Back in Venezuela, there were a number of epidemics that had people trembling like children fearing the Boogeyman. First it was dengue fever, which I’m pretty sure I caught during the first days of 2012; then it was chikungunya, which I avoided. Yellow fever wanted to make an appearance, as well as bird flu, but they remained a scare and nothing else. I was always careful, always took care of me and my own.
And then fucking COVID-19 came and hit in the most powerful country in the world, and here I am.
I have complained before about what I’ve seen as the entitlement of the average American, considering how they treat their servers (yes, I’m biased, but that doesn’t make it less true). Now I have more reason for resentment, I’m afraid. I don’t think I’ll suffer any fool any longer. And that’s what I’ve most hated about this last week: the dark place in my head into which I’ve crawled. It has made me see and feel things that I’d rather had stayed down.
I feel as if I have no friends. And it brings back feelings that I have been, in general, a terrible friend. A single friend from high school years, and it’s more because she sought me out. My best friend from my first job, who resents me still from all the wrong I put on her. My best friend of 30 years, living an ocean away. My few male friends, all in other countries. None of them ask for me, write to see how I am, and neither do I. I am a single rock islet in the vastness of the ocean. No seen connections to any other land mass. Thank God for my wife and step daughter. And even there I know I have to work on improvements.
This will pass, I’m sure. But I need help. I have plans. And I do not want to be serving idiots any more.
I woke up around seven that morning. I think I remember my flight was scheduled to leave around four, which meant I had to be at the airport around two o’clock. My dad picked me up at my aunt’s house, the place I called home for some five years after my divorce, and I kissed her goodbye. Her voice cracked as she hugged me, and I still feel a little guilt from leaving her; I never was super chatty with her, or spend any significant amount of time with her, this woman who was like a second mom to me. She seemed so frail… But I resisted.
It was the shortest breakfast ever. Then my dad, brother and sister in law came with me to the airport. And I hugged my mom, as her voice started cracking. I did not want to cry, not yet, but I have always been a mama’s boy. I felt a little lump as she blessed me, but I smiled and kissed her in the forehead.
We fought. OK, we can call it a passionate argument, but that’s just one level below a fight. I’m not telling you who, because this is a person close to me, someone with whom in the many years we’ve related we’ve never had anything but a brief exchange of harsh words that was immediately forgotten. And I don’t want their politics or any of their positions in life known after this. But we got to a new, ugly place yesterday.
I have always been an unironic fan of the actor known as Matthew McConaughey. Even before I thought of myself as a cinephile or, God forbid, a movie critic (heck, I even ran a semi successful movie blog back home for a good couple of years), I liked the man, even in his most terrible choices. It was part of his charm, the part of himself that bled into so many of his characters in all his rom-coms: charming to a fault, a little dangerous, could talk you into anything. And yes, why deny it, he was always one of those dudes I wish I could be, what with all the fame, and the women, and the good looks.
Now, as he is about to turn 51, just one year, eight months and 13 days before my 50th, he is riding high again, not because of a new movie –his last true hit, at least from a box office point of view, was 2014’s Interstellar—but because he is now a published author. His memoir, Greenlights, just came out eight days ago, on October 20th. I found out two weeks ago. I didn’t even think about it. I pre-ordered the audiobook and, in a rare case of commitment, proceeded to listen to the entire thing in four days.
That should tell you I loved it, but I’d like to expand a bit. Matthew (yes, I address him common, even though I’m sure if I’m ever lucky enough to meet the man I’d be Mister McCon-Con-Conaughey sir) reveals himself as a gifted raconteur. And like all of them, many of his wild tales I should take with a grain or two of salt: he states that once his dad revived a dead bird with mouth to, er, beak; he says he built a thirteen-story treehouse out of stolen wood; he says he wrestled in Africa, walked the desert, loved countless women… OK, that part has to be true. And it’s the ones that have to be true that equally fascinate me. How he got humbled after not preparing for a movie role; how convinced directors he was the natural choice for a movie; how he met and fell in love with his wife, Camila; how he wrote this book, after he sat down to read the journals he’d been keeping for almost forty years.
I found stories I experienced, lessons I learned and forgot, poems, prayers, prescriptions, beliefs about what matters, some great photographs, and a whole bunch of bumper stickers. I found a reliable theme, an approach to living that gave me more satisfaction, at the time, and still: If you know how, and when, to deal with life’s challenges—how to get relative with the inevitable—you can enjoy a state of success I call ‘catching greenlights.’
So I took a one-way ticket to the desert and wrote this book: an album, a record, a story of my life so far. This is fifty years of my sights and seens, felts and figured-outs, cools and shamefuls. Graces, truths, and beauties of brutality. Getting away withs, getting caughts, and getting wets while trying to dance between the raindrops.
That’s where the title comes from: his philosophy that “a green light is an affirmation, setting yourself up for success”, as he said in a recent radio interview. “A greenlight can be as simple as putting your coffee in the coffee filter before you go to bed so tomorrow morning all you’ve got to do is push the button.”
It’s easy to think this is one huge ego trip –-heck, I can basically see the twinkle in the eye in the tallest of stories, not to mention the regaling of all his successes—but Greenlight gives off another vibe, at least for me. It made me question whether I’ve been doing enough with my life. Whether I’ve been able to turn the red lights into green long enough, or if I am living to my fullest potential. Yes, it has that kind of effect on you. Even John Cena, sixteen time wrestling champion and positive-doer himself, says so. And Matthew is a fan of Cena himself.
But then again, I’ve had a very different life. I grew middle class Venezuela, he grew rural, working-class Texas. His father believed in tough love, the toughest of loves, divorced his mother twice, married her three times; my father believes in loving discipline, conversation, education. Matthew is a wandering soul; I’m a stay-at-home dude through and through (though I wouldn’t mind driving cross-country in a trailer). I think the biggest difference is Matthew was driven to find more, to get his greenlights (“The arrow does not heat the target; the target draws the arrow”, he writes). I was always too afraid, too comfortable.
Will Greenlights change my life? Will that be the book that inspires me to go further, work harder, be better? I certainly can’t stop thinking about it, or blabbing about it to anyone I might think will read it (and I do intend to buy a readable copy, not just have the audiobook –easier to study this way). Of course, it might just be my man-crush for Matthew; to hear his tales (tall or otherwise) is just… fun. He is a man that has embraced life at his fullest. Be it a student, an actor, a poet, a movie star, a father, a husband, a traveler or a poet, he does not go at anything “half-assedly”. He embraces challenges, lives for them.
I read the first post I wrote on this blog the other day, fascinated by how things have changed back then. My tone was wistful, hopeful, and I remember how scared I truly was to start a new life. I feel like Past me was so innocent, naïve, even. Did I really know how hard it all would be? Was I aware of how much I truly would have to go through to get what I want –and how much trials I would still have to endure?
Of course, I understand that it is the frustration that is speaking. We are infinitely luckier than most. We still have a roof over our heads, dozens of caring people, good health. Which in this endless punching bag of a year is a true blessing.
Oh, but then this endless punching bag of a year happened.
It seems wrong, almost selfish, to complain about the pandemic when over 200,000 Americans and a million people worldwide have died. Like I said, in our house, there hasn’t been so much as a sneeze. We have taken every precaution possible because Y. is immuno-compromised: since she had her gastric bypass, her iron has dropped dramatically and that affects her immune system. Also D. goes to a very small private school where there is minimum contact between the (only ten) students. And I touch no one until I take a shower immediately after I get home.
But, oh, this administration… God DAMN it.
I never liked Trump. Never. Yes, I laughed when I saw the SNL skits and the cameos in movies, but never saw The Apprentice. And when I heard him speak as a politician for the first time –that whole “birther” thing– I only heard an American Hugo Chávez. And I’m certainly not the only one, no matter how different their backgrounds are or how they approach certain policies. Chávez was a loud-mouthed populist who saw his opponents as enemies and refused to accept any criticism, plus demanding nothing but loyalty from his followers. Sound familiar? It makes me sick to my stomach that most Venezuelans here in Florida think he is the next coming of Christ; we have learned nothing of the strongmen in our lives, since we are quick to support another one. Yes, Obama did very little for Venezuela, something I will never forgive him, as much as I admire him, but I refuse to endorse a man like Trump for anything.
And now back to the pandemic. The mismanagement the Trump administration has had for the COVID-19 pandemic is a humanitarian catastrophe. Downplaying from the beginning as he himself admitted to journalist Bob Woodward (and by the way, what the actual f*ck, Bob?). Contradicting every expert over and over again. The insane conspiracy theories and even insaner “solutions” that has literally gotten people killed.
And now it begins to touch us in very real and personal ways.
Y. has been on furlough since April 15. I don’t know whether to put here where she works since I don’t recall saying it here, and I don’t know how comfortable she would be if I did. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t mind, but still. In any case, the company –a BIG company– just announced it had no choice but to start laying off people. It’s nothing new, but it’s a direct consequence of the pandemic and the absolute shitshow both the federal and Florida government have made in handling the crisis (Ron DeSantis, Florida governor, have you lost your goddamn mind?!). We are worse than freaking Mongolia. And don’t get me started on New Zealand.
And don’t give the spiel about “oh but that’s a smaller country”. NO. I will not have it. Mongolia listened to the experts, acted quickly, acted responsibly, and as of today the maximum cases it had was 56. Right now? ZERO. As in none. And how are we doing, in the meantime? Close to 37,000 new ones.
I hate it. I hate the whole goddamn thing. And there’s nothing I can do about it except… keep on trucking. Oh and of course I’m voting. Oh hell yes I’m voting.
What I hate is that once again, I’m voting for the lesser of two evils. Because I’ll be damned if I vote for Trump, but I see Biden with a deep distrust. yes, he is the civil face against Trump’s barely-hidden bullying. But he seems so out of it, so feeble. Is that why they picked a relatively younger woman –albeit an extremely prepared, extremely charismatic one– as his running mate? In the off chance he’ll be unable to end his term and she’ll take over? We should be so lucky.
It has been a shitty year. And I feel it’ll get worse before it gets better. But hey, this is where I turn to the Stoics. I started following the philosophy some four years ago, maybe more, and I discovered the writings of Ryan Holiday and the Daily Stoic site, where they send an email every day with teachings from Stoicism for daily life. As I paused, seething, writing this, I found one from five days ago, titled “It’s Ok To Get Mad, Just Don’t Be Angry”. It ends:
Being mad is a reaction. Anger is a state of mind. One is outside our control. The other is something we choose—a weakness we give into and accept. (…) This moment, just like a scary moment, requires all our resources. We cannot afford to give into anger, just as we cannot afford to give into fear. No, we need to be alert. Aware. Rational. In control of ourselves. So we can survive. So we can learn. So we can enjoy happiness in the present moment. So we can make sure this never happens again.
Daily Stoic, September 25, 2020. Links from original article.
“Anger is a state of mind”. So true. We can’t chose to be angry all the time. It would stain our eyes with hatred, block us from enjoying what good things we have. The fact that we are still alive, breathing, healthy, means that we still have the means to fight and prepare for another day. And that’s what we’re doing: getting ready for the worst outcome, to make the best of it.
But getting mad? Oh that’s natural. And that’s why I write. So I can let it out and keep on truckin’.
Eight months. Can you even list everything that has happened in these eight months, since I last added letters to this piece of Internet real estate? I know I could, but it would drain me, for sure.
I’ve seen my favorite band “live”, in a unique setting to say the least. I’ve lost a pet, to circumstances I will not make public for my own reasons. I have fought with people very close to me for the death of George Floyd and the state of racism in this country (oh believe me there will be a post on the subject). I have dreaded for my own health, for Y.’s, for D.’s, for my parent’s back home.
Let’s just say, it hasn’t been boring.
And no, I haven’t truly been able to take this extra free time to hone in on what I’ve always wanted to do. I have a used guitar, gifted to me by my landlord, still waiting to be repaired. My microphone lies in wait for the podcast I said I would begin but am yet to do so. And well, look at the last post. (You could also check my blogs in Spanish if you would like, though.)
I’ve read so many posts about the incapacity to create. “Hey, it’s ok, you’re under stress”. “Don’t feel forced to be creative or productive”. And I get it. The name of the game is uncertainty. Y. has been on furlough sine mid-April. I went back to work in early May. It was good for a while but now it’s slowing down. And there are car payments. And insurance. I pay the rent and utilities and entertainment, but there’s always a but.
So what to do?
I sit down and write.
I took up journaling again, for the gazillionth time. And I actually kept it up. It was re-inspired by my finding of David Sedaris’ visual diaries, but also by the passing of my uncle, a poet of some importance back home in Venezuela. I started collecting Funko! figurines a little seriously, and it’s turned into a hobby for Y., since she personalizes them for customers.
We’ve been hanging in there. But I kinda need a breakthrough. Like, yesterday. Say, a new job, or a winning lottery ticket, or a book deal. Either one would be nice.
If you’re a subscriber, thank you for not deleting me. I’ll be back in force, I promise. Mostly because I need this. I need to be creating. Be it origami, drawing, writing, doodling or, yes, podcasting. It’s going to be a thing. I hate that I have chosen to let survival dominate over living. Yes, I cannot, as an adult and family man, neglect any of my responsibilities, be it my significant other, the child we are raising together, or the wholeness of my home; but I also cannot, as a creative individual, suppress my urge to make. Time will be found, and balance will be struck. And this blog will remain alive.
The opening line is from a 1963 record by Mexican singer Tony Camargo, now turned into a staple of Latin American New Year celebrations. It’s a fun, upbeat song, where Camargo thanks the old year that’s ready to leave, like “a goat, a black donkey, a white mare, and good mother-in-law”. (Hey, I said upbeat, not logical.)
And last night, it was the first time I had to sing it with a stranger –a fun stranger, no doubt; that’s what people from Zulia are by default– and not with my family. To be honest, the moment I became part of the serving world, especially in the “happiest city in the world”, I should have expected it. Didn’t make it especially easy, though.
But the first few minutes of New Year’s Day, 2020, did make me see many things I am growing to appreciate more and more as my 50th birthday approaches (and we won’t mention that again till 2021, mmmkay?). I hope they will help me focus more on what I want to achieve.
Upon learning I would not be home at midnight, I raged. Not as I used to when younger –not that I’d like to go back to those days, mind you– but many people I work with heard me curse for the first time. Lauren, my manager, offered me a festive hat to wear and I think she was shocked when I declined to wear it, since she has only seen my fun-loving side. But as I got into my duties, I reflected on the Stoics, a philosophy I had very much embraced in 2019 (check out Daily Stoic if you’re interested). We have no control over the things around us; we can only control how we react to them. So I shuffled over to the gloom corner, the part of the restaurant where the servers mope their destiny, and shared this wisdom. Once the troops were rallied, I donned my “Happy 2020” hat and got on with it.
As midnight approached and guests became more and more pumped up, a funny thing happened: my countrymen began to appear. First it was a whole family: eleven year old son, seventeen year old daughter, mom and dad. Not that much English, but a whole lot of Caracas. Then it was a large, rowdy group: two sisters from Zulia, one married to a Puertorrican, another to an American. (“They have triumphed!”, according to one of our comedians.) They had a twenty-something daughter that very drunkenly said “You shouldn’t be working tonight!” (Yes, but hey, it is what it is.) And finally, a man, his brother, his wife and one-year-old daughter. Six months in the country, and obviously feeling homesick, all of them. I consoled them as best I could. Mostly because I didn’t feel that lonely, having a few of my people close by. Lucky indeed.
And finally… At around 12:45, I walked by the door. We had closed at ten past midnight. I saw two figures walking up to the door, and I was ready to call them off, perhaps more harshly than I expected. And that’s when I saw Y. and D., D. with tears in her eyes. They had come to say “Happy New Year”. I opened the door, stepped out and embraced them long and hard. D. asked tearfully, “Why didn’t you come?” I explained that I was really busy, and I still was, but I was overjoyed that she would come and see her Bird Daddy with Mommy. And I truly was, because I knew how big this moment was: back home, along with Y.’s best friend, her wife, son, dog and kitten, D.’s father, his new wife and ten-month old baby were also home. And yet, here she was, hugging me and saying Happy New Year.
This is how I expect to embrace the coming year, and hopefully the coming life I have in me. Don’t lose sight of the big things, no matter how small the package they come in. Don’t let anger guide your steps. Don’t settle for anything less than what you deserve. And always know that you are being a good man, with a lovely woman and child, however difficult she may be, that love you unconditionally.
Happy New Year, everyone, Here’s to twelve more months of reflections.
If you follow me on Twitter (which I appreciate, though I mostly tweet in Spanish), you can expect at least three tweets a few times a month: one where I complain that I haven’t slept enough, one where I am thankful for something good that happened, and one where I rant against the human being who dared not tip me. And only one of those has truly cost me followers. Take a wild guess which one.
Since moving to the country, being a server has become my new life, sometimes even taking precedence over my love of writing (as this blog has proven). And as such, tipping has become a frequent reason of research, discussion, argument, and bemoaning. The highs when I get a good or great tip are followed by the flings of rage or flights of despair when I feel my service has been neglected. And really, isn’t that what’s wrong with tipping in general? But more on that later.
After almost two years of getting them, I can say tipping is one of the best and worst things that has ever happened to me. It has made me more aware of details, it has helped in my math skills, and has helped me raise a modest home. It has also increased my anxiety, made me painfully self-aware of moments when I’m doing a lousy job, and is making me wonder if I’ll ever be able to return to the office space. Is this how it’s always been?
Tipping as a such, or so it is generally agreed so, started in the 17th century in Tudor England, because of course it did. According to Kerry Segrave’s Tipping, the most widely known history of the practice (only if you haven’t followed this guy), if you stayed overnight in a private home, you were expected to give a small amount of money to their servants (whether the staff spat on the food of those who didn’t is unclear). The amount was then known as vails, and the practice began showing up in coffee houses and other establishments across London. In one frequented by writer Samuel Johnson, there was a bowl with the words “To Insure Promptitude”, and many speculate that “tip” is an acronym for that phrase. The more formal word for tipping, “gratuity”, goes much further than that, dating to either the 1520’s and from the French gratuité (graciousness), or from the Medieval Latin gratuitas (free gift). (Isn’t Wikipedia grand?)
I don’t think you’d be surprised to know that tipping used to be abhorred in the early United States. Wealthy Americans traveling to Europe after the Civil War brought back the practice of tipping –where there was no aristocracy and, therefore, seen contrary to American values. Per this article in The New York Times Magazine, the Grey Lady led the charge against the practice. In a 1916 piece titled “The Itching Palm”, William Scott wrote: “Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape”. And in 1904, the Anti-Tipping Society of America appeared in Georgia, where 100,000 members pledged to not tip anyone for a year (the bastards, I think with a grumble). Heck, Washington state became the first of six to pass anti-tipping laws in 1909. Laws, my friends.
But tipping was here to stay. So much that, by 1926, all anti-tipping laws were repealed. And so we have come to this point in time. Tipping is not only standard, it is expected in all the United States. “If you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip”, is the standard practice. Waiters earn sometimes as little as two dollars an hour, so they have to rely on tips. (I don’t make that little, but sorry, I’m not comfortable revealing how much I make.)
In recent years, a handful of restaurants have started going against the practice. In 2015, a handful of restaurants decided to pay their front-of-the-house staff full wages and, of course, raised prices. At the forefront was Danny Meyer, of the Union Square Hospitality Group, who in 2015 said, “I hate those Saturday nights where the whole dining room is high-fiving because they just set a record, and they’re counting their shekels, and the kitchen just says, ‘Well, boy, did we sweat tonight,’”. Meyer also famously wrote in the Group’s newsletter:
The American system of tipping is awkward for all parties involved: restaurant patrons are expected to have the expertise to motivate and properly remunerate service professionals; servers are expected to please up to 1,000 different employers (for most of us, one boss is enough!); and restaurateurs surrender their use of compensation as an appropriate tool to reward merit and promote excellence … Imagine, if to prompt better service from your shoe salesman, you had to tip on the cost of your shoes, factoring in your perception of his shoe knowledge and the number of trips he took to the stockroom in search of your size. As a customer, isn’t it less complicated that the service he performs is included in the price of your shoes?
This movement seemed to be gaining momentum. A 2016 American Express survey published in May of that year of 503 random restaurants showed that 18% already had no-tipping policies, 29% were planning on doing the same, 17% would do it if others did. And there is a Subreddit called EndTipping that showed that at least 200 restaurants in the US –true, a fraction of the more or less 650,000 all over the country, but still– were at one point or another a no-tipping zone. Until…
Eater reported in September 2020 that, in 2018, most restaurants brought back tipping. David Chang ended his no-tipping policy at the famous Momofuku Nishi after six months. Even Meyer capitulated in July 2020. What happened? Grub Street offered an answer and I encourage you to read the piece lest I be accused of complete plagiarism, but long story short, established staff walked out, prices looked higher (and in many cases were), and let’s face it (grudgingly, in my case), tips make guests feel empowered. You think your server did a poor job? Believe me, nothing stings more than a less-than-flattering tip. (No tip reflects poorly on you, of course.)
So are tips going to ever go away? Not in a post-pandemic world, they’re not. That Eater piece I linked to earlier shows that tips had increased in the first three months of 2020, not only in restaurants but in gig jobs like Uber Eats and Instacart. Of course, that creates an even bigger wage gap between front and soul of the house (namely, between servers and hosts and, say, cooks and preppers), which contributes to the general problem of tipping.
Which brings me to my own little rant. I’ve only been in this business three years, and while it has brought me a lot of joy (heck, it’s what’s let me live in a new country) but, as I’m sure many fellow servers think, it takes a toll on my mind. It is truly a humbling experience (and trust me, I’ve had those) to do the bidding of people who sometimes don’t care that you might have a life outside of this place, and that entitles them to treat you however they want to as long as they get their way. And you truly have to walk a thin line between saying “Ma’am, but” and “ARE YOU KIDDING ME”, because it’s in that line that lies your livelihood. You can’t take the abuses personally… but how can you not?
And a tip can be such a blow to the ego, good or bad. A bad tip truly made me feel worthless when I started this; then it made me hate humanity. One time I had a party of 15 rack up a tab of $600. The head lady pulled me aside, gave me a wad of cash and some credit cards. “Should I charge my tip from the cash?” I mistakenly asked. The bitch laughed. They left me nothing. And they had been all smiles and thankyou’s till then. They left nothing. I felt like my time was worth the same. That’s what tipping can do to you. It made me question every life decision I have made, every single step I had taken that night.
I hate it and love it, tipping. And it won’t leave any time soon.
So I need to get out of the game if I want to avoid it.
I’m closing in on a year and a half of American life, and there is no leaving my “Venezuelanism” behind. It’s not just that it is impossible to live in Florida and not find another expatriate around –heck, the two workers ripping the wall on my apartment to fix it as I write this are Venezuelans– nor that I keep a healthy Twitter feed made up almost exclusively of my countrymen. It’s because I’m hanging on to it with both hands and a couple of teeth.
Crazy, I know. I mean, you already moved here, why would you want to hang on to something that just isn’t there anymore. This is something that many people have told me. Y. –it’s not enough to just call her “GF” anymore– works with a lady that refuses to say she’s Venezuelan to anyone. Some have even gone so far as telling me that, once they’ve established themselves abroad, they’re giving up their Venezuelan citizenship.
I can understand that. I truly do. Being a Venezuelan nowadays is one of the hardest things. Joanna Hausmann showed it ever so eloquently in her latest video. “You feel like you’re on a tight rope (…) with a sumo wrestler on the other end, and you don’t wanna fall, but you kinda do wanna fall…” Being a Venezuelan, be it that you’re living abroad or still at home, is a constant challenge in keeping your sanity. Heck, your sense of humor. It’s dealing not only with the craziness of the country –the blackouts, the crime, the scarcity, the general despair– from within or without, it’s dealing with the assholes that benefit from it, the tools that try to minimize it, the jerks that don’t care about it even as they call you their friend, and the well-meaning souls that don’t understand and to whom you try to explain for the umpteenth time –because you don’t want to feel so lonely on this, because loneliness feels like the slow lane to madness.
Except I truly don’t want to stop being Venezuelan. I don’t want to let go. Venezuela is more than just my country, my other home, my origin story. It’s my identity, my good side. It’s a whole lot of good things surrounded by bad things that sometimes stain them, like soot coming off an industrial chimney, but eventually find themselves clean again as they toss and tumble inside my memories.
There are so many things in the world that matter, and if we look closely enough, we find the things that speak to our own unique spirits — these are the things that speak to me. This is what matter to me today.