Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving with Housekeepers

One of the great ironies of my life: the period when my job centered on building community and making people feel at home was also the time of my life that I felt least at home and most lonely.

I spent two and half years managing dorms at a university. The job provided for some excellent professional growth. I got to meet some fascinating personalities, and living where I worked saved a lot of money.

All of that said, I don’t feel my personality at the time meshed particularly well with my colleagues, and, freshly removed from my own college experience, where I’d cultivated a pretty substantial and diverse social network, my time at my first full-time job felt a lot more insular, and I never felt quite reached a comfort zone.

My second year on the job, I sat alone in my office on the ground floor of the dorm. Most days, there was plenty of foot traffic, plenty of pleasantries exchanged, meetings to attend, etc. But things were different on the day before Thanksgiving. Since I was only an hour from home, I opted not to burn any vacation days, and instead worked my usual schedule, only in a dorm that was all but abandoned, less than 10 percent of the residents in attendance.

The housekeeping staff was still on. By late morning, the scents of a turkey dinner wafted from their break room by the loading dock, down the narrow hallway, past the laundry room and vending machines to my office. Just a few minutes before noon, when I had planned to escape upstairs to my apartment for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some Ramen, one of the housekeepers popped his head in my office. He was a skinny guy with a lazy eye, patches of stubble that never seemed to grow thicker and that he never seemed to shave away from day to day, compulsively clad in a plain red baseball cap. “You coming to lunch?”

Lunch, it turned out, was a potluck affair between the whole housekeeping crew. Though, I had nothing to contribute, they insisted I join them. I marveled at the spread--a twelve-pound turkey, homemade stuffing and mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, pumpkin and pecan pies. Bill, the manager, sat at the head of the long table, a patriarch. Donna, a dead ringer for Melinda Doolittle from the season of American Idol that would follow a few months later, poured clear plastic Solo cups of grape juice and cranberry juice to pass around the table.

And I made small talk with James, a middle-aged housekeeper with an accent from Wales and an ornate tattoo of a cross on his forearm. We chatted about the college kids on the fifth floor who had routinely made messes that year, most recently leaving a Jackson Pollock-like display of vomit in the middle of the women’s bathroom floor.

I said I was sorry he had to deal with all of that.

“Don’t be sorry.” He took a bite from a drumstick, tearing a scrap of turkey skin free with his teeth. “If they didn’t make a mess, I wouldn’t have a job.”

I thought of this man, literally thousands of miles from home, making ends meet on a housekeeping gig in a college dorm. And I thought of myself, just at the start of my career, just an hour drive removed from most of my friends and family, and the places I knew best.

I looked around that table. At people who scrubbed toilets and mopped floors to earn their paychecks. At people who had invited me into their fold when I sat alone at my office computer, the day before Thanksgiving. These people who were thankful for their jobs, their lives, their community.

Trite as it may sound, in their midst, I felt pretty thankful, too.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Kentucky Fried Chicken

A year and a half ago, I went a week-long road trip. First and foremost, the objective was to attend an a cappella competition in St. Louis, but the outgoing journey from Baltimore included a stop to see friends in Indianapolis, and the drive back included a stop in Lexington, Kentucky, for the sheer principle that I’d never visited the state before.

I didn’t give much thought to what I would do in Kentucky, which was probably fine because I’d only stay there for 16 hours before I headed off toward home in Baltimore. Nonetheless, the one hard and fast item I did have on my agenda for that leg of the trip was to get some authentic Kentucky fried chicken.

A round of Googling revealed that the actual original KFC restaurant was both well off the beaten path and nothing to write home about, so I elected to focus on local fare. I check into my hotel around 7 o’ clock on Easter Sunday and asked the woman working the front counter where she would recommend that I find a good fried chicken dinner.

She looked at me, bland-faced and dull-eyed. “Wal-mart’s right across the street. They have really good fried chicken.”

I put on my most polite smile, the best I was liable to mange in a weary state after eight hours of driving. “Any restaurants you could suggest. Maybe someplace more locally based?”

She ran her tongue over her upper lip. “Cracker Barrel’s good, too.”

I gave up on the front desk. Moved into my room and settled in for a quick nap. Then I got up and set to Googling on my phone. I should have expected as much, but I couldn’t find a single local joint of repute open that late on a Sunday, and realized I had all the less chance of doing so on Easter night.

So, I singled out an establishment known as The Parkette or my Monday lunch on the way out of town, and settled for the Cracker Barrel two doors down for that night’s dinner.

I brought along a book--common enough practice for me when I’m traveling and dining alone. The hostess sat me at a table for one, and fifteen minutes later, my server was there--a young woman with long, straight brown hair, severely yellowed teeth, and a brass name tag with big black letters that read Anna-May. She sounded a little nervous, a little frazzled when she asked me if I’d decided what I would like to order.

I smiled my polite smile again. “I was thinking maybe I’d like to look at the menu first.”

“Of course, sir.”

She scurried away and a minute later, returned with my menu and asked if I knew what I wanted to drink.

“How about an iced tea?” I asked.

“Would you like that sweetened or unsweetened?”

“Sweetened, please.”

I scanned the menu. Anna-May returned with my iced tea (unsweetened, but I tended to that myself with the sugar packets at the table). I elected to hold off for the real thing on my fried chicken quest, and ordered a ham dinner instead.

I got lost in my book, and didn’t notice the passing time at first. But as the wait time drew to half an hour, I did become conscious of it. Finally, my dinner arrived along with an apology for the wait. It wasn’t very good, but it was a Cracker Barrel so I didn’t come in with the loftiest expectations. The waitress stopped back three times as I ate.

The first time, she asked if I wanted anything for dessert.

The second time, she asked how my dinner was.

The third time, she asked how my dinner was again, but lingered longer after I repeated that it was great and thanked her. “You’re so nice,” she said. “This is my first night on the job and everybody seems so angry. I wish all of the customers were like you.”

She left before I could respond.

And I thought about how nice I’d really been. Only looking up from my book long enough to answer her questions. Thinking to myself that she didn’t seem particularly competent. And I remembered my first few days on the job, working the counter at the Yorkville McDonald’s. Trying to learn their limited menu, the appropriate codes to put in the register, getting scolded by my manager for giving someone the wrong breakfast sandwich.

I put the book aside after I’d finished my dinner. And when Anna May returned with the bill for my nine-dollar dinner, I told her she was doing a great job and to have good night. She blushed, smiled, waved awkwardly and said “you too.”

Cracker Barrel has you pay your bill at the counter, which left me with a dilemma. I didn’t want poor Anna-May to think for a second that I was stiffing her on her tip but putting it on my card out of her sight, but I only had four dollars cash in my wallet. I did also, however, have an emergency twenty-dollar bill stashed in my cell phone case.

I thought about asking for change. I thought better.

People have to face all manner of hardship in their lives, not the least of which is the discouragement of other folks putting them down--not out of necessity or in an effort to help them improve at something, but just for being carelessly or consciously mean.

I came to Kentucky fully prepared to pay in excess of twenty dollars for a fried chicken dinner, and I’d stayed well under budget for the overall road trip up to that point. I had a good job and twenty dollars wasn’t going to put me out in any meaningful way.

I left my twenty-dollar bill under the empty glass of iced tea Anna May had never refilled, and went to the counter without another word to settle my bill and be on my way. I slept easy that night.

The next morning I woke in time to do a little writing, grab a shower and check out of the hotel just before 11 to make it to The Parkette for an early lunch. I planned to hit the highway straight from there, and not stop for anything but gas and the rest room until I hit Baltimore seven or eight hours later. Thus, I had few inhibitions about ordering a small feast: an eight-piece order of fried chicken, a side of fried chicken livers, French fries, and a small (24-ounce) sweet tea.

I left Kentucky with a full stomach, a couple new stories to tell, and a happy (if slightly less healthy) heart. Not a bad end to a week on the road.