Philly

It was exciting driving up to Philadelphia and moving into Center City.  I remember tracking down the management company to sign my lease and then heading to the apartment.  Took about two days to completely move in.  I was wandering the neighborhood, my second or third day, when Danny Renaud(not long before his life threatening fall) cruised by, my first day rolling towards Love and Kevin Taylor skated by with a nod.

The first week seemed so promising, skating from city end to city end, even in downtown DC, most drove, you could skate from Freedom to five or six spots ending around the Capitol, you could even skate to a handful of other spots from there, but with practically everyone driving into the city in the first place, most drove from spot to spot, rarely going farther from Freedom to Courthouse on board, or street skating from one to the other.  Philadelphia was the first city I had lived in where you could truly skate to random neighborhood/downtown spots.  That first week week was amazing, I believed it was the precursor for everything to come with this move.

How wrong I was, if anything, that first week was a gift for what came to follow.  As many experience, my roommate was awful and a real creep.  He became annoyed at any friends I had over, any type of personalizing I tried to do to the apartment outside of my bedroom, he hung pictures of himself all over the apartment, not with friends, portraits and pictures of just himself and constantly judged or questioned every action or word he saw me make, and I was stuck in a year long lease(yes, one can always break a lease-at a large cost-or find a person to replace, but how could I con someone else into living with this person or blow a year’s rent breaking the lease).

Culinary school was a huge mistake as well.  I learned the hard way that I didn’t have the passion it took, or the tolerance for such a lack of respect(there are always exceptions, but you’ll find the few and far between don’t have the turn over rate needed for new hires).  Despite the verbal abuse that everyone takes, there were a few things that really drove me insane, respect-wise.

First, how women were treated, case and point, my friend, she graduated with a bachelors degree, struggled, STRUGGLED, to make twelve dollars an hour.  Her second year out of school with her degree, she could barely break $11.75 an hour and did the majority of work in the large business cafeteria on the bottom floor of a Philly skyscraper.  One day, she told me about a new guy who came in, a club promoter who was fired from his job and had never worked in a kitchen ever before, admitted to barely ever cooking himself more than a box of powdered mac and cheese.  He was started at $16.00 an hour.

With the accumulation of everything else, and added to my lack of true passion about spending sixteen hours a day cooking food with weeks between days off, was the following standard issue(at least in a city like Philly with an extremely awesome and extremely competitive restaurant scene): You get a new job, twelve to sixteen hour days, for the first two to three weeks you are paid every dollar you for every minute of your life that you give.

How week three or four goes, “Hey, could I talk to you for minute?” the manager asks at some point during your shift, usually after you’ve clocked out at the end of a day, probably the night before your first day off.  “You’re working too many hours, we aren’t going to be able to pay you for more than eight hours a day, forty a week, from here on out.”

Your response(or what your response should be), “Well, I’m on the schedule for eleven to eleven?”  If you actually use this argument, the next comment you get is, “Well, that’s going to change, you’ll be on from twelve to eight.”

The first time it happens, you try and contain your smile, you may think you just hit the jackpot.  But you’ll either have this cleared up when you show up at noon the next shift or when you clarify in the moment, “So, what, am I getting switched to different duties, or…” and you’re told, “No, no, no… you have all the same responsibilities.”

A bit concerned, you might frown, “Well, the kitchen opens at twelve, and I come in at eleven to prep this or that, or this sauce or this menu item takes an hour or two hours to make/bake and needs to be ready when we open… and what about nights when I close?  Our kitchen is open until ten/eleven/whatever.”

You are then told(if you are dealing with a smart manager it will be delivered with precision and stealth), “Well, these are your responsibilities.  We need you to handle them in a timely fashion.  If you can’t handle what we ask of you in an eight hour shift(WHICH! with the existence of the time/space continuum is impossible), we can easily find someone who can.”

While the thought of your bills racks up in your head the manager goes on, “Look, if you really can’t handle what we need from our kitchen staff, I’ll cut you a break, you can come in whenever you need and stay as long as you need to get everything done, but you’ve gotta clock in at twelve and clock out at eight.”

If you’re smart, or competent, you’ll catch on and possibly ask, “So you want me to work for free?”  The manager will assure you, “No!  That’s illegal.(or if they’re smart, will leave the first part out and simply say)  I just need you to be able to handle the responsibilities of this job in an eight hour shift, you already work ten(or however many) days in a row, you’re making good money, we can pay you for all that time, just no overtime, if this is something you can’t handle, as I said, we’ll have to find someone who can.”

In some(and many) cases, you’re told, “Look, to make up for it, just ‘grocery shop’ with our supplies, save yourself food expenses.”  However, many kitchens have cameras on or in their walk-ins/supplies… and if you are caught, the managers have no recollection of the ‘grocery shopping’ agreement and you are fired for stealing(didn’t happen to me personally).  Or perhaps you just don’t want to cook and live off the ingredients that the restaurant uses every(!) single(!) day(!).

Needless to say, by the end of that first year in Philadelphia, I was depressed, completely anxious, a total drunk and completely stoned throughout my conscious day and night.  I was barely skating.  I moved out from the first apartment and into a one bedroom with my dog and cat.  I was still depressed, stuck in restaurants and culinary school.  Once a month, I would skate around the city, from spot to spot, landing every trick I knew over the course of a few hours.  I would convince myself since I was truly skateboarding, it was better than skating everyday at a park. I’d skate when I went to visit the DC area, with Alex, non-stop, until I came back to a life I hated in Philly.  Skating made me feel good, which, to a depressed mind, means you cannot skate, once depressed, one must stay depressed.

I want to emphasize, that understanding, “once depressed, a depressed mind wants to stay depressed.” if you cant understand that, you are doomed.

Meanwhile, in my life at the time, my cat developed cancer and was slowly dying.  My large breed dog, who I had since I was twelve, was becoming twelve herself.

Then it happened.  I entered the portion of culinary school where students had to leave recipes and orders behind, work from their own love and passion for food.  The first assignment, I remember it so well, four finished products and seven different cooking methods.  Nothing wrong with what I made, a cucumber/honeydew gelatin, smoked fish, I fried the skin with some chopped pepper seeds for a garnish, dehydrated some pepper slices for aesthetics, made twice baked potatoes, steamed some broccoli and carrots and sauteed a sauce for the vegetables.  I covered every requirement, along with the double rainbow of flavor and texture.

When we presented our plate, we also were required to explain every component and piece with solid reasoning.  We had one week, since it was the first without recipes.  I made a very uninspired plate of nothing special or interesting, clearly based off recipes I learned in and used from prior classes.  The teacher called me out(the following is a paraphrase), “Yeah, you can cook, but you looked worried, stressed and don’t have a good reason for why this plate exists.  You aren’t a chef… and you need to leave this program and this path as soon as you can, otherwise, in ten years, you’ll hate everything about your life and where you are.”

I nearly broke down into tears, “What should I do?”  She chuckled, “I don’t know, I’m not you, how could I answer that?”  I took the plate straight to the disposal as I walked away.

Then panic sunk in on my walk home from class.  I couldn’t still, I took my dog for an hour long walk.  Dropped her off and couldn’t sit down, so I went back out and wandered.  I tried to argue with myself that I could fight through the program, I was already more than a year in.  But I knew what the teacher said was right.  After classes, I didn’t want to go smoke and drink while cooking more food with my fellow students, I wanted to be anywhere but the kitchen.  I felt weak, so many would the opportunity to have the chance at college and degrees to have a decent career, “work was work, use it to live the life you want.” I told myself.  But that’s not the culinary world, work is your life, it consumes the majority of your conscious existence.

The next day I couldn’t even bring myself to go to school.  I just walked.  I walked along the Schuylkill river farther than I ever had at the time.  Eventually I found a bench and sat for a good hour, my mind couldn’t come to any conclusions, just kept whirling and spinning.  Suddenly the thought popped in my head that I had ignored since high school.

I had to write and skate, that was the only thing that I knew would give me sanity.  I went home and filled up a notebook.  A day later, I was skating again.  The only thing I could find myself thinking was write and skate.  So I followed it.  I took core curriculum classes while I eventually worked myself out of the culinary field, quitting school and my job to start a pet care business, due to my past in veterinary work, and spent all my free time skating and writing.

I ended up pursuing what makes me happy, writing novels, skating everyday the weather permits, followed and fought for what keeps me sane and I’ve never been happier or felt more fulfilled.

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