Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New site for overeducated waitress (for now)

To my loyal seven or eight readers...
Sorry for the tremendous lapse in blogging. Turns out planning a wedding, working full time, revising a book manuscript for peer review, and continuing to have some semblance of a personal life involves a fair amount of juggling. Here's hoping the adorable picture of Assata using two pillows to prop herself up on the couch will help you to forgive me.

I am going to be blogging from a new address for the time being... doing an experiment using a different hosting site (wordpress instead of blogger) to see if I prefer that way of doing things. I will keep the address, and will likely use it in the future, but for the time being, overeducated waitress blogs can be found at

much love...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sunny days and strange nights.

February dawned exquisitely in West Seattle. 3000 miles east in Puxatawney, PA, a gang of middle-aged white male business owners hauled a groundhog out of a stump and hoisted it into the air,

then announced we were going to have six more weeks of winter.
Meanwhile, temperatures in Seattle came floating steadily up out of the 30s. Thick grey fogbanks burned off by late morning, and the sun fell across our hilly neighborhood like a soft blanket. Honeysuckle started blooming alongside our house, attracting swarms of softly humming bees.
A local goat wandered off from home, and was taken into protective custody by the Seattle Police Department until its owner came to claim it.

The sun, the goat, the honeybees.... its all been a little surreal. Walking Assata down the hill to Lowman beach on Monday, I had to shed my hat, gloves, sweater, scarf, and hoodie, until I was following her across the driftwood and beachrocks bareheaded in shirtsleeves. She poked her way across the beach to visit some gulls, who all rose up into the air at once, backflapped a dozen yards, and settled back into the water. She stood ankle-deep in the small waves, watching the gulls with her head cocked. I saw a seal slipping through the waves, and a giant freighter slowly chugged past out in the shipping channel, with two giant cranes (the ones that look like massive, angular dinosaurs) bound for the port of Seattle around Alki point.

(Assata watching a less water-phobic dog-friend at Lowman Beach)

Walked home in the glowing sunshine. Noticed birdsong as we walked the sidewalk up the hill through the ravine. Got ready for my five-oclock waitressing shift.

Set out on my customary walk-to-the-junction, a gentle uphill mile trek to the business district of our neighboorhood. My mother, who grew up in Seattle, says our neighborhood reminds her of hers in the 1950s and 60s. Lots of small family-owned businesses, largely non-corporate, old signs, familiar faces. As I neared the restaurant I work at, I saw a news van parked nearby. Walking closer, a spotted a pile of flowers on a table in front of the bar next door to ours. One of my co-workers came out and stood next to me in front of the table.

"someone got shot out front last night, after you left work," he told me. "He ran into the bar next door and collapsed, and he died in the hospital this morning."

(images thanks to WS Blog).

"Look," he said, gesturing behind him. "You can see the bullet holes in the wall."

That night, the restaurant was quiet. My only real tip income was from a large table of journalists and staff who'd been laid off from a local news network that day, and had decided to rendevous one last time for beers before going their separate ways in search of work.

Every now and then, Seattle PD officers walked by out front, "foot patrolling" to make the neighborhood feel safer. A news crew camped out on the sidewalk and accosted passerby to see if they were grieving for the man who'd died.

Walking to yoga the next morning, breathing deep and glorying once again in the crisp sun-lit air, I trailed my fingers across the filled- in bullet holes in the wall of the restaurant next to mine, a wall I walk past 2 dozen times a week, walking to the vitamin store or the used clothing store or the yoga studio or the farmers market.

I thought about how strange it was, how quickly it had happened and how quickly all evidence of the event had been erased from the sidewalk. We expect children in far-away countries to die in ugly and senseless wars. We expect strangers and people we scarcely know to succumb to cancer and die in car wrecks. But we never expect that death will draw near to the people we love, or to us, or to our daily routines.

I didn't know this young man. My heart goes out to his family. But I can't help but think the event was lost on the rest of us: as a society, we fill the bullet holes with putty and paint them the same color as the rest of our lives.

I feel safe as ever in my neighborhood. I keep on glorying in the sunshine, taking my dog to the beach, walking to work and yoga, and saving tip money for our wedding. Reading the West Seattle blog, my heart ached at the sight of the young man's picture, holding his niece. Sunny days and strange nights, as the economy teeters and the wars continue and the country waits for "Change."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Once, clouds of them filled the city streets.

On the last day of our January visit with our grandfather in Milwaukee, my sister Emma and I go with him to the City Museum downtown.

The wind is bitterly cold. Grandpop wears gloves while he drives, but takes them off once he parks the car. People call him Smoke. He tells us he's not sure where the nickname came from, but he's had it since he was a kid. A friend of mine surmised that because his name is Morris, one of his friends must have pulled the "Smoke" from the association with Morris Tobacco. He was the first child in his family born in the United States, a few years after his parents immigrated here from Russia. He grew up in Philadelphia, which is where he met my grandmother Frances, and raised my father, Howard, and his sister Ellen.

The rivers in Milwaukee are frozen, a novelty to us northwestern girls. We find parking, and wander into the museum. Drink coffee and hot chocolate in the cafeteria, then make our way up the stairs, under a giant whale skeleton covered with white lights for the holidays. We are drawn almost immediately to the butterfly room. Stepping through the double glass doors, the warm humidity envelops us. There is piano music playing, and a small waterfall. Plants and trees crowd around, pressing at the walls and brushing our shoulders, and the windows face the street.

Outside, the bitter Wisconsin wind sweeps snow off the sidewalk drifts and swirls it into spirals. A schoolbus stops at a stopsign, then lumbers through the intersection. Pedestrians tug their collars higher around their necks and lean into the wind.

Inside, we begin to shed our scarves and coats. There is an utter absence of wind, only the movement of thousands of luminous butterfly wings.

We walk so slowly we are scarcely moving at all, gazing at the tiny, soft bodies, the shimmering colors and intricate patterns on their wings.
We watch them fly and hover and rest. Some land on us, clinging to hair and bright scarves.

"When I was young," Grandpop says, "clouds of butterflies would appear in the city. Not just monarchs either, every color. Clouds of them. Of course, you don't see that anymore." I see it in my mind: a gang of young Jewish boys playing stickball on a cobbled 1920s Philadelphia street. Women in dresses and hats pass by carrying shopping baskets, and horse-drawn delivery carts make their way up the streets, bearing coal or ice. A sudden swirl of color and movement in the sky, thousands of butterflies, oranges and reds and pinks and purples and blues, hurrying between the buildings. The boys stand still, craning their necks, shielding their eyes against the sun, watching the living cloud pass by.

We stay in the small butterfly room for a long time. They feed on sponges soaked in sugar water and fruit juice, and land on tiny chunks of watermelon and apple. I watch a large one, brown on one side and shimmering blue-purple on the other, fly up against the window, over and over, and wonder if they mourn for their migrations, for larger spaces. I wonder if they remember the stories of the days when clouds of them filled the streets. For now though, they live in a tiny utopia, replete with all of the problems and advantages that come with an engineered habitat.

We glory in them, speaking in soft voices and watching carefully where we step. Emma spots one dying on the pavement, and searches for a twig, which the butterfly weakly clings to. She deposits it in a plant. "I didn't want it to die on the pavement," she tells us.

When we leave, we take turns spining slowly in front of three mirrors, to make sure that none of them have hitched a ride to the Big World on our clothing.

I think: I will remember this when I am old.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

VII, by Wendell Berry

I would not have been a poet
except that I have been in love
alive in this mortal world,
or an essayist except that I
have been bewildered and afraid,
or a storyteller had I not heard
stories passing to me through the air,
or a writer at all except
I have been wakeful at night
and words have come to me
out of their deep caves
needing to be remembered.
But on the days I am lucky
or blessed, I am silent.
I go into the one body
that two make in making marriage
that for all our trying, all
our deaf-and-dumb of speech,
has no tongue. Or I give myself
to gravity, light, and air
and am carried back
to solitary work in fields
and woods, where my hands
rest upon a world unnamed,
complete, unanswerable, and final
as our daily bread and meat.
The way of love leads all ways
to life beyond words, silent
and secret. To serve that triumph
I have done all the rest.

"VII" from the poem "1994" by Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997

thanks to ma for sending this along

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winter blooms

As we were gathering our things to head home the day after Thanksgiving, my mother handed us a small ceramic pot with a narrow green shoot.
Paperwhites, she said,
they're lovely when they bloom.

She's always started winter bulbs, as long as I can remember... sitting on the sunniest windowsill of the house, growing with incredible audacity in the warm room during the cold months. We brought it home, and set it on the kitchen windowsill.

Sure enough, it grew visibly, and daily
and this week it burst into bloom...
Daring to blossom in the coldest of Seattle weather,
since it doesn't know any better,
having lived all its days indoors.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Nuclear Homeland (Or; My First Arrest)

The image that occupies the header of this blog is of particular significance. Snapped in the Spring of 2008, facing northwest in the Nevada desert, it captures a moment in which the sun was rising behind me, and the moon was setting in front of me. The lights on the highway in the bottom left are the cars of workers, heading for this gate:

Welcome to our Nuclear Homeland. Exhibit A: The Nevada Test Site, where nearly 1000 nuclear weapons have been detonated since 1951, many of them two, three, and four times as large as the nuclear bombs we dropped on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This photograph was snapped the day before the others, in roughly the same location. Its me, and friends Jon, Steve, and Jerry, moments before my first arrest, for what I'm proud to say was my first major act of Civil Disobedience: trespassing on the Nevada Test Site, which is technically the property of the Western Shoshone, not the United States military. (That's me in the middle, holding my sandals and an envelope full of photographs. Going barefoot into the highly toxic Nevada Nuclear Test Site was kind of a dumb move. But I'd been walking for six days and sixty-five miles, and my feet hurt.)

There's more to this story.

So much more that I wrote a book about the place. I finished it in October, and called it As it Turned Out, There Were People In All Those Little Communities: A Folk History of the Nuclear West. Still waiting to hear back from the first publisher I sent it to.

Stay tuned for more stories of our Nuclear Homeland and my first arrest. (Yes, I'm planning a second one).

"All good comes to them that waitress."

I wait tables for a living.

Over the years, I've accumulated a whole basketfull of black aprons, rolled in cylinders and tied with their own strings.
When I unroll one before a shift, I fill the pockets with ballpoint pens, a soft-shelled order book I've been using for six years (in its pockets: snapshots of Ryan and Assata and my liquor and food handlers permits), and a stack of beer coasters. Used to throw in a wine-key too, but I mostly serve beers these days.

Also in my pocket: an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree, and a master's degree. (Yes, I keep the degrees in my metaphorical pocket). When customers get chatty and want to know what I went to college for, I tell them American Studies. I let them consider that for a moment, then deliver my punchline. "Which is why I'll be your waitress tonight."

They love that one.

I first put on an apron the summer I turned 19. Fresh from my first year at Evergreen State College, I showed up at Crater Lake National Park for a summer job in the gift shop a few hours after a server had quit in the dining room. That night, I was wearing my first apron and shadowing a server in the midst of a terrifying fine-dining dinner rush. I learned the ropes quickly enough and spent the summer as a Breakfast/Lunch server. I walked to work from the employee dorms at 5:30 every morning, along the rim of the volcanic crater as the sun rose over the 6-mile wide lake, a view I was lucky enough to enjoy all morning through the dining room windows. I spent my off-hours backpacking with dear friends, sitting around campfires, soaking in hotsprings, driving hours off-mountain to buy beer and swim in nearby lakes.

Weirdly enough, given that I'd always defined myself by my academic success, I began to take pride in my new identity: a Decent Waitress vagabond-type who was most at home in the mountains and on the road. I took it back to college that fall, and lived off the tips I'd made that summer for the academic year. The following June, Crater Lake alum Erin and I struck out for Mt. Rainier National Park, where fellow Paradise Lodge Dining Room servers quickly pigeonholed us as the "hippie waitresses." We did two summers slinging food on Mt. Tahoma (the proper name), began to shy away from the hippie label (it is ahistorical after all), embarked on a few wild early-20s adventures, and finished our respective BA degrees.

Eyeing the job market, we dug out our aprons again.
Erin waited her way from Eugene to Philly to the Oregon Coast. I schlepped my basket of aprons around the PNW, slinging Thai, Italian, and Mediterranean food. Eyed the GRE and a stack of graduate school applications uneasily for a few years, then finally dove in and scored a 2-year fellowship to study history at Utah State University.

As I neared the completion of my degree, I realized I'd had enough of academia, for the time being, and opted not to apply to PhD programs. I returned to the northwest, found a dear old house in a hilltop neighborhood with Ryan, who still had a year of graduate school in front of him, and pulled out my aprons again. Logged many hours as a cocktail waitress in a bar with some good beers and some good people and some wretched drunks. Made enough money to keep us above the water, help finance a month for us to backpack around Guatemala, and see us through the following summer. At which time: I gave notice without regrets, and we set out on a month-long road trip around the western states.

Returning to Seattle that fall, Ryan offered to support us financially for a year, so I could finish overhauling and expanding my master's thesis into a book-length manuscript. When money became too tight in the spring, I found a waitressing job in a matter of days, at a solid local establishment with good product, a conscientious business model, and a stellar crew. I walk to work; I clear 20 to 50 dollars an hour, depending on business, I have a highly flexible schedule, and plenty of time to write (if I practice some discipline).

I've met some of my dearest friends via "the business." One of them, Chrysta, would eventually introduce me to Ryan. A vivacious and extraordinary clothing and fashion designer, she's been supporting her art with her aprons for years; while she's very close to putting the aprons away for good, as Erin has, she embodies a reality I've encountered time and again in the restaurant industry. Your server isn't "just a waiter"---there's an excellent chance he's an accomplished painter [T.S. Pew!], a singular musician [Michael! Ebon!], or she's a stunning photographer [Gretchen!], or writer or gifted journalist [Erin]. Sara waited her way into the Art Institute: now she's an associate at a successful Seattle design firm. Your server may well be a mom supporting her children, or a traveler who's served food in 6 countries and 22 states who'd just as soon see the sun set over a new landscape a few times a year.

Servers witness moments most people miss. 5 years ago, I walked up to a table set for two where a single, middle-aged woman was sitting. There was an envelope on both plates, and a bouquet wrapped in paper in the center of the table. "Is it a special night?" I asked. "Yes," she replied, "its my anniversary." I asked her if I could bring her a glass of wine while she waited for her husband to arrive. She told me she would take the wine, but that he wouldn't be coming; he'd died the week before, and she was honoring the reservation they had made. I had to leave the dining room to cry. I remember every detail. The almost undetectable quiver in her voice. The two glasses of Ravenswood Red Zinfandel. The corner table she sat at, facing the door. The Blackened Salmon Caeser. I told the chef her story, and he comped her meal. When I told her there was no bill, she clasped my hands in hers, with tears in her eyes, and said "God Bless you." She couldn't have been more than 45. They had two daughters, she told me.

One woman took an interest in my background as I waited on her that year, and when I told her quietly I was quitting soon to go back to school, she tucked a fifty into my hand. When I cleared the table, there was a note scrawled on a napkin. "enjoy your new life."

I've reached through raw, painful marital disputes to refill water glasses, and seen parents smack and shake their children when they thought no one was looking. I overheard a tiny woman wearing too many diamonds tell her friends that her husband upped her allowance five thousand dollars that month, since she'd dropped her weight to 115 pounds. I've watched teenage girls excuse themselves to the bathroom for longer than necessary and return to the table furtively wiping their mouths. I've scanned the faces of their parents for some sign of concern, and found none. I've heard rednecks joke about someone killing Obama while clearing their plates, and been groped by business-types while my hands were full of empty glassware.
I've walked home after a 5 hour shift with enough cash for the carpayment, wrangled weeks off in mere moments, and served hundreds of birthday desserts and thousands of really lovely meals.

Its a mixed bag. And while I am striving to create a career for myself based on writing, rather than serving, I do not regret a moment of my ongoing overeducated waitressing career.

Last winter, an exceptional journalist named Kathy Helms passed along a gem that someone passed on to her years ago.

"All good comes to them that waitress"

I've tucked it into that metaphorical pocket along with those college degrees.
So much good has already come my way, and the horizon is filled with unfolding stories.