This is the part of the story where I go mad.
It’s nine forty-five p.m. I haven’t eaten since this morning. My heels slide across the greasy floor of the back kitchen in a west-end restaurant. I’m folding napkins. Not in any which way, but a specific fold that the girl next to me has effortlessly honed, making my inability to tell the inside from the outside of the napkin shameful. It’s so hot in the kitchen, and I’m so hungry, I feel like I’m going to faint.
I’m new here. Not just new to this restaurant, I mean, but new to the service industry. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve worked before; I’ve put in long, hard hours at various jobs to pay for school—a master’s degree doesn’t just pay for itself—but this is work like I’ve never experienced.
No one told me to pack a lunch—staff can’t leave the premises during work, I’m warned. I’m also warned I shouldn’t ask for a break, or ask to leave early, because the manager will “flip out.” The blonde girl training me warns me of this; I suppose it means she likes me. She’s twenty-one and beautiful. In the eight-and-a-half hours working with her, she misreads my wrist tattoo and asks me if I have a boyfriend, followed by “why not?”; it’s the extent of our conversation.
Less than two months ago, I wore the same heels to a conference at the University of Toronto. Striding across the grass at Queen’s Park, I rehearsed over and over in my head the thesis paper I’d prepared to present. The heels were the same, but here, in the sweaty kitchen off Portland Street, I was worlds away from the university halls and libraries that had backdropped my life for the last five years. I’m not in Kansas anymore.
I graduated in October with a master’s degree in English Literature. I chose to study the arts not because I thought I’d earn a ton of money, and not because I wanted to teach high school, but because I love language and I believe in the power of words. It may sound trite, but I’m a writer, so allow me this indulgence: I believe communication is integral to social change, and I want my writing to make a difference. I believe words can change the world. Maybe I’m an idealist, but it’s better than having no ideals at all.
At my convocation this past fall, I’d walked across the stage with confidence. My parents smiled proud smiles from the back of the packed auditorium. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there, as they were there when I graduated from my undergraduate program. After the ceremony, we’d taken family photos in the scenic courtyard at Ryerson University. The pictures capture a hopeful and eager woman I can’t quite recognize in the mirror anymore.
As I wash my hands in the staff washroom in the restaurant’s basement, I catch a glimpse of myself in the small dirty mirror. The purple bags circling my tired eyes give me away: I’m exhausted. I’ve spent the past four hours memorizing table numbers and running coats up and down a flight of stairs. I smell like deep-fried.
Writing my resume, I find myself exercising verbal gymnastics: my ability to read texts and write scholarly papers becomes “excellent communication skills”; my one-year stint as an academic researcher becomes “able to sort information efficiently.” All at once I realize I’ve entered a world where there’s no language to express the importance of what I’ve spent the last five years of my life studying: there’s no utilitarian value to art. Yes. Decidedly I’m disillusioned.
Money is running out; I need a job fast. I was relieved two days ago when I stumbled upon a busy restaurant on King Street and the manager hired me. I handed him my resume, he looked me up and down, and told me I start Friday.
My first shift, the head chef of the restaurant mistakes me for a customer twice. He’s a lean Asian man who wears his jet-black hair pulled back into a ponytail. We’ve not been introduced, so later that evening when he’s standing beside me, I take the liberty of shaking his hand. He asks me where I worked before, and I list my credentials, which by now I have memorized like my SIN number. When I tell him I studied literature, he nods, and walks away, either entirely impressed, unimpressed, or indifferent. Later I realize that it makes no difference. Here, the only thing that matters is whether or not I can fold napkins.