I think I’m getting soft in my old age. I remember huddles of grown ups warning me of this as a child, whenever a sympathetic bank commercial played or a teary-eyed celebrity thanked her mother in a grandiose acceptance speech. “Someday you’ll understand,” they’d say to me, carefully dabbing beneath their mascara. “Someday you’ll cry at silly things too.”
But I was resilient. I refused to believe that I, too, was vulnerable to their weaknesses. Even as a kid I was aware, however subconscious, that betraying emotion negated worth. This would be reinforced later, in the workplace, in relationships, even in the theatre. Only amateurs admired the ability to cry on command; only neophytes were full of so much water that the smallest of prompts could wilt them, like vases filled up to the top. True actors were made of steel, disciplined. Whatever proud soul emoted the most but cried the least was the actor who won the respect of the room.
To cry was to lose the stitching of that human fabric weaving us all together, to reveal your tears was to mine for your most precious treasure - like a deep sea diver recovering pearls from the briny wombs of stubborn oysters. It was the highest card in the hand, and the timing of its play was crucial.
I once loved a man who never cried. In his darkest and cruelest of spells he would boast that he was “too soft” for this world and that I “couldn’t understand,” as if there was a riddle to life that only he knew the answer to. The same man who could reap a harvest of obscenities from the fields of flowers I sewed with my trembling tongue… “How can I believe you if you’re crying?” He’d say, and in the same breath I’d be accused, “It can’t have hurt that bad, you’re not even crying.”
Tears became currency, the same way sex did. The gods of “gender” demanded different prices; for the dom and sub in each exchange there was a unique balance of worth. In his eyes I had too much water in me to be trusted... so I drowned us in it. He was “too soft” to swim, bloated with poison, and the river dried around him.
The water is still in me, but now it’s a well, and anger is the only vein in my earth that has access to it. I can maneuver and absorb the greater sadnesses of life - like rain on a dead flower, the dirt spilling over the edges of it’s round clay pot, the little white beads floating in a murky black puddle - there’s nothing growing in there, so there’s nothing to kill.
But anger is alive. Her thrashing current has only grown stronger, and louder, with time. She is the river and the one who moves me. It comes over me slowly, starting in the throat. The air in my lungs gets warmer and harder to breathe. Roots grow over my neck, I can hear the earth around them fall on my collarbone as they reach higher and higher, digging into my skin, tightening under my jaw. My words come out stilted, like a record skipping, or a song switched off. All I can think is no, please, not now… And the feeling is hot, patchy, like sunburned freckles; a slippery pinch of flesh on the wrist in a sprinkler-soaked summer, testing your resilience to pain with the milky-limbed neighbor boys, their voices taunting, their eyes already leering. “I bet you can’t,” they say. We used to call them “Indian burns” and see who could endure the most without flinching. I always used to win.
But not anymore. One grimace, one heartbeat in your eye, and you’ve lost. You’ve given up your defense. Because nobody believes you when you cry. Even if it’s from anger. Look in the river… the rocks at the bottom are the softest.
I am haunted by the quiet spaces of comfort in my life. They creep up on me and envelop my body, like a warm blanket that smothers a child. I had a rough few years there, and I have to joke about them sometimes to steady my breathing; it's somewhere between the hiccups of an asthmatic teenager and the rhythmic chant of an OCD schizophrenic.
Making lists helps, so I mark most of those dark nights of the soul with the unusual places that I slept:
- a lot of curbs
- a few park benches
- under a bridge
- a motel filled with bed bugs and a sad stain on the ceiling
- that one time on top of the abandoned Hooter's
- the couches of strangers who become friends
- the beds of friends who treated me like a stranger
If I'd known the story I was going to end up having, teenage me would be so jealous of all the juicy things I could sensationalize. But now I torture myself until the birds beg me to rest, and it's still too hard to write down. It's too quiet, and these blankets are too soft. I have a fridge with food in it and a lock on my door but I still feel like a kid with my thumb in the air begging for a ride to the bar. I can feel myself get that lost look on my face sometimes, and people ask me if I'm sick or tired or pissed off. It's hard to explain that I'm just remembering how goddamn lucky I am to be here, and how it knocks the wind outta me sometimes because it all still hurts so much. Now that I'm not just surviving, now that I'm living, I feel removed from all the sparks that used to keep me fighting. All that time I was fighting to get HERE. And now I'm HERE and all that fight has nowhere to go. I'm a grown up now. Grown ups know when to use their inside voices.
That boy who saved my life a lot used to shake his head at me and say, "Oh shut up kid, you're five-star homeless," as he pulled off my mismatched socks and duct-taped boots while I tried to grab one more beer, black-out drunk and throwing fists into the darkness. I had a lot of nightmares then, and I didn't always know where I was going to sleep. So I'd keep my body awake, but let my brain take a rest, impressing at least a handful of crusty regulars that I could drink with them shot for shot. That's how my face found the curb, more night than one. Not from anything so glorious as a fight; the only fight I lost was to keep my goddamn eyes open.
I drink a lot less now, and I always spend the night in my own bed. I have my own bed now. But I still can't sleep. Sometimes I think I slept better on the curb.
My life was about to change forever. I had said goodbye to him, and we knew, just like that. We would never see each other again. I had gotten onto that plane with a dress in my bag for his funeral, but he never could keep his promises. Although it was not the goodbye I was expecting, it felt like a death all the same.
I hailed a cab back home in the middle of the night. The only person who would've picked me up at that hour was the one I'd just said goodbye to. An old Lebanese woman was driving, and there was a young boy in the front seat, but she motioned for me to hop in anyways.
Me: Can I smoke in here?
Cab Driver: You're such a pretty girl, why do you smoke?
Me: Bad habit, I suppose.
Cab Driver: I know why you smoke. It's because you think too much.
Me: You know what, you're absolutely right.
Cab Driver: You should do what I do.
Me: What's your secret?
Cab Driver: When I start thinking too much, I just go to sleep. You cannot think when you are asleep.
There was a freedom in knowing I had lost everything. The reason no one was picking me up from the airport in the middle of the night was because I was about to be kicked out of my home. It doesn't feel right calling it "home," I suppose, since it never really felt like one, despite our best efforts. I'd made my bed and now I had to sleep in it. I had fucked up the bed, and now I wasn't allowed to sleep in it.
I was intrigued by the boy in the front seat. I thought for a minute he might be the cab driver's son. I asked where he was going.
Boy: To the Jersey Academy.
Me: Where's that?
Boy: Boarding school, in South Bend.
Me: Why a boarding school?
Boy: I got expelled from my last school.
I couldn't help but chuckle. I'd secretly always wanted to be expelled.
Me: That's so punk rock.
Boy: (Crooked grin) Yeah, I guess.
Me: So what'd you do?
Boy: (His face darkens) ...Just pissed a lot of people off, I suppose. Mom sent me out here.
Me: (Getting the hint) Gotcha.
There was silence until the cabbie dropped him off. He pulled out his one large suitcase and began dragging it to the front of the dark school. How did 16 year old boy and a 22 year old girl have no one but this cab driver to pick them up in the middle of the night?
It gets better, kid. I promise.
It's the only thing to say, when you've reached that age where you know it won't. He nodded as I got in the front seat.
Just one more. Before I go to sleep.
The funny thing about "rock bottom" is that it's not an event, it's an action. It's that feeling in your gut when you miss a step walking downstairs, but that feeling goes on, and on, and on... and then you wake up. That's rock bottom. It's a sharp whack on your shoulders, a wake up call by cops as you're trying to sleep on the sidewalk. It's curling up in a sleeping bag stained with liquor and tears on the roof of an abandoned Hooter’s restaurant. It's sleeping in an teenage waitress’s car after nodding off at IHOP, and it's driving 45 minutes on a scooter in the pouring rain after getting off work at midnight only to find out that homeless shelters have curfew. That was my rock bottom. Not to be aimless, or even homeless. It was to be truly... unwanted.
When I was a kid, I thought I'd already been there, to the rocky place. Then I found out that things can actually always get worse. This is a good thing to know: because it makes you start fighting. Fighting to be happy, instead of fighting to convince everyone in the room that you've suffered the most. Fighting to be healthy instead of manipulating your body to feel anything except what you actually feel. When you don't know how you're going to eat that day or where you're going to sleep that night, suddenly the struggle to live becomes much more real. You can't afford to overthink that one offhand comment and wallow sensitively for hours, anymore than you can afford that teener of shitty cocaine or the $40 bar tab that will let you blackout and have a moment of peace.
I not only underestimated just how cruel life can be, I underestimated how kind it can be too. I have gotten piss drunk and blacked out and woken up on friend’s couches who paid my tab, drove me home, held my hair while I puked, took care of me, and never made me feel the fool for it. I have hitch-hiked in the bitter hours of the morning after sleeping under a bridge because my bicycle got stolen, and had a tattooed truck-driver pick me up and with tears in his eyes say, “I have a daughter your age. I’d give her a good talking-to if I knew she was hitch-hiking in this part of town at this hour. You ain’t my daughter so I can’t say nothing, but – I’d want to know my kid got home safe.” Then squeezed my hand as he dropped me off at the crack-den motel I was living in. “It gets better, kid,” he said.
Two local bartenders took me in and let me live with them when they found out I had nowhere to go; gave me a bed to sleep in, and took off my shoes when I was too drunk to walk. I will forever be indebted to the passing strangers in my life who had the decency to let me wrestle with my demons, and even more to those who had the graciousness to tell me, "Grow the fuck up. You're stronger than this. I love you."
My advice to the sad ones, the tender the ones, the dark ones, forever curious about the limits of human suffering: go to rock bottom. You will meet the demons that were to evil for Sodom and Gomorrah - I know, because I used to drink with them. And on your crawl back up, you won't be fighting to be happy, you'll be fighting to survive - and in that fight, as the sinews of your muscles flex to make it through one more day, one more night, may you meet your Good Samaritans just as I did, on many a highway road, thumb out, heart on sleeve, tear stains streaking a dirty face. It is in those gracious moments that I found happiness - scarred, bruised, and delirious, fighting to live, experiencing more from humanity than I thought I could bear but there, beating still, my heart was alive. I was still here. I was going to be okay. Existing is a quiet ecstasy.
It's no secret that people in the food service industry tend to be, well... dirty. Perverted, alcoholic, workaholic, foul-mouthed, violent, drug-addled filth-mongers who deserve to reap what they have sewn in their bar-brawl-bruised clenched fists, sitting alone in a chain-smoked cloud of bad decisions and regret. I have a theory that the reason they - the reason we, for I am one of them - are this way is because we are literally always dirty. Drink spills, food splatter, dishwater, spat out gristle, puke, sweat, and occasionally even blood: these are our regular work hazards.
It's hard to ever really feel clean when you work in a restaurant. No number of showers or trips to the dry cleaner's can get rid of that smell, the grease, those stains. And when you feel dirty all the time, it's easier to find yourself doing dirty things... Stealing food, booze cash; fucking the bus boy, the line cook, your boss; taking an extra smoke break, getting high in the walk-in cooler, snorting lines off the bar top with your manager after hours...
...And the drinking, oh the drinking. People chastise the cocktail waitress for spending all her money at the bar each night, but that's just to mentally absolve herself from the six hours of molestation, degradation, and abuse she endured for $2.13 an hour. And to the customers, who see our little theatre from behind a two-way mirror: Your food was three minutes late because your server was begging the babysitter to stay a little later. Your steak was over-cooked because the chef's wife left him this morning and he's popping Vicodin just to keep it together. Your hostess is paying more attention to your toddler than to taking your to-go order because she's barely spent any time with her own kid in months. The reason your appetizer came out at the same time as your entree is because the fry cook found out his girlfriend, your server, boned the grill cook last Friday, and in his broken-hearted fury he's trying to make her pay for it by tricking you into leaving a shitty tip. Maybe the reason that General Manager seems like he's being a prick by neglecting his servers and making them stay ten minutes late while he hides in his office is because he's on the phone with his incoherent, elderly mother, suffering the beginnings of a chapter he's not ready for, and he doesn't want his employees to see how heartbroken, helpless, and terrified he is. And maybe the reason your bartender pushed you to get the fries even though you didn't really want the fries is because that bartender was homeless, and knew you wouldn't eat all your fries, and that was her first meal of the day when she cleared your plate, carefully hid it in a to-go box in her suspiciously large knapsack, and slept in a cardboard box by the dumpsters after work that night.
One day I'll tell you. I'll write the whole goddamnned story of how in one year I was dumped, fired, kicked out, ruined a marriage, dealt drugs, attempted suicide, nearly caused a good man's death, came to terms with addiction; was slandered about, robbed, raped, beaten up, and left for dead (more than once) finding myself 22 and homeless and at the mercy of the kindness of strangers I've come to call my family - and lived to tell the tale. I'm going to write the whole goddamn story down and call it "Kids These Days." ...But until then, just promise me you'll be nice to your waitress next time you go out.
My sister and I used to run cross-country in high school. It was a miserable routine of 6+ miles a day, usually across treacherous terrain, and in tropical humidity. But our team bonded over the pain, and our commiseration was a community of its own. One particularly rainy day, our coach, a fierce and competitive young woman, whispered - “You know what? Let’s just watch movies about running today!” We ran inside and flopped on the couch, breathless and giddy, promising not to tell anyone about our secret day off.
Later that night, back at home, my sister looked down at her dinner plate and sighed. “I just don’t feel like I deserve to eat,” she said, laughing. “It’s like I didn’t earn it.” Rampant eating disorders in high school aside, I knew what she meant. It’s like we hadn’t suffered enough to earn a reward, even though that “reward” was a basic human necessity.
I noticed this pattern more and more as I got older. In college, during the never-ending nights of writing papers at the last minute and cramming for final exams, we used to off-handedly brag about how little sleep we got. It’s as if there was a secret hierarchy of suffering, and we were all desperately trying to one-up each other. No one would ever dare boast, “Oh yeah? Well I planned out my schedule and I stuck to it, so I’ve been getting at least eight hours of sleep a night PLUS eating meals regularly, and I feel well-prepared for the end of the semester.” And why not? Why did we attribute heroism and admiration to whomever was the closest to collapsing from exhaustion? Shouldn’t those people have been embarrassed to admit that they had poor time management skills and took on more than they could handle? We should have admired the students who were eating healthy, sleeping eight hours a night, socializing appropriately, succeeding, and actually enjoying life, not the ones who were barely surviving.
But that was college, just a phase, an adolescent experiment in maturity and adulthood. Surely the real world would be different. …To be fair, I can’t really speak for any sort of experiences in the “real world,” because I have been working in the restaurant industry since graduation, and it’s an occupation far from “normal.” I’m not proud to say that I’ve thought more than once, This feels just like finals week in college. …Except there is no final exam, there is nothing you’re actually working towards, no promise of feeling accomplished. It’s simply one agonizing hour after another, crawling towards the end of your work week, then collapsing in exhaustion and sleeping through your days off until you have to force yourself awake and do it all over again. There is no cycle, no break, no progress. You don’t get graded, there is no end-of-year performance or showcase. The promotions are ultimately lateral, the management is as powerless and underpaid as you are, and the increase in responsibility comes with no corresponding increase in authority.
Perhaps in this industry more than any other, there is the added pressure of the party culture. Where we once used to brag, “Oh yeah, I haven’t slept since Thursday, but I got that paper in on time!” Now I hear, “After working that sixteen hour shift, we went out to that 4am bar and then back to my place. I haven’t slept since Thursday!” Maybe it’s different for the chefs, who in varying degrees actually love what they do, and are working the field they are passionate about. But I don’t know a single person who’s dream career is to wait on tables. And that’s not to say it’s a bad profession - there are numerous benefits to the industry, and although there is a subliminal American pressure to work in one’s “dream job,” I find no shame in working a job that fits with your personal schedule and affords you the time and money to pursue other endeavors while still making rent. But I think that’s the problem: this industry is supposed to be just a job that pays our bills, and allow us the freedom to do what we want in our off hours. Yet for most of us, there are no real “off hours.” We work 11+ hour days and then spend all our “free” time recovering. The politics of maintaining your preferred schedule would require an essay all of it’s own, but let’s just say it requires an enormous amount of negotiating and sacrificing one’s boundaries to feel any sort of job security, and even that is a fickle illusion.
It’s gotten to the point where when I do have a day off, I don’t even know what to do with myself anymore. I feel like I’ve become a cog in the machine, and if I stop moving, I’ll cease to function. I can feel myself getting stupider. The longer you work in any sort of customer service, I’m convinced, the less you are able to read things like sarcasm or subtlety. You must take everything at face value. The customer is always right. No one ever lies. You are the face of the kitchen, the bar, and the company, and it is your responsibility to communicate with all the hierarchies while facilitating perfection. I am an emotional escort, offering a meticulously detailed experience with the expectation of flawlessness - and each guest’s fantasy is different, often changing several times throughout the evening. It is my job to keep up, to give them what they want before they know they want it, to read their minds, to make them feel superior without acting like a servant, to be flirtatious but not a flirt, to never sweat, and to do it all with a smile.
I skipped the eighth grade, I was my high school’s Valedictorian, I graduated Summa Cum Laude in four years with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting. I’ve written a book and been Juliet twice. I’ve worked at restaurants where the Bar Manager and dishwasher attended the same distinguished University. .. But the apron fits us all the same. Perhaps my theatre training served me better for this career than for anything else I’ll ever do, because no phrase has been truer in any profession than “The Show Must Go On.” I’ve been to shows where the stage manager had to abruptly announce that they had to pause or end early due to an emergency, but in this industry, I’ve seen raging gunmen outside the doors, toxic sludge flooding the drains of the bar, and fecal water dripping from the ceiling over the dish pit - and not once has service wavered or come to a halt. The show must go on.
The performance happens every night, with a rotating cast of 1,000, and you’re the last one they’ll remember. Your bow at curtain call is replaced with a monetary assessment of how valuable you are as a human, and it’s usually scrawled incoherently on the tip line at less than 20%. At the end of the day, it’s easier to bury yourself in work, to have the luxury of complaining, “I worked until 4am last night and now I have to work from 10am until 6pm!” than it is to come home, set your aching and bruised body down, and listen to the nauseating drone of tinnitus as the silence swallows you whole. “What’s new with you?” Suddenly becomes the most terrifying question, because every time your panicked heart searches for something to say, the answers become shorter and shorter.
And to top it all off, when you serve food all night long, you oddly just don’t feel like eating anymore. Whether or not you’ve “earned” it.
I sped to the gas station to get smokes, and half way home I ran out of gas. I pulled into the local diner where the drunks who I used to kick out of the dive bars would go to sober up before crawling home.
As I chained my bike up, a toothless junkie coughing up a lung while smoking a Pall Mall said, "Hey, don't worry. Your moped is safe here. No one will fuck with it."
Without thinking I said, "Oh yeah? Why not?"
She smiled, her road-daddy pinned to her side, nodding his grey nicotine-stained mustache in agreement. "You're one of us," she said. "You got a long walk home?"
"No," I answered truthfully for once. "I've spent the night on a sidewalk and under a bridge. I've crashed with bartenders and felons. I'm lucky enough that this time, I have a short walk home, to a room I can call my own, with a door that locks."
There was the briefest of pauses. "Damn, kid. You really are one of us."
I smiled. "I've been around," I said. "But there is no "one of us." We've all suffered. They're just minor details. I've got a short walk home tonight and that's the happiest ending I've had in weeks. I know how lucky I am."
The gypsies laughed as I walked away, and I laughed with them.
Me: (To a table) Would you like anything else tonight?
Old Man: Just answer me one thing.
Me: What's that?
Old Man: Are you an actor?
Me: (Pause) ...How did you know?
Old Man: Well are you?
Me: Yes, I am. I have not been onstage in a year, but yes. That is my passion. That is what I was born to do. I have been in this shithole of a town for four months and no one had noticed that. ...How did you?
Old Man: I could just tell. My daughter is an actor, and a director. I am a writer. I just knew.
As I stood in the shitty parking lot by the dumpsters, leaning against a car with my fellow exhausted, food-splattered restaurant coworkers to have one last smoke before closing the bar, a bang the volume of a thunderclap startled us. Then there was another, and another, and another. Suddenly the sky was filled with brilliant lights. Fireworks were going off in the park next to the police station; whether it was an official celebration or some punks with 4th of July leftovers didn't matter. I looked around and workers from all the bars on the block, the 5 star restaurant and the sketchy dive alike, had come out to watch the spectacle.
Everyone was silent, wide-eyed, in sacred awe. There is something about fireworks that turns everyone back into an eight-year-old, that captivates us with fire, color, and power, that, for a few minutes, makes all the problems in your head and in the world seem surmountable... Because what can't be overcome if fucking fireworks exist??
The writer is stuck.
Her phrases come out like blood clots, repeated and dull. A bruise gets a little darker the deeper it is pressed. Like a carefully choreographed ballet for the paralyzed, like an articulately arranged aria for the deaf... We are all searching for the sound, the vibration, that will motivate movement, manipulate regeneration, a defibrilliator for the vocabulary. Pressing and pushing, wrestling the vowels into submission, seducing the consonants into cautiously coaxed embraces...
Plead to Abraxas, the demon of chaos; with her mercy you will abuse your self-destruction into a Pollock-inspired interpretation of your regurgitated, inky shame. Pray on your sex-scarred scabby knees to Legion, the demon of many: with his permission you can revisit those restricted, rotting wooden doors. They crumble with crooked mold, whispering in the creaks of tug and give:
"You're not you, and you're not them. You're no writer or artist, you're a tweaking drunk biting your swollen lip at the ashy bar top."
Sorrowful lovers watch you unravel in dismay as you attempt to purge the miscalculated serotonin from your booze-soaked brain.
Mad genius? Mental case. Self-pitying victim, martyr to the arts. A blood sacrifice to the stupid altar of wasted paint.