I needed a job badly. School was expensive. After the financial aid was subtracted, I still had a ton of cash due each month. I moved off campus–our campus housing was like a country club. The food was great, the housing decent, and both were priced accordingly. Living off campus was cheaper. Still, I needed to work. There was a diner being built at the end of my street. It had a big “Help Wanted” sign. How fortuitous.
I walked in the front door, dressed neatly, resume in hand. There were guys doing various degrees of finish work–one guy working on a booth and another bent over some sheet rock.
“Hi, I noticed you’re looking for help?”
I held the paper out toward him.
“What’s that?” he asked.
The room stopped. All construction suddenly came to a halt. All eyes were on me.
He took the paper, glanced down, and shouted over his shoulder.
“Hey, she’s got a resume.” The men began to laugh. Not just a normal laugh–a headliner at the Comedy Central laugh. The kind of laugh that puts a wet spot on the floor.
“A resume!” More laughter. The word echoed through the room as the joke got telephoned to to the very last man in the room, with a wet spot appearing on the floor every time.
I was hired. I don’t think it was my resume–apparently, one doesn’t apply for diner jobs with a resume. One goes in, hopefully sober, and gets hired because two people were too hung over to show up for work.
I was hired to waitress. They called me “College Girl.” “Hey College Girl…get me some coffee!” I heard that a lot.
Working at a diner isn’t easy. It’s a tough crowd. It wasn’t college, though elements from the university came in. I’d wait on them. The other waitresses felt they wouldn’t tip. The other waitresses let me wait on the crazies, the very demanding, and the “undesirables.” We were located very close to the psych unit of the local hospital. Although my college courses didn’t include psychology, and psych patients didn’t tip, I enjoyed these people. “But for the grace of God go I…” I wondered if they started out working in a diner and through one or two twists and turns of events ended up in their present state in need of the tiniest bit of compassion. I fixed their meals like they liked them. I gave the lady who ate the garnishes extra and held Doll Woman’s “Sally” as gently as if she were a real baby. I heard through the grapevine Doll Woman had lost a child.
I quit the diner–I didn’t understand what it was like to run a business. I was a college girl who needed to leave after my shift and go to class. My boss had a business. He had to deal with stuff at all costs. It means you deal with that stuff at all costs. I have a business. I get that. You don’t just shut the doors because you have a Gospel Choir concert or 2PM class or an ice storm. You stay. You deal. You make things work. These are things entrepreneurs do that “College Girl” wasn’t equipped to understand.
I ran into my boss at the grocery store a few months after I quit. “You were right. She was stealing.” He apologized for not listening to my assessment of another employee. Today, I apologize for not understanding the pressure of running a business. I get that now–the trial, error, fear, risk…
I write this by way of apology.
That diner was my introduction to real life, whether I knew it or not at the time. I was being given the biggest gift of all–getting to be part of the city, part of the good people, receiving lessons from the real world. My boss always told me, “You’re good with people.” He wanted me to drop out of “that useless college” and do something “real”–a daycare perhaps. He’d front the cash. He knew an opportunity when he saw one.
I wanted to finish college. After college I wanted to finish graduate school. I did. And I did a little bit more, just for good luck. I’m grateful for my education–I wouldn’t be where I am today without having done so. But my real education–I got at the diner.
I returned to the diner after some time in the Corporate world. I sat down for lunch. “Hey,” shouted my boss. “Get College Girl some coffee!” That’s when I knew I had made it, earned a modicum of respect even though I’d gone to college. Years later, I still think about the guy who could turn anything into an opportunity.
“What can you do?” was his mantra. Not “How many books can you read, or how much debt can you incur?” Nobody in that business ever asked to see my sheepskins.
It took me nearly two decades, but I finally understand. Creating businesses and opportunity is hard. This stuff doesn’t magically appear. None of this is easy. This is one lesson I wished I understood while I was standing in that diner. It’s one lesson I hope to impart to my own students. It’s something “the tests” don’t measure and we don’t teach well systemically.
When you make, create, and work through problems, you do something that no 9-5 job does–you create a space for yourself in society. A unique spot in the universe nobody can take away.
This is what I’ve learned. It’s what I’d like to teach going forward.