Things Are Meted Out to People and Then They LeaveAt fourteen I got my first real job from a woman named Cia.  When she spoke she lisped a little and gutted her words with curses; on breaks she sat outside the kitchen on a milk crate, long legs planted far apart, bright mouth pulling on a cigarette like it was keeping her alive.  Cia called us baby, honey, sweetheart, flooded my veins with love.  She said a blow job isn’t hard to do, then took a pickle in her lips to prove it.  The waitresses were a small army, uniformed in men’s white dress shirts, meeting in the toilet stalls to plot.  They swallowed aspirin and Xanax without any water and watched us clearing the tables and said under their breath to no one in particular, Jesus it’s nice to have buskids who actually work.

The following year without any obvious provocation or intent, my sister and I started calling our mother by her first name – Jane, or sometimes even Janie.  By then we were working together at a different place, Annie’s, and if I said, “Mom…?,” every waitress in earshot answered “What?” in a tone that differed from the others only in its momentary balance of distraction and affection.  Anyway Jane either didn’t mind or waited so long to object that she forgot why she might have wanted to, and once when someone asked, I heard her say simply, “I’ve been called worse.” Which I knew was true.

The last time I worked in a restaurant was thirteen years ago at Mike Anderson’s on Bourbon Street.  I was twenty years old and had just left the second place I’d ever lived, the Berkshires, to come to New Orleans.  The restaurant was in the two hundred block where every night tourists on the balconies threw beads at tourists on the street like somebody forgot to tell them it wasn’t February yet.  Three of us were trained at the same time, and we had to take a test about the menu, dishes with names like Guitreau and Joliet Rouge.  I got lots of things wrong but they still gave me the job.

At Mike Anderson’s I worked with a woman named Lela who lived in New Orleans East.  Odds are good she doesn’t live there anymore.  Lela said a woman should always smell nice, and that she liked sandalwood, herself.  Her hair was so dark she didn’t look ridiculous in the hairnets we had to wear for prep work.  Lela had a little boy with her ex-girlfriend, and I asked if she’d been the one to give birth.  She threw back her head and laughed, reaching for her purse on the counter to pull out a picture of a woman in an NOPD uniform.  Sure baby.  This one, she’s his daddy.

The worst manager, Gary, had eyes like buckshot in a porcine face.  He used to fly into a rage if he saw Lela biting into a Saltine or half a baked potato.  I see you eat on the clock again and your shift’s over.  It didn’t seem to matter as much if the rest of us did it.  Lela really was sent home, more than once, although I don’t think it was for eating during the shift.  I can’t remember what it was for.  Lela didn’t care, or didn’t seem to.  She’d say, I got my tips, y’all can have the sidework.  Took her sweet time leaving the hot kitchen, and kissed my cheek as she passed.

I miss having a job that takes my whole body to do.  That taxes it.  One whose tasks are obvious, onerous, the opposite of profound and the same every time, reflecting only the harmless fact of strangers eating together in a place that is no one’s home. Where things are meted out to people and then they leave.  A job whose little ceremonies I can love precisely for their pointlessness.  Where people get nothing that I don’t bring them.  Another waitress I used to know ran after her customers once to toss back the pennies they’d left. Fistful of copper dropped on black asphalt.  Keep it.

Tory M. Taylor lives in New Orleans.  She is a public health professional currently working on HIV-related research and programs in South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. Her prior publications have appeared in Preventive Medicine and Tobacco Control, and were very different from this one. Tory is also responsible for all of the photographs in this issue of Brevity.

Photo by Tory M. Taylor