Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tawdry Tales II: In which our debaucherous waitress flees her Sonoma County misdeeds, conquers San Francisco, crashes, and burns.

This is a follow-up story to "As The Creek Dries," a piece of mine which ran in the North Bay Bohemian three years ago. Though it eventually won an AAN award for food and wine writing, it ensured I'd never work in a Sonoma County restaurant again.

I didn’t know when I moved to San Francisco that this would mean moments of mouth-agape wonder, making me feel so often like a Midwestern tourist that I’d go and get a giant tattoo on my arm to prove that I belong.

I had one of those moments this morning as I returned from the artists’ enclave in Chinatown where I’ve been spending nights without even wanting to sleep with any of its residents: a painter, a photographer, a hairdresser.

Through the sun and the cigarette smoke produced by a small, clean man wearing slippers on the steps of Grace Cathedral, I saw the Bay Bridge. After three months, the same thing still happens when I see the water from a hill: I stop, I stare, my jaw goes slack and I have another San Francisco moment.

It doesn’t matter that this town is full of guys who don’t call me and that my housemates are very much unlike me in many ways, because last night was spent reading aloud and then translating a letter from a heartsick Nazi to Gretel, dated 1942 as part of an upcoming exhibit where the early model tape recorder will be mounted on the wall with the letter and my voice will emerge, reading the lines to Gretel in German, then in English.

I am considering a move into the pantry where I slept last night, because I now live in a big, beautiful, expensive space that I don’t use enough, and each time I put a personal object of decoration on the windowsill it is silently removed, although my roommate’s glass full of water and rocks is allowed to find permanent residence there.

A lot has changed since I burned all my bridges, and a few creme brulees, in Healdsburg. After the price of a burrito shot up to six dollars and I barely recognized the town where my family had lived for four generations before me, it was time to get out. The plaza was filled with visiting yuppies antiquing and drinks were more expensive than in the Castro. It was time to leave the Hamptons of the Bay Area and move to San Francisco.

Finding a job was no problem--when you grow up in the wine country, have your first taste of Dry Creek Valley zinfandel at the dinner table at age seven, and start working in restaurants ten years after that, the food and wine knowledge tends to stay toward the front of your mind. I took 5 shifts a week at a well-known Bistro and plowed face-first into the trough of San Francisco nightlife, honking it up like a greedy sow.

Married bartenders? Hey, I’m not breaking any vows. Hard drugs? Gimme more! Expensive designer shoes? A girl only lives once. But table after table, it began to dawn on me. This town wasn't Healdsburg. I wasn't waiting on dear old folks who found me charming. My transformation from cute young waitress to hard-edged professional server was happening, and the girls I was waiting on were starting to be younger than me, and cuter than me, and with more expensive shoes. I realized that this was where everyone had gone--I ran into more people from my high school class than I ever had back in Sonoma County. I was waiting on my peers, young people who'd left their small towns to actually make something of themselves, and I wasn't fooling them. Sure, my consistent $300 a night matched their junior corporate salaries, but to them it looked like I was wasting my life. And I was.
Something had to give.

For two years, I drifted from hip new restaurant to famous classic bistro back to hip new restaurant, following the money shifts and blowing my tips the next day on Diesel jeans and dinners out with other waiters. My friend’s lip cracked because he he only drank coffee and beer for two weeks straight. Another waiter I knew went to rehab and lost all his shifts.

The last time I entered the party waitress cycle, I got fat and fired. The chance of getting fired is less now; I’m too good at what I do. The change has to come from within, but the truth is that I don’t want to change. I like being bad. I like breaking the rules, smooching my married lover in the off-camera corners of the restaurant and making out with the doorman at the bar we all frequent. I like smoking cigarettes while it’s still daylight. But I also want to have a spectacular ass.

I fear so much becoming a floozy; an old pro with a raspy voice who flirts with everyone because she doesn’t know how else to behave. When is it time to stop this lifestyle? At age 30, 35? Or was it time to stop it five years ago?

Turning these doubts over and over in a hung-over haze, I began to drown myself with tables, thinking that if I could just work enough I’d be able to stay out of trouble. It worked for a colleague of mine: he stuck himself with the insane schedule of five lunch shifts a week at Boulevard, followed by five dinner shifts a week at Jardiniere; on his day off he worked at a wine shop at the Ferry Building and on the one day a week he had to himself he was too tired to get into much of anything.

I worked ten shifts a week between two restaurants/ working a shift every day or double-shifts, for five months. As summer crept in and the 200 people who had lunch at the business restaurant I worked in during the day wore fewer clothes and looked more refreshed, I began to get bitter.

“I’m a writer, goddammit,” I’d mutter to myself as the other waiters chattered about their most recent one-night stands. “I don’t deserve this shit,” forgetting that the shit had been my choice. I set myself an arbitrary savings goal ($5K) and told myself when I reached the goal I was going to travel somewhere. I made it to $4,500.00 before pulling a no-show at my night job and giving 2 weeks notice at the fancy lunch place and bought a ticket to South America.

The decision to go to South America came out of nowhere, really--I thought I’d take off for a few months and learn Spanish, returning to the restaurant world with the secret knowledge that the cooks I worked with couldn’t gossip about me any more without me returning a barrage of profanities, shocking them and forever earning myself respect and ditching the nickname “Guera (blondie).”

South America cracked me wide open. All the feelings I’d been avoiding by partying too much and working too much came out, and I was really alive. Suddenly, it was okay to be overjoyed for no reason. It was okay to burst into tears at the drop of a hat. People celebrated with you, or patted your hand and said, “No llores mas, linda,” and that was that. I spent two months traversing the continent, staying with friends of friends and tagging along with hiking groups. I felt lonely, got ragingly sick, and walked four days to get to Machu Picchu anyway. Then, just before I was set to fly back to San Francisco, I met someone.

I quit the restaurant industry on December 30th, 2006; and realized during my first week off that I hadn’t seen the sun go down in California in almost ten years--every day had been spent inside a dining room getting ready for service. The change from 5-2am-er to 9-5er was strange at first, but suddenly being in sync with the rest of the world actually felt nice.

Plus, I discovered this thing called happy hour, which is almost as good as happily ever after.