October was a month full of enough setbacks to make me feel like the most inadequate and incompetent punching bag in New York City. And most of those setbacks happened in the first week.
The day before the first of the month, I returned my key to the wonderful roommates who had tolerated me a month longer than was necessary and made my way to my new home on 129th and Lenox. Arriving at my new place felt like putting the final piece of a puzzle together. I walked into the one hundred year old lobby feeling as though I was one step closer to being where I belonged. I mean, I’d made it to Harlem, a place I’d craved since studying the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes in the fourth grade. I was in the heart of it and life couldn’t be better. I went into my empty room, saw that there was no furniture and thought to myself ‘It won’t always be like this. And at least you have a decent sized closet.’ That night, after a brief check in with my new roommates, I fell asleep on the couch in the living room; the jazz of my new neighborhood singing me to sleep.
* * *
I ventured into work on the second day of October feeling a sense of anxiety in the highly polluted air. Something was amiss, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. So as I hopped off the train at 72nd street, the music from my iPod soundtracking my morning, I didn’t realize I was missing a very important text.
Once at work, I greeted my co-worker, who I felt didn’t care for me at all, and went into the staff room to prepare for work. I put on my apron and picked up my iPhone, ready to put it on vibrate and seal it inside my book-bag for the duration of my shift when I read a text from my roommate asking where my rent check was and stating that it was due by 2 pm that afternoon. Oh shit!
I’d completely forgotten to write the check for my security deposit and first month’s rent before I left the apartment that morning, because I didn’t want to be late for work. Also, I was well aware that I did not have the full amount of money I needed to pay the rent due to having to provide my own transportation to the shoot for NBC the week prior. In all honesty, I was $300 short of that full required amount that was needed and I felt my stomach drop. Panic swam around in my bloodstream as I made my way out onto the floor and said to my colleague, “I might need to take a long lunch today.” I thought I’d posed my sentence as a question. Did I employ an upward inflection?
I expressed to her my emergency which may as well have been met with a shrug of shoulders. I understood that we were the only two people on the morning shift and there was a potential that the shop floor could get busy (but that was rare on a Monday), but I couldn’t get caught up in coulda, shoulda, woulda’s. I needed to pay rent or I would definitely pay some other price.
I didn’t expect for her to have empathy for me (Hell, I was in New York. I knew that no one truly gave a shit about your circumstances in the big city). I’d managed to go into the staff room and sneak a phone call to my mother asking her to foot me the money that I needed to pay my rent. Luckily, Superwoman was able to come up with the amount for me. And all I’d need to do was wait for her to text me that she’d put it into my account.
I was antsy on the shop for the next few hours. For one, I was under the watchful eye of my co-worker, who I need to be on my side that day. Two, I just wasn’t satisfied with myself that I’d allowed myself to be in a deficit. Even after paying the rent, I’d have no money to eat or buy groceries with. I became obsessed with getting through to lunch. But a bit of misguided banter (I playfully compared my co-worker’s managing skills to someone she didn’t particularly appreciate), didn’t help my cause one bit. Without someone with whom I could to commiserate dread settled in. Thank goodness, I’m an actor, though, because I kept up an “It’s all good” face around my customers.
At midday, a senior staffer arrived and as she was headed to the staff room, she asked me how I was doing to which I replied “Not good. Not good at all. But things’ll be fine.” I smiled, because that was my only option. I couldn’t let my panic affect the customers or, more importantly, the sales. But I noticed a flicker of discomfort in her face before she smiled back disappeared into the staff room.
Not long before she arrived, I’d gotten the confirmation text from my mother that the money had gone into my account and I could’ve punched the air in celebration if I felt I had time to do so. Instead, I ran onto the shop floor and asked if I might be able to go to lunch early so I could run and pay my rent. Both co-workers faces showed me that they did not appreciate that request. Nor did they appreciate me telling that that my errand would take about 45 minutes to compete. Lunch was a half hour. And it was a half hour that I desperately needed. I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t be cut some slack when all I wanted to do was rectify all my wrongs.
After a quick negotiation and rearrangement of lunches, I bolted out of the door and down the street to my bank, got a money order and crossed the street to catch the 2 back to Harlem. The bank run was 15 minutes. A trip to Harlem would be 15 more minutes. My run to and from my apartment was 5 minutes. And my hauling-of-ass back to my job would be 7 minutes more. My entire trip was 20 minutes longer than my lunch period, but I’d had my money order back at home by 2:10 pm. Unfortunately, I’d missed my 2pm deadline (something I would later discover didn’t particularly matter), but I didn’t care. I was lighter in my spirit. I mean, I would still owe my mother and I’d have nothing to eat for a few days, but at least I’d have a roof over my head for the remainder of the month. In my mind, I was free.
That is, until I was set free by my senior staff member.
“Has it been a tough one today?” she asked me after pulling me off the shop floor and into the staff room.
“Yes, actually. I’ve been a bit stressed out this morning, but I think I’ll be fine now.” I even thanked my other co-worker for allowing me to go to lunch before her. I felt nothing but gratitude and I was happy to continue work knowing that I wouldn’t have to deal with any more financial crisis for the rest of the day. Somehow, my gratitude hadn’t translated.
“Well, you know what, I think we’ll have another co-worker coming in very soon so if you need to go home to de-stress, go ahead.”
“I’m fine. Everything’s cool.”
“Well, it’s just that when I came in and asked you how you were doing, you’re response was ‘Not good.’”
“Well that’s because I wasn’t, at that moment. But given that things have been resolved I’m cool.”
“Understandable. But when you say things like you’re not feeling good. It can come off as negative. And we need you to give your best on the shop floor at all times. Can you promise to give 100 percent? ”
“Well, no.” I said, quickly, readying to give her the mantra that had helped me through many situations. “I can give you 99.9 percent of what I can give you today. That’s all anyone can give, really. I don’t believe that anyone ever truly give 100% because you need .01 percent of personal energy. But I can promise to give you my absolute best.” This was an answer, I could tell, she wasn’t prepared to hear.
“Well given how tough today was for you, we feel it would be best if you…go ahead home. It’ll give you a chance to work out whatever’s going on.” She said this with a thin smile and in a fairy tale manner that made me feel like I should just go home, bake a cake, and life would be fine in the morning. Her tone of voice convinced me that she understood my pain. I considered what she was saying…tentatively.
“Are you sure?” Because I wasn’t sure going home was the best option for a guy like me with no money.
“Yeah. It’s fine. We’ll be fine here.”
My mind acted fast. I was being dismissed. Obviously. Somehow, it didn’t feel like a true dismissal. My gut told me, however ‘something about this isn’t right.’ I left work, however, two hours earlier than planned. I was about to get on a subway to meet a friend at 8pm that evening when I got a call from my senior staff member. This could not be good.
“Hey! We’ve given your shifts to another co-worker this week. We have too many hours that need to be covered and you’ve been doing quite a lot of work for us so…
“I’m sorry. What?”
“Yeah. We realized that another worker needs some hours and you need to de-stress…”
“But I am de-stressed.” And the conversation made me borderline distressed. I didn’t know what else to say so I said. “Okay,” and hung up the phone. I thought the worst immediately -which is what I do sometimes- and came to the conclusion that I was being fired. I went to bed scratching my head in confusion, and hoping that my stress would fall out like dandruff.
* * *
Because the phone call the prior night got my Tommy senses tingling, I decided to go into Times Square the next day and look into retailers where I felt I might want to work, if indeed, I was about to be laid off. It was while I was job-browsing, that I’d received a phone call from my assistant manager, who was on a work conference outside of the country. I ran under the awning of an unfinished “Hollister” Store which would be “opening next spring” to take her call and to protect myself from the rain that had begun to pour.
My assistant manager led the conversation with news that I would not be working for the rest of the week. I knew it! I was immediately in heart attack mode, and also confused. How had having a bad day led to a mandatory leave of absence? I wasn’t rude to customers, I still managed to make sales, and I was a daman good employee. Wasn’t I? I was informed that the managerial team felt that I was not in a good “space” to work, and that I was also a negative influence on other staff. ‘I will have to monitor my honesty in the workplace in the future,’ I thought. Luckily for me, my assistant manager asked me what went on the day before.
I was frank with my assistant manager about all the things that occurred prior to that moment, as well as all my verbal encounters with co-workers. I also informed her that I came into negativity that was already present on the job, which gave me a false sense of who I could and couldn’t express myself to. Having heard my side of the story, she informed me that she’d need a discussion with our boss before moving forward. But I was already feeling doomed….so I pondered my next move as well.
I expressed that I found fault with the decision to send me home for a week to sort out my “issues.” For me, it seemed the decision would be financially counterproductive and I deemed it a rash over-penalization for being honest about my feelings at work. In articulating my frustration to my assistant manager, and reeling from the attacks on my character, I couldn’t physically control the huge New York mess I was about to become: a man blubbering through tears on an iPhone, pleading to retain the job that was my sole source of income. The rain continued to fall, occasionally matching the drizzle of precipitation from my eyes. I didn’t own an umbrella (nor sunglasses) so I’d be under that awning for a long time. I know the tears helped nothing, but I hoped my transparency would.
That evening, I made my way to my favourite Harlem restaurant, where I’d showed a previous interest in working, and I told the hiring manager that I would like a job there. I left my resume and went home to pray. (It was definitely a time to turn to God)
On the third day of October, my phone rang, waking me up out of a very therapeutic sleep. “Are you available to cover a shift today?” was the question that almost made me furious. But I immediately lost the battle with my pride and principles, and decided money wouldn’t appear without my help. So I went to work that day, limited my interactions with others (to avoid spreading ‘negativity’), and sold the shit out of the products in our shop. When people attack who you are, the best revenge is being a better version of who you were the day before. Or in simpler terms: Prove those motherfuckers wrong about you! That day at work, I was determined to give people the best 99.9 percent of what I could give that day.
I didn’t go into work the next day, but I did receive a call from the hiring manager at the Harlem restaurant saying that I could come in for training. I was amazed at how fast God worked. So that evening, I went in to have what was basically an interview, and I basically…trained. It’d been a year since I’d been a server. And I was a server in London, not America…so I’d have to eventually adjust to a new way of customer service…and an ancient computer system…and my new clientele (since it was a soul food restaurant). It would be drastically different than working retail in the Upper West Side.
At the end of that week my managerial team returned from their conference. I’d had another successful day at work and five minutes before the end of my shift, I gave my assistant manager an envelope. In it was my letter of resignation that I’d written three days prior. With all the to-do that had become my life that first week of October, I decided that the true way to de-stress, was to leave a bad situation before it could get any worse. It was the first time since moving to New York that I’d felt I’d actually given 100 percent of myself and realized 100 percent of my worth.