If it hadn’t been for the way the skin around her knuckles flexed as she adjusted her silver and black tie, I would’ve thought she was younger than I was.
Uniforms can do that, mask a person. It’s almost a costume, one which prepares the wearer for the job at hand. Fast food employees are given ugly, uncomfortable uniforms which reinforce their role. Waiters at more upscale wear nice, casual or dress clothes to indicate their servitude to higher classes of patrons. Mechanics and construction workers wear tough, hardy clothes and coveralls that make them feel tough and hardy. Businessmen wear tailored suits which scream money, careful paperwork and attention to detail.
She wore a loose, black dress skirt that reached her calves, hiding the upper edge of her tall black socks whenever she wasn’t moving fast enough to cause the pleats to sway. She had a short-sleeved white dress shirt fitting to her upper body, tucked in at the waist with just enough above her black leather belt to allow a full range of motion without bunching. Her hair was dyed blonde, recently, as her roots were barely visible when she leaned over the table. Her short bangs reached down over her light brown eyebrows from the sliver of a horizontal part. The rest of her hair was swept back in straight lines leading to a tight and functional ponytail.
It was fascinating to watch her relax, her word choice and accent slowly slipping from sirs and ma’ams in a comfortable but formal enunciation to a softer, more slurred natural gate. By the midway point of my meal, she had let slip a handful of honeys and y’alls, her slight drawl either pleasantly practiced or a remnant of an accent mostly lost.
It wasn’t her uniform or manner that caught me off guard toward the end of the meal, but the strange questions that slipped from her mouth.
Before I interviewed my first band, I sought advice from a friend of mine. “These bands,” Dixie told me, “have been interviewed a thousand times. From the moment they got their first fans, they’ve been asked the same dozen questions at nearly every interview. Don’t ask the same questions. Read the other interviews. See what’s been asked before. Come prepared with at least a dozen fun questions that will entertain them. Ask them what fruit they’d be if they were fruit. Ask them what job they’d do if they couldn’t make it big. Ask them if there was a moment in their childhood that haunts them. On second thought, don’t ask that last one; Too personal.”
The questions this waitress asked–the small talk all servers do when they truly engage a customer–weren’t the same old questions I always answered. I actually had to think carefully.
“How is everything? Do you like the sauce?” she asked me.
“Great. It’s great.”
“If you close your eyes when you taste it, where do you imagine tasting those flavors?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but no words formed, my mind suddenly parsing the unusual follow-up. “I’ll have to let you know next time you come by,” I stammered after a moment.
She had fewer tables than the other staff, her section seated almost half as frequently. Where the other waiters seemed to rush from table to table to the kitchen and back, she seemed perfectly at ease, gliding through her day. The hostess would offer a fake smile as she delivered another collection of empty stomachs to a table in my waitresses section, but when she turned away, when she thought no one was looking, her mouth would fold down and one eyebrow would rise as if it were the most bothersome of chores. The other wait staff would chat and joke at the periphery of the dining hall or near the register, but my waitress seemed to be humming softly to herself as if nothing but her job existed.
“I imagine myself sitting on the balcony of a stucco building overlooking a populated savannah. There’s an open air market that stretches down the dirt road below, and I can hear the Arabian calls and smell the faint spices even if they aren’t used in my food.”
“Well done, Faulkner,” she said, her eyes pleasantly glazed as she stared off into her imagination, her hand fiddling with her tie. “Where have you been from?”
“I’m sorry?” I asked in confusion.
“I asked where you’ve been from. Everyone is born somewhere, lives somewhere, works somewhere. But the people who say stuff like that have been places. And if you’ve been places, you’ve been from places.”
“I’m from Boston,” I said, “but I’ve lived here for thirteen years now.”
“That’s not what I meant.” She smirked as she refilled my glass.
“Then what did you mean?”
“Sometimes, you don’t have to have lived somewhere to be from there. You know, to have the place leave a mark. Think about it.”
I picked at my plate with my fork, twirling it like payes as I thought deeply.
When I first walked into the Third Grade, I didn’t understand that Boston would or could become home. “I’m Ben,” I would say, “and I’m from San Francisco.” My birth city weighed on me, and I ached with homesickness even in my room. I had no friends, no secret nooks I had yet discovered and made my own, and no sense of belonging. The accents were recognizable, yet foreign. The way the air felt was different. The weather patterns, dress, and interests of the other kids were different. It certainly wasn’t an impossible leap, but I latched on to my origins, to the places that I felt defined me, and I couldn’t let go.
The Pickle Family Circus would set up tents on a large field in the Bay area. Along one side was what felt like a huge rock wall. I would climb past the other kids, all the way to the ridge at the top, and I’d sit up there watching the carnival atmosphere play beneath me like ants. The image haunted my dreams in the most pleasant way.
I frequented four parks, three near my house and one across the way from my best friend Tito’s house in the Mission district. Each one offered a hidden nook or cranny that I could treat as my safe haven, be it in games or in reality. When I decided to run away from home, packing up my snoopy suitcase, it was one of these parks I chose to make my new home in. I never made it out the door, my parents talking me out of it, but every time I visited the park, I still looked for that perfect shelter I could use when I finally did run away.
The summer before fifth grade, I went to Maryland for camp for two weeks. The kids on my floor in the dorm all came up with nicknames for each other the first night. “I’m Ben and I live in Boston, but I’m really from San Francisco,” I told them when it was my turn. They dubbed me “Uncle Ben, the San Francisco Treat.” I was thoroughly amused.
After moving to Boston, I spent nearly every Fourth of July in Maine, either at Old Orchard Beach, in Portland, or at camp outside Augusta. I never lived in Maine, but the boardwalk, the Clambake, and the campus at Kent’s Hill all became part of me. My second year at boarding school, the window of my second floor room had access to a small patch of roof; I liked to climb out with my roommate while he smoked cigarettes and stare across the empty fields and at the stars above. When I was sixteen, my grandparents took the family to Europe and got us Eurail passes. I took great joy in riding the trains, watching sunsets and reading and listening to music as the train clacked along.
These were the places that popped into my head as I thought about where I had been from.
When she dropped off the check, there wasn’t a smiley face or a “Thanks!” in some flowery script. Instead, there was a question:
“What would you do the rest of today if this were your last day in town and you were never coming back?”
I left her a big tip. I still haven’t given her an answer.