written in JUNE 2010
The screen door to the restaurant kitchen slammed as I stepped over the threshold to the back porch. The heat on this June sunday was oppressive. We had just done some 300 covers and it was only 1pm, but I felt as though we were in the midst of an Arizonian drought… the sun sweltering, and my hair sticking to my scalp. My rolled-up jeans clung to every sweaty inch of my legs, my black tee-shirt heavy and sinking in the humidity.
Squinting in the bright sun, I glanced down at Rob squatting with a cigarette hanging languidly between his lips. He was hiding behind the last row of the garden, which had now blossomed to almost full-bloom, as it was nearing July. Squatting there behind the tomato plants, Rob’s curly brown hair clung to his sunburned forehead in slick little curls. Hot, hot tired smoke lifted from his cigarette and seemed to dissipate in the air that was weighing down on his skinny body. We exchanged exhausted glances, delirious in the heat. He had taken off his apron and thrown it on the porch railing to begin weeding the garden during the short breaks we had in between serving tables, but had opted for the cigarette break instead.
The cafe had opened a long, long time ago, before I started high school, before I knew the meaning of work, before I had anything to worry about. It was situated in a house, with creaky little stairs leading to an upstairs office with little windows and old grey carpet. Downstairs was the actual cafe and the kitchen, where everything seemed to have remained the same since the 50s…when we came into work, even, we “punched in” onto old-fashioned stamp time cards. we hand-wrote every single one of our orders. even the cash register was an old ka-ching type from the old days… and the garden in the back, when I watered the plants with a bucket filled with collected rain water, reminded me of the smell of fresh vegetables from my grandparents’ garden. When dido used to bring over cucumbers and tomatos he had grown. It’s that very distinct smell of a homemade garden…It’s very sharp and quite stunning to the senses, it’s the smell of soil and real leaves and shoots that you planted yourself, and if they tried to capture this smell in a perfume, i feel as though they wouldn’t be able to.
Rob had been a medieval literature major in college, was now in his early twenties, and living in tremont. He’d never served tables before, but he had a certain charm, and the boy could sell. he was the type of boy whose parents were probably either teachers or librarians, he was the son of quiet folk. Rob’s first serving gig came with a true midwestern farmer’s tan; he and i liked taking the outside tables, and he liked to do the “farming” work in the back, which was the weeding of the garden.
He was incredibly tall and skinny, so skinny in fact that I had a hard time believing his stick-like arms could go around carrying plates of food in the hot, hot heat without him toppling over and breaking in half like a dry stalk of wheat in the wind. But in fact Rob was very quick and energetic, an obedient server, and a refreshingly hard worker.
He belonged somewhere in the midwest, and I suppose neighbor-friendly Tremont was the place for him, because he was charming and polite as hell, to the point where I didn’t believe people of our generation like him even existed anymore. at the same time, Rob is just like everyone else my age. This is especially apparent after a nut-crazy brunch shift, when he sits on the back porch steps chain-smoking and saying “fuck” and “fuckin” in between every word and then threatening to quit this goddamn job if they didn’t feed us real meals. But Rob was a striker as much as he was a fighter: he was neither, really, and in the end always offered to stay late and close for whoever wanted to go home early. His greatest act of rebellion, today, had been his angry cigarette break squatting in the garden halfway through his shift, and this somehow added to his charm.
I remember once he said, “manners are crucial.” It hit me: What 20-something says anything about manners anymore? Every 20-something wants to be a revolutionary, not someone talking about “manners”…and since then, Rob has become a fascination of mine. i am fascinated with the idea of our “generation” in general… how we view ourselves as opposed to how the rest of the world views us…why we are constantly put down by the so-called adults for being spoiled and lazy, because we spend all our time on facebook and our iPods, etc. how the generation in America differs from the generation abroad. And rob is an interesting starting point.