From the Heart

Untitled No. 5 by Mickalene Thomas

I love writing.

Really, I do.

However, it doesn’t pay the bills (not yet anyway).

Working in the hospitality industry lets me do both. 

What is my relationship with restaurants, anyway? For one, I grew up in one — my late Lola Sally’s bakeshop, just down the road from my Lolo’s house in Cebu. I probably learned to walk by propping myself against stainless steel tables and dining chairs. My first real job was in a casino outside of Columbia, hosting and bussing tables at 18. When I was 21, I traded blackjack for breadsticks at the Olive Garden so I could support myself in journalism school, using my friends as story ideas, adding guests to my network. And then, lucky for me, my major developed into a focus on food and wine. It was all one motion after the other, which didn’t make much sense at the time, that wrapped into a beautiful synchronicity. 

And for awhile, I did feel stagnant after my newspaper and magazine gigs, as I retreated from the dining scene to actively working in it to figure out my next move. I was over waiting tables but I was also over being in an office. I had turned into a social creature by habit. I loved being around people, learning and helping them, even if in the smallest of ways. 

I applied at different jobs – the library, the national renewable energy lab, cannabis companies – already knowing it was a “no” as I submitted my resume. I was a journalist with a restaurant background. How does that fit into human resources? 

I spent about six months like that. At a crossroads, wondering whether to bail on what I love, without even realizing that the answer was right in front of my face, a profession by accident and instinct, but held the stark truth for me the whole time. 

I remember the first time I walked into the Art, with its twinkling lights racing along the ceiling before I stepped inside. 

Before I ascended to the fourth floor, a blue neon sign catches my eye. 

“I can feel your smile,” it says. 

When I crossed the main lobby — an airy, sunlit landing with floor-to-ceiling windows and wooden floors that I twirl and kick on every day — I am greeted by the bronze sculptures of Singer and Otter. I sat on a high-top close to the terrace, as it was raining outside yet the fire pit continued to burn. I surveyed the restaurant, its own art a collectable mix of old and new, from spinning holographic mylar structures from behind the bar to the billboard-esque “Ocean View.” I knew at once that this was the place for me. 

My friend had told me about this job and the kind of money it entailed. Fine dining had its perks, especially because of the location and most especially because of its clientele. I remember the days I would slave away to make ends meet; it was all paying off now. I serve all sorts of people — politicians, musicians, movie stars — as well as tourists and locals. Being surrounded by all this magical art and finally making money was the perfect formula to let go of all the words that had been locked up inside me. How was I supposed to write stories when I desperately needed to write my own?

I started to remember. 

My childhood was quite drastic, moving from one extreme to the other, being exposed to not-so-kind people, held down by the traumas of everyone, as I struggled to write and sing and dance and play music and sports to get through it all. And after that, I dragged myself through college, knowing that this was the right step for me, achieving my lifelong goal to become a published writer. However, I had no real plan for the future. Who knew that the answer was as simple as that I wanted to travel and write? I survived it all (barely) and at 25, finally felt comfortable enough to sit down and re-evaluate who and what I was.

Five years ago, I never would have imagined that the restaurant industry would save me in such a way that I could be free and creative and happy again, as that’s all I was searching for during my education. A way to write and travel and help others the best way I could. I’m on my feet a lot, sure, but I wouldn’t trade it for all the laughs, smiles, and hugs I’ve been given in the past year. In exchange, I’ve written so much poetry and fiction and essays, and I’ve spent the past years traveling all over Colorado and beyond, that I’ve achieved a level of contentment I didn’t think I could ever get to. I know that others won’t be as lucky as me to find my career path so crystal clear in front of me, but maybe that’s what you should look at the most: What is right in front of you?

Colorado Natives

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to wait on a family of nine on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Lakewood. Not only did they run my ass off (the mother said she had worked in a restaurant and “knew how it was”), her daughter made a comment I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at.

“You know a place that’s really beautiful?” She asked. I asked where. “Seattle, Washington.”

“Oh yes, I plan on going up there next year,” I said, turning back to her after stacking their plates.

“Not to visit. To live,” she said. I looked at her quizzically. Was she really pulling the…

“We’re from here. We’re natives,” she said. Her mom looked at her like she had lost her mind. She had pulled the native card.

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Dirty Old Men

“I want you to smile and be nice to us because even though we’re dirty old men, we’re still nice guys.”

The confusing request rang in my ears. What did I just hear? In front of me, sat five men with peppery gray hair, who looked at me wondering what would happen next.

“Am I not smiling?” I said, on the brink of annoyance but not one bit surprised at this comment. Of course someone had to tell me to smile.

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