I’m Bringin’ Casual Khaki Pants Back.
“No one likes you, and you’re going to die here.”
The whisper came at my back, hard and fast, while I was sifting through assorted boxes of chips in the closet-sized storeroom. I whirled around to see Lloyd,* resident oddball and prep room aficionado, silhouetted in the doorway. I was only a couple of hours into my first shift at the cafe, but Lloyd was unmistakable with his shoulder length blonde hair and salty demeanor.
Clearly, I’d made a friend.
I’d sought the job last fall with the trendy local food chain, fully intending to wheedle my way into the inner sanctum at headquarters by offering my assistance in their marketing department and making mental notes about the back-of-house workings of a gourmet food shop. (Opening a store is an idea Justin and I have casually tossed around for when he reaches the all-too-near military retirement age of 38, and I’ve always wanted to be a corporate spy.) But, in the midst of my pre-Italy trip financial panic, I lost sight of my goal during my interview with the personable local branch manager, Donna*, and before I knew it, I was accepting a part-time position in her store and running around town in a desperate search for casual khaki pants.
Which is how I found myself, at 31-years-old, profusely thanking the manager of the JC Penney junior’s department for her diligent work in locating the bottom half of my uniform and wondering how the hell I’d managed to regress so far in the 8 months since we’d moved from North Carolina. There, I’d had clients and purpose and a relatively steady income. Here, I was donning a name tag for the first time in ten years and being told I was going to die.
But it wasn’t the “no one likes you” or the “you’re going to die” that got to me. I’m of an age where I care a lot less about who likes me (and there, no one knew me), and we’re all going to die. But it was the word “here” that did me in. “You’re going to die here.”
“Don’t say shit like that,” I said, shoving past. “It’s depressing.”
Over the course of several months, I learned that Lloyd was in fact a hobby stand-up comedian studying to be a funeral director, and he often vomited off-hand remarks to assess audience reaction. I found it immensely entertaining. My co-workers were mostly fun and laid-back, and I felt like Donna and I would have been friends if, you know, she wasn’t paying me.
But every time I pulled up those khakis — reminiscent of my gig at A&W Rootbeer when I was 15 — or wore my shirt — “To brie, or not to brie?” splayed wryly across my breasts — or when a 23-year-old co-worker told me I looked shockingly good for my age, I couldn’t help but wonder what on earth I was doing.
Every employee at the cafe had to learn every job, but it was clear that certain personalities excelled in different roles. Lloyd, for example, was clearly a “back-of-house” kind of guy. But I, with my high-pitched greeting and brie-selling boobs, was inarguably made for front-of-house. Which is why I came to resent it when the assistant manager stuck me at the salad station, day after day. With the tickets piling up and my refusal to study the menu in my free time at home, it was inevitable.
I wasn’t good at making salads.
When you realize you’re horrible at doing something a bunch of teenagers can practically do with their eyes closed, it’s a serious blow to the ego. And the thing is, I didn’t try to get better. I figured if I was crappy at it and I stayed crappy at it, they’d eventually give up and move me back to the registers where I belonged.
Eventually I found my rhythm, joking around with my co-workers and accepting the fact that I wouldn’t be making the move to corporate anytime soon. I didn’t help my situation when a man came into our branch and started re-arranging the art where I was washing tables nearby. “Oh, are you the artist?” I asked with a smile.
“I’m the owner,” he said. If he was amused, he didn’t show it. “You must be new.”
Maybe I was meant for back-of-house, after all.
That was the day I gave my notice. Clearly, I wasn’t destined to win Salad Maker of-the-Month, and the gig was taking me away from my career priorities.
What was the point of that? I thought as I walked past the parking garage dumpsters with little fanfare that last day. I’m nothing if not a seeker of life lessons. But when it came to searching for meaning in my time at the cafe, I kept coming up empty.
Then it happened.
My next door neighbor, who happens to be a funeral director full of jokes about job security and stress during the “busy season” gave me a call a couple of weeks ago. “Did you work with a Lloyd?” she asked, a hint of concern in her voice. “He applied for an internship with us and it says on his resume that he works at the cafe where you used to work, and I’m wondering if you knew him. He’s very… interesting.”
That, he was.
We chatted for a bit and now Lloyd is now on his way to fulfilling his dream, interning at the funeral home, and hopefully not telling anyone they’re going to die because, you know, most of them are already there. And maybe my time at the cafe wasn’t wasted. It just wasn’t about me.
And aside from the fact that those damn khaki pants are still taking up space in my cramped little closet, I’m actually very okay with that.
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*Names have been changed.