*Each week’s post is about a life lesson– in school or out- and the person who “taught” it. If it strikes your fancy, you can read more about the idea HERE.*
“The only true currency we have in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we are uncool.”
~ Lester Bangs, Almost Famous
Last Spring I was hired into a job I hadn’t even applied for– as a Trio server in the Four Seasons Hotel. It was a bit a lot over my head. Maybe they hadn’t looked at my resume. Maybe they thought I would be a quick learner. Maybe it was my lucky teal purse. Whatever it was, I decided to put my intimidation on the shelf and welcome an adventure. In spite of this optimism, it is nothing short of a miracle I didn’t end up a casualty.
I started working in Trio at an outrageous, topsy-turvy time. I was wrapping up a one year sabbatical I had taken from an Ohio teaching job in order to attend UT. I was paralyzed with indecision. Who lets go of a stable job in a down economy to remain a poor college student? Even romancing this thought made me feel like a sad, broken adult in a hamster wheel, which in and of itself was seriously depressing.
I was trying to find a thesis topic. I was trying to find my bliss. I was slowly splitting from a long-distance relationship– which as anyone almost everyone who has gone through this knows — can sap more energy than all other responsibilities combined. I was immersed in schoolwork: pedagogy and postmodernism, WHILE learning about wine regions, proper pronunciation of French terms (why yes, how would you like your Cote de Boeuf cooked?), as well as memorizing ingredients in a ponzu sauce.
Yeah, I felt wrecking ball-ish. I squeezed through the ninety day probation… barely. There were a handful of pointed conversations with management (get your act together Borrelli), and one gentler conversation with a co-worker (do you really want to be here?) It was a tough pill to swallow. School at UT was going so well… did I really need a serving job that was the equivalent to another college course? Should I subject myself to looking uncool naive and clumsy when I could look competent and confident doing art programming? Did I care about a serving job?
As it turned out, I cared quite a bit.
It was during this time of serious un-coolness I got to know Winston.
Designer Stefan Sagmeister has said:
“Everyone who is honest, is interesting.”
This is Winston — dreadfully, painfully, honest and therefore interesting.
How to summarize Winston? For starters he curses… all the time. He tells inappropriate jokes, and is openly jaded by the state of the modern world. He once told me my degree was the dumbest he had ever heard, only he didn’t use the word ‘dumb,’ and no, I can’t print what he actually said here. He bemoans technology and people who whine. He can talk intelligently on a myriad of topics— from partying in the 80’s to global economics. He keeps a bottle of 151 in his work locker to cook impromptu tableside Bananas Foster for regulars. He’s waited on Jimmy Carter, both Bushes, quite a few Congressmen, and I’m sure a significant portion of Hollywood. He is requested more than any other server in the restaurant. In spite of all this, the best description comes from our boss:
“They just don’t make them like Winston anymore.”
While folding napkins with Winston one afternoon, I confessed I was worried about losing my job.
“Really? I don’t have a single problem with you,” he replied. “What are you struggling with?”
I almost blurted: “Everything!” but fortunately restrained.
“Recently, the biggest problem is my expressions. They’re bugging me to smile and look natural at all times. I try, but sheesh when I’m weeded it shows you know…?”
I once read a quote by Jeffrey Zeldman who said: “Young practitioners often argue passionately about theory while older practitioners tell stories and draw pictures.” There was no diatribe, didactic speeches, or confusing monologues from Winston. Instead, he shared wisdom with a metaphor.
“Listen, it’s like folding these napkins, okay? I never fold a second one until I’ve finished the first. I never walk away until the whole pile is finished. If you think of something else to do – set it aside. One thing at a time. Just remember that and you’ll be fine — fold one napkin at a time and smile.”
This simple bit of advice changed everything. Maybe it was because energy between management and I was downright awful, maybe it was because I was desperate for advice, maybe it was because I secretly loved folding napkins. I suspect however, I was simply grateful to learn this crass, honest, sixty-three year old server everyone adored — seemed to think I was going to be all right.
The next night two parties arrived at once in my section — a party of ten with an airplane to catch, and a party of four who worked at the next door restaurant, Shoreline Grill.
<Fold the napkins and smile…>
I asked the Shoreline table:
“So are you all servers?”
“Um no… I’m the general manager. This is our Executive chef, Sous chef, and our Assistant manager.”
There’s a scene from the 90’s show Ally McBeal with a huge barefoot inserting itself into her mouth after she commits a serious faux pas. That was me. I smiled and apologized, continuing to pour waters while I died a slow, embarrassing death.
Halfway through service Winston approached the table:
“So I hear y’all became servers?”
It was during their rounds of laughter I relaxed. Winston was looking out.
The Shoreline guys passed on some pretty wonderful compliments to my boss. My boss passed them on to me.
“Look Borrelli, you’re coming into your own. I don’t know what you did differently the other night, but you’re a new person. Keep up the good work kiddo. Plus… Winston thinks highly of you and that says a lot.”
I tried to thank him for what our manager said later that day, and he dismissed me with a “harumph” and scowl. It reminded me of the kid’s show Sesame Street — Oscar the Grouch has a tremendous heart — just don’t try to tell him so.
In August I let go of my teaching job to stay in Austin. Winston showed up to help a friend and I move furniture. I took him to 24 Diner as a thank you. Over some fabulous veggie sausage patties, I told him I wasn’t sure leaving my teaching job was the right thing to do.
“Well, you know my feelings about religion — but if there is a God, he puts us exactly where we’re supposed to be.”
This touching moment was enhanced by expletives a few minutes later, as I made the mistake of checking a text message while he was talking.
Another day I mentioned I was on the market for a juicer. The next shift he showed up with a juicer he didn’t use anymore. I jumped for joy and promptly made a breakfast date to IHOP as repayment. So it went… Winston helped me, I took him out for a meal. This also allowed me precious access to more of his stories… owning a restaurant in Clarksville, singing in a band, playing football for Purdue.
Last weekend, a co-worker and I went for a three-mile walk with Winston around Town Lake and hit Freddie’s for lunch after.
“I’m paying since you paid the last two times,” he told me.
“Yeah, but I paid the last two times because you helped me move and gave me a juicer” (and saved my job, I couldn’t help thinking).
“You’re right, son of *$%… give that back,” he grimaced dramatically as the server took his cash.
I laughed and thanked him.
He frowned, pulled out a cigarette, and finished with a signature “hmmmm” that sounded like a grumble…
…Which I’ve come to realize means he’s thankful too.