One of today's writing lessons began by asking us to create a list of every job we ever held. Then we generated a list of every car we ever owned. Finally, the last list asked us to remember every place we ever lived. We were then given fifteen minutes to free write from any point of any of the timelines. Take one thing and tease something else--what do we want to share, what do we want to explore, what is jumping out at us from our lists? The following true story is one I love telling to people but I feel like I have not told it in a while, so I wrote it today. After I came home from the workshop I polished it and published it here. Enjoy.
Throughout the late 1980s I worked five different jobs during the early months of each summer break from college. We all did. The beach was relatively empty until the July 4th weekend, so we all worked as much as we could anywhere we could in order to save up a chestful of money and then we'd quit most of the jobs after the July 4th weekend. We'd all keep the most lucrative jobs throughout the rest of the summer, as we wanted a bulk of July and August for us.
I fried chicken at Superfresh in the early morning hours, waited tables at an outdoor bar and restaurant called The Wharf, bussed tables at Ed Zaberer's, collected money at carnival games on Morey's Pier at all hours day and night, and worked as a bouncer and then a bartender at The Playpen. For most of those jobs, I learned to hustle.
I slept little during May and June and barely touched a beer (that was coming in July). May and June were about squeezing every cent out of every hour that I could. We made so much money we opened savings accounts at a nearby bank. In two months of hustling for three consecutive summers I'd saved almost $7,000--now, a nice chunk of that disappeared into beer and shots and taking waitresses on dates throughout the months of July and August, but I always returned to school with several thousand dollars in my pockets.
It wasn't the same for all of my friends except for those that hustled. You can hustle a pretty penny during summers at the beach--but you have to grind it out, you can't stop. Burn the candle at both ends as long as you can and people will hand you money--cash. Wads of it. Believe me, you'll stop before they do, and if you don't seize the opportunities and grab it, someone else will.
We'd obviously learned very quickly that hustling translated into cash...and the place I hustled the most was the gaudy tourist trap restaurant Ed Zaberer's.
Zaberer's was huge--it was compartmentalized into many smaller dining rooms connected by ramps. The rooms were flooded with hungry people and ponytailed waitresses. It was so busy I learned to carry four buspans at once--I'd stack two on each shoulder and power walk to the kitchen, bust through the swinging doors and shove the clattering buspans onto the cleaning line. The dishwashers ate food from these buspans and swore at me, goodnaturedly I think, in Spanish if I had squashed some buried treasures inside the underneath buspan.
And just as quickly as I'd delivered full pans, more overflowed in other dining rooms--if I hustled I could be the one to grapple them, and I could be the one the waitresses tipped out more money to at the end of the night. We were all in college and we all knew the game--if we hustled and cleaned their tables and their pans they could hustle more families and in and out and make more money. If the waitresses made more money then the busboys made more money. But you needed face time with the waitresses--they needed to see you and know you were the one making their jobs easier and better.
As the dishwashers chomped on the remains crab cakes and sausages, I accelerated through the doors to corral more buspans but stopped hard on my heels as a crowd blocked my passage between two tables. My impatience grew as I had nowhere to move and couldn't understand why these people (tourists and waitresses) kept me from doing my job. I didn't look closely--my focus was clearly just on my job and right now I could not do my job. I couldn't focus on anything else.
If you did not move fast enough in Ed Zaberer's you would be admonished by Ms. Bliss. She stood 4 foot tall, wagged ten arthritic crooked fingers both for relief and to emphasize a point; she glowered at us through Joe Paterno's spare eye glasses. Incredibly, her knees pointed East and West and her toes and chin daggered straight at the person in front of her--her toes and chin led Ms. Bliss throughout the many rooms of the dimly lit restaurant.
The fact of the matter is I knocked Ms. Bliss out cold.
Throughout my many shifts, grunting four buspans to the kitchen each time lathered me up with a heavy sweat and a sharp focus on my job. I didn't see things as much as I felt things in my path like a bat--I'd obviously known all of the paths between tables and across ramps--I knew where to turn and when to pause--I didn't really need to focus on seeing so much as I did on using my strength and balancing four filled pans. I'd developed strength in my shoulders and legs heaving, sprinting, bending, stretching, and hustling, hustling, and hustling these heavy pans for hour upon hour. There were no breaks in the dinner crowd.
A ponytailed flicked in the air and the charming smiling waitress simply said, "Dude, you knocked out Ms. Bliss."
Upper management and very important people came out of the woodwork to evaluate Ms. Bliss. I looked closely between the crouching and the concerned--I confirmed what Miss Adorable shared with me. I knocked out Ms. Bliss. Her knees still pointed East and West but her toes and chin jutted towards heaven. On her left temple a knot the size of a golf ball hardened. As it turns out, I ran over Ms. Bliss, knocking her square in the temple with two stacked buspans and never looked back. I have to admit, I never felt her--it wasn't like a car running over a squirrel and the driver feeling the subtle thump-thump raising the car. This must have been more like tractor trailer meets earthworm.
Once all of the king's horses and all the king's men put Ms. Bliss back together again she settled in for the last hours of the night at a corner table alone with a pack of ice and vodka gimlets. The waitresses didn't ask. They continued to bring fresh ones of each until the last light was turned off in the place.
I worked the rest of the night just as hard but I did look where I went now and that made me a bit slower at my job. Ms. Bliss summoned me after I'd cleaned the last station and the doors were locked.
This felt like going to see the Godfather. An empty room with a film noir appeal, and a still mound of steel magnolias in glasses on a hard wooden chair swallowing vodka gimlets. She swallowed vodka with the same ease as her own saliva.
She did nothing at first. I stood in silence on the opposite side of the round table for eight. Her right hand trembled and slid a white envelope towards me. She patted it twice and taught me a lesson.
"I should have been more careful. Don't ever stop working hard--you did nothing wrong."
I asked her if she was ok and she waved me off impatiently with those same crooked fingers.
"You keep at it. You work hard. I like that."
And with that she picked up the envelope, a little thicker than usual, and slapped it into my hand with a little vinegar, wished me good night, and emptied her glass again.