I’m at the laundromat folding my freshly cleaned underwear when Mike, a waiter I know from a local restaurant, walks in dragging a laminated paper bag of dirty clothes behind him. He doesn’t notice me as he starts stuffing his white shirts, black pants, server aprons, and civilian wear into the cavernous mouth of one of the extra large machines. As I stack my boxer briefs into neat little piles, I watch Mike pour in detergent, select the “HOT WASH” option, and start dropping five dollars worth of quarters into the coin slot. When the twentieth quarter registers, the machine’s motor springs to life with a fluidic whoosh and the waiter’s clothes transform into an agitated soup of cotton and suds. I guess Mike’s never heard of washing whites and colors separately. Oh well.
“Hey Mike,” I call out. “How ya doing?”
“Hey Steve,” Mike says. “Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”
“That’s okay. How are things at the restaurant?”
“Ugh,” Mike says. “Things suck.”
“Monday though Friday we get a third of the covers we used to get.”
I let out a low whistle. “That is bad. How are the weekends?”
“We get the usual Saturday crowd,” Mike says. “But they’re eating and drinking cheap.”
“Is the tipping percentage down?”
“You get the occasional jerk who thinks he’s recession proofing himself by tipping eight percent,” Mike says. “But most people still hover in the fifteen to twenty percent range.”
“It’s just that twenty percent of a fifty dollar check is not as good as twenty percent of a hundred dollar check.”
“During the downturn in 2000,” I say, “Some of my regular customers just disappeared. People I was friendly with. Never saw them again.”
“Probably embarrassed they couldn’t afford to spend as much as they used to,” Mike replies.
“You’re probably right,” I say. “I wouldn’t’ve minded if they ate pasta instead of steak. At least they’d still be in my place spending money. I guess some people are all about appearances.”
“Talking about that,” Mike says. “You know the rich yuppie mommies who go out to lunch around here? The ones who go shopping all day while their Wall Street husbands earn all the money?”
“I remember the type.”
“I haven’t seen any of them at my restaurant in months.”
“Maybe their Wall Street husbands got laid off and they’re tightening their belts,” I suggest.
“I think it’s worse than that,” Mike says.
“Did you know that thirty-four homes in this town went into foreclosure last month?” Mike asks.
“Holy shit,’ I reply. “That many?”
“And not just crappy houses either,” Mike says. “But showpieces that cost eight hundred grand a year ago.”
“So you think the yuppie moms lost their homes?’
“Makes sense,” Mike says. “A lot of these people were overextended and borrowed against the value their homes to maintain their lifestyles. When you combine dropping home values, the stock market tanking, and the husbands getting laid off, they probably got wiped out.”
“Wow,” I say. “That’s brutal.”
“Screw ‘em,” Mike says, waving his hand dismissively. “Assholes like that thought the party would never end. Maybe some of those yuppie fuckers will be waiting tables alongside me soon.”
There was a time when I would’ve commiserated with Mike in his schadenfreude but not today. Too many friends and family have told me horror stories about massacred retirement accounts, dwindling 401Ks, job anxiety, postponed dreams, and being maimed by the grinding struggle to make ends meet. They’re all good, hardworking people. I suspect the vast majority of the “yuppie fuckers” Mike’s referring to are good people as well. But I was a waiter once. I remember watching my cash flow dry up and sweating the rent. And even though it’s not in anyone’s best economic interest to feel this way, when you’re broke and bitter, misery loves company.
“Anyway,” Mike says. “You should be grateful you’re out of the biz. There’s never been a worse time to be a waiter.”
“How are you managing?” I ask.
“I used to make my nut working four nights a week,” Mike says. “Now I don’t make that working five doubles.”
“Double shifts, man,” I say, shaking my head. “They’re murder.”
“Now my girlfriend and I are having problems because I’m never home,’ Mike says. “The shit never ends.”
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
“So how you doing?” Mike asks. “How’s the book?”
“The book’s doing well,” I reply. “Now I’m writing another one.”
“Tipping thought the service industry,” I say. “Waiters, bellhops, skycaps, barbers, strippers – stuff like that.”
“Cool,” Mike says. “And you and your girlfriend? Still going strong?”
“Actually we broke up last month,” I say.
“Oh shit,” Mike says. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. She’s a great woman. It just wasn’t working out between us.”
“Sometimes the bitter comes with the sweet.”
“Like the economy being in the toilet,” Mike says. “But gas getting cheaper.”
I pause for a moment to gather my thoughts. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” I say. “But sort of.”
“Did you see the gas stations down the street?” Mike says, looking like he desperately wants to change the subject. “They’re in a pricing war. One guy’s selling gas for a buck-seventy-nine a gallon.”
“Those guys have been slugging it out for weeks,” I say, giving Mike his out. “I think they have the lowest prices in the state.”
“They’re causing traffic jams,” Mike says. “It’s crazy.”
Mike and I talk about superfluous stuff for a few more minutes while I finish folding my laundry. When I’m done I pack my clean clothes into my own laminated paper bag, wish Mike luck, and drag my laundry out to my car. The moment I get behind the steering wheel another car pulls up like an automotive vulture, ready to prey on my spot. Parking is tight this time of day and I’d do the same thing if the situation was reversed, but somehow this driver’s annoying me. For some reason I can’t explain, I don’t want to be rushed. I roll down my window and wave car onward. The car’s horn beeps angrily in response. My frustration tolerance has been low this past month so I’m surprised I resist flipping the driver the bird. After thirty seconds the driver of the car gets the hint and pulls past me. I get a glimpse of his face, He’s one of those red face choleric types who look like they’re a temper tantrum away from a brain aneurysm. Just great. I’ve deposited my bad energy into another person. Maybe it’s that misery loves company things again.
I lean back in the driver’s seat. I am well and truly pissed off. What’s worse, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the breakup. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe I got up on the wrong side of bed. I take a deep breath and start going through my own little anger management routine. It doesn’t involve mantras or visualizations of beachfront property. I get a handle on my emotions by observing what’s going on around me. Getting absorbed in small details usually soothes my nerves and gives me the emotional headspace to start working out a solution.
As I concentrate on the stone wall fronting the courtyard of the church I’m parked next to, I spy a squirrel munching on an acorn. He’s all plump and ready for winter. Probably has secret caches of nut protein stashed all over town. Maybe he’s hidden some of his loot in the front yard of my house. Maybe he’s buried acorns in front lawns of all the foreclosed homes in town. That’d be ironic.
But that squirrel’s started something stirring inside my brain. That something spins around my mind, churning the memories, images, cognitions, and sensations that make up who I am like the agitator blade inside a washing machine. On a preconscious level I realize that I need to be saving something for a rainy day. I need to start squirreling that something away. And that something’s not money or nuts. But what is it?
Just wait for it, I tell myself. The answer will come. Then, just when I feel the truth bubbling to the surface like a long forgotten name or fact, a blaring car horn shocks my ears and rudely shoves the answer back down into the depths.
“Are you leaving?” a whiny female yells from inside her car. “I wanna park there if you’re leaving. You’re gonna leave right?”
“The spot’s all yours,” I reply, “I was just leaving.”
I turn the ignition key and power up the engine. As I start to pull away form the curb I look at the grey rodent perched on the stone wall. He’s too busy adding that last layer of fat before winter’s chill to even notice me.
“Brother,” I say to the squirrel. “You probably know something I don’t.”
I drive away and the lady swings into my parking spot. Oddly enough, I’m not stressed anymore. That something rattling around my brain will emerge later. I’ll have my answer. And probably when I least expect it.