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August 2012

A Hard Story

9-San Bruno, inbound:

I find myself facing a wild-eyed man digging deeply into his mouth full of missing teeth. On his neck is "nadia," in cursive, and his arm is crudely tattooed with the word Mom, a heart and the abbrevation F. T. W. Under his right eye is an inked teardrop. His nose is a jutting, sharp-edged remanent of several smashings. He fishes so violently into his mouth that I fear he will pull something out of it, so I turn around and face the other direction.

At the next stop many people jostle off. I take an open seat at the front of the bus. The obese man beside me makes no attempt to close his legs closer or use less space. The fat from his thighs squishes into the fat of my thighs and I shudder at the melding of my flesh with his.

9 San Bruno

I get up to change seats. A man with a pink plastic bag makes a move for the same seat at the same time as me. His face registers annoyance when, because I am a woman, he defers to me.

"It must be my lucky day," my new seatmate says to me. I wish harder now that I hadn't left my headphones at home.

"How are you?"

"Fine. How are you?"

"I could be better," he tells me. "I just got here. How I got here is a hard story, harder than people realize, and they try to use it against you. But I'll make it."

"Well, I hope so."

"I don't suppose I have a choice, do I?" he asks me, even though some people do choose not to make it. 

"I could go back to Texas, but I don't want to do that."

"No." I agree.

I watch an old man with dark skin that looks thin as paper hold a very small dog in his lap. The dog is a pretty thing, the color of a burnt sienna Crayola and it has a pink nose, to boot.

The old man sees me smiling down at the dog and he leans over and kisses the dog tenderly on its face, four kisses to the snout. It is so clear how much the man loves his little dog that I wonder how old the dog is and which of them will die first.

I Can Tell By The Smell That You Come From Goodlettsville

GoodlettsvilleThe biggest thing to happen to Goodlettsville, Tennessee in a long time is a, as my Dad puts it, "good lil' ole team" in the Little League that is advancing in the World Series. These kids just beat California and will play again on Wednesday night.

My Dad's been calling me and keeping me up to date on their progress. He just called to tell me that they projected the game on a giant screen at Moss Wright Park, where I used to play softball. (I rode the bench.)

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I remembered this little cheer my Dad used to sing when I was a kid. We lived in Goodlettsville--I began kindgarten at Goodlettsville Elemetary--and I remember distinctly sitting in the backseat where my father taught me a sing-song taunt:

"I can tell the smell that you come from Goodlettsville. Sardines (clap, clap) and pork n' beans."

As my father updated me as to the Little League team's new win I said, "You should sing your cheer." And he laughed politely, but I prodded, "Do you know what I'm talking about?" Then I started to chant: "I can tell by the smell that you come from Goodlettsville..." and he joined in for the rest. "Sardines (clap, clap) and pork n' beans...I can't believe you remember that!"

I asked for specifics of the origin of this cheer and he said that for some reason he was at a Goodlettsville High School football game as a teenager, even though he went to Cumberland, and that the cheer squads would volley taunting cheers at one another, and that was the one lobbed at Goodlettsville.

"I lost it," he said. And thus he remembered it. Then taught it to me. And now I'm teaching it to you.

P.S. Go Goodlettsville! I'm sure y'all smell great!

Someone Else's Writing

“If there is a room inside of me
with your name written in it
the language it is written in is a lovely one.

One of figs and birds
and beaches the color of butter.
The walls blue, and at least one of them
made from nothing but windows.
Another has shelves of speckled stones.
The light pours across the floors
and the trees outside
burn with song.”

-Anis Mojgani, “Untitled”

How Do You Say "Are You Ready To Order" In German, French, Italian and Chinese?

Every restaurant is unique and thus every restaurant presents a unique set of challenges. And one of the primary challenges in being a server at the restaurant where I currently work is the steady stream of foreign toursists who breeze through the doors and right past the host stand, seating themselves at a dirty table.

I should pause right here for very necessary disclaimer: I have never traveled abroad. I know! I know; it's sad, but the truth. I have no idea how difficult or scary it must be to try to order a meal and a glass of wine in a country you don't know in a language you barely understand. I'd relish the opportunity to try this task, but the free tickets to Italy have never presented themselves.

Trying to decipher the menu while trying to observe local customs and etiquette completely alien to you is probably a overwhelming experience. I have sympathy for anyone attempting this endeavor. But now more than ever before I empathize with the person in an apron standing with pen poised trying desperately to figure out what people want to eat.

All of my previous serving jobs were in Tennessee, and the restaurants I worked in didn't draw a large number of travelers. I did sometimes have trouble understanding the guests at my tables, but that was rare, as I am fluent in redneck. I knew when Position 1 ordered a side of "raynch dip" that he wanted ranch dressing and likely lots of it. I once thought a young girl ordered a glass of ass, but it turned out she just wanted some ice. These misunderstandings were minor.

Now I'm employed at a fancy pants pizzeria in a mall that serves artisan Neopolitan style pies and creative anti pastis and pasta dishes featuring pig ear, but did I mention we're in a mall? The food is phenomenal and the menu is better than solid, but a good half of our guests just wander in, Hollister bags in tow, with no idea what they are getting into. Most of them know a very limited amount of English.

When the most important part of your job is communicating what the guest wants to the people who make it happen, it can be maddeningly frustrating to be unable to get across the most basic question. Something as simple as, "Would you like something to drink?" becomes a five minute blank-faced stand-off. I'm not exaggerating when I say many of the people I wait on can barely order water. 

Again! Let me stop here to say I COULDN'T EITHER. I am not blaming or judging here, in the least. Drop me in the middle of Bangkok and ask me to order water and I'd fail spectacularly. But none of this makes it any easier for me to decipher what the hell people are trying to say to me.

Italian Cafe in Lugano

There are some things I quickly learned: Water "wis no gas," is still water in a bottle. Panna. They want that. I know my Muslim guests most likely don't want pork on their pizza, but "pancetta" didn't set off any alarm bells for them. So, I clarify by saying, "That pizza comes with just tomato sauce, chile peppers and pork, that okay with you?" This allows them to order a vegetarian pizza and saves everyone a lot of hassle (in the kitchen) and disgust (at the table). 

But most of the time it's a comedy of errors as I stand tableside and try to translate all varieties of French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and German. 

Right now it's heavy toursist season, and thus my section is heavy with tourists. After being seated with my sixth table of barely-English-speakers this week I asked the hostess if it would kill her to seat me with some locals. She said that there weren't any. 

One table with a language barrier is tough enough, but try five. Or six. It can quickly become a nightmare.

The primary problem with these types of tables is that they are a time suck. Many worldly foreign travelers have no qualms about flagging down their server--or any server that wanders into their eyeline, for that matter--and relaying that they are ready to order. At which time the guests in question carry on a five minute long conversation amongst themselves in Spanish as you stand there waiting to be addressed. 

How would you answer this question: What is a beet? What is garlic? Those are tough questions! I can tell you that pecorino is a type of cheese, but how to explain a beet? I am stumped with these difficult questions nightly.

And since I'm on the subject foreign tourists dining out, I would be remiss if I didn't address the issue of tipping. Or lack thereof. That's right, you knew I was going there! And how can you not, when you regularly get a dollar and three cents on a $120 tab?

This is a delicate subject, I know. But, oh my God, you guys, the not tipping thing is the worst. No tip, a few cents on $40, $2 on $200--this happens to me on the regular. The only way I can stomach it is by working in a place that pools the tips and divides them evenly based on hours worked. We all share in the stiffing. It's the only way I don't go mad dozens of times a night. I know that service charges are included in other countries. But if that's so, how do these travelers not know that here they are not?

I'll be honest here, and say it: If I'm slammed, my foreign guests are my last priority. It's horrible, I know, but the odds of a 5% tip or none at all is so high that I'd be stupid to concentrate my efforts where it won't pay off. That said, if I'm not completely weeded, then everyone gets the same level of (amazing, if I do say so myself) service, regardless of where you're from. But if the adorable gay regulars from Noe Valley are back and want another bottle of wine, they are getting it before the Italian teenagers (literally) snapping at me order their 7th Coke.

Perhaps one day I'll have the chance to travel to an exotic location and attempt to order a meal and will be humbled by the experience and regret ever publishing this. I hope so! In the meantime, these are honest thoughts on my work life that are likely shared by a number of people who work in my profession.

For a humorous take on this phenomenon from the other perspective, take a listen to this bit from Bill Cosby about the time he tried to order dinner at a restaurant in Italy and was shocked by what landed on the table.

[I would just like to repeat I am a silly American who has never traveled outside US borders, so I should probably shut the fuck up.]

The Little Girl in the Hot Pink Candy Heart Bra

As a server in a busy restaurant, I interact with all kinds of kids and their parents. And in doing so I experience a wide gamut of familial exchanges. I am privvy to everything from unbelievable exercices in parental patience to harsh reprimands for perceived slights, but it wasn't until Wednesday that I witnessed something that made me want to call Child Protective Services.

A family of four sat at my table--a father, a mother, big sister and little sister. I approached to greet them and was shocked at what I found.


The youngest daughter, 11 years old at most (and I'm being generous here), was wearing a pale pink lacy tank top with spaghetti straps. Underneath was a hot pink push-up bra with candy hearts printed on it. I know the details of her bra because the tank top was worn low, just below the upper edge of the bra cups, to intentionally showcase the lingerie beneath. [Like this.]

I was horrified. I suggested beer for Dad and steered Mom toward a particular pasta, of course, but mostly I stared at that poor little girl.

"Could she be 13, maybe?," I asked myself. But there was no mistaking--this was an 11 or 10 year old child wearing a hot pink bra meant to be seen peeking out from her pale pink lacy tank top.

When she broke open the 4-pack of Crayolas that we hand out with kids menus and began drawing big, fluffy clouds over a house with a big green tree in front, I spun around looking for someone else to confirm that, "Yes! This is wildly disconcerting!"

I wanted to grab her up and take her with me out of there, far, far away. Buy her a proper scoop neck t-shirt and a teddy bear. Assure her that she's beautiful and valuable, even without showing the world her underwear. Perhaps even suggest she wait to wear a bra until she has breasts.

Instead I just silently hoped she'd be okay.

Amuse Bouche

I don't understand that face. Those are my eyes and nose and ears and smear of a smile, but I do not recognize that face.

I see the face of my sister, round and funny and full of life, all topped with dark brown hair, and her soft dimpled hands are still the same. But who is that stranger girl beside her?

Why is that blonde child sneering? Her face looks forced. That's not my smile. That look was my choice, but it was not my own.

I'm more than a little afraid of the little girl in the yellow pajamas.

Nodding Furiously Over Here

...the best writers left their websites for jobs with established media companies; established media companies asked these writers—along with many who really shouldn’t be in these jobs—to make content sound blog-ish; cross-site discourse fell off, with the power to shape a conversation aggregated among sites from which so much content now flows down a hierarchy; memes and traffic-generation schemes quickly eroded what had once been innovative ideas; a shared conversational tone predominated, suggesting that certain content was supposed to sound certain ways; a once open and growing system became a series of echo chambers as writers and readers congregated in various places where they could feel good about participating with each other. Websites have grown incredibly stale as a result, and most with passable content have lost differentiating elements.

Worst of all, as these changes crept across the internet and cemented a way to do business, so to speak, they reinforced the notion that everyone can be an expert while staying at home and living life behind a series of screens. [emphasis mine]

-Family Business (read more) [via Ned Hepburn]