You Have To Always Keep Your Eyes On The Ball


The already hot sun beat in through the window near my bed as I stared at the empty glass on the floor. The bottom was coated in purple goop, all that was left from the wine that had once filled the glass, and also the empty bottle near the glass. The alarm kept going off, and I kept staring at the stained cup. I hadn’t moved at all yet save for opening my eyes, but knew as soon as I did I was going to have a massive headache. My tongue felt like a cracked dead slug in my mouth, and there was a little less than an hour to get ready for work.

Reluctantly I swung my legs over the side of my bed and forced myself to stand up. I was right about the headache. I grabbed the bottle of Advil waiting on my desk and the wine-stained cup and headed for the kitchen. My roommate had made pasta the night before and a large wad of congealed noodles and sauce stared at me from the silver pot on the stove. There were some chunks of raw onion in the sink, and the smell of them made me feel even worse.

I rinsed out the glass, using the tip of my finger to scrape off the wine goop. The heavy silver ID bracelet from my grandpa tapped sharply against the cup. I pushed it up my forearm, putting distance between it and the wine remnants. After a couple rinses under the faucet I was satisfied, and filled the glass with water which I then unceremoniously gulped, some of which spilled out of the corners of my mouth and on to the t-shirt I was wearing. I drained the cup and filled it again, and then again. After the initial binge, I filled the glass for the fourth time and took a sip, then popped four Advil and went to take a shower.

I vaguely recognized my face through the steam clouding the mirror after the shower as I brushed my teeth, but made no effort to wipe the moisture away to get a closer look. My morning would go by faster if I didn’t examine anything too closely. My entire day would go faster if stuck to that practice. Plus, I knew what I would see – a tired looking me that just wanted to go back to sleep.

I wanted to go back to sleep because I was hung-over and because I didn’t want to go to work, but also because the time I spent asleep was the only time I wasn’t obsessing about my direction. Why was I working at a restaurant? Hadn’t I just graduated from college? Why did I move up to the bay area from LA? Didn’t I know I hated bicycles and the smell of patchouli oil? When was I going to find a real job? What is a real job, anyway? When was I going to start feeling happy like everyone said they wanted me to? Was something going to happen to let me know it was “feeling happy” time?

The walk to MacArthur BART took most people ten or fifteen minutes, but I always made sure to leave myself at least thirty. I’d always rather be early than late, and I hate getting someplace all sweaty because I had to rush. It reminded me of being in elementary school and running in to class, only to smudge the piece of paper I was supposed to be writing on with the sweat from the side of my hand. That day was warm, which means it was in the low 60s with a cold breeze. The sun was shining; the fog had probably only burned off an hour or so before. By lunch time it would be a beautiful day, which meant the restaurant was going to be busy.

For the first month or so I worked there, I dreaded busy days. When a line of customers started to form during lunch service, I felt my heart beat in my throat and broke out in a nervous sweat. Now that I had gotten used to things, I wasn’t so afraid of a busy service. I had a million little things to do: getting customer’s their drinks, clearing their tables, making the desserts, taking the phone orders, packing up the to-go bags, serving the food. As long I kept focused I was able to now do all of those things at once, while remaining as friendly as I needed to be in order to guilt people in to tipping well. Inevitably there was a large table of students from nearby Cal, none of whom would tip but all of whom would make a giant fucking mess that I would have to find time to clean in between all of my other tasks. Customers like that tested my patience, but the jobs I had since I was 16 had trained me to be a big smiley service monkey regardless of what I was actually thinking.

I tried to think about nothing except what I was supposed to be doing. I actively fought to ignore the condescending tone of the lady with short curly gray hair wearing a chunky necklace and red metal-framed glasses. I continued to smile and answered her question, “The only things on the menu that have gluten are the bread for the sandwiches, the soy sauce in the beef dish, the rice, and the croutons in the caesar salad.”

“Oh, good,” she answered, nodding, “I just can’t eat gluten at all you see. Not at bit of it. Makes my head clog right up.”

I couldn’t imagine how her head could be any more clogged than it already was, but I continued to smile graciously. She still didn’t tip me. The likely-Buddhists hardly ever did – maybe they figured they’d get me back in a later life or something. Still, in the off chance that one of them would wind up being the super rich kind of likely-Buddhist, and not just the run of the mill Berkeley kind who drove a Subaru Outback and had a purple front door, I was nice to all of them. Just one $20 bill in the tip jar would make it worth it.

By about 2pm, most of the customers had cleared out from our lunch service. I took the opportunity to give a good sweep to the inside and also the back patio, where I found one table that either didn’t like their sweet potato fries, or liked them but liked grinding them in to the ground with their feet even more. No one was sitting inside anymore, but a nice couple was seated at the corner table on the patio. They were older, and the husband had dropped some dollars in the tip jar, so I had decided I liked them.

“This chicken is absolutely delicious!” exclaimed the woman, after she caught my eye as I looked up from my sweeping.

“I’m glad to hear it! I’ll pass that on to the chef!”

I knew the chef, who was also the owner, would likely not give a shit what the lady had said. He knew the chicken was good – chicken was all he made every day. Of course it was good. He had trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, which is where he met his wife, the other chef and owner. They had owned a fancier fine dining restaurant in the same location before opening up the more casual chicken place where I worked. The other restaurant had gotten great reviews and done good business, but they wanted to start a family and couldn’t do it with the demands of operating a restaurant that offered a tasting menu. With all of that creative culinary energy focused just on chickens, you can bet the chicken was delicious. There would be no excuse for it not to be.

My boss’ prestigious culinary degrees landed them jobs cooking chicken all day, and I, with my literature degree, served those chickens. We were both doing bastardized versions of what we had studied, but at least they got to cook. I justified the job’s connection to my degree by forcing myself to think of customer interactions as a twisted kind of spoken word poetry.

After I put the broom away in the dish-room, I heard the tell-tale squeak of the front door opening. My brain had become wired to respond to the squeak by semi-shouting, “I’ll be right with you!” I made my way to the front and saw who were likely going to be the last customers for lunch service. We had 25 minutes left. I made eye contact with the chef on my way up, and the look he gave me said, “Get them to order something easy.”

“Hey there, how are you doing today?” I asked as I snaked my way through the women to get to the register. There were four of them – all wearing black yoga pants and sunglasses on their heads as headbands. Not the usual Berkeley customer, but one not unfamiliar to me at all being from Los Angeles.

“We’ve never been here before, what do you recommend?” Asked the lead yoga-panted lady.

“On a hot day like this, I would suggest going for one of our salad bowls. It’s a great lighter lunch, and you can get it with chicken or pork, whichever protein you want from this center panel.” I explained, pointing at the large menu on the wall. The salad bowls also took the chef two minutes to make, and were the item on the menu with the highest profit margin.

“We’re going to go grab a table,” interjected yoga-panted lady number #2. She bared her teeth at me and screwed up her face in to her version of a smile, “Can we just grab one of these waters?” She was asking about the water carafes next to the register, which sat under a sign that in large black letters read “SELF-SERVICE WATER STATION.”

“Yes, of course.” I smiled back at her.

“Ok well I think we’ll take four of your chicken salad bowls please,” said the leader. “What kind of dressing comes on the salad?”

“The sauce that comes with the protein is what acts as the salad dressing, so for the chicken salad your dressing is going to be aji amarillo, which is our medium-spicy sauce.”

“What is ah-gee ama-rillo?”

“That’s our medium-spicy sauce.”

“But what is it?

“You mean, what’s in it?”

“Yeah, what is it?”

“All of our sauces are egg-based, but they don’t have any dairy. If you’d like I can substitute lime vinaigrette, but the way the chef recommends it is with the aji amarillo.”

“What do you mean, egg based? Do you mean mayo-based?

“No, I mean they are made with eggs. We don’t use mayo.”

“Well ok then, we’ll just take four chicken salad bowls with the sauce you said.”

“The aji amarillo or the lime vinaigrette?”

“The first one.”

“Ok, great.” I continued to smile as I punched in her order. She took her sunglasses off her head and put the tip of one of the stems in her mouth, which hung open slightly. I gave her the total and she handed me a credit card, which I swiped and stuck out to hand back.

“What a neat bracelet,” she said, pointing at the silver name-tag style bracelet on my left wrist.

“Oh, thanks.” I instinctively rubbed the plate with my right hand. “I’ve been wearing it since I was 13, it was my grandpa’s. He wore in during World War II, and gave it to me for my Bar Mitzvah.”

The lady took the sunglasses out of her mouth and placed both hands jauntily on her hips. She cocked her head to the side, and in a voice several octaves higher than the one she had just used to order said, “That is so special!”

I grinned at her as she walked out towards the back patio. Daddy Norman had given me the bracelet after he told me the story about how he bought it and wore it until he had achieved enough to buy the gold one he wore for the rest of his life. Daddy Norman was born in depression-era upstate New York. After getting out of the military and marrying my grandma, my grandpa was a salesman for a jewelry company. He worked for the same company for forty years, eventually becoming president. When he gave me the bracelet, he said to me, “Don’t forget: keep your eye on the ball.”

I was not keeping my eye on the ball. I didn’t even know where the ball was or what it looked like. After I did some more cleaning, the salads came up on the counter and the chef announced, “Order up!” I carried the food out to the yoga-pants squad, who were sitting at a table in the sun, all wearing their sunglasses now. I served them their salads and moved over to the next table to begin clearing the dishes.

“Excuse me?” said the leader, “Can you tell my friends your bracelet story?” She turned back to her team and said, “It is just the most special story.”

“My grandpa gave me this bracelet when I was thirteen. He wore in World War II, and now I don’t take it off.”

My new audience all made the squinty-eyed toothy smile face at me and exclaimed in unison, “Awwwwww!” One of them added, “I’m sure he’s very proud that you wear it.”

“Actually, he’s dead.” I answered. I stopped looking at them then, and continued to pile up the dirty plates. As I dropped them off in the dish room, I took a second to rinse the bracelet off under the hot water. The name had long been scratched off the front of the plate, but it would have read “Norman Lowenstein.” On the back, still barely legible, was the address of the house where my mom and her sister grew up in Long Island. 3011 Ann Street, Baldwin. I rubbed the plate between my thumb and forefinger and took a deep breath. I heard the front door squeak again and started out towards it.

“I’ll be right with you!” I semi-shouted.