I can’t say this about very many days, but I know exactly where I was at this time on this day 21 years ago. I know because it was the day my life started to unravel. Just a little thread that day; I didn’t realize that it wasn’t easily repaired and that ultimately everything would come apart. I would lose everything that mattered to me, including a business I put heart and soul into for 5 years. I would end up in bankruptcy court and the judgment would be harsh. It would take years to recover financially, mentally and emotionally.
But that was all still a long way off on this day in 1998. That day I was starting a new job waiting tables at the Country Club. I know it was this particular Saturday because the first day I worked was on the afternoon of the Kentucky Derby that year. I was working as a waitress, serving wealthy people who came to watch the Derby and drink mint julips in the lounge with their rich friends. I think of that afternoon every year on Derby day. I’ll never forget it, for lots of reasons.
First, never in my life had people been so rude to me. I had worked in restaurants on and off since 1976, but I had never waited table. I wasn’t very good at it, and the people I was waiting on were not very understanding. It was a LONG afternoon. It sucked, but I went back the next day, and the next night and on and on for a couple of months because I had to.
I had a business, and a client who didn’t pay on time and I was in financial turmoil. I had to do something to keep myself and the business afloat, so I took that second job at night and on weekends to bring in some cash. During the day I did client work as usual, and at 4 o’clock almost everyday I put on my uniform and sturdy shoes and went to work serving privileged and unpleasant people.
I hated every minute of that job. Every single second. The chef was a tyrant and the members were unkind and dismissive. I had one man tell me he thought I should go get a job at Burger King because that seemed to be more my pace. This after he had known me a half hour, and because I had made a mistake on his wife’s drink order. Please, just shoot me now. What would make you believe it would be okay for you to say something like that to a complete stranger? And what makes you think it’s so easy to work at Burger King, asshole? Money does strange things to people.
They were all like that. I would like to report that most people were kind, but that would not be true. With the exception of one couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and had obviously saved up for a special dinner out, every single person I waited on for the two months I was there was simply unkind and impatient at best and verbally abusive at worst. I’ve never been so happy to leave any job in my life, and I’ve had a lot of jobs.
I left after two months because I got a job at a different restaurant in town where I could make more money and where I knew a lot of the staff. It was better, and I stuck with it until Thanksgiving that year. The extra money helped and I thought I would be okay then, but the writing was on the wall and two years later I would have to admit it was there and that it was true. I closed the business and got a “real” job doing graphics work for Acme Health Services. I’m still there today, and it has been a good thing, though it has taken me a long time to see it that way.
It`s been a long road. It was hard and on any given day I would have said that I would never recover all that I lost that summer and after. But here I am, and I’m okay, and if I need money like that again I know exactly what I won’t be doing. I’m grateful for the experience though, for several reasons.
- It humbled me. I took the job cuz I thought it would be an quick way to make money. I never considered that I wouldn’t be good at it. As I said, I had worked in restaurants on and off for 25 years at that point, bussing tables, hostessing, and even as the bookkeeper one summer. I thought I knew everything there was to know about hectic dining rooms, eccentric staff and rude clientele. This experience opened my eyes about just how horrible human beings can be to another when they believe they are superior to someone else.
- It taught me that sometimes you just can’t have what you want, no matter how hard you try to get it. For a long time that made me REALLY bitter. I carried around a chip on my shoulder about that experience and the client who had done me wrong and caused me to have to go to those lengths to survive. It got too heavy, though, that chip, and I finally laid it down. I realized that it had been my naivete as much as his callousness that had gotten me in that situation. It was a valuable lesson in just how much control you have over other people (zero) and that good people don’t always do the right thing.
- Not having any money and the bankruptcy experience taught me so much about so many things.
- Failure doesn’t kill you, but if you let it, it will transform you.
- Poor people are not lazy or stupid. I didn’t believe this to begin with, but this experience deepened my compassion for people who are down on their luck.
- Not everyone is good at their job and even people who are supposed to be on your side will let you down. My attorney was late for my bankruptcy hearing, didn’t have everything with him that he was supposed to, and didn’t say a word on my behalf during the hearing. The judgment was harsh (it took 10 years for me to pay it off). After the hearing, the attorney said he hoped I had learned my lesson. I considered not paying his staggering bill, but finally decided that was not in my best interest. A year later he was dead of cancer. I had learned my lesson, but I wonder if he learned his before he died.
- Being forced to give up my business and take the job at Acme was one of the best things that has happened to me in my life. I didn’t see it that way for a long time, but looking back I see it very clearly now. I think I was on the right path in my business – it was the happiest and most fulfilled I’ve ever felt – but financially it wasn’t working and I wasn’t seeing that. I believe in karma, and looking back, I see that situation with my delinquent client through that lens and then it makes sense. I was getting deeper and deeper in debt (metaphors in our lives are very powerful, aren’t they? The universe is so eloquent) and I had to give up something that mattered very much to me to pay the karmic debt. The money took a lot longer, but I paid that debt, too, thanks to the stability of my job at Acme. The other things I’ve gained in the last 19 years, and the ways in which I’ve grown through my relationships there and the work we do, all tell me that I’m right where I should be, doing exactly what I should doing, even though some days it’s not what I want to be doing.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses (or mint julips), but the whole experience, beginning on that day so long ago, has been worth the pain and the struggle to survive. I wish I had been wiser and could have made those changes without the body-slam from the universe, but that’s not how it happened then, and I’m not sure it would happen any differently now, though I fancy myself as being a little wiser than that waitress in 1998.
Humans are a hard-headed, stiff-necked group, though, and I’m 100% human. I hope the next time I’m so clearly headed off-course, that the universe will steer me right once again, though a little more gently next time, please. It’s those hard come-arounds that give you whiplash and do damage to the ship. However it happens, though, I trust that there is more in store for this old girl.
I hope so. Cuz, man what a trip around the track it’s been so far!