Thursday, March 24, 2011

family restaurant

Every small town had one.  In the days when people didn't leave town as often as they do now, there had to be a place for the locals to hang out, for the older folk to bring their families for Sunday dinner after church. My small town was no exception. You’ve seen one like it, I’m quite sure. Maybe you got lost one day, and end up in my hometown, driving down the main street with cars parallel parked on both sides. You probably noticed the striped awning below the white sign with red lettering. “Family Restaurant," it  announced proudly. The windows were partially occluded by grease, but the sidewalk in front of the building was swept clear of any offending particles of dirt. Through the window, you could see the photos of hockey teams sponsored by the restaurant, and dusty, artificial plants.

Somehow, I ended up working in this fine establishment.

The uniform puzzled me. Why deck waitresses out in black bottoms and white tops, in a greasy spoon where everyone dines in jeans and their work clothes? Why bother telling the waitresses that skirts are mandatory? I worked briefly in a teahouse, where the chef served fresh scones with double Devon cream and cranberry chutney, and even there, I wasn’t required to wear a skirt. I left that job for a different one, with more hours and the promise of better wages, and instead I ended up looking like an oversize penguin in a French fry wagon.

Black skirts are mandatory, and the shiny polyester hooks on the jagged counter as I sidled past Jimmy, the owner. His eyes never met mine; his hair was greasy and slicked back. Some weeks he trimmed his mustache, and other weeks the hairs dipped past his upper lip and into his mouth. He was a slight man, shorter than me, and he constantly wore a dour expression, broken only by insincere smiles of welcome and departure as the patrons arrived and left, pushing their wallets into their back pockets as they strode out the front door and into the main street of our town.

My white blouse was a shiny faux satin and it gaped in front. I hated blouses and buttons because nothing ever fit right. I tried to fix the gape with pins, but that never worked; there was always a telltale mark on the front of the blouse. Nylons were mandatory, and I was been told that heels were acceptable but I stuck to comfortable shoes. I thought about waitresses from the 1950’s behind lunch counters, effortlessly serving coffee and pie to hungry men who sat on red vinyl stools. I thought about the TV show Alice, where Mel the cook was blustery, but had a heart of gold. The girls at Mel’s Diner wore pink dresses and frilly aprons, so I guess I was better off.

We had vinyl-covered booths and counter service in front. The back of the restaurant looked dark, because of the burgundy flocked-velvet wallpaper and fake mahogany wainscoting. Red Tiffany lamps were suspended over tables surrounded by overstuffed banquettes.  The owner hoped to attract a different crowd in the dining room, people who could afford his hot beef dinners, lamb chops, pork schnitzel. But most of the people who bought those things spent their Sunday Dinner budgets at the fancier place around the corner at the old post office, where the windows were two stories high.

There was always something to do, unless you were in the boss’ good graces, and then you could sit whenever you wanted. I didn't particularly care to be in his good graces, so I filled Heinz bottles with cheap substitute ketchup and  wiped the sugar bowls when it wasn't busy, I mopped floors, cleaned bathrooms and sanitized counters over and over again. I took orders, and tried to remember who ordered what. I brought the tickets to the kitchen where the owner’s nephew made comments in Greek that may or may not have been sexually suggestive.

 I learned to fill drink orders first. There were round plastic trays with cork inlays to catch the drips of liquid spilled by careless hands. I would open a spigot and pour pop into an ice-filled glass half way, and then let the fizz bubble down before I filled the rest of the glass, just as he taught me.

There was so much to remember. Pick up. Walk down the stairs without falling. And always his hands were on my waist as he moved past me, fingers inching lower, accidentally brushing my buttocks once, twice.  He would casually sidle past me to the bar, to serve a favoured customer, to stand at the other end of the counter instead of this one. On that particular morning, coffee was in order for almost everyone, and I grabbed the steaming pot as I walked past the drink station, deftly avoiding both the blank stare and creeping hands of the owner.

My co-workers tittered when Ethel walked in. They didn't seem to notice Jimmy's hands, always creeping, the air full of suggestion, the meaningful looks he gave them under greasy locks. They didn't see anything wrong with the monthly staff meetings where he plied everyone with beer, even the underaged, and then ruminated about the skirts (shorter) and the blouses (tuck them in).  But when an undervalued customer walked through the door, they screeched about like starlings that flocked to the same branch, weeding out the undesirable element for the sake of conformity. Other times they were like seagulls, pecking over a single scrap of hot dog bun from a vendor’s cart.

“You’re newest,” they told me. “You get to wait on her.”

I didn't understand. I’d seen her all my life. She often stopped into the convenience store where I used to work,  asked for “Export A” cigarettes, bought a Coke and a sub, and left again. She always said hello. Always thanked me. Not so tall, but taller than I am. Built like – a man, I guess, with her square frame, her gravelly, cigarette-soaked voice, and her hands, large and rough. Most often she wore farmer green coveralls, winter and summer, and black rubber boots with red soles, winter and summer.  Our town drew farmers from three nearby counties. It was the nearest place to buy groceries for miles around. When they were in town, the farmers picked up the local paper, stopped for a coffee, and heard the news on the bench outside the  Royal Bank. They almost all wore the same thing, except on Sundays; coveralls and black rubber boots with red soles, often with muck and straw clinging to the heels.

She was loud and confident, shooting the shit with the other farmers she met, and sometimes ate with. I knew her farm; had seen her truck parked at the end of her laneway. She lived on the Winterton road, in a place where the creek had cut a cleft into the hillside. On the property there was a big old yellow-brick farmhouse. The fields and yard were well cared for, and there was a barn in back of the house, like almost every other farm on that road. Beautiful horses grazed her fields, horses that wandered and galloped under her watchful eye.

So what if she called herself Hal and her name was really Ethel? If my name was Ethel, I’d change it too. So what if she lived with another woman – that was the rumor. A dyke, the girls called her, and giggled behind their hands at her like she was  about to proposition them, run her hands subtly around their waistlines as she passed them in narrow spaces. I approached her with trepidation, waiting to be swallowed whole, so fearsome did the other girls make her sound.  I felt afraid, even though I knew her, even though I was aware that there was really nothing to fear. I was conscious, as always, of my shiny skirt and squeaky shoes which betrayed my inexperience, my newness in this place.

“Yeah. I’ll have the breakfast. Two eggs over easy, bacon, white toast,” she said, before I could pull out my little notepad and look official.

“Would you like coffee?”

“I sure would, ma’am.” She looked at me with a twinkle in her eyes, clear and blue. Her face was dark tanned, her skin rough and uncared for. She turned back to the man in the booth next to her, and continued their conversation about the hole in the roof of his barn, and whether or not he could fix it himself.

What’s the big deal? The other girls were smirking at me.

“Oooh, she likes you. If she really likes you, she’ll leave you a big tip.”

I didn't get big tips. I was a lousy waitress. I hated this job. I was only putting in time until I started college in January.

The two girls I worked with were lifers. One worked there because she left school at sixteen to have a baby. She used to be in my class, before she dropped out. She was nice enough, but I never knew her well. She was always flawless-looking in high school, with perfectly blonde hair and big, blue eyes. The fatigue she felt in every bone in her body was clearly visible. The rings under her eyes, her sweet smile, and the redness of her fingers should have drawn her more tips than the older girl, but they didn't.

The other one was waiting to marry her fiancĂ© when he graduated the next year from Lakehead University.  She was always angry. She took all the regulars, flashed her big fake smile at them, and was always ready with a joke. But as she served, she swore and muttered and mumbled under her breath at the same people she just smiled pretty at. She got the tips. Most of them.

I wanted to ask my old school mate, “Doesn’t it creep you out when Jimmy….?”

But nobody talked about it. They might fawn over the local vagrant with strong family connections. They would greet the mayor with a welcoming smile. They'd go out of their way to serve hot chocolate to a cement-plant bastion for a twenty-five cent tip. But they fought over who must serve Ethel, just as they argued over who must serve the residents from the Community Living Centre. And they took the owner's advances as a matter of course, as the price to pay for the privilege of working here.

When other waitresses moved with grace, I was awkward in my role. I stumbled over nothing. My larger-than-average body took up too much space. Perhaps that's why Jimmy’s hands were always touching me, gently moving my soft curves aside so that he could pass, brushing just a little too close. I preferred working on the days that his wife was there, as taciturn as she could be. And I noticed that when his daughters were working, they were not subject to the same treatment as the other staff.

I poured Ethel's coffee, and I carried her cup to the corner booth, near the front window. Her green cotton cap was sitting on the table now, and there were bits of straw falling out of her short, untidy hair. She was no different than the other farmers we served, who frequented local establishments complete with the tools of their trade. They'd been mucking out stalls and milking. Nobody paid any attention to their attire, or to the mud they tracked through the front door, because local merchants were conscious of the need to retain their steady business. But Ethel, a farmer, with the same boots and hat, was considered a pariah, an eyesore, an embarrassment to the community.

I slide the cup onto the formica table. “Thanks dear,” she said to me, without looking up.

My shift was over. But the other waitress pleaded with me to stay a bit longer.

“Can you finish Ethel's table before you go? She really creeps me out.” So I did, serving her breakfast and clearing away the dishes, waiting as she lingered over her coffee. For my trouble I pocketed a three dollar tip, almost as much as my hour's wages. And I learned something about what the others might think of me, should they discover the secret of what I did last year, when I was a counsellor at an all-girls summer camp.

The owner watched me from his station at the till, lowering his eyes so that we didn't connect in that way. Always watching, shaking hands with my father, smiling widely for the mayor, sweeping the store front on Main Street as the important people walk by. He shoved his fingers in his pockets and jingled his keys as the young single mom, her face flushed and warm with effort, moved to the counter to fill a drink order. He sidled past, with his hands on her waist, and brushed against her in the narrow passage between the lunch counter and the service area.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


People change. It's true. Attitudes and opinions can evolve over time.

And, it is also true that the more one thinks and talks about a particular topic, the more thoughtful and articulate they become. I'm learning, only now, in my forties, to state my position carefully, and to respond and listen with thoughtfulness. Most of the time. When I get pissed off, my remarks tend to be more "off the cuff." That's when I get in trouble. We've all done it. We've said or done things that we regret, we've made public comments that in hindsight never should have been said, or perhaps were said with great conviction, but misconstrued by an audience all to willing to condemn.

If you had met my parents 20 years ago, you would have rightly noted that they were homophobic. The only experiences they had, if any, were negative. It shaped me, and my notions of who I am. Was. But as they grew in their own experience and wisdom, they began to take on a different view of the world. It was not easy to come out to them in 2008, but it was a heck of a lot easier than it would have been 20 years ago. And their growth - the growth of my family as a whole over this past year has been nothing short of astounding. At least for me.

The thing is, I didn't give them enough credit in the first place. I had my own pre-conceived notions of who they were, and how they would respond to my situation. I let my fear shape my behaviour in ways that I truly regret. I made presumptions about them that were unfair and inaccurate. I kept myself emotionally distant from my family at a time when I needed them most, and we all paid for it.

My girl comes to all our family gatherings. We sit together, we are affectionate with one another, and she talks hockey for hours on end with my dad and my three brothers (insert eye-roll here - I am learning to like hockey so that I can get a word in edgewise). It may not seem remarkable to the average reader. But when you consider the leaps and bounds my family, especially my parents, have made, it is truly a blessing to me to have everyone on the same page, and eating together at the same table - well, two, since my family is so darn big that we don't all fit at one table anymore. My sister, my parents, my two married brothers, all our combined kids, and my middle brother, who will be a priest in a few short years. A Catholic priest.

Clearly, we don't see eye-to-eye on every issue. Our predominantly Catholic family likely has opinions on the subject of same-sex marriage that I definitely do not share. But I am free to state my opinions as they are free to voice theirs. Do I like their opinions? No, but if I want to be heard, I also need to listen. And understand that if I am persistent, peaceful and loving, their ideas about marriage may shift and evolve, just by being exposed to a different way of looking at the world.

Almost four years ago, I made a decision to have surgery, that permanently altered my appearance. I lost 120 pounds in a little over a year. People didn't recognize me. Some days I didn't recognize myself. But when I looked in the mirror, I thought "this is who I was always meant to be." It's a small thing, weight-loss surgery, compared to other life-altering decisions that people make every day. I really wasn't prepared for the reaction that some people had, upon learning how I had lost my weight. As though I had somehow cheated nature, just because I relied on surgery to restore my health.

The funny thing is, I reacted in very much the same way to someone else's weight loss surgery, once upon a time.

I know, I know, it's taking me a long time to get to the point. I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking lately, and I've come to realize something important. There are lots of things that divide humans from one another. A good friend of mine is hurting, because of how she is perceived, based on media reports and quotes that were made several years ago, that have been requoted, reposted, and taken out of context. The internet is an excellent medium, but it's also a great place for people to spread their own brand of negativity. People will say things online, and in email that they would never say, or perhaps say very differently, if they could just look each other in the eye and have a conversation.

I don't think I'm done with this topic. I'd intended to stew a little bit more over my words, but I'm feeling a bit impatient today. Perhaps I will get more specific in the coming days, but I hope I can remain concise, articulate and respectful. This is enough for now. I had a long weekend with little sleep, during which I started writing my first novel, attended a kick-ass concert and made plans to potentially record a CD. You all think I'm kidding, but I'm not.

ETA: I'm updating my post a wee bit to include some specifics. My friend B has been dogging accusations of transphobia for years. I've sat across a kitchen table from her, looked her in the eyes, and witnessed the hurt and pain that she has endured. You can read her statement here.

There is enough true hatred in the world. Let's not create divisions where they don't need to exist.
As usual, Amy says it best:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

back to normal - more or less

Things aren't any crazier than normal around here. But things have shifted, mostly in positive directions since the last time I posted - round about a month ago, give or take a couple of weeks.

I have been writing - every day in my morning pages notebook. Sometimes in the evening when I have the time or energy. And it's starting to feel like maybe, I just might, perhaps, move in a more creative direction. I certainly have the time and the tools. And I can feel myself unblocking, ever so slowly, as time passes, and as I continue to discipline myself to write every day. I highly recommend The Artists Way by Julia Cameron, because it goes beyond writing prompts and trite advice, and helps one to see the whole picture. I've learned, through reading that I have enough - money, time, ideas, inspiration, support. It's all a matter of how I allocate my abundance.

There have been some challenges at home. My seven year old has taken up a fair amount of time and energy lately. We are dealing with patterns of behaviour that I have been working with for several years, but every once in a while, the anger and anxiety escalates, and we have days, weeks where every night is a conflict, an event to be "gotten through," instead of just savoured. It seems to happen most often in winter, when our access to the outdoors is restricted at times, and resolves itself almost fully by summer, when school is over, and the nice weather keeps us outside long past bedtime. She is beautiful, brilliant and talented, but she is also anxious, and likes to stick to her own little schedule. I am trying to teach her to breathe before she reacts, and to build a little bit of resilience and compassion into her life. it's an uphill battle some days. And then on other days, you can see the blossom, like a spring crocus under a fine layer of snow, waiting to appear.

My relationship with the girl continues to thrive. We have no plans to change anything on the home front yet, as change is very difficult for one member of the household. But we're hoping at some point to lessen the distance between our homes, somehow. I have to admit, that having gained my independence, and having, after 45 years, finally figured out how to manage my household budget, and egads, even save a few pennies, I am reluctant to give it up. I like being alone. More than that, I need my alone time. I'm around people and kids all day long, and it's hard to find a peaceful night, like this one.

I think I can safely blame the Artists Way for my new-found love of knitting. I've taken to knitting socks, since finding the lovely skein of sock-wool on a weekly artists' date. Socks don't take tons of time, so completing them is inherently rewarding.

And I am sick of winter. Sick of it. Could someone send me some warm weather? I promise to blog more often if I get it....