Eating Dinner in La Mesa

It had been a couple years since my mother was confined to a nursing home due to a stroke.

I was visiting her, as I had been off and on. With her in San Diego and me in Maryland, the visits had to be planned and scheduled based on when I could get time off and when I could get decent air fare.

University Blvd. in La Mesa, California, just down the street from my adequate hotel.

After a long day of being with Mom, I was ready for some time to myself. I decided to have dinner at the relatively new farm-to-table restaurant in La Mesa. Mom had taken me there just before her stroke, so I knew she would have approved.

It was an easy walk from my two-star hotel up La Mesa Boulevard to the restaurant. The place was busy, so I opted to eat at the bar. The bar there has both  indoor and  outdoor seating, and the outdoor stools were less crowded. This being the San Diego area, the dry air was brisk but not unpleasantly cold. I didn’t mind.

It was just me for dinner. I had been working all day to keep Mom engaged and to understand her way of communicating post-stroke, which isn’t easy. I was ready for just letting myself enjoy the moment.

I ordered a margarita for starters, something I usually order in California but hadn’t yet this trip. The bartender was competent but, to be frank, inattentive. She seemed preoccupied by something — perhaps just focusing on her job. But her customers seemed to be an afterthought.

The inattentive barkeep eventually took my dinner order — the vegetable risotto that I’d had when I ate there with Mom. It’s very good and one of the least expensive options on the menu.

I also ordered a glass of red wine to go with it. The margarita was doing it’s thing, but I really thought the wine would be a nice addition to the meal.

When the meal arrived, I enjoyed it while listening to the local news program on the bar TV and observing the bartender and the two women chatting across from me. The risotto steamed in the cool evening air. It was just what I needed.

Except that I could have used a bit more. I could have used some companionable conversation from the bartender, or a fellow diner. It is unsettling to be a paying patron at a restaurant, eating alone, without anyone really taking notice.

I mean really noticing. I can understand a fellow patron not being all that interested in engaging. But the bartender’s job is to tend the bar, yes? Tend to the customers who have arrived at the end of God knows what kind of day for a drink and a meal. Some consideration would be appreciated. Maybe I just didn’t look like the type. Who knows?

Everyone is dealing with something. Bartenders are no different, it seems.

I finished my meal more drunk than I had intended. But the twilight walk back to the motel was pleasant and uneventful. Past the local social services office, past the mini-mall with the Mexican joint and the nail salon. Back to the barely adequate hotel that nonetheless feels safe and peaceful at night.

I got a good night’s sleep.

Just a Paycheck

A comeback that is 25 years in the making can hardly be considered “snappy” but here it goes.

The first three years after I graduated from college, I spent in food service. And one day, on a day off, I was at a function with my now wife and some of her co-workers. I was sharing a conversation I’d recently had with one of the cooks at the restaurant I was working for at the time. I’d asked if he cooked much at home and he told me that most days he just makes a sandwich and has a beer.

One of my wife’s co-workers, who had some experience in running a restaurant, said something along the lines of “Well, he most not be a real cook, because the real cooks I’ve worked with continue to create in their kitchen at home.”

At the time, I didn’t know what to say. She was older, presumably more experienced, and I was not one to argue.

But in the intervening years, I have learned that, for many people, a job is…

Just.

A.

Paycheck.

It would be wonderful if we all could be gainfully employed in an occupation that we find ourselves uniquely suited for, that gives us companionship with colleagues and the satisfaction every day of a job well done.

But not every job is the perfect job, and not everyone has the privilege in their life of finding something that even resembles perfect. The laws of supply and demand remove many of our choices to somewhere beyond our grasp.

In the meantime, the bills have to be paid and there are mouths to feed. There is trash to be collected and sewers that need to be unclogged. There is vomit that needs to be cleaned up, roadkill that needs to be moved out of the road, asses that need wiping.

As I’ve said before, there are some people of a certain political point of view who say that everyone should be grateful simply to be employed. And I will allow that being employed has merits in an of itself. But the gratefulness is a stretch when the best you can say about your job is that it is just a paycheck.

So yes, there are certainly some “real cooks” out there who are passionate about preparing food. And then there are others (probably many others) for whom the work at the stove and the plating of the food is just a means to an end. When they clock out, they’d rather not think about it until the next shift.

And it would be best not to confuse one for the other.

There’s a fine line between “work[ing] like a soul inspired until the battle of the day is won” and “hanging on in quiet desperation.” Most of us take comfort believing that there are working heroes, who pour their soul into their occupation day in and day out (lots of TV shows about that). But if you peel back the curtain a bit, the reality is far more bland and nuanced, and we should neither think better of ourselves for it nor judge others (or ourselves) more harshly.

There. A not-so-snappy comeback.