Sunday, January 13, 2013

Didn't Amount to a Hill of Beans

In the early 1990s when coffee wasn't yet a major thing in most of this country, some of the folks with lots of money in Atlanta realized it was about to be a major thing, and they started opening fancy coffee places. In January of '94, I answered a very wordy ad in the paper and went off to apply for what would be my final (good lord willing) service industry job. Of course, I can't remember most of the words in that very wordy ad, but I remember the impression it made on me, and I remember that it said to "dress with attitude."

The initial application process felt like a casting call. I say that as if I've ever been to a casting call; I haven't. But there were many of us, all gussied up in whatever we hoped would be perceived as the right thing, and the pick me pick me pick me energy was thick in the air. I'll tell you what I wore. After much internal debate, I opted for sleek and simple, tight black shirt, jeans & boots topped by this wonderful men's checked blazer I used to have. It had several of just the right shades of brown. Damn, I don't know what ever happened to that blazer, but I have a feeling that one of the many men I knew who used to vocally admire it so walked off with it one day.

Anyway. Who knows what bearing the outfit had on things. I was hired to wait tables at what the owner of this yet to be opened coffee joint described as "cutting edge" and "like nothing Atlanta has ever seen." Now, this was not a person who had ever owned or run a cafe or restaurant before. This was an agonizingly rich person for whom this was their big, fun project. You know? Have you ever met one of those folks? It was my first time. It freaked me out.

Meanwhile, those of us who were chosen were called in for a week - a WEEK - of orientation. This felt like high school. I say that as if I've ever been to high school; I haven't. But every day, we were prompt and all dressed up ("with attitude") and in class we were attentive and in the breaks we chatted and admired each other's outfits and talked about how this felt like high school.

We had classes on coffee. We practiced making coffee drinks and we took tests. We had a class on wine, too, and learned to say that things were "oaky" and such, and one day we had to listen to a motivational speaker tell us how important it was be our best. I felt like we were on the verge of being made to walk around the dining room with books on our heads, but nah.

When the place finally opened for business, we were way over-staffed and shifts were hard to come by. I had just moved into a new place with dramatically low rent and I remember that being the only thing that saved my ass during those first couple of weeks of only getting the occasional short shift.

To act like someone with a business analysis for a minute, the big mistake with that place was the location. All this energy and effort was put into this person's idea of what "cool" is, so, like, we played the same Miles Davis album alllllllll day long and those of us working there were, you know, dressed (and coiffed and inked and pierced...) "with attitude" but the place was downtown, like, not some groovy downtown where people hang out but the all business 1994 Atlanta downtown, where big corporate schmucks worked their big corporate 9-5 jobs just like we've all seen on tv, and then went to their homes elsewhere. So, the live music in the evenings? Not a scene. Never took off.

We occasionally had a rousing breakfast crowd, depending on what convention was in town. Oh my gosh, when the AA/NA conference was in town, we were packed all day! But mostly what we had was to-go coffee business at the counter, and then a lunch rush featuring The Worst People On Earth. You know: Lawyers. Ad executives. And so on. This was before everyone had phones glued to their ears and laptops in their bags. These people had phones glued to their ears and laptops in their bags. They were rude to the point of meanness. Everything about them broadcast a strong signal of I am more important than you. Serve me. They made me sad. And they didn't tip worth a damn.

I usually worked breakfast/lunch, which put me on a wacky sleep schedule. Up at 5, on the train by 5:30, at work and sucking down an iced mocha by 6, home by 3, when I'd tell myself to stick it out and stay awake, but most days I'd crash out and wake up addled around 8, stay up til 2ish, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Once in a while I had to stay late and work happy hour, which is when I'd see the even worse side of The Worst People On Earth. The addition of alcohol brought out their flirty side, yet did nothing to diminish their condescending and proprietary air. Nor did it loosen up their purse-strings. Bah.

I made some good friends working at that misbegotten joint! And learned to make fancy coffee back before everyone knew how to make fancy coffee. And got to eat lots of pretty delicious food. And to dress "with attitude."

The combination of low volume, low tips and the obnoxiousness of the clueless owner thinned out the staff steadily. Plus, Starbucks was about to come to town, and they had a big-ass casting call sort of event of their own. Caribou, too. The fancy coffee thing had arrived. All the barristas were whispering about the higher wages at the new chains, the benefits! By the time I left - nine months in - I felt like the last, stubbornly deluded rat swimming away from the sinking ship. Nice line, right? I actually said that to the chef when I gave my notice. I was proud of my phrasing. I was also all hopped up on iced mocha.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Super Supreme

And there was that one time, that I had nearly forgotten, when I worked at Pizza Hut for a few days. True to my basic economic behavior pattern of my teens & early twenties, I went looking for a job feeling the urgency of having achieved a penniless state. In this case, I had spent my meager savings on groceries and metro fare while spending the several weeks immediately prior as a full time volunteer at the National Organization for Women headquarters in DC. Which was awesome! And hard, and weird, and a lot of other things, and now I was back at my parents' house for a few weeks (about six) with plans to move to Atlanta just after the first of the year.

So, what one wants to do in that kind of situation is pick up some jive job right quick to make as much cash as possible before setting off on the next big thing. There was a Pizza Hut that had just opened up on Highway 41 not far from the turn off to the way out in the woods place that I come from, and getting hired there was not difficult.

I wanted to work on the floor, and have cash in hand, but I was up for doing whatever. My first few nights there I worked "on the line" which meant putting the toppings on the pizzas before handing them over to the oven person. This was not bad! I liked the uniformity of it. Also, Pizza Hut has always been my favorite junk food pizza. So delightfully greasy!

At the end of the night, it was my job to scrub the big pans. This also was not bad, although I was weirdly chided for taking a lot of time and trouble with them. Perfectionism  was not a valued trait at this Pizza Hut. So, a few days into it, I got this outrageous cough. While I was in back scrubbing away, the manager poked his head around, exclaiming about "walking pneumonia" and saying I should go on home. I did go home, and was sick for a few days, but came back when I felt like I was well enough, so I could get trained on the floor and make that money, honey.

Well. Loading up my drink tray for my first table, I was hit by one of those coughing fits that leaves you crying and gasping and just beyond pitiful. It was embarrassing and scary and a real bummer. The head waitress was like, Honey, you have to go home. I called my parents' house (1989, man! No cell phones going on!) and my brother came to get me. I waited for him out on the sidewalk because there was no place really for me to be inside, and also, I was embarrassed.

A funny thing, to me, is that I remember this particular car ride with my brother very clearly. He took a lot of pride in his car stereo, and when we pulled into the drugstore parking lot (had to pick up some Nyquil, natch), he was like, Hey, have you heard this yet? and turned up Bust a Move, which, in fact, I had not heard yet, and you know, I was into it.

I never went back to that Pizza Hut. I was sick for weeks. I was so sick, eventually, that my parents moved me off of the couch and into their room, where I was Nyquiled out of my mind, propped up on pillows, watching various movies a few minutes at a time, as my brief states of wakefulness permitted. I remember being captivated by The Untouchables. I remember crying through Scrooged and thinking, man, I must be REALLY sick. Family members were in and out, bringing me tea, Nyquil, movies. It was a hazy December.

My mother told me that the Pizza Hut manager called to check in on me and get my address for mailing my check, and that he was very nice and talked about how he'd had pneumonia last winter and how important it was for me to get rest and get well. Nice guy.

Friday, January 11, 2013

With Silver Buttons, Buttons, Buttons...

Once upon a time in the early 1990s, I worked for a few weeks at a restaurant that is kind of an institution in Atlanta meat-and-three culture. It's kind of wild to me how much went on in just those few weeks, when I worked first at the satellite location out on Cheshire Bridge and then at the original place closer in to downtown, but you know, it was a pretty chaotic time in my personal life, too, so I guess it's fitting.

It was the end of the summer. My personal life was in all kinds of upheaval, I had quit my previous job with an uncharacteristic suddenness about a month before, and I was down to full on broke. I managed to get the rent paid, but my phone was shut off and I had no money for food or anything else. Someone told me about this place having opened a second location and that they would apparently hire anyone because nobody wanted to work there. Awesome! Off I went.

I can't recall the floor manager's name, but I do remember that his night job was teaching ballroom dance. In all my restaurant work, I have never worked with anyone who was absolutely, totally there because it was their passion or whatever, but this place had the lowest morale I've ever experienced. We were a pretty desperate bunch.

I was hired on the spot and put on the floor, but when the owner came by and saw my shoes (black & white converse high tops), he freaked and ordered me behind the bar. Hustling to go orders is something I've had to do at a few places and it's a pretty major drag. The number of folks who think you don't need to tip the to go order hustler is appalling. Anyway, that's what I spent the rest of that shift doing, so I at least went home with a few bucks in my pocket.

At the start of my next shift, the owner - who was a sketchy, middle-aged white guy - re-assigned me to the cashier station. Which was fine - there was no real waitressing money to be made at that place anyhow - but our conversation about it gave me a bad feeling. He was all, I like you. I concentrated on looking blank, and then he said, Is that okay? Heh heh heh... I said something like, I'm not sure if it is or not, so what is this about? And then he shifted into talking about how he could see that I was someone who could handle the responsibility that came with cashiering, blah blah blah, and he had the current cashier show me how to work everything.

The next day, the person who'd trained me was gone, and everyone was whispering about how she'd been fired. Awesome! Jeez.

Good things about cashiering: I could wear whatever I wanted, I was just supposed to look "nice." I always like to look nice! When we were dead (that long stretch of afternoon), the waiters would loiter around my station and tell me their tales of how they'd ended up in this dump. Several of them were drag performers at night, which was a whole new world for me, and I feel like I'm supposed to say something here about how I never exotified or objectified my drag queen co-workers, but of course I did, that's just the truth. I was fascinated.

The other good thing about working there was that we got our shift meal and the food was pretty delicious in that down home cooking way. I'd be all, Any of those cheesy mashed potatoes left, Chef? Dude.

The owner's sketchy vibe got weirder, though. Creditors were calling constantly, and the register count at the end of the night was never quite right. The first time I encountered this, I spent a lot of time on it, recounting and  writing things down and steeling myself for accusations and recriminations... and then the owner was just like, It's fine, don't worry about it. 

One afternoon, some guys showed up and repossessed the bar stools. The next morning, when we all arrived for a work, there was sign letting us know that this location was now closed and we were all supposed to report for work at the original location. Oy.

Being in the original location of this joint was a trip. Most of the waitstaff had been there for decades, and they had a hardcore old school waitress vibe, like if you wronged them in some way they would not hesitate to take you out. The young drag queen contingent was not welcomed with open arms by the battleaxe brigade. Me, I was put right into the cashier slot, but there was no more cozy chat time, because at the original location, we actually had customers and lots of them.

The customer base there was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Folks who had been coming in for generations, sitting at the same table, seeing the same waitress, eating the same meal. Which has its charm, I suppose, but for where I was at in my life right then, it felt soul-crushingly sad. My intense financial crisis having passed for the moment, I was eager to get out.

It was probably less than two weeks that I stuck it out there at that point. Even though business appeared to be booming, the owner still had some questionable behavior going on. There was an afternoon when he called on the phone and told me, Don't say anything to anyone. Don't let anyone know it's me. Take $500 from the drawer and come outside and give it to me on the sidewalk. Yeah. Cheesy potatoes be damned, it felt like hanging in there would be a bad plan.

I had a job with my family (Long story! Stay tuned!) lined up for which I was just waiting to get the go ahead, and as soon as I did, I was out of there. For once I had no guilt feelings about leaving a job abruptly.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

If You Want This Choice Position...

In the springtime when I was 17, I was recruited from out of my (really awful) first waitressing job for a childcare job, looking after a toddler whose family frequented the restaurant where I worked. There is much I'll say another day about how and why that waitressing job was such a bummer, but one thing about it that was a trip for me was that the owners actively encouraged us to be rude to people with children, to make it clear to them that this was "not a family restaurant." These folks with the toddler were the exception, though, on account of the dad was the manager of the rich folks' shopping mall in which the restaurant as located. Anyway, I'd known since relatively early in my own childhood that toddlers are my people, so I woulda been nice to the kid even if it hadn't been officially sanctioned by my whack-ass employers, and one day when the boss was yelling at me, the mom pulled me aside and said to be sure to call her for work if I ever decided to quit being yelled at...

So pretty soon, quit I did, and I went to work a patchwork schedule of three part-time jobs that had me working every day and most evenings, at two restaurants and at the rich folks' home, looking after their toddler, and mostly loving it.

When it was just the kid and me in the house - and it usually was for the first several weeks - we had us a blast. I'd arrive in the mornings and he'd be all finished with breakfast. We'd romp around and play with toys.  At 10 AM, The Monkees came on MTV, which pretty much made my life, and, you know, what I loved, the kid loved. So we'd dance around to that for a while and just crack each other up. Then pretty soon it'd be time for lunch.

It was weird to me, how crappily these rich folks ate. I know classism messes with all of our heads but, yeah, my stereotypes about people with money led me to expect some fancy groceries to be going on in that house. Not so. The kid had the same lunch every day: A hot dog on a slice of wonder bread with a kraft single and no fresh produce in sight. I swear.

After lunch, he'd have a bottle and take a nap in his crib, and I'd take a nap on his bedroom floor, with the phone clutched in my hand so I could answer instantly when his mom called, to say, yes, we're here, we're fine, he ate his lunch, he's having his nap, everything's good. And then zzzzzzz. It was perfect.

When he got up, we'd have some more good times of carrying on and dancing around (toddlers make me live life as a musical, pretty much) until his mom got home, and then I'd be off to my restaurant job, rested and happy.

Until... It all took a turn towards bummertown when the older siblings - I wanna say they were 7 and 9 - got out of school for the summer. The mom said they liked me so much from our brief encounters that they begged to be with me instead of being sent to camp. Who knows whether or not there was truth to that. What I know for sure is that they messed up my whole routine and made my job, well, a chore.

They didn't want to watch The Monkees, for one thing. It interfered with their favorite show, Thundercats. When I tried to convince them to just give the kooky charm of fake boy bands a try, they totally told on me and their mom gave me a prim "No MTV!" talking to and that settled that. Also, they for sure were not taking any naps, and in fact, instead of taking naps, were nearly always coming up with some total pain in my ass thing to do.

I mean, people say toddlers get into everything, blah blah blah. Well, not if you have the gift of song and dance, my friends! And if the toddler chasing really gets rough, you can always just scoop them up! But that 7 year old, man. No scooping him up. He lived to call his sister names and do the unexpected, like putting a half gallon of ice cream into the microwave or his bicycle into the swimming pool. His older sister was all about dramatically freaking out about whatever annoying stuff he got up to, and also informing me that I was "so weird."

In fairness, I did have one fun time with the older sister. One afternoon she was having some bad friend drama and I managed to give her some kind of status points by faking an English accent over the phone to these girls who were giving her a hard time, backing up the tale she'd told them about having an English nanny. They totally bought it! For that day, at least.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Knock Knock, Who's There?

I only have a few minutes today, so I'm gonna tell about a job I only did for one day: Door to door canvassing for an environmental organization.

You may ask yourself, what was she thinking? Well, it was a bad time of year for getting work in Atlanta (seemed like January and August were both always rough; this was August), I was flat broke at the end of a summer of working off and on waiting tables while working off and on as an unpaid youth programs director at a camp I used to frequent, and I thought maybe a break from waiting tables would be nice, refreshing, more meaningful or something...

Well. A change from waitressing might have been nice, but canvassing was for sure not it. Walking around in the heat! Hassling people in their homes! Offering them nothing but guilt, and the possible alleviation thereof! Awful, just awful. Never again.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Howdy, Welcome to Po'Folks

It still seems kind of incredible to me that Po'Folks even existed. They were trying, I guess, to do what has been so successful for Cracker Barrel, but Po'Folks was more over the top with their yee-haw and what have you. Everything on the menu was written in extra cutesy countrified jargon. The slogan was "We po' but we proud." One item offered was "chicken wangs." I ask you.

Po'Folks was not my first waitressing job (it was my third), but it would have been a nice, easy place to learn the ropes. It was the first place I'd worked where we keyed orders in instead of writing them down, so no more getting yelled at when the cooks couldn't read my writing, and I was pretty quick to memorize the abbreviations on the keyboard.

I was also pretty quick to get hooked on sweet tea, man. That was the best thing about the job. The worst thing, aside from the low tips (Some of the lunch specials were under $3! Come on!), was the uniform, which consisted of a flowered blue headscarf and apron, over a checked shirt and jeans. I did love the nametag, though, made to look like we'd carved it right out of a tree in the backyard. If we'd had a backyard. What we had was a parking lot across from the mall.

I actually worked at Po'Folks twice, in two different towns, but more on that later. This first time, I was 19 and weirdly, working there was a key piece in coming out of a serious depression that had been crushing me for the previous year or so. I'd had all the self-loathing I could take, I guess, and one day I set out to get a job, any job, to save up some money with an eye towards spending most of my summer traveling around California, seeing friends, living life, being 19.

I lied my ass off when I quit, though. The managers had always been so nice to me. I couldn't bring myself to just say, I feel like going on a trip, you know, just because I want to, so, thanks, bye! Instead I told them an elaborate yarn about how my schoolteacher boyfriend had found work out there and now I needed to go be with him. I KNOW. I don't pretend to understand what my problem was. The boyfriend was not fictional, but everything else about the scenario was, and the truth - that my relationship was a veritable festival of dysfunction and that I was sad about the fact that I was going out west alone - this was too much for me to get into with these nice, enthusiastic people. I didn't want to bum them out, and I didn't want  them to pity me.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Mother's Helper

When I was 13, I got a job taking care of a set of 4 month old twins, mainly while their mother was at home, but sometimes while she was out. It was the first time I took care of kids whose parents weren't well known to me. The parents ran a carpet cleaning business. The dad was usually out on jobs while I was there, and the mom was answering the phones, setting up appointments. Every so often they'd have a special, like a coupon or something running in the paper and the phones would be ringing off the hook.

The twins were not the liveliest babies I've ever known. The main things I remember doing with them are giving them their bottles and putting them down for naps. Then I was responsible for scrubbing their bottles and hanging around in case they woke up. One thing about that family is that they were the first folks I ever met who sincerely loved Elvis Presley. They had posters, albums, statuettes and other paraphernalia all over the living room.

They were also the first folks I'd met who read the National Enquirer and such. So when the twins were napping and the bottles were clean, I'd read the tabloids and various Elvis tributes. I think I was getting paid $3 an hour. They lived in the new subdivision that was being built on the edge of the swamp where we lived. I'm sure it's all super paved over now, but in 1982 it was like, pow, housing development rising up outta nowheresville, Florida. I got the job by advertising my services in the little neighborhood paper.

I only worked for those folks for a few months. I can't remember what happened - maybe they moved? They were from the midwest.