Eggs and Existentialism

In which I answer an old man’s question

The other day, an old white man with thin rimless glasses and a blue gingham shirt asked me while I was topping off his coffee: “What do you do in the real world?” He smiled, the right end of his mouth reaching just a bit higher than the left and though he was sitting and I was standing he looked down on me from blistering heights.

I was hungover from the night before at the Wormhole where industry folk drink topshelf liquor for two bucks and I was running on just a couple hours of sleep because a friend or two and I thought it wise, thought it necessary to burn spliff after spliff after spliff for the ceiling in my room is far too high to be filled with the smoke of just one. And I was tired because Tuesday mornings mean 6am alarms and fog-frosted bike rides to work and the filling of coffeepots and the slicing of lemon after lemon after lemon.

“What do you do in the real world?” It rang in my head and I paused and I thought. I’d dealt with this question before, every waiter has. Waitstaffs, restaurants, kitchens too, are home to transients and aspirers, to part-timers and daydreamers. And nice restaurants like ours are often patroned by those who can afford the fare with ease and those who can afford the fare with ease often wonder what my more serious ambitions may be, what really takes up my time and energy.

This old man sat with his old wife, their hair a coordinated limestone, in front of each of them crossword puzzles, the old man’s filling up fast, much faster than hers. He had earlier asked where I last lived — “Coming all the way from Seattle to fill our coffee,” he joked — and, later, when I had cleared his table and asked whether I could help him with anything else he replied: “Yes, my bills.”

He wasn’t the worst customer I served, no, not at all. I’d had one sweet old lady from Miami just a few days before. She wore glasses thick enough to see ridges on mapped mountain and walked out on an untouched corned beef sandwich, muttering all too loud: “I’d thought Savannah, what with all the Jews here, would know how to make a goddamn Reuben. Boy was I wrong.”

This question, though — the real world — stung and I hesitated. Maybe it was the haze from the night before that still clung to my every heartbeat, making minor moments momentous and maybe it was that lingering feeling that what I’ve been doing here is what I was doing in places previous and that all of it doesn’t amount to much.

I have answers, though. I do. I do.

I wanted to tell this old man that in the real world I’m wandering through a corn-maze life with steady steps because, though endpoints and direction may evade, holding my hand and leading my way are the warm fingers of beautiful people. I wanted to tell him that I stay up late until my eyes crust red and fall deeply in love with whoever sits by my side fighting sleep together as if it had insulted our mothers.

I wanted to tell this old man that I was growing obsessed with trees whose names I’d never learn, that I was collecting bouquets of cement-crack flowers and I wanted to tell this old man that in the real world I was thinking about retirement, that I was thinking about putting up my feet and enjoying the wafting smell of springtime.

I wanted to tell this old man, this old man that had assessed and judged me, that had tossed me into a creaky wooden box shaped by past and faded generations, I wanted to tell this old man that uncertainty was my lifeblood, that I stumble with my eyes wide not out of laziness nor out of want of ambition but because it’s what I know to do and because it’s what I need to do.

Most of all, though, I wanted to make sure this old man knew that though his offhand condescension might’ve rendered my hungover self a bucket of trembles, my convictions, my meandering and romantic convictions remain strong like the three hundred year-old brick walls of the once-upon a time brothel in which we stood.

But instead I smiled and I nodded and I told him that what I do in the real world matters not to his breakfast nor to his bills and I walked briskly to another table.