I’m walking down Sunset Boulevard dropping off my resume at every restaurant I see within the area. I hate it. The restaurant manager at these places, usually a middle-aged short man with some unsightly mole or neck hair, always look me up and down, drunk with the power of decision. He’s always very skeptical of whether or not I can perform the difficult and strenuous tasks demanded in the world of bringing people sandwiches.
I walk out of some terrible hip Hollywood bar and immediately make eye contact with a young guy wearing a Red Cross shirt and holding a clipboard. “How are you today?” he asks.
“Oh, you know. All right.”
“Well, let me ask you this. Do you know how many disasters happen everyday?”
“Disasters? Like natural disasters?”
“Anything. Any disaster. You can count large-scale natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or smaller disasters.
“Smaller disasters?” I ask.
“Like car accidents, house fires. Did you know that more than 200 disasters happen every day?”
“So wait, any car accident constitutes a disaster? Like fender benders?”
“Huh. So what if I cut my foot on a piece of glass? Is that a disaster?”
“No, not a disaster. Unless it happens in a house fire.”
“Oh, so if I cut my foot while watching my house burn, then it’s a disaster.”
“Well, sure. The fire is.”
“But how do you know what constitutes a disaster?”
“Well, uh, there are official reports made by…uh…officials that actually name whether or not something is a disaster.”
“Hmm. So what is it that you’re asking for?”
He perks up. “Well, we’re asking for a small donation to the Red Cross.”
I laugh. “Money? Nope. I’m poor. I’m walking around looking for jobs right now, actually.”
“Well, if you need a job, we’re always looking for people.”
“To do what you do? I couldn’t.”
“It’s really not that bad,” he says. “You get to talk to people.”
“Honestly, I’m way too much of a pussy to just approach people on the street and ask them for money.”
We stare at each other.
“I’m sorry I said pussy to you,” I say.
He sighs. Seriously. He visibly sighs. “Okay,” he says. “Well, bye.”
And I leave, a little reluctantly, off to face more depressing restaurant managers.
I’m at a group interview for a California Pizza Kitchen. There are nine other interviewees, and all but two are younger than me.
“Okay,” says Marcy, the over-enthusiastic regional manager. She’s worked at CPK for ten years. “First of all I want you all to introduce yourselves and tell me what your favorite restaurant is and why.” She points to a girl at the opposite end of the table. “Start us out.”
“Hi, I’m Josephine, and my favorite restaurant is California Pizza Kitchen because I’m a carb person, and I really love the bread and pastas on the menu. I’m always suggesting it to my friends.”
Marcy nods. “Great. What about you?”
“My name is Angela, and my favorite restaurant is California Pizza Kitchen because I love pizza, and you just guys just do it better than everyone else.”
Before it comes to me, four other people introduce themselves and reveal that their favorite restaurant is, shock-face, California Pizza Kitchen. What are the odds?
“All right,” Marcy says to me. “It’s your turn, but you can’t say California Pizza Kitchen.”
“Oh, I won’t,” I say.
Marcy looks taken aback.
“Because I just moved here from Oklahoma, and there are no California Pizza Kitchens there.” I’m not sure that’s true. “My name is Leah, and my favorite restaurant is a thai food restaurant a block from my house in Oklahoma.”
I don’t know why, but I’m lying. I could say a million other things, things that are truer, but I choose this moment to work on my improv skills for some reason.
Marcy nods. “And why is that your favorite restaurant?”
“A combination of things, really,” I say. “They had great service” (lie), “and their food was so fresh” (lie), “but it made me sick every time I ate it. I just liked it so much, I’d eat there anyway” (100% true).
The group laughs.
I answer every other question first. Here are a few of the bullshit gems I throw at Marcy: “I love waiting tables because I really enjoy interacting with people. I think they’re infinitely interesting.” Or, “I love the concept of CPK because it gives the employees so many opportunities.” Or, “My main goal is to stay with this company and create a career out of working for your restaurant.”
Marcy loves me. The other interviewees love me, too, because I’m warm and personable. They don’t know I’m swindling them, charming them by inserting humor to mask the insincerity of horrendous situations like this, a group interview. I put everyone at ease a little bit. I’m good at that. I’ve always been good at that.
Nailed it, I think as I drive home. So what if I have to play some games and act like a chain restaurant is the end-all of my career goals? I try to ignore the tattoo on the inside of my left arm, the Latin word “veritas” glaring at me. It means “truth.”
I get a call the next day. CPK wants me to come in for a second interview.
It’s Monday night. I’m at The Comedy Store waiting to go on the open mic. I’ve got an amazing luck streak going. This is the third week in a row I’ve made it on the list.
Tonight’s host is both enthusiastic and cynical, an unnatural combination of things. “All right,” he says. “This next guy coming to the stage was supposed to go first, but he couldn’t come up here because he had rolled his little cart-thing through some dog shit. Believe me, I’m not making this up.” He rolls his eyes. “Now, I want you all to do me a favor. Can you do that?”
He’s talking to the four people in the front row. They’re currently the only people in the room who aren’t comics waiting to go on.
“I want you to decide whether this guy is a comedian, or a crazy homeless person. So keep that in mind. Crazy homeless guy, or funny? I’m gonna ask you after.”
A man who does indeed look crazy, rolls his cart, a homemade podium made to look like the outside of a TV, up on the stage.
Mr. TV has half a mustache. One side of his head has a full blonde head of hair, and the other side is completely bald. He’s wearing half a bowtie and one suspender. His act is a series of puns and one-liners based on some props he brings with him. They’re not terribly clever or original, but he gets a few stray chuckles, the people in the front row giggling in that pity laugh type of way.
At the end of his set, Mr. TV takes a long time trying to get his cart off stage. The club bouncer and the host have to help him move it. It’s quite a production. To make up for the awkwardness, the host grabs the mic. “Okay,” he says. “Applaud if you think Mr. TV should never, ever do standup again.”
The comics clap, but the audience members don’t move.
“Oh come on!” the host says. “That was terrible. Can’t we all agree that was terrible and he should quit?”
Mr. TV is finally offstage, now trying to navigate his portable podium through the tables and chairs scattered throughout the show room.
“No,” the man in front says. “He doesn’t have to quit.”
“Oh, are you gonna go support him, sir?” the host asks. “Are you gonna buy tickets to see that man perform anywhere? Are you gonna tell your friends that he’s really funny, and they should waste their time and money watching him onstage?”
“Well, no,” the man says. “I guess not.”
“Jesus,” I say. I feel bad for Mr. TV. Besides the non-comic audience members, I seem to be the only person who does. The rest of the comics laugh loudly at his misfortune.
“Look,” the host goes on. “We gave him a chance. We let him have his three minutes, and he came up here and wasted everybody’s time. You know how many serious comics wanted to go up tonight?”
The man shrugs, helpless. “I was trying to be supportive.”
“You know what?” the host asks. “You’re not helping anything by being supportive. What do we say here at The Comedy Store?”
From the back of the room, the Store manager steps out of the box office and yells, “It’s a sin to encourage mediocre talent.” He crosses his arms over his chest. “That’s what Mitzi always says, and that’s what we stand by here at the Store.”
Mitzi Shore is the oft-mentioned, much-loved owner of the famous club. I take a moment to picture her standing in the manager’s place, saying that very same thing to poor Mr. TV as he pushes his sad little cart out the front door and down Sunset Boulevard.
My heart literally aches for Mr. TV. Who are we to shit on what just may be the one thing he has to look forward to?
At the same time, though, I can’t stop thinking about Mitzi’s quote. “It’s a sin to encourage mediocre talent.” I suddenly grasp the fact that I’m in the Comedy Store in Los Angeles waiting to get up on a stage where Steve Martin and Richard Pryor and every legend of stand-up once stood. I am right here. And I realize that stand-up comedy is ruthless, unbearably lonely, and hard.
But it’s honest.
It’s my second interview for California Pizza Kitchen, and I’m getting along swimmingly with the manager who’s interviewing me. Brandon’s one of those, “I want work to be fun,” guys, so the interview becomes conversational from the get-go.
“What do you like to do when you’re not at work?” Brandon asks.
“Well,” I say. “I’m a comedian, so I go to a lot of open mics and shows around here.” Shit, I think. Why the hell did I tell him that? I figure now he’s going to know that my interest in restaurant management is a line of bullshit.
He doesn’t get it, though. “Wow, comedy,” he says. “You know, I like to tell jokes during some shifts. If I see, for instance, that one of my servers is having a tough time, I’ll tell him a stupid joke, you know. Just to lighten the mood up.”
“Exactly,” I say, taking his ignorance and running with it. “I see myself as the kind of person who just wants to make people laugh.” For a living. As my career. Really, it’s the only thing I think about. Shut up, Inner Monologue! You’re ruining this.
“That’s great,” Brandon says. “You seem like you’re a team player.”
“Oh, absolutely,” I say. “I find that you can get so much more done when you share the same goals with everyone around you. So if your goal is to give people a great experience at a restaurant, you have to start by helping your peers.”
Okay, I feel the need to explain something here. I’m actually a really good server. I really do help the people I work with. I really do like to make the other servers laugh, but I don’t do it Brandon’s way. I do it like every other person who waits tables: I make fun of managers like Brandon who take things way too seriously. In a restaurant, the servers are on one side, the managers on another. If you’ve ever waited tables, you know that’s an undeniable truth, which is why movies like Waiting are so popular.
I’ve worked in restaurants for years, and I’ve run into my fair share of Brandons. I’m willing to bet that when Brandon pulls a server aside to tell him a joke, the server laughs politely, but walks off thinking, What a tool. So while what I’m saying isn’t a bald-faced lie, it feels misleading and wrong because I know I’m just saying what he wants to hear.
Most people would probably say, “That’s just life, Leah. You have to play the games to get by.”
But I’ve kind of always refused to do that. Not getting somewhere because I don’t want to play the games necessary to get there has been a recurring theme throughout my life. My stupid need to be true to myself, well, it’s my Achilles heel.
“I think that’s all for this afternoon,” Brandon says. “You’ll hear from us on Monday, and we’ll let you know whether or not we’re gonna have you back for a third interview.” (Yes, you read that right. You have to go through three interviews to get hired at a California Pizza Kitchen.)
He shakes my hand. “Thank you, Leah. It’s been a pleasure. Hey, do you wanna hear a stupid joke?”
“Sure,” I say.
“When Snoop Dogg gives the weather report, what does he call it when the forecast shows rain?”
“I don’t know.”
Brandon grins. “The drizzle.”
I stare at him for a second. I know he said it was a dumb joke, but I also know he thinks it’s hilarious. I know what I have to do.
“Hahahahahahaha,” I fake laugh. “That is hilarious.”
Brandon shrugs, “It’s just a silly joke.”
“It’s great, Man,” I say. If there’s a comedian hell, I’m going to it.
I’m 22 years old, and I’m riding the T through Boston to my very first job interview at an insurance company. I got the interview because my dad worked for the company for about 20 years. He’s retired now, but they still think of him fondly enough to give his daughter a chance.
I get off at my stop and walk to the huge glass building. I feel like a kid playing adult. My interview clothes are uncomfortable and stiff. My heels make clicky noises as I make my way down the sidewalk, passing people on cell phones, carrying coffee and briefcases, wearing boring black pants suits.
This is just the real world, I tell myself. I ride the elevator up to the fourth floor and step into a reception area. The receptionist tells me to have a seat, that the woman interviewing me will be ready for me shortly.
I sit down and notice a pamphlet on the table next to me. I pick it up and read the front of it. It’s all about the company, statistics and numbers lauding the merits of commercial insurance. Suddenly, I feel very depressed. I think of my dad coming in to work here everyday, sitting behind a desk so that some asshole can write, “Our customer service reps care about you,” on their hiring pamphlet. “Our main concern is making your life better.”
A few minutes later, a woman comes out, shakes my hand, and brings me back into her office. She sits behind a desk, and I sit across from her.
“So Leah,” she says. “Tell me why you want to work here.”
I think for a minute. “Can I be honest with you?”
“I don’t want to work here,” I say. “I have no idea what I’m doing here.” I brace myself for a lecture about wasting time.
But the woman just smiles at me. “Wow,” she says. “I’ve never heard anyone say that.”
She leans forward. “So what do you want to do?”
“I want to write,” I say. “I think I’m supposed to be a writer.”
Then the woman tells me about when she was younger, how she wanted to go to school in Vermont. How she wanted to be a painter, but she ended up getting a job in insurance because she was afraid of not being able to support herself financially. “I admire you,” she says. “And I sincerely hope that you end up being what you want to be.”
I stand up, we shake hands, and I can’t get out of that building fast enough. As I head back to the T station, I’m cracking up laughing. I feel light. I feel like I’m 22 again, and I have infinite possibilities ahead of me.
But then reality catches up with me, and I realize that I didn’t get a job today. On purpose. Now I have to tell my dad that I sat down in a job interview he got me and told the lady interviewing me that I didn’t want that job.
And I have to go home, back to Oklahoma. I’ve failed at Boston.
My third interview at CPK goes smoothly because I have become a soulless bag of skin spewing out bullshit lines about how to sell things, how to read people, how to make money for the restaurant.
I get the job right then. They take a picture of me, they tell me to be prepared to train in a couple weeks, and they write my name down in an appointment book for Monday at noon, when I need to bring in my social security card and fill out some new hire paperwork.
I’m so relieved. I have a job. I can stay here in L.A. now. I made it.
On Labor Day, I get up around 9 and go eat brunch with a couple friends. We stand in line outside the restaurant chatting for a good hour before we get in, but the food’s great, which makes it worth it.
I go home and write some jokes, then decide to take a nap. I get up in time to go to the Comedy Store. I tell some comic friends that I got a day job, that I’m so relieved.
I go to another open mic down the street. When I get home around 10 p.m., I decide to go for a run. It’s not until I’m running down Sunset when I realize that I was supposed to go in and fill out my hiring paperwork today.
I completely fucking forgot.
I call CPK the next day, and they put Brandon on the phone. “I never do things like that,” I say. “I was confused, I guess because of Labor Day. I’m in the area right now. Can I bring my social in?”
“Mmm,” Brandon says. “Actually, we’ve already decided that we’re going to move forward without you.”
I sigh. “Is there anything I can do to change your mind? I mean, seriously, you can call my old manager, and he’ll tell you that I’ve never missed a shift. I literally have never done this.”
“I’m sorry,” Brandon says. “But we’ve already made a team decision, and we’re going to stick with it.”
I hang up the phone and stare off into space, letting my imminent doom sink in.
I am such a fuck up.
It’s hard not to write Brandon off as an asshole. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that he’s right not to hire me. The reason I didn’t make it to fill out paperwork is because my mind is elsewhere, consumed and obsessed with standup comedy.
And because I’m the same me that told the lady in Boston that I didn’t want to work at her insurance company, I know that I’m not going to be happy working somewhere where I can’t be who I am, where my independence, extensive education, and creativity are moot points.
Brandon’s probably very good at being a restaurant manager, but I’m better than him at reading people. If Brandon knew how to read people, he would’ve known that I’m a comedian and writer first, that those things are my whole life, that everything else is just a means to an end. If Brandon knew how to read people, he’d know that I thought his joke was terrible and lame. If Brandon knew what I knew, he could detect the difference between a fake laugh and a real one.
I think of Mitzi’s maxim. “It’s a sin to encourage mediocre talent.” I’d like to add something to it, a little maxim of my own: never fake-laugh at a lame joke, even if a job depends on it.
I don’t envy Brandon. I suppose it’s not easy trying to appease a staff of servers. I suppose you have to make decisions based on whether or not somebody shows up when they say they will. I admit, I know nothing about managing a restaurant, so I have no business thinking of Brandon as an asshole.
But Brandon has no business telling shitty jokes to people desperate for a job, making them fake-laugh because it’s impolite not to. For that, you are an asshole, Brandon. So you just diligently manage your California Pizza Kitchen and leave the funny to people who know what they’re doing.