I write this sitting beneath a quilt in my Pittsburgh bedroom, cross-legged at the end of the bed so I can be right in front of the open window. It’s been open all night, since around midnight or so when I gave up on an early night’s sleep and needed, suddenly, to see the sky. It looks different here, in Pittsburgh, than it does in Wheaton–here, stars are visible, trees are taller, and I could see last night’s little half-scoop of a moon just by sitting at the window.
I write this sitting in my bed on a Saturday morning. It’s just past nine right now, and I think what woke me up early enough to be able to write coherent prose at this hour was a phone call from my workplace, but I can’t be sure because I haven’t put the number in my phone yet, and if they told me yesterday I wasn’t needed this morning, and I didn’t know if that phone call was their number, and I was still sleeping when they called, it’s okay if they meant to call me in today and I neither answered nor showed up. Right? Of course right. I hope.
I write this sitting in my bed on a Saturday morning, beneath the linens my mother picked out for me, blue flowered quilt and clean white sheets, listening to Joni Mitchell and Dear Evan Hansen, and dearly, deeply glad to not be at work this morning. I have been working this summertime job, this job meant really just to fill my wallet, time, and resume, for three weeks now. I stand behind a counter for eight hours a day, five days a week. I have made likely upward of a thousand salads, taken about as many orders, spent roughly 21 hours cutting lettuce, diced 75 tomatoes in a single morning, and hurt my hands twice, first some sort of weird tendonitis/early carpal tunnel that left all the fingers on my right hand numb for a week and a half, and just yesterday, a short but deep cut to the knuckle on my left ring finger. I got this cut while using a knife to open a bag of black olives, in the absence of scissors or a strong grip due to the other injury. This salad job is not without its battle wounds. Or its emotional exhaustion, its early-twenties I can’t do something like this forever distress. I come home every day ready just to collapse into my bed, aching for the motivation to do anything other than just sit and watch whatever it is I’m watching on Netflix at the moment (Riverdale, How to Get Away with Murder, and F.R.I.E.N.D.S. are current binges of choice) wishing my hands felt strong enough to at least knit while I watched. Putting a smile on my face and saying, “Hi, how can I help you?” and “I can help whoever’s next in line to order!” for eight hours does not leave me, at the end of the day, wanting to talk to anyone or even think to myself very deeply at all.
It does not leave me wanting to write. I wish it did. I have so many things I want to write so many half-thoughts and bits of posts that exist in my head as I chop iceberg lettuce or wipe down the toppings bar. I want to tell you about how I’m teaching myself to hand quilt and how I’m finally reading Wuthering Heights. I want to tell you about what I learned junior year–I’ve been trying to, trying so hard to, returning to that half-drafted essay whenever I can, and I still don’t quite know what to say! I want to respond to a question my friend Emma posed to me as we got birthday donuts for her twenty-second lap around the sun. I hope I’ll get to tell you these stories soon. I hope you’ll want to read them.
For me, the second blog post after a hiatus is always the hardest. But I’m starting again today, on this first Saturday of June, on the edge of my bed with the wide-open window right in front of me. I’m writing, and I am trying to write about work while I’m not right in the thick of it. Things seem more possible today, and I’m glad of it.
“My salad days.” I’ve never read Antony and Cleopatra– though at the risk of sounding pretentious, it’s one of only a few Shakespeare plays I haven’t read or at least perused yet– but in it, Cleopatra talks about her past youth, or naivete, maybe, in a curious way. She calls those years her “salad days, when I was green in judgement: cold in blood.” This is a bit of text that people (my father) are fond of quoting to me right now, telling me I’m right in the middle of my salad days. It’s just for the preciseness of the phrase, I think, how literal, how on-the-nose it is. This summer job, my salad days in more ways than one. When I am “green in judgement” and haven’t learned, not yet, to manage the emotional labor and physical exhaustion of a forty-hours-a-week food services job, to care for myself in a way that makes eight hours of making other people lunch any kind of possible.
It’s a sign of privilege, I know, to be learning this now, and so late, at almost twenty-one. I never worked in high school, didn’t need to really, and the little bit of work I’ve needed and wanted to do in college has never been like this. I’ve always been lucky enough to be able to do work that I love, or at places I love. Things like running children’s theater camps, like learning office job skills at an arts nonprofit, like writing articles for Wheaton’s English Department website and covering the front desk for the office coordinator now and then. I know that this won’t always be the case, and that there’s a messy, unplannable future waiting for me after graduation. I’m practicing now, I suppose, in a way. I guess I’m lucky to have the chance to do that, to have another full, full year of liberal-arts-education and theater-making available to me after this summer is over. Because my summer salad job is my first average job, really, the first that asks me to show up every day to a certain place at a certain time, wearing a uniform and close-toed, dressing-splattered shoes, ready to do the things that sometimes people don’t want to do for themselves. Things like making lunch.
I admire, in a way I haven’t really before, the people that do this every day and have done it for much longer. The man at the coffee shop next to my workplace who smiles and asks how I’m doing as he makes my late-afternoon latte. The women who open fitting rooms for me, help me find sizes, give a kind “no problem!” to my “I’m just looking” even though they hear the same reply hundreds of times each day. I watch the high schoolers at my workplace, who come in to take over my shift at 4pm, fresh from geometry finals, gym class, hallway gossip, and I’m amazed. They put on their aprons and pull back their hair and stand ready for six-hour dinner shifts like it’s the easiest thing in the world, saving minimum wage paychecks for prom dresses, gas money, college funds. They are loud, energetic, hopeful, messy. They talk back to the manager and forget to sweep the floor, to rotate older items to the front, to give eat-in customers their table numbers. But they are stronger than I am, I think. They’ve learned an efficiency, a fortitude, a type of self-care that I haven’t yet because I’ve been lucky enough, or dependent enough maybe, not to need it.
I’m learning it now, slowly. I’m developing strategies, figuring out how to avoid absorbing the stress of a lunch rush or the harshness of an exasperated manager. And I really can’t say that I hate my job– it’s good for me to have something to fill the time so that my free hours and days feel more precious, more special. “If all the year were playing holiday, to sport would be as tedious as to work,” says Hal in I Henry IV. The hours I spend outside of work–the productive ones and the lounging ones, both kinds–feel precious now. Everything I do feels like a very deliberate, very important choice, whether it’s knitting a sock, calling a friend, taking a nap. Because these salad days are no sport, and they are, often, tedious. But my shifts tend to be early ones, 8am to 4pm or so, and we don’t open until 10, and during the precious few morning hours of lettuce-chopping or fridge-restocking, I’m free to stick in earbuds and listen to as much Carole King and as many podcasts as I wish. I’m making friends, too, people to laugh with over the customers who consistently ask for triple scoops of beets (beet-hatred post to follow??? Stay tuned!!!!), people to hug goodbye at the end of a shift and to dance with in the empty restaurant during cleanup. And I think there’s a part of me that loves the handsiness of it all, the doing-ness, the way even with computerized registers and a carrot-chopping machine you can’t replace the need for people, real people, in the back loading the dishwasher, people cutting the lettuce, people saying “good morning!” so many times it ought to lose its meaning but choosing not to let it.
I feel, continually, in writing this post that I need to acknowledge my privilege, and make clear that I not trying to write the manifesto of the minimum-wage worker or make any kind of statement about this type of work. I don’t think that’s my place, and besides I’m not really interested in writing generalized manifestos, in broad narratives or single stories. This isn’t the space for that. All I want this summer is to tell you a story about my salad days. The days that make my heart ache and break and somehow learn to put itself back together. Days of trying to have wider eyes, a truer smile, a simpler heart. Days of longing for the good life, of failing, as one might expect, to find it behind a cash register or beneath boxes of mushrooms and red tomatoes. Days of not really thinking that this is the good life, but choosing, or trying to choose, ways to make it as close to that as possible. Days that somehow, somehow God is redeeming, even as I write of them.
And this is the story that I have so far. It is hard, and I am trying, and I am learning. I am maybe not as special, not as all-knowing as I thought I was–are we, ever? I am a person who can cut her finger opening a bag of olives, a person who doesn’t know how to use an industrial can opener, a person who rings up the order wrong and cries in the bathroom, sometimes, when the manager snaps at her for it. I am a person who is tired, so tired, of telling you good morning and asking you how can I help you today!
But I’m stronger than I thought I was, too—because I am also a person who will ask you, anyway.
Here’s to the salad days, and here’s to you, dear friends, for accompanying me through them.
(I still have no pictures??? What the heck @ me???)