The answer, invariably, is, "Fuck if I know!"
Gone are the days (thankfully!) when you went to school with a pre-determined goal in mind, got into engineering, advertising, door-to-door vacuum selling, whatever, and stuck with it until the day you finally hung up your old Stetson hat and retired to Boca. We have so many more choices in the 21st century. And companies are not as eternal as they once were. Choice minus job security equals a buffet of careers for most people.
Me, I've always said that I change my career with the frequency that the homeless change their underwear — about every three years. Or at least I used to. Lately I've been sticking with things longer. Five years of gambling. Ten years of bartending. (Dear spell check: please stop underlining "bartending." It's making me feel invalidated.) And if I occasionally had a six month hiatus of funemployment, even that has expanded into a three year bout of unfunemployment. (Glumemployment?) (Spell check is hating this entry.)
I pretty much put my service industry career into the outbox. Done, stamped, stapled and ready to file in the archives. Pecuniary decimation bade me open the drawer and pull out that old file however, as bartending is something I'm good at, and it's quick cash for this week's bills. So I picked up one of my old shifts at The Saint, an erstwhile alma mater. The Saint is a groovy, stanky little dive bar in the Lower Garden District, and I love every crusty corner of it. The drinks are cheap, the ambiance is cozy yet rock-n-roll, the patrons are all my old regulars who still remember my halcyon days when I was invincible, and the jukebox is non pareil. Sure, on late night weekends it turns into a playground for the Tulane/Loyola kids, but hey, I'm off at midnight. SEE YA!*
I haven't worked around a kitchen since 1987, and didn't think I would ever consider becoming a waiter again, until a month or so ago I was out to dinner with docbrite and chefcdb at Commander's Palace. I've been a drooling fanboy of Chris deBarr's inventive, impeccable cuisine since just after Katrina when he rocked The Delachaise up St. Charles. He ruined grilled cheese sandwiches for me for life (to cite just one example from his menu), using Irish Cahill cheese with chunks of Guinness in it, pear butter, and a Dakota wheat bread. Like god coming in your mouth, I thought, and still do.
When Chris left The Delachaise and didn't work anywhere for a year, I was going out of my mind.
Last year when he asked me and Ben for input on a biz plan for his own restaurant and invited us along on some space-hunting expeditions, I was salivating before the lease was signed. And his efforts turned into The Green Goddess, which almost instantly topped the charts in this highly competitive, first-class dining city we call New Orleans.
So I was having dinner with him at Commander's, thinking about how I was going to ask the husband for yet another loan just to cover mundane bills, when two and two suddenly equaled four. "Hey Chris. If you need any help at Green Goddess, I've got the time, the knowledge of the menu and cocktail list, and a huge amount of respect for the establishment."
"You start tomorrow," he said.
On my first night, I found (not to any surprise whatsoever) that the crew was a fantastic family, the food (of course) beyond excellent, Scotty the bartender's drinks were challenging my ten years of bartending in a pleasant, mind-bending way, and the customers were the best you could hope for being either locals who know what they're getting into, or tourists who've done their research and found us. (I have always taken extra special care of tourists who do their research. It demonstrates intelligence, taste, and a respect for the city you're visiting. Bourbon Street tourists, however — well, my take on them, which is mimicked by pretty much every New Orleanian, is rape them of every dollar they bring, let them puke and piss all over Bourbon, and ship them back home.) I gladly accepted the Thursday and Saturday night shifts Chris offered me once I had been broken in a night or two.
After the second week, my interest only flagged because I didn't have proper shoes for running around on concrete and up and down stairs for ten straight hours. Chucks are good bartending shoes — if you've got a rubber mat to stand on all night. I can be on my feet for days under those circumstances. Weirdly, the Green Goddess doesn't hire a special person to roll out the rubber mats in the paths of the servers. So I ordered shoes from ShoesForCrews.com, a company that designs shoes just for the poor suckas who must spend 90% of their work day running, ducking, stooping, spinning, squatting, lifting, pivoting, stopping, climbing, etc.
Week three, the shoes arrived, and while they're the most comfortable shoes I've ever owned, my feet still felt like the bones had turned to shards of glass by the end of the shift. Foot miseries aside, there was a nagging voice in the back of my head saying, "Yah, this is the best restaurant you could possibly find to work at. But hey, maybe you're just not a waiter." I shushed the voice for a week, not ready to admit what a pussy I must be to be broken by four whole shifts at a low-key restaurant. I say low-key even though every employee runs their fucking asses off every night — but the ambiance lacks the panic and stress that should accompany such busyness. Watching the excellent crew manœuvre in such a small space is choreographic brilliance. Pure Fosse!
Then I went to Chicago, had some time to think about What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?, and realized that it's probably not a waiter. I decided to stick it out another week and see if I felt any differently.
This last Thursday hurt. My Friday night at The Saint, even with the rubber mats, exacerbated the issue, and last night broke me entirely. I foresaw the pain I would be in last night and went to work with a pocketful of codeine and popped them like Skittles just to get through the night. It was with buckets of remorse and shame that I announced to Chris and Scotty that although I love the Green Goddess, adore the crew, and look forward to meeting each new customer (a rarity in the French Quarter, belieeeeve me!), it just wasn't my bag. They were both graceful about it, and even supportive of my decision saying things like, "I don't blame you. This is hard fucking work."
I hate admitting defeat so soon, and after such an "easy" run, and my respect for the endurance of kitchen staff and waiters has trebled. I'm at an age where I can be ashamed of something, but own it. "Sorry. Just not my bag."
I do not want to leave this wonderful family entirely however, and told them I'd be more than willing — very happy, in fact — to receive a call here and there asking me to fill in for someone who's out of town, sick, or otherwise incapacitated. And I meant it. I could do the work on a part time, occasional schedule no problem, but a scheduled twenty hour a week gig (with The Saint in between) was clearly going to be ruinous to me.
So I failed. But I tried. I really did. And I hope I played a good game while I was on the field.
Oh, and I still have no fucking clue what I want to be when I grow up.
*Unlike many of my Saint regulars, I don't really don't mind the influx of college kids at this erstwhile locals' dive bar. The bar is a business and businesses need to make money. And although I'm feeling decidedly fusty, I do recognize that my Good Ole Days occurred when these kids were six years old. I'll happily hand the baton to the younger generation. New Orleans should always have a contingency of new, rowdy, stupid, obnoxious kids, as I once was. So bully for Tulane and Loyala.