N.C. Harrison completed graduate school and wound up back at the old job that he had worked as an undergraduate. Then he decided to quit and follow his dreams.
When I was nineteen and twenty I worked at what was quite possibly the coolest job in the world. As the closing guy for my city’s only fully authentic “soul food” deli-bakery, I learned much about multicultural communication and probably dished out enough fatback to slam shut the arteries of a humpback whale. We served everything you can imagine in the world of African-American delicacies there. Fried chicken, smothered pork chops, collard greens, chicken gizzards and crackling corn bread were all on the menu. Other things, like Louisiana hot sausages cut up in Velveeta cheese sauce, were in a rarer rotation, but I try to not think about them too much. I washed dishes, scrubbed the floor and cut meat. I learned to decorate cakes, make a killer salad and operate a commercial chicken fryer. I could go into world humanities each day with my scarred, chemically burned hands, plop down next to the cute hipster girls who worked as baristas and feel–in general–like a real badass. I worked “behind the side,” as it were, and got a lot of play out of it.
Maybe a little too much. Those scars weren’t just accumulating on my hands but were also, apparently, building up on my lungs. I developed chemical pneumonia and, after almost dying a couple of times, I left the deli to “better concentrate on my studies.” By which I meant, of course, recovering and not dying. During that period of recovery, I didn’t date, write, exercise, play video games, or do anything more strenuous than lay on the couch and watch Star Trek. It took a long time, in the neighborhood of two years, and the story might not have had such a happy ending had I not, as my pulmonologist put it, basically possessed the the regenerative powers of a sexual Tyrannosaurus. He might have said an escaped gorilla–Dr. D might as well be Dr. Bro–but I prefer the other.
So how, oh how, did I end up working at this same deli again? The story is both complex and simple. I have recently finished my Master of Divinity and have not, as yet, formally begun working in a ministerial context or community college teaching position–although both could be in the works. I am also working on Ph.D. applications but have not been accepted anywhere yet, and the temporary Christmas job at the Christian book store–which would at least look like using my degree–was taking so freaking long to hear back about. In short? I was bored out of my freaking skull.
In my defense, I also thought that the deli’s manager, who I consider a close friend and great person, needed help. Considering this I leapt to my feet, perhaps even with a mighty oath, and cried, “Sign me up!” Less than three days later I would find myself standing there behind that same hotbar in a too tight green shirt, holding that same broom and smelling of that same fatback and cheese grease. Louisiana hot sausage and Velveeta, thank God, were not on the menu that day.
There are things which seem somehow… charming… at nineteen which lose their allure at the age of twenty-eight. A manager who schedules on the fly when you are not yet twenty seems cool and improvisational, sort of like a jazz singer. At almost thirty it sort of grates a little bit, and by the second week you plead, “For the love of God, woman, Moses delivered the Israelites, so can’t you at least give me a written schedule?!” It was impossible for me to understand how I could show up at a certain time, ask, “when will I be getting off today?” and be told, “I’ll tell you when I figure it out!” by a short, gleeful brown blur as it rushed past my waist. This didn’t seem appropriate. I could remember similar things happening when I was younger–times when too many people, up to nine or ten, had been scheduled at once or times when no one had been scheduled at all–but it all seemed so funny then.
Domineering co-workers, never a pleasure at any age, had become a real pain in the hindquarters. Our new cook, ensconced troll-like in her kitchen headquarters, would sally forth occasionally to remark unfavorably on my technique with customers. “They won’t show you the proper way to scoop macaroni and cheese,” she growled, “but I’ll show you the way. You don’t know the way, but I’m gonna teach you. You’re gonna learn how we scoop macaroni and cheese up in here.” The whole situation felt vaguely, surreally, like being on a chain gang and told to dig holes for a corrupt, hick state trooper only to be told, after finishing, that he wanted them filled back in.
There was no winning and I figured out, after the sleeve of my two sizes two small shirt–which I was assured was sufficient–exploded, no point even in playing. I left that day and decided that I wouldn’t go back. I would concentrate on my writing, on trying to forge an academic and ministerial career like I darned well know I ought to be doing anyway. I remembered while I was standing there holding that broom that I used to fantasize–while I swept–about what I would be doing when I finished graduate school and “got it all together.” And there I was again, hanging onto that same damned broom, sweeping that same floor. I don’t have it all together, nowhere near it, but I am done with graduate school, at least. This couldn’t be what I would allow fate to have in store for me. Although it’s true that you can never go home again, sometimes it’s up to you to decide when to leave.