Getting Into a Kitchen is Easy, It’s the Getting Out That’s Hard

It was 7:30 AM when I got the phone call.  I was barely conscious, having laid down a few scant minutes before.  I’d stayed up all night watching television with one of my roommates and then, long after the light seeped through the blinds, communing with Safran, who had first appeared to me a couple of weeks before.  I was completely obsessed with her already.

To be honest, I didn’t really want a job at all, but going jobless is a luxury only the rich can afford, or those with rich, helpful family members.  I am, and have, neither.  At that point I’d spent four years of my life cleaning hotel rooms, three months prepping and dishwashing at my university’s food service before I was forced to discard the job because there was no work in the summer and what work could be had was only part-time, two and a half years being a front desk clerk (“Guest Services” is a job-title that should be viewed with extreme suspicion), and an awkward five months at fast food when I couldn’t stand being a desk clerk anymore, and hey, they were paying $9/hr.  Of the jobs, I was too meticulous to be efficient enough to clean 20-45 rooms a day in eight hours, food service was the only one I remembered fondly, and fast food would have been acceptable despite some of it’s obvious and not so obvious drawbacks if the married owner hadn’t kept making passes at me.  The concept of further customer service filled me with dread, and I wanted only to hide in the back room of somewhere, anywhere that I didn’t have to cope with strangers who looked at me as if they’d just discovered a louse, or men who asked me if I’d tuck them in.  My last two jobs had given me daily panic attacks; the idea of finding a new daily nightmare was terrifying.  I’d begged a month of freedom “to work on my novel” from Mr. Wonderful after finishing my bachelor’s degree, but that was all I dared.

Dishwashing, Safran urged, you have to know something about kitchens and cooking.  At least you could observe the people, pick something up.  Why not?  So I filled out an application.  I could hide in the back of a restaurant and everything would be…

Sane.  Logical.  Safe.  Kitchens are none of those things, of course, but I didn’t know that at the time.

I picked up the phone, and listened foggily as the Chef explained that he’d like me to come in for an interview.  I wasn’t lucid; I could almost hear the doubt in the man’s voice as I stumbled in my effort to find coherent speech.

I had to scoop up some wrinkled, already worn clothes off the floor for my interview.  The slacks and blouse I’d bought for interviews would probably discount any idea that I was willing to do a dirty, wet job, but it hadn’t occurred to me to do laundry the night before; no where else I’d put in an application had called me back yet.  “I’m applying to be a dishwasher; I shouldn’t look too nice, right?” I asked Mr. Wonderful dubiously.  “Yeah, sure.”  He rolled over and went back to bed, not exactly the most reassuring response.

I sat in the kitchen’s office for a half hour, feeling apprehensive as I contemplated a post card pinned to the wall of a female model’s thong-clad derriere.  I think this is a bad idea, I told Safran, quite possibly the worst I’ve ever had.

She laughed.  You have to pay the bills, she reminded me, and I grit my teeth at her, give it a chance.

Maybe they won’t hire me.  I mean, I haven’t showered, slept, and I’m wearing clothes that are so crinkly they’ve obviously been laying on my floor for over a week.  I’m so tired I can’t string a sentence together.

Safran and I continued to argue.  She wanted this badly.  I wanted to run out the door, far away from the indication of potential sexual harassment that was taunting me.  I contemplated getting up and walking out the door, and then the Chef walked back in.  My escape plan was foiled, blast!

“Is this only a summer job for you?” he asked, and “Do you have any other jobs you’re considering?”  No, and well, okay Barne’s and Noble obviously wasn’t calling me back to sort books in a back room, and I wasn’t interested in driving to another city every day, especially in the eight months of the year when the weather would make this less than desirable, to dye t-shirts even if it would pay almost twice what this job was offering.  When I’d handed in my application at the t-shirt dyeing place, the atmosphere had been cold, concrete, and thankless.  I’d had to sign a statement saying that I understood that the job might cause permanent lung damage if I was even offered the job in the first place.  Yuck.

My answers to those two questions were apparently all that was required.  There was nothing rigorous about this interview.  I wondered why he’d even bothered to see me in person in the first place.

“Can you start today?”  I looked blearily at my application, handed in the day before.  It did say that I could start today; if I said otherwise now one answer would be in conflict with the other.

“Sure.”

Now I had less than a half hour to run back to my house, find my paperwork, and return with proof that I was a valid human being and tax paying citizen before breakfast went into full swing and the Chef had no time for me (kitchen hiring tip: never call on the Chef during busy hours; it’s a sure way to count yourself out of the hiring pool).  That was easier said than done, but at last, after reading all the manuals and signing all the forms, I stumbled home at noon and attempted to grab three hours of sleep.

On Thursday, June 14, 2007, I was blissfully unaware of what I’d just gotten myself into, but I was about to find out.

 

On a related reading note, both of these blog posts contain gems of truth about the restaurant industry, including some of the reasons why we may simultaneously hate and love our jobs:

10 Things You Learn at a Food Service Job

Hard Work Pays Off

A Perspective on Feral Children

“Contempt prior to investigation is what enslaves a mind to Ignorance.”

–William Paley

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.

–Albert Einstein

“Everyone is a genius.  But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

– frequently attributed to Albert Einstein, but this may, in fact, be false.

 

Safran’s first impressions of the girl were of a form shrouded in shadow; she named her Nyx, after the goddess of night.  The name is more of a reflection on Safran, and the place she was in when she encountered Nyx, than it is on the character of Nyx herself.

The goddess Nyx, daughter of Khaos (Chaos, air), is an imposing, if little known figure in mythology.  A quick purview of most texts on Greek or Roman (Nox) mythos grants little more than a few paragraphs, and most of that information is little better than a family tree.  She is listed, however, as one of the first gods; Homer claims that Zeus himself feared her, and from Homer’s account of the matter, we gain the insight that her rage is roused at a threat to one of her many children.  In this instance, the child was Hypnos (sleep), but Nyx also is reported to be the mother of the Fates, Furies, Thanatos (death), Hemera (day, dawn), among many other well and lesser known gods.

Nyx the character bears little to no similarity to her namesake.  She does not spawn sleep, death, or any other form of destruction, but holds instead a steadfast fascination for life and its nurture.  Still, for all the reader knows, Nyx might as well have come from chaos itself; Nyx is a “feral” child.

“Feral” children isn’t a term I particularly care for, hence the quotation marks.  Certainly the phrasing implies that the child has grown without the care of society or cultural influence, and while this is true, it also infers the unpleasant image of a hirsute, scrambling, animalistic “raised by wolves” individual, who is only waiting for the right specialist to come along and reform the unfortunate “creature” into an “acceptable” human being.  We, as “civilized” beings, seem to decry the idea that these people cannot be simply molded at whim into gross approximations of ourselves.  After all, how can anyone know the true definition of happiness, if they have not experienced our version of happiness for themselves?  Aren’t we doing them a favor?

I doubt it.

The depiction of feral children in fiction and film has often been dramatically removed from reality.  It seems inevitable that the child, who is usually somehow lost or abandoned in the woods, only to be raised by some animal group or another (wolves, anyone?), will be stumbled across by some well-meaning companion who will strive for, and eventually secure, their assimilation into society.  Few authors bother with that pesky “critical period” of language development, where any child not exposed to speech before the age of seven becomes increasingly unlikely to be able to string sentences together, especially in a grammatically correct or complex way.  I prefer to believe that this is a result of the brain’s plasticity, or the ability of the human mind to shape itself to its best advantage for survival in any given environment.  After all, if a human loses a finger, then the brain will eventually incorporate the space used for the mobility and sensations of that finger to add increased support for the other four fingers on that hand.  So, when a child is not exposed to language within a reasonable time span, they use the brain space for other, more pressing, environmental concerns.  Whatever the case, profoundly abused and neglected children, such as Genii, to name a famous example, display dramatically different results on tests of brain activity from those of normal children.  How is a child, or even an adult in such a circumstance, to appear normal?

Should we even strive for that?

Hopefully, if one is a parent or mentor of a child that is different, either from mental illness, some cognitive “impairment”, or other disorder that may impact the ability to act in line with social norms, one attempts to do their best to ease the child’s struggles, to give them the best hope of a normal life, and to give them the tools to achieve happiness in spite of the fact that the child is unconventional.

At first, I didn’t understand Nyx at all.  I tried to force her to be what she was not; I did not bother to see who she was as a person, or who she was meant to be.  I’m ashamed to say that I bullied her, that I cajoled, and screamed, and begged, all in the name of turning her into something she was not, and will never be.  I loved her in my own self-serving way; I told myself I wanted her to be whole, and “normal”.  She could grow and change, all to fit my whims and needs.  I did not think to embrace her strengths, or to offer her the nourishment to become the best version of herself.  I tried to beat her into the shape that fit a common mold.

For a very long time, I missed a valuable lesson.  Maybe it is a truth.

When I discovered that Nyx fit the label of “feral child” I sought more information on the topic.  I was horrified to discover how they had been described, viewed, and designated throughout history; I was traumatized by their fates.  The picture painted was far from rosy, even if humanity sometimes viewed them in a tragic romanticized haze.  What galled me the most was the “scientific” view of the differences in brain activity.  It was one thing to use feral children (“the forbidden experiment”) as an argument for nature vs. nurture, but quite another to argue that they were mentally deficient, either as a result of their circumstances or because they were plunged into said circumstances because their parents resented their handicaps in the first place (I say it’s a shoddy excuse for abuse or neglect, and the parents’ excuses unverifiable, and probably hogwash, at that).  The implication placed in the tone and phrasing of these reports was that feral children were somehow less, simply because their talents and skills did not expand to the scope of linguistic skill.  Yet few of the children in the videos and texts displayed a lack of intelligence; they seemed, to me, to learn at a remarkable rate.  One child, purportedly, indicating a disdain for cooked food when it was placed in front of him, jumped in a nearby water supply, and caught his own supply, tool free, in less than five minutes.  He offered to share.  Some children displayed astounding climbing, running, and jumping abilities. In fact, most humans living in a first world country today would stand a scant chance of survival if placed in similar conditions to those that these children lived in before their discovery by neighboring townspeople.  If you’re wondering, none of these children were adopted by animals, although they might have learned some skills by observing them.  Does that strike you as lacking in intelligence?

What is intelligence anyway?  I’ve yet to see a test that accurately measures intelligence.  It seems, honestly, as if the tests measure how well we’ve adapted in an educational sense to a particular culture and society in relation to our age.  There are other ways of viewing the world, of adapting to it, of interacting with it.  Those of us who “fit in” may have difficulty understanding the perspectives and actions of those who are different from us, and comprehension becomes an even more demanding task when others cannot communicate with us in the way we are accustomed to.

All of us are a little bit different.  Sometimes, if we are lucky, our differences are seen as skills rather than deficits.  Can you imagine an environment or situation where schizophrenia, or Asperger’s, or any number of other supposed issues might be positive adaptations?  Do you think there might be skills or thinking patterns associated with depression or other conditions that may actually be helpful in certain fields of study or activities?  Or perhaps, aren’t there things that these people teach us, ways in which they make us better simply by existing and being themselves?

I no longer want to force Nyx into that mold.  The way she sees the world is unique and beautiful.  I refuse to propagate the idea that there is only one right way to be.  Barring certain unsociable acts (e.g. murder), individuals, even cultures, who are different from us broaden our scope of thought and perception.  They grant us new lenses from which to view the world, and enlighten us as to the variability, adaptability, and resilience of humanity, and in fact, life itself.

 

Safran, or My Muffled Muse

For the past several days eating and sleeping have been incredibly difficult.

No, I’m not in love, or at least, not that kind of love.  The love I feel for Safran, the protagonist of my growing novel, is much more complex than a crush, even a passionate, all consuming, flips-one’s-world-upside-down crush.  Safran is real; my flame-haired heroine, omnipresent and usually quite vocal, is capable of swapping my sight for full-scale visual clips of her world.  I’ve been able to see her since the first time I whispered her nick-name, swirling the breath reverently over my tongue to hear the syllables.  I wasn’t expecting a full-scale manifestation.  How could I possibly have anticipated such incandescence?  Or that she would actually consent to an interview?  I knew nothing about her yet, but Safran, luckily, wasn’t short on information.  Even now I believe she knows everything.

When Safran first appeared, she was whole and self-assured, everything she will come to be by the time the novel (or–because my verbosity cannot be curtailed–series)  is completed.  Her present self is different from her past, novel self, and her initial appearance and foresight have always left me with the feeling that I’m not writing fiction so much as history.  How disconcerting, then, to find her demonstrating two sides of her self simultaneously: present and past.  Now that I am writing her lowest point in this “history” the past self is obscuring the present.  Crippled with pain, Safran has tucked herself away and hasn’t mumbled so much as a word in weeks.  I want to end her suffering, but the only way I can rescue her from her trauma (I think) is to write a few more chapters.  I’m not sure I can write the story without her help; for the last 77 pages, or approximately 45,000 words, Safran has generously granted me her life and voice.  She never prepared me for this.  Without her I am no longer sure that I know how to write.

Silly self-defeating illogic.  I will write those chapters even if I butcher them on the first attempt.

Still, the torch illuminating my story has been dampened in the downpour.  I miss Safran and not just because my fingers are itching from lack of use, or because I haven’t gotten my writing dopamine fix, but because in the five years that we’ve shared my humble space she has become friend, confidant, and advisor.  I’m pining now for her wry, teasing smile and blunt honesty.  Worse, her depression has percolated across the thin membrane separating our two worlds and affected my own mood.  Sleep won’t come for me; all I can think about is pulling my companion out of the darkness.  Last night I didn’t bother crawling into bed until 7:00 AM.  I stayed up and worked on a poem instead; even my poetry is tainted by despair, ‘though it is not my own.  I’m not depressed, but being so aware of a character who is down is proving remarkably similar to living with a loved one in the same predicament.

I know what I’ve just written probably sounds a bit crazy, but at least one of the joys of the internet is that I can say what I’m really thinking and feeling without “those fine young men in their clean white coats” locking me away for safe-keeping.