Whenever someone asks me how I'm doing lately, my standard reply is "Surviving." Yes, it's a pretty gloomy outlook, but it puts an intrepid twist on my daily activities. Going to the coffee shop to mix up iced mochas for late-night caffeine addicts begins to feel bit like an Indiana Jones feat with the right descriptors. Usually, though, it's like everything else: living.
When I can, I avoid doubles. Sometimes, by fluke or out of wrath and spite from the scheduling managers, I have to work at the bookstore and the coffeeshop back to back. It's never pleasant, but I get a masochistic hit out of it.
One day I was working at customer service at the bookstore when my former Resident Assistant walked in with his girlfriend and her family. "I didn't know you worked here," former RA said. His arm was around his girlfriend's shoulders. Her parents hovered nearby, waiting for some further cues as to Who exactly I Was and what I had to to do with anything.
"I work here, yes. What can I do for you?" I asked. Talking to people I know at work has always been a battle for me. There is this simultaneous, wrenching pull to remain professional and to engage on a personal level. The conversation begins with "How are you?" and ends with a "You should buy this because..."
It turned out that they didn't need my help because they'd already found what they were looking for. We ended up having a pleasant little chat and then going our separate ways. The rest of the day was spent in the usual manner: helping people find Heaven Is for Real and reshelving everything people are two lazy to put back themselves.
Afterwards I got on the bus and read The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore until I arrived downtown five minutes before my next shift. That book is heavy when you're running. Out of breath and a little sweaty, I got up to the cash register, put on my barista hat, and proceeded to take money and pour coffee.
Anyone who's ever worked in customer service knows that zombie-zen mode you slip into after a long day. All the customers begin to look the same and saying "How can I help you" is like a prayer that you really hope won't be answered by the Cruel God standing in front of you with Money and Wanting Things. You're dead on your feat. This is how most of humanity spends their working lives. I don't know if it's fortunate or just says something truly sad about humanity that no one's figured out how to make a robot that can do this.
This was the object of my meditation when I blurted out, "Hello. How can I help you?" and was met with the very peculiar response of, "Haven't I seen you before?"
After a double-take, I realized that I was speaking to the former RA's girlfriend's mother. Her husband stood next to her. They looked baffled and mildly amused.
"You were at the bookstore an hour ago, weren't you?" she asked.
"Yes, I was. I take customer service very seriously, ma'am," I said, suddenly feeling my managers speaking through me much the same way the Narrator must have felt when Tyler Durdan spoke through him. "I said, 'Have a nice day' and I intend to make good on it."
She laughed. Former RA and his girlfriend walked through the door and stared at me. The mother said, "We're going to the Motley Cow after this."
"How convenient. I can take your drink and dinner orders all at once and have it ready for you when you arrive."
"That would be lovely," she said, looking at the menu. "Do you fix computers."
"Of course. I can fix your car, too. What will it be?"
"A strawberry banana smoothie."
The whole family ordered. As I prepared the drinks it occurred to me that I had briefly personified one of the weirder, shared American dreams: to have a minimum wage butler-friend-expert wherever you go. Having multiple service jobs has bestowed on me a certain empathy with people suffering from multiple personality disorder.