Almost No One Makes It Out
We Get No Second Chance In This Life
Ten years ago, in March 2013, an old friend of mine drank himself to death. He didn’t even make it to 40. We went to college together, worked in the local coffee shop, lived in the same house for a spell. He was from the area, which oddly made him somewhat of an outsider, too much familiarity with actual reality for this liberal arts college. I also had no knack for escape, so we understood each other. We both liked rock music, I cut his hair to look like a young Ozzy Osbourne from the Black Sabbath Paranoid gatefold one afternoon, we’d sit on a bench and talk about what was false metal, he’d show up to every house party and play his pretty sad songs whether anyone wanted him to or not.
Jason went on to become a somewhat successful musician, meaning that he released a lot of albums on an indie label and was perpetually on tour. Whether he actually made any money, that I don’t know. His bands—Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company— have gone on to be something of a tragic legend for those who follow. Our lives after college were intertwined, I worked at an independent record distributor and bought and sold everything he recorded. He always played in Chicago, our mutual friends in various incarnations of his bands. We lost touch, he moved, I moved, life moved, imagined schisms out of nothing at all.
A decade ago I was the morning sous chef for a highly-anticipated restaurant opening in Manhattan. The chef who asked me to be on the opening team was very talented, the vision behind a small gutsy place that got three stars from the New York Times. The general consensus in the city, the industry, was it was his turn for the spotlight. I was honored but also confused in what he saw in me, I wasn’t a terribly pedigreed cook, meaning I didn’t work in a lot of fancy restaurants.
I took the job knowing it was either the beginning of something good or the end, maybe I’d find a home, somewhere to learn, work hard, be a part of a team. Or maybe I would finally learn the difficult lesson that it wasn’t the restaurants, it was me. Even though this was only ten years ago, it was a different time. Me and the other sous chef worked for free for weeks before the opening, proving how dedicated we were. I always felt somewhat behind on the dedication because I needed money and sometimes missed out on some big projects.
I was the only female in the kitchen, my job was AM sous, or what a friend refers to as “the worst job in the restaurant”—making orders, receiving orders, being in charge of the prep crew, making sure everything was ready and organized for the PM team to come in and work the line. I bought a large coffee, light no sugar, and a banana every morning at 6:45 at the bodega between the train and work, beyond that I’m not sure what I ate. I left around 10 pm every night, trying to tie up whatever loose ends couldn’t last the night.
The job wasn’t going great. I was in charge of the linens and plates and making sure any dead vermin or rodent droppings were taken care of. My job was to have a lot of clipboards, and ideally never use a knife. I didn’t have any friends. God that sounds pathetic, but it felt true. The camaraderie of a kitchen, a restaurant, is important to me, and it decidedly did not exist there. One of the prep cooks sexually-harassed me, and when the GM asked if there was I needed to report it I declined, thinking it would piss people off to lose such a strong cook. The only friendly faces during the morning were the people living at the shelter a few doors down, one resident yelled to me “Don’t think we don’t see how hard you are working!” while I was on my knees on the sidewalk checking in a delivery. I wasn’t doing a good job, that sentiment affirmed by the chef. It was never enough. Sure I was dedicated, and put in long hours, actually too long of hours, but it wasn’t enough. Listen, maybe it never is enough. Maybe that’s the concept of being elite. I am not elite. I am human, painfully human. I can strive, but I will never achieve, and if I don’t have forgiveness for myself in my failings, then something bad can happen. To me, by me.
By this time I had been through a few bouts of self-destructiveness in my life. Such a dramatic term for me to use, one I use in retrospect, something I heard about myself when I was younger in passing from friends. When it’s happening, when I’m in it, I’m just waking up every day and trying to get through. The first time around was when I pretended like everything was fine after my father’s death right before Christmas during my first semester of college. I went back to school early in January, made up the exams and papers and went on with life, like nothing had happened, like there was nothing to grieve or deal with.
So many people live like this, this side of functioning, waking up every day and doing the things we need to do to keep the lights on. Meanwhile, we consume the things we need to forget that we wake up everyday to do the things we need to do to keep the lights on. We do it to forget the world keep turning while we grieve; that something, someone, has stopped, but we cannot.
For my second round, I had just moved to New York City, opening a restaurant with a friend a few months later. I cannot recommend this at all. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, honestly, none of us did. Our learning curve was steep, and we kept adjusting to it, to the first month, the second, then a New York Times review, daily menu changes, trips to the farmers market three times a week, the utter lack of money, the strange things that happen when your life is an entire place and there are no boundaries, no cash, but lots of feelings and egos. I didn’t have a support system, especially since I just moved to town. I just worked, and drank. Physically and emotionally I wasted away, surviving on Marlboros and Ensure, late nights of Pabst Blue Ribbon, whiskey and sex with strangers.
It’s called a spiral, it’s as difficult to exit as a riptide. A lot of people don’t. This is just what life is. The fatalism fits the circumstances well. I worked hard to get out of it, quitting the restaurant I had put so much of myself into with little reward, knowing I had to get out. I needed to care about myself. I found new places to work, slowly found friends to be trusted and counted on.
Eight years later I was on the precipice of this familiar place, too much work and an utter lack of self-regard. Working 100 hours a week, I couldn’t do anything right, and I hated myself. I was level-headed enough to know that if I stayed in that job, at that restaurant, that I would go down this path again, straight to hell, to self-destruction. I looked at my friend, at Jason, who had just obliterated himself with alcohol, and knew I could end up the same. I was no different. The isolation of the job was dangerous for me, I could live in the lost hours and no one would know what I was doing.
In a few months I would turn 40. I was convinced that if I was still in this restaurant on my birthday, that I was telling myself that I was worthless, that I deserved to be treated this way. This was my lot in life.
I took off work to go to the memorial, a criminal offense during a restaurant opening. There, a bandmate read a recent letter from Jason, where he asked to not be remembered as his present self, struggling with addiction, but instead, for his earlier self, his sense of humor, tall tales and pranks. This moment struck me, how someone so hellbent on erasing himself with booze had the wherewithal to see himself, to know who he used to be and who he was currently. He had vision, he knew what was happening, he just couldn’t get out. I fear this place, the consciousness of fatalism, of fulfilling my darkest fears and still having awareness of the glimmers of hope.
I left the restaurant, right before its review in the New York Times, one of the first times in my life I said “I won’t”, rather than “I can’t.” There’s a big difference between the two. I’m thinking about this now, ten years later, because decades love memory. Or does memory love decades? Let’s call it mutual. Now, on the verge of 50, in different but similar ways, I am still trying to prove to myself that I am important. It’s a herculean effort, to change your life while you’re still living it, paying bills, working a job. Most of us don’t get a retreat, an introspective period of time to make choices. We slog through. This world, it takes. It takes and it wants us to thank it. Fuck that. Listen to that tiny voice of self-preservation, it’s more important than the other voices. It’s the one that keeps us alive. Let it get louder.
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