Last night, I was working. It’s been so long since I’ve blogged, I should probably give a short recap. I work at a Chinese restaurant in Studio City now, waiting tables. I’ve been there awhile and I make enough (knock wood) that I only have to work a few shifts a week. My body is always tired at the end of a busy shift. I’m simultaneously thrilled and depleted by the physicality of my job.
There is a spiritual energy that is also depleted as a server. At least for a server who cares about doing the job well. When people are mean, it affects me. But on the plus side, when I have a table or several tables with whom I make what feels like a genuine connection, it bolsters me. On a good day, I can walk to my car at the end of a shift feeling seen, helpful, valuable, insightful, and connected to humanity.
As a vocation, restaurant work is often easily dismissed. I have been in a few too many social situations, even recently, where if it comes up that I work as a server, an expectation about me shifts. Their eyes wander over my shoulder for a more interesting person to talk to. There is a genial, “It was so nice to meet you,” as they slip away to better chat companions. And yes, it always hurts my feelings.
Last night, I was waiting on a couple who live in Albuquerque. They moved there after several years in LA and we bonded when I told them how much time I’d spent in Albuquerque over the years and how much I loved it. Two tables away, another couple incredulously interrupted with, “Hey, we just moved to Albuquerque from LA too!” I trailed off to deliver food and I could hear the two tables connecting over the parallels in their lives. All worked in entertainment and had moved to New Mexico in part because that industry is booming now.
Later, after the first couple left, the second couple asked why I had spent so much time in Albuquerque. I told them a bit about traveling back and forth to help my mom in Kansas and years earlier, my dad. The wife said she related, she had been traveling back and forth from Albuquerque to LA to care for her mom. And that her mom had died at the beginning of November. She shared how she’d been there in the last weeks of her mother’s life. Of course, I offered my apologies. What started as casual bonding over a city we both enjoyed, forged deeper, rapidly, with our shared experiences. Not identical, but similar. I asked if she had siblings, and she told me she was an only child. I told her that while I have two half brothers, I am my mom’s only child. So, you know, more connection.
I am affected by feelings that I let both of my parents down by living so far away. Some of my relatives give me subtle (and not so subtle) hints that I’ve failed my parents too. Probably, I have. In retrospect, we always see clearly the things we should have done better.
Last night, this woman, her grief still fresh, told me, “You are a good son.” I thanked her. Do I feel like a good son when most of my mother’s physical care falls to other people? No, I don’t. This nice lady doesn’t know me, I thought. But then maybe, hopefully, maybe she does know me. Maybe strangers who connect over life’s nuances do instinctively understand the other.
As they were leaving, I wanted to do something special for them. For her. I could have snuck them chocolate covered fortune cookies, but that felt too glib of a gesture. (Sorry your mom died, these might be your lucky numbers.) Earlier we had talked a bit about creative pursuits, their work in the arts. And I remembered I had a sketch another customer had left on the paper we cover our tables with. Another couple from another evening. Another connection. On that night, one half of the couple drew two birds as we reminisced about gay life in 1990s Los Angeles, our parallels. When they left, I kept the sketch, carried it in my check presenter. I loved it. This piece of his soul, rendered onto butcher paper with a borrowed pen, saved from the garbage while the rest of his table’s detritus now rotted in a San Fernando valley landfill. My treasure.
So, last night, I gave my new friend that sketch of the birds. I told her how when my dad died, my friend Linda gave me a photo of a red cardinal and told me bird sightings are a message from our departed loved one that they love us and are still with us. Honestly, I don’t know if I believe such stuff, but I do know it’s something I like to believe. I love the thought of her mother sending these two birds into her daughter’s unassuming dinner of peanut noodles and sweet and sour chicken to say, “I love you. You are a WONDERFUL daughter.”
She teared up. She told me she wished she could hug me. I told her the name of the artist, gave her his Instagram profile, since now the two of them were also connected. It is my sense, that my new friends felt the same shared moment I did. It is my sense, that they left the restaurant with a little less weariness. More connection. But probably I will never know.
What I do know, is where I am in my life. I am leaving next week to go home and prepare my childhood home for sale. My mother’s dream home that she bought while my dad was out of town on a business trip. (It worked out. He loved the house too.) For her, for me, it feels like such a daunting task, but it also feels like the appropriate time. Right now, all of my thoughts are on the stuff, the physical objects that have collected in a house for 45 years. Piece by piece, I will go through boxes and cupboards and drawers and rooms and decide what is kept and what is relinquished.
Though it wasn’t discussed, I know my new friend will experience something similar. And you, reading at home, maybe you’ve gone through the same or will go through the same, sooner than you wish. It’s all so much. I didn’t know how much I needed last night’s exchange to happen until it did. Two weary souls bumping into each other, needing someone to see them.