Thursday, January 04, 2007

Bad Jobs No. 3

When you're 22 and a senior in college, the idea that there is urgency to life is completely foreign.

Wait. Edit that.

When you're 22 and a senior in college -- and a shiftless English major who is positive he will be signing author's copies at Tower Books when not responding to Larry King's questions with refreshing candor in a very short time -- the idea that there is urgency to life is completely foreign.

But it's far more than that, and far more nefarious than that. When you're the guy described above, you actually may react with violent opposition to the concept of dressing up and meeting with corporate recruiters on campus when you'd much rather be playing volleyball, sleeping off the activities of the previous night, or spending a few hours arguing with your girlfriend, who is a sophomore at UC Irvine, should be allowed to go out on a Friday, have a good time and not have to answer to some controlling boyfriend 400 miles away and really doesn't deserve this kind of harassment.

If you are this guy, then instead of planning for a future career, you use equal energy invent ing clever retorts like, "You know, the world will still be there when I'm 30," or, "Kimo, that's great that you're going to make $30,000 next year, but you'll still be at some cocktail party where a jerk like me is going to make fun of you."

All very snappy, indeed, but perhaps responsible in part for the five years I spent waiting tables up and down the West coast. The world certainly was there when I was 30, but by then it wanted no more a part of me than I wanted of it when I was 22.

Kimo makes high six figures doing something dreadfully boring and lives in Connecticut. His marriage was announced The New York Times.

I returned from Australia in December, 1987, sporting two hoop earrings, a bunch of Grateful Dead friendship bracelets, military shorts and a mullet that would have made Jose Canseco proud. I landed in Orange County and wondered what to do.

I'd imagined gathering steam, planning another adventure fitting of a singularly gifted boy romantic like myself, but quickly realized the folly of that when, after a few days at home, my mother began appearing at the foot of my bed each morning, shouting, "ARE YOU GOING TO GET A JOB TODAY?"

Fortunately, my college roommate and high school buddy Uncle Sam was in town, living what seemed to me to be a very carefree life, bartending at a local restaurant.

Understand now, as I did not then, that Uncle Sam and I are very different. Where I am neurotic and brooding, he is more the type to ignore life's small dramas. He is small and compact, can sleep anywhere, never worries about what the neighbors might think, and, while seven inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than me, also could throw a baseball about 15 mph harder than me, which still kind of ticks me off.

(Orange, CA, March, 1982: former Mater Dei star Adrian Witt joins the baseball coaching staff at El Modena High School, watches in the bullpen as Uncle Sam throw bee bees through brick walls, and then I step up there and begin lobbing meatballs to catcher Brandy Sheets. After a few minutes of watching me toss lollipops, he pulls me aside and says, "Okay, okay, great changeup. Can I see your fastball now?")

Uncle Sam is charmed. He has a way of landing on his feet. He went to Santa Clara on an ROTC scholarship and then immediately got into the reserves. A full year passed before they assigned him to a unit. When I got home from Australia, he was not yet in the reserves (and yet somehow logging military time as if he were), working instead at this place called Islands, a Chili's knockoff where the Bud Light was so cold that each glass had a thin sheet of ice across the top.

Please pause to realize the full impact of my arrogance. When I graduated high school, since I spent absolutely no time planning for college, I ended up at a local JC for a semester, where I played baseball and never studied. One day I ran into a girl from my high school, who looked at me, aghast and yet obviously taking sadistic pleasure in it, and said, "What are YOU doing HERE?"

And yet I thought I, like the very relaxed Uncle Sam, could pull off bartending in my home town, obviously not yet having taken the time to reflect on anything I might have learned by my behavior on the banana fields of Tully, Queensland, Australia the month before.

I went to see Uncle Sam at work a few times. He was behind a u-shaped bar, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, joking with everyone, pouring drinks for regulars before they knew to ask for them, casually dealing with the restaurant managers, and SURROUNDED by the INCREDIBLY attractive girls who worked as waitresses there with him at Islands.

"This is for me," I thought, quickly establishing a lifetime pattern in which it takes less than a second to convince myself that the potential upside of a job (in this case, the chance to be more like Uncle Sam, whose attitude I'd long admired, and the chance to date one of these INCREDIBLY attractive Orange County girls) greatly outweighed everything I already knew about myself, in this scenario, namely that I'd be miserable and embarassed every time someone I knew walked into the restaurant. Oh, and that I had no idea how to bartend and in fact had never made nor ingested a mixed drink. "Yeah," I continued, "I can pull this off."

It'll be great! I'll be this funny, cool and casual bartender. I will have regulars who come in when I'm working, and we'll talk about sports. I will date the best-looking of the INCREDIBLY attractive waitresses. She'll come by while I'm working, get her drink order, and then kiss me on the cheek while all my regulars gnash their teeth with jealousy.

And I'll write my first novel on my days off.

A week later it was me behind the bar, totally clueless, suddenly learning that you couldn't just show up in any old pair of shorts. You were assigned a very specific type of short, made by Stubby, a brand now lost to oblivion, which were several inches shorter than the droopy, oversized shorts I sport to this day. And you couldn't wear a t-shirt under your Hawaiian shirt, which was fine for the small, hairless men of Orange County but not so good for the swarthy ethnic types who generally hail from the East Coast until their parents, after some career soul-searching themselves, succumb to the California Dream and move the family West.

As the girls, well, nobody's really attracted to incompetence, are they?

At first, I tried. Mostly, I tried to be Uncle Sam, albeit a larger, hairier, far less comfortable in his own skin verson. Unfortunately, Harvey Lucas taught me to fear authority, to mistrust authority, to be completely intimidated by authority and yet diss authority behind authority's back at every opportunity. So whereas Uncle Sam engaged in the give-and-take of peers with Steve, the manager who'd just gotten out of the Army, looked like Richard Gere and loved Oliver North, I was terrified of the guy.

It took me until I was 30 to realize this: if I think the coach thinks I suck, I suck. And if the manager things I'm an incompetent weirdo who, unlike his much easier to deal with little friend often spouts strange non sequiters that are not in the least bit funny or even contextual to an ex-Army guy who looks like Richard Gere, loves Oliver North and just wants to do his freaking job and go home without being bothered by all of these 19-year-old girls who won't leave him alone.

It was at Islands that I learned the hidden upside of restaurant life. Five nights a week, minimum, Uncle Sam and I donned the buttoned-up, blousy shirts of the era, pegged our jeans and joined several our co-worker waitresses on the town. If you are single, aren't worried about becoming an alcoholic and aren't paying rent, restaurant life can be a great ride. If you show up with a posse of Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders in tow, nobody really cares that you're doing nothing at all with your B.A. in English and even fewer people assume that the women you are with actually think of you as a depressive, incompetent, slightly weird brother.

The Islands months were a time of complete confusion for me. It was the first time in my life that my policy of skating across the surface had gotten me nowhere, and in fact had led me right into what I perceived as a corner. My work ethic declined along with my attitude, and somewhere along the line I was beginning to realize that my future may not lie in Orange County, amidst my lifelong friends. I wouldn't get the house on the beach I'd wanted, because I didn't really want it anymore.

I couldn't imagine anything that I could do in Orange County that would make it right for me to live there. Certainly not working at Islands, which seemed so effortless to Uncle Sam. But what did I expect? The guy was so mentally, emotionally and physically adept he didn't even own a bed. After college, he returned home to his parents house and removed his bed, replacing it with a love seat. He slept there, on the floor, in the family room, wherever he felt the need to sleep. Talk about adaptable.

But to be Uncle Sam was to have it all worked out. He never cared when Ernie Luna's dad came in and said, "Gee, that's a great idea. I'm going to encourage Ernie to take a year off after he graduates," and he found it funny that Grant, the other bartender who looked slightly like Robert Downey, Jr., had every one of the waitresses begging to be his next conquest.

After Islands, he bartended at an old man bar in Tustin, where he seemed no less appropriate or at home behind the bar than he had in his Stubbies and Hawaiian shirt at Islands. Then he lived in Bakersfield for awhile, where I once showed up to find him sitting in his backyard at sunset, wearing cowboy boots and drinking scotch with a guy who looked a little bit like Merle Haggard. Seventeen years after Islands, he married Tre Si, the girl he met while working there. They still live in Orange and have a 2-year-old son.

The only thing keeping me sane during the winter of 1987-88 was another job I had, coaching JV baseball at Foothill High School under the leadership of another high school buddy, the Big D. I did it for free, but figured it was saving me thousands of dollars in therapy bills. Except for the part where one of the Islands waitresses was a senior at Foothill High School and I'd occasionally run into her while coaching. That was kind of strange.

The message was clear: if you're me, you don't work in restaurants in your home town unless you're in grad school. It's important to know who you are. Whether the things you learn are good or bad is of little consequence. The fact that I knew my situation shouldn't bother me but did because I was petty and arrogant and felt I was somehow "above it all" made very little impact on my attitude and performance as an Islands bartender.

And so, eventually, it ended. One day I was at the beach in the morning, then rushed back inland in my wildly incongruous 1965 Alfa Romeo to make it to Islands in time for my shift, only to have one of the managers (who'd graduated from Santa Clara, just like me!) call me into her office.

I've been fired, laid off, "let go," more than most, so you've got to trust me when I say that this particular manager went out of her way to make it as painless as possible. She had to tell me the truth -- that I kind of sucked as a bartender -- but she added something about how I shouldn't be spending my time bartending anyway, which was nice but would be proven totally inaccurate by the next five years of my life, and when I shook my head sadly and said, "Man, I feel like a total loser," her expression of empathy seemed very sincere. Fortunately, I read the situation correctly and didn't finish my sentence, which would have ended with, "...what kind of a loser gets fired from a place like this?"

I walked out of there the proud owner of three Hawaiian shirts and two pairs of Stubbies shorts, no closer to any of the INCREDIBLY attractive women than I had been when I first returned to Orange County in December. I drove back to the beach and walked around, approximating the look and feel of a young man wondering where his life will go next. Then I came home and my mommy made me dinner. And then asked me if I had gotten a job yet.

Meanwhile, several hundred miles away, Kimo was making his $30,000 a year. No one was around to make fun of him at cocktail parties, but even worse, if I had even been at those cocktail parties, I probably would have been there to serve the drinks.


Anonymous Marky said...

Being what my buddy, Deron, calls a "suit" for the past 20 years, I'd trade it in for a job at Islands in a second.

5:00 AM  
Anonymous flush puppy said...

when do we get to the part about moving to seattle?

and curse SB for that krusty krab! thought, i must admit, it's not nearly so brain-sucking as jabba's sail barge.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Bud and/or Marsi said...

i chased dogs around in the drizzly rain today at work. dogs are funny!

4:27 PM  

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