A few weeks ago, I posted about a writing exercise in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. It had to do with creating a timeline for some period of your life, to help jar your memory about details and spawn some story ideas. One of the things I did when I started my timeline was go through old tax records, which reminded me of various jobs I had when I was much younger. There was a period between 1993 and 1995 where I reported income in two states for each of those tax years. I moved a lot back then. I was trying to find a way out of Wisconsin, and it took me a while to make that work.
In 1993, I reported income from five employers in Wisconsin, and one in Illinois. All those jobs, and my income only came to $5436.18. I wasn’t great at holding jobs back then. Nothing made me happy, and I hadn’t developed the will power it takes to stick with something you don’t like. In one job, I waited tables at what was a new restaurant/dance club in Sheboygan. During the day, we opened for lunch, then closed for a couple hours to get ready for dinner. At 9 0’clock, the dinner tables went away and the place turned into a night club. I learned some interesting lessons at that job. The Downtown Club billed itself as a fine dining restaurant, and back then, there weren’t many to be found in the area. However, that also meant that those of us that worked there didn’t really know what fine dining was – not the food, not the service, certainly not different wines.
I did my best, but I remember a wealthy couple in for lunch one day. I served their sandwiches or salads, or whatever it was the ordered, and they were drinking coffee. As I made my rounds to see if anyone wanted refills, the wealthy woman nodded that she did. I picked up her coffee cup, and topped it off. She told me condescendingly this was not the way to refill someone’s coffee cup. I should lift the cup on the saucer, so as not to touch the cup itself. I clenched my teeth and bit my tongue instead of apologizing and walked away quickly, hoping they would soon leave and I would still get a half-way decent tip. I felt a certain shame that I didn’t know those fine details about how things are done for wealthy people. All my coffee-pouring skills were learned from the overworked waitresses at IHOP who poured my coffee only occasionally after they left the “Bottomless pot” on my table. Even then, I was lucky if they didn’t pour the coffee in my lap as they leaned across the table to reach my mug. I’ve never completely gotten over the bitterness I felt at people who had money, coming from a mostly lower-middle class background myself. I still carry a chip on my shoulder, even when I choose to go to fancy restaurants now, and money is no longer a big issue in my life.
Another lesson from my job at the Downtown Club was how to tend bar, Wisconsin-style. I’ve learned since then that the way people make drinks in Wisconsin doesn’t really match the way they make them anywhere else. For instance, the Old Fashioned is a very popular Wisconsin drink. Age doesn’t matter – everyone drinks them. You can order an Old Fashioned with either whiskey or brandy, and order it either sweet or sour. This is a departure from the traditional Old Fashioned, which calls for no soda whatsoever. In Wisconsin, though, sweet means put 7-up in the drink, and top it off with a cherry wrapped in half an orange slice, impaled on a plastic sword. Sour means put sour soda in the drink. I have yet to find any other place where “sour” means sour soda. When I first came to California, I’d order a sour drink – Amaretto Sour, Whiskey sour, whatever – and the bartenders put that horrible sweet and sour mix in the drink – the kind you’d find in a margarita. The first time I took a sip, I almost sprayed it all over the people standing in front of me.
50/50 was a popular sour soda used as a drink mixer. It was a grapefruit & lime soda, and all bars had it. It’s soda, but not as sweet as 7-up. I have no idea why this soda seemed to be such a regional drink. The closest thing I’ve been able to find in California is called Collins Mix, and it’s not available in bars. I eventually switched to ginger ale when I wanted whiskey with something less sweet in it here. Bourbon and ginger ale was my standard drink for a few years. Lately, I drink fruity drinks, which I get a lot of crap for from all my friends, because I am not supposed to like girly, fruity drinks. Maybe I’d drink Old Fashioned’s again if “sour” meant what it does in Wisconsin.