30 September, 2007

Double Life, Part Two

The rewards of my job at the bistro were to be found at the end of the evening, when I carried out a backpack full of baguettes, butter, and Styrofoam containers of soup. On my bike and out of the parking lot, I took a right down an alleyway, hardly three feet wide, between the aging brick buildings of Old Westport. The alley widened after fifty feet or so, and there, cloistered by the back sides of popular businesses in the trendy entertainment and shopping district, was an alcove in which a single wrought iron bench faced a narrow tree, both murkily lit by one sulfurous lamp. In those waning days of the summer of ’96, it was a favored place for homeless teens to loiter.

Melvin, Kim, Joe, Elise, Doc, Dave — I remember them all well, and at least the faces of so many more. Some had come to Kansas City with the intention of staying; others considered it only a temporary stopover on their way to Portland, that great indigent Mecca so renowned for its agreeable year-round weather and free public transportation. Their reasons for leaving home were as different as they themselves: a few sought escape, a few wanted adventure, and several had been on the streets so long they couldn’t even remember their parents’ faces or why they had left in the first place. Sometimes drugs played a part. Sometimes they didn’t. But every one of them had a story — travel stories like Dave’s, love stories like Elise and Joe’s, heartbreaking stories like Doc’s. How I came to know them was hardly a story at all, though, because they slept in my neighborhood, set up makeshift jewelry shops on the sidewalks, and spanged — begged for spare change — outside the coffee shops. I was merely one of the few who chose to stop and talk, or at least smile and say hello. The commonality of age, for most were near mine, made me reach out in a way, where others might turn their heads. Gradually, as I came to know them, where they stayed and what they did with their time, I began taking them leftover food from work.

I coasted along the bricks, keeping the bicycle straight in the darkness by equilibrium alone, and braked as I entered the light, welcomed by a cluster of smiling faces. Even before I could dismount, Kim was always on her feet and at me with a fierce hug, her soft fuzz of hair smelling lightly of sweat and sandalwood oil.

“Byron!” she’d sigh, as if it had been longer than a day since we saw each other last. Hugging her back, I did my best to keep from falling backwards and crushing the food on my back.

“Hey, Sweets, how are you?”

“Okay, but I stink.”

“You smell fine,” I always told her. Still, some days I found ways to sneak her home so she could shower.

“What’s up, Working Man?” asked little Melvin from his corner. His voice was forever tired and creaky, belying his disturbing youth. The baggy jeans and long-sleeved tees did nothing to camouflage his bony frame. Often, he looked jaundiced, and I worried for his health.

“Hey, Melvin,” I said, and, although I knew his stock reply, I’d ask whether or not he was hungry.

“Nah,” he would answer dismissively, “I’m good.” That tiny, lazy smile and squinted gaze told me what I needed to know.

I leaned my bike against the wall and, setting down my bag, unpack the food. Everyone got a cup of soup and, more often than not, a couple of baguettes. There was always a little extra, just in case someone else happened to be there. Theirs was a transitory world, and people came and went as a matter of course. Certainly I was no exception: the kid with the job, sober and with a safe place to lay his head every night. My slacks and dress shoes clashed conspicuously with their patched hoodies and third-hand sneakers. It’s a wonder they allowed me into their circle at all. Yet there we were, five nights a week, ensconced in our halo of yellow light, in that secret nook between buildings — just seven or eight kids sharing a meal.

09 September, 2007

Double Life, Part One

Twelve years ago, when I was not quite seventeen, I was paid a pittance to host at a little bistro of hazily European persuasion in Kansas City. Its cramped kitchen was closed during the day; the place served coffees and light refreshments until late afternoon, relying more on the patronage of the shop in front, which dealt in imported candies and tinned goods, gourmet cheeses and sausages. Passing through the shop, diners were tempted with a savory selection of coffee beans, neatly wrapped Swiss and German chocolates, and rack after rack of wine — from middle-of-the-road Chardonnays to pricier vintage Shiraz. To walk down an aisle, one almost had to turn sideways, to keep from knocking anything off the shelves. The refrigerated glass counter that ran along the left, the length of the shop, bore an obscene variety of delectably fatty foodstuffs that would make any cocktail party or gallery opening the talk of the country club. Several long strides through the front door would carry you into the comparatively open space of the restaurant.

It wasn’t much: eighteen tables clad in virginal white, with black, shiny wooden chairs, and small vases of wildflowers as centerpieces. The building was new and unadorned, with clean, white walls and recessed spot lighting that was only used during the daytime. A couple of ceiling-high windows offered a connection to the outside; otherwise the walls were solid, decorated with framed, vintage posters for olive oil and cognac. At 6:00 every evening, however, a transformation would take place, and the unremarkable coffee shop would, by a trick of the light and a bit of finesse, become a warm, candlelit sanctuary of gustatory delights. Silverware would be shined and glasses polished. Small loaves of bread that had been so diligently baked throughout the afternoon would be swathed within their basket crèches. Pats of butter would be dropped in ice water to keep them precisely formed until they were to be served. Like soft magic, the posters on the walls would spring to life in the ambient flicker of tabletop votives, and the smoke of Billie Holiday’s voice would waft up from hidden speakers — the perfect soundtrack.

Five days a wee, I rode my ten-speed from my mother’s apartment, less than six blocks away, wearing slacks and a freshly pressed white oxford, shoes polished to dark mirrors. The bike would be locked to a guardrail at the far end of the parking lot. Sometimes on my way through the front door I picked up a small handful of chocolate-coated espresso beans and pop them into my mouth before anyone saw. Usually, though, I made a beeline for my lectern — the point at which the shop officially ended and the restaurant began — and started shuffling the stack of notes that awaited me there.

Tim was always the first to greet me. “Hello, Byron,” he would drawl from his roost at the shop counter, always with a tiny espresso cup in his hand. He was fastidious about everything, and it showed through in his work ethic and pencil-thin mustache alike.

“Got your lighter?” he would ask, and by way of response I’d flick a brief flame in his direction without looking up. He kept a hawkish eye on things like that. The status of candles and unlit cigarettes troubled him in his sleep (assuming he slept). If the knot of my tie was found lacking, he let me know with a noisy slurp of coffee and a grimace. Most days, he simply stood there in his apron until the coffee was gone, then flit off to make preparations for his second role as waiter. Every shift he worked was a double, near as I could tell. Without him staring down at me, it was always easier to concentrate on my seating arrangements and the handling of last-minute reservations.

The restaurant was open until 11:00 PM, running much the same during those five hours, as any other establishment of its caliber should. Our diners were mainly wealthy retirees, executives, and middle-aged couples quietly celebrating promotions or anniversaries. Clad in bulky, conspicuous jewelry and slyly tailored suits, they arrived punctually, ate, and departed with little fanfare or fuss. My duties with the telephone usually kept me occupied for the duration, even overseeing so few tables. From time to time, there was a lull and I would help the busboy clear and re-set a table, or lend a hand serving. We all worked well together; no task was delegated. Without fail, the evening flew by.

It was after the last of the diners left that we rejoiced in the languor of closing up. Black ties loosened, sleeves rolled, collars rakishly undone, we’d pull together two tables and set about dividing tips over glasses of wine, smoking imported cigarettes. Sitting backwards in my chair, my arms folded on the back, I enjoyed the loose laughter and easy conversation of my coworkers. Tall and lanky John, emboldened by one too many glasses of Zinfandel, might stand up and offer a song from his latest performance, making up half the words as he went; or Susan, dark-haired and forever worried, might offer up a tale of some hilarious, awful mishap from her week. We reveled in our stories, our jokes. Never mind that this was in America’s heartland, I never felt so French in all my life — not even sitting in that Parisian café, ironically wearing a beret.

Shortly before midnight, we dispersed. The music would be turned off, the lights turned up, the last Shepherd’s Hotel cigarette extinguished, and the spell instantly lifted. It was a jarring transition, but only an intermediate one. The place to which I departed was another world completely.