Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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In the fall of 1991 I was the lowest-ranking waiter at a steakhouse in Hampton, Virginia. My sole transportation was a Honda 350 motorcycle — halfway between a street bike and a moped — whose chain slipped at the most inopportune times. Heading home amid shipyard traffic, I throttled along in the slow lane, my apron slapping my thighs, tips wadded up in my pockets. I was living with my parents in nearby Newport News while saving money for graduate school, and I often brought home leftover tempura shrimp and the curved bones of steaks. It was against company policy for employees to “scavenge from the leavings,” but at the risk of being written up, I did it anyway. Hokie, the family Dalmatian, appreciated my arrival because it meant treats. Everyone else seemed somewhat ambivalent. My father spent his time raking oak leaves into piles. The wind undid them. He raked them back again.
The steakhouse was part of a national chain. Situated near the mall, several car dealerships, and Langley Air Force Base, the restaurant should have been packed every day, but it wasn’t. As low man I worked lunch hours, from eleven to two, and sometimes the early-evening shift, when the restaurant offered diners a free nonalcoholic drink and dessert if they were seated before 5 PM. I kept a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in a side storage compartment of my Honda 350, along with an extra apron and pair of black socks. Between shifts, instead of going home, I would read at the restaurant’s dark mahogany bar, which was polished each day whether we had customers or not. After work, while jets from Langley roared overhead, a few other waiters and I sometimes stood out back and smoked joints so thin they seemed only paper and flame.
I had started waiting tables after graduating from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s in general studies. Bryce, our assistant manager, said he’d move me to dinner hours if I stuck around and maybe dressed a little better. My shirts were always wrinkled from riding the bike, and my black restaurant shoes with the nonslip soles were in need of an upgrade. The headwaiter, Martin, was impeccable. He wore lots of jewelry — rings, a tiny hoop earring, even a silver-and-turquoise wristband — and a different cologne every day, or so it seemed. He had a Roman nose, bright eyes (when he was getting enough sleep), and a powerful presence. Rumor was he kept a .22 pistol in his glove compartment. Though they were no longer a couple, Martin shared an apartment with our co-worker Paul near Buckroe Beach.
On the surface Bryce and Martin despised each other. Martin said Bryce was a closet homosexual. (He could tell.) Bryce said one day we’d find Martin dead in an alley in Norfolk or beside the naval base. (“Have you seen some of those characters he takes home?”) But Bryce knew Martin was the best waiter he had and trusted him to train the new guys, like me. Higher-ups at the Air Force base often requested Martin for their soft-toned, conspiratorial meetings. Military brass asked for him at their yearly awards ceremonies, held in the red-velvet banquet room. Martin brought in many realtors and jewelers with whom he dealt, and also home builders and tradesmen from Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore. He would arrive table-side with gratis bread in one hand — still warm from the oven, a serrated knife spearing the loaf — and in the other a tray of his regulars’ usual stiff drinks balanced on five fingertips. He never spilled.
“But, Martin, it’s not yet noon,” some NASA engineer might object.
“You know you want it,” he’d reply, throwing his head back like a bull elk.
When Martin took his annual vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Bryce said, the restaurant’s alcohol sales dipped 30 percent.
Sometimes Martin threw staff parties at his apartment, where we sampled meat-and-cheese plates and pounded dirty martinis as if they were light beers. I recall Bryce stopping by for a drink only once. “Don’t tell my wife,” he said. I’d never met his wife. No one had.
I was still getting used to the working life and frequently felt the urge to flee back to Virginia Tech, eat at the cafeteria, and live in the dorms. I also wanted to visit Dr. Kohl, perhaps the only professor who’d known me by name. He’d told me that I was welcome back anytime. Bearded, fit, and slightly cynical, Kohl taught Organizational Communications and used to cancel class and ask us to meet him instead at the Sunrise Café, where he sat and read books like The Art of War and Lolita. I sometimes daydreamed about running into Dr. Kohl and telling him how I was planning to study poetry at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. College had ended too quickly, I’d say. I had to find a way back. Yes, I was waiting tables now, but Dr. Kohl would understand it was temporary, a means to an end. He’d understand my need to move on.
That fall I would tell anyone who’d listen that I was going to graduate school. No one ever argued with me, so I began to believe it myself. At the mall I had purchased a phonebook-thick study guide for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) — fifteen dollars, used. I’d also bought a purple-and-gold LSU shirt that read “Go Tigers,” which I wore around my parents’ house and sometimes under my jacket as I rode to work. I’d never even been to Louisiana.
One evening after work I was drinking planter’s punch at the Bennigan’s next door with Martin, Paul, and a table of other gay men in their thirties. We all picked apart the waiters and waitresses with snide comments, but Martin got final say on people’s appearances and sexual preferences. Another co-worker, a waifish art student at Old Dominion, came in and hugged everyone but me. I’d heard she did charcoals. Nudes. But I’d never seen any of them. I was hoping she’d notice me — the straight guy with gay friends, the intellectual reading poetry at the bar — but she didn’t.
At a little past nine I decided to head back to Newport News. I had already blown most of my tip money: thirty dollars. Partying with this crowd required stamina, I was learning. Also an ability to be both coolly aloof and keenly aware of everyone’s feelings.
Outside, the weather was humid. There were no stars. I spotted Paul, who’d come out for a smoke and, I think, to get away from Martin for a bit. He was standing beside the dumpster, looking up at a pair of jets scrambling out of Langley. Paul apologized for Martin: he could be mean, but eventually he’d mellow out.
“His mom died about this time last year,” Paul explained. He invited me to go out with them later to the gay bars in Norfolk. I was tempted. Hampton was horribly dull. The Norfolk gay bars didn’t get cranking until two or three in the morning.
But, aware that I needed to save money for graduate school, I turned down the invite and got on my bike.
The highway was a river of taillights. There must have been a show at the Hampton Coliseum. At home Hokie gnawed the ribeye bones I had fished from the trash for him, and I spread the hulking GRE study guide in my lap and began memorizing vocabulary words: abject, acclimate, acerbic, aesthetic, auspicious. I liked the feel of that last one on my tongue. (I hoped I was saying it correctly.) On the page it looked French, or what I took to be French. It had a rarefied sensibility that didn’t fit my parents’ old house in Newport News, a shipbuilding town. A word like auspicious — like a full tank of gas or a pair of plane tickets — could take you places. I tried it out on Hokie. Was he chewing that bone auspiciously? No, that couldn’t be right.
At work the next morning I continued using vocabulary words in my head: The soup of the day was benign, at best. The bespectacled customer was a lousy tipper. Martin was in a malevolent mood. “Fix your tie,” he snapped as he dismantled all the salt and pepper shakers and sent them through the dishwasher. He and I didn’t speak again until the end of the lunch shift. While we were rolling silverware in napkins, he asked if my parents were still living. Then he went behind the bar and poured a prodigious amount of bourbon into the glass of iced tea he had been nursing all morning.
Bryce clocked us out but told us to hang around for a meeting about yet another promotional campaign Corporate had thought up: the Loyalty Rewards Program. Martin said if we had to stick around for the meeting, we should remain on the clock. He brushed past Bryce, grabbed our timecards, and punched us back in. Bryce stomped off to interrogate the busboys.
“I lost my mother this time last year,” Martin said to me, “and I am not about to be fucked with.”
Martin and I sat at the bar while some of the other staff strolled in. Most of them only worked the night shift and weekends. They seemed like a separate species from the day staff: more refined, less roughed up. Some had worked for the restaurant chain for years. They had families. A few were real-estate brokers who used the job to network. Others were active-duty military looking to pick up some extra money and maybe a customer or two. They came in wearing Ray-Bans. “Look at this golden wonder,” whispered Martin as a handsome man with a goatee waltzed in with his girlfriend.
Martin’s cologne smelled particularly musky. Maybe he had reapplied? I knew he kept extra clothes in his Subaru BRAT, in what he called a “go bag.” He might have had a spare bottle of cologne there, too. He had also shaved extremely close that morning, and I could see red patches where his neck had bled.
I’d told him I was studying vocabulary to get into LSU. To cheer him up now, I said, “I hope this meeting is auspicious.”
His lips curled as he resisted the urge to smile. “Don’t try to impress me with words you don’t know, motherfucker.” He got up and went to have a smoke with Paul. They were back together, more or less.
Here’s how the Loyalty Rewards Program worked: The waitstaff was organized into “brigades,” a term Martin scoffed at. The brigade leaders (Martin was ours) were given books of stamps and little cards. Customers would be signed into the program whether they liked it or not. They would receive three stamps on their first visit and one stamp for each entree they purchased after that. Once they had five stamps, they qualified for 50 percent off their next ticket. The brigade with the most sales at the end of the promotion would be invited to a company retreat in Dallas–Fort Worth.
Martin spoke up: “Some of my customers are millionaires and don’t want to be bothered by this Republican bullshit,” he said. We all laughed, even the career Navy guys who moonlighted around the holidays.
“All I’m asking is that you give it a try,” said Bryce.
Martin stared him down. Bryce looked back with pleading eyes. If the two men ever went toe-to-toe, I thought, Martin would prevail.
As we got deeper into fall, fishermen sold fillets of rockfish at roadside stands. Oysters were in season. So were collards and mustard greens and turnips with rich dirt still clinging to their roots. The thin strips of woods beside the roads in Hampton turned coppery and yellow, and birds gathered there in great numbers.
I spent my spare time reading Whitman and leafing through the GRE study guide: supplicant, cuirass, charwoman. I completed the application for LSU’s graduate program. I held the envelope in my hands for a moment before I put it in the mailbox, amazed that just a few pages of paper and a twenty-two-cent stamp had the magic to set me free. I didn’t apply anywhere else.
At work Bryce tracked each brigade’s progress on a chalkboard. Our team was killing the others. I sold plenty of blackened steaks, white Russians, and coffees spiked with Kahlúa. Using sales techniques Martin had taught me, I convinced people to buy the daily fish special: orange roughy, a species so bland and uninspiring that it had to be smothered in garlic oil and seasoned bread crumbs to have any flavor. “Up-selling,” he called it. I sold a bottle of red wine to a pair of professors from Hampton University. Martin observed approvingly while I poured the first taste. As he’d instructed, I left the cork at the table in case the diners wanted a souvenir to recall this special evening in the fall of 1991.
Bryce was called to Dallas for meetings, and in his place Martin barked orders at the cooks and terrorized the taciturn busboys. Paul had moved out and was staying in Norfolk but still coming to work as usual. When he and Martin had a shift together, the discomfort was palpable, and Martin was in an especially bad mood. He berated me for my sloppy pants and shirt. If he had anyone to take my place, he said, he’d send me home to learn how to iron. And shave.
He also told me to stop pushing the special so hard: orange roughy were an endangered species. “Give those fish a fucking break,” he said. “They mate for life.”
One afternoon, while finishing my shift, I saw Martin slip into the darkened banquet room and flip on a lamp. The Old Dominion art student was with him. I recognized her profile, the small nose and shaggy hair. Whenever she was around Martin, she said cruel things about people. She knocked my wrinkled clothes and my habit of rescuing bones from the garbage. There was no way for me to get anywhere with her now.
I entered to tell Martin I was clocking out. He was flouting restaurant policy by smoking a cigarette. Spread out under the light were the cards and stamps from the Loyalty Rewards Program, and also the Norfolk and Hampton phone books. Martin and the art student were drinking bourbon from iced-tea glasses while flipping through the pages to find names to write on the cards — many of which already had enough stamps to earn a rebate. Martin explained to me that the program was a corporate sham. There was no real loyalty in the world, so why should there be any real customers in the program? He and many of the others had been filling out the cards, attaching them to random guests’ checks, and pocketing the extra 50 percent off each ticket. He said the cheating was widespread, and if I was smart, I’d sit down and fill one out, too.
I did. After all, I was a dedicated member of Martin’s brigade. The art student smiled at me for the first time. In the tissue-thin pages of the phone book, I found Franklin and Virta Burgess of Hampton. They lived over on Azalea Street, a neighborhood of old homes with fireplaces on both sides of the house. Martin followed me to the register and handed me twenty dollars and change from the drawer. I couldn’t say anything: not thanks, not even “See you tomorrow.”
Martin read my face. “Don’t be so smug, college boy,” he said. Then he refilled his glass at the bar and rejoined his co-conspirator in the banquet room.
The extra twenty dollars didn’t make me happy; it had the opposite effect. When I was on my Honda, just me and my thoughts, I tried to imagine the Burgesses and their house. They had antiques. He liked to read National Geographic. She did crosswords. They had a cat and a chilly one-car garage where they parked the Buick.
When Bryce returned from Dallas, the Loyalty Rewards Program was scrubbed at the Hampton location due to “discrepancies.” There would be no trip to Dallas for the winning team. Martin fumed, then clocked out. He said he was looking into a new position at a bistro in Norfolk, but he wouldn’t say the name. He told me he knew the owner and would put in a good word for me.
A short while after that, Hurricane Grace soaked the coast. Our restaurant was in a low-lying area, and the rain and storm surge overwhelmed the septic system in both the women’s and the men’s rooms. In the middle of lunch the whole place began to smell of sewage. Bryce’s leadership training kicked in, and he closed the restaurant until further notice. Customers were demanding refunds. Meanwhile Martin and Paul — back together again — were on their way to Mexico, having made it out of town ahead of Grace.
The storm stalled, and my parents’ backyard became a shallow sea dotted with leaf-pile islands. Tired of reading the GRE study guide and listening to rain on the roof, I made up my mind to get out of town the next day and visit my alma mater in Blacksburg, up in the mountains. I packed a go bag that fit into one side compartment of my Honda. In the other side I put my GRE book, Leaves of Grass, and a sack of stem-heavy weed I’d scored from a dishwasher at work.
The next morning, under the withering gaze of my mother, I set out for Blacksburg. On the way I pictured meeting up with buddies who were a year or two behind me, getting high, and stopping by Top of the Stairs to laugh at a cover band butchering ZZ Top songs. Dr. Kohl had once suggested we grab a beer together sometime. “I’m not going anywhere,” he had said. I would take him to lunch at the Sunshine Café, my treat.
Meanwhile I sputtered along on my little Honda while the eighteen-wheelers blasted past on the interstate. Beside the highway dairy cows stood ankle-deep in water. The fall foliage glowed. I began to wonder if this trip was a good idea. What if Bryce called and said the restaurant had reopened? I was spending money on gas that I had earmarked for graduate school. Undeterred, I continued on, rehearsing how I’d work auspicious into casual conversation. Say, Dr. Kohl, can you believe how auspicious our lives have been?
In Blacksburg I dropped by the dorm first. My friends were all in class. I wandered the campus looking for familiar faces. The outer edge of Grace was brushing past, and the intermittent showers made the grass shine a brilliant green. I ended up in the university bookstore (a place I had avoided during my college career), browsing the heavy textbooks and key rings and other kitsch and thinking seriously about heading back to Newport News. Then I remembered Dr. Kohl.
It was Friday afternoon, and the communications building was practically empty. Through open office doors I saw lamps casting dim light on stacks of papers. When I got to Dr. Kohl’s office, his nameplate had been removed. A woman passing by told me he had accepted a new position at Baylor. I was surprised by how angry I felt. How could he? Martin was right: there was no loyalty in the world.
“Dr. Tankersley is here,” the woman offered, like an apology.
I’d thought he’d retired. Dr. Tankersley taught Interpersonal Communications and Advanced Video Presentations. Thin-haired and nearsighted, he wouldn’t know me from any of the thousands of other sophomores who had suffered through his uninspiring lectures.
I found him in his office, watering a flaccid spider plant that hung from a ceiling hook. He seemed annoyed that I had interrupted him, and also maybe a little afraid. I’d never noticed how short Dr. Tankersley was. He came up to my shoulder maybe and held his watering can in front of him, as if shielding himself. I realized I was draped in black leather from the road and holding my wet motorcycle helmet. My jeans were torn and filthy. I probably looked to him like a hit man.
After an awkward introduction in which he pretended to remember me, I said, “I’ve had an auspicious summer.”
But did he? Could he see I was destined for graduate school? Could he see the foreign world that word evoked?
I checked out the books on his shelves. There weren’t any I recognized. I asked if he had ever read The Stranger. He had. I asked what kind of fish were in his aquarium. Goldfish. He pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose. I saw him glance at his phone as if he wanted to call security. For some reason I thought of Martin and Paul lying on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, greased with suntan oil, drinking Negra Modelos. The only question they faced was whether to drink on the beach until sunset or dress up and hit the sushi place.
“Well, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your classes,” I said. It was a lie, but he seemed enormously relieved to hear it. Martin had trained me to put people at ease. Dr. Tankersley leaned away and took perhaps the first deep breath he had taken in minutes.
I found nothing going on in Blacksburg. The football team was away. Top of the Stairs seemed lame compared to the gay bars in Norfolk. I thought seriously about leaving that night, but I slept at a friend’s house, underneath his kitchen table with my go bag as a pillow. Before heading home the next morning, I stopped at the Sunrise Café for a breakfast sandwich. The place was crowded with visiting parents, the windows fogged. Martin would have remarked on the vulgar, college-town décor. I took note of the chair where Dr. Kohl used to sit and read while students stopped by to see him all morning. Though my papers had been full of misspellings and I’d missed a third of his classes, he’d always spoken to me as if I had a chance of doing something with my life. Why had he felt such optimism for me?
I was so ready to get home that I pushed my Honda to its limit: seventy miles per hour. The skies cleared, and I was treated to the illusion of a new beginning. I stopped only for gas and a coffee. Around Richmond I began to smell tobacco curing and black, raw earth. Then came the scent of rivers, the tides flowing in and out.
My father was in the yard raking wet leaves when I pulled up. He waved. My mother was in the living room, the Daily Press spread on the floor beside her. A letter had come from LSU. I didn’t even need to open it. It was thin: a rejection for sure. And just like that, I realized that I would not be moving on at all. That’s the sort of karma you get when you use fake names to earn twenty bucks.
Raconteur, recalcitrant, zeitgeist, foible, iconoclast, dauntless, jettison, diaphanous. What would I do with all these new words if I wasn’t going to Baton Rouge? If I wasn’t going anywhere? “Lean into failure,” Dr. Kohl had said to me once as he’d handed back an essay ravaged with red ink.
My mother said Bryce had called and offered me a night shift.
I had planned on staying in my room and reading Whitman. I looked at my thrift-store copy of Leaves of Grass, swollen a bit from rainwater, and found no judgment in the poet’s eyes on the cover. It’s OK to walk away, they seemed to say. Go on with your life. It’s better this way. Still buzzed from the road and gas-station coffee, I changed into my black pants and pressed my white shirt with a hot iron. I was a waiter in a shipbuilding town. It’s not a bad place, I told myself, slipping my wine tool into my pocket. It was Saturday night. There would be steak bones in the trash. If I left now, I could beat the shipyard traffic. Remembering Martin’s advice, I shaved and threw on some of my father’s off-brand cologne. My neck sang with pain.