Aug 22, 2011
commented on We Lived to Serve, We Served to Live
My main restaurant work experience was at the Il Mercato Italiano in Bellingham (in the trendy neighborhood of Fairhaven). I got the job through my friend Matt. We had become bus buddies on the little trolley-turned-bus that I rode daily to get to my temp job working as secretary for a motorcycle shop. Matt was a very nice guy, and as I got to know him, he mentioned they were looking for a second person at the cafe' he was working at. I was worried because it wasn't full time. He said, "Look, you are thinking too hard. You have no job lined up after this - a part-time job is better than no job." That put it in perspective. I hoped having my friend as my boss/trainer/coworker would be nice and not damage our friendship. Bellingham had a notoriously high unemployment rate. There was some industry in town, such as a few plants, but people who were there to live and work and not to go to Western and party, had a hard time competing with college kids who were willing to work for beer/pot money and not a steady living wage and benefits. My employment options were also somewhat limited because I didn't have a car and was under 21. Due to FAFSA parental income rules and selfish parents, I couldn't get any school aid until I was 24. Even community college is 6k/yr, books additional, in western WA and cost of living is high here. After trying to do it, I gave up on school for that time period and just concentrated on surviving for the next few years. Later when I finally did continue school, the only kids I knew working their way through school were stripping or selling drugs, or working two or 3 jobs (the cute girls who worked in steakhouses and sportsbars would go home with $200 on a Friday or Saturday night) and renting a room in basically flop houses where their stuff often got stolen. I knew I didn't have the energy to work two jobs (I had early MS, but didn't know it yet).
Matt taught me to pull a perfect shot of espresso, and he handled customers and busy times with his natural grace and good nature. We cut everything by hand, including cutting the foccacia bread into two sides for sandwiches, and vegetables for salads, and did dishes by hand. There deli case that contained the day's panini special (we made about 20 each morning) slicing meats and cheeses, large jars of fresh mozzarella balls, pestos and tapenades/spreads, and olives. I finally put up a sign that said " "Pit" is a verb" after having the conversation multiple times a day, of whether the customer wanted pitted or unpitted olives - I still don't know why anyone would want unpitted olives when they have the option of something that WON't break their teeth if they forget. I had to learn all of the cured meats/salamis on sight by name, including the ones that no longer had labels visible. Soprasata is one I remember that was popular and delicious. It was a funny yet embarassing day early on in the job when I didn't realize I had sliced a salami with the almost-unnoticeable paper casing still on (well, they say if you are going to eat rich meats , that you should try to include more fiber in your diet). I was too short and not strong enough to effectively use the meat slicer. I butchered (no pun intended) a lot of prosciutto while trying to get the hang of it. Matt did better, though he was only a few inches taller than me and might have weighed the same. Occasionally on the lunch rush it would be busy and I would try to be a good support to him, not mess anything up on the register, and keep a smooth flow of orders. One time we did have a communication breakdown and forgot one customer's order in a party of several. i remember he had a glass eye. They had gone upstairs (out of sight). He waited a good 20 minutes before coming down the stairs and we all realized we had forgotten his order. He got very angry and said he was a regular customer, and was not happy. I don't blame him. Matt took it in stride though, and after he was gone, he said, we run this place by ourselves, it gets busy, and I have made hundreds of orders excellently. I liked his mellow attitude, it countered my tendency to be overly anxious.
I was young and broke. I was living with an abusive and crazy boy - I cannot call him a man, though he was 7 years older than me, college educated (but not working or trying to work - he was burning through an inheritance while trying to "find himself artistically - bull!), and starting to lose his hair, I was the more responsible one, and he wanted bill $, the bastard (I didn't know at that time this was unfair, I had feminist ideas of pulling my weight, yadda yadda. I waited on that fool hand and foot, a LOT of work in itself - he was eventually diagnosed by a court-ordered shrink as a narcissist. No woman should come home with sore feet to a manboy who has spent all day on the couch, and cook him dinner, and often also one of his couchsurfing, equally useless guy friends too. My only excuse is I was young, stupid, loyal, and didn't want to go home to mommy or live with roomates - had had a very bad roomate experience prior to shacking up with this guy). As time went on, I hated going home to this poor little rich boy. I was and am an artist too - and my art actually looks like something - but I'm not precious/unable to deal with life, and I have worked since I was 12. I understand the Marxist/Leninist disdain for the artist who does not do other work, or does not value the worker, or especially lives off govt art grants, after years of such experience.
During quiet times in the cafe,' I liked making myself a coffee and panini (which, made with plenty of meat and cheese, was like a mini pizza, a treat for me I couldn't afford otherwise, or would have had to share with him. I now realize that when stressed and broke, I get secretive/hoarding about food - after realizing this pattern, I accept this as a very natural and very basic animal instinct that contributed to an eating disorder in my earlier years when I lived in a Brady Bunch house where it was "their food, our food." I had not gone into the restaurant field sooner, thought I enjoyed cooking, because I feared a flare-up of the disorder by working with food all the time, but it turns out that in my case, it is triggered by my economic and living situation stress and has nothing to do with working with food. A panini and coffee were my main meal of the day on the days I worked at the cafe', and I stole 1/2 hr of quiet time, eating in the upstairs dining area which was empty during anything but lunchtime, out of sight of the managers should they stop in. Technically, all the stubs of the salamis were fair game. I never wasted any, but there were plenty of stubs to keep my salami craving satiated. At times I have tried to be vegetarian as much as possible, but my genes want meat (my family are part Native and have diabetic tendencies) and salt (I have low blood pressure). There was no whole wheat bread, and no vegetarian options there other than salads that were too cold and insubstantial to be a square meal that I needed. So I enjoyed it while I could. Beggars can't be choosers and I knew it was temporary - I was already planning to try to move back to Seattle, without him. It got pretty bad and there was a few weeks where we had broken up and I was still living in the house with him, trying to get my stuff ready to move. He was sexually deviant (yes I know this is the Stranger, but he was that kind of crazy repressed Southern boy deviant, like a sick preacher) and totally taking advantage of me in every way he could, sexually, financially, my time, my energy, demanded all my attention, he was going to be the death of me (possibly literally - he got violent as well - he had watched his dad beat his mom - like I said, crazy southern boy with weird stuff from his childhood that was not worked out). So my hours there at the cafe', with my friend who was nice to me, well balanced, mellow, and not crazy, was an environment of respite, when it was quiet, especially as I could munch on salami ends and make myself a mocha, and nurse justifications of class/culture to myself as a near minimum-wage worker.
But - the cafe' was stinky. Despite its high-class aspirations, the smell of pungent cured meats and cheeses, combined with something they couldn't figure out that was wrong with the bathroom sewer system, led to a pretty noticeable stink (some days more than others). Customers, who were mostly well-off, middle-aged people in Eddie Bauer and Northface, did not mention it. But one time, a little girl immediately noted the stink, said something and held her nose all through the store. Her mom laughed embarrassedly and tried to get her to hush and said "No honey, it smells good!" But kids will usually tell the truth on something like this. But there was something even more gross about the bathroom - someone kept throwing and smearing poop, toilet paper and paper towels around like a chimpanzee. Since our customers were well-heeled and genteel for the most part, I tried to analyze who it could be, but by the time I left I hadn't yet figured out which customer it was. It happened three or 4 times while I was there (only about 3 months). Guess who usually cleaned it up.
One time the owners were in and I made a salad that they said "Who made this salad?" and I answered apprehensively, that I had. Turns out they were impressed by the presentation of the salad (though I actually realized only after I had served it to the patron that I had forgotten a couple items that were supposed to go in it). I've always had an eye for art and design and like to think I have good taste (which is why I was OK with working at this Italian food and wine import shop/cafe' and not at the mall food court, though I am sure the wages were the same, I might have gotten benefits at a chain, and I might have ended my day smelling like cinnamon rolls and not stinky cured cheese and sewer). I couldn't afford to go enjoy any of what was in the posh, "artsy" neighborhood where I worked, and my boyfriend didn't like to go out, and would have made me go dutch on anything there anyway. He would have wondered where I was and accused me of cheating on him had I not been home soon after work too, usually. Everyone back home who had been through Fairhaven said they thought it was my kind of place and I should live there - yeah, that'd be nice, but not on a working class wage. As I swept the store, I liked looking at the pretty labels of the import food items and trying to translate them. There was a wine room which I took inventory of a couple times (but could not sample the wine - when the shipments came in, my friend and the owners would sample a little bit of each case, they were worried if they let me have a sip they could get shut down - it was two brothers who had gone in on the venture together and the place was pretty new). Of course, I could afford nothing in the store, but also I thought that pasta was pasta, I was not going to pay $4 for imported spaghetti that for all intents and purposes looked everything like regular, grocery store brand spaghetti (and had the same ingredients - I checked), even if I could have afforded it. It also seemed wasteful to spend that much energy (petroleum, etc) shipping these things from the other side of the world, when most of the items could be produced in the states, or at least Central America or the Caribbean. California was settled by many Italians due to the similar climate, they grew olives, wine, etc. The Italian mineral waters seemed like the biggest waste of packaging and shipping.
I had a hard time trying to do the books/till at the end of the day - Matt ended up continuing to do it. I also had a hard time multitasking and remembering things - there were tables outside and upstairs, that sometimes I would forget to bus for an hour. Luckily we were usually pretty quiet and the owners were rarely around. Like I said, I had early MS and didn't know it. The trouble doing the books was very embarrassing and frustrating and prevented my upward mobility in this and other jobs. I also didn't know at the time that I had math dyslexia, found out years later but made sense when I looked back at math trouble all the way back to gradeschool (other grades were always a few grade levels ahead, math was always the hard one for me). I have learned now how to focus on my positives and not weaker areas when it comes to career. If I'd been able to start waitressing at a steak house or sports bar, I might have made bank in tips for a few years while I still had my looks, if I was fast enough on my feet, was bold enough to flirt with customers, could keep my mind on several tables at once, and quick with calculations of math in the dark. But I knew I couldn't do it. I'm now back in school with school loans rather than trying to do this, and it's fine. : )
I decided to leave the crazy southern boy (we had moved to B'ham together, I was quite happy to leave him there to continue his craziness a hundred miles from my home instead of running into him around town or worrying about stalking once I was back in Seattle. I had to leave some of my property in the house with him to get out quickly, it had gotten unsafe/too ugly. I did in fact have to get a restraining order when I got home, he followed me back, though he had no business to be in Seattle, he was also obsessed with another girl in Seattle who also got a restraining order. I heard he knocked up some poor girl - something he had tried to do with me - shudder - and took her home to his mommy, where I am sure they are parasites on the family fortune to this day.
When I told the store/cafe' owners that I would be moving back to Seattle in spring, they replaced me before I had given my notice, and then didn't tell me in language clear enough for me to understand (classic passive aggressive Pacific NW vagueness) until I showed up for work and they were training a new guy. Uh, awkward.
I found out from Matt later that one night after I was no longer there, he had brought some friends to the cafe' after hours, they had drunk a little too much before they got there and then continued to drink some more into the night at the cafe.' Matt, like most other 30-somethings in the area, lived with roomates and had no place at home he felt he could host his friends. The owners showed up at the store during the night and cursed him out and fired him in front of everyone. (Oh, now they would have to actually work their own store). When he described this to me, he seemed easygoing about it and amused, though a little contrite, but not too much so. He said his needs were light and he was going to focus on his metalwork which sold at renfaires and to such clients, and had enough steady business he thought that would be fine, and that the timing was actually fortuitous and he looked forward to it. I hope his move into working for himself turned out well, I have lost touch with him and forget how to pronounce and spell his complex German last name.
I will forever be thankful to my friend Matt for helping me out with a job during that time, and for being my friend while I was in Bellingham. I had a couple friends there that made things even remotely tolerable, they were good people.