In my senior year of high school, my friend Laura and I would take our lunch break at a nearby cafe called the Vienna Confectionery, located on Roosevelt Ave in Seattle. It was a lovely little European place with little tables, frothy coffee drinks and vintage jazz wafting in the air along with the smell of fresh baked bread and salted butter. We always ordered the same thing: a pot of black tea (in silver teapots) and biscuits. Sometimes I'd splurge and get soup.
None of the other alternative kids seemed to haunt this locale, just myself and Laura, which was fine by me, as we always got first class service from the couple of twentysomething waitresses who worked there, and it allowed us to chat them up if it was slow during the lunch hour. They didn't seem to mind that we ordered so meagerly, and they always asked me about my clothes, which were usually vintage finds or hand sewn by myself; Hot Topic did not yet exist.
Laura usually had to rush through lunch to run back to school for fourth period, but I could take my time. I had been an honor student up until my senior year and managed to pull enough credits to allow me to take half days in my senior year, so essentially school was over by lunch for me. I'd often sit for an extra few minutes, slowly buttering my warm, fresh bread and dipping it into my tea, slowly swaying along to Cab Calloway, the coils of the day unwinding themselves from my gut. Roosevelt High School in the 80s was not the easiest place to attend, with the abominable bussing system filling the halls with perpetually pissed off kids from the Central District who targeted the freaks like me for full on body attacks to relieve their stress. I didn't exactly blame them, but getting tossed down the stairs or getting my hair pulled on a daily basis wasn't exactly a ball.
Laura and I made friends with the staff there, and sometimes at night I'd get my dad to take me there for dinner. They had a wicked borscht and a heavenly goulash, and if I had a few extra bucks, I'd buy a bunch of cherry cordials, which my best friend Keri and I would attempt to stuff ourselves to get a buzz, but often wound up nauseated from too much chocolate. The owner worked at nights, and was an older chef from Vienna who married a woman from Seattle and started the cafe with her. Shortly thereafter, I guess the married dissolved, but they continued to run the cafe. With my dad being a natural chatterbox (its genetic I guess) and my gothic, over-the-top fashion statements, we naturally drew his attention, and got pretty friendly with him. He once made a comment about my meager little lunches during the day, and with a wink said, "maybe a job will open up, Julie. I always need kitchen help, you could make a little extra money. You kids like money, right?"
Teenagers in Seattle in the 1980s had limited options for jobs. There were coveted ones, like working at a record or vintage clothing store. There were things like telemarketing, or babysitting, neither of which appealed to me. And then there was restaurant and coffee shop work. Seeing as I couldn't cover enough hours to work somewhere like Last Exit or my favorite place, the B & O Espresso, my only real option was starting ground zero as a dishwasher. It wasn't glamorous, but I would get a paycheck and a meal out of it, and you couldn't get much better than a cute little cafe. Plus, they'd train me to barista, and in Seattle, that'll take you anywhere.
A few weeks after David made that comment, a part time dishwashing job came up on the weekends, and I asked if I could apply. David said not only could I apply, if I could show up the following Sunday evening, the job was mine. The pay was awful, but I did get a share of the nightly tips, a free dinner, and all the coffee I could humanly consume. This sounded absolutely perfect to me.
I spent that weekend doing most of what I normally did, which was ditch my books at the house Friday, wolf down a plate of food, kiss my dad goodbye and disappear into the misty Seattle night for 48 hours to return home disheveled, like a tiny human smear, to crawl into bed and set the alarm for first period Monday morning. However, this time around I decided to spend the day Sunday at my friend Kathe's house, keep my nose clean. She lived fairly close to the cafe and I didn't want to be late to my first day of work.
We hung out and played records that afternoon, but at about four o'clock, I could feel my nerves kick in. I'd never worked a real job before, and I didn't know how busy the night would get or how hard would it be. Kate could sense I was getting a little tense, and naturally recommended I loosen up, I was practically hunching up with anxiety.
"Dude, you totally, like totally, need a hit," she dug into her leather jacket and pulled out a little pipe and handed it to me. It already had a little half burned bud in it.
"I dunno, Kate. I don't wanna come off as stupid on my first day," I eyed the bud. It looked pretty dry.
"It's pretty mild, a hit will calm you down. Everything is going to be fine, its not like its rocket science or anything. You stick dishes in a washer and turn it on, and you put them away. You already do that at home. C'mon, jesus," she handed me a lighter. I sighed. Well, she totally had a point. I sat up, shrugged and took a hit and passed it to her. I hardly harshed out, it definitely seemed pretty weak weed.
I checked the clock and realized I needed to get my coat on and get to walking. As I pulled the second sleeve on, another wave of nerves washed over me. God dammit! I must have looked pretty stressed, before I even had finished zipping up my coat, Kathe had the pipe up in my face. I took an enormous toke, and felt like my lungs would scorch. She laughed at me and popped a lifesaver in my mouth, which I nearly spit out in a fit of coughing.
I must have speed walked to the cafe in nervous energy, as I showed up ten minutes early. David wasn't yet in but the cook, a big strapping Bavarian woman, gave me a big smile as she tossed me my apron and had me follow her to the back. My two favorite servers were working, Wendy and Amy, and were busily setting the tables. Behind the bar was Stewart, the head server, cleaning glasses. He nodded at me, stone faced. Stewart wasn't exactly a sunny person. I nodded back.
As the cook showed me how the night's schedule was set and where everything was located, I could feel the buzz causing a little bit of a cognitive disruption, but it wasn't too serious and I could follow her quick patter. But it was a little more than I had expected from that dried up little green ball in Kate's pipe, and I wondered if it was possibly a bad idea to get stoned beforehand, especially as Stewart eyed me with a little suspicion as I fiddled with some of the silverware.
"Nerves, I presume?" I couldn't tell if it was just him being tall or if I sensed him talking down at me.
"It's my first job," I clanked the spoons and it startled me a bit. He sniffed.
"Just pay attention and follow direction," was his dry response. He handed me a wine glass and I put it on the shelf. He spun around and bumped into Wendy. She mumbled something and pushed past him. "You're not even supposed to be here tonight," he snarled at her.
"Well, I'm here, get over it," she snipped and went into the kitchen. I noticed Stewart's fist clench, release, clench. He was murdering the towel in his hand. The door jingled and the first customers of the evening had arrived. I was officially on the clock.
The first hour was relatively uneventful; the place filled up mostly with neighborhood regulars, upper class couples enjoying a low-key evening with a light meal and a pinot noir. David eventually showed, like an explosion, greeting customers like he always did, with big guffaws and clasped handshakes, an occasional European kiss to the ladies. He made his way towards the kitchen, patting Amy on the shoulder as he past her. Stewart, who had pretty much been behind bar all evening, stepped into David's path, clearly tense. "David, you didn't tell me Wendy was on tonight," could hear him say. "We didn't need her tonight. It doesn't make sense to have her here."
David shrugged. "Stewart, its fine. Its a busy night, just chill out."
Stewart's jaw tightened and I could see the muscles pop in his neck. "I'm the head server, she doesn't respect that David. She has no respect. I can't work with her."
David put his hand on Stewart's shoulder. "You're both good employees, you need to work together, okay? Are you okay, Stu?"
"Fine," Stewart was clearly seething. Or was he clearly seething? I was still a little high and couldn't tell if he was being normal or not. David patted Stewart's shoulder and pushed past him to me, patted my shoulder and said good evening, then headed into the kitchen.
At that very moment, Wendy came around the counter with a full tray of dirty dishes. Stewart was standing directly in her path, stock still. Wendy rolled her eyes and lightly pushed at him, mumbling "C'mon Stu, these are heavy."
Everything suddenly went slow motion. Lifting that towel murdering hand, Stewart flung it forward and into the tray of dishes, knocking it high into the air as cutlery rained down clattering onto the counter, plates and tureens following suit, amazingly unbroken as they bounced to the floor, brown goulash gravy splattering along floor. Wendy's eyes widened as Stewart swung back again, making for Wendy's face with the back of his hand. She responded with catlike movement and grabbed at his wrist before he made contact, and down they went, right at my feet, wreathing as Wendy blocked blow after blow, screeching "What the FUCK, Stu, what the FUCK!".
From behind me, David and the cook burst forth, slamming me into the dishwasher as they tackled Stewart and wrestled him off Wendy. I could hear gasps and shuffling of customers, Amy expertly telling people things were being handled, please sit down, its okay sir, we got this. David had Stewart's thin arms locked into his beefy ones and lifted Stewart onto his feet as the cook helped Wendy up. Stewart tried to kick at Wendy, and David body slammed him into the bar.
"Are you off your meds or something?" David bellowed. Stewart made a kind of weird growl noise. His face was the color of boiled blood sausage, and his eyes were glassy.
"She doesn't respect me, dammit," Stewart managed to sputter. Wendy had gathered her composure, her face also red. "You're fucking crazy, Stu," was all she could say.
"I fucking hate you!" he screeched, and with that, David dragged him out from behind the bar and out the door. The cafe was dead quiet, save for Billie Holiday softly warbling from the speakers above my head.
As the cook and Amy assured the customers that everything would be okay, Wendy asked me to help her clean up the mess and we quietly worked together, my little stoner head making flip flops all the while. Did that actually just happen? Is this normal? Am I handling this normal? Would this have happened if I wasn't high? Did I make this happen? Does this always happen? Can anyone hear me thinking?
"Sorry Jules, he's crazy, I knew he'd snap eventually. This must the worst first day of work ever," she shook her head as she handed me a couple of plates. "Its normally not like this."
"You okay?" I asked her. Amy came around the corner and asked the same thing. Wendy nodded. David re-emerged from outside, alone. "He's gone for good," was all he said, tight lipped, as he and the cook slipped back to the kitchen, muttering to each other.
I loaded up the dishwasher, flipped the switch and spun around to lean back on the counter and drew in a deep breath. I looked around as the cafe slowly returned to normal, then looked at the clock. It was six thirty. My first 90 minutes of joining the work force... I have what, forty more years of this shit?
Like they say, you never forget your first.