Sunday, April 15, 2012

Failures (Richmond, VA)

I'm proud of my successes, when I can come up with them. But there's something about my failures that really sticks with me.

Failed ballerina: Boy, that tutu looked good on me, an earnest five year old lacking rhythm, grace, and the knowledge of when to quit. I can't recall how many years I passed envisioning myself twirling and leaping when, in fact, I was wobbling and teetering on weak ankles, while hopelessly anticipating word that I had graduated to toe shoes. Alas, I never passed the barre.

The upside? Mr. Bruce's studio continued to receive financial support from my family for as long as they held onto the misguided dream that I would succeed on stage and en pointe.

Failed babysitter: Taking care of an 18-month-old boy, whose vocabulary of vulgarity exceeded my own by about 400 words, was an experience I'll never forget. When he pooped in his pants, I freaked. I had, up until then, neither viewed that particular part of the male anatomy nor changed a diaper. I stuck myself multiple times with safety pins, the screeching, flailing, foul-mouthed little hellion cursing me all the while, before I called my mother and pleaded for help. We lived across the street, so she came to my rescue. After bandaging the wounds the little pricks had left me, she laughed at my inability to change the delightful, smiling angel who allowed her to clean and clothe him without uttering a single f-word. She handed him, gurgling and dimpling, to the amazed 15-year-old me. Sap that I was, I found him suddenly adorable, as he puckered his tiny rosebud lips and slurped from his little sippy-cup.

Once my mother left, however, the devil returned. As if someone had wound him up, the little sucker launched himself out of my arms and rocketed from room to room. I chased him from kitchen to hallway, from guestroom to den to dining room, and, finally, into the living room, where he headed straight for the ornately framed wall-sized oil painting leaning against the painting-sized wall. Devil-child careened into the work of art. Hot on his heels, I slid to a halt and reached up to shield him from the falling artwork. My heroism saved his life; he scooted out, unscathed and cackling, as the painting landed on me. I crawled out from under, b bruised and scathed. Devil-child loved it!

And yet, somehow, both of us survived.

The upside? I waited many years to have a child. Fortunately, he was (and remains), if not always an angel, a really excellent human.

Supermarket cashier: As a high school senior, I worked in the neighborhood market, a job which one of my teachers noted would make me realize that "the world was not such a nice place."

She was right: I witnessed people stealing, was treated as if I were a complete idiot, and was accused of trying to cheat people when I charged the recently passed sales tax on their purchases. The worst was yet to come, however, when I was assigned to cashier in the Express Lane.

I noticed the five-times-my-size pit bull of a woman hulking behind the man requesting a pack of Marlboro's. My speed-walk to and from the locked cabinet in which cigarettes were stored was apparently not speedy enough. The pit bull was raging. While ringing up the man's order, I noticed Pit Bull's overflowing shopping basket and sweetly reminded her of the 10-item limit; she sneeringly replied that she only had a few things and she was correct. There were only five enormous bags of -- what else? -- big-dog dog-food. By the time I began to enter the prices, she was growling, and I was shaking. She barked at me to hurry up and then threatened to kill me for being too slow. I stopped the transaction, removed my apron, stepped out from behind the counter, and said, "You'll have to find me first." She was howling as I walked to the office and tendered my resignation.

The upside? I was no longer working in the supermarket when the manager held it up -- at gunpoint.

Waitress: Despite my inquiries at every office and retail business in my little hometown, I couldn't find a job that fateful summer. Walking forlornly along an unfamiliar stretch of roadway, I happened upon a tiny, rundown bar, neon lights lazing, in front of an equally seedy motel. Entering the darkened interior, I asked the buxom blond with cotton-candy textured hair piled atop her heavily made up head, if there were any jobs available. She gave me the once-over and giggled. In a breathy, little-girl voice that I, in my naive, 19-year-old wisdom, judged totally inappropriate for what I later came to believe was a centerfold come to life, "Candy" told me to take a seat, poured me a Coke, and told me she would call "Joe." Within minutes, "Joe" came out of a back room, stared hard at me and asked my age.

"Eighteen," I replied, although people usually mistook me for 12.

"I hire you and I'll have the police on my tail every five minutes," "Joe" said.

Somehow I convinced "Joe" that I would be an exemplary employee and that he wouldn't have to watch his tail. "He" told me I could start work the following week.

Elated by my success, I informed my family that I'd snagged a job just as soon as I arrived home. When I told my father the name of the place, his face turned ashen. Within an hour he had secured me a job as a waitress in a downtown deli.

My admiration for competent servers is boundless, because I never was able to command the skills necessary to be one. Balancing a tray was beyond me. Holding multiple plates on my arm was unrealistic; my arms are, apparently, only long enough to accommodate one plate -- on a good day. The only things I had going for me were that I was at least 45 years younger than the other waitresses and I was extremely friendly.

Although the dry cleaning bills I had to pay to remove the pickle-juice smells and potato-salad stains from my customers coats consumed most of my paychecks, I earned more working that deli lunch shift than I did working my first full-time office job. One middle-aged man would come in, order an omelet and a cup of coffee for a grand total of $2.50 and leave me a $5.00 tip. The veteran waitresses warned me not to bother with teenagers, but I always treated them well and they responded with generosity. I couldn't charm everyone, though.

One lunchtime, a woman sat down in my station and requested an egg salad sandwich. "I only have half an hour, so make it quick." she said. The place was bustling, and everyone else was equally pressed to eat and run, but I promised to deliver her food as soon as possible.

I darted around the room, refilling coffee cups, sloshing pickle juice, and serving up roast beef, corned beef, and tuna salad sandwiches at record speed. Every time I glanced up, I felt the woman's stare-turned-glare as she pointedly pointed to her watch.

I already had a plate of BLT and fries balancing precariously between shoulder and elbow and one filled with pastrami on rye with onion rings and coleslaw wobbling on my forearm when one of the sandwich-makers placed the the long-awaited egg-salad- hold-the-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich atop the high counter. As I reached above my head to grab the dish, I flicked my wrist. Half the sandwich went flying off onto the floor. A businessman promptly stepped on it, unwittingly delivering it, gloopily clinging to the underside of his loafer, out of the door and onto the pavement.

I couldn't look her in the face as I ran up to the waiting woman's table. Placing the half sandwich in front of her, I said, "They knew you were in a hurry, so they made this to get you started. The other half will be out in a minute."

That might have been my last meal.

The upside? I saved hundreds on dry cleaning.

Failed archeologist: After spending a week spooning away the tough, unforgiving soil of southern France, after suffering hours in the scorching sun with sweat-soaked, dust-encrusted clothes, after experiencing multiple and unrelenting attacks of giant, face-chewing flies, after unearthing nothing more than splinters of pottery shards that I didn't even recognize as such, after realizing that I couldn't distinguish one layer of dirt from the next, I finally acknowledged that I was unquestionably unqualified and unsuited for my chosen profession. The professional archeologist in charge of the excavation noticed this, too, and exiled me to the on-site museum.

The upside? I spent the remainder of the month ensconced in the cool, comfortable little museum, in the company of the companionable curator, identifying the paltry finds of those who were not fortunate enough to share my fate.
The uppest side of all is that I have learned so much from my failures! As a matter of fact, I have never repeated a single one, preferring to look for new and improved failures in my never-ending quest for success -- whatever that is and however I define it...

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