The Line

One of the stories I wrote  for storyaday.com back in 2010.

 

I had worked in the restaurant for a few years.

I’d gotten comfortable to the point that I didn’t really have to think about it while I was there. Experience and time put automatic practices inside you; it’s easy to go away in your head and when you come back the last customers are leaving and pretty soon you get paid and it feels like it was all a dream.

The night had gone less smoothly than some. There were new people on staff who needed extra attention and it was too soon to know how they’d pan out. They were agreeable and nervous and it was only after these things had worn off that you could know if a person would be good. I would answer their questions and go about my business. It was nice to be the veteran for once. Nice to be of use.

The restaurant was full and everyone seemed happy. Some tables were winding down and bar patrons were closing out ready to make the shift. The bartenders shuffled around and the servers wore expressions of focus and contained anxiety. Outside the rain was starting to come down and the city was quiet. It all washed over me and I didn’t really think about any of it.

When it was done I sat down and ordered an Aviation gimlet and a cheeseburger and waited. I was not the last to be cut so there were a few customers still throughout, and the room was dark and full of pockets of chatter. My coworkers moved around and I felt mostly invisible at the bar. It was nice. When I was working I was everywhere, always knowing what needed doing, seeing everything and communicating effortlessly; now I wanted to keep to myself as much as possible. There was a switch that went off when you punched out that brought you back to yourself. This wasn’t life. It was a job. When I left it it did not follow me home; I was strict with myself to maintain that degree of separation.

I am this way because I have learned to be so.

There was a time when my social circle was entirely comprised of people I worked with. We bonded in way that people fighting in a war will bond. Each evening we would suit up and face the onslaught and when it was over we would be tired and near broken and declare ourselves victorious for one more day as we enjoyed cocktails and counted the money. And through each collective fight we would grow closer. This, to my mind, is the common experience.

From time to time we would go out for brunch, or drinks, and it seemed harmless. But I started to feel that without the context of the restaurant, the bond vanished. It was little more than coincidence that fate had thrown us all together: Would I have chosen these people otherwise? Would they have chosen me?

A person will do their job well, or they will do it poorly, and either way you can respond to it without personal interjection. Things are clear and simple and the wiser among us know that it is a matter of business and nothing more. Where to draw the line is something most people don’t think about until they’ve got a damned good reason to. I used to want to grow closer to them, to relate to them not merely as coworkers but as people with names and parents and histories. In the beginning the bond had been natural and easy, and I missed that. But it was years ago. I went to work now and could do it without being there at all. The people remain, and I remain, and there are choices you have to make.

There is a line between us now. It’s there because it has to be. The only question is which side of it I prefer them on.

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