A funny thing happened on the way to the co-op.
About three weeks ago, at the suggestion of our Kayla, our drummer’s girlfriend, I put in an application to be a reporter at a local online newspaper. I didn’t much think about it at the time — while I look good on paper I’ve increasingly come to think of myself as a well-educated dirtbag.
Then the editor of the newspaper called to interview me. Then his boss. Then another interview.
I’ve finagled my way into a half-dozen restaurant jobs by lying and then working very hard, very fast, to make that lie true. “Have you ever broken down whole grouper?””Do you have much experience with Catalan cuisine?” “Can you hold down expo tonight?”
But with these interviews I told the truth. I have little experience in journalism, aside from getting into – and promptly walking away from – the J-school at Rutgers, nearly 20 years ago.
But I can write – passably, at least – and I know this town. And I’m used to working 60 hour weeks. That’s what I told them, expecting them to thank me for my time. But I kept getting moved through to the next interview.
I spent a few days reading the paper. It was definitely under new management, in the past six months it had changed. The writing was a little better, the stories less dull. Still, it was the underdog paper – not Star, the local print paper, not the local Fox affiliate news website. I hadn’t been able to see myself as a reporter for a big paper, but an underdog, trying to fight uphill against the local New York Times affiliate and two TV news networks? That sounded about right.
I was mostly too busy to daydream but, at night, my wife and I did indulge ourselves. A little bit.
Then in the morning, back to the grind. For a week, I heard nothing.
Then one day, I was standing over Sloppy’s grave, smoking a the battered joint one of my employees had left for me. I sipped a beer and checked my email.
I got the job.
Did I want it?
Cooking had become such a part of me. A place where I could be myself, unreserved and unfiltered. I could joke, swear, drink and smoke. And it was honest work — a cliche if ever there was one, I know. But making food by hand, it was fucking satisfying. It was real, and when it was done, you could wash your hands and go home.
But it had taken a toll. Fifteen years. Scars, a bum ankle, arthritic cramps in my hand.
Other things, harder to see.
I looked around at the kitchen. I’d gone as far as I could. I’d held the line as long as I could. Up before dawn, working till dusk, trying to keep laziness and cheapness at bay. I wasn’t sleeping well, my jaw ached from biting my tongue, I was drinking at work, more and more. I knew I running out of resolve.
The Copelands were gone, Sloppy was dead. I’d put up a good fight.
It was time. Blow the bridge.
But I didn’t have to. There was a young cook, a kid named Wes. He didn’t know shit about cooking, but he did at least care. We’d spent many hours talking, about guitars and music, drugs and our mutual aversion to normalcy. He didn’t care about the co-op, he just needed a job. All he really wanted to do was to play music. I could respect that.
But he told me, “even if I have to be a janitor, I guess I’ll try to be the best janitor I can be. Try to figure out all the right ways to do it.”
I knew he’d step up, try to shoulder the weight, try to keep the bastards from ruining what I’d built with the Copelands.
I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
I walked out on the last day, and took off my chef coat. Fifteen years. In good times and bad, all the way through grad school, I’d always had a cooking job. It seemed more real, more an actual part of my life than teaching or taking classes or anything else.
I’d forgive someone for not wanting to leave that behind. And I admitted, I wanted to stay too.
I poured a beer out for Sloppy, for the Copelands, and for myself. I threw my chef coat in the dumpster. I walked to the road and didn’t look back.
I wasn’t a cook anymore. Now it was someone else’s story.