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Apathy Girl and Other Tales

Musings of the Overly Naive Cynic

Outside of my bedroom window there is a Black Walnut tree. The summer before I started high school the Missouri weather shifted (surprisingly), and half the tree succumbed to the wind, but obligingly missed the house. Now the green foliage peeks timidly over the roof line, an awkward but jaunty hat. The tree has scars down its right side, new leaves growing around them, it might be trying to hide. Today there is a woodpecker on the tree, pecking at the scars. Initially, there is no effect. The woodpecker is persistent, continually piercing the scarred bark, trying to reach the softer parts. But after so many years of being broken, of being exposed, of being beaten by the elements, the tree is too much for the woodpecker to handle. He flies away before getting past the difficult parts, unaware if there was something worthwhile underneath.

A general rule: I don’t like rap music. In public, this is what I say. But truly, I appreciate it, and there is even rap, hip-hop, and R&B that I like listening to, but it has to be good. Yes, that is trite, arbitrary, and vague. But so is a lot of rap music. Well not vague, Do it up slappin’ ass cause the sex gets rough.” The Ying Yang Twins. Poetry, yes? Maybe, a good beat at the very least. So good rap and the like, maybe it has to do what any other kind of music has to do, make your heart beat, make you blood pump faster, make you feel. Kanye West usually makes me feel sad for humanity. After his extremely hypocritical 2004 album, College Dropout, and then his subsiquent public displays, at the VMA’s, on the Today Show, on Twitter, Kanye West became one of my greater celeb annoyances. But, greatfully, he dropped off the radar for a bit, went underground in Hawaii to work on his next project, originally titled “Good Ass Job.” And then it came into my hipster indie rock sphere of vision, in two ways: one, it was reviewed on NPR, and two, a friend informed me that Bon Iver was a collaborator on the project. So, with a great air of disdain and pretention, I decided to listen. Little did I know (do I know? I am still unsettled) the album would provide some insight into a world I had previously dismissed into the world of dirty little secrets, to share a closet with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha (more to follow on that, later.)

As close to a title track as you’re going to get with Kanye, Dark Fantasy launches rough, Niki Minaj’s strange watered-down Trinidadian accent giving you the ground rules for all that you are about to hear, “Zip it, listen!” before she dissolves into her own delicious insanity. She has put you on your edge, are you supposed to listen, should you turn this off and back away slowly?

Oh, wait, here comes the choir, soothing you, asking questions but expecting no answers, “Can we get much higher?” Only Kanye knows if they are wanting to know about his fame, his ego, or his drug use. The soft “ohs” swell and fill your ears until they drop into the thin, uncomplicated beat. West may not need the heavy back beat to tell his story, but as the executive producer on this album it would have been prudent for him to back up his simplistic end line rhymes with a more substantial sound. Don’t get him wrong, though, his message in this song, about growth and beginnings, may carry enough weight to over shadow any short falls musically.

In perfect Rock-Opera style lost to Queen and Boston, Dark Fantasy slides hard like a home run into Gorgeous (ft. KiD CuDi & Raekwon). This song is Kanye’s anthem (Is hip hop, just a euphemism for a new religion), his apology, and his fuck you (tell ’em hug and kiss my ass, x and o). KiD starts out with a smooth and melodic explanation of addiction, what fame feels like, “Ain’t no question if I want it, I need it. I can feel it slowly drifting away from me.” West then sets in a with a varied discussion of his initial approach to hip hop, as homage to the history of his race, with mention of a slave soul, an Ali fight, even allowing himself to be Malcolm (West/X). But it is Raekwon who brings the honesty, in the style of Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle, contrasting the want (Armani suits, fresh fruits, Bally boots and Benzes) with the reality (kites off the jails, buying sweats, running up in Stetson nigga hat game was special). Once again though, West loses the beat, the musical motivation cannot support the weight of his lyrics.

Power finds his power though. With every scratch, every rip back, every drum beat, you cannot help but bob your head, move your body, feel (forgive me) POWER. You know that West has taken control of his music again, of himself, he has taken up his own fight. You want to make fun,

You short minded niggas, thoughts is Napoleon.” Whereas Gorgeous nodded to the fact that Kanye may have gone off the deep end, (according to friend and producer Noah Callahan-Bever, he had been overworked and overstressed) Power places the responsibility for attitudes and acclimation in the hands of the media, basically telling them they get what they paid and prayed for.

All of the Lights is a full, monumental, piece of music. Once again, the beat does not grab, but it does not have to, Alicia Keys takes care of that, and the amazing assembly of artist boggles the mind past caring. West and Keys are joined by Charlie Wilson, Elly Jackson, Elton John, Fergie, John Legend, KiD CuDi, Rihanna, Ryan Leslie, The-Dream and Tony Williams. The sheer number puts to rest any question of Kanye’s ego, in a 2010 interview, Q-Tip described the process as “music by committee,” saying [H]e’ll go, ‘Check this out, tell me what you think.’ Which speaks volumes about who he is and how he sees and views people. Every person has a voice and an idea, so he’s sincerely looking to hear what you have to say—good, bad, or whatever. (…) and we’re all invited to dissect, strip, or add on to what he’s already started. (…) so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He’s a real wizard at it. What he does is alchemy, really.”

Monster terrified me, taking one of my favorite alternative folk rock bands, Bon Iver, and placing them in another world. Their voices are edgy and distorted, nasal, evoking visions of a young woman walking down a darkened street followed by, lead on by, West’s Monster. Only this is a fame monster, full of arrogance and self-indulgence, of fucking, not making love, Mali(booya) and money. But West is giving you a nod and a wink, caging and displaying the heavyweights of Top Forty hip hop Jay-Z as the overthrown Ring Master (“Love I don’t get enough of it (…)all I see is these niggas I’ve made millionaires, milling about, spilling there feelings in the air”) and Niki Minaj the side show (“now look at what you just saw I think this is what you live for. Ah, I’m a motherfucking monster!”) a smooth Reggaeton melting into a morbid hip hop poetry. Bon Iver closes this show, trying to grant some sort of comfort to the discomforted, slowing the music down, bringing some reality back, and some rhythm and blues to a hip-hop album.

So Appalled, am I, that West starts to repeat himself with the seventh track, again harping about his wealth and fame and all the pressures that come with it. However, being back by a distorted string quartet, West displays his background, and once again his ability to collaborate is commendable. Kanye has something to prove though, perhaps repetition is him driving his point home, telling the industry and the fans that they needed him whilst he was gone. Collaborator Pusha-T maintains that throughout the entire album, even twin tracks So Appalled and Gorgeous, there is a “collage of sound.”

Devil in a New Dress is Kanye circa 2005, an old sound on a new album. No worries though, it moves smoothly into Runaway, a rap song that goes the other way, simplistic and beautiful, building instrumental lines like Death Cab for Cutie, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd. Rick Ross and Kanye West find some sort of soul, a contrast to harsh words and anger, a resolve perhaps, that things that seem to satisfy to last forever, and the people that make you want to “runaway fast as you can” still may have their place in your life. The song also seems to be an apology from the playa to the played, letting all the soft beautiful things know that they are there to be enjoyed, and seeing as they are bought and paid for, they have been given the rules of behavior.

When Kanye ran out of his own (at times weak) beats, he turned to Black Sabbath, sampling Iron Man heavily in Hell of a Life. But when pussy, porn, metal and rap converge in this song, oddly enough they tell a song of love and redemption. Initially, Kanye is falling in love with a porn star (whereas T-Pain just fell for a stripper), at the height of romance things get physical (You could hear the loudest screams, comin’ from inside the screen, … she ever fuck a black guy Or do anal, or do a gangbang. It’s kinda crazy that’s all considered the same thing.) Before the song is over, so is the love, they married in the bathroom, but were divorced by the end of the night. As the beat fades, all you hear is Kanye, his breathing suggesting his spent the wedding night alone, watching his brides work.

John Legend brings us back to mainstream romance on Blame Game. This song is refreshingly honest, caught in the middle of a fight that you cannot get out of and, as the title suggests, do not want to take responsibility for. Kanye knows the cycle though, the inability to hate and love someone at the same time without letting some of your insanity to show through (where is Niki Minaj when you need her?). His distortion of voice and use of static and white noise is the perfect setting for a story that plays more fully in ones mind than in real life. Ultimately though, there is the realization that maybe the perfection, that perfect person who wants all the same things that you want, isn’t really the one you will fall truly in love with (And I was satisfied being in love with the lie…I can’t love you this much). Annnd, as he often does, Chris Rock ruined it, one of the most artful and romantic songs on the album comes down to “pussy town” and “my dick thanks you.” High class.

Thank goodness that a sampling from Bon Iver’s Woods redeems that misstep, allowing West to rework a stripped down and simplistic melody into a classic dance mix, letting it build and build to a near boil, and then letting it fall back again, until there is a strange feeling ecstasy, unexpected but welcome. Justin Vernon’s Woods, my Woods, are translated into Kanye’s Chi-town world, and for some reason, it just works, makes you want to move your body and exist in multiple universes.

Who Will Survive in America is easily the shortest, most simple, and best track on the album. Here West is not the indulgent fame monster, he is not the pussy nabber, he is not the nigga comin’ up. He is a speaker, a testifier, reminiscent of (you my strike me down) King, Malcolm X, and blazing the election trail Obama. He acknowledges that there is a world outside the one he has made for himself, holed up in his private studio in Hawaii. West rips through all the history and grandeur that was written by white men for white men, and recognizes the bastardization of a country he was taught to garner inspiration from.

There was more to dislike than like, but at the same time, there is something here. Kanye is scraping at genuine music, knocking on the door of art. After five albums, I would hope he was at least in the neighborhood, maybe in five more albums he can get in the same room. I would hope so, because the potential (shockingly) is there.

I wore flannel, my hair in braids with flowers, my handmade bags. I did that way before you. I listened to The Beatles on vinyl, heard Death Cab’s first EP, was at all of Ha Ha Tonka’s shows. I was there long before you were. I used words like flat, petrol, lift, fag. I spoke the King’s English while y’all were still gummin’. I did not eat meat, bought organic, complained about the lack of Trader Joe’s. I did that sooner than you. I drink black coffee, caramel colored scotch, the Champagne of Beers, I smoked cigars. I looked stellar in a bar before that word was mainstream. I am a liberal, I voted for Ron Paul, I have ironic Gay Rights buttons, I believe in the right to choose. I chose that before you. I went to a liberal arts university, I was apathetic about graduating, I ignored my work, writing papers that weren’t assigned. I was an underachiever while you were still bright eyed in high school. I could discuss Foucault’s homosexuality, Sartre’s pedophilia, Rand’s extramarital affairs. I knew the important things about the important philosophers when you were stuck on Machiavelli. I was cool and detached, I made snide comments, I was too good for others. I was condescending way before you knew the difference between coincidence and irony. I was stalwart, I was unbending, I was arrogant. I was unable to compromise long before you. I did not want children, wanted to live in a broken down midtown loft, could care less about material possessions. I arbitrarily defined myself long before you believed that definition.

 

This week I have been wearing out my copy of Death Cab for Cutie’s sixth studio album, Narrow Stairs. I feel a bit like I am drinking poison, I know what it does to me, but I just cannot stop myself. I cannot help but to let every cell swell with the sound until they burst. Seeing as I am usually in my car whilst listening, it creates quite the show for my fellow motorists. But what is worse than cytolysis is the hypocrisy; I do not care for this album. I waited for it with bated breath. I circled the release date on my calender. I pre-ordered. I nearly screamed when after an extremely long day at work a lovely brown package arrived from the Amazon (.com). Sitting in the semi-dark I prepared to have my mind blown, my heart shredded, my previously bated breath simply taken from my chest. What I got was a dissonant, discordant, nearly displeasing synth-pop throw-back. A step so deftly away from what I love about this band that I nearly made the conscious decision to like Narrow Stairs for nostalgia’s sake.

Because, when backed into a figurative corner via argument over this album, I must admit that there is really not a single song on it I do not actually like, not love, which is the standard, but like. I enjoy the bass line in Bixby Canyon Bridge, a frenzied heartbeat for a person calling out to be heard, as well as the songs not so subtle allusions to Kerouac. I fancy the sparse portrait painted in Grape Vine Fires, subtly sweetened by Jason McGerr’s Paiste Twentys which hold their own against Gibbard’s sliding vocals. Pity and Fear capitalizes on the somewhat worldly sound of the album (and pays homage to The Beatles) through the use of Indian tablas as initial percussion and a continued driving force to take the listener through their own walk of shame.

Given all of that, what could I possibly dislike? Much like Kerouac, and a group of touring musicians, I have traveled. When I was first introduced to Death Cab for Cutie via the album Transatlanticism, I was young. Very young. I knew not what I did. I was too young and naïve to be stepping into the world of alternative (then) indie rock. It is not the general Love Me Love Me, Say That You Love Me of the all too poptastic Billboard Top 40. It has very little to do with Lady Lumps, no matter how lovely. It is something different. And I fell in love. Innocent, tortured, adolescent indie-rock love. Clings to you like thorns, the notes cutting you as you struggle to be freed. For whatever reason, I thought it was a good idea to bleed. Logic would have kept me listening to classic rock and folk rock and every other generic nice girl sound I could find, but I chose the path of most resistance. I would have to follow someone into the dark, have my heart broken, burn it down till the embers smoke on the ground. But at the same time, Ben Gibbard swore to me that someday I would be loved.

I was on the highway, trying to move forward, my path lit by a surprisingly bright melancholy, a catalog of songs that all had very specific meanings, some hidden, some obvious. All allowing hope. Yes you would be sad, yes the distance was far to row, yes this is not it for you, but there were still so many chances, possibilities, that within all of the heart-wrenching tonal sadness of my indie rock cocoon, there was Soul Meets Body, someone was traversing along a perpendicular path, perhaps one day I would hear them humming, the only song I wanted to hear. What Sarah Said, a haunting admission to flawed mortality, served as my questioning Oracle, could a song about death be beautiful? Answer carefully. Marching Bands of Manhattan, We Looked Like Giants, Tiny Vessels, all of it ebbed and flowed, a river that swelled until the dam burst, modes of transportation, life-preservers of possibility. Of the sunlight, of art and argument, of a specific life, a sensitive indie-rock man. That Kerouac with his beat and his immorality and I with my internal radio and sentimental heart and those poor touring musicians from the great North West, our path’s, our travel, meant something. He would become the stuff of hipster legend, they would lessen the polarization of nerdy things. And I. I, no matter how many times I listened to the wrong music, some day I would hear the right song. And then it was all about Hindsight, three wasted years, standing still.

Ok, that was a bit heavier than necessary, or true, but sometimes that is how it is. I did wait for the next album, not consciously, but as a woman without a country, without a clear road to walk on, trying on different types of music, different bands, Band of Horses, Gogol Bordello, A Fine Frenzy, Kate Nash, Santos Gold, Tegan and Sarah, anything, trying to decide if my former favorite band could still be as such. At the time (perhaps still) I did not think so. Like staring into a blinding light, or the feeling of hot water on cold flesh, often times the music was too much. It said too much. I was no longer naïve. It was easier to listen to simple, melodically cluttered music, because it did not make me feel anything. It did not move me forward, but it certainly did not take me back. A part of me did long for that sadness though, because it was so sweet, so heartening, to be able to feel something so…

Narrow Stairs dropped in May 2008. It was already hot and humid in Missouri, I was working two jobs and living in a world that was void of real contact, but full of possibilities. I was ready to reconnect, to get back to that bright melancholy, to get back to the hope. Instead I was met with Pity and Fear, homage to the no-connection place I was living in, its accidentally on purpose abrupt ending feeling oddly familiar. Talking Bird, being held by nothing but the notion that you are held (Foucault would approve). And worst of all, Cath… the story of a woman who used up the love she had, and could do no more, so she just jumped in with what she had left. Her line in punctuated by You Can Do Better Than Me, a surprisingly upbeat number that exposes the dark reality that sometimes you are with a person because that is the person you can be with. The album finds its finality in The Ice Was Getting Thinner, acknowledgment, in an unnaturally thin voice for Gibbard. that love, even with the best of intentions and the most careful care, can be broken through.

This, this is the reason I hate this album. It is so hopeless, so grown up, so reasonable, and so final. Yes, you may have been in love at one point in time, but now, politely, you are not. And that may just be ok. You may find a reason or a way for that to be ok. Fine. It was good seeing you again. We’ll have coffee sometime. Insult! The message in this album flies in the face of all that is indie-rock love. It tells people who tend to leave their logic at the musical door to go ahead and keep being logical. To acknowledge that on our path, there is an end to the road, it does not go on to the horizon. This album crushed my dreams, showed me my future, and made me itch all at the same time. For that I hate it. So, to spite the album I carry on listening, taking in the knowledge of hopelessness, as juxtaposition for what the slight, faint, beautiful glimmer of full sap, sadness, and glorious beauty that peaks out through the album, and through the history of the genre. Maybe Narrow Stairs doesn’t epitomize what I think of when my heart craves indie-rock, but then again, maybe its hopelessness is just another road to travel to the same destination, you’ve just gotta spend some time, love.

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I am, for those of you anonymous interweb readers who do not know me, a BIG Death Cab for Cutie fan. Granted, I am not as into them as I once was, but that will still put me way ahead of most people. Ah, the geeky things I brag about. Name a country, I can probably tell you their system of governance. Boo-yah. I digress. Where was I? Death Cab. Ok. So there is hardly a song of theirs that I do not like, several that I love, and only about two that annoy me (sometime I will write a diatribe on Narrow Stairs, leaving out the fact that it is almost always in my car cd player) but one song that I have pondered frequently (and jacked for facebook status updates) is The Sound of Settling. There is a line that I identify with at varying levels:

My brain’s repeating
“if you’ve got an impulse let it out”
But they never make it past my mouth

Other fans or casual listeners may interpret it differently, but to me these three indie-rock lines describe perfectly a phenomenon of our generation I’ve decided to call passionless passion. Those of us who are Echo-Boomers, Gen Y-ers, whatever-ers, have, based on my totally not creepy at all social observation, seem to have a unique interaction with the world around us. Those who came before us, Generation X, the baby-boomers, they saw things. Those with fantastic memory retention might recall Khrushchev promising to ‘bury’ the United States, or Barbie being born. The first Wal-Mart went up, the Wall came down, The Wall was released. They either fought or watched Vietnam, many learned the importance of good hotel security from Nixon. There was so much, so much to care about, so much to rejoice over, so much to be enraged by. And then they got older, got married (or didn’t) and did the dirty work required to start a whole new generation: Generation Y.

Oh! That’s me! Myself, much of my generation, we did not grow up with fear. Or, not the same kind of fears. The world at large was not coming down on us. Devo, David Bowie, bad eighties rock did war with the glory of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, early-nineties grunge, and the following nerd-rock wave. We were hardly, if at all, aware of any type of war, let alone a Cold one. But we were subject to a subtle, tricky kind of abuse: we were told that we were special. Several years ago I was listening to NPR (I told you, geeky) and a brief report was done on the fact that children of the eighties often have trouble relating, working, excelling, as past generations did because we were told too often that we were special. We were told this so many times, that we could care about anything, do anything, be anything, that we seemed to have lost the ability to do anything of the above. At a young age we saw too much, MTV wasn’t just music anymore. We became cynical, almost across the board. A certain level of detachment seemed necessary just to survive.

It was especially the case for me. I was a bookish child, and that is putting it lightly. I lived every moment of every day surrounded by my own fantasy. Of life, of family, of friends, of love. It made it easy to forget about everything else, my abusive sister, my absent mother, my tired father. So I existed within a heightened world. Everything was more. As I got older, this allowed me to become an easy target. I cared about things too much. Take your pick: the environment, feminism, friends, politics, history, literature, music. It was easy to work me up, and easy for me to get hurt. I was, quite simply, a bit absurd. The older I got, the more aware of this I became, so I started to dial myself back, until it was just a few things that would work me up: stupid people, anything having to do with debate, music, and love. Now it is just music and stupid people. I became so afraid of the ridicule, the subsequent rejection, that comes with caring, that I can almost totally mask the fact that I give a damn about anything. How do I feel about God? Meh. How do I feel about Obama? Whatevs. What do I think about the oil spill? It’s all water under the slick. Am I in love? It doesn’t matter.

I allow myself the things that most people get excited about, that our entire generation is allowed, and encouraged to care about: stuff. My computer, my car, my dog (he isn’t quite stuff, but it follows) my tv, clothes, shoes, all of the crap that clutters our lives. The things that don’t make people squirm to talk about emotively. Do you love your iPad? Yes! It is the best thing ever! Do you love your Mother? Well, um, dude, she’s my Mother, wait…have you seen my iPad?! Another notch back lies our careers, the things that allow us to get the stuff that we get excited about. But it is a rare thing to find someone my age who can hold a real conversation, or will be vocal about the things they care about. Vocal meaning passionate. We hide the things we are passionate about, perhaps in order to shield them from the scrutiny of others. The rejection of their importance.

I am nowhere near enlightened. I have learned a great many things about myself. I’ve come almost full circle in my quest to be me. I know what I care about. I know who I am. I was surprised to figure out what I really do want in life. I lack execution, it is true. However, I do still subscribe to the rigors of passionless passion. The things I care about the most I rarely say anything about. I don’t share willy nilly (yes, I said it) that which I hold most important. If I have the impulse to get mad, to be sad, to declare my like for things, my love for someone, it would not dare to make it past my mouth.

And for that I kick myself (after years of yoga, I can indeed bend that way). The sound of a passionless mouth is the sound of settling. Because if you are not screaming at the top of your lungs that you hate seeing baby seals covered in oil, are you ever going to clean a car’s worth? If you aren’t willing to stand firm about your religious beliefs, do you really believe in anything? If you cannot tell the person you love that they are the only song you want to hear, how much can you really love them? Ultimately, if you are willing to hold your breath in order to not disturb the air around you, won’t you suffocate? In the long run, I don’t know. It comes down to taking a chance versus being hurt. I would discuss it with you but I can’t talk, my mouth is closed.

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“No! I don’t care if they are the ones that fucked the order. I need it NOW! Your lead is on twenty- one, and I need that reggae new-o to sell.”

A pan, a plate, and a very frightened tilapia (I am sure it would have been if it had been alive) slammed down, accompanied by the roar of “You’ll get it when it is fucking ready!”

I was busy selling a plate, wiping the edges, listening to three different servers, and reading my rack, but I still projected my voice above the din of the kitchen: “Heard!”

An all purpose phrase in the kitchen, at once easily ignorable and a magic ‘get it done.’ One of dozens of different barely intelligible pieces of short hand. ‘Heard’ can mean the obvious ‘I heard what you said’, or ‘I understand’ or ‘I agree’ or less obvious ‘fuck off, you ain’t got shit on what is going on back here’, It depends on tone, inflection, the atmosphere, and who and why it is being said. “I need a side of ho-mo” has nothing to do with the sexual preference of the item one is asking for, it is simply a side of honey mustard. Reggae is not the music various food items jam to, but it just means they are regular, like it says in the spec book, no modifications. 86 means without. If we dropped your food, don’t worry, it isn’t on the floor (unless it is, whoops!), it has just began to be cooked. The top is how many are seated at the table, one top, two top, three top, four. A hundred different words, pieces of shorthand, anomaly’s that make up a restaurants linguistic base, and you have to know the language, if you want to navigate yourself through working in a restaurant.

The first issue is the obvious one: customers. It may be true that people are unique, your mother may have told you you are special, and that may be true. But I attest to you, as a customer sitting in a restaurant, you are no snowflake. Not only are there obvious story archetypes, but your server, if they are of any level of experience, can read you like a book. A few common stories are Church People, Kids, and Rednecks. Church People are not just people that go to church, lots of people go to church, ain’t nothin’ wrong with getting a lil’ Jesus. But Church People, they seem to eat, sleep, breathe, live in and possibly work for their church. And that leads to one of two things; they either A) are impossibly rude or 2) impossibly nice and tip you with a hand-written prayer, which oddly enough, is not an accepted as a form of payment by Capital One Auto. The last Sunday I served at the restaurant I work for, I had a particularly pleasant table. There were four couples ranging from late twenties to mid-forties, a good age range for a table. They had ran up a large tab with appetizers, special non-alcoholic drinks, big entrees. They sat for almost three hours, eating, laughing, talking about how God had touched their lives. After they had laughed themselves out of the door, I ran back to the table to pick up the check. Instead of twenty percent (fifteen after I pay the house its five) there was a slash through the gratuity line, and an arrow pointing to the back of the check. The reverse held my tip, a long note about what a lovely young woman I was, how God obviously had a plan for me, and how they could not wait to come back next week and be served by such a blessed young person. This did not warm my soul, but gave me more of a cold shoulder.

Kids are obviously kids, and at various stages of their development they seem to present various problems. As newborns, they are usually fine, they sit in their car seats, and cry infrequently. As they move into infancy things become more difficult. They throw food on the floor, grab at your pens, draw on the tables, scream, and are generally a little greasy and a lot to clean up. As a matter of fact, it seems to be a general consensus of servers I’ve asked that children from a certain age of infancy through the toddler years actually cost more to wait on than their understandably cash strapped parents tip. When you factor in what a server pays their support staff, they can end up making minimum wage or actually paying the house for a time intensive table that requires a lot of clean up. As toddlers become kids, they learn to (sort of) keep their mess to themselves, but they also seem to float to two extremes, the kids who talk through their parents, and the kids who are impossibly demanding. These kids become either neutral customers, or part of large soccer/basketball/baseball/dance teams that flood your restaurant, pay separately, and don’t tip at all because they are kids and don’t understand, or don’t want to understand what that means. One exception that I have always looked back on as the exception that proves the rule is Michael. He began coming to the restaurant when he was about four years old. He always ordered for himself, clearly, politely. He asked for his own drink refills: “Miss, may I have another soda, please?” He is about seven or eight years old now, and comes in less frequently, but is still polite, clean, and pleasant.

Rednecks are perhaps the best of the worst customers, because they can encompass all of the above. Their characteristics are not set, not stable and they are often not even identifiable until you are too far in. They are simply their own anecdote with less than ten percent. One of the worst examples I was witness to was the burden of another server. The men were both wearing t-shirts with the sleeves cut off and dirty jeans, their muddy boots left distinguished prints on the carpet. The woman was loudly trying to wrangle her three children who were all toting their McDonald’s Happy Meals and toys and GameBoys. The adults ordered margaritas, changing the flavor each time they got a refill, they had large expensive dishes, steak and ribs, steak well done, extra sauce for the ribs. They had their waitress literally at a continual run, but not just for their own food, but fetching ketchup, mustards, extra french fries, napkins, water, for their children whose meals came from a different establishment. They complained to the manager that their steaks, brown all the way through, ordered well done, were at once over cooked and tough. They made a large mess, talked loud enough to clear their section of the restaurant, haggled on the bill, and then left their server less than two dollars on a check that was close to eighty. In this case the rednecks were obvious, and you try to pawn them off on younger, less knowledgeable servers, but sometimes they are not obvious, making them unavoidable.

Customers are of course your income, and therefor one of the most important things in the restaurant, but they are only thing you have to deal with. Your co-workers can be equally rewarding and frustrating. People who work at a restaurant seem to have the ability to bond closely with each other, rather quickly. I theorize that it is because we have to work long hours to make our livings, and those hours coincide with the social time of our outside friends and family, so we default to social situations with one another. If you get off of work early, around nine or ten, you are too tired to do anything but sit at the tables around the bar, drink generously poured drinks, eat food that hours ago looked disgusting due to repetition. If you get off work later, around midnight or one, there is no one awake, no place open, so you converge at someone’s house, drink cheap booze, dance, and talk of little else but work. This is all not so bad, you have an automatic friendship base when you work in a restaurant. But you also lack lines of definition, and that makes it difficult to decide what is work, and what is your private life. And when certain people also have trouble with the line between employee and manager, it can become dangerous. There is then the question of who to trust, who can you talk to, who is safe. The obvious answer is to just not be friends with the people you work with, but that can make some things not as pleasant, because you would quickly become ostracized, or retaliated against, or simply lonely or without allies. Here the restaurant may mirror the real world.

The customers, the employees they would not be there if not for the food. I recall the first day I worked at the restaurant, I can recall how good it smelled, the bacon cooking, the barbeque sauce, the french fries, fresh coffee, all of it. Then the smell started to nauseate me. Now I only actually smell the food if it is burning, or if we got something radically new and different, and neither of those happen very often. That doesn’t mean that those who work at the restaurant don’t have a unique appreciation for and relationship with food. If you work in the FOH (front-of-house) you probably snag french fries, look at finished plates and get very hungry time and time again, and wait for food to ‘die’ so that you can eat. If you are a BOH (back-of-house) person, then you have to have some level of pride, or over-involvement with the food. You can look at a plate and say “that looks beautiful” and mean it, there is art in plate presentation, in the perfect line of pink in the middle of a medium steak, in the steam wafting up from a bowl of soup. You also resent the food, it is hot, and greasy, and it takes your time and your patience and your sanity. If you get backed up, you are just as likely to curse the food as the servers or the customers. However, in a moment of calm, you will look down at something simple, a pasta with a sprig of parsley popping against the marinara, you can smile. Because food is the reason we are all there, the food makes the customers come in, which means they need a server to take their order, which makes a cook have to prepare that order, and expo have to prep the plate and ensure it gets delivered to the right table, and a manager to make sure all of this ends with a happy customer.


You may spend forty-five minutes a week in a restaurant, you may never go out at all, you may not know how to cook, the way you view a restaurant is going to be very different from the way the next person does. But to a waitress, a cook, any one inside those walls who uses the restaurant as their livelihood, the restaurant is its own nation. You speak the language, you follow the hierarchy, you are part of the social system, you interact with the food. You love the restaurant. And you hate it. You want to leave, but it is so difficult to. Stockholm syndrome? Maybe, perhaps we are delusional about the reality of our little country. In ten years, after most of us have taken on another line of work, maybe we won’t even remember it. Or maybe the restaurant, the attitude of service, of juxtaposing manners and rudeness, the work ethic, the interpersonal relationships it builds, that will be what we take away with us, and hold on to. Heard?

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Clichés are clichés for a reason. And that is a cliché. Her hair was forced into perfect spiral curls, she had glitter on her chest. When she smiled, which was at once frequent and unrepeated, her teeth were yellow and grey from tar and tobacco. Her skirt did not reach the ground, revealing the cellulite on her calves. She is not wearing shoes. I tried again and again to ask her if she realized what she was doing. That it was not necessary, we could work out something else. I was talking to a rag doll. I tried to give her my bracelet, insisting that it was borrowed, and that the beads were blue. I tried to smile and tell her I was happy and she was beautiful. Because she was. But on the day of my little sister’s wedding, all she could say to me is: “This doesn’t matter.” She is eighteen, pregnant, and up until about thirty-six hours ago, we thought redeemable. Certainly though, she is not unique. That may be the most painful thing. The fact that I am steaming the aged lace on my teenaged sister’s borrowed wedding gown is no phenomenon. She would tell me as much. And use ‘love’ as her reasoning. The cynic in me rears up.

Upon arrival at the home where this blessed event was set to take place, we were greeted by four or five women laying on various couches, watching television, at high volumes discussing how much had been done for the wedding, and how they had done it all. This was ignorable, I said ‘hello’ and ‘nice to meet you.’ When I went outside to get my sister, who was decorating the porch for her wedding, I was followed out of the room by the epitaph ‘skinny bitch.’ I grant them that. I am no waif, but each of these ladies had at least fifty pounds on me. I help my sister get ready for her wedding, pull the stained gown down over her head, ignore the constant stream of word-like sounds from her future family. I take a page from my Mother’s book: pray. Time must slow down, because there is no way this is actually happening. It is too much.

She is ready to walk out of the garage of his home, around the corner and up to the front steps where a preacher is waiting. The problem is the fiance is almost an hour late. Most of his family is in the house, getting ‘ready,’ why this is so time consuming is beyond me, almost all of them are wearing their every day jeans and cotton t-shirts. People stand around in the yard smoking (for the first time since the election, I am among them), poking at the decorations, the father of the groom walks out of the house eating a sandwich, there are three tractors in the yard and dog shit on the carpets. The families are aligned as the Capulets and the Montagues…or the Capulets and Larry the Cable Guy’s family. My Mother, Step-Father, my sister’s best friend and her mother, we lean against our cars on one side of the lawn, we talk quietly, my Mother’s lips move in prayer. On the other side is the groom’s family, talking loudly, cursing, jiggling.

The groom finally arrives via his friends truck, they donut into the yard and he jumps out stark naked. He too pulls on jeans, does not take the time to tuck in his shirt, or brush his teeth. But he does stand at the foot of the stairs and wait, as the bridal party moves into position. The groomsmen are barely men, they lear at me as I walk in red heels over the sloppy ground. All of them are chewing tobacco, occasionally they spit in unison, a feat that would make me laugh if it did not make me sick. Two out of three are wearing baseball caps, one of them is camouflaged and stuck through with fishing hooks. My sister follows me out, to the sound of camera snaps, talking, no music, my mother crying. When she reaches her groom he turns to his friends, rolls his eyes. Before he says his vows, he lets go a wad of tobacco from his mouth, to her feet. I pray. I am not exactly what one would call a God-fearing woman. But I pray for lightning. I pray for a localized plague. I pray for anything. I acknowledge my involvement in junior rodeo, I could hog-tie her, throw her in the car, take her to an abortion clinic, then to a private all girls college with a liberal discipline policy. But before I could pray for this boy to drop dead, it was done. There was no reverence, as soon as they kissed as man and wife, someone yelled for them to stop mucking up the lawn, that they needed to take pictures. They stood at the top of the yard, waiting for someone to direct them.

His aunt called him over to say his respects to our family. Apparently he forgot them. Must of dropped them on the way over. He would not look me in the eye, I had to grab his hand in order to shake it. I saw the fear in my sister’s eyes, the anxiety, So I wished them a happy life. “She is a wonderful girl.” And I meant it. I watched her grow up. Heard her sing, watched her play. Encouraged her dream of becoming a doctor, then becoming a nurse, then becoming a beautician, then becoming a nurse’s aid. And then I heard this boy, that she is now linked to for life, for better or worse, say “She’s not that wonderful.” There was no reception, the bride and groom went out to dinner together. She paid.

It is not that my sister is pregnant, that can happen. She made a choice for herself that is different from my own, and that is fine. It is not that she is married young, my Grandma married my Grandpa when she was just fourteen, she lied about her age, they were never technically legally married, but she was his wife, he was her husband, until the day God took him. It is not that she is marrying someone who is uneducated. What is most important is often not learned in print or prose. It is the fact that she has lost herself to this boy, and his family. She needed his identity so desperately that she cared not for the fact that he verbalized, to the best of his abilities, I am sure, on multiple occasions, that he did not want her. She gained nearly a hundred pounds, she dropped in and out of school, she stopped thinking. She simply regurgitated. His family was violent towards her, vandalizing her property, stalking her, terrorizing and harassing her, the situation became a complete cliché when she could not go to the police because he was related to the police. And now she is pregnant, and fifty percent more likely to be abused, eighty percent more likely to be unable to leave her current situation.

The problem is not that none of this matters to her; not the control, not the disrespect, not the violence, not the separation from her family, none of it. The problem is we saw this coming, my sister’s and I, perhaps even my mother, and we apparently did nothing for it. The fact that I went to sleep thinking of all the times I had thought “she’s going to get knocked up,” and did what was ultimately nothing to prevent it. The fact that we saw her lack of boundaries, we saw her confusion as to what is a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ life path, and did not drill into her head enough. The fact that we were relatively silent when my mom moved them to a small town, and at once came down on my sister and ignored her, and said nothing. The fact that we allowed my intelligent, naïve, simple, trusting sister to become a small town harlot, to sleep around, to become something there is no nice word for, that is the problem. And now it simply is, because that is the way it is with clichés, they are clichés for a reason.

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