And a Shot of Jack by Sarah Hoenicke

The restaurant business brings with it a certain sluttiness. There’s no other way to put it. You get hired by charming the manager, and, most of the time, by being good looking. It’s that second part that fills the industry up with numbskulls who don’t use the oven mitts when removing bread from the oven, who chase customers out of the building after receiving no tip from them, and who undoubtedly have no other career prospects and are thus pushed into menial [restaurant] work. Of course, I don’t include myself with the numbskulls.

But I wouldn’t say I was smart. I made a lot of mistakes. I got hired at The Restaurant just before my eighteenth birthday, and it wasn’t because I’d charmed the manager or because I was incredibly good looking. I was bubbly and happy and genuinely liked people… and my sister already worked there. The manager who interviewed me, who will forever be Manager to me, stood way too close in an endearing way, and he smelled of Jack and coffee and cigarettes and sweat. He was a good, kind, pot-bellied man who looked out for every single one of his employees like we were his responsibility; like he had a reason to care about us.

The first mistake that I remember making at The Restaurant happened a few days after my training had ended. A phone call came in, and the person wanted to place a To-Go order. I went to Manager in a panic, and he laughed at me. “I’m not going to take a fuckin’ To-Go order! Get a server to do it.” I got a server to do it. I never made that mistake again. Harsh wording aside, he really meant no harm. His honesty and mirth helped me grow up.

About a year later, I had graduated up to curbside duty and thus was at the To-Go counter, filling the little condiment containers, prepping my station. Manager walked in, looked at all of my empty containers that I’d lined up perfectly, obsessively. He said, “I’ve always wanted to do this,” and began slapping the little empty pieces of plastic so that they flew up into the air and landed ev-er-y-where. I would’ve been mad at anyone else, and I probably would’ve hit most other people who did such an obnoxious thing, but coming from him, that behavior just didn’t affront me.

My frustrated glances and hefty sighs had no effect on him either. He found himself very funny. On time, I was walking out of the back of the house with a stack of plates as high as my arms were long and he, walking toward me said, “Oh kiddo, that looks way too heavy for you.” He took the top plate off the stack and set it on the counter and kept walking. I sighed. Heftily.

I learned a lot from Manager. When I finally got fed up with serving and hating life, I left The Restaurant, to move to Germany. I hadn’t worked with him for over a year. He’d gone on to change other peoples’ lives at another shit hole, and I went in to see him a few months before I left. It was just as it had always been. He asked about my family and boyfriend and work and school and looked me intently in the eyes while he listened to my responses. To this day, I know very little about him, or his family. He always was so busy asking about me, I forgot to ask about him. But he never forgot.

He called my sister to see how I was doing shortly after I made the Big Move. I was fine, as far as everyone knew, and everyone was unable to see that I really was anything but fine. Hearing of his call meant the world to me.

Two months later, I learned that he’d been diagnosed with cancer shortly after checking in on me. When he’d learned his diagnosis, and his life expectancy, he quit his job and took his wife and kids on vacation. That was Manager. Every moment counted, and I’m sure his family will forever hold those months dear.I only learned of his diagnosis after his death, and all of it was too much for me to take. I ran in the icy German landscape that is mid-March. I’m not a runner, and I didn’t last long. That feeling though, of a bag of rocks swinging inside my chest, weighing me down to the earth with the incomprehensibility of my loss, will stick with me forever.

My memory of Manager is the piece of my time in the restaurant industry, and one of life, that I will keep within me always, pushing me to be kinder, stranger, happier, and more ready to laugh.

A shot of Jack to his eternal remembrance.