Quarantine day 19, I was at a social distancing bonfire in our back yard area with a few neighbors I had lived on top of and next to for almost a year. It took me a whole entire year to actually sit down and get to know these other four plex-folks.
While the purpose here is not to do a deep dive into my character flaws, I’d say that illuminates one pretty clearly. While I’ve got this self-proclaimed deep undying urge to hear out human stories, it’s like pulling teeth trying to get me to open up to people, even those in close proximity. Let alone physically show up to social gatherings.
Anyway, bonfire crew– at one point in the evening we got on the topic of our extensive and not so extensive histories working in the restaurant industry. One of my neighbors, Craig, had worked as a cook for several years before starting his own hot sauce company.
I found a few things he had to say particularly interesting. One because he had a few more years of life on me, and with age supposedly comes wisdom (or good stories, at least ). Two, Craig has been blessed with a unique ‘give no fucks take no shit attitude’ about pretty much everything. And three, since I was doing a stint as a host at a local eatery, I went ahead and chalked it up as something we had in common, even though that life detail was something I loathed sharing.
Three years post-college, while my family and friends are getting married and having babies and climbing the ladders of corporate America, I am back in my hometown taking reservations at $13 an hour. I was not proud of the work I was doing and I was not proud of myself. I could not say in earnest, that I was using my gifts nor applying myself in alignment with the many privileges and chances I’d been given.
Instead, I became retail by day, restaurant by night, and unemployment checks every Wednesday. Just scooting by. That was the identity I chose for myself.
I started showing up to each shift suffering of chronic confusion. About life. Relationships. Should have done differently’s, shouldn’t have done at alls. Confusion about the job itself..
You see, thanks to a lovely combination of introspection and anxiety my mind is operating at a faster than average speed and driving in a million different directions 90% of the time.
Will today be the day I appease every guest that walks in? Will I finally impress my managers with my impeccable seating, scheduling and window wiping skills? Will today be the day I finally learn the art and business of hospitality?
Will today be the day that the quiet bitch who now stands at the host stand because she forfeited her career and stable income, finally be capable of running the books on her own without fucking up everyone’s sections?
Will this bitch ever be able to lean into the “give no fucks and take no shit, but do what you do and do it well” attitude that came so naturally to the rest of the Colita staff? The Colita family?
I’m not sure that any of us will live to see that day. But that’s beside the point.
On a less cynical note, while I was (and still am) frustrated career-wise, there was also some degree of contentment that was born inside of me while working at the restaurant. My guess is that contentment was rooted in some flavor of fascination.
I had a quiet fascination with the whole staff and the way they lived their lives in and out of the restaurant. There was charm in this place, a weirdness to these people that was undeniably magnetic. It was like all the socio-cultural rules I’d grown to accept went out the window.
It was refreshing.
It kept guests coming back. It came food critics coming back. It kept me coming back.
When I thought more about the quiet yet charming Daniel Del Prado’s unique and successful self-made business, the hard pill of where I was at with my life became easier to swallow. The menu reflected his artistry and Hispanic culture. And I liked telling people that Colita meant tale in Spanish. It was special that all of the plates were hand-made in Oaxaca and the building used to be a gas station.
Colita was like a family that I refused to embrace but secretly loved to be around. So maybe it was time to stop souring the present just because I wasn’t where I should’ve been on the socially imposed trajectory I was holding myself to. I still needed out, but kept sticking around.
Or maybe it was Ernie’s cornbread that I couldn’t walk away from…?
As per usual I digress. Back to the bonfire.
In the middle of our fireside chat, downstairs neighbor Craig said something that struck a chord with me. Partially because Colita was fresh, partially because I’d gotten out of my first adult relationship months prior, partially because I had spent the majority of the past seven months contemplating my past present and future. Seriously. These thoughts were flooding my mind on a 24 hours a day 7 days a week basis.
His anecdote went something like this.
It was his last day in the kitchen at whatever restaurant he was working at. His coworkers went around sharing memorable stories about Craig. From fond memories, to embarrassing stories, to the best and the worst Craig-isms.
He told us how one of his kitchen buddies spoke of a time when Craig had made him cry. Before the rest of us had time to jump to conclusions re: exactly the magnitude of Craig’s assholery, he explained that his buddy wasn’t going soft because he was resentful or still “butt-hurt” about it. He shared it in gratitude because 3 months later, he was, on some personal scale, feeling improved thanks to whatever Craig said.
Craig explained, “It took him a few months to realize I wasn’t just being an asshole. I was holding him to higher standards than he was holding himself to at the time. I knew he was capable of more.”
I recounted times I stood standing across from Julian in tears because our disagreements and heat of the moment volatility often turned into finger pointing and hard blows that hit below the belt.
I thought about the time when I was 18 and my dad issued an official declaration that he’d given up on me. I can’t remember what I did. But I do remember sitting on the bathroom floor looking at him with a familiar combination of sadness, fear and absolute rage.
I’m not really a rage-y person. But I had rage towards him that night.
I remembered the morning when I got fired from my hard-earned, on-brand, somewhat-steady income job. When my boss pushed the official papers of termination across the table, notifying me that this was the end. And the end was effective immediately.
I thought about every wincing detail that went into and came out of the series of unfortunate events marking my 25th trip around the sun.
But when I considered the bigger picture though, I accepted that really it had nothing to do with other people. I was letting myself down at the end of the day.
Life has very little to do with the things that happen to you, and everything to do with how you respond to the things that happen to you.
I think resentment is an easy emotion to elicit and a hard one to reconcile. It’s one that we humans know is poisonous but can’t help succumb to when we are in low places. When we are so quick to perceive threats to our character, our worthiness, our pride.
It was oddly therapeutic to hear Craig say that combination of words out loud. It was like Craig was also speaking on behalf of those other people I started remembering. People I thought I’d wronged. People I thought had wronged me. It took one sentence that was not about me at all to relieve some of the year’s unrest I was still wrestling with.
There are a lot of things I do not know. And there are a lot of things I’ve realized too late.
But here is the one that lies at the crux of this rant. Sometimes tears are the only way to teach.
“I am holding you to a higher standard than you are holding yourself to right now.”
Translation: I see your potential.
I want you to get there.
But it is up to you to realize and act on what you are capable of.
To dad. To Julian. To Stephani: thanks for the tears.