There was nothing terrible about her job. She was not being asked to toil in the hot sun nor was she whipped and taunted by the higher ups. Sure, she sometimes had to sweep the area by the door, and unfolding the ladder each time she needed to access a coat from the top rack was tedious, if not entirely annoying, but, by a great number of the world’s standards, it could be considered a good job… maybe even a great job. And yet, the thought of heading to work each day was enough to make her stomach turn. The more she thought about the impending hour her shift would begin, the more upset she became.
Milling around her apartment she noisily sighed, letting out loud bursts of frustrated air in the form of a “gahhhh” and a “uughhhhh” here and there so as to indicate to her sister Frances, who sat quietly at her desk by the window steadfastly working, that she was not ecstatic about her job. She walked over to the bathroom to fix her hair. Looking at herself in the mirror she smiled and mouthed “Hi! Welcome! Good evening! May I take your coat?” She practiced her large, plastic smile and noticed how her eyes crinkled when she did so. She was not yet 25 and she could see the crow’s feet forming.
Leaving the bathroom she walked into the hallway and put on her black coat over her black dress and black sweater. She pulled up her black tights and slipped on her black flats. No wonder she felt depressed.
She looked at her watch: 4:15. She didn’t have to be at work for another fifteen minutes. As it was only a three-minute walk to work, she plopped into the chair by the door.
She considered picking up a book or writing a letter, but there wasn’t time enough to read or write. She had already “used” Rihanna’s powerful musical meth the last two days in order to synthesize enough adrenaline-like chemicals to work up the courage to traipse around the corner to her place of employment. Today, she decided, she would mix it up with a pre-work cry.
Worried that her tears might interrupt her sister working a mere yard away, she thoughtfully decided that she would resist the temptation of an all-out sob. Instead, she would settle for the quieter kind of crying isolated in the eye region, rather than the noisier kind that swells up from the heart. She had neither the time for nor the luxury of such a noisy catharsis.
As tears gathered in her eyes, her nose began to run a little. She knew there was a physiological correlation, but, like many things in life, she barely understood it. She attempted to quietly wipe her nose as she sat in her chair. Unfortunately, it is entirely impossible to do anything quietly when wearing a water-resistant nylon jacket. Hearing the noise her movement was making, she paused, mid-nose-wipe in order to ascertain whether Frances had noticed.
Frances had impeccable hearing; or, perhaps it was the fact that the apartment was no larger than a medium-sized shoebox. Regardless, her typing ceased and she turned to caringly inquire as to what was wrong. Slouching in her cushy chair, the perpetrator of noise hid behind the basket full of scarves obstructing the view between herself and Frances. She made no reply.
She didn’t want to burden Frances with her emotions, and she knew that if she tried to verbalize her feelings she would end up talking about some totally irrelevant cause for her tears. It wasn’t the fact that she hadn’t heard from a boy, who was supposedly interested in her, for over two weeks. Of course, she always felt better when her relationships were clearly defined and the lines of communication were operating freely, but it wasn’t like a simple text or email couldn’t have solved this… It wasn’t the fact that all of her other friends were attending grad school and adventurously exploring the world while she was…well… it didn’t matter, it wasn’t about that. And it was not simply a matter of her progesterone levels.
She was tired of “soul-searching”, of “mysteries” and confessions. Nothing was wrong. She was shedding tears inexplicably, like one unknowingly sheds skin cells.
Seeking to bring hope to despair and light to blackness, Frances took the silence to be her cue. Opening the windows and inviting the neighborhood pigeons to gather round and listen on the window ledge, she began her motivational sermon about how all of this was “normal”, and, most importantly, “temporary”. Providing a number of examples from her own life, Frances recalled the menial tasks and jobs she had performed on her own long and hard-fought road to success. This long road caused her to remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and so she discussed this too, citing his overarching thesis that, at a minimum, success takes 10,000 hours of practice at any given task, job, etc.
The perpetrator of noise and purveyor of blackness remained inconsolable. Rudely looking at her watch, she nodded her head and wiping away her tears, got up from her chair. She zipped up her black nylon jacket (scaring away the pigeons), grabbed her purse, said goodbye and headed out the door. She knew that everything Frances had said was right, but this didn’t stop an additional tear or two from escaping her eyes as she descended the stairs. This time, as there was nothing but brown carpet underfoot to disturb, she brushed them away as noisily as her jacket allowed.
Exiting the building, she walked down the street, passed the school and the drug store, and turned the corner to enter the door of Lingram’s Restaurant. There was something deadening about the environment. She couldn’t tell if it was her, or the lingering seafood smell in the air. Seeing who her co-hostess was for the evening, her feelings of foreboding deepened; she said hello to “Tree Branch” and hung up her coat. After completing her task, she took her place at the door and began her own, long and hard-fought road: to engage Tree Branch in conversation for the duration of her shift.
For starters, she asked all of the questions standard to a journalistic interrogation, commonly referred to as “making small talk.” She asked Tree Branch about her place of birth, hometown, family, education, interests and present whereabouts. Usually, even the most self-interested conversationalist, noting an imbalance in the exchange, will dutifully throw the other person a bone and inquire as to where she went to school. But, Tree Branch had no use for reciprocating polite inquiries.
Usually in the course of a conversation, certain distractions typically arise that result in a tangential detour. Usually. But Tree Branch had dutifully answered all questions in the most exacting manner so as to trim the fat of unnecessary verbiage and preemptively quash potential conversational leads.
As her limited supply of conversational resources had been exhausted, she had little left to do but stare out the window with Tree Branch. Luckily, she noticed a pen and a tiny note pad sitting on the hostess stand. She grabbed for both items and began to jot down a few observations:
1. Questions regarding educational background can usually spur five to ten follow up questions. But, this depends entirely on area of study. Case in point:
Theatre major: you can discuss auditions and who their celebrity “exceptions” are, were they to find themselves in a monogamous relationship. But mostly, engage them, or even just look at them and smile, and they will happily carry the conversation about themselves.
Marketing major: you can discuss…. Maybe a starter question would be to ask if they like Marketing? They will most likely respond “yes.” See if they bite on a discussion of InDesign?
2. Questions about hometown and current area of residence can only buy you one or two follow-up questions at most before you enter stalker territory.
3. If one is really grasping at conversational straws, complimenting the other person’s shoes is OK, but ultimately, a dead-end: “thank you”.
Reading over the conversational pointers she had just created, it dawned on her that she had failed to ask Tree Branch one of the most obvious, small talk generating questions known to the city’s inhabitants. Carefully phrasing her question, so as to ensure it forced a more lengthy response from Tree Branch, she made eye contact before opening her mouth to spontaneously ask:
Have you lived in New York long?
[Tree Branch, turning towards her, took the bait. She even provided an open-ended response.]
“Well… it’s interesting that you ask…”
“Yes, because someone just asked me that question this afternoon.”
What did you tell them?
“Well, I told them that I had lived here for a little over a year.”
Oh, so you’re a recent “import”?
“Well, yes and no.”
“You see, the thing is, that’s not entirely true.”
Aha. Wow. Tell me more!
“Yes. I realized that I have been living here for two years now.“
Oh. So it was entirely untrue rather than not entirely true …
“Yes. I guess I liked the sound of saying “just over a year” and so I had continued to say that… even though it really wasn’t the case anymore.”
Mmhhm… Yeah, I could see how that would have a non-committal “ring” to it. Ha!
“Yeah. I mean, two years sounds so much more official, you know? And, I am not one for ostentation.”
She wasn’t sure she did know, but she was cognizant of the fact that Tree Branch had incorrectly used a noun. But, semantics aside, she tried to focus on her recent success: her interest in unearthing and specifying every minute detail of this coma-inducing conversation had successfully killed almost fifteen minutes.
Reveling in her victory, she accepted the present lull and decided to take a breather. Tree Branch kindly agreed to watch over the door so that she could go get a drink. She couldn’t help but feel a sudden pang of guilt as a result of this small act of kindness; her own self-important behavior this evening and her cold good bye to Frances earlier in the afternoon.
Selecting “room temperature still” from the array of water options listed on the machine, she considered Frances’s earlier pep talk. Given how hard she had worked at passing the last few minutes, 10,000 hours was a daunting figure. Did her time at Lingram’s technically even count towards her individual tally? Assuming it did not, how and when, if ever, would she amass the hours necessary?
Standing alone in the dimly lit back room, she thirsted for understanding. Sipping from her plastic container of water, the following meditation came to mind:
Where there is darkness, dining room candles need to be replenished; even when there is fullness, give them specialty-bagged cookies before they leave.
For it is in giving smiles, matches and toothpicks that you receive tips.
She hoped it was as Frances had said. She hoped her time here would only be temporary. But really, there was nothing terrible about the job; everyone had to do their time.