“Behind you! Hot pan!”
“Your mother likes it hot!”
“Where’s my eggs!”
“Hash bowl, order up!”
“Tortilla me, bitch! Table 12’s burrito is late!”
“Sharp knife! Behind you!”
In a restaurant kitchen, every sentence ends with an exclamation point.
I woke up at six last Saturday, tied my sneaks, slicked my hair into a ponytail, took off my jewelry, and spent nine hours working at a popular cafe down the street from my house.
I sliced and diced veggies into a bucket of salsa, shaped a distressingly large mass of gooey, pink ground beef into dozens of 8-ounce burger patties, mopped floors, scraped dirty dishes into the trash before hosing them off, and sent them through the massive commercial dishwasher over and over and over again, all while chuckling at the constant stream of dirty hilarity spewing from the mouths of the teens and twenty-something cooks and servers whirling busily around me.
I scored the job after a quick phone call with the man who posted an ad on Craigslist. Weekend gig, back of the kitchen. After repeated verbal assurances I won’t have to interface with or serve the public in any way, I accepted the job.
I still work the Monday through Friday shuffle as a journalist, passing huge chunks of my dwindling life staring at my dull, aging face boxed in among colleagues in the Brady Bunch-esque Zoom layout with which most of us have become regrettably familiar in a remote, hybrid, post-COVID world.
In a Zoom meeting, every sentence ends with awkward ellipses.
Let’s give it a few more minutes…
How ’bout that weather…
Let’s circle back to this Wednesday…
Action items from this meeting…
Is this meeting over? I’ve gotta jump to the next one…
The soul-suckery inherent in my usual role of little cog in the big machine transformed this new job many view as menial labor into a huge relief. Yeah, I’ve gotta get up at 6 AM on a Saturday and work until my muscles are sore, but I prefer sore muscles from physical exertion over the aches and pains that accrue while sitting in a shitty chair staring at a screen for hours sweating the latest deadline. Plus, the restaurant is busy as fuck, so time flies. Repetitive physical tasks in a place where small talk, office jargon, and a human resource department are nonexistent are a motherfucking delight after five weekdays of best-behavior officing.
I started looking for a weekend job that would put extra money in my pocket after my kids’ dad— with whom I share custody— sued for child support without warning and I was court-ordered to pay him $1,150 a month. Suffice it to say, the first three months of this year have been a nightmare. Yet the process of looking for a side gig of this kind had the unexpected, but soul-affirming effect of reminding me of a long-forgotten version of myself who was a straight-up hustler when it came to landing a job.
Hello, you. Long time, no see. Welcome back. Now let’s get shit done.
I began my lifelong work hustle at the dingy yet popular snack bar at Classic Skating in Orem, Utah, a characterless suburban enclave dominated by Latter-Day Saints. The city is nestled at the base of the incredibly beautiful Wasatch Mountain Range that reaches for the Mormon heavens along the eastern edge of the valley in which I acquired most of the trauma I’ve spent the past two years in weekly therapy sessions attempting to unravel.
With both parents essentially in absentia, getting a job as early as possible in life meant survival. It meant food. Tampons. Clothes for school. Before I was old enough to get a license and buy my first car with work money, I’d hop a bus or catch a ride from a friend and— battling intense social anxiety stemming from the persistent notion that I am an inherently bad person who must convince people to like me— I’d hit the mall and walk from store to store to fill out applications.
I remember you…
See me, age 15, skin baked an unfortunately leathery Kim K. bronze, years before E! began churning out manufactured Kardashian drama, expertly drizzling nuclear-colored cheese on tortilla chips and salting microwave-warmed frozen pretzels for the roller-skating Mormon masses.
See me, age 16, braces glinting spectacularly under big box fluorescents, working the register at K-Mart while secretly emptying tiny plastic boxes of orange Tic Tacs into the pocket of my red cashier smock for snacking purposes. One after the other, I’d filch a box from the shelf, dump the contents into my smock pocket (smocket?!), toss the container to get rid of the evidence, and house those zingy little bastards all while convincing myself I wasn’t stealing, because of course I’d pay for them at the end of my shift, even though I never did. Tic Tac junkie.
See me, age 17, eyebrows plucked to starving baby caterpillars, blending 16-ounce, 2,000-calorie Orange Julius drinks at University Mall when malls were cool as fuck, because everyone had to hit Sam Goody to pick up the new Gun & Roses album on cassette, or snap up Aerosmith’s Get a Grip after seeing Alicia Silverstone on MTV for the first time. Subsequent generations may recognize her as the adorably ditzy Cher Horowitz from Clueless, and probably know malls as eerily empty track circuits for enthusiastic seniors looking to walk laps in climate-controlled environs with restrooms interspersed at convenient intervals, but, for me, Silverstone will always be the badass rebel-girl bungee jumping, then flipping the bird in the “Cryin’” video, back when malls were hot spots for teens raised on a steady diet of John Hughes flicks.
See me, age 18, lip liner two shades darker than my lips, keeping the Chuck-A-Rama (Google that Mormon shit) all-you-can-eat buffet fully stocked with all the fixins. Bussing tables like a boss, hoovering floor crumbs with the always shoddy carpet sweeper, and washing thousands of dishes in between delivering full glasses of ice-cold buttermilk to ravenous seniors who arrived for dinner at 4 PM sharp and didn’t tip for shit because you technically didn’t take their order or deliver food. Fuck you, Mr. Christensen! Mixing two piping hot Postums to your specific temperature requirements, removing the “fancy” almond slivers from your chicken and broccoli casserole, finding mini marshmallows in the stock room for your Jello and clearing your plates for the endless 90 minutes you spent at your table deserves a couple bucks. I saw your wife sneak all those rolls into her purse.
See me, age 19, hair bleached Gwen Stefani blonde, showering seniors, cleaning their rooms, feeding them, running laundry, and changing diapers every two hours at a nursing home called The Family Living Center. Taking care of the elderly, many suffering from dementia, remains the hardest, yet most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I sure do love me some seniors, but old men copping a feel while you’re bent over wiping shit off their balls is no fuckin’ joke.
See me, age 37, sporting ten extra pounds of baby weight after giving birth to my last child, newly divorced, three kids, just moved to a new city in an unfamiliar state, trying to afford full rent as a solo parent, accepting a new job in the low thirty-thousands as an assistant to the social media manager at AccuWeather.
The girl with money trauma stretching as far back as her memory. The girl who snacked on dry macaroni noodles when hungry and stashed cans of SpaghettiOs in her underwear drawer because she dreaded the end of the month when there was never any food in the house. The girl who still carries the shame of losing an envelope filled with her family’s entire monthly allotment of food stamps in the grocery store and will never forget the sound of her mom’s sobs tearing up out of her throat when she realized she had no way to buy food for four kids that month. The girl who is now a mom who will always be afraid of not having enough food in the cupboards. The mom whose heart speeds up every damn time she swipes her debit card, expecting it will be declined, even though she knows money is in the bank. The woman who had to file for an embarrassing bankruptcy after divorce left her in debt. The woman who feels nauseous and guilty when spending more than a hundred dollars on anything, especially herself.
Money trauma never goes away. It’s a part of you forever. An invisible scar. A ghost that haunts your brain and body. Anyone who’s ever paid for groceries using food stamps or a SNAP card knows what I’m talking about. If your debit card has been declined when you’re trying to pay for a full cart of groceries, you know what I mean. If you dread paying bills and avoid them until you get smacked with late fees even though you know you can afford to pay, we’re on the same page. Financial trauma is a bee buzzing in your heart and mind that can sting at any moment.
See me, age 46, waistline thickened by middle age, backward baseball cap shoved down over a low ponytail braid to keep graying hair out of the food and off my face, yanking steaming trays of plates from the dishwasher, drying coffee mugs and juice glasses before swinging into the dining room to restock the plastic cups next to the soda machine.
I remember this…
I’ll be ok. I always am.
My writing here had all but stopped. But during my search for a second job to boost my income, an online acquaintance I have an interesting history with randomly pledged what I’d consider a sizable subscription to this Substack if I chose to activate paid subscriptions. Along with the pledge, she wrote four words that really hit home for me.
“I value your perspective.”
It’s such a wonderful thing to be told. In the two weeks since receiving the pledge, I debated the pros and cons of transitioning to paid subscriptions and even continuing to write publicly. Monetizing this Substack is something I wanted to avoid because time and time again, when I have agreed to be paid for writing about my life, for various reasons, it always seems to morph into something I don’t want writing to be for me.
Specifically, I have found through my own online writing and observing other real-time memoirists— if you’ll indulge my use of that phrase— that we can inadvertently begin to perform specific narrative: ones that makes us feel better about ourselves, or ones we discover garner big reactions from readers, which can lead to our own weird little group confirmation bias of those narratives. This can lead to all kinds of mental fuckery you may or may not realize is happening as it’s happening. Lean too hard into your narrative, your truth, and it obscures your vision.
If you don’t leave room in your writing— and life in general— for all truths, your own and others’— the narrative of yourself you present and cling to as a part of your identity (an excuse, even, for your identity) can transform into a misrepresentation that holds you back, regardless of all the hearts, likes and comments from people who don’t know really you in person, or perhaps because of all that validation. Maybe that makes no sense to you? Maybe it makes perfect sense. We all understand the nature of social media and “influencers” at this point, right? It’s the same thing with writing. You’ve got to regularly check yourself or you can become lost in narratives perpetuated by the validation of strangers. It’s a tricky tightrope balance.
We just have the one life. I turned 46 at the end of March, so mine is likely more than half over. I don’t want to spend another second deluding myself about who I am or trying to convince internet strangers I’m something I’m not. I want to own my bullshit. Fix it if I can. Not create a false internet persona that makes me feel temporarily better. On the flip side, I also don’t want to spend any more time being mean to myself, courtesy of the unrelenting negative monologue about my worth that runs a loop in my head.
Writing is my favorite thing. Words have saved me throughout my life and I think they always will, in one way or another. I have avoided them lately because things were so bad I didn’t think I could or should write anything while in that state of mind.
But fuck it. I overthink everything. Thanks to the kindness of an internet acquaintance, I’m going to extend my old-school hustle to Substack and switch to paid subscriptions. I think the lowest amount Substack will allow me to charge is $5 a month. I can offer at least two posts a month to start and possibly more. I know everything is subscription-based these days, and for the same amount of money, you can subscribe to dozens of other offerings across the web. I get it. Having just eliminated most of my subscriptions to various websites (goodbye beloved NY Times and The Atlantic!), I understand how it goes.
I’m hoping enough of you stick around that this will be a worthwhile endeavor. Many of you have been with me since I began writing online almost 20 years ago. It’d be fantastic to see you on the other side of the paywall, but I won’t be disappointed if I don’t, because I certainly understand.
Lastly, if you can’t afford to subscribe, but want to keep reading, just shoot me an email (despiertatemonica at gmail dot com) and we’ll work something out.
Thank you for your continued support of me over the years through your comments on all of my writing in all of the places and in the hundreds of emails I’ve received. I am so grateful so many of you are still here.
Imagine that. Here we are together after all this time.
So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for the ages or only for hours, nobody can say.Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own