Posts Tagged 'home'

Thoughts on American Gentrification, from the Absurd Location of Hanoi

Hipster girls make me say “awwwww’

So I’ve been thinking a lot about gentrification. American-style gentrification. Which is absurd, right? I’m living in friggin Vietnam, a developing country, and “developing” is not at all the same thing as “gentrifying.”

But, just as Paris was where David Sedaris moved to write about America, it seems as though SE Asia is where I moved to think and write about Oakland, about growing up in Oakland and getting sober in Oakland, in a time when Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole were gentrifying like crazy—the Dot Com Boom and Bust, when my brother and I got dinner in SF one night when I was 18, were walking down Market to the Church Street Station, down sidewalks lined with cute little shops and tons of white yuppies, and we turned to look at each other and exchanged this moment of “What the fuck has happened to SF?”

Of course it was different in Oakland. Oakland’s gentrification is kinda a fascinating beast (covered well here) cause it’s taken so long to happen, given Oakland’s geographic proximity to SF, but more because despite all the chi-chi restaurants (one of which I used to work at) and trendities (one which I used to be) and despite the rising rents and how clean and nice and urban-chic certain parts of town are, two of the biggest upshots of gentrification haven’t come yet: the public schools are still abysmal and the crime rate is, while better, still un-fucking-real.

You can blame a lot of this on the incompetent/corrupt city government. At least I do. There’s probably a whole slew of factors I’m not aware of, can’t be aware of cause I’m too close to it, have always been too close to it—how I stood on 40th and Telegraph every day during high school, waiting for my bus transfer, and watched the neighborhood change like a time-lapse photography project: first the junkies, then the punks, then the indies, then the yuppies, then the cafes that catered to the yuppies.

So. Some book came out. It’s called The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, and it’s by Robert Anasi, and I probably won’t read it. Not because I don’t care or don’t want to, not even because it’s not on Kindle (cause I just checked and it is) but because I have to be mad choosy about what I buy on Kindle—cause $10 still ain’t cheap and my Kindle account is linked to my US bank account, which is damn hard to get money into, cause it’s damn hard to get money out of Vietnam, cause all those $25/hr teaching gigs only pay in cash. #luxuryproblems

But it didn’t stop me from reading reviews of the book, this one more scathing than that one, and this one only tangentially a review. But it’s enough for me to decide that I’ll save my Kindle pennies for Bolano or Bissel or OMG will they ever get O’Conner or old Didion??

But the fact that I haven’t read the actual book hasn’t stopped me from having plenty of thoughts and opinions, perhaps not about the book, but about the questions raised in the reviews and commentary: the role of the gentrifier in relation to his (cause it’s mostly dudes who ended up writing about this shit) context. Or more specifically the gentrifier in relation the “natives.” I thought the more scathing Book Forum review addressed this pretty well, while the Salon review danced around the issue, mentioning it only at the end:

This sort of description, however, throws into relief the awkward relationship that such bohemian enclaves have with the destitute neighborhoods they nestle into — ebullient painters with their Jacuzzis who celebrate the surrounding grit and decay living side-by-side with people who probably don’t find the rubble so endearing.

I guess this is heart of it for me, since I straddled the line, had one foot in both worlds—always did, really, as I suppose you could say my family was pre-1st-wave gentrification, arriving in Oakland about 20 years too early. Or maybe that doesn’t count. The thing is, I looked like all the gentifriers: I had the tattoos and the skinny pants; I liked the expensive coffee (fuck it’s good); I went to the rock shows; I worked in one of the fucking flagship restaurants (great place, btw). It was the way I’d always looked like an outsider, mostly because of my race but also because I was prissy little white girl who, it turned out, really loved Nirvana and Johnny Cash. I was okay with that, cause I had to be—with the way other Oakland natives would be surprised at the fact that I was an Oakland native, and not one from the hills either.

Some of my best friends were gentrifiers. #winkwink Gentrifying doesn’t necessarily make you a shitty person, the same way that gentrification isn’t solely a bad thing—hell, look at the lakeside by my parents’ house these days. But there’s this way some people would talk about the neighborhoods, talk about Oakland or Williamsburg—this possessive, anti-yuppy way that in and of itself smacks of a certain starry-eyed colonialism. Like, most of the people arrested in the Oscar Grant riots weren’t from Oakland—had come to Oakland specifically to riot and break the windows of small, independent stores, had even spray painted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight,” which had summed up everything. Cause it wasn’t just that night; for a certain breed, Oakland was their playground every night. Oakland was a game they played at and that they could leave whenever they wanted. It wasn’t their home; they weren’t invested; they hadn’t grown up with the gun shots and crackheads and street violence; they didn’t love Oakland. Oakland was an affectation.

But again, I straddled the worlds. There was this punk house I used to go to shows at on Apgar Street. It was in my dad’s old district, before he retired from the Oakland Fire Department. We were having dinner one night and he was complaining about a run he’d gone on, “some entitled fucking kids” in “some filthy old Victorian” who’d been having a party in the backyard, burning shit and making a ruckus. When his crew had arrived at the house, the kids had been hostile. “‘Look, man, we’re not bothering anyone,'” my dad had related. “‘Well, actually you are,’ I told him, ’cause someone called in a disturbance. We sure as hell didn’t feel like getting out of bed to come down here and deal with you.'”

But it’s that kind of attitude, right?—the no-one-cares, we-can-do-whatever-we-want attitude. The reviews of the book are right: it does create a sort of freedom. You can look at the art happening now in Detroit, or at one of my all-time favorite bands, Hickey, who grew out of the 90s Mission District. But fuck, there’s gotta be a line, right? A line between using the cheap rents and lack of police control to explore and create and do cool new shit, and using it as a venue for self-serving debauchery.

I suppose it’s not so different from all the Gap-Year backpackers tubing in Vang Vieng. Or from the way certain travelers will moan about a place being “touristy,” forgetting they themselves are tourists—they way they’ll talk about how fucking cool and real it used to be. As though they owned it. As though there weren’t some weird capital in having been there first, having seen this shit when it real.

Like this

Cause the truth is, sometimes “real” sucks. Sometimes “real” is walking past malnourished ten-year-olds huffing out of plastic bags in Phnom Penh. Sometimes “real” is the smell of the dead fish floating in the lake near your apartment in Hanoi, cause the lack of environmental laws means there’s arsenic and god-knows-what-else in the lake that’s literally killing the fish, and despite that fact the OG residents are still fishing outta the lake and eating those fish cause it’s free and what they’ve always done. Sometimes “real” is not being able to sleep at night when you’re a kid cause your alcoholic neighbors, whose apartment balcony is next to your bedroom window, are having another one of those screaming 3am fights where they throw furniture and break windows and it takes the cops till dawn to arrive cause they’ve been busy at some homicides a few blocks away.

Which of course, still happens in Oakland. But maybe doesn’t happen in Williamsburg anymore, which might be what everyone is so bummed about. “Everyone” being those with a mouthpiece: the privileged crusaders nostalgic for a by-gone grit that most of them only had a surface relationship with, didn’t have the deep-rooted conflicted relationship you have with a place you grew up in, that you love and that’s also robbed half of your friends at gunpoint.

Which is a totally shitty assumption to make, especially considering I haven’t read the book and am on the other side of the planet, in my bathrobe with the lights dim and the AC blowing, hiding out from another torturously hot Hanoian day, made slightly more torturous by the fact that it’s a holiday and the air is thick with the burning of offerings. #real And all of this might be an expat version of Mansplaining, since all I can really do is read free essays online and sit around and mouth off like I know what I’m talking about; since I’m surrounded by other expats who do the same thing, and who may or may not know if I’m full of shit or not.

Which I might not even know either.

10 Thoughts on Being Back in the US

1. Riding in my dad’s truck, MLK:
“So what does it feel like to be back?”
Look out the window, lines of lanes and sidewalk. “Everything feels really sterile. And clean.”
“Sterile and clean? Not usually words associated with Oakland.”
Laugh. “Yeah, I guess not.”

Empty

2. Running around the lake, joggers in sweat clothes:
Everyone looks really healthy here—big and robust, cheeks flushed.

3. Whole Foods, walk around for an hour, confused—pick up food, put it back down:
How do you shop in a grocery store? Everything looks plastic.

4. Winter-like storm, long pants and a jacket:
Everyone else may be annoyed, but I’m tickled to death.

5. Waiting to make left turn, watching the cars:
The US feels like a video game, some kind of old-school Atari: little boxes moving through space. The object of the game is to stay between the lines, stay in the lanes, walk on the sidewalk, put trash in the bin…

6. Rapture billboards:
Why?

7. Waiting to meet Nhu and Jacobo outside Bette’s Cafe, watching family:
“But I’m huuuun-greee.”
“Well, we have to wait.”
“But I don’t wa-nnnna.”
American children are allowed to be really obnoxious.

8. Wine meeting for work, varietal characteristics and spit buckets:
This is my job. This is silly.

9. Drive to meeting, park; drive to yoga, park; drive to cafe, park:
My life feels like a video game. I’m not sure what the object is.

10. Waiting at stoplight. Car beside me: bass bumping, boy leaning out of the open window, shirt half-off, arms raised, dancing:
There is nothing, nothing in the world like African-American culture.

Hello Oakland

Hello taco trucks and Priuses,
Hello hyphy dreads and flannel shirts.

Hello berry season.
Hello farmers market.
Hello Blue Bottle, hello Strauss milk from a glass bottle.
Hello expensive cigarettes and cheap muesli.

Hello Muay Thai.
Hello jump rope, hello downward dog.
Hello pit bulls.

Hello Victorians and sky scrapers
of San Francisco in the distance.
Hello sound of trains at night.

Hello sound of kids playing
beneath my bedroom window.

Hello rock n roll shows and dance parties,
Hello art openings and literary magazines.

Hello back porch.
Hello leaves on the tree
and dead plants in the pots.
Hello Mick in pajama pants.

Hello vanity,
Hello bathrobe.
Hello stripped apron and wine notes.

Hello driving,
Hello seat belts,
Hello potholes on 880, arching
up the overpass past the railroad tracks—
Hello building
I’ve got tattooed on my arm.

Hello fog in the morning and fog at night,
Hello fog breaking
in the afternoon light.

And, why not: heading-home jam I can’t get out of my head…

The Un-Bittersweet of Leaving Phnom Penh

It’s not as bittersweet as I’d expected.

It’s been six weeks in Phnom Penh. That’s the longest I’ve sat still anywhere—the longest I’ve spent consecutively in any city other than Oakland.

I’m embarrassed to admit that; I feel like I should have lived abroad, should have studied abroad, should have spent a summer somewhere, should have should have should have. But the truth is, I’m still a relative newcomer to the travel game, and for the first few years I was stuck in the going-going-going of it all: ticking off lists, counting countries and cramming in as many destinations as possible. It seemed like a waste of time to stay anywhere any longer than necessary.

Sure, I’d entertained elaborate fantasies about moving abroad. But really, if I couldn’t sit still in another city for more than 10 days, how could I really know if I could be happy, could have a life, abroad? Or, hell, even out of Oakland?

Part of the reason I got an apartment in Phnom Penh is that I wanted to feel like I lived there, that I wasn’t just passing through. I wanted a little glimpse into what that life would be like. I wanted keys; I wanted to shop for toilet paper; I wanted to “Sua s’dei” the neighbors and have a cafe where they knew my order. I wanted to feel little roots sprouting—the beginnings of being grounded, like the wind could blow and I wouldn’t fall over, be blown over with it.

When my bus arrived last week, bringing me back from my three-day visa run/refugee camp search, I hustled down the steps. I booked it past the cluster of tuk-tuk drivers, crossed the street without looking (the Cambodian way), dove between the tents of the night market, walked directly to my favorite food stall, kicked off my shoes and slurped down a Khmer soup under the night’s haze, the warm breeze from the river. I felt like I’d come home.

So I was expecting to be sad to leave. I was expecting to go around doing my silent rounds of “last times” with twinges of melancholy, that little lonely longing that you can almost fall in love with, more than the thing itself.

But it wasn’t as bittersweet as I’d expected.

Sometimes it comes to this: Nescafe from a plastic mug. And plastic flowers. Classy as shit.

Saying good-bye to the people was sad. I’d made some rad friends, had gotten close to a few cool girls. People tend to be on a three- to six-month rotation in Phnom Penh, and in a few months, almost everyone I know here will have moved on. And it was definitely sad to leave my apartment, with its metal table and one chair, its thin mattress and fuzzy TV, the plastic kitchenware I’d purchased at the market down the street—where I’d go to eat soup and the women would squat down and stare at me, giggling. I’d giggle back, and I’ll miss that too.

But still, it wasn’t as bittersweet as I’d expected.

I’ve taken to comparing cities to people. Boys, to be specific. Because cities have personalities the same way people do, and you have relationships with cities the same way you (I) have relationships to boys with (well, no, they’re actually much healthier).

So Rome is a really sophisticated, well-groomed and worldly guy that I like to keep track of, that I like to get lunch with from time to time, and talk about art and culture and history, but who I could never actually be with—we’re just too different. Tirana is the fun one, the one I met one crazy night at a crazy dance party, who I connected with under the lights—the one I felt like was made for me, as though anyone could ever really be made for anyone else, as though you could ever really know anyone after a week, or a month or even a year, years.

Buenos Aires is the one who got away, the eyes exchanged between subway cars, or maybe the one whose number you got and lost and still catch yourself thinking of, years later, looking for some scribbled scrap of paper in old jeans pockets without even realizing it. San Francisco is the neighbor boy you grew up with, who you know is really attractive and cool and who you really get along with, but you just couldn’t ever date.

And Phnom Penh?

Phnom Penh’s not terribly handsome or debonair, not the stuff of little-girl dress-up fantasies. He’s not super cultured and he’s got some obvious flaws. He’s a little beat-up; he’s been through shit. And there are things about him that drive you nuts. If you were to write a list of the perfect mate, there’s a lot of things Phnom Penh wouldn’t have. But the big ones, the ones that are really important and that really fucking count, when you’re up against the wall and the wind is blowing and you need something firm, some kind of roots to hold you down—he’s got them.

He fits. He’s not perfect, and neither are you.

And so it wasn’t so bittersweet to leave him. The same as when you leave for a trip and you just know the person you’re leaving behind, that you’re coming back to eventually, isn’t going to cheat on you or be shady. You don’t even have to think about it, worry about it. It doesn’t occur to you to worry; you’ve just got that confidence, you know? That you’ve got them and they’ve got you, whether you like it or not—like you were picked for each other, matched to each other, though you’re not sure by who.

But does it matter?

A Room of One’s Own, Phnom Penh

My mind is a land of contrasts. (How’s that for cliche?)

I love travel. I love the bag-and-purse of it, of having everything you need fit in a 18 kg bundle on your back. I love the not knowing, the pick-up-and-go of it, love arriving in a city dazed and cramp-legged, and I love walking new streets—the landscape of the unfamiliar. I even love the train-and-bus of it, the bump-of-the-road of it, looking out of a window at alien earth that sometimes seems a mirror to the alien earth inside myself, and thinking my nothing thoughts.

But I also love the notion of home—not a notion, really, but a feeling. I love running into people I know at the market. I love my favorite table at my favorite cafe. I love the comfort of routines, little rituals, the prayer inside the doing of everyday tasks. And I love the sense of having an anchor, somewhere deep inside you—that no matter where you go, there’s a place to go back to.

Which might be why I’ve never moved out of the US, or hell, even out of Oakland—some kind of magnetism that always pulls me back to my hometown, no matter how far I wander. Oh sure, I fantasize and I’ve plotted and planned, but when it’s come right down to it, I’ve never actually left.

I didn’t want to feel transient in Phnom Penh. I’ll be here for around six weeks of my 2+ months in Cambodia, and it’d be easy enough to just stay in a hotel. You can get a decent one for $10-13, with wifi and air-con and someone that comes to clean it everyday (an endlessly thrilling novelty for a budget traveler such as a myself). It would have been easier—everything pre-arranged, crisp corners and clean counters. It also would have been sterile.

I didn’t want to have to leave a key at reception every morning. I didn’t want the posse of motorbike drivers posted outside the door, waiting for Western customers. I didn’t really, when it came down to it, want someone else cleaning up after me everyday.

I wanted a room of my own.

I asked around about people looking to sublet, but didn’t come up with anything. So I just started walking around, looking for “For Rent” signs. I wanted to stay in the neighborhood my Couchsurfing host was in, slightly north of Center and a little mellower, where the pace is that of local folks living local life.

I found a place on Street 84. It’s not the nicest apartment—quite threadbare, actually, and it doesn’t have wifi. It’s not the cheapest either—not expensive, but if I’d spent longer searching, I’m sure I could have found a decent room for less. Once I pay for a month’s worth of electricity, it’ll end up only being slightly less than a midrange hotel.

But I have a room of my own.

I have a little vanity in the bedroom. It’s got small shelves and a mirror and a little drawer with a lock, a stool with a floral-patterned cushion that rolls out. I tenderly unpacked all my lady things—make-up and headbands and jewlery—arranged them on the shelves. I put my passport in the drawer. In the mornings I roll out the stool and open my jar of face powder and see my face in the mirror, looking back.

I have a small kitchen with a metal tub of a sink and a small tiled counter; I have a bathroom where the showderhead is beside the toilet and there’s no curtain to separate the two spaces, but it’s just enough room for one. Yesterday I went to the central market and bought toilet paper and dish soap and a sponge and a couple plastic plates and bowls, and I’ve placed them next to the handtowel the landlady supplied me with, which I folded into a neat rectangle.

There’s a fan in the other room that takes awhile to get going—I’ve got to pull the string cord four, five, six times to awaken it to its buzzing. There’s a metal table and a single chair and a TV set that I’ve left unplugged. There’s a refrigerator that must have come from some convenience store, a small, three-shelf thing covered in Pepsi logos. I’ve placed a container of Laughing Cow cheese inside, some yogurts, a mango the landlady gave me when I moved in. At night it beams like a fluorescent night-light, casting a glow throughout the apartment, and I hear it humming when I roll over in my sleep.

There’s big metal doors that I have to heave open and tug shut. Red contact paper has been placed over the thick glass, to make it opaque, and the light that shines through in the daytime makes the room look lurid. It’s got a big padlock that slides through the metal rings, and an old-fashioned skeleton-type key that was given to me on a shoestring and I keep it my purse, I carry it with me, all over this city—the key to my own room.

I love it. It’s barely furnished and virtually without windows and only mine for a month—but for that month it’s mine. My own room, my own sense of home, in Phnom Penh.

Sunday Morning on International

Sunday morning on International Blvd. A sidewalk laced in fog, car exhaust, the sick-sweet smell seeping from panderias. Little girls in patent-leather shoes, dudes crouched and smoking and speaking in Vietnamese outside the street shop: “Good tattoo ain’t cheap, cheap tattoo ain’t good.” The rattle of shopping cart wheels, the bark of fenced-in dogs.

I’m running late. I’m going to the 11am meeting at the In Between, a beat-up converted barroom now filled with folding chairs and faded banners, where we sit and curse and laugh, talk about God and booze, “hmm-mm”ing and “uh-huh”ing and drinking cheap coffee that stains our teeth. I love that place, its dusty corners and dying plants, the sag of the window frames.

I pass the bright blue letters of Iglesia de Buen Sabor, a storefront church with white bars over its frosted windows. The tambourine rattle and exalted voices of its congregation pours out the open door, from a faceless place—always black inside, when looking in from the street.

I make eye contact with a man standing in front of the doorway. He has a look of well-groomed desperation: cheap suit, overly combed hair, shoes shining like little black teeth. He’s got one crippled arm, bent and with a tangle of underdeveloped fingers; he cradles it next to his body as though he were holding an infant, or a small injured bird. I give him the half-smile and nod of a hello in passing.

He steps towards me. “Hello,” he says. “My name is Juan Carlos…” he continues on with a couple more names, surnames and second middle names. He leans his small hand towards me.

I pause mid-stride, take his small hand. “Right on, man, good to meet you.” It feels limp and strange in my momentary grasp, and I try to amend my handshake, make it softer, let it fit the contours of his curled-in fingers. “I’m running late, though—” I start to step away.

“You have a lot of joy in your heart.”

I stop, look at him with a slightly cocked head. “Thanks.”

He nods, smiles, then steps back into the black swallow and tambourine roll of his doorway.

I cross the street and squeak my own door open.

Travel and the Lonely Girl

"When that open roads starts to callin me..."

I have been in a post-trip funk.

It’s embarrassing to admit, especially since the trip that propelled me into the sucking black of it wasn’t much of a trip: 10 days, in-country—shit, wholly within California. No form of public transportation was ridden, no bulky backpack bulged to the max: Traveling Lite, Reduced Hassle.

But it wasn’t just that trip that launched me soul-first into the aching void. It was the accumulation of trips, the momentum and gathering steam, wheels spinning and dust pluming. It was a short drive through my own backyard than confirmed what I knew was true, solid and sore as a cancer, sitting unmovable in my gut, in the way that things we suspect (but don’t want to admit) are true do: I like myself better when I’m traveling.

God damnit. I’ve been restless, irritable and discontent since I’ve come home, an itch in my veins, mounting, rising with the blood and coming out (this part is true) in a pink dry rash on my arms and legs. On one particular night last week, when I felt like I was going to crawl out of my own skin, it dawned on me: I’m far less lonely traveling, even solo, than I am at home.

What the fuck is up with that? It’s one of those logic-defying spiritual axioms. But it’s not just the loneliness, because I’ve always been lonely, not in a no-friends kind of way, but in an ache-in-the-center kind of way. (“She had a funny way of looking, too, that was like bird looked: you know, with the head turned, never dead at something, but kind of past it, past it like she could see something nobody else could see; and whatever it was she saw sometimes scared her like a ghost. ‘I’m lonely,’ she says.“) No, it’s more than even that central fact. It’s that I feel like I’m a better version of myself when I travel—as though being on the road irons out all the rough spots, calms all the kinks and hushes me with a lullaby of engine roars and brake squeals.

Sure, there’s the departure from reality aspect: no work, no bills, no floors to be swept and trash to be taken out. Free of mundane tasks and responsibilities, travel allows you to turn to loftier activities, reflecting on life and culture (and street art and soda pop). Traveling isn’t “real” life—or rather, it’s realer life, a sudden plunge back into the ice water of all that surrounds us, but we’re just too wrapped up, too nose-to-the-grindstone, to see at home. It’s either an escape or a return, a reverse kind of homecoming—I haven’t decided which yet.

But it’s something more than that too, I think. Somehow, when I travel, I feel more connected, even when I don’t speak the language, don’t look like anyone around, don’t know anyone for hundreds or thousands of miles. I’m more curious, less shy and inhibited, more apt to  engage (even wordlessly) with a stranger or go traipsing off on some impulsive adventure. I’m totally consumed with my surroundings, and all the shooting sparks and trembling brain waves usually spent hamster-wheeling around myself are redirected, sent to other, sleeping parts of the brain that yawn and stretch and come to life only when I travel.

It’s not that I don’t love my home or my life. It’s that I think about myself less when I travel. Freedom from the bondage of self is what it’s all about, right?—the closest I’ve ever gotten to feeling whole and content and, holy shit, not lonely.

Of course, there are spiritual practices that can achieve the same effect. (“When we retire at night, we constructively review our day… Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of others, of what we could pack into the stream of life?”) But I want it now, I want it the fast and tangible way, the board-a-plane-and-stuff-a-bag-and-drain-my-bank-account way. I don’t want to sit crosslegged on a lotus leaf and wait for, not enlightenment, but something to ease the itch and fill the void, the little lonely I carry, that I sometimes think we all carry.

I’d planned to go back. I’d switched my shifts and made hasty arrangements, was going to go back to LA. I told myself it was attend the renaming ceremony of John Fante Square (as much for the ceremony itself as to witness whatever bizarre cross-section of humanity would come out for such a thing—myself included, of course). I told myself it was to take more pictures and get more material and possibly go to a print studio that sounded pretty killer. But really I just wanted to relive my last trip—to get back to that place, that elusive illusive place, where I’m not just happy, but something that resembles content. It’s not actually a place at all, an anti-place—or else it’s every place, the possibility and freedom of the open road that courses through the world and ourselves and that, goddamn, I wanna get back on, wind-rattling and dust-covered.

Meet the Reason

… I won’t be traveling for a couple months. (Well, not the only reason, but the biggest, which is actually the smallest and the sweetest reason…)

Baby Naomi, my brand spankin new little niece, born on Tuesday, April 6th. I’ve got other nieces and nephews, step- and half-, but none whose birth I’ve been around for. None I’ve gotten to hold when they’re pink and trembling and less than 24 hours old, blinking in the strangeness of light and the world—everything blank, yet-to-come, a suggestion of stars and planetary alignment, the etchings in a palm that’s too small to read yet, to gently uncurl or do anything but hold.

The world can wait. An impulsive trip to the renaming ceremony of John Fante Square in LA can be ditched. My inbox can fill like rising water and my page view stats can sink. There comes a time to sit still, when even the itchiest feet need to stay rooted.

This is definitely something I wanna be around for.

Would You Like Travel With That?: Why Being a Waitress is a Killer Job for a Traveler

As I’m planning my California road trip, buying plane tickets to Hawaii and Texas, and feverishly saving for a three-month galavant through Southeast Asia, I’m sometimes asked a question about work. Someone that doesn’t know me that well will wistfully gasp, “Your job lets you take that much time off?”

It’s at times like those that I realize how good I’ve got it. As a waitress.

That’s right—a waitress. It’s an inglorious job that people outside of the restaurant industry tend to look down on. It doesn’t exactly scream “motivation,” and at its worst, it screams “uneducated” or “Hooters girls.” Sigh. But the more I dig into the travel writing world, the more I’ve come to appreciate my “day” job. And despite the lack of benefits and security, it couldn’t be a better gig for me right now.

I didn’t plan it this way. But I majored in Creative Writing, and it’s not like there’s full-time gigs writing poetry. I hosted and served (and managed a local swimming pool) to get through college. I left the country for the first time after graduation, fell in love with traveling, and decided to stick around restaurants, if for nothing else than the time off (and getting to sleep in).

I’ve never worked a 9-5, never worked in an office, and never felt stifled or constrained by my job. I forget about the corporate trap of 40+ hour work weeks, because I’ve never lived it. I come across blogs with lengthy “About” descriptions detailing the karate-chop someone gave to the confines of corporate life (“I quit a job with XYZ company, sold everything and took to the road”), and I think, “Huh. That’s a life experience I totally can’t relate to.” I’ve certainly felt claustrophobic and stuck in my own life, but never because of my work.

There are trade-offs for the freedoms that come along with being a waitress—big ones. I work holidays and weekends, have never had a paid day off in my life, and the idea of a retirement plan or dental insurance is for me as exotic a fantasy as, say, traveling around the world is for some. But I swap all these securities for the one thing I can’t live, or travel, without: the ability to pick up and leave, yes, but also to not feel trapped.

And while I sometimes stress about the fact that it’s been nearly 10 years since I graduated high school and I’m “still a waitress,” I can’t help but feel I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. Here’s why:

Time Off

Earlier in my “career,” I nervously asked my manager for an additional 4 days off during a month when I was already out of town for 2 weeks. He laughed. “Of course you can have the time off. That’s why you’re a server and not working for an insurance company.”

The number one plus of restaurant work for a traveler is the ability to take time off. It’s just a part of the culture—and why the cliche of a struggling artist or musician working as a server is so prevalent. The idea of being constricted to 2-3 weeks of vacation a year—paid or otherwise—scares the crap out of me. No wonder people quit their jobs to travel the world.

Flexibility

Allowing for time off is rooted in a deeper aspect of restaurant culture: flexibility. At most places it’s totally acceptable to switch shifts and in-times in order to accommodate whatever else is going on your life. Which is great for me now.

Short Hours

Shifts in most restaurants aren’t the grueling 8+ hour affairs they are in offices. My shifts currently average 5-6 hours, and are sometimes as short as 3 hours. This means that, even on days I work, I have time to write, and take care of all the tedious tasks/errands that come with being alive.

Internationalism

Because restaurant work is tough and doesn’t require traditional education, it’s chock full of immigrants. Mexicans and Central Americans fill the restaurants of California—which means you’re constantly immersed in Spanish. It’s impossible not to pick up a little Spanish in California restaurants. I’ve given myself pre-trip crash courses when I declare that no one should speak to me in English (this doesn’t really go as well as planned). As of late, I’ve been pretty lazy on the language tip; even still, I hear Spanish all the time and understand a fair amount (“Oh, Lorena, tienes un novio?”). I’m even picking up some random Mayan words (“pibil” means “baked”).

Being Active and Talking to People

Last year, I interned for several months at a rad travel website. Everyone was super nice and I enjoyed all the writing work I was doing, but the work environment felt totally alien: everyone sitting at desk, quietly clicking away on their keyboards. I was not used to the quiet, the immobility, the comfort and niceness of it all.

Restaurant work is visceral, and I like that. I tromp up and down stairs for hours, carrying trays of drinks and stacks of plates up my arms. I sweat. I spill salsas and half-eaten food down my apron. I sometimes have to pee for an hour, but am too busy to go. On a busy night, I’ll wait on over 100 people—interacting, reading them, talking and joking, making sure they have a good time. It’s intense and draining and I kind of love it.

But before you swap that comfy gig at the stifling job you say you hate, check out the other side of the scale: the restaurant work bummers.

When waitressing sucks your soul out...

No benefits

And I don’t just mean health benefits. These days, most restaurants in the Bay Area offer some kind of health insurance (albeit chintzy and hard to qualify for). What I mean are all the other “kushy” benefits (benefits that are automatics for all workers in some other countries—but that’s another post…).

I can take all the time I want off, but none of it is paid. That extends to paid holidays and sick days. If you’ve got the flu, tough. Maybe your landlord will accept a doctor’s note. Even those legally required 10 minute breaks are the stuff of waitress fantasy. Maybe someday we’ll unionize. Until then, we pop DayQuil and work sick.

No security

It’s not just the lack of unions; the lack of security in the restaurant world again goes down to the very nature of the job. When times are hard, as they are now, one of the first things people cut is eating out. Or worse, tipping. And there’s no safety net under the waitressing tightrope.

In most restaurants, you earn minimum wage (in some states, they can pay you under minimum wage; I knew a server in NYC who made $3.12 an hour!), which is usually just enough to cover taxes. So essentially all the money you’re making is from tips. If you have a slow night, get a string of 10% tippers, or, oh say, the economy totally falls into the shitter, you’re quickly screwed. There’s no guaranteed income to fall back on. By the same token, though, you can make insane amounts of money when times are good. But if you don’t know how to budget, it can devolve into a feast-or-famine lifestyle.

Hard on the body

The restaurant industry is great when you’re young and energetic and can’t stand the thought of sitting in a chair all day. But it’s not an industry to grow old in. Long hours on your feet, carrying trays and plates, seriously wears you down. By 23, I already had chronic lower back pain and an interstate roadmap of varicose veins criss-crossing my legs.

But these are the markings of someone who works for a living, like the calluses of my dad’s hands, the unwashable black under my brother’s nails: work you wear, that wears you. Whether I planned it this way or not, waitressing as become a part of me. And until I scramble my way to the top of travel writing heap (wink, wink), it’s not a bad way to earn my rent, fund my travels—and get the hell out of town.

It Itches!: Feeling the Burn of Wanderlust

Itchy itchy...

“I’ve been home for nearly 4 months. My feet are so itchy, it feels like I got athlete’s foot.”

Okay, it was a bad joke. But that’s what Twitter’s for, right?

It’s not that I’m counting the days (not really). It’s not that I’m unhappy in my life at home or looking for escape. It’s just that I have this “incurable wanderlust” (what @cultoftravel speculated was worse than swine flu), and the more I read about travel, write about travel, tweet about travel, and am generally immersed in a virtual sea of travel, the worse it gets. I don’t have any problem going to a bar and not drinking, but reading travel blogs and knowing I won’t be doing any serious adventuring for a few more months—well, that’s tough. Ever since my first trip, I’ve gotten antsy when I’ve stayed at home too long. This whole travel writing business is adding a little more heat to the ring of fire.

I may be chomping at the bit, but it’s all good stuff that’s keeping me home. I have a niece on the way, my dad is retiring, and I have four friends getting married in the early half of the summer. All totally happy, exciting things that I’m grateful to be a part of. Plus it gives me a chance to save up for my next long trip, a three-monther around Southeast Asia.

In the mean time, I’m plotting a little solo California roadtrip for next month. Partly to visit an old friend, partly to see the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. Partly because I haven’t driven down Highway 1 since I was a kid, and partly because I’m curious what kind of conversations you get into with yourself after days of driving solo. Partly to debunk my own stereotypes of Southern California as a cultural wasteland of SUVs, strip malls and Kardashians, and partly to practice toting my laptop on the road with me. But, honestly, the trip is largely a keep-me-sane tide-me-over until the funds and circumstances—aka The Travel Gods—see fit to unleash me on the world again.

So as my feet are itching, my fingers twitching and my plans to high-tail it down the highway taking shape, I uncovered an old poem about restlessness, impulsivity and the physical road that hit the spot.

MacArthur Maze

Let’s drive this thing

into the blood burning sky.

/

Let’s take this road

potholed and hissing

past the pitched roofs

and pigeon wings,

past electrical wires

and blown-out streetlamps,

brown hills

where the grass cackles

and waits

to be lit.

/

Let’s curve

into the black, under

the overpass, past

the vacated bodies,

curled in and sighing—

/

Let’s take this thing

where it leads,

if it leads,

or stampedes

/

us into a sunburnt sky

the color of our own

sunburnt skin.

Now get me on the road!


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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