Wharf and will be leaving there soon. Where are you?"
I told her and she determined my closest stop was the one I leapt off at leaving my wallet aboard for a city cruise ride: Bryant and Division.
"It will be there at 2:22. This bus goes out of service at 3:14, so I suggest you be there for that arrival."
Conveniently the 27 met me as I sprinted out the door, so I took it to the Bryant and Division bus stop and waited. I memorized the bus number and squinted at approaching buses and even when it wasn't the right one (or anywhere near 2:22 p.m.), I asked the driver aboard if they had my wallet. There was no way I was taking a chance of letting this wallet get back to the lost and found depository.
Finally, late, bus number 8224 ground to a halt before me and I boarded with my breath held.
"I think you have my wallet," I said. The driver looked at me, rolled his eyes and asked my name. I told him, and he said, "Look, this is the first time I'm opening this, and I'm only doing it now to confirm this is you." And suddenly he produced my wallet from under his seat.
He looked at my I.D., looked at me and handed it over. I wanted to hug him. I grabbed some bills from the wallet and thrust them at him.
He sighed. "You know I can't take that." Then he looked at the door like, "Get the hell off my bus, woman, my shift is almost over."
I didn't want to keep him or the passengers a second longer so I stumbled off the bus. I tentatively peeked into the wallet to see all the cash still folded in half inside.
I walked home glowing. I was awash in a sense of goodness and kindness and good fortune. I silently celebrated people, the good ones, the ones who take a wallet to the driver and say, "Someone needs this."
I floated through the gate and up the stairs where I opened the zipper where I keep my keys to find they were not inside.
When you carry things for a living, the likelihood that you will drop things is sky high. When pouring refills and building cocktails or opening wine is a huge part of your job, the chances you will break or crack or spill something are through the roof.
When one takes on a serving job it becomes immediately clear that accidents will happen. A lot. Whether it's an errant elbow to a tray of champagne flutes or pulling the tea urn out too soon and watching in horror as sheets of brewed black tea rain down in waterfalls, shit gets fucked up. You just hope and pray it isn't *on* someone. That's when it gets really ugly.
Take for instance, last night. We were having the biggest night in the restaurant's history, and I was weeded. I won't lie, I was slammed and hurrying to take care of the many people in my section, which happened to be outside, on the patio.
I'll pause right here to say I hate working on the patio. It's because I'm not good at it. The tables are far away and the computers are all the way inside and you are the only person out there so you can't easily snag a colleague and beg them to send that dessert on hold or top off coffees. The patio intimidates me, and last night it won.
I had a full section and two new two-tops. I made it out to 207 with two glasses of iced tea, and when I went to take one of them off the tray with my left hand the glass tipped over, hit the edge of the table and shattered, sending shards of glass and cubes of ice and brown liquid pouring down and into a bag of freshly-bought dresses in a Nordstroms bag.
When this happens, when you ruin people's new clothes or important dates, you watch it happen in a torturous slow motion. You begin to calculate how much time and energy and "I'm sorry" it's going to take to rectify the situation, add that to the amount of time you didn't have before the spill and you softly say to yourself, "Fuck it."
There is a sort of mental switch that is flipped when you feel all eyes on you, watching the spectacle you created, where you realize, "It's food and drink. I didn't spill the new cure for cancer all over the ground. I spilled iced tea. So, fuck it. Everything will be okay."
Then you begin to pick up the pieces.
If you are lucky, like me, you are surrounded by a crew of compassionate and quick-moving co-workers who appear like magic with a broom and dustpan to sweep up the debris, while someone else is at the ready with towels for wiping. If you have it good, like me, your incredibly understanding and capable manager rushes out, apologizes profusely, grabs the shopping bags, sorts through what can be salvaged, offering to replace what has been damaged. Then your manager, if you have a manager like mine, will then rush off to Nordstroms with the stained dresses and the receipt and have replacement garments table-side before the pair of women this happened to see entrees on the table.
Last night everyone rushed to my aid to help. When I asked one young lady to replace the iced teas that were the instigators in all this, I began to tear up. The embarrassment and stress became too much.
Particularly when I went back out to the patio and the lady whose dresses were ruined (then replaced) asked, "Are you the person who spilled the drink?" I said I was, and she grabbed my hand and pulled it toward her bosom. She is my grandmother's age, if either of my grandmothers were still alive.
"Don't you worry," she said. She pulled my hand even closer toward her chest, and I squatted down beside her. "Don't you worry. I was a waitress at summer camp, and I spilled orange soda all over and oh, did I cry."
I began to cry.
"Listen, sweetie, I don't want you to get in trouble. Accidents happen. We're both Jewish and we work in the Jewish Community Center kitchen and we spill and break things every time we walk in there. Don't you worry. You go home tonight and have yourself a stiff drink.
I couldn't help myself. I squatted and cried at her kindness. I spilled tea on her and she went out of her way to comfort me and assure me that it was fine. She patted my hands and she hugged me.
And I've found that's pretty common when accidents like that happen in restaurants. When people's jeans become soaked with Diet Coke or four glasses of cabernet wash over the table and onto their clothes, they don't flip out and scream or fly off in a rage. Not at all. Most of the time people become kinder and more personable and are quick to forgive and eager to make sure no one gets fired. It's just tea. It's just slacks. It's not the end of the world.
I said this last night as I relayed my shitty night to my colleagues in the dish area: "When push comes to shove, most people don't suck." Not the most eloquent statement, but true nonetheless.
This is evidenced as well by the other people in your section who have witnesses the shit-show, thanking their stars privately that they came away unscathed. They say things like, "Oooh, girl. I feel for you, girl," or they ask, "Are you okay?," and they make sure you know they can wait for that second beer. They're good; you go get yourself together.
Then they all leave really big tips.
Big tips, human compassion, blog/book material or not: no server ever wants to spill something on a customer. It's mortifying. In fact, Beth tells me she knows a guy who was waiting tables when he spilled an entire tray of wine on four guests. And he just turned around, walked out and never came back--to his table or to the job.
Which leads me to ask, have you ever been spilled upon while dining out? Would love to hear tales from the other side of the table.
[photo by Jazz Guy]