2012. I flew from Shanghai to JFK with three thousand dollars in my pocket. In China that money could have floated me until Armageddon. But get off the plane in America with three thousand dollars and you might as well have zero. Every second you sit in the First World more of your cash evaporates.
Goddamn, I needed a job. Maybe I’d be a cop. DC Metropolitan was hiring. I filled out a packet the size of a Bible. Checked boxes to answer these questions: Have you ever actively worked to undermine the United States Government? Have you ever had sexual intercourse with or fondled the genitals of any animals, including household pets?
Then I went in to the Mass Processing Day to run an obstacle course while pulling a crash test dummy behind me and shooting a fake 9mm. Then a guy in a blue polo sat me down in an office to go through my packet.
“Colton, have you ever consumed so much alcohol that you ‘blacked out?’”
He seems like a guy’s guy, I thought. I can work with this.
“Haha, only once. I just came from China and there’s this tradition there called Teacher’s Day… there’s a banquet and the goal is to get the new teachers so drunk that you pass out in the restaurant.”
“So…” His sentence unspooled slowly. “You passed out?”
“Uh, well yeah, I did.”
I saw my anecdote, and along with it all hope of camaraderie, going down in flames.
“You know,” the guy said, “alcohol is very big problem in this department.”
Sandbagging motherfucker, I thought. Acting like every cop who’s ever lived has been a Puritan.
“We’re going to assign a background investigator to vet you. If you’re successful in seeking this position, you’ll start training in April.”
It was August 1st. I couldn’t hold out eight months on my savings. After I paid rent I was going to have about a nickel left.
Goddamn, I needed a job.
No bites from any temp agencies. But Ruby Tuesday in the Gaithersburg Mall was hiring servers, because of course they were. I filled out a half-sheet of basic info.
“You graduated from college,” said the girl at the interview. “BA in Screenwriting.” That’s what her mouth said. What her tone said was: so THAT was the ungodly fuckup that has led you to beg for a job at my door.
What my mouth said was, “Yeah, I really like to write.”
What my tone said was: well actually, the fuckup was that my girlfriend wanted to move here and I didn’t, but was too nice to break up with her.
“And then you worked as a teacher in China,” she said.
And there, I was a young king. I had gold in my head that I could sell to the natives. Now look at me, groveling for the chance to grovel for pennies.
“What was that like?”
As Ruby Tuesday would also turn out to be. $3.63/hour. Legal wage because tips make up the difference, except when they don’t.
The first time I understood murder was a Saturday night. Old Ruby’s was busy as a battlefield, new waves of customers spawning ceaselessly. People want their drinks but clean dishes aren’t ready fast enough. You grab a hot glass from the dishwasher and pour a Coke into it and the ice cubes shock the glass and it explodes in the middle of the table and soaks the meal and the customer’s pants. So you’ve got all of these crises to defuse on top of the regular workload, which entails interacting with customers who ask “how much is the tax on a bottle of Heineken” and you tell them and then they pull out a zip-loc full of pennies and dimes and count out exactly that much currency and then nod with profound relief. Then you pivot and delicately politick with high schoolers on dates who saw an ad for a cheap entrée special at Applebee’s, but then conflated Applebee’s with Ruby’s in their minds and now this sixteen year-old who is probably named Ryan is staring up at you, panicking quietly as you break the cold truth to him: no money left over to see Wreck-It-Ralph after the dinner, the film during which he’d planned to get a handjob. These are the tippers upon whom your livelihood depends.
Behind the line Cory dumped sauce on a salmon plate. I ran over but got there too late.
“Cory, man, I ordered it without sauce. The lady’s allergic. Throw on another one.”
“Got you Fred. Just put in the re-cook order on the screen.”
“I’m on my way back out to the screen right now, just please, man, put the salmon on right this second so I can get it out to the table that much faster. It’s a big birthday party and she’s gonna be the only one without her food.”
Cory made a what can you do gesture.
“You gotta order it, man. I have to see it on the screen.”
I looked at the steak knives above the dishwasher. I could get my hand around the grip and have the knife buried hilt-deep in his jugular inside of five seconds. They’d take me to prison. I’d make 90% less per hour to toil in the license plate factory but I also wouldn’t have bills to pay there. I’d be a legend who flayed another man to death after quibbling over salmon.
Back out on the floor a senile Republican couple kept telling me I looked like Mitt Romney. This made me furious, something about him being born rich and never having to do this shit; I thought about going to fetch the knife. Salmon lady’s eyes beamed black hate at me when I gave her the bad news about the unholy delay, and she asked for the manager. I located him just as two Asians sat down in my section. They were speaking Mandarin.
Fuck yeah, I thought. This will be a nice break.
“Hi, good evening. I overheard you speaking Mandarin while I was on the way over. Where are you from, if I may ask? I used to live in—”
The guy actually made a fist.
“We’re from Maryland.” A proud, recent immigrant. Fair enough, man. But now I was fucked. On the back foot from the start.
“…Fred! The glasses are blowing up again.”
When the battle was over I counted up my haul. Didn’t take long: $16 for five hours of high-pressure work in a continually collapsing pocket. $16, what my best hustle was worth. As a dissatisfied diner your best and easiest recourse is to withhold the tip as a punitive measure.
The frenzy of the night was just now ebbing and I was finally aware of the throbbing in my feet. I sat in the bar and dropped half of my cash on two Blue Moons. I’d made so little money that it was actually funny. I would have been angry if I’d made a little more. There’s a Bible verse about me. 2 Samuel 1:25. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen!”
Polygraph test at the police academy. Get through this and maybe I could move up in the world. Patrol the black hoods in Anacostia, three miles from the White House, where they always find bodies in the Potomac.
You sit in a chair with sensors that can tell if you flex your ass cheeks. Two cameras pointing at you, and your shoes on a pad so they can tell if your feet jiggle. One finger is inside a little clip and it can measure trace amounts of a certain enzyme in your sweat that’s produced when you’re stressed.
The guy running the test wore a tie with the nativity scene on it, a real God-and-country type. I played it straight-laced and clean-cut during the pre-interview. During the test he asks you questions in haunting monotone, all syllables uninflected:
Fuck, I am, I thought. I felt a hot thrum in my chest. I remembered fudging a date on the packet a few months before, about the last time I smoked weed. If you’d done it in the past three years you were ineligible. It had been two years and nine months for me. Close enough, I thought. I’m changing this fucking date so I can get hired.
“We got a reaction,” said the officer. “On the drug question.”
I should have just told him it was residual stress they were picking up, PTSD from Ruby’s.
“I lied,” I said.
“Lying is a big problem in this department.”
Yeah, this isn’t gonna work out, I thought. And neither is Ruby’s.
I quit the night Obama got re-elected. Three months of service in the trenches was about enough. Absorbing all the snark and snipes from customers, doing it while kowtowing and smiling. I’m a man with regrets but I’ve never been rude to someone who’s beneath me in life. Even if they are an asshole. I don’t understand that, roasting the help.
There was no singular breaking point, outside of Steve the manager asking if I could do brunch that Sunday. Brunch was actually adjacent to slavery. You start the shift by working for free. You have to get in at 10:00 and mop and sweep and move tables around for an hour without clocking in because the manager isn’t there yet to fire up the computers. Laugh all you want but that three motherfucking dollars of missed wages could have been the gas I needed to drive to that job.
“Steve, I gotta talk to you outside.”
We went out to the dumpsters to do the breakup there.
“I don’t want you to quit, because you’re so good,” he said.
What he meant was: you’re competent at a job which requires a pulse and a single-digit IQ, and you suck a lot of corporate cock without complaining too much about it. And I don’t want to go through the hassle of hiring someone else.
“I’m out, man. But thanks.”
I’m glad I worked there. A lifetime of humility crammed into one long, hellish season. An undimming reminder of how unfair life is, blah blah. It made me thankful. Public transport is a joke in America so I drove James the cook back to the homeless shelter. “What are you gonna do?” he asked me.
“I have no idea, man.”
I did, though. No more income, but I knew I could get a job once I made job-hunting my job, because I was young and white and pleasant enough. And I did, doing gopher work for the CEO of a research firm. And if I ever summoned the brutality needed to break my girlfriend’s heart and move out, I could stage a comeback to Asia (and I did.) Meanwhile James was 43 and black, had neither a GED nor an address. He was talking about how Obama had let him down. I stopped the Jeep and he got out.
“Good luck, Fred. You’re gonna need it.”
It wasn’t true, at least not at that point, but I often catch myself hoping that what he said wasn’t a prophecy.