“Dude, I can help you with that,” one man is leaning over another seated man filling out an online registration form for homeless services at one of the public library’s computers.
At the adjacent computer terminal, I drop into a chair to check email. My skin is prickly from the long, hot walk to the library, and I am looking like a boiled lobster while trying hard not to overhear the conversation next to me.
“I got it bro,” the response comes. “But, thanks for the help. Hey, man, you know about this place?” the seated man asks gesturing to the screen.
“Yeah, they got a ten-o’clock curfew. That’s alright. What I don’t like is the showers and beds and sh*t. They’s all communal. I ‘m real clean. I can hardly stand to shower there, let alone sleep. I got to get me a job, so I can have my own place—my own shower. You hear me? Family sent me ahead, ya see?” (There is a formal recounting of all of the immediate and extended family members relying on this man’s ability to find and retain employment.)
“Yeah, yeah. I hear, ya. Who’d ya say was hiring?”
“There’s that warehouse. They’s taking applications. Do you need me to help you with that? I can help you. I got me a bar of soap and found a stream.
Cleaner washing in that stream than some of those places. I know they [the local Christian charities] mean well—but germs, man, I’m really funny ’bout germs. Family is counting on me. You see what I’m sayin’ bro?”
“Yeah. I got it,” the seated man replies. “Thank you, though.”
“I’ll catch you later.” The other man moves away, returning to perch on one of the library’s high stools facing the windows looking out onto the pedestrian traffic on the street.
Exhaling, I finish my computer session, grateful for the home I have. Gathering my things together, I exit the building to breathe the hot, heavy air and begin my walk home. I consider how alone the man with the extended family must feel, I hope Grace keeps him safe.
“The monster on table six with his tight-wad wife and bratty kids doesn’t look like he’s going to tip tonight,” Tina’s smoke-seasoned voice cracks the peace of a smoothly running kitchen machine with her crude complaint.
The padded door, upholstered in leather, is still swinging between the kitchen and dining room. I feel my heart seize with the harsh tone of her words and delivery. My stomach follows reactive suit with the social inappropriateness and radical shift in her personality. Moments ago, I stood two tables away from Tina as she billed and cooed over the same four people.
“What a little gentleman and young lady we have here,” she syruped over the children. “How old are they? You two look like you should be on a date. You can’t be old enough to have children.”
This is my third or fourth seasonal stint as a server. Waiting tables is one of the best short-term positions for earning reliable money during college summers.
This particular restaurant is the most exclusive place I have ever served, featuring a full lakefront view and a classic American dining menu (e.g. steak and lobster). The regulars are fewer in number, while the more pervasive, non-regular clientele comes to celebrate special occasions. It is an event for people who dine here. Tables with children are exceptions. And, although I am accustomed to some degree of back chat in restaurant kitchens—where frustrated servers occasionally let off steam—this place raises the bar on contradictions when I consider my previous working environments. It also has more “lifers”—the term applied to wait staff who are not using this form of employment to transition into other lines of work.
Looking to return to my internal equilibrium I think, “They are paying guests. Don’t they deserve better treatment?” There is no way for me to put this question to Tina or for her to hear what is going on in my head. As a junior server, I am in no position to vocalize anything to turn the situation around. So, I swallow what has been dished up, returning to the dining room while acknowledging, in compassionate fairness to Tina, the fact that she has been on staff for years. I have not. She is burned-out. I am not. Still, the environment is toxic. I feel like an egg in a carton of cracked, borderline personalities.
Trying to keep things light in my internal world, I amuse myself with the following silent observation, “Maybe this is why I am now working next to the only padded kitchen-to-dining-room door I have ever encountered in the ‘hospitality’ industry.” The trained pedagogue in me would simply send everyone for a long counseling retreat.
Choosing to move on, I remain at the lakeside restaurant only a short time. But, the experience gives me a clear picture of what I term the Kitchen Door Effect, where things are one way in the dining room (exterior) and another way in the kitchen (interior). This phenomenon exists—to some degree or another— in virtually every industry, circumstance and personality I have encountered. Additional life experience causes me to note that the more exclusive or carefully polished an exterior appearance is the greater the gap (or heavier the door) may be between the two realms.
I cannot turn the clock back to adjust working conditions at that restaurant. Neither can I improve the mental health of the personalities I met there nor was it my place to do so. What I do have the ability to address is the integration between the kitchen and dining room aspects of my own personality. And, in terms of a single personality, there is far more than one door or two realms at play.
Doors are what separate us from our highest Light, the sacred Self. In truth, our external world is only as unified in the Light as our discrete internal world. This is one of the primary teachings that restaurant position provided. To work on removing these doors, over time, is to become whole, gracious, kind and compassionate, while growing in the knowledge that each living creature possesses a divine Light of its own. So, no matter what the external appearances, concerns, attachments, fiscal arrangements or social structures may be in a given situation, we have the opportunity to unify our personality around our highest Light. This is a tall order requiring commitment, bravery and tenacity.
So, while I cannot change the falseness of certain social environments or the craziness in the kitchen environments of the world, I am focusing on “unhinging” my own bent toward duality and contradiction—searching out and removing my own doors—in favor of table-side food preparation with a full view of the Lake.