Thursday, February 21, 2013
The Pizza Diaries, Part 10: Sleepless in Seattle
By spring, I was tired.
I’d been moonlighting as a pizza delivery driver for five months, five nights a week. The original plan had been three nights a week, but given inflated fuel costs, it was tough for the pizzeria to hold on to drivers for any meaningful period of time. Hence, more shifts to go around. More nights sweeping Parmesan shavings and cardboard chads from underneath the prep area while waiting for the delivery screen to light up with orders. More nights divvying up the last of the deliveries with Lou, my favorite driver (the Thai man who spoke kitchen Spanish).
“How long you plan on being here, Lou? Delivering pizzas, I mean.”
“Eh, six month maybe. Saving money to retire back to Thailand.”
“And you can’t just go now?”
“Nah, gotta pay the ex-wife. She get everything in divorce.”
“You? You got another job, right? Why you work here?”
“I don’t know,” I sighed.
It was true. After months of gaining traction with our debt, I still had trouble at times remembering why I took the job in the first place. I’d been on auto-pilot for months – get up, go to work, go to work again, try to sleep, repeat – and I was so exhausted that I started to forget my life had ever been anything other than an endless slog of going from one job to the next, with no break in sight. I was at the point where even when I pictured our debt-free future, I still couldn’t help but think about how much further we had to go. Saving for our emergency fund, trying to buy a house, maybe having kids, funding college, funding retirement. Maybe the rest of my life would involve hard labor in some form or another – an endless, undignified doggie paddle just to keep my head above water.
On those nights when I swept the floor during slow periods, I felt like I was fourteen years old again. That’s how old I was when I got my first job at a restaurant, a Polish smorgasbord where I stocked the salad bar. (Side note: To this day, I do not understand why the beets were served next to the cottage cheese. Someone would inevitably use the beet utensil in the cottage cheese, and vise versa, and it all ended up a huge mess – pink chunks in the beets and runny pink liquid in the cottage cheese. I still can’t so much as walk by a salad bar without getting nauseous.) Back then, I felt proud just for having a job and earning money. I liked to think being a “salad girl” lent me a worldly air. When my friends and I would go to the movies, most of them would use their allowance, which seemed so immature to me. I was a working girl; I paid my own way.
But when I found myself almost twenty years later sweeping the floor of a restaurant, I didn’t feel a sense of pride. I felt like a failure. No one had forced me to take a second job, but every time I punched in at the pizzeria, I was reminded how naïve my younger self had been to believe that my best days were ahead.
In April, my husband planned a business trip to Seattle. He’d be there over a weekend, and he asked me to go with him.
“You need a break. The hotel’s already paid for; we just need to buy you a ticket.”
“You know I have to work weekends.”
“Just quit that job. We’ll be fine. If we end up living under a bridge, you can always go back to delivering pizzas, I promise.”
He had a point. We were down to just two student loans. If we were careful, we could cut some expenses and justify giving up the extra income I was earning at the pizzeria.
A twinge of guilt gnawing at me, I looked at ticket prices online. Only $200 to go to Seattle for the weekend. It was more than the cost of a movie ticket, but I felt a bit misty for my fourteen year-old self when I found myself using restaurant wages to pay for entertainment. Would she be proud or horrified?
I had three weeks to quit my job in order to make it to Seattle. For the first few days, I procrastinated. I never have been good at quitting jobs. A little fun fact about me? When I was a working teenager, I thought it was illegal to quit a job. I have no idea where I got such a ridiculous idea, but I can still remember the stomach cramps I experienced when, at fifteen, I confessed to an older friend my desire to find a non-restaurant position but I was afraid of getting in trouble. She mercifully set me straight on the legalities.
Finally, one Saturday night after I was cut early, I ran into my boss in the parking garage on the way to my car. I knew what I had to do.
“Hey, Eduardo, can I talk to you?” We were standing next to his white pickup, the smell of marinara and garlic still clinging to him. I felt some cramping coming on. Guilt.
“Um, I have to give you my notice.” I shifted nervously and tried to sound as upbeat as possible, but I knew the chaos I was causing; re-doing the schedule was going to be a bitch.
“What happened?” He furrowed his brow and looked concerned. He probably thought someone had sexually harassed me. The atmosphere at most restaurants is not exactly women-friendly, and there were few female drivers at the pizzeria. For a brief moment, I imagined the old, frizzy-haired Portuguese man who made the pizza dough trying to corner me in the cheese cooler, and almost burst out laughing.
“Nothing bad. It’s just that I had some goals when I took this job, and I think I’ve met them.” Now he just looked confused. “It’s taking up too much of my time,” I offered.
“Oh, ok. So how long are you giving me?”
“Two weeks. I can do two more weeks.”
“Ok. Well, thanks for telling me.”
After saying good-bye, I headed to my car, feeling a little lighter. I’d done it. There was no going back. Let the countdown begin.
But the next two weeks felt interminable. Most of the drivers heard I gave my notice and began asking me to cover extra shifts on my nights off. They were like squirrels storing up nuts for the winter. Each shift they gave to me meant a little more time spent with their families before they had to start covering my hours.
The days ran together, and the alarm always seemed to go off four seconds after I’d closed my eyes. Two weeks began to feel like two years. One night I exited my car after a delivery and began walking toward the back door of the pizzeria. A man called after me.
“Hey, miss!” He jogged toward me with a wad of paper in his hands. “Did you drop this?”
I looked down and realized he was carrying all of my receipts and cash. I’d been so tired that I hadn’t organized them at all. I’d been stuffing them in my pants pocket and apparently they all slipped out when I exited my car.
“Oh wow, yeah. Thanks so much for telling me.” I smiled politely as he handed them to me and tried to look relieved, but in reality I couldn’t care less. All I wanted was sleep. Being fired on the spot for losing the restaurant’s money would have been a blessing.
On the morning of my last day, I took my dog to the kennel before work. My husband had already left for Seattle a few days before, and my day and my night were going to be hectic. I already felt guilty for the months I’d been neglecting my yellow lab and to top it off, when we walked in, she was met by a howling beagle, her least favorite breed of dog. Evidently, both of our days were going to suck. As I watched the heavy steel door slam shut behind her, I thought, you deserve better. I’m sorry.
I’d been thinking that about everyone in my life lately. My dog. My husband. My boss. My fourteen year-old self. I wished I could just be better for all of them somehow.
It was one of those days that felt like the end of something. The kind of day that begins with promises to keep in touch, and ends with a cardboard box full of stolen office supplies and leftover farewell cake. The atmosphere was unseasonably gray and drizzly, and my stomach felt hollow. I had a feeling I was letting someone down, but I didn’t know who. It was the same sense of failure I felt whenever I swept the restaurant floor, but now I felt the same thing knowing that come the next day, I would no longer have to. Maybe it was the realization that I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was. I wanted to keep my night job until my husband and I were officially debt-free, but exhaustion had gotten the better of me.
That night, deliveries were steady. There wasn’t much time for talk, which was a relief since I’m terrible at good-byes. Tips consisted of steady five’s. Not outstanding, but not too shabby, either. I kept the radio off, preferring the steady, hypnotic swish of the windshield wipers instead. A wet umbrella sat on the passenger seat. It had the logo of my old law firm on it. A painful reminder of every bad decision that led to my water-logged existence as a pizza delivery driver. If only they could see me now.
I thought about my law school classmates a lot that night. I wondered if any of them felt as lost, and as baffled about what exactly possessed them to go to law school, as I did. I wondered what they would think of me if they knew the truth – that I delivered pizzas to get rid of my stupid law school debt, that I regretted ever going to law school in the first place, and that I just wanted my life back. It’s funny, I thought the same thing when I was practicing law – what would everyone think if they knew the truth? That I hated being a lawyer, that I felt like I was pretending every morning when I woke up and put on a suit, and that I just wanted my life back.
I also thought about my mother a lot that night, which was something I’d been doing since I first started the job. She died just a couple weeks in to my moonlighting career, so I associated deliveries with her. I wondered if an afterlife does exist, and whether she somehow knew how my current life was going. I suppose from the outside, I might have appeared pretty miserable. Could she somehow discern that despite all appearances to the contrary, deep down inside I was ok? Sure, I was tired and my present life sucked, but there was a lot to be grateful for, too. I’d graduated high school; she had never gone to school, and was illiterate. I’d gone on to college and law school; she had no such opportunities in the area of the world where she grew up. I got my first job at fourteen; she helped raise her brothers and sisters, and was only sixteen when she had her first child. So what if I had some student loan debt? I still had it a hell of a lot better than she ever did. The truth was, I missed her a lot. Driving around town at night for the past five months thinking about her made me realize how many things had been left unsaid. How I wished I could see her one last time. How I’ll never know if she was proud of me.
At the end of the night, I pulled the magnetic topper from my car and stacked it with the others near the back door. The kitchen was mostly empty, and through the windows of the swinging doors, I could see the lights in the dining room were dimmed. A few employees sat at the bar, eating and drinking. Normally, on nights when my husband was out of town, I would have joined them, since meals eaten in the restaurant were free. But that night, I was just too wiped.
I decided not to go out of my way to say good-bye to anyone. Like I said, I’ve always been terrible at that. I took one last look at the dining room, then turned around. Lou walked in the back door at that moment, returning from a delivery.
“On you way out?” he asked.
“Yeah. That’s it for me.” I smiled. “You’re next, right?”
“Almost. Going to Thailand in three week. See my family. Soon, move back there.”
“I’m glad. Say good-bye to everyone else for me, ok? I gotta get outta here. I’m exhausted.”
“Sure,” he agreed, then hugged me. “We go out for coffee soon.”
“I’m going to take you up on that, you know.”
“You better,” he said, walking toward the swinging doors. I walked up the steps to the back door, a tinge of sadness setting in.
“You know you can always come back here!” Lou shouted after me.
I turned and smiled. “Thanks.” I waved to him and walked out.
Lou was right – I could always go back. I’d already been there and back many times before. The smorgasbord at age fourteen. The all-night diner at twenty. The coffee shop at twenty-four. The pizzeria at thirty-three. I’d been living like a ghost, really. Unable to move on from a place that was no longer my home. I hoped this time would be different. Better.
I never did have coffee with Lou. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I liked to imagine he moved back to Thailand. After I first quit, I would occasionally see his car out and about on Friday nights, making deliveries. But then I stopped seeing him, which makes me think maybe he really is back at home, living with his brother and his sisters where he belongs.
Seattle was beautiful. Rainy, but beautiful. While I was there, I looked up a cousin of mine that I hadn’t seen in years. He took me to the space needle, and snapped a photo of me with my hair whipping about in the frigid wind.
“You look just like your mother in this picture,” he remarked. Without even seeing it, I knew he was right.
For the rest of the weekend, my husband and I enjoyed the city. We strolled around in the drizzly night, ducking under the awnings that lined the downtown streets. We watched a man on a corner play a violin while hula-hooping, for tips. I happily gave him one of the fives from my last delivery shift. After dinner, we walked back to the hotel, burrowed into the bedcovers together, and talked for hours until we both drifted off to sleep. In the morning, he was still lying next to me. Neither of us had anywhere else to be.
Even though we were hundreds of miles from everything we knew, for the first time in months, I was home.