Nothing to See Here

City runs are stop-and-go. Run a block, wait for the walk sign, run another. City runs are what it means to be feel alone in a crowded room. I love the city streets but the best runs are the ones that take me down gravel and dirt paths. Weather through overgrown greenery or bare skeleton branches the woods are welcoming to me. The trees do not stare or catcall. They do not get in my way. While a run downtown brings a frantic energy to my steps the woods brings me peace and focus. There is no one to measure myself against in the woods.

Running on the street is a competition against every person that I pass: a competition not of speed but of stature. Me at my peak versus everyone else at his or hers. Am I faster than she is beautiful? Am I stronger than he is smart? As I weave in and out of the throng I wonder where and how I fit into it. I wonder if the others wonder to themselves the same things.

There is opportunity cost in the city. There are people to my left, right, front and back doing things that may not be better or worse but are inherently ‘other.’ With every turn I come face-to-face with a different path. Something else I could have chosen to do when I woke that morning. A different set of clothes I could have put on, a different fight to fight that day.

Road runs spark thoughts of doubt. I ask if I’m enough, I wonder how I can be better. These thoughts creep up from time to time but never as often as while I’m out running. There’s a vulnerability to letting hundreds of strangers see you panting and sweating with no redeeming features, no semblances of importance like a destination or companion, to arm yourself against their passing judgment. Just a set of beat-of Saucony trainers and a sloppy ponytail wagging behind you.

The trails are not like that; they present no hasty appraisal and no missed opportunities. There is no competition to be had with the boulders and trees, who stand unaffected through changing seasons. They are not watching me or perceiving me. Here I am truly alone and free to run fast or slow, gracefully or clumsily, without fear of judgment. It is here where, in truth, I have no idea how fast or slow am I going and no clue how large my spot of back sweat has grown. I loose the GPS signal and meander down the trail, oblivious to my pace and to anyone else’s. There is nothing to see but the trail in front of my and nothing to do but follow it back home.

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Ditching the Clinical Strength

The minute I click “Confirm my Purchase” I feel the familiar wetness and prickling sensation. Suddenly aware of my armpit stubble, I shift my shoulders uncomfortably to subtly deliver air to my underarms. It helps a little until I glance back down at my computer screen: “Purchase Confirmed. Flight itinerary below.” Another surge of moisture and with that, I think, better upgrade to clinical strength.

It lives in my top drawer until packing day comes. With shaking hands I place all these unfamiliar gadgets- a Swiss army knife, a fast-dry towel- and ill-fitting but practical clothing inside my backpack. I stuff wool socks and iodine tablets into the leftover gaps until the seams nearly burst. As I yank the zippers shut and tug the drawstrings I feel the sweat beads form under my arms. I eye the overweight pack as I inhale deeply and reach for the clinical strength. I roll on the solid and take another slow breath.

The next morning I shove the backpack into the trunk of my dad’s minivan. I call my mom at work from the passenger seat. It’s a bright morning in early January. Blinding sunlight pours through the windshield and I get a little dizzy as I say goodbye to my mom. I hang up and a surge of heat hits me. From the heat or the goodbye, I don’t know. I twist in my seat to unearth the clinical strength once more.

Only a few tears escape when I hug my dad at airport security. Standing in the metal detector, though, with my arms held up above my head, my eyes sting. Once through the checkpoint I try not to look back at my dad waving quietly from the other side, the safe side. At my gate I peel off my layers, meant to save room in my pack, as my armpits and lower back dampen. I sit down in a heap of flannel and fleece before I sweat (or cry) off the last swipes of mascara my lashes will know for four months. Once again I dig up the clinical strength.

We arrive well after midnight to an all but deserted airport. The dash to baggage claim is a zombie apocalypse, dozens of exhausted travelers scrambling to the front of the customs line. I hesitate and hang back, anxious to delay entry to the first foreign country I’ll know. Once I’m through it’s nearly two in the morning. Someone is supposed to pick me up but the driver I was promised is nowhere to be found. The international arrivals gate clears out until I’m the only person left, save for a custodian or two. I lay my backpack across a bench and sink into a seat. Nervous? A bit. Afraid? I suppose. But I can’t exactly go back now. Left with no other options, I wait. I breathe. I bask in the uncertainty and the dampness of my palms. I’d better get used to it. And thirty minutes later, a harried-looking man scuffles through the door with a ragged piece of paper in hand: Katherin. Close enough. I speak no Spanish and he, no English so I don’t know why he’s late. I don’t know where he’s taking me. But I follow him outside where the humidity immediately draws tiny pearls on the back of my neck. I relish the rush of heat. I get in the car with him take off into the warm night.

Lost Beagle Sassafras

Adventure called
and your dog ran away.
Your precious Sassafras was gone.

You cried and cried
and blanketed the city with fliers
of bright yellow and red
that offered
Reward for safe return.
Have you seen me?

Have you seen me?
it asked, and offered the clues
Very shy
Female beagle mix
Distinctive,
Mostly white,
Flag-like tail
carried
high
over
back.
findlostbeaglesassafras.blogspot.com.

We first saw the flyer
clinging to a telephone pole.
You really went to town
with that staple gun.
The flyer,
safely tucked into a page protector,
was built to withstand all elements.
And withstand it would.

That bright yellow flyer
diffused through the boundaries
of your own neighborhood.
To this day
I’m not really sure
where the heck
you really live
because the way you carry on about it
Sassafrass was capable
of running a marathon through Rock Creek Park
and still having the energy
for a little lunchtime window shopping in Georgetown
and catching a movie at Uptown
that very same day.
Sightings in Adams Morgan!
Sightings in Chevy Chase!
This dog is everywhere
and all at once.
You sure think a lot
of your dog’s exploratory capabilities.

Through springtime gusts
and April showers,
Through summer storms
and autumn blusters
it gripped tightly to that telephone pole.
Months passed
before the first signs of fatigue appeared.

One by one,
your tired flyers
withered
and slumped at their posts.
Staple by staple,
they lost their grip
and hung at odd angles
until they just couldn’t hold on anymore.

We mocked your perseverance.
We ridiculed your belief.
We took one look
at the sea of bright yellow flyers
and shouted,
She’s Never Coming Home.

At first
I wondered
if possibly
your tenacity
would wither with your fliers.
Would you grow tired
of maintaining hope?
Would you hear us laughing
and you think to yourself,
they’re right.
they’re right.
I give up.

Give up, though,
you never did.
Your poured your heart
and emptied your checking account
into this quest.
findlostbeaglesassafras.blogspot.com
is current and up to date.

And that’s why,
three years later,
I’m left with no choice
but to admire you.
You and your unwavering affection
for your Lost Beagle Sassafras.
You and your refusal
to conceed.

And even though
I really
really
don’t like dogs
or pets
or domesticated animals of any kind,
I must admit
that someone as dedicated
and tireless
and hell-bent as you
must have lost something
really worth fighting for.

In light of that fact
I’d like to tell you
I’m sorry for putting you down.
I’m also sorry
for dressing up as Sassafras
that one Halloween
and posting the pictures all over Facebook.
That was a dick move.
I hope you find your dog.

Please, God, Let it Snow

Global warming’s a bitch. For nearly every December eve I spent gleefully shivering under my covers in hopes of an overnight snowstorm I can recall another bright and disappointing morning, sunlight reflecting off the bare blacktop of the driveway.  The heat would seep up into the snowboots I wore hopefully and I’d instantly regret the wool socks I’d pulled on thinking that maybe, just maybe, the air would cool and the skies would cloud in time for an early dismissal.

Sure, anyone who’s ever been eight has at some point wished for a snow day. But you hit a point in late December when you’re willing to settle for a two-hour delay or an inoffensive snowfall that serves no other purpose than to cause a disruption in your third grade class. By January you’re wondering if you should abandon all hope of some decent snowfall and just invest in a decent pair of rain boots to traipse through the slush. We can drag each other through the muck on our sleds and built mudmen out of bits of wet grass and sludge. Pelt each other with dirtballs.

New York State all but promises its children snowy winters and snow days abound. Its public school calendars are equipped with three extra days in case of weather-related cancelations. We expected, even demanded that December showed some signs of fulfilling that promise. Christmas felt fake and cheap without biting cold. New Year’s Eve was meant to be spent in layer upon layer of fleece and down. I felt that I’d been cheated of the childhood I was entitled to.

One glorious Christmas we got our wish. While adults cursed the skies for disrupting travel plans and endangering travelers, my sisters and brothers whooped at the sight of the heavily blanketed ground. The snow was so deep it came up to my ten-year-old waist. We crawled through the snowbanks and built forts, snowmen and snow angels. We didn’t even mind being made to shovel the driveway, especially in light of the ongoing downfall that made us shovel a second and third time, our efforts joyously futile even as night fell.

Of course, years passed before we saw another snow that was quite as magical. Ice storms and freezing rain didn’t count. Just a few years later we rang in the New Year with weather so warm it melted the ice rink in our backyard. That may have been the year we just gave up on building the thing. It’s bad enough that we couldn’t get it to fully freeze; it’s impossible to justify the expense of erecting a skating rink that you can go swimming in during what should have been the dead of winter.

I’m starting to accept that I may never see another white Christmas as long as I live south of the Canadian border. In fact, I say we all just get over it and adjust. However rapidly the November temperature cools, that picturesque, ‘A Christmas Story’ kind of December is the stuff of myths now. One day we’ll tell our grandchildren that back in my day it would almost snow on Christmas. They’ll guffaw their suntanned little faces off and kick their holiday-colored flip-flops off in raucous laughter and say grandma, you’re off your lounge chair.

On the bright and sunny side, letting go of those wintery hopes makes room for what the holidays should really be about, more wholesome and intangible things, the stuff of Charlie Brown movies. In the midst of all the not ice skating, the not sledding and the not throwing iceballs at one another, we have a second to remember that the perfect holiday can still involve swimming in your melted ice rink as long as you’re splashing around with the right people. Christmas is still Christmas, even in 60-degree weather, because of the people you spend it with. So maybe I’ll keep grumbling through the sunshine but I’ll do so in good company, next to my sisters and my brother, with my parents in the background thanking heaven that they don’t need to shovel. Still a perfectly suitable holiday. Thanks for the reality check, Mother Nature.

It’s 2013; orange is the new black and December is the new early-autumn. Put away your holiday sweaters and invest in some cranberry scented sunscreen and a jolly red and green bikini. And get used to it kids, Mr. Heat Miser’s not going anywhere.

                 

 

Gratuity Included

“Praise be to *insert your favorite deity here* for low and behold the Linkery is closing!”
– Howeler G., Yelper

“NOT a fan of the Linkery.”
– Geno P.

“Yay! They are closing! Yay!”
– Brian S.

The Linkery closed earlier this year after eight years of serving the hip San Diego neighborhood of North Park. While the Linkery’s menu focused on farm-to-table dining, stuffing sausages in-house, and craft beer, the restaurant gains much of its notoriety from its tipping policy: absolutely no tipping allowed. In place of tipping, a mandatory 18% service charge is applied to each and every bill.

Before you condemn this unconventional business practice, hear me out. More importantly, hear Jay Porter out.

Porter, the Linkery’s owner, passionately defended this tipping policy in the face of wide criticism. He points out that tipping well does not necessarily affect better service, nor does good service automatically lead to higher tips. Cornell professor and tipping scholar Michael Lynn found that quality of service is only weakly related to tip percentages. Tipping also encourages servers to profile their guests along racial, ethnic, or cultural lines. If the server perceives a guest as someone who is likely to be a very poor tipper, they’re not likely to deliver very good service. Furthermore, tipping may lead to discrimination against the server. Lynn has also conducted studies that show whites earn higher tips than blacks, slender women earn high tips than heavier women, etc.

I’ve worked in the industry off and on for about ten years now, since I was a teenager. Having bussed, hosted, served, and managed, I see these theories put to practice every day and they’re true; the practice of tipping often leads to some kind of discrimination.

Porter is right to desire for his restaurant a compensation system that protects both servers and guests from unfair treatment. Shortly after the restaurant closed this past summer, Porter published an essay in the online magazine Slate defending his service charge. Just a few weeks later, a former Linkery employee published a scathing response in the San Diego Reader.

“Let’s set the record straight. The Linkery had poor service, whether in spite or because of its tipping policy.”
– Ian Pike

Looking for validation of Pike’s comments, I scanned the Linkery’s Yelp page for some additional opinions.

“automatic 18% gratuity for two people – you have to be kidding me.”
– Texas A.

“The Ugly: 18% gratuity is forced onto every bill. And you can’t change it, for better or worse! You have no options!”
– Brian E.

“Service was obscenely slow…not that it matters to the wait staff, because THEY INCLUDE THE GRATUITY IN THE CHECK”
– John W.

This collection of harsh comments seems pretty normal to me. Even the highest-rated restaurants on Yelp have a critic or two, and those who decry restaurants online are often outnumbered by the silent majority that keep their pleasant experiences to themselves (note that in the Linkery’s case, many other reviews told of positive experiences and great service). Negative Yelp reviews don’t scare me. What scares me are the customers who take their grievances to the internet before complaining the people with the power to actually improve their experience.

A few months before the Linkery closed, the San Diego Eater interviewed manager Odette Cressler. Asked specifically to explain the 18% service charge, Cressler insists that “[i]f the guest didn’t like the food or isn’t happy with the service, we will remove the charge. What’s important for us is good communication with the guest.” She explains the philosophy behind the service charge: that “every team member is concerned about every guest.” And it’s important to hire people who agree with that approach, because “we’re not for everyone and not everyone is for us, as in every restaurant.”

I never ate at the Linkery. I can’t attest to the quality of the service or the dedication of the management. However, given Ms. Cressler’s testimony and Mr. Porter’s defense of his practice, I believe that the Linkery wanted to give good service. I don’t believe they wanted to cheat their guests or cut corners. There has been a misunderstanding. To find the root of this problem, think about how you would address poor customer service in any other industry.

If you received poor service in a grocery store, in an electronics store, or over the phone with your bank’s customer service department, you wouldn’t ask that the individual’s pay be docked. You might complain to their manager and ask for a discount, or you might simply choose not to return to the establishment. If you were given a discount, a gift certificate, or a simply apology for your negative experience it’s because the establishment is accepting responsibility for their employee’s actions. They recognize that this person was acting on behalf of the organization that employs them; if the employee failed to provide a satisfactory experience, the employer must take responsibility for that. The employer might solve the problem by improving employee training, taking disciplinary action against the employee, or terminating that person’s employment. But it is never in the hands of the customer to enact any sort of discipline.

America isn’t used to this practice in the restaurant setting. We like that we can have an opinion without dealing with the confrontation of voicing it. We’re comfortable accepting that an individual gave us poor service and we lower or forego the tip when we see fit. At the end of the meal, both the server and customer are left in the same boat: feeling shortchanged and cheated, but without any constructive solutions to solving the problem. That’s why I always thank the customers who bring their complaints to my attention. It gives our team something to work on, some specific feedback instead of the simple knowledge that they left feeling dissatisfied. We’re happy to discount their check or buy them dessert to thank them for speaking up, and truth be told they usually end up tipping pretty well. Sometimes people just want to be heard.

Let your servers hear you. When you feel like you’ve paid for something you shouldn’t have, speak up. Jay Porter wanted to give you an experience worthy of that service charge. If you didn’t receive that 18% kind of service, you should have said something.

Serendipity on 16th Street

Click. I flick my music on shuffle without a second thought and with Amy Winehouse crooning in my ear I slide softly into my pace,

Well sometimes I go out by myself, and I look across the water…

Cross 13th Street, then 14th, onto Park, finally whipping around the corner to start making my way up 16th Street. The song ends and a brief silence follows. I hear my footsteps smacking the pavement and ease my stride. A few steps later a beat picks up- it’s Fabolous and he tells me:

Girl, you be killin’ em.

I smile. Yeah, Fabo, I know. Several blocks later Fabolous fades out and in fades a playful Keri Hilson rhythm. I resist the urge to pump my fist like you go, girl. I dash over the bridge at Piney Branch Parkway pumping my arms,

Do the pretty girl rock, rock, rock.

I’m settling into a solid groove; quick feet, swift steps. I’m headed up 16th Street at a steady clip. I come up on two miles when it occurs to me that my iPhone, still humming away on shuffle, has not made a poor choice yet. With every song that ends, a lively pop anthem or powerful beat follows. Each song, randomly selected out of hundreds, proves energizing and restorative. I power past the Buddhist temple, the Chinese church, past the soccer fields at Carter Barron. I’ve crossed Arkansas and Colorado, I leap across the crosswalks at Military Road. And each time my earbuds go silent and I brace myself to at last skip through the next song, I am lifted higher still into a state of heightened excitement.

Aw, shit, get your towels ready, it’s about to go down! 

I’m on a boat, motherfuckers!

I don’t dare to count the songs or keep track of my streak for fear of tampering with my iPod’s good will. I soar past the Rock Creek golf course. At Aspen Street I dart off 16th, down a winding and suddenly wooded road. The sidewalk turns to gravel, the gravel into dirt and pebbles. I take the turns wide and peer around the corners for cars. There is no one but me and now the boys of Madcon,

Beggin’, beggin’ you (put your loving hands out baby)

And I am begging the gods of iTunes to humor me just a little bit longer.

I’m begging you for mercy, why won’t you release me?

I see a trail marker up ahead and veer off-road, I hurdle a fallen tree with the ladies of Girls Aloud.

Jump! for my love…

Rock Creek Park has swallowed me, Matt & Kim whole.

Now this is all me, now this is all me…

 Without a soul or a car in sight Modest Mouse and I forge on south along the Valley Trail.

Alright, already, we all float on.

Suddenly there is pavement beneath my feet as I’ve emerged from the trail onto Beach Drive. I dart across the highway, dodging cars speeding towards downtown, to pick up Rock Creek Trail.

Sigilosa al pasar… mirala camminar, camminar.

I have left my inhibitions far behind. I’m sure of it now: my iPhone knows me. It understands me. We are united in an ecstatic and unshakeable bond.

Still miles away from home I am riding this shuffle out; I jam my earbuds deeper into my ears. And just as I round a corner to pick up the Western Ridge Trail that will take me home, just when I didn’t think this run could sound any sweeter-

Got me looking so crazy right now…

 Beyonce, Sweet Bey, floods my eardrums.

Your love’s got me looking so crazy right now…

In absolute ecstasy I fly- no, soar- down the trail with the Queen herself, and though I am most definitely running, swift and uninterrupted, my veins are pulsing like I am shaking my hips right alongside her.

Your touch got me looking so crazy right now… 

Before I hit the zoo I dash across the parkway, and Bey and I shake it up Kenyon Street. Nine miles out and yet so close to where I started. I summit the sharp hill with a final push, a great oomph, practically tumbling onto Mt. Pleasant Street.

Looking so crazy in love…

Just five blocks to go and my legs are jelly, my knees giving out, but I hammer out those final strides.

Got me looking, got me looking so crazy in love….

Outside my house I collapse onto the front stoop and, at long last, tear my iPhone from my armband. I gaze down at the little device, impressed it’s enormous feat of selecting from a two thousand song library the forty some-odd songs I needed to hear. Of weeding through the audiobook chapters, the broadway soundtracks, the Paul Simon, and miraculously landing on the Amy, the Patti, the Beyonce.

Panting, I slide my keys off my shoelaces and, know the time has come, yank my headphones out from my ears. The screen illuminates and I am staring at a playlist I created months ago, a forgotten 40-track set entitled “Running” that I selected, unknowingly, over ninety minutes ago.

Click. I am back on the ground.

With a shrug I shove my phone under my arm, heave myself back to my feet, and fumble with my keys. Back in the reality where electronics can’t read minds, I’m thirsty and sweaty and sore. I’m disappointed but also a little pleased that I managed to fool myself into believing my phone was capable of magic.

I guess it’s not that hard to believe that I could fall for my own trick. I guess sometimes we create our own magic.

Skin Out

We couldn’t be bothered to shut the blinds. Fluorescent lights overhead, we wore our boyshorts and sports bras around our dorm room emphatically. When we’d had enough of our books we flipped off the lights and fist pumped by the glow of our computer monitors. We danced on the windowsill and stripteased on the furniture to R. Kelly.

We didn’t think anyone was watching. If our bare stomachs offended anyone in the building across the street we never heard about it. If anyone minded our pantslessness we were never the wiser.

I was appalled the first time I saw some of my high school teammates strutting around the locker room in their underwear. Not just any underwear but thongs, no less, the flimsiest excuses for underwear you can buy. The way they sauntered was so shameless; they were so exposed and so proud of their bodies in a way I neither scorned nor envied but simply couldn’t understand. I shrunk into the corner when I changed, cowering over my bare stomach in a futile effort to conceal my unwanted curves.

I was always acutely aware of any and all exposed skin in my vicinity. Somebody changing her shirt in the locker room. A friend trying on a pair of jeans in the middle of a department store. A teammate stretching in a sports bra, totally shirtless, after a race. At first I averted my eyes like it was an unintentional flash. Like she hadn’t wanted anyone to see her stomach, her chest, her behind. Like I was an intruder and to look at her would be to violate her.

Those girls I knew in high school baffled me. It wasn’t the very visible almost-nudity that threw me (it was, after all, a locker room, for goodness’ sake). It was the unabashed nature of their exposure. Where was the shame and discomfort that I felt when my body was on display?

What began as embarrassment on my part melted away at some point, I’m not sure when or how, and cooled into something completely different: a kind of admiration for the shamelessness I never knew. These girls weren’t flaunting the kinds of bodies we call perfect. They had curves and blemishes just like I did. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about those flaws; rather, they chose not to air those cares to the world. They didn’t burden me with their discomfort and I was then enlightened to a state of acceptance and pride.

If they could bare their curves… why couldn’t I? What did I have to hide? I started to suspect that no one cared about my tummy or my hips. I began to let go of my anxiety about letting others see my skin. And I started to feel a sense of pride, not in the body I still find fault with, but for having the nerve to let others see it.

There’s a thrill to showing others how unembarrassed you are to be half-naked, to be silly, to be you. It feels good to be shameless. It overshadows the inhibitions and discomfort. Fake it till you make it, boys and girls. The illusion of confidence and almost as good as the real thing.

Good to know, since as it turns out, people were watching.

“You girls in live the corner room on McDowell 4? Yeah, we watch you guys change all the time.”

Fuck it, we said. We left the blinds open anyway and shimmied on.

I Love You More

In my first memory I am awake during the early hours of the morning. I am sick with some affliction I can’t recall and sitting up in my crib. I am completely quiet and peering through the bars at my father, sprawled out on a cot across the room, barely awake.

His arm hangs off the bed and his mouth is gaping in a sleepy stupor. I imagine him snoring and drooling in and out of consciousness, though I suppose I only added those effects in an effort to dramatize the memory. I imagine how tired he was when he arrived home from work late the previous night, and yet he was ready to take me from my exhausted mother’s arms and care for me through the night. I imagine the relief he felt when I finally fell asleep, the start it would give him should I break my silence with a cry.

There, with the sky growing lighter as the sunlight crept up, was my protector. Over two decades later, I imagine that I stopped myself from crying to allow him to sleep. I imagine that I felt how loved I was, and that I wanted to show it in return.

Of course, I’ve doctored this memory significantly since that night. After all, I was one.

I hold this memory close to me as a symbol of my parents’ love for me (and for my siblings). My mom and dad, like every parent, were infamously sentenced to a few sleepless years with every new baby. Nightly, they mustered the strength to give such tiny, helpless beings their hearts and their rest, well before we could reciprocate or show any gratitude at all. From endless inexplicable cries that last through the night they harvested the strength to hold us anyway, to love us anyway.

Looking back on this most uncomfortable night, I marvel at the feat of surviving hundreds of consecutive graveyard shifts with an infant. It is the ultimate parental responsibility. Staying up all night with an infant is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. And a parent has no choice but to push through it and hold their screaming child closer.

The love a parent feels for his or her child is mighty and unshakeable; it is also mandatory. And as a young and unattached millennial, that terrifies me. How awe-inspiring that love is, how permanent its bond; it’s a feeling I don’t believe I have the strength to feel. I grew up saying “I love you” and hearing the response “I love you more.” For all the times I rolled my eyes in playful disagreement and hugged them tighter… I actually believe them now.

For the first time, I am admitting that I don’t love my mom and dad as much as they love me. Knowing that at twenty-two I am not strong enough to do what they did for me, bleary eyed and delusional at four in the morning, fumbling for the bottle warmer and ear drops in the dark, ears ringing, heads pounding, I can say that I’m not strong enough to love someone so fiercely.

How dare I? The people who fed me, clothed me, helped me with my homework, baked me birthday cakes, drove me to track practice, bought me my first pieces of furniture for my first apartment… do they not deserve all the love they gave in return?

Of course they do, but that’s not how it works.

The love I have for them in my heart is no match for theirs. I don’t know what it’s like and won’t know for a long time. In the meantime, my tremendous gratitude for their many sleepless nights will have to suffice.

New Girl in the Octagon

I self-identify as a career waitress. What can I say? I want to feel wanted and I love to be loved. I deliver the goods that satisfy your cravings and hankerings. I relish being the one to drop off your coffee/beer/cheesecake and I don’t want to do anything else.

The industry being what it is, you’d be hard-pressed to find a server that’s only ever worked at one place. I’m no exception. Coming from a grimy sports bar (by way of an Italian “enoteca” and my beloved family-owned restaurant) I was once the new kid at my current full-time gig. Of all the clueless moments and unhappy accidents I graced my coworkers with (trust me, there were many), some of my finest embarrassments occurred at the hands of coffee. That time I mistook a skim Cuban for a soy cappucino. That time I forgot to grind the coffee beans first. That time I spilled a scalding hot Americano down a coworker’s arm (sorry, Juan). I still shudder to remember various instances of baristas glaring at me, wordlessly condemning me for my inadvertent insult to their profession. From day one, I was forbidden from the “octagon” that enclosed the barista station.

When the dust settled and the newness wore off, I learned to play along. I learned the difference between a latte and a cappuccino, between a cortado and a Cuban, between a Starbucks macchiato and an actual macchiato. I came to appreciate the fancy latte art my colleagues could pour and wrote off the talent as something I would never need to know, much less be able to learn. Until now.

Recently my boss informed me that I would train as a barista to gain a better and wider understanding of the restaurant’s operations. Excuse me while I choke on my skim decaf latte. Happy-go-lucky people like me, people with the unwavering and inexplicable desire to be nice to people, who have literally been met with the startled remark “oh! you’re smiley…” upon greeting a table, belong on the floor. People like me don’t have the discipline to learn the craft. I can’t see, feel, taste, explain, or smell the difference between Arabica and Robusta.

Coffee terrifies me, but what’s more: baristas terrify me. I never aspired to be one simply because I am far too intimidated. For one thing, what is the verb form of the word ‘barista?’ Ask me what a barista does and I won’t know what to say. Second, they don’t let nerds like me become baristas, who are definitely all much cooler than I am. Third, I was always told that I should never. Touch. The espresso machine. Under any circumstances. Consequently I became afraid of this stainless steel Italian beast. The baristas can play this machine like a fiddle, can whisper it out of a funk and talk it through any tantrum. Clearly I lacked the demeanor to tame the angry machine.

I couldn’t bring myself to go back to being the new kid. To feeling so out of place at my own place of work. To wrassle with the espresso monster machine and pretend I’m picking up on the floral notes of this particular blend. To starting fresh and being totally clueless.

When I was scheduled to shadow David the Barista’s shift as a part of my training I breathed a sigh of relief. David and I are cool, I figured we’d pull a couple shots of espresso, maybe steam a little milk, and joke around about how poorly suited for barista-ing I am (seriously, what is that word?). Assuming I could get away with sub-par coffee proficiency, I assumed (incorrectly) that it would be an easy shift. As it turns out, baristas don’t let just anyone mess around on their machines.

When I tried to pull a shot he took the portafilter away. “You’re not tamping it hard enough. It should be packed tighter, like this.”

When I reached for the milk he stopped me. “We’re going to start you off with just steaming soap and water. It looks just the same but this way we won’t waste any milk.”

When I asked to pour a latte he shook his head. “Just keep watching how I’m doing it.”

I steamed dozens of pitchers of soap and water before I steamed any real milk. Pitchers that I felt looked exactly alike were somehow better or worse than the other. To me, it all looked and sounded the same but David could tell without even looking that I’d screwed up. I’d turn to him, hot and steaming pitcher in hand, and he’d say without further consideration “Okay. Dump it out and do it again.”

“Do it again.”

“Now do it again.”

I felt like one of the hockey guys in Miracle.

When finally I had the “milk” steamed to the proper temperature and my froth levels were about right, I started to pour. Well, I started to watch David pour. For him it was effortless. He could pour a masterpiece in his sleep.

“Alright, David, I think I’ve got it,” I insisted.

“Just watch me this one last time.”

I spilled the first couple. As precisely as David managed to position the cup and direct my movements I messed up every time and piping hot milk came seeping over the edge of the cup. The floor became a Jackson Pollack of my mishaps. Once I mastered the art of keeping the milk in the cup, I still struggled to get the latte to look like anything, let alone a masterpiece leaf/rosette/tulip. There wasn’t enough foam, there was too much, or I nearly overflowed the cup before any of it escaped the pitcher.

I’ll spare the gory details of my numerous failures, including one I dubbed ‘Blair Witch Latte.’ I didn’t really produce anything of value that day. I didn’t learn everything there was to know about the craft of barista-ing (I give up) but I definitely didn’t get away with pleading permanent and hopeless ignorance. It didn’t matter that nobody actually expected me to become a professional barista. When you’re the new kid in town (or in the octagon) you’ve got to appreciate how very much there is to learn and respect the opportunity to learn it. You’ve got to be patient and have a little humility.

So I’d like to say I’m sorry to all the baristas in the house who must have cringed each time they heard me incorrectly steam a pot of soap and water. I’m sorry, David, for overflowing every cup I poured in spite of your best efforts. I’m sorry to the busboy that had to mop up the octagon at the end of the day. And I’m really sorry to the guest who received Blair Witch Latte, because seriously, that froth was creepy. This girl’s starting at the bottom and working her way up from complete and utter cluelessness. She appreciates your patience.

Blair Witch Latte

Dear Sir or Madam

Dear Sir or Madam,

Allow me to introduce myself as the perfect candidate for membership in your association. My name is Katherine Hekker, and I am a senior at American University. I graduate this May with a B.S. in Mathematics and have a gleaming record of service and achievement at my university. I am well-regarded by my professors, friendly with all my classmates, and have been called “diligent,” “hard-working,” and “respectable” by my supervisors. But please, let none of this tarnish my application: in spite of this damming evidence, I am indeed the ideal candidate for membership in the Cool Kids at Bars.

My first contact with the Cool Kids at Bars was some time ago at a networking happy hour where I met the former Recruitment Director. Upon hearing his description of the mission, values, and culture of the Cool Kids at Bars, I was immediately captivated. I was swept away by your organization’s values, from sassy humor to mixed drink appreciation. I knew right away that I could benefit immensely this organization. Cool Kids at Bars is the premier association for happy hour A-listers. Card-carrying Cool Kids hold that coveted key to the most exclusive bottle service; it is the drink ticket to top-shelf liquors and premium cocktails. I was told at the time to develop my skills further and work on my qualifications before submitting an application.

I have worked tirelessly throughout my college career to gain the skills and qualifications of a Cool Kid at a Bar. I once dedicated a month of study to learning the proper techniques of shooting hard liquor. In August 2011 I purchased a pair of Steve Madden patent leather heels. I have studied cool jargon and vocabulary and regularly populate my conversations with swear words and “YOLO.” Most notably, however, I have spent my final semester blowing off homework two to three times per week and mocking my academic disinterest with my friends over triple-gin-and-tonics and frozen margaritas.

While my credentials are tip-top and my references are airtight, my greatest attribute is difficult to explain in a line on my resume: my commitment to the aesthetic of cool. I have work indefatigably to exemplify and embody this quality. When it comes to appearances, there is neither a jean too skinny nor a heel too high. There is no designer energy-drink-and-vodka cocktail I haven’t downed. I leave no Wobble un-Wobbled, no Dougie un-dug, no Gangnam un-styled, no Harlem un-shook. But it goes beyond looks; I have the attitude to back it up and drop it low. I keep cool when the club heats up; my mercilessly flat-ironed hair never frizzes and my composure never waivers.

I do sincerely hope that my efforts pay off with an offer of admission to Cool Kids at Bars. I promise that, if entrusted with this coveted membership, I will do nothing but build your organization’s glowing reputation for sending only the hippest, most happening kids to the bars. I will chat up all the swingers and the ballers and toss my perfect hair with perfect ease. I will hit them with my best shot and break their hearts with all the gusto of a vodka-soda-tipsy girl singing Pat Benatar karaoke. I will represent your organization with pride, with witty humor and flawlessly applied makeup. Attached you will find my references, people who can attest to how very fun and awesome I am to party with. Also feel free to contact any college bar in Northwest DC, who can assure you that I am a valued member of their clientele. Except perhaps for Sign of the Whale; um, maybe don’t call them.

Sincerely,

Katherine Hekker

DISCLAIMER: Katherine Hekker does not condone shooting hard liquor. Please don’t do that. In fact, she would rather forego the bars altogether and spend Friday night being a responsible, sensible young woman and watching Netflix on her couch.