Monday, August 30, 2010

Work Sweet Work

I had an encouraging experience on Friday afternoon. I was walking down Main Street and heard someone shout, "Hey, Tara!" That hadn't happened to me yet in my new town.

It was my twenty one year old supervisor, who I'll call Gabe. Gabe was standing on the deck of the taco shop, a cold beer in hand.

"Hey, beer - nice!" I said. It was around 2pm.

"Yeah, I need it. This morning sucked. Phil didn't show up."

"Who's Phil?"

"He's the new kitchen guy. Now I have to cover for him tonight, and I had plans, too."

"Aw, that sucks."

"Yeah, but it's just part of the new job." Gabe became a manager last week. "At least I have this beer to calm my nerves."

"That's good. Enjoy it! I'll see you tomorrow."

Ah, to be twenty one and the boss. I remember those days. At that time, I probably wouldn't have guessed that I would be doing that same kind of work at age thirty three and if I had, I might have found that very depressing. But I'm not depressed now. For several reasons, this new job has brought me great relief.

For one thing, it gives me something to do with my day. I've suffered bouts of unemployment before (I think the maximum length was just shy of three months) and while I won't pretend I didn't enjoy the ample free time, I missed the structured days and, of course, the money. I used to think that I would be happy to be unemployed if money were no concern. Well, now that Dan has a full-time teaching gig, I'm as close to that reality as I've ever been but still I felt the need to get a job asap. The brutal southern heat combined with my natural shyness made it too easy for me to stay indoors all day and just wait for Dan to come home. I was getting bored and weekends just weren't feeling like weekends.

So, I got myself a job. This is as good a time as any to note that I barely ever blog about work, for a few reasons: 1) it isn't that interesting (and if it is, that's usually a good sign that I should be looking for a job elsewhere); 2) it clashes with my sense of professionalism - I rarely gossip at work because it usually leads to trouble, and that's the same reason I don't do work gossip on my blog; 3) the obvious one - I don't know who reads this. But, for the sake of sharing my new life with whatever readers I have, I'm going to disguise and describe my new workplace, which requires that I tell you a bit about my old one.

I used to work in the catering department of a nationally renowned deli that I'll call Foodie Deluxe. FD is famous for its towering sandwiches made with tasty breads from its sister company, Foodie Deluxe Bakehouse. Before I left Michigan, I did my research and learned that an FDB alum had started his own bakery in Chattanooga. That bakery happens to sit around the corner from my apartment and after we moved in, I started heading over there every day for a cup of coffee and free wifi. When I noticed that they had a retail sales position open, I made sure to put "Foodie Deluxe" in big print on the application.

It worked. I interviewed with the owner right after he returned from vacation. By the first day of my third week in town, I was selling bread and slinging coffee. I quickly learned that I shouldn't mention my FD background to my new coworkers, because I got this reaction - "Oh, you worked at Foodie Deluxe." Eye roll. "Well, the owner must loooove you." After hearing that a couple times, my story was simply that I had worked for a catering company in Michigan.

Really, other than the fact that I'm working with artisan breads, this job has almost nothing in common with the last one. I'm on my feet all day instead of sitting at a desk, which I definitely prefer (though I am starting to feel my age). The hourly pay is lower (boo) but I make cash tips (yay!). The two biggest differences are the level of organization and the customer service dynamics. Foodie Deluxe was big on customer service, which I loved. They claim (and I actually think it's true), that providing great service is as important as serving great food and making money. Too often, service workers are made to feel that their work isn't "real" work and I liked having a job that dignified customer service. Plus, the company did a good job of making it easy to provide great service by being highly systematized and allowing their employees to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. I didn't have to ask my manager if I could give the customer a refund, I could just use my own judgment.

In my current job, I feel like I can make similar judgment calls and it's such a small business that it's easy for me to find a manager or supervisor who can deal with an unhappy customer. At the same time, because it is a small, up-and-coming business, I don't feel quite as comfortable giving refunds and band-aid cookies because cash is tighter.

In addition to that, there are almost no documented systems for anything, whether it's "how to give a refund" or instructions on cleaning the espresso machine. Fortunately, I've had enough restaurant/barista/food service jobs that I know the right questions to ask. But I have to admit that it was a little freaky for me at first. My northern sense of efficiency makes me nervous and leads me to frequently wonder if I'm doing my job right, or in the smartest possible way. In my experience, efficacy is as important as accuracy. I'm from the birthplace of the assembly line. I had a boss in Detroit who would berate me if I didn't pour coffee, bus tables and wipe counters in as few steps as possible. I keep expecting a customer to yell at me because they had to wait ten minutes for their sandwich when there were only a few other people in the dining room.

But, guess what? That doesn't happen! In the three weeks I've been working at the bakery, I have not seen a single customer yell at anyone. One man calmly asked for a refund after he waited half and hour for his sandwich and was told that we had run out of that type of bread. He simply said, "This is not right," and my supervisor said, "I'm sorry," and that was that. Yes, southerners are much nicer than people up north. When I was trying to figure out the credit card machine on my first day, I explained to the customer that I was a newbie and she said, "Oh, I thought you'd been here a week, at least!" before sticking a buck in the tip jar. Another woman cheered for me when I bused her table. I've never had a new job where the customers were so encouraging of my development! Honestly (and I've never felt this before) interacting with customers is one of my favorite things about this job.

But my coworkers are cool, too. Everyone I've worked with so far has been pretty friendly and helpful. I don't know if I'll make pals at this place, but I find even work-related social interactions uplifting. Starting over in a new town is exciting but lonely. Sometimes it just feels really good to here someone call your name as you're walking down the street.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Place that W Could Call Home

On our sixth day in Chattanooga, Dan called me from work to see if I would join him for lunch at Porkers, a restaurant about a mile from our house. Dan had noted three key details about Porkers during his solo visit to Chatt in mid-July, but only one stuck in my mind – exceptionally yummy barbecue. Therefore, I was game. I remembered the other, less flattering details after I got to the restaurant – a creepy, racist caricature of a black child eating watermelon and the fact that George W Bush had visited Porker’s while he was in office. The racist painting was it’s own reminder but it was the snapshots of GWB behind the cashier stand that refreshed that detail for me.

Those photos blew my mind. I actually thought the owners had hired a very convincing Bush impersonator to pose with staff members because those candid shots portrayed a man who looked relaxed and happy. The George W Bush I remembered looked more like this –

This photo depicts the occasion when President Bush awarded the National Medal of Arts to the late Louis Auchincloss, who happens to be one of my favorite writers. Note the awkward stance and the apish, dangling arms on our former leader. Remember when Bush bragged about not reading newspapers? I wonder how he felt about books. I also wonder if he had any idea who Auchincloss was. To be fair, most Americans don’t, but Bush might. Louis Auchincloss was both a chronicler and member of that privileged echelon of wealthy east coasters who rule the world, just like those Bushes. He went to prep school and then Yale, just like those Bushes. He also referred to them in a Financial Times interview as, "a big family of shits," so perhaps they weren't close. Nevertheless, there was a familiarity between the Auchinclosses and the Bushes. On some level, they were each others "people," but you would never know it from this photo.

But if I could just show you those Porker’s photos, you would know see that everyday Chattanoogans are Bush’s real people. And that's just one of the many reasons that being here feels so strange, but that isn't my point. The point is that I have never seen an image of GWB looking so thoroughly peaceful and content. This was the best one I could find online. You can see that he’s having a good time –

- It’s from the White House website, so of course it is quite becoming. It isn’t that the ones on the wall at Porker’s are unbecoming, but they’re way more goofy and fun-filled – Bush posing with a couple of waitresses, his arms chummily hanging over their shoulders, a giant grin on his face; a wide-eyed Bush gawking at a pile of ribs; Bush crouching behind a pair of confused-looking old people. These are the equivalent of your Facebook photos, frozen moments when you were at your best and having a funky good time. But, they’re not the kind of pictures you would post on your professional website or, if you’re a former U.S. President, include in your memoirs. So, sadly you’ll probably never see these pictures online or in a book. You’ll just have to come to Chattanooga to see what Bush looked like when he was happy.

It makes me wonder what other presidents look like when they are in their happiest, most fitting element. I imagine Obama talking sports with another brainy intellectual type and Bill Clinton lounging at a bordello crossed with a McDonald’s, if such a thing exists. All W needs is some sweet tea, a pulled pork platter and some friendly southerners who don’t make him feel like a dummy.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Feelings About My New Home

It’s so hot here. All I can do is accept that the extreme heat is going to turn my accustomed lifestyle upside down. I mean, it’s REALLY hot, even for this region. The average high temperature this time of year is 90 but we’re closer to the 100 degree mark and the humidity makes it feel way hotter. Stepping outside just long enough to get to the car and cool off its insides absolutely knocks me out. If I do that a few times in the middle of the day, I need an hour nap to regain my energy. I don’t have a job yet, so I’m free to follow that schedule but it’s a strange thing. Mandatory naps have never been a part of my adult habit.

Yet this seems fitting for my current phase of existence. In the spirit of a chosen new life, I’m trying to do everything a little differently. This change in attitude began with the move itself. Having once possessed very little (including a sense of patience with myself) I used to approach moves in a very hurried and disorganized fashion. But since Dan and I together have accumulated about 10 times more possessions than I ever owned by myself, and seeing as I had no other occupation, I decided that for this move I would indulge my obsessively organized inner librarian. I packed dishes, CDs, LPs and books in the precise order in which I wanted to unload them. I designated boxes we never need to open (you know, the sentimental stuff you can’t bear to throw away but hardly ever view). My last unpacking task will be creating a screened hiding spot in the corner of our loft-like space where all those boxes can live as long as we are living here.

This organized planning has made the unpacking process actually enjoyable. I can spend more time thinking how I will fit this stuff into our unusual living space. Our apartment is half of a refurbished auto shop. The front wall is a 12 paneled glass and steel garage door. The outside walls are painted cinder blocks. The space is divided into two giant rooms. The front room features an industrial kitchen – it’s my new favorite toy, with its ample counter space and enormous sink (cooking soup stock will no longer be a logistical nightmare!) I also love the poured concrete floors throughout. It doesn’t matter if you splash outside of the shower or spill a cup of water, it all just soaks into the floor. This apartment is a funky space, but it’s also well built, surprisingly practical and (thankfully!) centrally cooled. It’s a pretty fun place to while away a long, sultry afternoon.

It’s a good thing that I like home so much because the midday heat and a sense of social awkwardness keep me there often. I know that I must fight the urge to remain a hermit, but again I am trying to be patient with myself and take on this new life at a comfortable pace. The thing is, I really do stick out in Chattanooga. It isn’t just my accent or my untanned northern white flesh. Cotton clad, short-haired women who don’t wear makeup are pretty uncommon in these parts. I don’t feel compelled to transform myself, but not since high school have I felt so different from everyone around me. And for someone like me, who is apt to gladly melt into social invisibility, this sense of difference is a little startling. My goal is to have fun with it. My social experiences so far have shown me that most people here are outwardly friendly and polite, which makes it easier, though I have caught a couple people staring at me. I just smile back at them.

Nevertheless, I do admit that I love having so much alone time at the house because I get to enjoy the vast media library that I so dutifully packed, hauled and unpacked. We own six milk crates of vinyl that we neglected when we had cable TV in the spring and early summer. Since we have no need for cable now (our digital antenna gets excellent reception) and we won’t get internet hooked up for almost three weeks, I have a new interest in our fantastic album collection. We have a vintage record store display rack that we use to hold our current favorites, and in the spirit of a new life, I have made myself refile the old favorites and bring out some new ones. It’s been fun. I’ve been listening to a lot of 80s British stuff like Aztec Camera and Style Council, as well as singer-songwriter-y fare from the mid 70s, like Paul Simon and Todd Rundgren. Now that I think of it, it’s the stuff that Dan probably doesn’t want to hear. Yeah, being alone in our new home is not yet boring.

Oh, and that digital antenna has reintroduced me to the wonder of RTV, the Retro Television Network. Before we got cable, I found many hours of solace on a harsh winter’s night watching reruns of “Simon and Simon” and (cringe) “Matlock” on channel 007-02. I know that RTV is included with some cable packages, but we didn’t get it with AT&T U-verse and somehow it seems way more appropriate as an antenna-only network. The RTV lineup includes shows I totally forgot – like “Simon and Simon”, “I Spy” and “Kate and Allie” – along with some genuinely good shows – like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” – and adds to it a lot of weird ass shit that I never knew – like the short-lived 1960s comic western “Laredo”, which I LOVE. Interestingly, RTV is based in Chattanooga and of course I have fantasies about being their chief programmer (first order of business – acquire Martin Mull’s 1970’s mock talk show “Fernwood 2Night”), but in the meantime, I’m having fun enjoying their bizarre lineup. Again, it’s something different.

This introduction to my new home is not what I imagined. I thought of myself wandering the neighborhood, checking out the local businesses, but that’s tricky in this dangerous heat. At least I can take advantage of the short distance between our place and Niedlov’s bakery, with it’s speedy wireless internet. Perhaps today I will wander a bit further down the road to Market Street and look at some of the boutiques. It may be worth an afternoon nap to see what else my new town has to offer, and today I am in the mood to do something (there's that word again) different.