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  • Russell Jaffe


As I write this Celestine is carrying play doh cookies around the living room in plastic bowls. "Cookies, who wants cookies?" I say loudly, "I want a cookie I WANT A COOKIE." "No!" barks Celestine. "These are for customers!"

Celestine's attitude towards the service industry is markedly better than my own. My attitude towards service is similar to someone who would take restaurant work seriously, but where we diverge is HOW that service is carried out. For better and for worse, I am, and have always been, a conceptual worker as a teacher. That is, there IS NO "good writing." There are measures, ideas, CONCEPTS, etc. It's more like having a field and trying to cut a path through it.

The first time I knew I was in trouble at the pizza restaurant, I was standing near the delivery door prepping an order when I heard a loud BANG. Not something like a dish falling or a pizza tin being hucked into the sink. It was too deliberately loud. It was the general manager, throwing a pizza tray to the floor, red as a split beet from the shiny top of his head to his balled chin, shouting, "I'M SEEING PIZZAS HERE AND NO ONE IS TAKING THEM! I'M SEEING FOOD SITTING WITH NO ONE TAKING IT TO THE DINERS!" Then he snarled at one of the pizza makers: "Jose, you know what I hate? I hate lazy people." Jose didn't say anything. The general manager stormed off to the dining area with two pizzas. I knew that if he were to go nuts on me, I wouldn't last. I just wouldn't be able to work with that. I would have no problem simply turning around and walking out. I would have only a little problem flipping out back about what a pathetic shame this man was making of himself. I haven't had a job with bosses who scream down your throats since I was a 16 year old boy. And as a dad now, I wouldn't take it. There just isn't any need.

But like my friend Joe, who I met one time, said: there's nothing conceptual about this job. It isn't as simple as, "deliver pizzas: good! Don't deliver pizzas: bad." My 8 (!) days of employment revealed to me under a significant spotlight revealed to me on one end my strengths, in the middle my human self, simple, and adaptable, and emotional, and responsive...and on the other end, my glaring weaknesses.

Here's the last aside before I tell the story. And it's something I believe about all of us, something I believe about myself, and something that also isn't about good or bad. In one light, you have a guy who's an alcoholic redneck with a serious anger problem. In another, you have "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the most beloved and moneymaking professional wrestler of all time. It is our duty in our lives to find our light.

If not here, maybe there.

On August 1st, one of the drivers made a mistake. And he was probably my favorite driver to talk to, too. One of those people who naturally, seamlessly makes you want to be a better human being. An incredibly sweet kid, the one from Mexico whose fiancé was still living there and who was working towards bringing her here. One who always smiled and ALWAYS engaged--conversation, eye contact. This was just an excellent human being.

And he made a mistake. But it's not his issue. Any one of us could make this mistake. The slow beginning of the churn of the gears of what would end my time as a pizza driver. The

forgotten jalapeños.

A customer at the furthest outreaches of our delivery area had ordered a deep dish cheese pizza with a side of jalapeños. This driver went out there sans jalapeños, or maybe they were baked onto the pizza? That sounds really good to me. But whatever the thing, the customer, enraged, called the store back. And that meant someone had to deliver him a new, comped pizza--and side of jalapeños--for $0.00.

A couple drivers and I stared at each other, because someone was going to have to deliver that pizza. And it was my turn. The manager took me into the walk in freezer--so THIS is where all the ingredients live!--scooped out a cupfull of jalapeños, and we walked back to bag the pizza.

"I'm not going to get a tip for this one," I groaned. And everyone looked, and shrugged, and their eyes shuffled around. And I sighed--"say a prayer for me on this one, dudes."

It took me over half an hour to get there. Besides being right at the edge of the street--literally, it was along this border main road--there was no way to get there without hitting traffic on one side or construction--which lead to traffic--on the other. So I get there, and it's one of those split-level apartment complexes, the kind you see a lot of in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, in tons of movies. Something spiritually evocative in an ominous way about this kind of stacking...

It was very dark, the gate was broken and had to be shoved hard to get in. And like you might expect, the apartment was up top, on the furthest end.

It needs to also be said that this was day I got my first paycheck, which was so small that I spent time agonizing in my car about my future, my career, where I was in my life, and my little family at home. Serious existential unsettling I tried venting about on Facebook. But Facebook is never an effective measure of the deeply personal condition.

At the end, there was no light. A piece of cardboard taped over the diamond-shaped window in the middle of the door at eye level so there was no seeing in. I knocked, declaring the name of the pizza restaurant, and the door shot open promptly, revealing in the gray shadow pinned to the dark inside a stock, muscular, tattooed man, who grabbed the pizza and cup of jalapeños from my hands nearly as quickly as I could remove them from their bag, and said, "anything else I need to do?" "No, that's--" I started, and the door was slammed right in my face, and I mean that--it couldn't have been more than an inch from my nose.

To suck it up! So easy to write and reflect on here. But in the moment, with the paycheck, the traffic, the changes, so fast and so hard, my family at home and me here doing this, I wrote on the receipt, something I keep for my own records,


At the end of the night, you input all tips into the computer. Most important are the tips that come from cards or web charges from people who ordered pizza from the website. But the cash--or comped cash--receipts? Those go into the trash. That's where I'd been putting them, same as everyone.

On this night, at the bitter end, the girl--and that's my age writing here. She couldn't have been a day over 17...I'm sure she's an excellent person--at the takeout counter clocked me out. "For your cash orders, you owe $24.07," she told me. I gave her $25. A pause--"you want your change back, or...?" she said. "Yeah I want my change back," I said. "That's my kid's college fund!" But then, as if almost landed but suddenly,

"It says on your order summary for the night that you had a comped pizza,' she told me. "I need that receipt. A manager needs to sign that one.

"I don't have it," I told her. And it wasn't a lie. Trust me, if it was a lie, it'd be here in the journal. I have no problem admitting I was being a tantruming man child cussing on a receipt, But I was doing so because it was my own writing for me, or so I thought. And I had forgetton that the tell-tale receipt was, in fact, not thrown away, but among the nest of other receipts I'd handed her.

And there it was, just in time from my manager to come over and see in my trademark purple pen the Ø FUCKING TIP fury scrawl. I don't remember what I said, but I remember thinking that when he chuckled, it spoke to the culture of swearing, goofing off, and other things I'd seen in the back. It's food service. And this restaurant was really, generally, well organized and together!

So I had written something angry and embarrassing on a receipt I thought was bound for the trash, but it ended up in the hands my manager, who is a jovial guy I liked and who was much younger than me and college bound in fall for a school I'd taught at. But most importantly here, I didn't suspect anything.

It couldn't be funnier, or more ridiculous, or pantomime clown like, or whatever, you're the reader, you tell me, to spend the moments before I came in the next night sitting down and telling Carleen my "life plan," a cobbled together notion of teaching 2 classes at a college I liked in the Fall and driving pizzas at night. Fall and winter are apparently when pizza delivery really picks up--maybe this summer first paycheck was a fluke, a representation of the slow summer that was disappearing and hardening up like a baking pizza.

I get to work and everything felt welcoming, clean, and crisp. People said what's up, they patted me on the back and shoulder. I headed for the soda machine (employees get free drinks, and that's seriously THE destination at the beginning of the night--a disposable cup with your choice of soda--to fill up on seltzer and begin my route. But the general manager stopped me before I could clock in.

"Howdy, boss man!" I said to him. "How you doing tonight?"

"Alright, alright," and I couldn't tell a single thing was wrong when he said it. "Russell, before you clock in, come on into my office, I'd like to have a word with you."

I was legit surprised. He stumbled--let's go upstairs, no, actually, the office is empty now, come on in here, take a seat. I went in--another manager was in there, too! And when he closed the door behind me, I knew I was in big, big trouble.

I sat on a rolling desk chair, a very small one stuck in the lowest position. The two managers sat-stood, asses on the desk behind them, walls high and stocked with impossible clusters of things, looking down at me. A truly low position to be in--

"Russell, we found this," the general manager began, and there was my receipt, and my blood ran cold. You know that feeling. "This goes way beyond...way over the line of customer service."

I stammered, "I'm so sorry. I won't happen again. I have absolutely no excuse, I was just really pissed. It. It won't happen again." Something to that effect.

And the general manager said, "It won't happen again, because we're going to have to ask you to leave."

I had no idea what to say. The silence in the room was a spear, and you know that feeling, too.

"I'm so sorry," I repeated. "I have no excuse. I learned a lot here. I tried. But I learned a lot...I'm really sorry this didn't work out. I have no excuse." I shook the hands of the general manager and the manager.

"We're sorry it didn't work out, too." said the general manager.

I got up, walked out through the carry out entrance away from the other drivers, carried by emotion and not being in the moment at all into my car, relieved, sad, in shock, unhappy, hopeful, but mostly upset that Carleen would be mad at me, because I had done a bad job, and because we needed money.


-I DID get fired, but I DID try. But I believe that there might be more to think about. I've always taught, and I've always been a lot more of a hand-in-my-own-schedule-and-curriculum employee. I thought that if I stuck around I might like working my way up; doing a good job would lead to more responsibilities and, more importantly, for us, especially right now, more money. But I didn't last, so it wasn't meant to be. I liked this job a lot less than I thought I would.

-At Celestine's birthday party at a local park this past weekend, a friend, who is a restaurant manager herself, told me that she'd recently, regretfully, had to write up an employee for saying "SHIT!" in front of some customers. Why didn't I receive a reprimand? It could be...

-...because they sensed I was not the long-haul potential excellent employee I was able to present as when I was hired. I was scheduled 6 nights in a row for 4 weeks, and while I had requested a Saturday off for when my brother was in town from Seattle, my manager put me on the schedule anyway. I had to call back and remind him that I had that off and no, I wasn't going to be able to be on standbye. When I write all this, I am not blaming the pizza place. I am blaming myself. I was given the chance to work frequent nights and I burned out quickly and noticeably. Not only did I miss reading to Celestine at night, but I was exhausted and frustrated by the end of the night, since she usually comes in to wake us between 4-6 every morning, and some of these shifts ended at 11.

-And clocking out means using your brain the MOST and it's at the time it's working the LEAST.

-At that same party, I told another friend that I didn't think I could do *actual* work, just *conceptual* work. And she said, aawww! You're a great dad! And I really appreciated that--but that's not work, or not a job, that's what I said. I mean I can teach. I can make videos. I can perform. But practical skills? I am an art minded person and also a product of higher ed and the MFA system and that's the decade-plus career track I've been on, but I'm also not a die hard academic. So again, I'm in the boat. The boat has some holes in it. But it hasn't gone down. Again, it's on me but I also am a prism for working in education. I COULD have done better as a pizza guy. But it goes seismically against my directional momentum from a long time before that.

-It could be that a new employee taking shifts off every few days just rubbed them the wrong way. But it's more complicated than "Russell is lazy." I was the only driver with a little kid, and I was the only one of a handful who wasn't 18-21. What I want and need in life are different, and the money wasn't amazing enough to push harder, even though that was my plan. It might simply be, this guy isn't a good fit here.

-It is all a kind of privilege and it isn't. There are many other jobs, and I just couldn't make this one happen.

As of this writing, I have a pretty exciting teaching job interview, Celestine is having bad, bad nights of sleep, freaking out and running out of bed screaming and sobbing, and when I put her back in and try to walk away, more screaming and sobbing. The order of the universe is change, but I am expanding more in my direction. I wrote a lot of manifestos, and this is, in many ways, one. This entire site is--TL;DR magazine, all around us, is a testament to how important it is to write, for some of us more than others, but that the history of humanity HAS depended upon writing and its proliferation. I am working to stay in my lane and keep

going. I went in, now I'm back out.

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