Here’s a repost from January 16, 2016. I am reposting it because it sort of relates to today’s fresh content, right down to my sharing of Ron Block’s beautiful song, “Someone”.
Today’s post is going to be some personal, self-indulgent, introspective drivel that may not interest everyone… apologies in advance.
Yesterday, a guy I used to work with who is now a Facebook friend posted a tribute to a retired Air Force colonel who recently died. The colonel, whose name was Luke, had been a manager at the restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia where my friend and I used to work. I never knew Luke, but I heard many stories about him. He was one of those people who became legendary everywhere he went.
My friend’s tribute to Luke was very moving and inspiring. Luke knew my friend when he was very young and broke. He stood up for my friend when others were against him. He helped him become who he is today. Luke was a few years younger than my dad and may have even run in the same circles with him a time or two. He retired from the Air Force six years after my dad did; but he was a full colonel, while my dad retired as a lieutenant colonel.
The restaurant where my friend and I used to work was notorious in Williamsburg. It had a great reputation as a place to eat, and a horrible reputation as a place to work. The chef, who was also one of the owners, was rather famous because he’d been on television and written a lot of cookbooks. He was also a Marine. Having worked in his restaurant, I definitely picked up the military style that was used there to keep things running. That didn’t mean there wasn’t chaos from time to time. In fact, when I worked at that restaurant, my life felt like it was totally chaotic. I was suffering from depression and anxiety and felt like I’d never amount to anything. At that time, I was also living with my parents. I was in my mid 20s and had a college degree and international work experience. But I still felt like a big loser and was unable to find work that would help me launch.
I remember the day in March 1998 that I decided to apply to work at that restaurant. I’d had a huge fight with my father. He told me he thought I was a very arrogant person and that I’d never succeed at anything in life. He said, “You’ll never make more than minimum wage!” At the same time, he and my mother were putting tremendous pressure on me to move out on my own. I was paralyzed by depression and anxiety at the time, and their demands made me feel panicky, helpless, and hopeless. I was also very angry about a lot of things, particularly that my parents seemed to be ashamed of me and didn’t seem to recognize that I really was trying to become a full fledged adult.
Immediately prior to working at the restaurant, I had been temping at the College of William & Mary. I was there for several weeks, working in their admissions office, as well as several other places on campus. I spent the longest time at the admissions office, where I filed away report cards, SAT scores, personal essays, and all of the other stuff hopeful high school kids sent with their bids to achieve admittance. Having worked in the admissions office and in other places around the campus, I could see why people wanted to go there. It’s an excellent and prestigious school. Looking at all the stellar academic records and flawless personal statements written by potential students, I felt a bit sad for myself. I was a college graduate working as a temp, filing endless reams of papers. It was mind numbing work that didn’t pay well.
My sister is a William & Mary graduate. She’s done very well for herself. They never would have accepted me. I didn’t measure up to my sister’s greatness, although I do have some things in common with her. We are both returned Peace Corps Volunteers; we both have advanced degrees in public health; and we both worked at that same restaurant in Williamsburg. She worked there when it first opened, and I worked there eighteen years later, when I decided I would make more than minimum wage and get on with my life.
I remember being very determined on that day in March when I applied for the job at the restaurant. It was my first time waiting tables, though I had worked with food in other capacities. I had even been a cook. I enjoyed working with food and thought I could be successful. It also wasn’t lost on me that the skills one learns waiting tables can be applied to many of life’s trials.
As I sat for the interview, I thought of my dad and how pissed off he made me… and how much I wanted to get out from under his thumb. It was my second attempt at getting a job at that restaurant. I didn’t mention my initial unsuccessful attempt to the captain or the manager who interviewed me. I knew if I got hired, I’d make money and be able to get away from my dad and his belittling comments. I would someday prove myself. I set my mind to it and got the job. I’m still friends with the man who hired me.
Working at that restaurant was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. It was even harder than being a Peace Corps Volunteer. The work itself was very demanding and stressful. It was physically and mentally challenging. I remember coming in every day, when I first started working there, and feeling like I was going to throw up. I lost a lot of weight and learned how to wait tables. I made good money. I was also sick a lot during those 18 months. I saw a lot of people quit and a lot of people get fired. I was incompetent as hell at first and worried that I, too, would get fired. One time, I accidentally spilled beer on a customer. My dad sneered when he heard about it and asked if I still had a job. I did. I learned that if you were reliable, worked hard, and were honest, you wouldn’t get fired. And eventually, I became competent and even good at the job.
I was promoted a couple of times and made enough money to cover all my bills. Living with my parents allowed me to save up for the next step I needed to take. I sought help for the anxiety and depression I had been suffering from my whole life. That process, too, was very difficult for me. I came to some tough realizations about people I cared about and trusted. After a brush with insanity and suicidal ideation, I finally felt a lot better and made the decision to go back to school. I took the GRE and applied to graduate school and was accepted. I haven’t had to look back. It was my final escape from Gloucester County after several dramatic attempts, one of which being my decision to join the Peace Corps.
Going back to school was a life changing experience for me… as much as the Peace Corps was. But, I have to admit, working at that restaurant with people who knew and loved Luke, was equally earth shattering in the grand scheme of things. I never knew Luke, but seventeen years after quitting, I am still friends with many of the people I knew in the late 90s when I was working at that job. I have read their tributes and comments about Luke. I can see that they all think of him as a comrade or even family… Maybe they even think of me that way. I hated the job when I was doing it, but now I’m honored to be in that group of people. We were the ones who didn’t quit and had achieved some success.
This morning over breakfast, I was talking to Bill about all this stuff on my mind. I remembered how my dad had told me I’d never make more than minimum wage and would ultimately amount to nothing. Back then, that comment was devastating to me. I was in my 20s, and unsure of what to do with my life. I felt like I was really struggling, even though others surely struggled more than I ever have. I kept doing all of these things that I thought would help me succeed, yet nothing seemed to lead anywhere. But now I think of my friend who wrote the tribute to Luke; he actually slept outside a couple of nights because he lived far so away from the restaurant and had to take buses to and from work. He’d missed the last one and couldn’t afford a motel. He did what he had to do to succeed in the job and survived. Now he’s thriving, living in Washington, DC and enjoying what appears to be a very good life.
Thanks to my parents, I never had to sleep outside. But I felt like I was never going to launch. Now, I look back on what my dad said and realize that he had no reason to be ashamed of me. While I may not be the highest achieving person on the planet, I’ve done alright. And I have made more than minimum wage more than once. Maybe I didn’t end up being as successful and awesome as my sisters have, but at least I found someone to love, who loves me back. I haven’t done anything really shameful or embarrassing. In fact, aside from being overeducated and too fat for my Dad’s tastes, I’m even living an enviable life. Maybe that was part of his problem with me. Maybe he felt like I didn’t deserve what I have. He probably thought I wasn’t living up to his idea of what my potential was… or maybe he was just projecting some of his psychic shit on me. Who knows?
Anyway, though I can’t say working at that restaurant was a whole lot of fun most of the time, I did learn a lot and met some fine people. The skills I picked up have served me well in life. In fact, I’d say in many significant ways, I ended up rather rich. Reading my friend’s tribute to Luke made me realize something important. Ripple effects can be positive. Luke inspired and influenced my friend and my friend, in turn, inspired and influenced me. I’d say that’s worth as much or more than minimum wage. And I don’t have to be “someone” to be worthwhile.