Saturday, November 24, 2012

Writers Like You

Another post from the archives, I edited slightly.

I was one of those girls. Stuck in a waitressing job at a small Italian bistro in the middle of suburbia, where uptight women came to order salads with their dressing on the side and their children ordered (but never ate) penne noodles, plain with a dab of butter. I was stuck for five years. I slapped on a smile and I held my head high and I worked until my feet were numb and my apron was stained.

Don’t get me wrong it was a lovely restaurant. The owner visited frequently, bringing new recipes she learned in Tuscany with her. She always knew the staff by name (as well as their favorite dish on menu).  The manager was laid back and cool, never above jumping in to help wash dishes, serve drinks, or flip a dish.
It was my own doing. I had opportunities, I just never acted on them.  So I hustled, table-to-table, check-by-check, and, somehow, I became good at it. 

I watched other kids my age graduate college, go to grad school, and land corporate jobs, like they had their own spaces in life that were just waiting for them to fill out.  My space was against the side of a brick wall behind the restaurant, close to the air conditioner. I squatted down against it in between tables to smoke a cigarette, the one thing I could do to fill the void in my chest.  It was cold and I hadn’t grabbed a jacket so I was shivering while I tried to shield my lighter from the wind. The door opened behind me and one of our cooks came out and looked up at the sky.

“Looks like it’s gonna snow." An unlit cigarette dangled from his mouth.

“Yea,” I shuttered and took a long drag.

“Why do you smoke?” he asked, squinting at me.

“So I can breathe,” I said. “So I can forget I’m here.”

“You won’t be here long.” He nodded.  “Girls like you, things work out for them.”

“Nothing’s ever worked out for me.  All of this,” I pointed back at the restaurant with my cigarette, “is for nothing.”

He chuckled.  “That’s just what you think now.”

A few days later I went up to my last table to pick up the check.  A middle-aged man handed me the plastic, black billfold and smiled, “Thank you so much. We had such a great meal. And you’re a very good waitress, all happy. You can always tell when you get one that really likes her job.

I smiled back at him, thanked him and his family, wished them a good night, bussed their table, took my 25% tip. And quit.

I don’t know what it was, but between the long hours, the sinking reality that I was “just a waitress,” and my restricted lung capacity, I had had it.  I was done.  What bothered me most was that I had finally been able to fool my tables, perfect strangers who barely look up from their conversations to give me their order, who never remembered which pony-tailed waitress I was.  I gave up the best job I had ever known because of that one comment.

I’d like to tell you that things changed right away, but they didn’t.  I went off to waitress at a sports bar, where they made me wear tight t-shirts with beer brands stretched out across my chest.  Then, a bagel shop, where the 4:30 opening times almost killed me, but I had a great view of the sunrise from behind the cash register.

But somehow, you keep working. You keep digging inside yourself to get where you need to. Because, I think that cook was right. Things happen for people who work hard. And I see it in the writing community all the time. The writers who get up at 5AM to get word count in before they have to go to their jobs or their children wake up. The ones who contest and query and read and blog, absorbing as much information that they can so they can use it to get one step closer to their dream.

No matter where you are in the process: just starting to write, querying, agented and out on submission–to you, I say, "You won’t be here long. Writers like you, things work out for them.”

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