Brunch Is for Jerks?

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A couple of days ago a friend of mine, an avowed foodie, texted the above picture to my cell phone.

“I disagree,” I wrote back.

“As do I,” he replied. “Sometimes that’s my only meal!”

I like brunch, but brunch done right. Post-waiter-stress trauma makes me leery of places that crank out fusion cuisine or Tex-Mex six days a week and then offer overpriced eggs on Sunday. Cooks making stuff outside their usual routine produce results ranging from bleh to disastrous. Did we forget Anthony Bourdain’s warning about chefs unloading the week’s leftovers by masking them with heavy sauces?  Most restaurants don’t do brunch well, it’s a punishment detail for waiters and the patrons can be jerks. If you want to see brunch done right go to the Westgate Hotel in San Diego. It’s a religious experience. My wife and I have been there a couple of times and we’re not assholes. At least I don’t think we are.

Then an article entitled, “Brunch Is for Jerks” serendipitously appeared in the next day’s New York Times. Its author, David Shaftel, delivers a blistering diatribe against brunch, decrying the “hung over and proudly bedraggled” affluenza zombies who’re wrecking the “pastoral” peace of the West Village neighborhood where he’s lived for twenty years in search of overpriced mimosas.

In the interest of full disclosure, the author readily admits he’s enjoyed many brunches, establishing his coolness cred by bragging about an epic fifteen-hour outing ending in a dive bar and some hedonistic affair in a Dubai hotel where he feasted on exotic foods and guzzled a jeroboam of Veuve Clicquot. But now, he writes, “It’s over. I’m through with brunch,” complaining that these legions of young, childless and “well-off professionals” munching on Eggs Benedict are emblematic of the gentrification driving middle class families out Manhattan. “Unencumbered by children” Shaftel writes, they are “exactly the kind of people who can fritter away Saturday, Sunday or both over a boozy brunch.” Meow! Something tells me income inequality isn’t driving Shaftel’s rage.

“But now that I have a young daughter,” Shaftel writes. “Brunch is completely impractical…For me, having a child — and perhaps the introspection that comes with turning 40 — made me realize what most vexes me about brunch: Once the domain of Easter Sunday, it has become a twice-weekly symbol of our culture’s increasing desire to reject adulthood.”

Brunch means rejecting adulthood? That fatuous claim pisses me off. When I was single I hated parents who looked down on my childless status. Before fatherhood hit me at 45 I already knew some parents used their children as an excuse to tell other people how to live. Their incessant proselytizing reminds me of convicts who discover religion in jail. When these earth-mommy/uber-dads were single they were having coke fueled trysts in my restaurant’s bathroom. But once the stork arrived they suddenly couldn’t countenance any one else having crazy fun.  You know these killjoy hypocritical types. They’re like people who stopped smoking two days ago and start snapping cigarettes out of other peoples’ mouths. These are the self-important people who’ve brought us breastfeeding jihadists; wimpy slides on the playground and Park Slope mommies trying to ban ice cream trucks in their neighborhood.  Question their orthodoxy and they’ll scream you’re a kiddie hating Nazi.

I suspect sleep deprivation’s partly to blame but let’s be real – many parents are pissed their freedom has been curtailed. So after Shaftel finished taking his dump on brunch I figured he was suffering from a case of sour grapes. All this fury over brunch? Really? He’s also upset about being out-gentrified. Sorry man. The West Village hasn’t been “pastoral” since Peter Stuyvesant was in charge.

Then I realized Dave and I aren’t that much different.

My wife and I are looking to buy a house in the leafy Jersey suburb where we now rent, but escapees from NYC are driving up prices. Seeing  Zip Cars with NY plates clustered outside a realtor’s open house makes me wish I owned an anti-tank gun. “Jerks,” I usually mutter. “Is Brooklyn full? Stay out of my town.”  So I can relate to Dave’s pain.

The similarities don’t end there. When I forwarded Dave’s article to a friend he said he thought I wrote it. That surprised me, but shouldn’t have. I was a cynical waiter and spent years skewering foodie culture, pretentious customers and power mad restaurateurs. If you follow this blog you know I can be a world-class curmudgeon. After all the yuppie bashing I’ve done, faulting Dave for lashing out would be a tad hypocritical.

Dave’s also right about parents not having enough time in the day. Going anywhere with a kid is a logistical exercise akin to the Normandy invasion. By the time I’ve strapped my daughter into her car seat, loaded her diaper bag and stuffed the Baby Bjorn, carriage, bottles, sunscreen, hats and toys into the trunk of my car it’s taken me two hours to get out of the damn house. And, unless you don’t sweat the high therapy bills you’ll pay later, children require tons of attention. Kids make time a precious commodity. So yeah, brunch is sometimes impractical.

I don’t really think Dave’s jealous of childless people. He’s roughly my age and, like me, probably had his fun until it wasn’t fun anymore. I also don’t think he hates brunch –  he’s just projecting his anger on an often mediocre culinary pastime. How’d I draw this conclusion? I’ve detected the same anger in myself.

It’s nice if hitting your forties makes you introspective, but it can also make you a crank.      Realizing more days are behind you then ahead, a middle-aged myopia threatens to set in. You become territorial, parochial and start pining over a nostalgized past. It’s no accident people are more conservative by the time their AARP card arrives. Now young people are starting to bewilder me, forcing me to install an Urban Dictionary app on my phone so I can understand what the hell they’re talking about.

I’ve also become incredibly intolerant of bullshit. While that’s a good thing overall, it’s a problem when dealing with twenty-somethings. When I hear about their relationship dramas I want to vomit. If a guy doesn’t text you back for four days he’s an asshole! If a girl won’t let you crap in her bathroom after you’ve done the horizontal mambo she’s got a problem. Grow up! Then I realize I’ve misplaced my memory of what it’s like to be young.

It doesn’t help we live in a society that lionizes youth and marginalizes old age. We see teenagers becoming Internet zillionaires and are told youth is the fountain of innovation and genius. Didn’t you know artists and writers create all their masterpieces in their twenties? After that it’s all downhill. Bullshit of course, but when you’re doing late night feedings, worried about bills and terrified your house is conspiring to kill your baby, feeling the energy and enthusiasm of young people makes you wonder if time has passed you by.

So you bitch about it.

“Our youth now love luxury.” Socrates wrote. “They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” The old philosopher probably wouldn’t have liked brunch either. But bitching about the young is as old as time. Dave’s just another guy wondering where all that time went.

My wife often calls me to task for thinking like Socrates. Since my daughter’s formative years will take place in my forties and fifties that gives me pause. Everything is new for her. I’ll need immense reserves of spiritual and intellectual elasticity to keep up. I’ll have to reign in my cynicism and remember the sweet song the bird of youth sings. If I don’t I’ll be no good to her.

That doesn’t mean I’ll age regress and try being hip. My experience and perspective is hard won and I’ll probably continue bitching about stuff. But I’ll pick my battles. Brunch isn’t one of them. I understand why Dave got hot and bothered, though. Everything changes and sometimes that sucks. That’s the price of admission life charges.

Brunch isn’t for assholes, Dave. Its just that assholes sometimes go to brunch. So from one fortyish guy raising a daughter to another, I wish you the best of luck.

Just don’t move to my town.

Clouds of Unknowing

I’m in the break room writing my notes while my coworker Jorge fiddles with his iPhone.

“Check this shit out,” he says.

I look up from my paperwork. My younger colleagues are very enamored with their smartphones. “What?” I say.

“Siri,” Jorge says. “What planes are flying overhead?”

“You’re kidding me.”

Jorge’s phone beeps and he hands it to me. “Take a look.” Sure enough, the screen displays the flight numbers of all the planes soaring above our heads.

“Ahmed!” I say. “Hand me the Stinger Missile!”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Jorge says.

“Why do we need to know this stuff?”

Jorge shrugs. “It’s out there, man. You can download an app, point your phone at the sky and it’ll tell you the flight number of every plane it sees.”

Richard, one of our nurses from Nigeria, chimes in. “You Americans make too much information available.”

“You think people can track Air Force One using this thing?” Jorge says.

I figure Siri is tapping into a database of information beamed from the passing planes’ flight transponders, similar to the system air traffic controllers use.

“Let’s hope the Air Force is one step ahead of Apple.” I say.

I’m flying out of New York this week. The thought of some Al Qaeda nutjob using his phone to send a warhead into my plane gives me the willies. While not an authority on military hardware, I know super portable missiles like Stingers have a very limited range. A terrorist would have to target a plane as it was taking off or landing and the flights displayed on Jorge’s phone are tens of thousands of feet up. To take them out would require a large and powerful rocket. I hope the cops would notice such a thing being prepped for launch in a parking lot.

“America’s openness makes it a great country,” Richard says. “But it’s also her greatest weakness.”

He’s right to some degree but I say nothing. Too complicated an issue for break room banter. I finish my notes, check on the patients one last time and clock out.

Walking to my car I look up and see the running lights of several planes blinking like rubies against a black velvet sky. Hundreds of people in pressurized tubes using aerodynamics to fight gravity are streaking to destinations unknown.

I could whip out my phone and find out all about them, but I don’t. Part of the fun of looking at airplanes is wondering where they’re going, Paris? Rome? Tahiti? What are the stories of the people on board? Are they excited? International spies? Or just a harried businesswoman stuck between two extra large passengers? Are they drinking champagne in first class or coach passengers bemoaning the lack of free peanuts? Right now a young man might be stroking his first love’s hair as she nestles against his shoulder while the guy behind them types up an idea that’ll lift millions out of poverty. Maybe the woman in seat 5A is a film star reading a script or a ravishing model traveling to a bikini shoot in Maui. If technology tells me I’m dreaming upon a Fed Ex plane delivering Amazon purchases to Albuquerque that would spoil the mood.

I shake my head. We are bombed with too much information. Tonight I crave mystery. There can be joy in hidden things. Hope dwells in clouds of unknowing. Fools may go where angels fear to tread – but sometimes they win.

Forgetting about Al Qaeda and Stingers I get into my car and drive home. Soon I’ll be flying beneath a canopy of stars. You’ll just have to imagine where I’m going.

Decade

Waiter Rant is ten years old today. If you told me when I wrote that
first post that it would lead to book deals, the NYT Bestseller List, Oprah, The Today Show and hundreds of radio and print interviews I would have said you were suffering from cocaine induced psychosis. But that’s indeed what happened. Life is wondrous and strange.

So much has happened to me in those ten years. I owe the faithful readers of this blog more thanks than mere words can express. Of course, my agent Farley Chase has to be singled out for his perseverance and optimism as well as the good folks at Harper Collins. And I would be remiss if I did not thank my wife Annie for her faith and unwavering support. I love you, darling.

As a new husband and father, I look forward to what the next ten years will bring. I hope you’ll continue reading this blog as my life enters a new phase.

My sincerest gratitude to everyone!

Nice Guy

It’s a cold December night and I’m taking my co-worker Tamisha home. She missed her bus and I don’t want her waiting at a bus stop freezing and alone. What can I say? I’m a nice guy.

“You sure you know the way?” I say, guiding my car through the streets of Newark.

“Sorry,” Tamisha says. I always take the bus and don’t drive. My sense of direction is rusty.”

To my the right glass sheathed apartment buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe tower over us, their windows winking like a binary code of light and dark squares. Ahead of us the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart sits on a hill bathed in light. Despite the weather plenty of people are on the streets.

“”There’s my cousin,” my passenger says. “Little jerk. He should be home.”

“How old is he?” I say, looking at a group of kids clustered under a streetlamp.

“Twelve.”

Something tells me these kids aren’t coming back from the malt shop. But Tamisha is black, I’m white and voicing my opinion would probably be awkward. Instead, Tamisha speaks for me.

“Already up to no good that one,” she says, “Damn shame.”

“Anyplace for kids to go in this town at night?”

“Now?” she says incredulously. “What do you think?” My silence withdraws the question.

“Make a left here,” Tamisha says. “ Steve, this town is crazy. One day some gangbangers had a gun battle in front of my house and bullets went into my baby’s room.”

“Jesus!” I say. “That’s insane!”

“We moved the next day,” she says. “But our new neighborhood isn’t much better.”

A large speed bump appears out of nowhere and I hit the brakes. “Like those?” Tamisha says. “City put them in to slow down carjackers escaping to the highway.”

I’m actually very aware of carjackers. My eyes are constantly checking the rearview mirror and I give the cars ahead of me plenty of room. Rule number one, don’t get boxed in.

“Ever since that white guy got shot in Short Hills people are suddenly interested in carjackers,” Tamisha says. “Happens here all the time.”

“The murder rate is going up I understand.”

“You have no idea. I’m Brick City born and bred but my husband and I want out of here.”

“Looking for a place?”

“We are but we can’t afford a car and take buses to work. So it has to be somewhere close to the hospital.” That will limit her options.

“Where do you live?” Tamisha asks me. I tell her.

“What a beautiful town,” she says. “Lovely houses, safe, good schools. You’re lucky.” For no reason at all I feel guilty.

“Lots of good people in this city,” Tamisha says. “But the bad ones run it. Sucks.”

After ten minutes of driving around I pull up to Tamisha’s apartment. She lives on the second floor of a house. Despite the temperature being in the lows teens, several young men are sitting on her porch.

“You see that shit?” Tamisha says, pointing to them. “They don’t even live here. That’s what I have to put up with.”

“I’ll wait until you get inside,” I say.

“Let me call Ralph.”

Tamisha gets a hold of her husband and a minute later the front door opens. “ Now I can go in,” she says. “Thanks for the lift.”

“See you tomorrow,” I say.

“Be careful going home.”

Tamisha walks past the men on her porch and go inside without saying a word. Then I notice all the guys on the porch are looking at me. Makes sense. I’m a stranger in their neighborhood. If the tables were turned I’d wonder what the hell they were doing in my town. Fair? Of course not.

Ten minutes later I park in front of the cigar shop. “Hey, Steve,” Rich, the proprietor, says. “Enjoying the weather?”

“I just dropped a co-worker off in Newark. It’s even colder there.”

Rich’s eyes narrow. “Where in Newark?” I tell him.

“Promise me you’ll never do that again.”

“Why?”

“Are you fucking stupid? You know how many people get shot in that area? You have a baby on the way, don’t be an asshole.”

“I’ve been driving around Newark for years. I know the score.”

The proprietor flicks an ash of his cigar. “Steve, you are too nice. That’s your greatest weakness. If you got blown away your co-worker would be on T.V. saying, “He was such a nice man!” but you’d be dead. Fucking dead. What good would you be to your wife then?”

“I dated a girl in Harlem for years,” I say. “Nothing ever happened to me there.”

“Newark is not Harlem.”

I spend an hour at the shop and then go home. With no traffic it’s fifteen minutes from my house to Tamisha’s but we might as well be on different planets. As I look at my pregnant wife sleeping Rich’s words ring in my ears. “You’re too nice.”

People have told me the same thing before. While it’s true suburbanites have overblown fears about the “inner city” Newark isn’t a playground. I know a guy whose cousin was carjacked at gunpoint on McCarter Highway. But my personality has gotten me into some interesting situations over the years and most people told me I was crazy afterwards. I guess I have one of those “where angels fear to tread” things going on.

I shrug to myself. Was I irresponsible taking Tamisha home? I have a kid to think about. Should I be a little more cautious? Do I have to change how I’m wired? If I’m honest, I like that part of myself. But will I pay a price for it one day? Thinking about poverty, race, inequality and my own shortcomings, I turn on the boob tube to shut off my buzzing brain.

Thinking about it will only take me to a place I’d rather not go.

The Greatest Casualty

It’s 10:00 PM and I’m sitting in the day room of the psych unit writing my patient notes. Because the hospital’s somewhat antediluvian, I have to scribble them out by hand. Unfortunately a Medicare auditor recently complained she couldn’t read my chicken scratch so my boss advised me improve my penmanship. Abandoning the cursive scrawl of my youth, I slowly print words like disorganized, delusional, and confabulating with the care of a medieval monk transcribing an illuminated manuscript. Well, you can almost read it.

After half an hour of writing the arthritis in wrist suddenly flares up. As I massage it I look around the unit. Half the patients are watching television and the other half are zonked out in their rooms. We have a fairly mixed group of patients this evening – schizophrenics, depressives, two really far out bi-polars, a demented old woman and someone the docs haven’t figured out yet. Most of our clients are “frequent flyers” which means I see them over and over again.

“Can I talk to you?” a voice behind me says.

I turn around. It’s Gustavo, a paranoid schizophrenic we admitted three days ago. “Sure Gustavo,” I say. “What’s up?”

“They’re watching me you know. I’m worried all the time.”

“Who is watching you?”

“Them,” he says pointing to the ceiling. “There’s cameras everywhere.”

Gustavo is absolutely right. With the exception of the patients’ rooms and the showers, the entire unit is blanketed with CCTV cameras. We’ve made no effort to hide them.

“The cameras are there for your safety and mine,” I say.

Occasionally a patient tries tearing the unit apart. If there isn’t time to reach a panic button or call for help, the theory is the security guys will see the fracas on their screens and come running. But the reality is the cameras are there to watch me. Assaults, neglect and sexual abuse perpetuated by staff are not unknown in the mental health world.

“But my phone’s tapped,” Gustavo says. “The government is watching me through the television. They got drones, man. Robots! They watch me from the sky.”

When I started working psych twenty-four years ago everything Gustavo’s saying would be patently ridiculous. Now it’s not. Governments monitor our emails, listen to our phone calls, use drones to look for terrorists and have the ability to watch us surreptitiously though our computer’s camera. The police scan our license plates with high speed readers, track us down through our cell phones and use Google Earth when planning a raid on a crackhouse. It’s not paranoid to think Big Brother is watching you when he is watching you.

This has ramifications for dealing with the clinically paranoid. You can’t say, “It’s all in your head, now take your meds.” Mentally ill does not mean stupid. My patients read the papers. They see how privacy is being eroded in our hyper connected world. Paranoia is a “thought process heavily influenced by fear and anxiety, often to the point of irrationality and delusion.” Well, how many of your “sane” friends spin conspiracy theories about how the government is using the Internet to watch our every move? How many times have you heard a parent worry about their kid doing something stupid online that will be digitally archived forever and scare off potential mates or employers? Twenty years ago such thoughts were for the tin-foil hat crowd. Now we’re all thinking them. We’ve entered the era of Paranoia 2.0. So instead of bullshitting my patients, I’m straight with them.

“Yes, Gustavo,” I say. “We live in a world where a lot of what we do can be recorded and analyzed. The police use drones and the CIA can tap people’s phones. You’re totally right and there’s a lot of debate about it. But let me ask you, why do you think they’re after you personally?”

“I don’t know.”

“You up to something? Planning to overthrow the government?”

“No man, I’m straight up American. I tried to join the Army.”

If you’re not doing anything illegal I doubt they’re looking at you.”

“But they’re everywhere.”

“I worry about that stuff too,” I say. “But when worrying about it screws up your life, when you start yelling at people and don’t trust anybody, not even your own mother, then something’s wrong.”

“But my Mom called the cops on me!” Gustavo says. “She’s in on it!”

“She’s looking out for you, man,” I say. “She doesn’t want you to get hurt. Listen, when you take your meds do you have paranoid thoughts?”

“Not as much.”

“You keep taking those meds and you’ll be outta here in no time,” I say. “Just relax. You’re safe with us. Okay?”

Gustavo shuffles off, not looking convinced. He’s only been here a few days and the drugs we’re giving him haven’t fully kicked in yet. But I fear the increasing omniscience of modern technology is just exacerbating the suspiciousness Gustavo’s illness inflicts on him.

I’ve written previously about how uneasy our brave new world makes me. Just the other day a college kid told me how she submits her term papers through a system called Turnitin, a computer system designed to sniff out plagiarism. But when she told me how her school’s “Office of Academic Integrity” occasionally suspended innocent students tripped up by the system’s unfeeling algorithms, I thought of Orwell’s Winston Smith toiling away at the Ministry of Truth. I also watched this kid happily use free services like Twitter and Facebook on her phone, blissfully unaware that nothing’s free and the data stream she’s producing is being sold for profit.

My shift finished, I go home to find the baby sleeping in her crib and Annie passed out with her iPad glowing softly in her lap. Feeling uneasy I pour a finger of Scotch into a tumbler and flop down on the living room couch. As I feel the liquor burn a path down my throat I turn on the television, but the jabbering talking heads disgust me and I switch it off. Thumbing on my smartphone, I check my email. My mother has sent me some disturbing news. A mentally ill homeless guy stabbed a man to death in my old hometown.

The daughter of the man who was killed was a friend of my sister-in-law. Scanning the news reports I read a sad and familiar story. The homeless man’s territory was a strip mall. He slept in a restaurant and washed his clothes at the neighboring Laundromat. Clean and presentable he never caused any trouble. Then the restaurant closed and he was forced to live in a boarding home in a bad part of town. He deteriorated after that. Probably went off his meds. Now a man is dead, one month before his was to meet his first grandchild.

I think of Gustavo. Most mentally ill people don’t commit acts of violence, but when they’re off their meds and actively hallucinating bad things can happen. I know this because patients have sent me to the ER more times than I care to remember. Untreated, Gustavo could end up preyed upon or commit violence himself. And when he’s discharged he’ll probably end up in a boarding home just like that assailant.

The reason so many of my patients are frequent flyers is that they don’t have a decent place to live. Families are often unable to cope with them so discharged patients go to boarding homes, halfway houses and shelters. Some of these programs are good, but many of them are run by lazy incompetents more interested in profiting from government contracts than providing care and supervision. Assaults and abuse are common. Patients have their medications stolen and sold on the streets.

Deinstitutionalization, the closing of mental hospitals nationwide and moving the patients into the “community” has been a disaster. In 1955 the U.S. had 300 hospital beds for every 100,000 people. Now the national average is around 15, with some states barely having 5. As a result the penal system has become the largest provider of psychiatric services in the country and deadly encounters between the police and mentally ill are daily news. When I was on my honeymoon in San Diego I was stunned by the legions of homeless psych cases wandering the streets. They all didn’t need to be locked up but a large number of them required constant care. We need to be building mental hospitals not closing them.

But let’s face it, as a nation we’ve thrown these people away. They’re shadows – modern versions of untouchables. Who care what happens to them? If you watch television commercials you’ll see where our priorities now lie. We’re constantly enticed by young and shiny people to enthusiastically embrace the promise of the Digital Age, Have you ever seen that commercial for American Express? A well dressed hipster in a coffee shop buys an expensive bauble online and gets a fraud alert on her phone. After confirming her purchase was legit, she leans back in her chair with a smug blissed out look on her face while the announcer proclaims, “This is what membership is. This is what membership does.” Hey, I don’t like people ripping me off either, but Amex is using the same systems that allow governments and corporations to hoover up every byte of information about us they can find. Don’t believe me? Apply for life insurance. The underwriters know all about you. We’re in danger of becoming just ones and zeros. Data. A commodity. A product observed, dissected and quantified with inhuman precision. The problem is that commodities are used up and thrown away. Just like the mentally ill. Just like Gustavo.

Technology has given us many gifts but it has now enabled Orwell’s dark vision to threaten us in ways even he couldn’t have imagined. The interconnectedness of human beings is being replaced with a pale digital imitation – to the detriment of empathy and compassion and to the advantage of those who exploit us. We are being forced into digital cocoons that foster self-interest and consumption. People like Gustavo have no chance in this world. If we’re not careful we’ll create a new breed of people like him.

I finish my drink. Maybe I’ve been working around paranoid people too long. but dealing with the mentally ill has made me feel their pain in my gut. A veteran co-worker always tells the new recruits, “Imagine what it’s like to be them. No one likes them. No one wants to sit with them, take them to dinner or let them into their homes. They’re passed on the streets like they’re nothing everyday.” The answer is to take care of them, to protect the least among us. That’s what membership in the human race means. That’s what membership does. But we’re not doing it. Worrying about the world my daughter will inherit I realize why I feel uneasy.

The greatest casualty of 1984 was human love.

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