Editor's note: And now for something completely different...
When I began this newspaper, one of the things I wanted to do most was serialize fiction, in the grand Victorian style that made Dickens famous. I serialized a novel and several shorter pieces I'd written in this space. But I shortly learned that covering the local news and writing fiction were mutually exclusive (whatever my critics might have said). I had no time to write fiction, nobody else submitted me any, and I shortly let the practice lapse. Now that I've given up covering the news, what better time to resume the practice?
This is a bad example to start with in that it is not long enough to serialize, but will be presented here in its entirety; and in that it is not so much a literary story as a story from my working life I was burning to write. But I have changed names or left them out so that the story should by no means be regarded as a news account.
Actually, the idea of running "work stories" came from The Planet's longtime garden columnist, Ann Bartlett, who had some in mind to write from her nursing career. So perhaps we'll see some of those here in the fullness of time. No pressure, Ann, but your fans have been alerted! Meanwhile, if other writers have stories they'd like to present to readers in a small yet elegant publication, well! What is The Planet, chopped liver? Send to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There was a gag in some stage play I saw in my early 20s: A waiter tells the couple sitting at his table: “I’m not really a waiter—I’m an actor.”
It was funny not just for the obvious reason—that this was a play, so that the man playing a waiter really was an actor—but for the reason that was almost as obvious in that phase of my life: that most people trying to be actors really were waiters, so that the actor playing the waiter who was really an actor most likely was really a waiter who wanted to be an actor.
That joke came to mind as I sat down to write this account about the year or so I waited tables at a Steak and Ale in Atlanta, when I was 22 and/or 23, and trying to be something else.
Steak and Ale, now defunct, was launched in 1960-something as one of those campy corporate theme restaurants that ruled the earth back then. The dishes had names like The King’s Cut and The Duke’s Filet. The waitresses were supposed to look like serving wenches, with white peasant blouses tucked into tiny red plaid miniskirts. Maybe in 1960-something the outfit was daring. By the time I wore it, in the early 1980s, it felt more like being on a basketball team, or possibly the Navy, because the manager of our location--I’ll call him “Bligh”--was a former chief petty officer who ran a tight ship.
Bligh was a skimpy bespectacled guy who had presumably learned in the military to compensate for his unprepossessing physique by being extra hard-ass. He regimented us into a disciplined hustle through the restaurant I still remember: Bar first (at front of restaurant), pick up drinks, deliver to dining room, take food orders, pick up dirty dishes, proceed to kitchen, dump dishes at dishwasher (at rear of restaurant), wash hands at staff sink before proceeding to food prep area to leave orders for cooks, pick up food and deliver to dining room, take drink orders, back to bar, start over.
Bligh would monitor all of this, barking orders, and ream you a new one if you forgot to wash your hands. Just recently, when COVID-19 focused emphasis on handwashing, I realized I was way ahead of the curve because of that early training. My hands get a certain feeling, like a tingle, and I feel compelled to wash them before somebody rips my throat out.
But even under Bligh’s lash, we waiters and waitresses always managed to have a perfectly marvelous time. I know it can’t have all been parties and dancing but that’s what I remember. Some of it, I expect, was a matter of 22 and/or -3 being a fun age to be, and that’s the age most of us were. But I think I found the wait staff particularly fun because, like the waiter in the play—and like me—everybody there was more than just a waiter or waitress, or anyway striving to be.
In my case, I was trying to be a writer. I was working on a novel called Without Unicorns (because it didn’t have any unicorns in it, which is a pretty good example of my sense of humor in those days). That—surprise, surprise--never got published, but I had anyway started selling stories to the confessions mags. The first one was headlined A Witch Stole My Husband’s Love. I don’t think anybody reads confessions anymore but back then the audience was mostly teenage girls and the stories were mostly about romance. There had to be a twist of some kind to make the story interesting though of course you couldn’t always hope for a witch. A physical disability was always a safe bet but I could work with mental conditions if I had to. The stories had to be based on the truth, and looking for material meant I was anyway a good listener.
Then there was Alan, who was waiting to get into medical school, and Charlie, a recreation league—I don’t think they called it that back then--coach who didn’t get paid for coaching--yet. There was the beautiful Rose, who was trying to build a career in modeling. There were Piper and Jen, who were both doing some kind of graduate work, I believe, and Daisy who had just started art school. There was Roger, who was working on his master’s, and he roomed with Gilbert, who already had his PhD. I don’t remember their story, what they were studying or why they had to keep working in the restaurant instead of teaching or something. Maybe I wasn’t as interested in them as I was the others because of their great age—Gilbert must have been 40, for Pete’s sake, it was a wonder he could still hoist a tray—but I was proud of their advanced education. Gilbert wore wire-rimmed glasses and spoke in precise clipped sentences like an English headmaster. I felt it set a certain tone.
Then there were two sisters who only worked on the weekends, one of them an elementary school teacher, so I didn’t know them as well—Sandra and somebody, who cares? I mention them because they come into the story later, but only a little. And there were two cousins from Iran who were studying engineering in Marietta. I believe their names were Muammar and Mohammed but we called them Mikey and Moe. Of course we did!
Mikey was short and noisy, always cracking jokes in his unearthly accent and sneaking up behind me in the pantry to nuzzle my neck. Neck-nuzzling in the workplace wouldn’t fly these days but in 1980-something nobody gave it a thought. When Charlie, the coach, remember, gallantly ordered Mikey to stop because I didn’t like it, I gave him a grateful simper but that’s because Charlie was tall, handsome and funny and I had a low-grade crush on him. Actually, I didn’t mind Mikey--he was cute and good-natured and could he help it if I had an irresistible neck? Anyway it was all just what my father called grab-assing. It didn’t mean a thing except that we were all young and riddled with hormones.
Mikey in any case had a serious girlfriend and in fact got married during this period. That was one of the most fun times I remember. He wasn’t marrying somebody from the Old Country in a mosque but a nice Atlanta girl in a Presbyterian church. (I wonder how that worked out.) But the reception was strictly secular, with champagne and a swimming pool, the latter into which I jumped in my sister’s best party dress after consuming too much of the former. It was my first experience with this pink and bubbly stuff that looks so much like soda pop, and is not.
I had worked the Friday before the wedding, an exhilarating time when we were all singing to Mikey, “Oh, they’re going to the chapel, and they’re gonna get mah-ah-ah-ried,” or “I’m getting married in the morning; ding dong, the bells are going to chime,” during the lunch rush, stymied by the food and drink we had to serve the customers as well as by the fact that nobody could remember any more of the lyrics to either song. Google has made life better in that respect. These days we could give him every verse.
Then I worked the Sunday after the wedding, which had a totally different gestalt. The restaurant seemed dark, gloomy and quiet, but it couldn’t be quiet enough because I had my first champagne hangover and noise hurt. Daisy, the art student, who was little and blonde and usually the bouncy type, was not bouncing today but looked worse than I felt. When I inquired she squirmed in shame, admitting, “I got so drunk, I was kissin’ on Moe.”
This cheered me enormously. Mikey had cleaned up nice for his nups but Moe was over six feet tall with black hair and eyes like the night sky and in his best man’s suit? Oh. My. God. So I’m admitting nothing and champagne blurs the memory but it is entirely possible that before I hit the water I may have done some unsolicited kissin’ on poor Moe myself. It was nice that Daisy had succumbed as well, and also nice that from her tone Moe had been no more receptive than in my case. Misery loves company!
It’s funny in retrospect: Mikey was always rushing around after the girls, doing what now we would call inappropriate touching, but Moe didn’t have to. All Moe had to do was stand there.
Well, you get the idea. We were a bunch of clever young people a little past college age, all thrown together as we waited tables and waited to change into whatever we were supposed to be. In a situation like that, some degree of grab-assing is inevitable. Really when you think about it, grab-assing is not just inevitable but fit and proper at that stage of life, when people choose their mates, when they decide how and with whom they’ll go through the rest of their lives. And that really is what this story is about, though I’ll try to keep the grab-assing to a minimum.
I’ve described us as young people in metamorphosis, waiting to be something else. The exception to this was Danny, who was a waiter for real, as I thought of it, or on purpose. The way Danny did it made me see that, if you went at it seriously, being a waiter could be as steady a job as any other. He worked enough shifts and made enough money that he owned a nice car and a boat, things like that, grownup things. Danny was a nice guy, dark-haired, medium-sized, well-groomed, good-looking in a quiet sort of way. What impressed me most in that regard was that he had “regulars,” customers who had followed him from the more upscale restaurant he’d worked at before the Steak and Ale. It was as if they didn’t care what they ate, they only came for the pleasure of being waited on by Danny. These were all women.
Danny was a little older than most of us, maybe 27 or 28 to our 22 or 23, but he wasn’t married or paired off with a girlfriend yet. He had an apartment with another guy of about the same age, Ben. I don’t remember much about Ben except that he looked a lot like Danny, only with curly hair. They struck me as man-about-town types, slick with the ladies. Not that I snooped into Danny’s business, particularly. I guess it was the boat and the female regulars that gave me that idea. But I did end up sticking my nose into Danny’s love life when I drew his name for gift-giving at the staff Christmas party. That’s what this story’s about.
Usually drawing names at work flummoxed me. I wasn’t good at giving gifts. I hated shopping for one thing and had a fine contempt for physical possessions for another. Being broke didn’t help, either. This time, however, I had a fabulous idea:
I wasn’t, like the man in the gag, waiting tables while I was trying to be an actor; I was waiting tables while I tried to be a writer. But I did happen to live with two girls who were trying to break into show biz. They worked in Atlanta theater, getting parts in plays or costuming them, and though they weren’t getting rich and they weren’t getting famous, they did get a lot of free tickets—which they sometimes shared with me. That Christmas I had two comps to some great show I thought anybody would want to see, and I must have already seen it myself or I wouldn’t have been so generous about giving the tickets to Danny.
I didn’t just give him the tickets, though. I bought a bottle of wine, which I wrapped in colored foil with a tag that said Part 1. I put the tickets in an envelope, labeled Part 2, which I taped to the bottle. Under that I taped another envelope, labeled Part 3, and in that envelope was a gift certificate for a date with the beautiful Rose!
The beautiful Rose, I will remind you, was our budding model. The graduate students arranged their work schedules around their classes and Charlie around his ballgames. In Rose’s case, she would sometimes run late for the lunch shift when she had a morning photo shoot. I don’t know to what extent she was successful, if she ever hit the big time; but she was beautiful and that’s why I’d asked her to be part of my fabulous Christmas present.
From the distance of years, I can’t imagine myself doing that! How would I have even brought the subject up? “Since you’re a beautiful girl and I’m not?” Of course it would have been presumptuous to offer myself as Danny’s Dream Date even if I’d been better-looking. Plus I had a boyfriend and might have considered myself hors de combat in the dating department. But I don’t think that came into it. And I’m equally sure I didn’t consider compatibility, as in Danny had a boat; while Rose had told me she’d gotten a sunburn on her beach weekend because the bikini she’d worn the second day was a “little bit littler” than the one she’d worn the first day; so that it was reasonable to assume they both enjoyed water sports. Nope. I’m sure my reasoning in asking Rose, and hers in understanding and accepting, was that she was a beautiful model and therefore a Dream Date.
As opposed to somebody like me! From the distance of years, the humility of that gives me a sour little laugh. I did a Google search on the Steak and Ale waitress uniform from that period and let me tell you, from the distance of years I am impressed all to hell and back I ever fit into such of a thing. My Google search turned up only one picture, the one that I have stolen and decapitated here so as to protect the identity of the waitress. Ironically, it is from the blog of another writer who used it to illustrate the variety of jobs she had to take to keep writing. (Though I wonder if another consideration was that she, too, was tickled she had once fit into such of a thing.) (There aren’t any pics of me in my little uniform, BTW; who knew then that wearing it would become something to brag about?)
I mention all this because it would be nice to think, from the distance of years, that I was a hot number. The reality is that when we’re at the peak of our youth and beauty, we’re so surrounded by others who are, too, that I, anyway, never rated much above a C-minus. Life is sad. But I had better shut up and get back to the Christmas party:
My present to Danny made a satisfying splash. Again, my co-workers were clever and fun and mine wasn’t the only smart-ass gift. But it was the only foil-wrapped wine bottle with messages hanging off it in tiers. Danny unwrapped the wine and seemed amused, then opened the envelope with the tickets and seemed pleased. Then he opened the last envelope, the gift certificate for Rose, and seemed…well, “dazzled” was the word, I told myself. Rose was wearing a cowboy hat that night and she swept it off, bowed amid a sweep of shining dark hair, and said, “I am at your convenience, sir.” I said: “I’ve given you a date with a beautiful woman, a fabulous place to take her, and a bottle of red wine for afterwards. The rest is up to you!”
Everybody laughed. Of course the whole thing backfired miserably, but it was a great party.
They were all great parties! Again, parties are what I remember about that job. Which is mysterious because, looking back, I can’t figure out what parties they even would have been. My memory is that I would give one of the others a lift home after work if they needed it and they would do the same for me. I drove an old banger I’d bought for $500 in tip money I’d saved up in a coffee can and it was always breaking down. But I don’t remember being particular friends with any of them, going to their homes or inviting them to mine. So where did I go for all these parties and who invited me?
God knows, but there we all are in my memories, drinking too much and dancing the way people only do dance when they drink too much. I remember stumbling around to Little Eva singing, “Come on baby, do the Locomotion.” It was an oldie even then but I had gotten all the way through college without realizing you were supposed to follow the instructions when she sings things like: “You’ve got to swing your hips now,” or “a chugga chugga motion like a railroad train, now.” I can’t imagine what I did for that—what the hell is a chugga chugga motion anyway?--but I do remember staggering behind Alan, my nose millimeters from his butt, when Eva sang, “Now that you can do it, let's make a chain, now.”
Then there’s another party scene I remember that includes the older of those two sisters I mentioned who only worked on the weekends, Sandra. She was drinking and talking to a waiter who must have worked only on the weekends, too, because I didn’t know him very well, either. One reason I remember that conversation is that I realized with a shock she was coming on to him.
I have told you we were all at the grab-ass stage; so what, you are probably asking, was so shocking about Sandra flirting with the waiter? Two points: (a) she was a little older than the rest of us, and married; and (b) the waiter wore his hair in a goofy pompadour so that he looked like Archie from the comic books. I didn’t find Archie attractive or interesting—see? I can’t even remember the guy’s name—and it was hard to imagine him inspiring adulterous lust in Sandra. But she did seem to find him attractive and what was even more surprising was that Rose—yes, the beautiful Rose!—was also hanging around this conversation, in particular hanging around Archie, so that I realized she thought he was hot, too.
It made me shake my head in bewilderment. Of course there was some latitude for personal taste in this attractiveness business, everyone knew that. Still, most of it seemed straightforwardly measurable, like I was a C-minus and Rose an A-plus—nobody was doing photo shoots of me! And like Mikey was funny but short while Moe was tall and drop-dead gorgeous so that it was Moe who’d had to fight off drunken waitresses though it was Mikey who’d have enjoyed being kissed on. Where did Archie come into the equation? But you could see he was used to female attention from the way he strutted and preened, and in fact he had the beautiful model and the married woman hanging on his words while C-minus here wouldn’t have crossed the street for him. Life is mysterious!
The final thing I want to tell you about that scene was what Sandra was saying to Archie. She was talking about her sister, the schoolteacher waitress, being on the way, and she said, “She wanted to come so bad, she’s abandoning all them little retarded kids she teaches to be here.” I expect she was trying to be funny but I recoiled.
Now that I think about it, maybe that scene took place at the Christmas party, and what Sandra meant was that her sister was leaving a Christmas party attended by her special education students early to come to this one instead. That would seem a reasonable explanation for what Sandra said about ditching the students to come to our party. So maybe I have a lot of party memories but they’re all from the same three or four parties.
It doesn’t matter, and anyway I do have a few memories from those days that aren't about parties. One is, while we were cleaning up after the lunch rush, Alan getting his call that he’d made it into medical school. These were the days before cellphones but I remember Alan standing smack in the middle of the kitchen babbling into the receiver, “Sir, you can’t know what this means to me…well, I guess maybe you do know what this means to me.” Maybe Bligh had brought him the telephone from the front somehow because Bligh, anyway, knew what this meant to him. It meant something to me, too. I grinned from ear to ear and it’s still good to think, looking back on those days, that one of us anyway got his shot.
Here’s something else I remember from that job, a slice of life that shows you the flavor of the times. I was in the pantry rolling silverware into napkins for the dinner shift when Jen and Macy arrived separately in civilian clothes. They had both been shopping. It must have been fall because Jen was dressed for summer in cotton pants and a breezy blouse while Macy had on this perfectly enormous plaid wool skirt that looked like it would get her through a winter in Scotland. It came down past her midcalf, in muted shades of brown and green that seemed to blot out the sun.
Oh! I forgot to tell you about Macy. She had graduated from Agnes Scott and everything about her shouted FAMILY MONEY so loud it was hard to figure out what she was doing waiting tables until you learned (and they were subtle about it) that she was Bligh’s girlfriend. She was a good type of girl, soft-spoken and intelligent, nice to everybody, wore glasses, liked cats.
Jen, the graduate student, remember, was also a good sort, a responsible little redhead who seemed close to Bligh and Macy and who would sit in as management for them when needed. I remember it was Jen who Bligh got to instruct me, when I hired on, what kind of foundation garment I needed to buy so that I was considered decent in the flippy little skirt. Jen explained it was a heavier grade of black panties you wore over your black stockings that helped keep them up, and that also covered your butt if you leaned over too far. She called it “kind of like a girdle” and I remember being mildly startled at the word. Whoever heard of our generation wearing girdles? Now, of course, I get those “Shapermint” ads more or less nonstop in my Facebook feed, videos of women younger than I am corralling their billowing stomachs into “control shorts” or “shaper panties.” I imagine I could make good use of a pair though I have resisted so far.
But back to Jen and Macy in the pantry, which was an alcove between the dining area and the kitchen where we kept the silverware and where we poured glasses of water and iced tea. Jen and Macy were comparing their haul from the sales. Jen said she’d spent $100 and she kept pulling garments out of bags, saying: “I got this shirt and this one, then these tops were on sale so I got two, and these pants and some socks…”
When it got to Macy’s turn, she said, “I spent $150.”
“What did you buy?” said Jen.
“This skirt,” said Macy.
It wasn’t just funny as a lesson in relative value. It was funny because that skirt was sucking all the air from the room and looked like it was fixin' to invade Poland. That was my introduction to the “preppy look” that would take over the 1980s where cocaine had left off.
The ‘80s should have been my favorite decade because it was then that I came into the flower of life, free of school and parental authority but still gloriously young and free of responsibility. And it’s true I enjoyed that part but I also associate that era with a new materialism that favored greed and venerated ugly things that cost a lot of money, like Cabbage Patch dolls and Macy’s skirt. Give me the ‘70s every time! When I was in college it wasn’t even fashionable to own things.
I tell you this mostly to show that real life was going on during this period, that there were times we were doing our jobs and there wasn’t a bottle of booze in sight. But to get to the next part of the story I will have to take you to another party.
I have never been blessed with what they call “people skills,” and I have an unbridled nosiness about the affairs of others that led me first to the confessions stories and finally to journalism. But even I knew better than to pester Danny and Rose about the date I’d arranged for them. Maybe I knew I’d had a lot of nerve arranging the date in the first place, and mustn’t press my luck. But no one reported back to me uninvited so finally, at a party that I believe took place in the spring, my resolve was loosened enough by spirituous beverages that I asked the beautiful Rose how the play had been.
“Danny never asked me,” she said. When she started to cry I saw she was drunk herself, something I had never seen before. “He didn’t take me to the play. He took that Sandra instead,” she sobbed, her pretty face becoming ugly when she said Sandra’s name.
I was baffled. Stand up the beautiful Rose for a married woman, and one with that nose? I remembered Sandra’s reference to “them little retarded kids.” The woman had no class. I was also surprised at how hurt and crushed Rose seemed, not to mention how drunk. I had thought the A-pluses of the world were more on top of it than that. But I remembered Rose hanging on the strutting Archie’s words and reminded myself there were parts of the human heart I didn’t understand. Anyway, my brilliant Christmas party idea had ended in tears and I can promise you for the rest of my life I have never tried to arrange a date for anybody else.
But Rose was wrong about Danny and Sandra. Looking back, I imagine she thought Sandra had beat her out with Danny because Sandra had beat her out with Archie. But Danny had not taken Sandra to the show. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I should tell you another funny thing that happened at the restaurant during this time: We got robbed.
It was after the dinner rush and Macy and I were in the pantry, standing back to back, again “rolling silver,” I think we called it, on opposite counters. This was a default chore that always needed to be done as silverware came out of the dishwasher. When I felt a tap on my shoulder I thought it was Macy and when Macy felt one she thought it was me, but we both looked around to see people with guns instead and gave each other an outraged look. The robbers marched us into the kitchen and made us get into the walk-in refrigerator. The kitchen staff was already there.
Before we went into the walk-in, the robbers took the little bags the waiters and waitresses carried at our waists, which depending on whether we’d “cashed out” for the night—I don’t think I had--held not just our tips but the money we’d collected from customers. They also took our jewelry. People later complained they’d lost items they’d treasured; one waitress had had to give them a gold cross she’d worn since childhood. But in my case, I gave them the hoop earrings I was wearing and they gave them back.
The robbers had napkins covering most of their faces but I could see that the person who slapped the cheap earrings contemptuously back into my palm was a woman. She was Hispanic-looking, with dyed red curls, and her hands were long and fine-boned, a woman’s hands.
After they rounded me and Macy up, the robbers went into the dining room and got the others, then on into the bar, subsequently bringing a few late drinkers back to the walk-in to join us. These were more relaxed than everyone else, cheerful and inclined to treat the event as an adventure. Alcohol does have its virtues. As for Bligh, I think I remember the robbers roughed him up a little and made him open the safe, but no one was really hurt.
When everybody was in the walk-in, the robbers forbade us to talk and closed us in. There was a Mexican dishwasher named Jorge with us who seemed badly frightened and I tried to say a few comforting words to him in Spanish. My Spanish wasn’t very good but I was always trying to practice on him. This time he looked scared and said, “Shh,” and so did everybody else, reminding me we weren’t supposed to talk. But I wasn’t frightened because I thought the robbers were gone by now. I forget how long it took before the others came to the same conclusion, and we came out—I don’t think the robbers had really been able to lock us in there, it was just a matter of deciding when the coast was clear.
Jorge never came back to work and somebody told me it was because he’d been so frightened. Later, though, I wondered if it was because he’d been the inside man and made off with the loot with the others. More recently I’ve speculated he was an illegal immigrant and was either deported or disappeared because he thought he would be. One way or the other, I never saw him again.
We were all very late getting home that night of the robbery because everyone had to be interviewed by the police. When I told the cops about the redheaded woman giving me my earrings back, they rolled their eyes and it was clear they didn’t believe me. It turned out it wasn’t the part about the earrings they balked at; it was just that nobody else had seen a woman. I read a lot of detective fiction and I learned that night it was true what the books said about no two witnesses seeing the same crime. It was the same thing with Jorge and his part in the drama. Who knew what the truth was? It’s like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Nobody gets the whole picture. On the other hand, I never doubted I was right about the woman.
Well, it’s time to wrap this up and I can’t do that without taking you back to one more drunken party. It has to have been the last one because I don’t remember any more after it. Looking back, it seems part of a themed series, with a different person drunk every time. The first was that wedding reception and I was the one who drank too much champagne. Then Sandra at the Christmas party with her vulgar reference to her sister’s special ed kids, then Rose sobbing angrily that Danny had stood her up for Sandra. At the last one it was Danny.
Danny didn't get mean when he was drunk and he didn't get loud. What he got was nicer and, well, more forthcoming. What I remember from this last Steak and Ale party, really all I remember, is Danny putting his arms around his roommate, Ben, who had come with him to the party, smiling gently, and explaining in a slow, sweet, drunken voice, “He’s my boy. He’s my love.”
And that, of course, was why he hadn’t taken Rose to the play. He had taken Ben. Of course he had! He couldn’t very well take a pretty girl to a special occasion when he was living with his forever date.
It doesn’t sound like that big a revelation now. Homosexuality has existed since the dawn of time. Just because a person didn’t have gay mannerisms or wear a Gay Pride T-shirt didn’t mean he couldn’t be in love with his roommate. And as for those female “regulars” who followed Danny from one restaurant to another, why hadn’t I suspected that that was more like women following their hairdresser to a new salon than anything to do with sex? But I hadn’t suspected, and from her hurt and anger neither had Rose.
I was not just astonished but exasperated. Why hadn’t Danny made the situation clear from the beginning? Or at least said something to set me straight when I got hold of the wrong end of the stick? This was the 1980s, not the 1950s. Gay people were all over the place. At the restaurant we had an openly gay bartender. We didn’t say “openly gay.” We just said “gay.” It wasn’t a big deal!
But Danny had every right to his privacy and if anyone was to blame for anything I expect it was me with my ill-conceived Christmas present. Anyway it didn’t matter. Besides hurt feelings on Rose’s part and embarrassment on mine, no harm had been done, and probably a powerful life lesson had been taught (if not learned) about minding one’s own beeswax.
It was shortly after that that the old crew ended up leaving the Steak and Ale in a big general diaspora. I’m pretty sure that had nothing to do with Danny’s revelation, my stupid Christmas present, or even the robbery. When I sat down to write this story I didn’t even recall what happened to end that job. What I remembered about it was dancing the Locomotion, the parties, my Christmas present and how it had flopped.
But I thought and thought and finally I pulled from the mists of time a memory of the Steak and Ale corporate office swooping in and firing Bligh overnight. I have no idea why. He was a hard-ass but looking back he was probably a good manager. I’ve noticed people are often happiest in organizations where discipline is tight but fair—schools, the military, jobs—and we certainly seemed like a happy crew. I don’t remember the aftermath, whether we were all let go or whether we quit, or whether I just got fed up and left on my own.
Now let’s fast-forward to the present day for our epilogue. One day last winter, at a political meeting I attended in connection with my newspaper work, I noticed something that jogged the memories I’ve recounted in the above account.
We have a species of conservative politicians in the South who flat piss me off. Instead of addressing the real issues we have here—the grinding poverty, the ignorance, the meth, the corrupt and venal health care system that is killing people—they campaign on oldey-timey family values: Protect our gun rights! Wipe out abortion! Bring God back into the schools! And of course what pisses me off even worse is that the voters, instead of saying, but what about health care, keep nodding gravely and electing the sleazebuckets.
There is no real question of the politicians’ sincerity about the retrograde positions they espouse. Do middle-aged white men really lie awake worrying whether life begins at conception? I don’t think so. Do they think constantly about our duty to God? Not based on the evidence. They mostly seem in it for the income potential.
The politician speaking at the meeting last winter was just one more of that stable but he was so young—close to the age I’d spent dancing the Locomotion!—that he was even less believable spouting the tired old right-wing values. In his dress-up jacket and heavy shoes he was like a big honking boy dancing around with some old-man clothes and a Bible he’d found in the attic. Furthermore, he’d just shown through a stunning dumping of loyalties and breaking of promises that he had no values at all, in so doing further screwing up a long-screwed-up local situation and nixing any possible fix for the foreseeable future. It had all been like watching a dog get run over.
So I was in a black despair, disgusted not just with the young weasel but with the voters who’d elected him and the gullible local officials who’d put their faith in him. I had lost my hope for the future. I didn’t know why I bothered with the newspaper. I remember thinking it was a consolation we’d anyway made some progress with the local blue laws lately because I needed a drink. And I got it--I recall having a Margarita and a cheeseburger on a Monday night—yes! Monday!—as a result of that episode, a flagrant violation of the Fat Girl Creed.
But despair not, Gentle Reader; I do not propose to haul you off to yet another drunken debauch. Rather, stay with me for a moment at the depressing political meeting where our unscrupulous young pol has brought not a wife to stand by his side—and he does seem a trifle young to marry—but instead introduces to the audience a young man about his own age, probably a college friend, I speculate, who has come with him to the meeting. The friend stands across the room as the weasel takes to the dais in his my-daddy’s-clothes, and I glance at him idly. The friend is dolled up much the same as the weasel, in dressy slacks and jacket, but there is something about both their shoes that remind me what boys they are, the way that puppies’ feet are too big for them. Anyway, the friend looks a lot like the weasel except with slightly different hair.
It was when I noticed that, the young men’s similarity, that my mind’s eye flicked back to 1980-something, and Ben’s curly hair. Then I caught the glance the weasel shot his friend from the podium. In that glance was a certain strutting for his buddy—See? I’m important, all these people came here to see me—but there was also a seeking for assurance, such as you might shoot your husband or wife across a crowded room when a little extra confidence is needed. “Oh,” I thought.
And that’s all. If the unscrupulous politician really is gay, he has made no move so far to declare himself. He did not add to his predictable list of pro-life, pro-gun declarations, “He’s my boy. He’s my love.” And given the tendencies of the posse he rides with I can’t say I blame him. Your far-right crowd has never been that big on waving the rainbow flag.
Why jump on that bandwagon in the first place if the other people on it are hurling stones and Old Testament quotes at your brethren? Again, there’s a lot about the human heart I never did get. Anyway, maybe I’m all washed up, maybe I imagined the whole thing. Maybe there will be a Mrs. Weasel on his arm the next time I hear our unscrupulous politician speak.
I think the real lesson here is the one about 1980-something. I wondered then why Danny was so cagy about being gay. He was a waiter, for God’s sake, not a church official. What was to stop him from being himself? What never occurred to me was that it might have been Ben they were shielding. I only knew Ben as Danny’s roommate but maybe I had gotten hold of the wrong end of the elephant. Maybe Ben was a church official, or the next rising star of Reagan Era politics, and couldn’t afford to be known as having a boyfriend. Well! I couldn’t tell you. I never even knew his last name.
I can’t tell you about any of the others, either, from that time I was a waitress trying to be a writer and they all seemed to be in metamorphosis with me. Did they become what they were supposed to be? I hope so. But in my case, what I’ve noticed is that the cocoon stage tends to linger unattractively. My life’s journey seems to be more about struggling forward and stumbling back than actually getting anywhere. And it wouldn’t surprise me if others didn’t perceive the process the same way. That’s a boon of Google even handier than the song lyrics—key in whatever is eating at you and you’ll find legions of others whining about the same affliction. I don’t know why that cheers me up but it works every time.
Anyway, becoming what you’re supposed to be, really even deciding what that is, is about as much as you can hope for and there is no point trying to figure it out for anybody else. There are just so many parts of an elephant a person is willing to grope.