About Dawn Akemi

Every one of us has stories to tell... here are mine: www.dawnakemi.com

Vegas or Kitties?

“What’s on your mind, Dawn?” asked Nosy Server, who whenever there was a silence during lulls in the server aisle would start asking personal questions of whoever was standing around. “You look upset today.” I groaned inwardly at how my face wears what’s on my mind like outlandishly trendy clothes that should never be worn at all. The Bald Man stood nearby listening. It was a slow hour at The Pie Shoppe.

“My cat died and I’ll be picking up her ashes today,” I said with my customary directness for which I sometimes wish had a filter. I’m not very good at waffling around whatever I ought not talk about.

“Oh,” said Nosy Server, looking bored.

“Do you have a pet?” I asked.

“I dated a guy with a dog once. Never had one of my own. They’re too much trouble.”

I turned to the Bald Man. “What about you? Do you have a pet?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not a pet guy. Don’t like ’em, don’t need ’em.” Perhaps he realized that he sounded harsh, or perhaps my transparent face betrayed my dismay, because he laughed like he was supposed to be charming and continued. “Think about it.” He poked his finger in the air. “I couldn’t spontaneously spend a weekend in Vegas if I was burdened with a pet.”

Nosy Server gave a polite laugh.

I didn’t particularly like the Bald Man, but right then he had my sympathy. Both of them did. Puppies and kitties give far more than they receive. Their presence is nourishing to the spirit.

On the day I lost Sonoma, I woke up to her laying on her side, stiff and cold, her mouth drooping open and her little pink tongue hanging over her lip. Open eyes, which had stared unseeing from sudden blindness during her last month, now lacked the luster of life. She looked like she may have suffered in her last moments, breathing her last breath while hanging onto life with ferocity I hadn’t known she possessed. I felt guilty for not calling the man with the merciful syringes to come to my home the day before. My mournful vigil over her final days was fraught with uncertainty over what was best. She wound down slowly, like a watched clock. Yet, the home pet doctor and a life and death decision carry their own guilt. The euthanasia of Napa, her sister, taught me this. Death weighs heavy on consciousness, no matter the circumstance.

The beginning of an 18 year journey.

Outside, a morning mist grayed the trees and sky. I turned off the heater, which had been set up to keep her warm in the autumn chill hovering about the house. As prepared as I was to find her laying there, the sharp ache of her passing hollowed out my being, like a gutted and carved pumpkin. She and her sister purred on my lap for over 18 years. They came into my life before I bought my first cell phone or sent my first email. They witnessed two career changes. They moved with me from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. They watched my heart break, and love again, then break again, love, break, love, break, and love once more. They were my intimates, constant companions in a life filled with change. The loss of Napa earlier in the year was soothed by Sonoma, now laying on a cream-colored blanket. I could barely accept they were both gone.

It took almost a week for me to throw away their litter box. I hadn’t been rushing to get rid of all-things-kitty, and their toys and favorite blankets sat around where they were left. The kitty food container, and what was left of their food, rested on top of the fridge. But the eyesore sitting next to my toilet, all dusty and poo-stained, seemed clearly doomed for the trash. What surprised me was how the unpleasant nightly ritual of sifting through litter, carried out approximately 6,753 times over the lives of my kitties, had embedded itself in the normalcy and beauty of my life. They were consummately clean, never once doing their business outside of the box. The task was unlovely, but it was performed lovingly and was a privilege of their presence. I miss the litter box terribly.

Precious memories.

Every so often I see Sonoma out of the corner of my eye, a ghostly glimpse of her sitting patiently at my feet while I tap away at the computer. In the past, if I took too long to notice her, a little paw would rub my leg to let me know she was there. And if that wasn’t good enough, she’d meow incessantly until I picked her up and put her on my lap. If I briefly left the computer without picking her up, I’d come back to find her laying across my keyboard, something she knew I didn’t like. Negative attention was better than no attention. Of course in her final months, all I needed was the paw-rub. She eased the loss of Napa, which in turn made me realize her time was short. Every bit of attention I could give her was given.

When I wake up in the morning, I sometimes imagine Napa is still sleeping between my legs, her favorite place. She had a way of settling into my lap where her eyes, a passionate blue, almost violet, would soften and deepen as expansively as an endless twilight sky. They were loving and dreamy, and made me feel like I was her whole universe. She knew how to relax into bonelessness, her purr rumbling like an outboard motor and her breathing billowing her whole torso. It was quite unlike the shallow chest breathing I see afflicting many of us with worries tightening our stomachs. My kitties embodied how to live in the moment and just breathe.

Napa and Sonoma put love above food in their hierarchy of needs and would stop eating to luxuriate in my pets. When I held them, they would cling; when I needed to set them down, they masterminded passive resistance, becoming dead weight, far heavier than their dozen pounds. Both expanded my heart into an understanding of love which made our often cruel world feel like a soft place to land. They were as separated from me as a fish from a tree, yet they taught me how to feel connected. In a universe where two little creatures could fill my heart to overflowing, how could it be rooted in bad? How could there be a heaven better than the moments I spent cuddling in the furry warmth of their affection?

My Baby Girls’ gifts were everlasting.

Yin Yang Kitties: they taught me about life and death.

I looked at the Bald Man squarely and said, “If you had a pet, you might think they offer more than a weekend in Vegas.” He frowned and I walked away. It was probably better to have kept my mouth shut, but I often can’t help myself.

Too Old to Live?

At first, they annoyed me. Her husband shuffled behind his walker as she led him into my section without waiting for a hostess. It was like they owned The Pie Shoppe or something. He was pallid and potbellied, and his face looked baffled. Rumpled clothes hung loosely and thinning hair stuck out confusedly. She was alert but equally disheveled in a faded, floral tent dress. Her hair looked to be tied in a bun a couple days before and hadn’t seen a comb since.

She guided him carefully into the booth, folded his walker, and neatly set it out of the way. I told them I’d be back with menus. When I heard her tell her husband with a musical voice that “her friend” was getting them menus, I became charmed. I’d never seen them before.

I brought them menus and exchanged politenesses with her as he sat silently. “We’re ready to order,” she stated with firm intent.

He started the order. “I want a French dip and fries,” he said in a loud, expressionless voice. As he spoke to me, he watched her and she nodded her approval. He went on, his words garbled as if his tongue was too thick. I had to pay close attention to understand. “What’s the soup?”

“Our soup of the day is beef barley,” I said.

“I want some soup.”

She shook her head. “You can’t have any soup. It’s too much salt.”

He repeated, “I want some soup.”

I looked to her uncertain of how to proceed. Her head did not stop shaking. “So, no soup?” I asked.

“No soup,” she confirmed. He continued to stare at her. She ordered a cheeseburger, medium-well, with fries.

They had no conversation as they waited for their food. When it came, she was in the bathroom. He didn’t acknowledge me, but gaped at his plate of food, grinning. A loud guttural noise escaped his throat. As I walked away, he sang a toneless, wordless song to himself in an outside voice while sprinkling salt on his food. This humming continued sporadically after his wife joined him to eat.

“I want a peanut butter cookie,” he said as I cleared their plates.

“You can’t have a peanut butter cookie.” She sounded like a mom admonishing her 8-year-old for the umpteenth time. “You’ve had enough sugar today.”

He stared at her.

As I ran their credit card, she sought my company at the computer. “It’s his first night out after his stroke,” she announced without provocation.

“Oh.” I was at a loss. “He seems strong.”

“His body is strong, but he’s got vascular dementia. He’s lost most of himself. It’ll progress until his mind is utterly gone. Still, the doctors know how to keep him alive. They know how to keep his body ticking.”

“Yeah. Modern technology can do a lot.”

“It’s the Tree of Knowledge. We think we’re doing good, but we don’t know what we’re doing. We keep our bodies living long after our essence has died. We keep the heart beating and the blood pumping. For what? The empty shells we become? That’s not a life. People weren’t meant to live so long. My father died at 68. His mind was still sharp and that was long enough. Now I’m 74.” Her slate eyes shined like water running over river rocks. “He’ll be 81 next month.”

“You’re very spry.”

“My mind is healthy. I’m lucky. Not everyone is like me.” Shiny eyes stared at her husband. “I already lost him.”

“Yeah, I understand.” I said. My chest knotted.

She signed her credit card receipt, then grabbed my hand and squeezed, her eyes still watery. “Thank you. Please enjoy the rest of your day.” She walked back to her table to gather her husband. They shuffled out the way they came.

Sometimes we say farewell before we are gone.

 

Branding Myself

The box office was about to open. Asian Actor and I were volunteering as usher and cashier, respectively, at The Players’ Theatre. Many of the small theatres in Hollywood were co-ops run by actors. To increase elusive performance opportunities, many actors, including those with experience and talent, did all the backstage work: producing, writing, stage building and lighting, stage management and box office.

Theatres always reminded me of attics, filled with farragoes of character effects and clothes, all the embellishments of history. Stories oozed from their crevices, sharing space with the dust bunnies. The box office was tiny and cluttered. On the walls were tacked programs from old shows and pictures of costumed actors performing in a variety of settings, both colorfully detailed or colorlessly austere.

Tonight, in exchange for cash, I would give out programs which doubled as tickets. Asian Actor would allow those with tickets in the door. A gray lock box with $20 in small bills served as my cash register. I sat on a bar stool in front of a converted bench seat which served as a counter for the box office window.

Asian Actor and I chatted through the open window. He shared with me his ethnic heritage, half-Chinese and half-Swedish, and talked of his membership with The Asian Theatre. His dark almond eyes smiled easily in a lean, expressive face. Black, stick-straight hair sat merrily on his head. He was slimly built. I could barely recognize his Caucasian half. I’d heard about how well-respected The Asian Theatre was, and expressed interest in joining the group as well.

“They generally work with Asian actors,” he said, by way of discouraging me as I might not be the right type.

“That’s great, cuz I’m half-Asian too.”

He did little to hide his surprise. “Really!” he exclaimed, as if I’d somehow won the lottery. “Girl, you pass!”

I stifled a snort. I pass? I knew he meant I passed for someone entirely Caucasian. On the one hand, I didn’t feel like this was a lottery win. On the other hand, I knew this wasn’t true.

My exact ethnicity is half-Japanese and half-German. In the business of casting, however, this information was irrelevant. What mattered was my physical appearance and how that could be applied to various categories of characters. The demands of a role were segregated by nationality and type. Such labels were my brand. My Agent marketed me as “ambiguous ethnic” since I could pass for Caucasian, Italian, Eastern European, Mixed Ethnic, and others. I could also play a variety of types, such as “mom,” “career woman,” “comic sidekick,” “teacher,” and so on. In Los Angeles, where the Hispanic population is almost 50%, I’m generally mistaken for Hispanic, including by casting. Since Caucasian roles outnumber all other ethnicities combined by a goodly percentage, it’s a desirable brand.

Headshots are the actor’s calling card. When I first arrived in Hollywood at the turn of the century, black and white headshots were still the norm. I passed for Caucasian and auditioned almost everyday.

On a different day, I received a morning call from My Agent. I saw his name on my cell phone, so I answered, pen and paper already in hand. After my hello, he said, without pausing, “You have an audition for an American Bank commercial this afternoon at 3:45 with Casting-R-Us at MidCity Casting. You play a Hispanic mom. Casual dress. Be prepared to improv.”

“Got it. Thank you.”

“Good luck.” He hung up. Though I liked My Agent, conversations with him were always succinct, measurable by number of words. He had a long list of actors to call with similar information, and didn’t need to spend time on pleasantries.

Auditioning experience taught me it’s best to try and suggest ‘Hispanic’ as much as possible in my appearance, but I wasn’t sure how to do that without plastic surgery. I settled on jeans and a t-shirt, and a little extra makeup around the eyes. The top half of my hair was pulled into a clip at the back of my head. A half up, half down hairstyle enabled casting to see my entire face and the length and quality of my hair, all of which factored into casting decisions.

After a few years, color headshots became the norm. With that, invitations for auditions for Caucasian women disappeared for me. It seemed I only passed for Hispanic, and just barely. Auditioning became a once a week affair, at best.

MidCity Casting rented rooms in a large warehouse-type building to casting directors for their casting sessions. Upon entering, there was an open, central waiting area the size of a playing field with doors around the perimeter leading into casting rooms. The decor was spartan with utility carpeting, benches near each door, and a raw ceiling revealing air conditioning ducting and piping. Their walls were painted in a variety of autumn colors with poster art throughout. At the entry was a large blackboard listing all the casting agents and the shows or commercials they were working for. I located Casting-R-Us, put my name on the sign-in sheet, took my headshot with a résumé stapled to the back out of my portfolio, and sat down to wait.

The room appeared chaotic, a hive of activity. A nervous din penetrated, reverberating around the ducting. Casting assistants wandered near their doors, calling out names and collecting headshots. Some actors paced. Some stood alone or with others rehearsing a bit of script or chitchatting animatedly. Everyone was waiting: In one corner grouped some gorgeous Caucasian women, “model-types,” early 20s, dressed as brides for a national jewelry chain commercial; another group of overweight, 20-something Caucasian men dressed in jeans and plaid shirts gathered for a popular beer commercial; some Caucasian toddlers waddled around benches under the watchful eyes of their mothers for a car commercial; some retired Caucasian women, late 60s, all with dyed hair and conservative dress for a pharmaceutical ad; a few babies sat in strollers next to their Caucasian mothers waiting for a baby clothing commercial; a set of African-American teenagers, girls and boys, for a public service announcement. I sat with a group of Hispanics and African-American women, all late 30s, mostly dressed in jeans and a casual top.

There were a lot of us, so I feared I’d be waiting a long time. Fortunately, casting moved quickly through the line-up. They were calling us in four at a time, typical of commercial auditions. They’d look at a hundred actors to fill two spots. I was called before an hour passed. I walked in with two Hispanics and an African-American.

The room was as spartan as the waiting area. In the back, a woman and three men sat in chairs surrounding a collapsible banquet table. Next to them, a young man stood behind a small digital video camera. We all filed in and stood behind a line of masking tape on the floor. The woman, who was obviously Casting Director, rose. I surmised the other three were the director and ad agency representatives. “Thank you for lining up so perfectly,” she said.

We all gave a little laugh. One of the Hispanic women said, “You’re welcome.”

Casting Director continued. “We have a lot of people to see today, so we’ll move through this quickly. We’ll start with you.” She pointed at me as my position was at the beginning of the line. “You’ll slate your name and then I’ll ask you a question. Please answer briefly, we don’t need your whole life story. And that’ll be it. Any questions?”

No one had a question. This was a basic “personality audition,” typical for commercials where there was little or no dialogue and they just wanted to see your personality and how you looked on camera. With the camera pointed at me, Casting Director said, “Slate your name.”

I looked into the lens and said, “Hi, my name is Dawn Akemi.” I smiled a greeting into the camera.

“Okay, Dawn, did you do anything fun this summer?”

I gave a brief story about my recent trip to San Diego to visit some friends. I chose the slight Spanish accent I hear all over L.A. from the Hispanic Angelenos who grew up here. Casting Director watched me with a frown, said “thank you” in a clipped tone, and moved on. I figured I wasn’t Hispanic enough for this ad, which was more often the case than not.

Next were the two Hispanic women. They were asked “What’s your favorite food?” and “What’s your favorite sport?” Casting Director seemed more engaged with them and asked a follow-up question of each. They were true-blue Hispanic, not the pretender I was, with solid Spanish accents, and both talked of growing up in L.A.

The African-American woman was last and she was asked, “What’s your favorite color?” We all listened to a cute story about the color orange. Casting Director smiled and then frowned. “This commercial is looking for specific ethnic types. The roles are of people who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. I’m gonna ask you another question and when you answer this time, could you Black it up a little?”

The woman looked shocked, as did we all, then quickly recovered. “Black it up?” she asked. She spoke with no accent.

“Yeah, you know. Do a bit of that Ebonics. And do that neck thing. You know, bob your head like a chicken.”

“Um. Yeah. Okay.” The air in the room felt suddenly humid. Awkwardness permeated.

Casting Director asked, “Do you have a special childhood memory?”

She answered with a character accent, talking about the time she went to Disneyland. Her head moved back and forth on her neck. Casting Director was still frowning when she finished. Her frown turned into a small smile and she said, “Thank you.” She sat back down.

We all filed back out and walked toward the exit. Once outside, I heard one of the Hispanic women say under her breath, “I think I’ll need a shower now.”

I stifled a snort. It felt good to be outside in the fresh air.

Reading, Wine, and a Dog

“Would you like another Chardonnay?” I asked. My regular’s glass was a quarter full. He doesn’t like to wait long between glasses. It was late afternoon and not very busy at The Pie Shoppe.

“By the time you pour that glass, I’ll be ready,” he said with a smirk. He comes in almost every day. Roly-poly, balding, and bespectacled, he always sets up a hardback book from the New York Times best-selling fiction list on a reading stand to peruse while he sips four glasses of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. Today he had two books, one two-thirds open on the stand and one waiting near his pudgy elbow.

“That’s a lot of reading for one Pie Shoppe visit,” I said.

“Oh, I read very quickly. I’ll finish this one and be a quarter way into the other one before I leave.” Later, it turned out he wasn’t bragging in vain.

“Guess the Chardonnay helps.” I laughed.

With his third glass, he expects a slice of cornbread. “Center cut. Please make sure it’s very fresh.” If he’s really hungry, he’ll order the turkey dinner or pot roast to be enjoyed with the fourth glass. It was a hungry day, so he ordered the turkey, extra gravy on the side, melted cheese on his veggies. “And I’d like to order a top sirloin to go.”

“That’ll be a nice lunch tomorrow.”

“It’s not for me. It’s for my friend’s dog. I’m dog sitting for a few months.”

“Oh. Must be nice to be a guest in your house.”

He laughed. “She is man’s best friend. I don’t know what to feed her.”

“I’m sure a pet store would have something.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t sound convinced.

“How do you think she’d like her steak cooked?”

“I think she’d like it medium rare. How do you think?”

“Well, I like my steak rare. You know, still mooing. But I’m not a dog.”

His face scrunched at the idea. “Maybe medium’s better. Yes. Medium.”

“Okay. It comes with loaded mashed potatoes. Do you think she’d like that, or maybe just a plain baked potato?” Loaded mashed potatoes come with bacon, chopped green onions, sour cream, and cheddar cheese melted together on top.

“Hm. I’ll take the loaded mashed potatoes. What are the veggies?”

“They’re the same veggies you get. A medley of yellow and green squash, carrots, broccoli and onion. You want that for her.”

“I think maybe she wouldn’t like the broccoli.”

“I can order it without broccoli.”

“That’d be good.”

“Great. Thank you.” I rushed off to place his order.

My dog Jack says, “Let them eat steak!”

As I gave him his fourth glass of Chardonnay, I said, “It’d be cheaper next time if you buy the whole bottle.” A bottle of wine is just under 5 glasses.

“Yeah.” He smiled. “But that would be so indulgent!”

You Can Come Home Again, Redux

Aiea Loop Trail: I found myself obsessed with tree roots during my recent visit to Hawaii. Small wonder, I think as I look back now. Our roots are our family and our home. Hawaii, with its unique beauty and culture, is a force within me, subterranean and hidden. Though I’m faraway, my family still nourishes.

Banyan trees have always been my favorite, with their exposed roots growing down into the ground, like water flowing into the earth. Growing up, roots which hadn’t yet reached the ground became swings, which we’d cling to like monkeys.

“Dawn!”

I had just returned from a long walk through my childhood neighborhood in Hawaii. I was standing at my parents’ mailbox, at the foot of a long uphill driveway, removing its contents for them.

The yard surrounding my family home is a wild forest of trees and shrubbery set into the hillside. After eating fresh pineapple, my mom throws pineapple tops into the yard and they flourish throughout. They now have more pineapple than they can eat.

A postal truck was parked nearby and the post office lady had had her head buried inside organizing her mail. I hadn’t paid much attention to her until she called my name. It was the last thing I expected to hear. I left Hawaii over 30 years ago and have had infrequent visits since, none of which included the post office.

A visit to Hawaii always includes a luau. My lunch here included kalua pig, lau lau, lomi lomi salmon, squid luau, chicken long rice, poi, and haupia for desert. In Hawaii, chopsticks are as ubiquitous as forks.

Another favorite is ahi poke (pronounced like Gumby and Pokey). Ahi is a type of tuna. The salad consists of raw tuna and various other ingredients, typically seaweed, soy sauce, ginger, and green onions. Since my childhood, the concept has expanded exponentially to include such flavors as California poke, inspired by the California sushi roll, and made with avocado and cream cheese. Our local grocery stores serve them out of their deli counters.

I turned my head to see an enormous smile in a wrinkled face. She was as small and fragile looking as my aging parents. Her lined face was tanned and blotched from a lifetime in the bright Hawaiian sun. Gray hair, short and frizzy, stuck out about her head. I vaguely remembered the petite, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who drove up our long driveway to hand deliver large packages. Her brown teeth gleamed with glee as I returned her hello. “What a memory you have! I’m so impressed.”

“I can still remember you and your sister playing in the streets with the other kids.”

This stream runs through my neighborhood. It was a playground for my sister and me. It still murmurs with the fairytale magic inspired by my childhood imagination.

I looked down a street all at once lushly familiar and eerily different. My mind’s eye conjured a ghostly image of children skateboarding and her waving as she drove by. Like a skeleton with a new skin, the street looked the same, but many of the homes and landscaping were remodeled. I said, “All of my old friends have moved away. Almost no one is left here from the old days.”

Another tree with exposed roots, the hala tree is found all over Hawaii. The entire plant was used by ancient Hawaiians. The leaves were interlaced into hats and mats. Flowers smell sweet and were used as a preservative. The trunk yielded pipes and posts. Parts of the edible fruit were fashioned into paint brushes and leis. Punahou School, the alma mater of President Obama, uses an image of the hala in its school seal. More importantly, my sister teaches calculus there.

“Are you visiting your folks?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Where’s your sister?”

“She lives in Kailua.”

“Same as you?”

“No, I’m visiting from L.A. ”

My sister now lives by Ka’elepulu Pond. Its stretch of canal lends beauty to many backyards.

Her eyes widened with the kind of surprise I often see when people discover I left Paradise to live on the Mainland. “Why would you leave Hawaii?” they ask in tones suggesting my wanderlust is a sign of mental deficiency. I always answer that I can visit. When I do, so much is different.

The Ko’olau Mountains were the backdrop to bike riding, skateboarding, and kickball on my childhood street. The grey strip near the mountain base is the H3 freeway and didn’t mar the soaring emerald-green as a child. It’s an intrastate Interstate Highway, built with Federal funding to link the Pearl Harbor Naval Base with the Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Base and fulfill national security needs. Though it’s an engineering marvel designed to preserve the beauty of its surroundings, and, at $1.3 billion, the priciest highway in our country, it’s also sore on my nostalgic eyes.

The plants grow wild in my parents’ yard. New highways are built and roads are expanded. The beaches erode and wash away. Houses develop further and further up the hills. Pineapple and sugar businesses go away and tourism steps up its game to replace them. Hawaii becomes like a woman who changed her style so completely as to be almost unrecognizable. I added, “My Dad’s not doing so well.”

Kailua Beach was my favorite beach. Once a wide expanse of white sands, it’s become a victim of beach erosion. In fact, all of Oahu and Hawaii suffer from disappearing beaches. The beaches in front of the famed Outrigger and Royal Hawaiian hotels in Waikik have to import sand from California, Australia, and other Hawaiian beaches to keep them alive. Locals complain about the coarseness and color of the imported sand. This hasn’t happened in Kailua and during high tide, the beach is all but gone, and the waves lap tragically at tree roots.

Her eyes became soft with sadness, but she smiled and said, “When people get old, they like to see their kids. I don’t see your parents so often these days. When I drive up the hill, I leave the boxes at the door. Don’t wanna disturb them.”

Geckos in the home are considered good luck. I like them because they eat bugs I don’t like. This visitor to my parent’s home, was roughly an inch long and has unusual markings. They’re usually a dull brown monotone.

Yet, with every visit, something small will happen, like a rainbow dancing in the clouds, and all I ever loved about Hawaii shines with her jewel tone colors in the salty sweet air. Here, the brilliant memory of my old postal clerk lets me know I’m home again. I hugged her spontaneously. “Thank you,” I said, then walked up the hill.

Sisters, smiling through tears. Airport departures are always poignant.

My Mom and Dad. Farewell, my beloved father. Though your brilliance fades like a setting sun, your spirit will forever shine in my heart.

Writer’s note: I am grateful to WordPress blogger, Adventures in Kevin’s World, and his blog, The Answer’s to Life, The Universe, and Everything. His lovely photo journal of his birthday trip to Alaska inspired me to enliven my story with images.

How to be a Tin God

The server schedule for The Pie Shoppe was taped to the wall above a trash can and a cart holding the bus tub. The noise of food dumped into the trash with a squish and plates dropped into the tub with a jangle resounded as I stared at my schedule for the following week. It’d been completely altered to my detriment. Instead of 4 shifts, I had 3, losing Sunday altogether. My lucrative Friday and Saturday shifts were replaced with the slower Monday and Tuesday.

“Shit!” I said to myself as Star Server slumped a half-eaten Cobb and clanged the bowl on the pile of dirty dishes

“What’s wrong? asked the man, who was younger than me by a few years and an excellent server.

“The Bald Man cut back my schedule. He’s punishing me.”

“Yeah, I saw that. What happened?” he asked, his voice tinged with anticipation for good gossip.

“The Bald Man and I disagreed on what’s fair in the world.”

“He’s gotta be right, you know. You can’t tell him anything.” Star Server also had impressive kissing-management-ass skills, which I lacked, and received whatever schedule he wanted.

“Yeah, well something got stuck in my face this time.”

I told him my story.

Employee rights?

About two months before, I had a family of five who paid their bill with a credit card. There was nothing suspicious about them: a mom and dad, two children and an elderly grandmother. It was a busy shift. They exited quickly. There wasn’t time to grab their bill book to make sure they signed the receipt before they left. Naturally, it wasn’t signed.

The Owner looked dimly upon unsigned receipts and assumed it’s entirely due to slapdash server lameness. Many times, people forget to sign credit card receipts. When I remind them to do so, there are awkward apologies on both sides: “I’m sorry, but I still need your signature.” “Oh! I’m sorry. Did I forget to sign? How silly of me!”

The assistant manager didn’t say anything when I closed out my sales that day, so I figured, with relief, nothing would come of it. Over a month later, as I was counting my cash at the end of a shift, the Bald Man asked to speak with me in the office. I walked back with trepidation knowing this would not be fun times.

The office was the size of a walk-in closet and it felt too small to hold the two of us. A table top, with a couple of metal filing cabinets underneath, rested against the full length of the side wall. A large safe was embedded in the back wall. The room felt cluttered and cramped.

After I turned over my sales for that shift, the Bald Man said, “The customer who paid this bill is contesting the credit charge.” He passed the unsigned receipt and a document across the table top. “We’re still talking to the credit card company, but we need you to accept responsibility for the charge should they side with the customer.”

What? I looked down at the document. It had a photocopy of the receipt for $68.60 on the top half. The bottom half said, “The Undersigned accepts responsibility for incomplete fulfilment of the Financial Transaction represented above as required by The Pie Shoppe, and therefore agrees to accept Financial Obligation for any unpaid Monies from said transaction. The Undersigned further authorizes said Company to deduct said Monies from the Pay Check of the Undersigned.” There was a line for my signature and the date, and another to print my name. I wanted to laugh, though this was no laughing matter.

I took a few seconds to think, still staring at the document. I took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry about the bill. I try very hard to make sure credit card receipts are signed. However, I don’t believe I’m responsible for the unpaid bill.”

The room was too warm and the Bald Man’s face scrunched into a frown. His dark eyes became shark-like and unpleasant to look at. He straightened his spine as he said, “Yes, you are.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re responsible for cash receipts. It’s the same as running a cash drawer.”

“It’s not the exactly the same as being a cashier.”

“When you collect cash and lose money on the floor, you still owe it to us.”

“I agree if I lost a twenty from my pocket during my shift, I’d still owe it to you. That’s beside the point. I’m not responsible for unsigned credit card receipts. ”

“It’s not beside the point. You walk around with your cash drawer. If you’re short, you owe us the money.”

“A cashier can’t be held liable for cash over or short. But you’re still arguing around the point. This is a credit card receipt.”

“Yes, they can and are. This is the point.”

“No, they can’t. Not legally. If a cashier is constantly over or short, you can warn them or fire them. Or train them to be better cashiers. But you can’t charge them.”

“Oh really? Who’s responsible for the cash, then?” I could tell he was mocking me.

“Who do you think is responsible? The Owner, obviously. It’s his business. He’s responsible for creating a system which minimizes mistakes. Mistakes are the cost and risk of doing business. I’m your employee, not your insurance company. If I wanted to take on risk, I’d start my own business.”

“As an employee, you’re responsible for ensuring proper payment.”

“I’m also not responsible for dine and dash. I can’t stand over my customers, watching their every move. There are other responsibilities that take me into the kitchen and away from the dining room. I’m not responsible for management of the whole system. That’s your job. Maybe you should pay the credit card bill.”

He stood up. “Don’t get smart with me.”

I stood up. “Smart? You’re trying to reach into my pocket to pay your expenses.”

“You’re responsible and that’s all there is to it.”

“I think the Labor Board might feel differently.”

His mouth twisted again. “Look, Dawn, we have lawyers to check with before doing such things.”

“I’m sure you do. I’m still gonna double-check before I sign anything.”

There was a long, charged silence. I broke it with, “Is there anything else you need from me?”

“No.”

“Alright. I’ll keep this piece of paper in case I need it. Have a nice night.” I rushed out, my stomach churning.

I finished telling my story to Star Server. “So I checked with the Labor Board, and of course I’m not liable. The Bald Man hasn’t brought it up again, but he did jerk me around on the schedule. Guess he figures I’m gonna pay one way or the other.” I rolled my eyes.

Star Server looked at me, his mouth pulled into a frown. “I think I would’ve signed the piece of paper.”

I looked at him and thought, of course you would’ve. “Yeah. Well, it’s not right.” I put on my apron and started wiping down the salad station.

My schedule remained that way until I was replaced as “bad server” by a couple of colleagues. One had lost his temper in a Bald Man confrontation. The other had called in sick and couldn’t find a cover for her shift.

At least when the Bald Man is petty, it’s with an even hand.

Charm Above Circumstance

Another boring day at the office?

The Pie Shoppe had another couple hours left before closing and I was feeling crabby. There were very few customers to wait on. Ahead on the to-do list was cleaning the server aisle, where sticky pie fillings and greasy pie crust crumbs managed to get onto everything. The unstimulating, corporately designed decor, with its drab brown tones and dreary furnishings, was weighing me down. I was bored and wanted to go home. Feeling sorry for myself, I greeted my new table.

“If your name is ‘Dawn’, how come you’re working at night?” His face was merry and the wrinkles around his eyes crinkled flirtatiously. He sat with two white-haired ladies.

“Working at night keeps me off the streets,” I quipped back, hoping my current crankiness didn’t put too much edge in my voice.

“Do you work late?” he asked.

“I’ll be closing the place.” Sadly, I wanted to add.

The older of the ladies asked, “What time do you close?”

“We close at 11 p.m. on Saturdays,” I replied.

“What if I came in at 11 p.m.?” she asked.

“I suppose if you walked in the door at 10:59, you’d get served,” I replied, still hoping my annoyance didn’t show.

“Yeah. With a bunch of spit in my food.”

“Ha!” I laughed in spite of myself. “There might be some surly spread on your burger and fries.”

The dry humor didn’t stop, especially with the gentleman. “I suppose I need to tap a spring to get more water around here.”

“It’ll be fresher and better tasting, then,” I said.

At the end of their meal, I accidentally gave them the wrong bill.

He waved me over. “There’s a problem here. I want to pay this but I don’t remember drinking a root beer.”

I apologized and gave them the correct bill. “You’ll probably like this less since it’s more.”

“I’m still waiting for my rootbeer,” he said.

“I’ll bring your rootbeer.” I smiled and winked. “And pour it over your head.” Their mirth was contagious.

“Dawn, go away, you’re no good for me!” He sang the oft-sung-to-me song charmingly off-key.

“Stop it,” said the younger lady, smiling. “You’re making her nervous!”

“It’s true,” I said. “I’ll go home and cry myself to sleep tonight.”

She said, “Well, tomorrow will be the dawn of a new day!”

They paid their bill leaving a generous gratuity. I didn’t see them come in so as they stood up to leave I was startled to see the gentleman struggle to set himself upright on two canes. His face twisted with pain as he balanced himself. Then he looked up, saw me, and instantly brightened, “You have a nice rest of your night, now.”

“Thank you. I hope you do as well.” I said.

He slowly lurched out of the restaurant with his two ladies tottering behind.

Who was I to feel sorry for myself?

Job Searching 101: Early Warning Signs Your Employer is a Jerk

The day was too warm to be pounding the streets and dropping off resumes in restaurants. The Sushi Place was my last stop and I felt wilted walking in. The sign outside offered a happy hour with $1 off sushi and half-price Asahi and Sapporo beer until 7 p.m. It was close to 5 when I walked in. Near the entrance was a bar, where a tired looking bartender stood staring at a huge, soundless, wide-screen TV located over the sushi bar. An experimental art film seemed to be playing. The images were visceral and discordant, closeups of food being chopped and chewed, raw. A Lady Gaga song played innocuously in the background. There were a few occupied tables, but it wasn’t very busy.

“Hi,” I said to Weary Bartender. “Is the manager or owner available? I’d like to apply for a server position.”

A small smile cracked his stony expression, more out of amusement than friendliness. He gestured to a seat at the far end of the bar. “The owner is in the back. You can wait here if you’d like.”

“Sure. Thank you. It’s hot out. The air conditioning feels great.” As I sat down, I noticed a half-finished pint of beer and a laptop in front of an empty seat at the other end of the bar.

“Would you like a glass of water?”

“Oh, yes, please. Are you hiring servers now?”

“We’re always looking for someone,” he said, filling my glass and placing it before me.

“Oh. Great. How long have you been here?”

“A few months.”

“Are you pretty much settled in, then?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

I gratefully drank as I took in the place. It was decorated in a lean, vaguely Asian style with oak wood paneling throughout. The sushi bar sat in front of the kitchen and next to the bar. A sushi chef was unwrapping fish and placing them in the bar display. A couple of girls were nursing beers and staring at the sushi chef expectantly. In fact, there were a lot of expectant faces and I had yet to see a server.

The TV caught my eye again. What I thought was an art film turned out to be a Japanese horror movie with subtitles. A man had just thrown a naked woman across a table. Her face was made up Kabuki style. Another man, also naked, held tongs in one hand and poured a brown sauce on her with the other. I stifled a shocked laugh.

“Have you seen our waitress?” A man from one of the tables had just approached the bar. “We’ve been waiting 30 minutes for our sushi.” I looked over at the sushi bar and there were some plates with sushi on them at the service area waiting to be delivered. The girls at the sushi bar still sat waiting to eat. The sushi chef was slicing fish laggardly, like a DMV clerk processing forms.

“She’ll be right with you,” said Weary Bartender, not moving.

Just then, the kitchen door banged open and belched forth a man. His hair was greasily combed over half his forehead, barely covering a bald patch. A couple of facelifts had given his face a wide-eyed skeletal appearance. He shambled over to the half-empty pint at the other end of the bar and drew a draught between surgically fattened lips. His colorful collared shirt was unbuttoned almost to his navel, revealing sparse hair, strange scarring, and the top half of his beer-gut. He seemed to be hanging onto a style from his heyday.

“Are you the owner?” asked the customer at the bar.

“Yes,” said Weird Owner, not even looking up from his now finished beer.

“I’ve been waiting 30 minutes for my sushi.”

“Yes, well this isn’t fast food you know.” He then pirouetted away from the bar and toddled to the back to pour another beer. Frustrated Customer went back to his table to rejoin his friend. After setting the beer down next to his laptop, Weird Owner walked over to the sushi bar, sashaying to the music of Rage Against the Machine. I thought he might deliver the still-waiting sushi plates, but he stopped at the two women. A caterpillar roll finally sat in between them, upon which they were nibbling. They looked up at him as he inquired about their food in a voice that carried over the thin din of music and guest murmuring.

The girls smiled and said something I couldn’t hear. “Pretty girls and pretty sushi go together like a handroll with spicy tuna.” He snorted at his own joke.

They smiled politely. He went on, pointing to his chest. “See these scars? I got them in ‘Nam. I got this there too.” He rolled back his sleeve to show them a tattoo on his upper arm. It continued onto his shoulder, ending who-knew-where. I was afraid for a minute he would take off his shirt to show them the whole thing. “You ladies really are pretty, and for a kiss, dinner is on me! Hell, I’ll pick up your tab even without the kiss.” He chortled.

This time the ladies didn’t smile back and I heard a reply. “That’s not necessary,” said the bolder of the two.

“No, I insist,” said the owner.

The kitchen door banged open again and a young server, looking bored, walked out. The owner jerked around and marched toward her. “Where have you been, skank? I don’t pay your lazy ass to stand around.”

She looked unsurprised by his outburst. “I took a cigarette break,” she said and went to the server station to pick up the waiting sushi. When she arrived at her table, Frustrated Customer started complaining to her.

At this point, Weird Owner finally noticed me taking everything in. He approached, his bee-stung lips parting into a grin. “What can I do for you, young lady?”

“Um. Nothing. I was just leaving.” I fished for my wallet and pulled out a dollar for Weary Bartender. Then, as he continued to stare, I picked up my résumé and handbag and scurried back out into the stifling air.

I may be broke, but I have standards.

Server for Hire

The Art of Persistence

I was shopping at Jons, an Armenian grocery store chain with locations throughout Glendale and East Hollywood. The locals call it Little Armenia. Their selection of quality Mediterranean ingredients make them one of my favorite foodie haunts. I especially love their yogurt, kefir, and carbonated yogurt drink.

I don’t typically dress up for such adventures. Rolling out of bed, throwing on an old tank top and shorts, and stuffing my hair in a ponytail was my beauty regimen. There was no make-up on my face. I was proud I washed it. Living in the quasi-barrio offered many advantages, including dressing with what look liked rash carelessness in other parts of shallow L.A. People preened to be seen on the Westside. I dressed to disappear on the Eastside. The last thing I expected as I scrutinized the cultured dairy section was any sort of male attention.

His softly insistent voice startled me. “Can I take you to lunch sometime?”

I looked to my left where a man about my age stood. He didn’t have a cart or basket and wasn’t carrying any products. His clothes were mismatched and his hair hung willy nilly. Eyes were gray and wandered about. Nails were bitten down to waning crescent moons.

“Um… no… I have boyfriend,” I said, thinking a boyfriend was irrelevant to the question. He made me edgy. Not sure I would even be comfortable discussing the merits of various yogurt brands, much less arranging for lunch.

“I don’t mind if you don’t mind. There’s room for all of us.” His tone was serious and his gaze intent.

“Well, I’m really busy… but thanks for asking.” I still endeavored politeness as I was afraid of pushing some button and him acting out like he came from Crazytown.

“I’m really easy to squeeze into a schedule.”

“I don’t think I can squeeze you in.”

“Well, can I have your number and maybe we can chat?”

“No, I’d rather not.”

“Would you like my number?”

This guy was not going to take a hint and his persistence was turning my edginess into screaming meemies. “No. Look, I really think you should just let this go and leave me alone.”

“Okay, I don’t want to annoy you or anything.”

I stifled an ironic laugh. “Thank you.”

I went back to my kefir selection and he shuffled away. I kept an eye over my shoulder all the way home.

The Gold Crown Incident

With three new tables sat in quick succession, on top of four other tables already started, I was barely caught up. The Pie Shoppe was thick into its lunch rush. A couple at table 70 sat with faces of stone as I greeted them with a harried smile. A Very Old Mom with her Bland Son, who looked to be 50-ish, sat with glazed, almost expressionless eyes and pale skin. My Favorite Busboy had brought coffee for her and iced tea for him. They were ready to order, as were my other two tables

“Is this how it comes?” he asked, with all the personality of a rice cake. He pointed at a picture on the menu of The Pie Shoppe turkey dinner. “We’d like to split it.”

“It sure does. Would you like the lunch portion or the dinner portion?”

“What’s the difference?”

This was all explained on the menu. “The lunch portion is slightly smaller and doesn’t come with soup or salad.”

“What’s the difference in price?”

“The dinner is $15.99 and the lunch is $12.99,” I said, pointing at the clearly marked menu. “The dinner portion comes with soup, salad, and bread, or you can add it to the lunch portion for $2.59. Since you’re splitting your meal, you might want the dinner portion with a salad for 40 cents more.”

Pause.

I could literally hear both the wheels of calculation rotating in his head, and the table behind me tapping their feet impatiently waiting to place their order. Very Old Mom asked, her voice a rasping whisper, “What do I get?” Bland Son explained what I’d just explained.

“Do you want soup, Mom?”

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable,” I said.

“I want soup,” Very Old Mom said.

“Okay, we’ll take the dinner portion,” Bland Son said.

“What kind of soup would you like?” I asked.

Pause.

“What’s the soup?” she asked.

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable.”

Pause.

“Potato.”

“We’ll take the potato cheese,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Would you like cornbread or garlic bread with your potato cheese soup?”  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see another table of mine being sat. I groaned inwardly.

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Huh?”

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the cornbread.”

“Great. Thank you,” I said.

I gathered their menus and did my best to look like I wasn’t running away from that table. I got the drink order from my new table and took lunch orders from two other tables, then rushed to the kitchen to fulfill everything and catch up.

Later, two young girls at the table across the aisle from Very Old Mom and Bland Son flagged me down.

“The table over there needs your attention.” They both looked smugly joyful, like they couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

Indeed, table 70 was also staring at me, eyes still glazed, and there was a metallic object sitting on top of a napkin.

“Mother found this in her soup,” said Bland Son.

It was a gold crown, sucked clean of the potato cheese soup. It looked for all the world like a real tooth, browned with age, a bit spotty, only shiny, like jewelry. Its sparkle mocked me.

Very Old Mom sat stirring her soup.

“I’m sorry. I’ll get the manager.” It was all I could say.

The Bald Man stood at the hostess stand taking the name of a customer waiting for a table. I rushed to him wondering how could I miss a solid chunk of metal while ladling a pureed, cream-colored soup into a bowl. Who in the kitchen could afford fancy dentistry? A thing like that didn’t just fly out of one’s mouth. If it did, it’d be hawked on Pawn Stars before being pureed.

I approached with a vain attempt at wry humor. “Are you ready for this?”

He looked grim. “Yes.”

“Table 70 found a gold crown in their potato cheese soup. They wanna see a manager.”

At first I thought he might laugh, his face contorting into a strange grin. Then, just as quickly, his face became a grim mask. I suggested the crown possibly belonged to Very Old Mom.

The Bald Man took that in and accompanied me back to table 70. Awkwardness hung in the air. I could see the girls across the aisle watching intently, as were several other tables. It was a free show.

The Bald Man quickly offered apologies, then said, “Are you sure this isn’t your crown? None of the kitchen staff has a crown.” My jaw dropped. I hadn’t intended my supposition be mentioned aloud to them. I expected him to follow his apology with a comped meal. The air grew more taut. Nobody said a word. Finally, he offered to comp their meal, or provide another one gratis.

“My stomach’s a little queasy now. I’m not sure I can even eat lunch,” said Bland Son.

“Well, I’ll happily comp your meal. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” He apologized again and marched off, a couple hundred dollars’ worth of gold in hand.

I stayed to pick up the rest of the pieces. “Would you like a pie to take home?” I thought if there was a gold crown in the potato cheese soup, there might be a diamond ring in the pie.

“Sure. Okay. We’ll take a pie,” said the son. Of course. Free stuff. Now, pie decision-making prevailed. Bland Son seemed pleased. Very Old Mom sat vacantly. Holes were being bored into my back by the eyes of waiting customers.

“What kind of pie do you want, Mom?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want a peach pie?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

I tried to facilitate the decision. “I like the fresh peach better than the baked.”

Pause.

“What’s the difference?” asked Bland Son.

I sighed inside. “The fresh pie is made with fresh peaches and a peach glaze and is mounded on a crust. The baked pie is sweetened peaches baked between a double crust.”

Pause.

“Do you want the double crust, Mom?”

Pause.

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the double crust.”

“Okay. I’ll be right back with your baked peach pie.” I ran away saying, “Thank you!” this time without hiding it. I came back with their pie, apologizing as sincerely as I could– “… hope you’ll try us again…”– as I wished silently, with even more sincerity, I would never see them, ever.

I tried in vain to win back favor with my other tables. My slow service annoyed, though they witnessed the event. You’d think I put the gold crown in the soup. It set the tone for the rest of my shift.

My Favorite Busboy sought me out. “The guys in the kitchen– they no can afford gold for teeth. That guy wanted free stuff.”

I said, “Maybe. I think they were too out-of-it to know it came from her mouth.”

He shook his head.

I guess we’ll never know.