I haven’t forgotten about my blog entirely, even though it has been severely neglected. I intend to finish writing about my time in China, but I feel compelled to write about my life as it is currently.
Upon return, the logistics of my life fell into place very quickly. I spent about a week at home before I found a job and cheap place to live. Both of these things came by way of Grace and her relations. Her brother, Jack, was working at a fondue restaurant in Buckhead (one of the nicest neighborhoods in Atlanta), Dante’s Down the Hatch, and they were hiring. Also, one of his roommates had graduated from Georgia Tech in December and was looking to move back home to save money. Grace and I moved in with Jack and his three other roommates, John, David, and Casey (female). John and David were old friends from their hometown, and John and Casey both worked at Dante’s.
It was very difficult transition into this life at first. Up until this point, I had defined everything about how Grace and I were living; now, I had jumped into her world. For the first week, I was very uncomfortable. It was much harder coming home than going to China. I was living a life that was not my own. I was living and working with her friends. The staff at Dante’s was also a very tight-knit group. I was the new kid and the outsider in both phases of life.
However, after that first week of feeling awkward, everything has been very pleasant. Jack and John quickly accepted me as a friend, not just Grace’s boyfriend, and the people at Dante’s (or ‘trons’ as we are referred to) were all very warm and welcoming. It was no long before this life began to feel like my own rather than someone else’s.
The working I’m doing is certainly less than stimulating. I’ve been working as a dishwasher and a seater for over two months now. The way the restaurant works is that everyone must start at the bottom regardless of previous service industry experience. Everyone who works there has been a seater and a dishwasher, then a busser, and then a waiter. Several trons have stayed around long enough to become management. I think it is a pretty good system. Everyone working there has empathy for those on the bottom but not necessarily sympathy having been in that position before.
Surprisingly, I’ve only resented working there once. During my first night working in the ‘dish pit’, I loathed that I was smart, educated, and capable and that I was scrubbing pots as my job. Since then, I’ve gotten over myself and enjoyed working at Dante’s. I’m finding out that the work I do is not so important, but work environment is very important. Despite doing manual labor, I never dread going into work because the atmosphere is relaxed and the people there are fun to be around. I think this is a change I’ve undergone in the last couple of years. I really didn’t enjoy my last manual labor job, landscaping, at all. Also, I’ve always considered myself somewhat undisciplined and lazy, but I’m finding out that I’m a much better worker than most. However, I don’t think its a good idea to start comparing myself to the people around me rather than what I think I’m capable of.
Even though the task is menial, I have found ways to make my work as a dishwasher mentally stimulating. I’m always looking for ways to get my job done more efficiently, making my time doing dishes a critical thinking activity. It is not a particularly hard exercise in logic, but it at least keeps my mind occupied.
Dante’s is filled with characters. There are plenty of trons that have been around for years; some because they are too incompetent to do other jobs, others because they just enjoy working there more than the other jobs they’ve done. Most of my time is spent with the people at the bottom as well, one of whom being Ronnie, a career dishwasher in his fifties. Everyone feels a certain ambivalence towards him. He is fifty-four years old dishwasher with no hope of advancement or higher pay and makes everyone’s time in the kitchen more interesting and humorous with a steady stream of trash talking. He also gets drunk on occasion and comes into work completely incompetent. I think everyone likes him better until you face the consequences of his alcoholism by being overwhelmed with dishes all night as was the case with myself.
Dante considers himself a worldly person, so he tries to hire an internationally diverse staff. I’ve been spending a lot of time with is a Russian named Maxim. He is here on a student visa but is working two jobs instead of being in school right now. Like many Russians his age, he as left the country to avoid compulsory military service and possible deployment to Chechnya. He is saving a ridiculous amount of money to be able to afford tuition as an international student. His command of English is pretty strong outside of the use of the verb “to be”, but he still has a set of stock phrases that compose about 50% of his speech such as, “Be nice,” “You mean,” “This is bullshit, man,” and “You Americans! You teach me to curse!” He too is a teacher of profanity, and I am also trying to learn Russian from him aside from things that would get me beaten if I actually said them to a Russian. There is also another foreign tron, Greg. He is Polish, works two jobs, and is going to school. The two of them talk about girls that come into the restaurant as walking green cards. I really admire both of them for working as much as they do.
Dante’s himself may be the biggest character of them all. He was a member of the first Navy SEAL team, and is now in his seventies. He has had the restaurant since 1969, and it has made him absurdly wealthy. He as traveled everywhere by train and lives in a train car. He certainly loves his restaurant aside from just being a means for him to make money; it also provides him people sitting at tables every night that he can corner and talk to. He is notorious for either rejecting or being unaware of political correctness. He also has stock phrases that he uses on customers. For example, when customers lean over the rail to look at his pet crocodiles in the restaurant, he always says, “Don’t fall in; there’s too much paperwork.” He has several stock phrases that he uses with married couples. “I see you’ve brought you daughter with you,” and “I see you’ve married up,” are his favorites.
John told me this story about Dante. One night, a married couple came into the restaurant; the husband was black and the wife was white. He says to the husband, “I see you’ve married up.” Needless to say, they were both appalled. When their waiter came back to the table, they demanded to see a manager about this old man who came up to them and made a racial slur. They demanded to see the owner! They didn’t stay for the rest of the meal when that found out that that was the owner.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been training to become a busser. This is a big promotion in terms of pay; the bussers at Dante’s make as much as the servers. The busser do have longer hours, more physical demand, and the danger of fire and boiling oil for the same pay as servers (I spent last Saturday night in the emergency room with John after some boiling oil sloshed onto his hand), but after getting paid barely over minimum wage as a dishwasher or seater, the money you can take home in one night busing is very appealing. The demand of the job leads to looking at the clock much less while at work, so I’m looking forward to busing regularly. I am so eager to start busing that I have forgone my days off over the last week to continue my training and am on the tenth day of a fifteen consecutive day working streak. It has paid off though because I have three busing shifts on my schedule for next week.
Since Dante’s is only open for dinner, I have had time to look for more career oriented jobs. The search was not good. Given my degree with a double major in Philosophy and Religion, the only business jobs were available to me were jobs in sales. I was called in for interviews for selling stocks, insurance to old people, employees to companies, and mortgages. For most of the jobs, I got out of the hiring process before decisions had been made whether they would hire me or not. The one job I actually would have taken was the job selling mortgages, and I didn’t get the job.
Disappointed with the opportunities available to me, I have decided to go back to school. I’ve applied to start going to Georgia State University as early as this summer with the intention of getting a Masters of International Business. I think it is a good plan for me because one of my main fears of going to law school was being tied to a certain area, and studying international business will create more opportunities to work abroad. I’m also going to take my time and take all the class I didn’t take because I was trying to graduate. Maybe I’ll fill in a couple holes in my philosophical education, take some art or music classes, or learn astrology and palm reading. I’m really excited about having a second college experience with all the knowledge of how to have fun with it I gained the first time around.
It seems strange to me that I still should be in China right now. That life seems more foreign to me right now than it did before I went. I will certainly conclude my tales of travel in China in the next week or two.