I was sitting at a traffic light back in 1997 contemplating my future. I’d been working for CompuServe, a company that just a few years early was the only commercial online service. Shortly before I started the job, the company was bought by the tax firm H&R Block. I worked there for two years and as time went on the company message went from hubris and holier than thou to save money, cut costs at all expense. It seems that H&R Block never really wanted to be in the Internet business. Hindsight is 20/20, but how dumb is that? They never spent the money to keep up with the infrastructure. Eventually they parceled us off to AOL and WorldCom. A once proud company and brand died without a whimper.
Now this is another tale of my poor decision-making. But it comes with a (somewhat) happy ending. For my entire adult life, my career choices have been all over the board. One might say that rather than climbing the ladder, I tend to jump from ladder to ladder, climb up the sheer face of a cliff only to jump off, or swim in a fast-moving stream only to navigate into the ocean. I make dumb moves. Sometimes they pay off, other times they don’t. Around the same time that H&R Block was deciding that they didn’t want to be in the restaurant business, I was deciding the same thing. Hindsight is 20/20, but how dumb is that? Instead of going through the rigmarole of interviewing with AOL or WorldCom, I decided to jump off the cliff and go to bartending school. The only good decision I might in this comedy of errors was to stick around until the final day to maximize my severance pay. Keep in mind that I was still sowing my wild oats and not doing a good job of controlling myself.
So I was sitting at that light and trying to figure out what to do. I had just graduated bartending school and I was weighing two job possibilities that my teacher had offered up. One was a job at an upscale Chinese restaurant and the other was a job at a fun casual joint in the Columbus Airport called Max & Erma’s. I mentally flipped the quarter into the air and it landed on heads (I think) and I turned to the left and headed towards the airport. It was a random move based on the eternal question, “Do you really want to bartend in a Chinese restaurant?” Thirty minutes later I interviewed and thirty minutes after that I had the job. The dream shift of every bartender, 5:30-11:00 AM, the breakfast shift. Not so much. Now airport bars are a different animal from all the other gin joints and honky-tonks out there. I had a steady stream of vacationing Vegas-goers who had to get hammered before they got on the plane. I was making $100 cash a day in no time and I had the afternoons to play. What a life.
Around the time I started there, I noticed a pretty girl who was working in some management position. She was exotic. In my limited world view of the time, I had her pegged as Southeast Asian or Indian. She was obviously way younger than me and way out of my league. Or so I thought.
Now, I’m the type of guy who can fall in love in an instant, but I always temper it with reality, as in, there is no way that this girl will every go out with me. I think that every time without fail. Ninety-nine percent of the time that is a true belief. But that one percent of the time, about once every ten years, lightning strikes and I get swept off to never-never land.
Part of the condition of my working at Max & Erma’s was that I work shifts in the other little bars where the lonesome travelers belly up and wait for delays or missed connections. I hated working those shifts, but they were a means to an end. I would sit in some forgotten corner of the airport and wait for a person to sidle up. That person was invariably stressed out, scared or pissed off. I would offer them one of my poor selection of beers, a roller hotdog or a bag of chips, and try to de-stress them with a little of my patented song and dance. It was boring and not very lucrative. The only upside was that every once in a while a famous person would walk up to the bar and share a few minutes with me. I tried not to be star-struck. I was glad I only had to do it one day a week.
The bar that I was working was a temporary thing on wheels. It had an antiquated old register that looked like it was taken from an old west saloon. There was a lot of construction going on and new restaurants were being built, and the area behind me was sectioned off for the building of what would one day be my first General Manager position. It was a mundane middle-of-the-week shift at the crap bar in the C Concourse. It was very hard to take the whole thing seriously when I might sell $200 worth of beer and make twenty or thirty bucks in tips. By the time my relief arrived I was a zombie. I packed up my till and went up to the cash room to settle up. I knocked on the door and when it opened, the pretty girl was there to greet me.
I have always been nervous around pretty girls. I think it stems from the fact that I have always had a poor body image. I know this seems ludicrous, since I grew up playing all manner of sports at a fairly high level and then spent my early adulthood as a Marine, but I have always considered myself fat and slothful. I spent my twenties drinking enough beer to keep the third shift running at Anheiser Busch, so I probably was a little doughy at the time this took place. But I was uncomfortable in a small enclosed space with this girl, who I will call Makeda (beautiful in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia). Yes, she was Ethiopian, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
Makeda emptied out my till and started counting my money as I sat by sweating through my white dress shirt and ridiculous vest festooned with the liquor bottles. She was a natural with money. Her fingers ruffled through the bills like lightning and she tallied everything up. She frowned and started over and I started sweating even more profusely. My heart sank when she started over a third time.
“Is something wrong?”
“You are short.” She said it in her lilting accent that was just as appealing as her looks.
“How much short?”
“One hundred forty dollars.”
“What!? I only sold maybe twenty beers all day long. This is impossible.”
“I have counted three times.”
“Let me see my report.” I took the register tape and immediately saw what I had done. I held my thumb under the line in question. “Here. I rang in forty beers instead of four.”
“Why did you do that?”
How do I answer that? Shall I tell the truth, that I was too lazy to ring in the four beers one-at-a-time like I was supposed to? Instead of hitting four I hit forty and cashed it out without looking at the total. “It was a mistake.” By this time I was bright red with embarrassment. If you know me, you have seen this face many times before.
“That wasn’t very smart. I don’t know if I can accept this explanation.” Her voice was school-teacher stern.
“Come on. We can go down and count the inventory right now.” I hate it when I start begging. My voice got really high-pitched and I was getting pissed. She stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. I could feel my blood starting to boil. I knew that I was going to get fired from the job. Worse yet, I would never see this angel again. Suddenly she beamed at me and giggled.
“I am just joking with you. Of course we can fix this.”
I finally breathed.
I came to look forward to my shifts at the crappy bar and even started volunteering for more of them. I knew Makeda’s schedule and tried to work whenever she was there. I looked forward to my five minutes with her in the cash room. She started stopping by the bar to see if I needed any change or anything like that. She was a natural-born tease. I watched her with the other male workers and I saw how she would push it as far as possible to make the uncomfortable. Of course I was jealous. I’ve gone through life envying other people’s happiness instead of doing something about my own.
One night, it was probably a few weeks after the night of my “shortage,” Makeda and I happened to be waiting for the airport shuttle at the same time. We were laughing and joking and of course she was playing the vamp. I was taking everything that she said with a grain of salt. This girl was world-class gorgeous and I was a fat pasty white boy with a beer gut. I also had her by ten years. We got off the bus and said our goodnight.
“Do you want to talk?” Do I want to talk? Of course I want to talk.
“Sure.” So we hopped in my pickup truck and she started to talk. And talk. And talk. Makeda told me all about her family and her life before we met. Her family had won the “lottery” in Ethiopia to come to America. In order to get everyone into the country, they fudged the birth dates of all of the girls to make them minors. So while Makeda was really twenty-four, her passport said that she was sixteen. She told me about some other aspects of her life that tied the strings together. She was living with a very strict uncle who followed her around because she was “wild.” What she wanted most was to be free of her family and to live the life of an American. We talked for a long time. And then she kissed me. I was a goner.
Makeda and I “dated” for four months. We couldn’t really go out, because of the uncle and because of her passport age. I was running the risk of statutory rape among other things. The uncle caught wind of us and started following me around as well. Fortunately, he owned some cabs and he was usually driving one of them, so I knew he was there. He called me on the phone, threatened my job, and wanted to beat me up. Makeda and I stole a few precious moments, talked about love and marriage and babies, made out a lot. I was in heaven. I always wanted to have a child. I had a near miss when I was younger. We’ll talk about that a little later. I don’t know if the forbidden aspect made it even more exciting, but I was ready to die for this woman. I made the mistake of giving up my bartending job to become a manager. In a sense, I became her de facto boss. This escalated our problems with the family and added a level of stress that wasn’t there in the past. Things were starting to spin out of control.
Up until this point everything had been pretty much hunky dory with my boss. I was doing a good job, I wasn’t doing as much boozing as I had in the past, and I was relatively even keel. Makeda’s uncle changed all that. He called our office and said that I was violating his young niece. He wanted me fired. My boss sat me down and told me the facts of life. He had to take threats like this seriously for the good of the company. We both knew the facts about Makeda, but that didn’t change the reality that she was officially underage in this country.
I’ve always been stubborn. It is usually to my own detriment. There was no way that I was going to quit my job over this. A series of dark thoughts crossed through my head. We could move in together. I could go to immigration, but this would be bad for her entire family, maybe even get them deported. We could run off and get married. All of these ideas had a lot of downside. I was starting to spiral. I was getting desperate. And then she broke up with me. Her family won and I lost.
I should have been expecting this outcome the entire time. I don’t know why I didn’t. My reaction was to befriend her. Of course I wanted to hold her, love her, possess her, marry her. I was fooling no one but myself. For her part, Makeda started doing all the things that she knew would annoy me. She started smoking because she knew that I hated it. She flirted openly with other people in front of me. She was trying to get me to walk away for good. It was the only rational thing for me to do.
This went on for a couple of months. Makeda went to Dallas for the annual Ethiopian soccer tournament. When she returned, the rumors came with her. She had a new boyfriend. I was livid. I had been holding out hope of a miracle reunion. I was in the darkest place that I have ever been. There was a blackness in my soul that I didn’t know how to get rid of. I don’t think that I smiled for a month. The usual jovial Brother T had disappeared off the face of the earth. More rumors surfaced, she was moving to Los Angeles.
“So, I hear you are moving to LA.”
“Yes, Terry. I am moving to LA. I can’t stand to keep breaking your heart day after day.”
I boiled over. I don’t remember what I said to her that day. But I’m sure it wasn’t pretty. A week later she was gone. I never saw her again. But I still never gave up on her.