The Boy from Virginia Weathers the Storm -Part 2- (The Concrete Chronicles)

After my week from hell, I’d managed to summon enough energy to start my (unpaid) training at the Harlem restaurant. Though my serving skills and shorthand were rustier than I’d expected, I’d proven competent and friendly enough to be among the staff there. I’d even met the owner of the restaurant who made it her business to remain warm and friendly with me during the busiest of times: Sunday Brunch. I was thrilled to be surrounded by good food, and hard-working people, but I also felt that the work being done was much harder than it needed to be.

In London, I worked diligently as a waiter, even setting a record for most tips received at my particular branch during my second month there. Serving comfort food, however, to greedy Harlemites after church or foreign tourists getting their voyeuristic fix was more taxing than serving the high end, suburban clientele I’d once served on the murky, yet lovely Thames River. Still, I gave it a go…for free. Deep in my mind, I’d believed I’d been given this opportunity to train because it would eventually become my new -hopefully lucrative- job. I mean, it happened so quickly that that had to be the reasoning behind it, right?

The next week, I wasn’t on the work schedule for my day job as much as I’d been before, and I was okay with that. Soon, I’d be out of there. I’d be making enough tips to pay my bills and save up for dance classes or theatre classes or that gym membership that I’d signed up for the previous month and hadn’t yet used. Not one to languish in idle time, I managed to acquire quick side job: cleaning an apartment.

I’d mentioned to a new New York friend the month before that I’d had a background in domestic and janitorial work and I didn’t mind cleaning as an occupation. Knowing that I wasn’t at full financial capacity and wanting to help me out, she allowed me to clean her apartment, which, oddly, helped me clear my mind. It also helped put a much needed $40 in my pocket. After hurrying home to buy some items for my empty section of the shared fridge, I hopped on my laptop to revise my resume. It was high time I applied for a job in a field that I could manage. The first month I moved to New York, I discovered a small cleaning company that needed “Cute Guys” to clean houses, paint walls, organize shelves, etc. As dubious as I was about the company, I quickly learned that judging a website by its homepage wasn’t particularly appropriate.  I read their mission statement and got the feeling that they were quite friendly and legit. And hey, people referred to me as “cute” in the “puppy dog” way so I figured that adjective would suffice until I could become cute in a “sexy” way. What I truly cared about was that I didn’t need to take off my clothes to clean a house.  I indulged people’s fantasies on stage. I refused to do so while cleaning a toilet.  

I sent my cover letter and resume via e-mail and prayed for a response sooner than later. In addition, I’d sent my resume out aimlessly to other retailers looking to hire soon. If I could manage two jobs in New York City, I would. No sooner had I clicked “send” did I hear a large ripping sound followed by a soft thud and what sounded like trickling debris. It came from the bathroom, which was situated immediately next door to my room. The guy who roomed next door to me stepped out of his room moments before I decided to step out of mine and I dreaded the origins of his subdued “Holy. Shit.” 

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Upon exploring the bathroom, myself, I concluded that I had, indeed, heard falling debris. It had been preceded by the bathroom ceiling caving in over the tub; the only tub that was shared between the 5 people who occupied the apartment. Dirt, ceiling, dry wood, and probably one hundred years of dust/dust mites layered themselves like lasagne inside the tub, with remnants of the recipe powdering the bathroom floor. I managed to speak an underwhelmed “wow”, and my roommate began to rant while simultaneously laughing incredulously about how “this has happened before but not to this extent.” (I wish I had known this before moving in.) He made some phone calls to our other roommates while the lead roommate (a British guy who was never home due to flying all over the world), made a call to the super.

Within an hour the super was surveying the bathroom and speaking at the glacial pace Miranda Priestly mentioned while she was being all devilish in Prada.

The tub

“It looks like the ceiling came down,” the simpleton said. Ya think? “I don’t know how this could’ve happened.” Part of me wanted to say, ‘we’re not concerned about the how, but instead with the where are we going to shit and shower now?’ My next door roommate had reached a moment of calm and decided he would give his diagnosis.

“You see,” he began, “I think if you look right there (he pointed at the piece of ceiling that was hanging). I think that the tape you put up, wasn’t strong enough.” (Hold on, our ceiling was put up with tape? What kind of ramshackle apartment was I living in?)

“No. That’s not it,” my super said matter of factly, still sloth-like. (Was he high? I understood he was West Indian, but I hate to feed into stereotypes, even when they are true.) I didn’t have time to answer my own internal question because the Roomie was now reprimanding the Super for his shoddy job and storming out and down the hall to his room. I’d actually witnessed a hissy fit but lemme tell you; if they don’t look good on two year olds, they’ll never look good on a twenty three year old. Kids these days, huh?

I gave up trying to rationally explain to our Super that I thought the ceiling caved in because the ceiling was old and the shower condensation caused whatever adhesive was there to fail. He nodded his head, considered my evaluation, and then said, “Nah. There’s flooding or something. A leaky pipe somewhere.” Some people prefer their own truths.

Shenanigans aside, my roommates and I were left with one option: in order to shower and use the rest room, we would have to go up to a vacant apartment on the fourth floor of our building. This would last for about two weeks, the Super told us, while they completely renovated our bathroom. At least we’d be getting a modern room in this ancient apartment of ours.

I figured now was as good a time as ever to become invested in my personal health. I had no acting gigs, no agent, no connections in New York. I had a job I’d soon be leaving for another, and more importantly, I needed a place to shower. My gym had shower, steam room, and sauna…and I was paying for it anyway. So unlike my roommates, I made it my mission not to climb up to the fourth floor, unless it was for exercise -and my bladder’s- sake.

*          *          *

The week was swimming by fast, despite little activity. I was becoming addicted to cardio as the weather was starting to change. Our bathroom construction was driving me insane. Hammering and drilling began every morning between 9 and 11am. On the first day of renovating, the Super managed to put holes in my bedroom wall: the curse of living next door to a faulty room. My day job was becoming more tolerable and, dare I say it, I was building an attachment to the friends I had made there, even though I was on my way out the door. Just as I’d started coasting on the new vibe that was settling in…I got a rude awakening.

At the end of my third (unpaid) training session at the Harlem restaurant, I was told that someone would be in touch. The hiring manager who previously showed an interest in me before beginning my training had become distant and rarely engaged with me at all. It couldn’t have been because I was doing an awful job, was it? (I had made some mistakes, but I was rusty and I was literally thrown on the floor as if I’d been working there for years.) I was being trained by a veteran waitress who knew the ropes and who had expressed that they were in dire need of someone like myself since they’d recently fired a guy for being drunk on the job. In addition, the hiring manager was never there when I was working. Regardless, it was she who’d stopped me at the door when I inquired about being put on the work roster.

“Thanks for coming in, but we won’t be needing your services.”

The sentence was simple and sharp. Like a box-cutter. There was some half-hearted attempt at mentioning that my information would be kept on file…but everyone knows that’s the new version of “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You.” Then she walked her pug face and animal print blouse back into the restaurant. Hungry Hungry Harlem folk started to line up outside the door and I turned swallowing my rejection to walk past their growling, expectant stomachs. For the second time in New York, I left a job site confused and wondering, What next?

I’d just closed the door to my room when the veteran waitress called me to ask what had happened. She’s seen me come to the restaurant and asked why I wasn’t going to be joining them. “I don’t know,” was the only answer I had. I really didn’t know. I didn’t know why I couldn’t manage to get a new job. I didn’t know why I wasn’t good enough to serve food at that restaurant. I didn’t understand why my apartment was falling apart and I hated that I couldn’t seem to get my life in order. Something needed to be done. So I did the only thing I could think of: I emailed my manager to ask her for a private meeting.

*          *          *

When a person puts in two weeks’ notice at his job to find another, and then that other job opportunity falls through in a big way, there’s no choice but to use your last dime to buy a margarita with a friend. It was a Sunday and not only was the drink welcome, but so was the company.

Erin had contacted me a week beforehand to reconnect. She was a fellow thespian who I’d met in college and whose work always captivated me. I was sure that she’d be living the best life there  ever was in New York City. So when we hugged each other on the corner of 43rd and 8th, I’d figured, from her smile alone, that she was living the dream. It wasn’t until we got to Blockheads that the truth came out for both of us. Life hadn’t been a crystal stair for her either and she was only just starting to climb her self-made staircase.

We caught up over nachos and much needed frozen margaritas (though it was approaching 30 degrees outside) and I discovered something: Every little interaction in life counts. Erin and I weren’t the closest of friends in college, but we’d always been pleasant to one another, and as I said before, I thought she was a stellar performer. I kept thinking to myself, ‘why hadn’t we been friends back then?’ Yes, we shared a department major, a circle of creative folk, and now a profession that would send us on the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Still, the ease of our conversation made me feel that our reunion should’ve occurred much sooner. I felt I was speaking to a kindred spirit who knew my plight, and like me, was successfully surviving. I was both comforted and inspired by Erin because I knew, in that moment of eating guacamole and chasing it with frozen tequila, we’d definitely be the sort of friends to call on one another in times of emotional hardship. More importantly, she wouldn’t judge me for my negative/insecure moments, because like many other creatives, she’d probably already been there, done that, and gotten a souvenir.

God had decided to put the person I needed into my life at the exact moment I would need them. Funny how the Universe works.  

Our conversation -as well as the margaritas- gave me clearer insight to the environment I’d infiltrated. I’d come into New York trying to find peace. What I’d ended up doing thus far was shifting my emotional balance. If I didn’t actively try to salvage my situation and turn it around soon, I’d fail in this city. Failure isn’t a brand to which I happily subscribe. 

Life only works if you stop bullshitting yourself, and lend it a helping hand. So, the next day, with a clearer head, a plan of action -and more humility than I thought myself capable- I decided to ask my manager for my job back.

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The Boy from Virginia Weathers the Storm -Part 1- (The Concrete Chronicles)

October 2012

 

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.