I read a story in the paper about a Los Angeles man who painted a 16-word pitch for his screenplay on the front and back of a sandwich board, put it on, and wandered the streets of Hollywood for six weeks before a movie executive, idling at a red light at Sunset and Vine, spotted the man and signed him to a six-figure screenwriting deal.
I read the story no less than a half dozen times, even though it made me sick with envy. I wasn’t a bold person by nature, but like it or not, I needed to start acting like one. Instead of waiting for the job listings in the morning paper to tell me where to go and what to do each day, from that moment forward I would be taking a decidedly more proactive approach. What I would do was this: I’d target the 10 or so best bars and restaurants in the city, picking only the places that I’d personally like to work in; I’d walk into these places like I owned the goddamned joint; I’d demand to speak to the manager; I’d use a series of documents meticulously outlining my case for why he or she should hire me. These documents would include, 1. a resume, 2. various letters of recommendation from previous employers, 3. a Xerox of the college diploma which hung in a frame on the wall of my old bedroom back home. I would eventually come to learn that no one ever really asked for or wanted to see anyone’s college diploma, no matter what job you were applying for. The only people who ever gave a rat’s ass about diplomas and transcripts in the history of the world were other colleges and universities. Yet for the first few years after graduation, I was happy to produce the diploma during interviews, always eagerly anticipating what I was certain was a watershed moment. “AND HERE’S MY DIPLOMA,” I’d say, then humbly offer up this document which, for some ridiculous reason, was written entirely in Latin (and which, despite a semester of Latin in college, I still could not read). I’d hand the diploma over to my perplexed interviewer, as if this was the key piece of evidence in a murder trial, as if this was really all anyone ever needed to know about me.
My first mistakes were by and large timing-related. I foolishly showed up at a restaurant at 1 p.m., and seeing the white-coated waiters circling the busy tables like gears in a clock, I knew right away that this was not the right time to call on this or any restaurant. I showed up at another restaurant at 10 a.m. and found the front door locked. I knocked for several minutes until a hunchbacked Mexican man wearing a vacuum answered the door. He had the canister of the vacuum strapped to his back like a scuba tank. I told him that I was there to speak to the manager and asked him to please let me inside. His English, which seemed fine when he first opened to door, mysteriously and quite suddenly deteriorated. I knew the word for boss in Spanish—”el jefe”—which I repeated to him. He waved the hose of the vacuum at me, swinging it like a Roman gladiator might swing a mace at an opponent. When I took a step back, he slammed the door and locked it.
The next day I arrived at another restaurant at 11 a.m. and found a man standing outside in the cold, shifting from foot to foot to keep warm and smoking a cigarette with an unnatural hunger. He wore black pants and a white shirt, which I recognized as the universal uniform of a waiter. I gave him a warm hello, figuring the two of us would be working together soon, and asked him who the manager of the place was. He glanced at the manilla folder under my arm. “You looking for a waitering job?” he asked. I told him that I was—I was a bartender by trade, but I’d recently opened myself up to the prospect of waiting tables (even though I thought of waitering as a step down from the old-world craftsmanship that bartending required), if that’s what the folks inside needed me to do. “Listen to me,” he said, dropping his cigarette to the ground and putting it out with the toe of his black leather shoe. He had small pink eyes, like a rat. “You look like a nice guy. Do yourself a favor and don’t walk through that door.” I assumed that this was a bit of gamesmanship, one waiter’s way of protecting his station in life. If this guy is trying to pull this kind of crap, there must be something really good inside, I thought. Sorry, buddy, but I don’t scare so easily.
When he saw that I was not going to be deterred, he narrowed his tiny eyes at me. “I’m only going to say this once,” he said. “Take your hand off the goddamned door, turn around, and get the fuck out of here.”
I realized in that moment that I was talking to a grown man. He had a receding hairline and gray stubble on his chin. He looked like he’d seen things in life, the same way that my uncle, the one who’d been in the Navy and had sailed on battleships, brought a quiet, worldly menace with him to our family’s Christmas dinner. I wasn’t used to being threatened. My last real fight was in the fifth grade. It wasn’t really a fight, so much as it was eight terrifying seconds of me windmilling my arms at a boy who had decided that my eyeglasses were his favorite spit-wad target. No one, besides my father, had even bothered to threaten me with physically harm in more than a decade. I was over six feet tall with broad shoulders, which was an effective deterrent when it came to bodily harm. Sociopaths looking to pick on other people always chose someone smaller and weaker. I always thought of my height as a kind of turtle shell. I wondered, quite seriously, if it’s the people with the softest, most vulnerable underbellies who were given oversized frames by the creator, because we are the ones who needed them the most.
The rat-eyed waiter glared at me. I looked back at him, paralyzed and confused. He suddenly juked his head in my direction and spooked me into letting go of the door handle and backing away. “That’s right, keep walking,” he said as I turned to go. Once I’d crossed the street and was at a safe distance, I turned to look back at him one last time. He flipped me off, then disappeared back inside the restaurant. Months later, once I’d found work and gotten to know the Chicago restaurant “scene” a little—after a few more shit-awful weeks, my luck would finally change—I’d discover that this restaurant was known for its extraordinary tips. Waiters routinely made an amount of money—between $500 and $600 a shift—that made them do terrible things to other people—especially other waiters looking to horn in on their good thing—all in the name of protecting what they believed was rightfully theirs. Whenever I told my fellow waiters the story of the time I’d try to walk into that $500-$600-a-shift restaurant unannounced, they’d almost always let out a whistle and tell me what a green-assed fool I was, as if I didn’t know that already.