With this short piece by Brittany Allen, I’d like to introduce Early Morning. Early Morning is a literary journal under the umbrella of the Journal, with its own URL at earlymorningmagearlymorningmag.com. These pieces are meant to inspire as to the possibilities of literature, as well as to showcase new and emerging writers as a part of the mission of esmewang.com. Early Morning pieces may be found at the upper portion of the Journal, under the Early Morning label. At this time, all pieces published for Early Morning are solicited ones; this may change over time. Follow Early Morning on Twitter at @earlymorningmag.
Here to Serve
Listen to me read the below here:
Now remind yourself it’s just a job, and thus a sickly, doomed kind of friendship. To begin with.
There is Gabriel Long-Arms. He is a circus freak; he grazes doorways. He’s an actor, too. Sometimes you two exchange smug jokes about Shaw, so and so’s one acts. It remains statistically unlikely that either of you will ever be famous.
Jeanine calls you ‘Sweet Love,’ and snaps gum when she isn’t drinking ginseng tea. Jeanine also calls her prog-rocking husband “The Hubby,” your boss “Old Ironsides” and her cavernous purse “the Dump Truck.”
Head Waiter Ed reminds you of a childhood friend who died in a boating accident. The former enjoys gold chains and laughing at the minor failings of his co-workers. It’s hard to imagine sitting through a board game with this sadist. Ed, why so serious, it’s just brunch.
You’re in love with Jerad, who lopes around hunched like a turtle and teases you, sometimes rescues you from an indirect “threat” i.e., soup spilled on the kitchen floor. Jerad is Eastern European, but his t-shirts and preferred slang suggests he might be the kinda fella raised around the way, like you pretend to be. Only now the question is: will common hip-hop lyric points-of-reference mean he understands your soul more? Will you be able to speak some evening in the giddy tones of people with the exact same secret? Some night after work, perhaps, when you all trundle to the bar across the street where indeedydo, everybody knows your name?
At the start, every day at Wickham’s is an express train that runs local, or a favorite song that’s way too short – full of promise, ultimately unsatisfying. And why? Because each evening resolves in the conviction that you, despite time logged on the earth, despite the fact that despite the time logged on the earth the earth owes you nothing, you still feel bigger and better than bread in a basket, than mandatory name-tags, than all the city’s finest with spinach in their teeth. Never mind the diehards, the slowpokes, the deadbeats, those who are here because they have to be (another story entirely). Don’t they know who you will be someday? Glorious, freaky, magnificent, you? Your headshot in the coatroom!
Grabbing a drink with Gabriel Long-Arms, the consensus is: Fuck Shaw. You will be famous, and soon, for all the reasons. And Wickham’s will burn to the ground of your memory, a funny little footnote on your epic ass. (School of Rock. A true thing.)
You are nineteen, and you assume that everyone on the payroll has some glittering, other life – according to legend, painters, dancers, editors must be within your restaurant midst, likewise biding their time. You look for everyone’s art in the way they spin silverware, their mnemonic devices for memorizing the wine list, the inevitable tattoos lurking around the sleeves of their dress shirts. It cannot be helped, the most pompous of questions: “But what else do you do? Outside of here?” Head Waiter Ed merely shoots you a withering stare as you quiz his interior life, tells you with the patient condescension of a kindergarten teacher, “This is where I work, if that’s what you mean. This is where I make seventy thousand dollars a year after taxes.” And this, baby doll, is lesson one.
Lesson two is: stop being such a chickenshit. While at Wickham’s, one must shake, rattle and roll like a working cog. Because people, they come to yell. They yell AT you. They yell at you with the surefire conviction that you mean business, you mean evil, your business is evil, you are a deep canker sore of a problem in the mouth of their happiness. You’re the wait, you’re the rush, you’re how-come-I’m-nine-covers-behind, you are smudged windows, famine, and war, and yet! You are paid to smile. This is not a sad lament story of woe. It’s not like you mine coal. And hey, as for the money? No one anywhere is being paid enough so just cut that mess, teenager. Grow up, out, a pair.
Yet take heart, is lesson three. There is humanity to sop up like gravy here, stories to savor for later application to a character, in a play. Working in a restaurant, one is privy to everyone’s rotten underbelly. Take this: a white woman is mean to you and Shannick one day. Her mouth a frown from the foyer, her rolling eyes, her “May I speak with the manager, please?” When Ralph Goldberg-the-Boss arrives, aggressor becomes a purring cat. At this point you prepare to receive an Artistic Epiphany! Maybe this is all ALL about race, you jot on the back of a receipt. Will unpack later. Will take this earnest suffering straight to A Raisin In the Sun.
Speaking of which, someone has called you “sweetheart,” again. A woman in Louboutins has asked to touch your hair. Ooh child, days like this are cause to think of your ancestors on their heavenly plinth. Surely they’d be disappointed to see their educated progeny clearing plates and taking coats just like they did. Would they understand? What you say you’re doing this for, I mean. Imagine standing trial before a dozen hen-like, hypothetical aunties, their lips pursed, their uniforms starched, but how to explain, “Not to worry. Very soon, the great work begins.” Meanwhile at Wickham’s, Head Waiter Ed visibly rejoices in the confirmation of stereotypes. How often does he mutter: “You see? It’s totally true about black people. Two bucks on a twenty tab!” You laughed with him once. Chickenshit that you are.
Stop this train! Banner-waving feels trite and you are not. You have strong bones and you are very specific, nobody owns you. You understand flip sides and compromise and sacrifice, because you went to college. Rummaging through coat check for the source of l’eau de dead mouse, you’re pretty sure you know toil. And as for all the small humiliations, all the people asking things of you? Recall how it’s easy to smile and nod, to accommodate, to say ‘that makes sense,’ to say ‘thank you,’ ‘welcome,’ and worst of all, ‘enjoy.’
Grabbing a drink with Gabriel Long-Arms, the consensus is: we need a cigarette. Still, in the morning, perhaps you’ll wake up early and feed, ponder those crinkled Artistic Epiphany!s lining your purse. But did you hear? Gabriel says. Head Waiter Ed makes seventy thousand dollars a year after taxes. Sous-chef Ruth has four kids and another job in Newark, reception desking at a beauty salon. What right have we? It’s not like you mine coal.
A night the moon is full an ex-something something saunters up to the host desk, and you are like a movie: of all the ______’s in all the ______, you had to ____________ into ________. It’s embarrassing to see him here, to see him seeing you here with your dull shoes and the eye shadow Shannick smudged across you quickly, on a smoke break. The ex-something something smiles atcha dopey and you, in the silence, look for places on his face you’ve affected, patches you can claim. You’re looking for damage and remorse. You think you find some. Twitching above a left eye like low-potassium. He is a computer scientist these days.
The moon warps and twists across the glass window of a building opposite. It is not the moon, it is a street light. He sure did love you, but did-he-understand-you. Does it matter now. Does he want fries with that.
You are growing roots and getting nicknames. People like you, and that feels good. Lesson next: liking people feels good. Lesson following: cash in your pocket feels great. Lesson Infinity: another thing that feels great is the place where everybody knows your name, the place where all the petty humiliations explode into hilarious anecdote, the place where sometimes the older waitresses bundle you into the bathroom and shove coke-dusted keys into your face. Jeanine, snap snap snapping, might regale the room with a story about a celebrity who tips poorly. Suddenly, you are of an outraged community. You sing for the proletariat, and justice, and good old American hard work. And here, by the bar, threaded into an embrace ten cats long, you have a family, which feels amazing, and a cause, which is not nothing.
People need to eat, don’t they? Just as career alcoholics need a friendly face, and families with small children need someone to remark on how their child continues to grow, and Sleazy Tony needs to decorate you with twenties for your ability to turn a blind eye to his ever-shifting coterie of hired dinner escorts. People need bread to live, they need company to shine, you provide them a surface, you provide them this service, not so unlike this glowing moon that seems to hold and buoy all your wishes, keeping them so bright, so far. And when it goes right, when people are glad to see you? When you have been kind, or fed some hungry human? It is lunar in here. Every so often, among the menus: joy.
A man follows you from a 4 to a 6 train one late night coming home, he peers at you like he’s trying to communicate something across a language barrier or without a tongue. You’re just sitting there, pining for Jerad, when it occurs: you are older than before. But think of the miners; their un-grateful coal. Rejoice once more in capital-p Perspective.
The man on the train, you discover, is not a rapist. Nor is he a future husband, a prophet or a policeman. He’s not anything. He just gets lost on his own, he becomes a joke to you. You explain him the next day to people at work the way you explain your skin-deep secrets, your worst puns. Your co-workers know all the sounds you make. Faces you make. Sexual horror stories, menu preferences, what you choose to smoke, when you’ll smoke. The tidbits you repeat over and over and so the lyrics of your personality, what is de facto, rhythmic, unchanging. Wickham’s sees the full monty. And where have you heard? Oh, right: “No one can tell what’s wrong with them but everyone else can see instantly…” or something. Mad Men. A true thing.
Grabbing a drink with Gabriel Long-Arms is always the same, so you perform an experiment: the next time you’re on the subway, you seek out new life. People reading the books you’re reading or have read. Say hi OR – swallow timid coos. Think of Jerad, being easy and normal and Eastern European, sliding down a mountain on a snowboard (Jerad snowboards). A man across from you reads blatantly over someone’s shoulder. Stop being such a chickenshit, you think – to, about, everyone. Stop being such a chickenshit and change everything, burn it up and throw it down and fear not. Maybe tomorrow someone will save you – someone will see you shimmering like an olive among the roughage. Maybe tomorrow you’ll just quit on your own, you’ll just hang up your apron and go.
Why do you want and what do you want, teenyboppers of the commuter train, also getting off work at 2 and 3 am? Is it true about Brooklyn? Is it true about the whole rotten generation? How even to divorce this hectic, rattling, ‘you – you – you,’ YOU, who are well aware that there are better things to muddle through. That there are better places to deposit a formless and gormless non-anguish – places like diaries, or nowhere. Windows trump mirrors. Ideas trump ambition. You want to be better. You want to make theatre. Instead, you go to a play, using the money you make from this job that allows you to have all the sauce you apparently require, but on the side.
Jeanine says, in a face, “Sweet Love, when you find your hubby, you’ll feel better. You won’t feel lonely or thwarted or lost. And Wickham’s will soldier on, forgetting you. Wickham’s will wither with the island.”
Elsewhere, people who mean things to you and have meant things to you might be attempting to digest you, reconcile your contradictions, to dig for bones below. People could be on their home couches right now, just pondering the magnificent freakness of you – the parts you delight in, the sweet, the spicy.
I said, people could be. But they probably aren’t. Eyes looking for your eyes – only the very, very hungry look back, and in the middle of the night. Big old Harvest Moon eyes. Hush, they say. Lesson the crucial: people don’t see the help. You have nothing to teach us. And anyways, what are you even digesting by candlelight? What is spinning like a plate around and around in your mind?
You assess. You organize the dinner menus. You dream of snowboarding trips with Jerad, you dream of catching all the boy’s eyes, you dream of catching all the world’s eyes, you dream of dreaming.
Brittany K. Allen is a New York-based writer, performer, and service industry veteran. Her essays, fiction and humor pieces are published or forthcoming in/on The Tishman Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Hello Giggles, BUST, Reductress and Mercer Street, though she makes most of her money writing erotic e-book novellas under a pseudonym. Pertinent portals: brittanykathrynallen.com; @Britt_Kathryn.