If I close my eyes, I can still feel Irish winds blowing my hair atop the bulwarks of Blarney Castle.
Two days into a nine-day trip where I traversed the Emerald Isle with nothing but a few bus tickets and a backpack, my inner nomad was already climbing high upon a throne of wanderlust. Through rain slicks, three days of fever, the moaning grey ghosts of the Irish winterlands and countless pubs in search of the Golden Harp, I reveled in the challenge and the bliss of the open road. That was three years ago. I’ve been there and back and elsewhere, since.
But for the last year, I’ve been home and now I’ve got itchy feet again. I’m ready to move. Ready to walk the new road, fight the new fight, claim the new castle. I miss my roustabout days when I could buy a train ticket to Santa Barbara or hop on a flight from Prague to Madrid in just a few hours. Fresh places, fresh faces. A world of people and color at my fingertips.
But losing my teaching position to the school’s closure, a rather undramatic car crash that I do not want to talk about, college bills and a bottomless gas tank have left me absolutely penniless. And you need pennies to travel.
So I’ve spent my summer looking for gainful employment with varying levels of success. And by “varying levels,” I mean, no one would hire me.
I have a weird resume. I’ve never had a blue collar job in my life. I jumped into marketing, politics, journalism and law right after high school. So when I sat down for my interview at Denny’s in June, the manager looked at me with a quizzical tremble of her upper lip and asked, “Why do you want to work here?” And it wasn’t the typical, “tell me what you love about this company” question. She was literally judging my life decisions so hard. It’s hard to go from executive assistant to “I’ve never waited a table before but please hire me anyway.”
Not that I never wanted to be a waitress at a diner or something equally quaint and romantic.
For years, I’ve had this crazy impulse to run away to somewhere exotic and extreme, like Uzbekistan or the Florida Panhandle, and become a bartender. How great, to just be there for people. An entire job centered around making someone’s night better with a smile, an open ear, and a little liquid company.
I would be the world’s greatest bartender, of this I am completely certain.
I have no idea how I’d get to Florida without a car, though, so I’m stuck with the hometown job this summer.
Unfortunately, the temp agencies couldn’t find me a job either. Law firms need someone with a more recent paralegal certification (mine is a couple years old) and everyone else simply looked at the last four years of my work experience (teaching and freelance writing) and said with simpering smiles, “As much as we’d like to stick you in a closet to backfile our employee reports for us, we’d like someone with more filing experience.”
All for the best. I couldn’t spend the summer in a filing closet. I’d go mad.
I nearly gave up on the job search. Maybe, if I just curled up in bed with a good book for the summer, rent and car insurance and my eight dollar Netflix subscription would all just disappear. I had a really good book too! Spain’s Golden Queen Isabella by Iris Noble. Queen Isabella was the last great ruler of the age of chivalry and knights. She was a warrior of a woman, too. By 23, she was already a queen, a general, and a mother besides! She would race across Spain clad in armor with banners flying high, gathering support for the crusades into Andalucia or the war with Portugal. She prized the goodness of mankind, the nobility of the mind and heart, the gentle strength of bravery. And she set the standard with her own courage and conviction.
If I couldn’t let me feet wander the world, maybe I could let my mind go instead. But the sad truth is that you can’t hide from rent.
Desperation is the mother of miracles, so after dropping off my resume at restaurants all morning, I walked into L.A. Fitness. I had left my resume with the club in Eastlake about once every two weeks since late May and hadn’t heard anything, but there’s one much closer to my house that I had never been in before (at least, not with the intention of applying for a job). If being stuck in the Moscow airport for 18 hours taught me anything, it’s that if you don’t ask, you’ll never know whether that guy eating smoked fish out of a plastic bag was aware that he was publically consuming the entire corpse of a once living Oncorhynchus Mykiss, or if he just assumed nobody would mind the smell. Moral of the story: I walked in, flashed a smile, and handed over my application. Two weeks later, I was signing the hiring paperwork and sitting through employee training.
Actually, first they put me through first aid training. That was a long afternoon.
Then they asked me to cover a few shifts in the Kid’s Klub — thirty little kids running around half-crazed because it’s after 6 p.m. and they’re tired and want to be at home. How do you babysit thirty children at once for four hours? You play lava monster. You play a lot of lava monster.
I forgot how much I love tiny people. This last year, I only taught high schoolers. I miss my fourth graders from Prague. I miss their silly games and big opinions and tiny acts of heroism. Kids Klub reminded me just what an adventure the pre-teen world can be. A toy dinosaur can be a monster, a superhero, a truck driver or a baby, depending on whose imagination is at the helm. Hide-seek-can is still exciting enough to invoke shrieks of laughter and screams of terror alike. The world isn’t little to kids, it’s big. And stepping into their world for an evening makes mine seem a little bigger too, even if I’m just here in a playroom in San Diego.
Finally, I got a two-hour employee training session with our amazing operations manager.
The thing about employee training is that it can only prepare you for about two percent of the chaos that actually goes down at work, which is a lot like traveling, if you think about it. You can book all your tickets ahead of time, but if you miss a train or you get lost and can’t find your hostel in the middle of the night in a town where no one speaks any of the one and a half languages you know, you’d better know how to improvise.
They told me how to answer the phone, how to transfer a call, how to check people in and service their accounts. And then they gave me the closing shift on a Saturday night and left me to sink beneath the weight of my own incompetence.
I’ve done that before. Just ask anyone who has ridden a bus with me literally anywhere.
“So sorry to bother you again, but do you know where I get off?”
Anyway, what they didn’t prepare me for was how to pay off multiple accounts at once in cash, how to put a call on hold and pick up the other line without dropping both of them, where the ice packs are when someone drops a weight on their finger, which key unlocks the customer safe, how to respond when a member starts shouting at you over the phone, how to respond when a member starts shouting at you in person, how to respond when a member asks you out on a date, or how to use the intercom system with even the most basic effectiveness.
Actually, they did teach me how to use the intercom. Apparently some skills can only be learned through fire.
“I’m already getting compliments on how friendly you are,” my supervisor said as she showed me for the millionth time how to transfer a phone call.
The affirmation of my front desk persona came as a huge relief because I’m so terrible at the rest of this stuff, I’m going to need all the job security I can get.
Following a particularly bad day during my first week at work, I showed up to my next shift dressed up extra pretty. I did my hair and stole one of my mom’s black cardigans.
“You look nice today,” said one of my coworkers. “Dressing for the job you want?”
“I’m compensating for yesterday,” I told him with an exasperated sigh. “Just dressing for the job I’m desperately trying to keep.”
But I am good at part of this job. I am so, so good at welcoming people. If only I could sit there on my little stool all day and say, “Hi, how are you today?” or, “Bye, have a nice afternoon!” If that were the sum total of the job, I’d be amazing. It’s literally my favorite thing to do. There are so many people who come to this gym. And I love people.
Some of the gym members have started to become familiar. I can feel myself being drawn into this community of gym rats, fitness geeks and old people who just want to use the pool. People will grin back when they see me smile, or actually answer when I ask them how their day is going. Even the people in a hurry are pretty nice. And more than one member has taken the time to stop and compliment my smile. Mom and my dentist would be so proud.
Funny how far a smile can go in someone’s day, especially at a gym.
When you go to the gym, you’re taking a day’s worth of troubles, successes, and distractions with you, and the first person you see is the girl at the front desk. In a way, she’s the bartender. If you want to vent about your day for a minute, she’ll listen. If you want to get straight to business, she won’t take offense. If you sigh a little, she’ll understand. No judgement, just a smile and a sincere, “have a good workout today” as if she’s sliding over a gin and tonic on a cream colored napkin.
It’s been a few weeks. I’m feeling more comfortable behind the desk now. I don’t get rattled as easily. I had my first late-night this week. We close at midnight, so I brought my book about Queen Isabella just in case things got too quiet.
But work is its own little crusade, a challenge to make the day better for everyone who comes through our doors, if even in small measure. As I perched on my stool behind the front desk, like a lady in a tower, smiling on her subjects as they pass, I felt like a princess. Struggling with our computer system and my thin but growing level of competency to answer people’s questions and solve their problems, I imagined myself to be a general, commanding troops and winning wars.
And walking through the dark halls of the gym to close everything down, then locking the doors and stepping into the humid night, I felt like a queen shushing her kingdom into peaceful sleep.
When I lived in Prague, adventure was waiting right outside my door, ready to whisk me away at any moment. But the truth is, that lofty temptress has followed me across the world. Even in San Diego, even in my home neighborhood, even the dull humdrum of daily life, like working shifts at a blue collar job to pay off car repairs and tuition fees, there can be fields of war and palaces of gold. Always, there will be new people to discover.
So here is where I will be. My itchy feet are dancing off their nerves in this castle of new experiences. And proudly, I’ll fly my banner above its bulwarks until the wind catches my wings again and new roads open before me.