I still remember the conversation between the five of us like it was yesterday.
Rob, Mike and myself were dish dogs — the fast-moving crew who cleaned and organized the plates, glasses and silverware at Glenbrook Country Club. Jeff was an enlightened soul disguised as a waiter, slightly older than us, the only member of the waitstaff who regularly took time to converse with the grunts. Bill was the middle-aged night manager, a quiet, intense guy we all rather liked and the closest thing to a real adult in the place after 11 PM.
It was my junior year of high school. December was an exciting time and that excitement was organically doubled by the pure fact of being 17 years old. We dish dogs worked hard, sacrificing most of our high school weekends laboring into the wee hours of the morning in the confines of that brightly-lit industrial kitchen. At the end of each shift, usually around two in the morning, we’d make a final sweep of the banquet hall, a tradition that carried a dreamy, detached peacefulness, especially when snow would quietly drift beyond the wall of windows — often our first glimpse of the outside world in hours.
Looking back at that time 22 years later, I’m amazed at the chemistry of our team. In all the work environments I’ve had in my adult life, nothing has matched it – but then again,that may simply be an attribute of being 17 more than being a cohesive team. Who knows?
Back to this particular conversation.
It was early in the month and an especially spirited holiday party was wrapping up later than normal – 3 AM. It had been snowing all day and into the night. We had all been working 16 hours straight between two parties. While waiting for the last of the revelers to find their way home, we took a satisfying break in the steamy dish room. Bill and Jeff pulled up chairs. Rob, Mike and myself straddled wine glass dish racks as improvised seats. For a while, no one spoke.
“You guys, you don’t know how good you have it,” Bill said — a rare moment of genuine depth from our otherwise stoic boss. “Me, I’m stuck here, but you guys — you’ll all get out this kitchen. A lot of guys your age… they’ve got nowhere to go. You guys though, you’ll do alright.”
Normally this was an invite for a smarmy remark at Bill’s expense but this was the closest thing we’d ever gotten to an actual complement. Plus, our brains were dizzy with cleaning products and the lingering stench of uneaten shrimp cocktail. And it was late. Jeff spoke up in his trademark calm voice on behalf of the dish dogs.
“What makes you think that, Bill?”
“You guys worked your asses off tonight, just like you do every night,” Bill replied, “Every fuckin’ night, you guys come in here and I expect one of you to tell me to stick it up my ass and walk out, but you never do. You guys never complain — I mean really complain. Some people, complain their whole lives, you know? Not you guys. You make this shit fun.”
Bill clapped his hands down on his thighs, stood up and glanced out the tiny vertical windows in the swinging kitchen doors that looked out into the ballroom, then looked back at us.
“You guys will be alright,” Bill said. Then a pause. “You got five minutes before the last pick up.”
Comradery can be found in the strangest places. Within the context of that small world, we really were a great team. And the world would soon be bigger and we would all go on to great things, all of us. Maybe even Bill. A big celebration was waiting on the other side of that metaphorical door. We could hear the music and laughter.
I think about this as Thanksgiving is approaching. Thanksgiving, literally, is a good excuse to revisit our past selves and offer gratitude for the fact we are still here, still dreaming, and if we’re lucky, we’ve done alright for ourselves. I wish I could say that Bill’s prediction had been spot-on. It wasn’t.
It’s 2015. Rob and Mike are gone — neither made it to 40.
Mike was overwhelmed by PTSD after a series of difficult deployments in the Middle East. His pain ended at age 29. Last year, I was saddened to hear Rob had passed away, by circumstance of a predictable, oncoming passenger train. He was 39.
The country club itself foundered under poor leadership but persisted for four more years after Bill’s unexpected declaration. At the final party, I was the most veteran staff member present. It snowed that night as well. The country club has since re-opened under a new name.
As for Bill, I saw him many years later — my senior year of college, 1998 to be precise — five years since our conversation. It was at a gas station on a blisteringly cold, windy, winter’s day. He recognized me, but not I him. He had aged considerably, was missing several teeth and there was barely a familiar feature to be found on his gaunt frame.
“Jimmy! Hey man, how are ya?! It’s Bill Jenkins,” he said in a raspy voice with none of the austerity his former position once afforded. He knew he might be unrecognizable and he was right. This was a guy I worked with for five years.
Life had been hard to Bill. His wife left him, jobs went away, he was getting by. Sort of. He looked bad. I ended up giving him 20 dollars.
“Jimmy, man, Merry Christmas. You keep it up,” were his parting words. What “it” was I was to keep up he didn’t specify. It was the last time I saw him.
And so… 2015. Not long ago, I reconnected with Jeff on Facebook. A mentor and friend, he’s living an incredible life — including tours as a smoke jumper in Yosemite and a world traveler — and now is the proud father of two beautiful girls and married to a wonderful woman. He turned out alright.
As for me, I’d like to think I’ve done ok as well. The gap between my dish dog days and today hasn’t always been easy but I’m still here — who knew that would count as a major victory? I’ve endured as a writer and finally, six months from my 40th birthday, there’s a sense of real identity, that a few of those crazy dreams of my youth are being dragged into existence. The journey of the years in between… they are gone in a flash.
Life is like that — a nearby celebration, a dreamy aftermath, a furnace of dreams and potential. I have learned it is folly to anticipate or predict glory for ourselves or others; it will happen organically in places like sweaty dishrooms at three in the morning. The real moments, the breaching of normalcy into a fraction of grace, that happens of its own accord. If we’re lucky, those moments compile into an all-right life, a life to be thankful for.