Good morning, friends and neighbors.
It’s been more or less the refrain for the last few months.
I walk in to the cafe- usually through the kitchen door, but sometimes through the front. There’s a thin crowd in the morning. Lines of people on their computers against the far wall, where outlets are most plentiful. People in groups take up the central tables- chatting with each other, discussing their plans for the day, trying to cajole their kids into eating one more bite of zucchini muffin. Not too many people are reading books in the cafe in the mornings- readers usually swing in on their lunch breaks, or the late afternoons when most of the crowd is home and it’s a bit quieter. That’s the thing about doing your work in a cafe- it’s somehow more reasonable to be wearing headphones than if you’re just reading a book.
I pass through the employee entrance to the back, knocking sharply on the tinted window- the hand sink and dish pit are right by the door, and I’m likely as not to walk into a perfectly-murder-your-knee-cap-height mixing bowl, or someone just washing up.
Hang up my hoodie, punch the clock- Yes, that’s me. Yes, that’s my shift. Yes, I’m a little early- deal with it, Skynet.
Grab a few necessities out of my backpack then head for my bench.
“Hey, how’re you doing, Matt?”
How am I doing? I’m dead tired. Given a reasonable choice, or a momentary lapse of responsibility or duty, I may not have shown up today. I know exactly what I’m getting in to, and what it’ll be like. I just shrug and flip open my notebook where I’d written down my production for the day yesterday afternoon.
I’ve noticed a lot of people using that answer recently. Mostly other cooks and industry people- but then, that’s who I tend to talk to most of the time. To some degree, we’re all feeling a similar existential oppression. It’s not exactly a “long night of the soul-” more an unyielding frustration and tension. It’s tensing up your abdominal muscles in anticipation of taking a shot to the gut- and then holding it for so long, you wish they would just get on with it– ANYTHING to break the tedium of fear.
As I think about it though, the words “I’m here-” even used in the same context- can mean a number of different things, and carry a lot of nuance- and they do, from person to person.
When I said it- every morning for months, even to my boss (whose reaction implied he sympathized, but didn’t necessarily understand)- it was a resignation. A submission to the weight of the world. “Here I am, right where I was supposed to be. My opinions on the situation do not matter- I am supposed to be here, I am here, and here I will be.”
In a way, it could also be an announcement of my existence and value. “I’m here. Notice me, and the work that I do. I may be part of a crowd, but I still AM, crowd or not. It isn’t a team of elves that come in each night to do my work- it’s ME, here and now.
One of my friends says it with a shrug and a smile. A resignation, but cheerful. “This is where life has brought me. It’s not perfect, but I’m pretty okay with that at least for now.”
A barista smiles. “Yeah, I’d prefer to be elsewhere, but this is the best choice for right now. I might as well go with it- someone’s gotta field the question of whether or not our croissants are vegan…”
“This is where I am right now- who knows what tomorrow will bring?” says a young programmer, the partner of one of the employees.
“Of course I’m here- I’m always here. It’s where I have to be, until I don’t anymore. When? I dunno- a couple years maybe.” Our best dishpit and prep guy. He listens to praise music and Catholic sermons on his phone all day. He does his best to cheer up everyone around him- with or without mentioning his relationship with God- and otherwise keeps to himself. He’s also been doing the same job for 10 years, with three kids to look after. He has his fears of course- but his faith overshadows them. I kind of envy that.
“Of course, I’m here. This is my life- it sucks right now, and I wish it would be a little easier, but this is what I’ve decided I need to do, shitty parts and all.” A buddy of mine who runs a food cart. It’s been hard to find competent cooks to help him run his business, and he sympathizes. People are scared- they want security. He can offer them as close to a living wage as he can, and good hours. He honestly wishes he could offer more- he’s been there. It’s a hard life. He runs a good business- there’s been hiccups, but it’s doing well. I make a mental note to swing by for lunch in the afternoon.
A declaration of war.
Surrender to the fear.
Surrender to the fates.
A statement of fact, and a gauntlet thrown. A “come and get me, you son of a bitch.”
A promise and assurance that all will be well, if you just hang on.
Later in the day, I’m cleaning down my bench. My task list is done, and I’ve even gotten a bit ahead for the day. It wasn’t so terrible- there were stresses and annoyances to be sure, but we all did what we do best. We worked. We “system D’d” and made due. I’m pretty pleased with everything I’ve done, and I’ve won the right to go home.
It’s only about 5- the cafe is open for another hour, but the dining room is nearly empty. A couple people with books or knitting. Some groups enjoying the sidewalk tables and the warm sun. I wave goodbye to the baristas, starting their closing chores.
“Have a good one, Matt- you working tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’ll be here.”
Whatever that’ll mean tomorrow, it’ll mean it tomorrow.
So… what are you here for?