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Draft 3

Part 1 – Bite The Bitch Ass Class That Feeds You


Chapter 1


       All I can say is thank god the lunch has ended because what is occurring would have caused a backlog in the line, and even on a typical day we are not equipped enough to handle the mass of customers grabbing a coffee before their train, when even without catastrophe, one or two people sigh and leave the queue impatiently, and I know this is because they hate me. — — (Observing: one long queue complete with jowl-dripping dew, but also a child in a knitted hat, soft; their mom's short grin and impending thank you. Young men stare at their phones, waiting; occasionally they glance up and around until they see someone hot, and then they look away.) — — Today, one of our two ovens is down, as it always is; the other we will shut half an hour early because the manager isn’t working; our sink is slick as the faucet drips onto white cups and granulated residue; I kick an anonymous metal sheet back into place as it periodically falls off the silver counter before me; and my coworker Oscar announces that if he were a sandwich, he would definitely be the chicken pesto, which we have been contemplating for 15 minutes now, to which I respond, “I would be the chicken madras.”
       “Warmed up,” he adds.
       I restrain myself from beaming. Such a grand gesture would frighten the little Brit. They are easily scared. They also are spare with their words. Each sentence contains the multitudes they cannot verbally identify, I promise, especially around the impressiveness of a sandwich. (Understanding their simple English brains, it is clear he has given me the highest of all compliments.)

       I am slicing cakes, my favorite job of all at the cafe, and at first I tried to keep that a secret because I hoped no one would steal my safe space, but whenever I find myself in a lull in conversation I seem to tell whoever’s next to me, because in reality it makes me happier to share the space in its true glory rather than to keep it all to myself. In the cake slicing station, you stand near the left entrance, but behind a stainless steel counter hidden by front-facing ferns, where you can see all the customers, but they walk directly past you to place their orders. Utter salvation. Cakes lined up the right, then the cash register that’s parallel to the stainless steel sandwich-making counter; a thin pathway divides money and ’wich and continues on towards the ovens; a pile of ceramic dishes spills out of the sink waiting to be placed in the sour-smelling washer, and at the end, the espresso machine whirs and bangs. Cumulatively it replicates a railroad style apartment, which is appropriate because all five coworkers on shift stand in close quarters for eight hours a day in our shop beneath the Peckham train station. We can hear the train roar over our heads whenever it goes past. When the woman runs in the door, demanding brown bread, “give me brown bread, give me brown bread,” I look at her emotionlessly as I slice a triangle, knife hot so the cut is clean, blue bandage wrapped around my thumb, and a “I’m sorry, but we’ve sold out of all the brown bread today.” We get a lot of people like her.

       She adapts. “Give me a cake, give me a cake, give me a cake!”

       “If you want to order a cake, ma’am, you’ll have to go to the till.” I use British English by now. I have been refined. I continue dividing up the cake. Chocolate. 10 pieces, separated evenly, each slice costing over half of my hourly wage. A customer I have a crush on comes in; he wears a red bandana over his gray hair every day, and I used to think he was an old musician, but it turns out he is a tree surgeon. He leaves again, but already my day is made. We have never spoken. Except for that one time I offered him a ham toastie I had made by accident, and he said he would never turn down an extra ham toastie. He’s irrelevant, I know, and you should know too, but please remember that irrelevance brings joy when we are sick to death of seeing what’s true.

       I overhear the assistant manager, Aggie, saying, “If we hand over the cake, you’re going to have to pay for it.”

       “Of course I’m going to pay for it!”

       So Aggie hands her the cake. Naturally the woman runs off. No payment; away from the till. Her chosen cake is also chocolate. Aggie runs after her.

       I hear some commotion and think, I’m glad it’s not me, and continue to slice, and find myself laughing with Oscar at the scene with my eyebrows raised in fear.

       Aggie returns with the cake and no woman, but Aggie holds the battered dessert before her, wooden fork stuck in it upside down, bite marks into the frosting. 

       “This place,” she says. 

       She goes on to make some drink.

       I keep slicing, onto a carrot cake this time, which I don’t particularly like at the cafe because the cream cheese is too sweet, and I will be sure to tell Oscar that, and all the other coworkers, because such stimulating revelations come up all the time in conversation behind this countertop moat. 

       The woman runs in again, “Give me a cake, give me a cake, give me a cake!” She is barely over 5 feet tall, did I mention that? She runs out again when Aggie says no.

       Aggie goes on her 20-minute lunch break where all she will do is smoke a cig. 

       “What if I were a tuna melt instead?” 

       This changes everything.

       “Ooh, with pickles.”

       Then 15 minutes later, a crash, then another, and Aggie, who is in her early-20s and at this point is my friend but in several months time will become my enemy — and this process will destroy me entirely — comes back in, and all I hear her say is, “For fuck’s sake,” and she is crying. She runs into our shoe closet of an employee back room, just past the coffee machine, where she can get some relief from the public humiliation.

       The woman runs in again.

       “Give me a cake!” She shouts. Only once this time. The self-discipline. If only I could point out which sandwich she is, so I could tell my coworker later, when perhaps we could inspect the makings of the pastrami toastie of a woman, whose orange dressing is clumpy and the texture is wrong and still people ask for extra dressing anyway, but sadly no; instead I walk out into the middle of the cafe where I am a knight in dented armor protecting my assistant manager friend. I look at this pipsqueak of a foe as I say, in a calm voice, “I’m sorry, but we can’t serve you a cake."

       All 20 seated customers in the cafe are looking now, and I am there, maybe more like a cowboy in a standoff, the light streaming in from the entrance. A regular walks in and realizes too late he is observing a duel (he’s some 6-foot-tall guy, whatever, middle-class, who sometimes comes in with his 1-year-old baby but this time thankfully does not) and watches, paralyzed, by the doorway.

       “Is it because I’m a demon and you’re a saint?” the woman shouts. “I’m a demon; you’re a saint!”

       I am wearing pigtails. Probably look more innocent than I am. Sometimes I feel self-conscious about them because I am worried I’m trying to appear younger, and Freud would go giddy for this I’m sure — I did mention the musician has gray hair, didn’t I? My dad and I get along great — but really it’s just the easiest style when I’m running late.

       “No, it’s because you didn’t pay for the last cake.”

       “I’m a demon, you’re a saint! I’m a demon, you’re a saint!”

       And I think, well thank you.

       She runs out. I then roll my eyes towards the customer at the doorway, so he can know the struggle I have experienced alongside the nonchalant response I have from being my superior’s savior. 

       “Can I get two chocolate chip cookies?” he asks.

       It is with that that I feel a lump form in my throat.

       “Is it OK if I put them in the same bag?”

       I have just embarked on a career as a street artist, but simultaneously I’ve found myself running from the law, it seems (or at least hiding from it, because getting caught would really fuck up my visa), with the minimum wage job funding the transition and probably food for the rest of my life. But a year before, I had graduated with a master’s degree in international political economy from King’s College London. Top of my class. It’s a Russell Group university, which is like the Ivy League for England, but I grew up in Wisconsin where nothing exists if it is not in the US — so to me, reality proves that no one has heard of the uni.

       “She was breaking bottles outside the terrace, by where the skateboarders hang out,” Aggie explains once it’s clear the woman has left a final time. “I told her she can’t do that, and she picked up her cup and chucked her tea at me. I’m lucky it had been outside long enough to have gone cold.” 

       Aggie still has milk in her hair. How lucky she is that the tea was not boiling. 

       When my dad’s scans showed signs of his cancer spreading, four months earlier when I was home in Wisconsin for a two-week break, my mom hugged me so tightly as she said, “At least we have health insurance. We are so lucky.” I was wearing a bikini and felt naked as I hugged her back.

       That sickening summer afternoon, I had just gone inside for some grapes to snack on while sunbathing on the lawn. But I didn’t have time to carry them outside of the kitchen, where there is nothing less sweet than being 25 and hugging your mother almost naked and feeling her linen shirt and trousers on your bare cleavage and belly button because you are wearing a bikini and black platform sandals, tears in both our eyes. 

       When I moved to England and found a place to live through a friend of a friend of a friend, how lucky that was, how that worked out; how when it didn’t work out with that boy I was in love with, it was all meant to be; how my high school exhaustion brought me to the third-tier state school for undergrad, well, that was just where I was supposed to be — and somehow I still do believe that to be true. But about the tea it is not, because it was cold, but it had been sitting out for so long, because not enough people are employed in the cafe to clear it — and the woman does not have enough help for the disease ravaging her mind — and we stare with absent eyes at customers who smile then retreat when we do not show cheer for Flat White With A Brunette Haircut number 143 of the day, and it isn’t even yet close to time for the salvation of the 20-minute break, in an eight hour shift, five days a week, no chair to sit on, none of us can afford our rents, my roof is leaking, and I touch these paper mache walls along with five other things I can feel and five more I can see. Just kidding; I am not diagnosed. I should start at the beginning. But I can’t find that anymore. I have read in two different novels now that the beginnings are easy to identify and the endings are not, but I disagree because to me it all blends into one. Yet, and because, the poetry continues, and simultaneously the sandwiches are made, butter, lettuce, tomato, so unsexy, it’s dire, my grotesque body twisted in a bikini, wrapped around my mother. And still the trucks come to deliver the meat. The pigs are slaughtered, but that, we do not see, yet some people rejoice, and others cry depending on if the pig is animal or man, and we make jokes, that Aggie is 100% the tuna melt with pickles, because that is the best one, and Oscar is a chicken pesto because everyone likes him, and I am flattered, and we are lucky. The power shut off in my parents’ home when the storm hit, but they don’t live in the house that floods anymore, and for that, they are so fortunate. I ran away to England.


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