Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I'm Sorry Sir...I'm on Break

I am at work, lost in that serene, transcendent time called the break. I sit at the counter, in the center of chaos, but I am not present, I do not exist...and that is how I like it. I slowly, leisurely swivel the worn leather stool, upon which I am seated, back and forth, back and forth, swaying. The noises of the restaurant, clamouring voices , clattering pots and pans, shouting cooks and grumbling waitresses, all blend and weave together into a rhythmic, cadenced beat that backdrops my break. The warmth of the stove wraps me up, and I look around but intentionally notice nothing and no one. On the cold can of apple juice that sits in front of me, large drops of condensation appear and slither their way down the side, pooling into a small puddle on the counter. I look down at the circle of clear water staring in that unfocused blurry way when blinking isn’t necessary, the pool swells and shimmers. It looks cold and refreshing, like I could jump right in.

I remember, as a child, being at the outdoor pool in August. The heat has driven most of the neighbourhood here, and it’s bursting. I push my goggles into my eyes and plunge under the cool water. I hold myself down using the tiled side as the quiet deep surrounds me. To the world above I no longer exist. The water rises and falls slightly as the masses pile in and pile out. The movement sways me back and forth, back and forth. The happy screeches of children are muffled, scattered yet constant. I lazily glance around at the sun's rays that hit the surface and become skewed as the pale streaks slice the clear water. I can see the blurry images of children running above and farther off, on my own level, the disconnected legs of some unknown swimmer. I'm holding my breath and it will soon become uncomfortable, but for now my lungs are still and I feel natural.

I imagine I am baby. I am warm and snug and floating. I am not yet disturbed by the need to breath. To the world I am not yet present, I do not exist. I am adrift, swaying with the swells of a dark sea, back and forth, back and forth. There is a thunderous beat that is constant and unwavering, booming and all tempers my stay. I know not what I am, or where I am going, but I don't mind...I'm on break.

I am in my little “break bubble”, remembering, imagining, swaying to the beat of the swivelling sticky leather stool as the clock ticks away the precious moments of my break. Suddenly, I feel the tug of reality and my back and forth rhythm is jarringly halted. A man sitting at the counter across the horseshoe shaped row facing mine is deftly trying to get my attention, using obnoxiously wild hand gestures. He is speaking to me and because of this I am abruptly present again, I exist. The cacophonous momentum of the restaurant, which had moments ago been the steady beat of my break, comes crashing over me, a tidal wave of sound. A child is screaming somewhere in the table section. The cook is hollering that the "poacher is off people! It is one o'clock, POACHERS OFF!” The rusty hinges on the front door scream as they are pushed open and clang as they are slammed shut, all of this in a rushing few seconds. I look at the man, he is older, in his late forties, large bellied with an impatient looking moustache and receding hairline.

He is telling me his order.

This must be a violation, an infringement, a breach of some invisible law. I stare at him blankly as I am overwhelmed with his expectation of swift and unquestioning service. All I can think is "but I'm on break".

I remember floating in the clear chlorinated water of the outdoor pool, looking downward, examining the grimy tiles that line the bottom. The ebb and flow of the water pushes me lightly to and fro as my hair spirals out like spilt ink in front of me. Violently and without warning, my head is jerked upward. I gasp and with the intake of breath comes the intake of liquid. I surface, spluttering and coughing. My goggles have come askew and the chemical water stings my eyes. The heat of the sun burns at my face as the sounds of shrieking children, barking dogs and blaring traffic is made 10 fold. I am pulled from the water. Now on the surface, substantially existing and no longer invisible, I find the iron grip that has disrupted my mother.

"Meghan be RESPONSIBLE! YOU DO NOT lie face down in a pool! What is wrong with you! I thought you were drowning!"

My eyes well up with tears and I feel a shame that I cannot put a reason behind. A weight bears heavily down on my shoulders and chest. I cross my arms and huff in frustration under my breath "But I'm on break ".

I imagine I am a baby. I am floating for eternity in the warm dark sea when the loud steady beat begins to increase. There is a movement that I do not know and I am violently flipped and shaken. What follows is a tumultuous frenzy. I am tossed and thrown, the sea now angry and stirring, sloshing, gnashing and contracting. I am driven ahead into harsh lights, blazing and blinking; into sounds, scraping and beeping. I am forged forward into the world with the obligation to BREATH and scream and live. With the responsibility to grow up, go swimming, refrain from drowning, gain independence, become a waitress, do my duty and remember that the customer is never wrong!

With choice cast aside and preference ignored, all I can think is "but I'm on break".

“Don’t worry about it Meg. Sir, if you just wait a moment I will help you no problem!”

The scenes in my mind evaporate as instantly as they appeared.

Julie gives me a strange look as she comes from the back kitchen where she was busily scraping left overs into the garbage. She smiles brightly at the customer as she recites her line. I don’t know if I have actually voiced my indignation at this man’s rude interruption. By the look on her face I have.

The moustache across the row ruffles furiously: “I don’t know why you people allow breaks here anyway, stupid in my opinion”.

But I don’t hear this part. I’m back in my mind, remembering, imagining, floating in the rhythmic sway...there is still 4 minutes left of my break after all.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Lane Lady

Monday morning – 8:30 AM

“Hey YOU! GIRL! Why are you yawning, EH why are you yawning? You think you have the right to yawn? I’ve been working my whole life and YOU’RE yawning! YOU have no right to be tired. IM TIRED!”

“Morning Martha, how are you today?”

“I’m going to call the labour division on you, you know, they will straighten you out! YOU are a bad worker, I’ve seen you. I’m going to call the boss and get you fired! I’m going to tell your husband you are a terrible waitress!”

“Martha, I’m not married...I don’t have a husband.”

“Yes you do, his name is Hank and he works at Tbaytel...and I’m calling him today to tell him how badly you do your job. He will not be happy, no he won’t.”

“Would you like some more coffee Martha?”

“WHY WOULD I want more coffee? You are so .... terrible service....” Her berating rant becomes muffled as I walk towards the back of the restaurant.

I would never marry someone named Hank.

Mornings with the Lane Lady are always tiring.

I slam the coffee pot down on the heater, and upon hearing the satisfying sizzle of evaporating water, let out a deep sigh that I feel will be the first of many. I jab my fingers into my temples: it’s going to be a long day.

Although I didn’t know her real name until I came to work at this small breakfast place this summer, the Lane Lady has been a figure in my life ever since I was a kid.

There is no complicated story behind her nickname, given that children were the ones to bestow it. Her “house”, a sad wreck of twisting weeds and garbage, backs onto a sundrenched, verdant lane, which would have been an ideal place to play, had one not been besieged by a surprisingly fast old woman, heaving brooms and profanities in your general direction. Thus: The Lane Lady.

The Lane Lady, when not guarding her lane, was also a prominent and popular figure on the side of two major intersections near my childhood home, as well as the restaurant I eventually came to work for. Here, one of her daily past times was, and still is, to hurl upraised, enraged fists at the passing cars. Although I don’t know her reasons in particular, it is clear if you watch her that there is method and technique to what she is an art form. For any common vehicle that passes, one can expect to receive a simple but effective close fisted jab indicating her pointed outrage, reminiscent of a revolutionary speaker or perhaps dictator of a fascist country (either way it is very opinionated). Particular vehicles though, which mine was, would receive a special signal. She would first turn herself completely away from the road, showing the oncoming offensive object her back, and then in a feat of impressively swift and flexible manoeuvring, twist her fisted arm backwards and towards the vehicle, shaking aggressively without missing a beat.

So it came to be that when I arrived to work for my third waitressing shift: fresh faced, trained and ready to please, I was shocked to see the lane lady hunched at counter seat number 4, sporting the same grimy over sized blue trench coat I had seen her in for the past 12 years. Her grey hair matted around her face: etched with deep angry lines, which I imagine were the result of years of scowling.

“Wow she is really small close up”

That was my first thought.

Then I was sharply nudged by my supervisor.

“Have you served her before?”


She smiled broadly, obviously amused, “Have fun”.

This brings me to now, five weeks later, 8:30 am on a Monday morning: the beginning of a long shift. Martha’s sharp grumbling voice breaks through the rest of the murmuring early morning breakfast crowd.

I stand in the kitchen taking deep breaths, sweating from the humidity of the August weather, the hot grill, and the lack of a good air conditioning system. The frustration that usually subsides after being on the receiving end of a Lane Lady tirade does not dissipate and begins to form the hint of a migraine behind my eyes. I turn to glare at her from behind the shelves of the back kitchen. She has absurdly arched herself over the surface of the counter, straining to reach the garbage can meant for staff on the other side. As she reaches across the space she tosses each of her used creamers in, childlike, one at a time, watching them fall. These are then followed by her used napkin and her dirty paper place mat. Afterwards she picks up her grocery bags and begins to button up her coat, despite the balmy air.

I have never seen another customer throw out their own garbage and in the lacklustre dregs of a summer job this is a marvel.

As she shuffles away towards the exit, I am reminded of how, upon first seeing her up close, she had seemed so impossibly small and breakable. The frustration slips away then and I hurry to the front cash.

“Have a good morning Martha; it’s a nice day out today”

She turns to me with no spark of recognition in her eyes, and I think for a moment she is going to tell me to “Go get a job you lazy bum!” (one of her favourites). But instead the deep angry lines at the edges of her mouth appear to turn upwards “Yes, yes, yes, yes... very nice day out today, goodbye”.

When I drive home six hours later, reeking of eggs and greasy bacon, I roll to a stop at a red light. I wave to the dirty blue back and angry waiving fist of the figure resolutely positioned away from my car on the grassy knoll a few feet away. I laugh and then breathe out a long sigh, for what is probably the 42nd time that day.