the semester is basically over so i finally have some time to actually write. this is something i wrote tonight, it's basically about the way being working class and stuck gets passed down through generations. im not sure if that theme is totally clear in the writing, or what i could do to make it better, so help me out.
I’d been at the diner longer than I thought, and the dinner shift had crept up on the place, breaking the peaceful lull of old men’s mournful conversations and my quiet ruminating and zine reading. My waitress was suddenly swamped with customers and neglected my empty coffee cup near the edge of the table. That was fine because the zine was good, and when it got boring, the view outside the greasy window was pretty, all Christmas lights on the trees outside boarded up storefronts, and angry brake lights on eager-to-get-home cars.
The waitress was wearing a dirty Santa Claus hat, which seemed to be always on the brink of falling off as she dashed back and forth between customers’ tables and the kitchen. I felt sorry for her; her eyes were framed by wrinkly smile-lines, and I could tell she put the hat on in the morning to cheer up another dismal day. But it didn’t seem to be working.
I overheard that the other waitress who was supposed to be working with her hadn’t shown up, so she had to handle every table in the place. Her daughter was there with her, reading magazines in an empty booth and fiddling with her long, dark hair. She had to be about fifteen, and I couldn’t tell if she looked old for her age or her mom looked young, but the resemblance was definitely there. When it started to get really busy, the waitress put her daughter to work, filling coffee cups and clearing tables.
I watched the girl over the top of my zine, and I couldn’t tell if I felt bad for her or not. She seemed happy, chatting with the people at the tables she brought trays of food to, until her mom scolded her and made her hustle again. “God, yell at me much?” the girl pouted as she dashed to the kitchen. The woman shot a sorrowful glance over her shoulder to her daughter, but she’d already disappeared into the noisy kitchen.
Eventually I got my check and headed out into the cold, riding my bike past the line of cars stopped at a red light. On the icy sidewalk next to me there were small packs of day laborers clutching lunchboxes and heading home to crowded apartments or one of the small rice-and-bean places downtown. Up at the top of the hill my apartment is on, a pack of kids ran around in the cold night air, chasing a dirty plastic ball, and laughing ecstatically in Spanish.
My Dad delivered newspapers for the Connecticut Post and the New Haven Register for about fourteen years. Every day--no matter what kind of weather it was, how he felt, anything--he got up at 2 in the morning, went down to the newspaper depot to get his bundles, and delivered them till about 6. Then it was back home for a quick shower before going off to work at whatever crummy sales job he was holding down at the time.
The newspaper gig was a hard one, even if the money was pretty good. It was impossible to get time off, unless you had a friend on the outside who you’d trained to know your route, and who was willing to get up at 2 a.m. to give you some time off. So sick days or vacations were pretty much out of the picture, because back-up carriers were scarce and unreliable. In the summer time when my friends from school were going to Florida or California or the Bahamas or something, we’d go to the Howard Johnson a couple towns over for a weekend. My mom loved it because she didn’t have to make beds or clean, my brother and I loved it because there was a pool and a mini golf course and it felt like a “real” vacation, but my dad never seemed to enjoy it much. In the middle of the night, while we slept on the starchy hotel beds, he’d get up and dress in his “paper clothes” --dirty jeans and a ratty sweatshirt and a baseball cap--and slink out past the primly-dressed girl at the check-in desk. I knew he hated it, that he felt the guilt that all men feel, whether they admit it or not, when they can’t provide everything they think their family deserves.
Every Christmas Eve we’d rush from the evening mass down to the newspaper depot in Bridgeport, a crummy, run-down city next to the town we lived in. On Christmas Eve the depot closed at nine o’clock at night, so if all the carriers didn’t pick up their bundles by then, they were shit out of luck, and probably out of a job. We’d fly into the parking lot and my dad and I would jump out of the car, leaving my mom and little brother inside listening to Christmas music on the oldies radio stations and watching the people loading up their cars with newspapers.
The depot was like a miniature warehouse, with folding tables spread out everywhere, where the carriers slid advertising inserts into each newspaper in their bundles. It was noisy and dirty, with paper dust and swear words flying everywhere. I remember the man who was in charge of the place was always kind of nice, and one year when I came in with my dad, he was a woman. My dad told me he’d had an operation. His son was bagging newspapers on a table off in the corner, and I wondered what he thought of all that.
There were little cliques in the depot, carriers that sort of banded together for whatever reason. They’d do things like buy each other coffee or donuts if they were feeling particularly generous, or at least listen to each other gripe about wives who’d run off on them or their kids who were going bad. I always felt awkward when I walked through the building with my dad, in my dress pants and dress shoes and neat winter coat. The men around me wore dirty, worn-out clothes and dirty, worn-out faces. But as my dad walked through the place to get his cart full of newspapers, he seemed to exude this confidence, this sort of distance from the other people in the place. He walked with direction and determination, as if he was saying with each step, “I’m here to do my job. I’m not one of you.”
He had some friends in the place though, older guys who’d been in the business for years, the kind of guys I see when I’m at the diner at some obscene hour. They were leathery and gruff, men’s men, with Irish eyes and working-class accents. They slid the inserts into their papers and bagged them in a fluid, mechanical motion, never skipping a beat as they spoke.
“Happy holidays, Tony,” one of them would say. “I see you got yer little helper along with ya again, huh?” the man would gesture to me with a squinty smile, and I’d smile back, feeling bad and wishing I could tell him somehow, “I don’t normally dress like this!”
“Yup, he’s helping me out,” my Dad would say with a slight smile. “Hopefully he won’t end up doing this for a living like his old man.”
His friend would laugh, heartily and warmly. “Ahh, don’t worry about that. You can tell just looking’ at him, he’s smarter than us bums.”
They’d exchange some more pleasantries before we’d say goodbye and wheel the heavy cart out to our car; my Dad liked to slide and bag the papers at home, away from the depot and the rest of the carriers; he’d go out in the freezing garage and do it under the lamp he’d strung up from the ceiling. We loaded the car up with papers, stuffing them in the trunk and on the floor under our feet. There were hundreds of them, and we’d have to put bundles on our laps because there just wasn’t enough room in the small car.
“Can we put a blanket on their laps or something?” my mom would ask almost angrily.
“Why? We’ll be home in ten minutes,” my dad would say.
“I know…I just don’t want that newspaper ink to get all over their good clothes. It never comes out.”