Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting In

This whole perverse debacle that I like to call my hospitality career began when I was just at the cusp of becoming a young man, barely into high school. I was a precocious and driven kid who enjoyed the feeling of my own money fattening the pocket of my jeans. One day as I was sitting in my ninth grade English class, I overheard the kid next to me telling someone how he had just got a job at a restaurant on the landing. Needless to say my interest was peaked. I was sick of delivering papers and I was ready to step into the arena of real employment. Fourteen is a special age where the world of a suburban teenager really begins to open up. There are new social pressures, girls to take to the movies, and the need for a fashionable wardrobe. Of course this new found walk of discovery needs to be funded some how, and asking your parents for money to buy beer and cigarettes is just not an option.

After a little probing my classmate coughed up enough information to embolden me. I made a plan to visit this restaurant that hired fourteen-year-old dishwashers to ask for a job. The next day I stood in front of said restaurant on the Landing. The community where I lived was a quaint west coast fishing village in the suburbs. Back then the Landing was a big deal. It is an elevated waterfront boardwalk that is home to a collection of restaurants, cafes, and tourist shops. The Landing also leads to the public wharf where one can buy fresh fish directly off of the boats. This was just the kind of lure that attracted a steady stream of old ladies, locals, and tourists for fish and chips and weekend brunches.

As I walked through that door my heart was in my throat. I had never applied for a job before, what would I say, what would they say? As I passed the threshold and walked to the hostess podium things got worse. Here before me was an eighteen year old blonde goddess with a knowing smile. All of the sound in the room turned to a suffocated hum and I was sure that all eyes where on me. I somehow managed to mumble something about wanting a job as her blue eyes froze me to the spot where I stood. She said something about a getting the manager and walked away. Manager? Oh god! I hadn’t even thought it would get to this. I was just hoping for a pen and an application form.

After a few agonizing minutes of standing on display before the snickering floor staff, she reappeared followed by a tall lanky guy with a gym teacher moustache. He introduced himself as Alex and we sat at an empty table. He had a fatherly air about him that somehow abated my profuse forehead sweating and generally nervous behaviour. The next ninety seconds where a bit of a blur. He asked, “Have you ever worked in a restaurant before?” I said “No. This would be my first real job” He took a long look at me and asked, “How do you feel about working in the kitchen?” I was not really sure how to respond to this, to be honest I never thought I would have a choice. I said, “Fine… I guess.” With that he stood up and said rather abruptly, “You have two arms, two legs. Is there anything wrong with you that I should know about?” When I answered no, he told me to come back the next day after school and he would get me started. He offered a handshake, turned, and walked off in the direction he had come from.

Now I was really confused. Did this mean that I had a job? I guessed it did, but what was my job to be? In fact upon walking out of the place I realized that he never even asked my name. Nonetheless I was pretty happy for the next 24 hours, but that wouldn’t last long. As instructed I showed up the next day at four o’clock on the dot. This was to be one of the last times that I would ever walk through the front door of that restaurant and see things from the perspective of a customer. I was a na├»ve virgin about to lose my cherry in every sense of the word.

I sometimes think back to that moment as being a pivotal turning point along my path to adulthood. In fact that might actually have been the very moment that I stopped thinking of myself as a child. The gravity of the moment’s importance lies deeper than being the precise instant when I really started earning money for myself, but rather that I was about to enter a whole new world with new rules. The next days were to be my searing initiation to a brotherhood, a secret society, a league of the damned.

The next day I once again found myself standing at the hostess stand waiting for Alex, this time though I was silently whiling away the final seconds of a life I would never know again. The carefree days without chronic substance abuse, sexual depravity, unchecked angst, and a never-ending abuse of statutorily protected worker’s rights ended as tall and lanky Alex turned the corner. He walked right up to me and asked me who I was. I stared back at him like some kind of fish in a bowl, looking out at a world whose physical properties I did not understand. Was he being serious? Was I the butt of some sophomoric prank? As it turned out, he was serious, dead serious. During the roughly twenty fours hours since our last conversation, he had completely forgotten that I even existed. At that time I was not even aware that such a thing was possible, outside of geriatric dementia. After two decades in the business, having witnessed every possible type of personality disorder and substance abuse, I somehow now find it perfectly acceptable.

It turned out that regardless of the chronic drinking, Alex was a great manager and a generally good guy to have around. He was the kind of person that you could speak to freely, and even confide in. He was the embodiment of a character from a classic movie who would stick up for a guy being wronged in a room full of strangers. But standing there before him at the age of fourteen, I must have looked dazed and confused. I watched as the events of the previous day began to creep back to his world. His eyes narrowed and he dipped his head as he searched my face for clues. All of a sudden the light bulb went off and his face was lightened with the pure emotion of victory. He snapped his fingers and said “Ah! Kitchen. Right, lets get you started.” And with that moment of uncertainty out of the way he spun and strode off through a big green swing door to the kitchen. I followed, down the rabbit hole, so to speak. I had no idea what I was in for, what alternate reality fate had delivered me to. That big green door was a portal to another dimension where at first glance things looked the same, but upon closer inspection the rules governing my home world just didn’t apply anymore. I was now officially a hospitality worker, I had been branded with that hot iron, a mark that I would carry for life.

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