A while ago a wreck of a man appeared at one of the tables I served in an upscale nursing home. His name was Sid. He carried an oxygen tank in his walker. His ears stuck out, his eyes sagged and bulged open at the same time. But even this shell of a man lived with a habitual gusto. He devoured his food like there was no tomorrow, so unlike the pained picking and prodding of the rest of the residents. He asked for his sundae with the rest of his meal, and left a semicircle of crumbs and stains on the table cloth when he shuffled off.
His voice was special. It was raspy and big and windblown. His expressions were flamboyant, idiosyncratic. Once when I set down all his food with particular style he said, “B--, you’re a chaaarm!” Another time another server came into the kitchen laughing. “You know what Sid said to me? He said, ‘I want a baloney sandwich. Pile the baloney as thick as my no-o-se!’” Just these tiny crumbs of speech make me wish I had worked there when he was healthier, or known him in his life outside.
Then last week I heard from another waiter he had died. I had only seen him for a couple of weeks. One night as I was carrying a tray of dirty dishes and glasses to the kitchen I saw a woman whose face I felt sure I recognized. Her face was vaguely reminiscent of Barbra Streisand. “Mrs. Lehr,” I said behind her. She walked into the elevator. I repeated her name, louder. She turned, and I hurriedly explained who I was – that I had been her student in fourth grade, some 30 years before. “I’m flattered he still recognizes me!” she said to the person she was with. She explained that her father had just died, and I realized her father was the voracious Sid. I told her I was sorry to hear that. I was excited to have seen her after so long, but I let her go.
I realized she had not been my regular teacher, but the teacher in a “gifted and talented” program, which I attended once a week. A couple of days later I saw her again, with her husband, and I was able to talk to her a little bit more. I told her how much I had liked her father, even in his weakened state. Apparently he had been an athlete and an all around presence. She said she remembered my love of history, unusual for kids my age. I said it may have been related to my Mormon upbringing – all those stories of our origin in persecutions of the 1830s and 40s. I told her I was studying anthropology. I asked her her name.
Later that night I told my Dad on the phone I had seen her, and he said at the time they had wanted to continue me in the program but could not afford it. They had felt bad about it. I was surprised to know there was a fee attached to the program. Frankly I remembered little about it, other than that it was fun and more focused on ongoing projects than regular classes.
How strange it is that Mrs. Lehr’s appearance in my work place should stir up this memory. My very presence in the kitchen of a nursing home attests, not only to my lack of money, but to my philosophical rejection of an elitist meritocracy. I chose to be in this place, at age thirty eight, grabbing slippery silverware from plates and tossing them into a basin, slamming the plates against the inside of the garbage can to dislodge their food, stooping to hear old people sigh, “I guess I’ll have the tuna melt.”
It is one of the happiest job experiences I have ever had. So unlike the definition of power in this society, whereby greater position means the luxury of separation from others, in this job I am constantly in contact with dozens of other people, of a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds. As I race about, scooping out ice cream for dessert, or taking out the laundry, or setting out cookies for afternoon snack, the currency of staff interactions is to make little jokes or comments. We are like ants constantly rubbing antenna before hurrying along on our busy ways.
So within a ten minute period, I might interact with over a dozen different people, from South American waitresses, to Italian-American cooks, to African-American CNAs (certified nurses assistants), to a smattering of WASP types like myself, to high school “bad girls,” to old Yankee and Jewish blue bloods tottering about on walkers. Literally every moment one is adjusting oneself to meet and mirror a different person, like a city on speed. Especially in the kitchen, the banter flies fast and thick, and is almost a necessary part of the work itself. This constant ebb and flow of talk, a glorious flotsam and jetsam of complaints (what happened to the tartar sauce??), insults (bite me!), high spirits (singing along to radio songs), confession (I was abused as a child) and random commentary (Abe just took out his false teeth!), is the best cultural work there is, an ocean of words in which self and other are both merged and distinct.
I shine in this milieu, giving of myself and my creativity and quirkiness, but only in interaction with all their distinct personalities and qualities, which shine as well. The best of society is not a zero sum game where one person’s gain is another’s loss, but a place where all flourish together in a mad give and take. The premise of “gifted and talented” education is that weaker people hold back the stronger. That is wrong. Because of all these working class people and their diverse spirits I shine brighter than ever. And they too shine brighter because of me. Utopia occurs right there in the middle of wage labor.
If one person is held back or held down, everyone suffers. This explains why the division of peoples by class, race, gender, and worst of all, consumer choices, dims the bright explosive light that flares up with true communion of spirits. But everywhere this hidden sun of humanity peeks through in tiny pinpricks of light, in kitchens and train stations and barracks and schools the world over, anywhere people are pushed together, oppressed, press-ganged – into an earthly, earthy nirvana.