Thursday, November 23, 2006

The thin veneer

The cafe staff is composed almost exclusively people recovering from substance abuse. A rehab halfway house in our city furnished a steady stream of good workers. When one waitress came to the end of her stint at the rehab house, the boss asked her spread the word that a successor was needed. These folks were reliable, hard-working, and intelligent. Their stories of a tough life contrasted with my relatively sheltered life.

I found their resilience and resourcefulness humbling. It was a lesson in humility. I felt guilty about ever complaining about my lot in life.

Despite the fact that waiting tables has traditionally been the employment bastion of the uneducated, make no mistake, a good waitress possesses the skill set to be a corporate vice president. Given advantages early on in life, the career trajectory is limitless for a person with the interpersonal skills, multitasking abilities, and sheer physical rigor to wait tables, assuming they start from a position of strength.

A lot of unfulfilled potential. A lot. Sadly. These are people I respected.

Life, as with chemistry, where one ends up depends so much on where one starts, to paraphrase Barbara Ehrenreich, an experiential journalist (and cell biologist) who wrote about trying to get by on low-wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Making it in America.

For my food service friends, life is a struggle: with finances, with the demons that beset them, with their families, against society's perception.

Years before, I visited with a homeless young man at the beach in San Diego. He had owned a successful business cleaning boat hulls in San Diego Harbor. Through a series of mishaps and beset by a drinking problem, he lost his business, tumbled through the tiers of desperation, until he found himself at the lowest rung of society: homeless, penniless, and out of options. How tenuous is our grasp on affluence and normalcy! The veneer is frighteningly thin.

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