Back When I Was a Clown 

A free breakfast and a big question, in a time gone by.

As I put the last of the pots and pans up on the shelf, the head cook asked what I wanted for breakfast. That was the deal: work graveyard doing the dishes and we'll pay you eight bucks an hour, then feed you when you're done. It wasn't much, of course, but I was just barely hanging on in Santa Barbara. Besides, in those days, most money was cash to me, and the purpose of cash was to leave town.

The whole idea of moving to California had been to take a shot at settling down. I'd been out of school for a few years, most of them spent kicking around the country, working here and there, going with the motto "Don't pay rent -- pay bus fare."

The point had always been to keep moving. Don't get a full-time job. Go visit people. Do stuff. See things. Work can wait.

I had struggled along in Santa Barbara, trying to make it work. One job had dried up, another was intolerable, and then along had come the dishwashing gig. Just for a couple of nights, the guy had said, and then we'll see. Suited me perfectly.

It was a Friday morning, October 30th. There I was, working on a big breakfast, with $64 cash in my pocket, and the Grateful Dead was playing Halloween the next night in Oakland.

Today I sit in a cubicle job, wondering what happened. Life was simpler then, easier now. All I needed that Halloween was a ride up the coast and a funny hat to go with my borrowed clown costume.

"We need to talk about this rack of pans," the manager said to me. "It looks like you just tossed them in here with no idea what order they're supposed to be in."

I looked at him, bleary-eyed from the night before, trying hard to find a place within me where I gave a damn what order those pans were in. I allowed that he was right, that I wasn't really paying attention to where they went, and that I'd be happy to fix them after I was done eating.

"Fine," he said. "So, you lookin' for full-time work?"

Well, that was the question, wasn't it? Did I want to work? Hell, do I want to work even now? No, not really.

"I'd rather not wash dishes all night," I said.

"How about mornings cooking?"

How about mornings cooking. Well, let's see. Eight bucks an hour, a free meal every shift, theoretically learning a few things about cooking and the business, a job that can be re-created all over the country

"Sure, that sounds good," I finally said.

"Great. You can start tomorrow. My morning guy just quit."

He started to walk off, and I spoke a simple truth before I took time to think about it.

"Actually, I can't start tomorrow. I'm going out of town."

"Going out of town?" He didn't seem familiar with the concept of unemployed people leaving town rather than accepting job offers. "Look, do you want to work or not?"

Again with the fundamental question. I looked at the guy, then I looked around his restaurant. A counter with a couple of truck drivers sipping coffee and half-listening to us. A few tables occupied by businessmen on their way to work. The cook scrambling eggs and frying potatoes. The out-of-order pan rack.

Then my mind wandered up Highway 101. I saw myself reading a book with the ocean on my left and oak-covered hills on my right. I saw the rest stop in Salinas, where I face west and try to smell the ocean breeze blowing in from Monterey. I saw the gritty Greyhound station in Oakland, saw myself sorting through the drifters and homeless people to find the hippies who'd give me a ride to the show. I saw myself in full clown costume, wandering among friends, bartering for a buzz, feeling the excitement of the pending hoedown. I heard the music and felt the energy of the crowd. I wondered what the opening song would be.

"Well," I said. "The thing is, the Dead is playing Halloween tomorrow night, and I have to go to that, so I could start on Monday, if that's cool."

Made perfect sense to me. Work can wait.

Not in the manager's world. "Look, if you can't work when I need you, you can't work," he said.

Then we looked at each other for a moment, two worlds colliding. Behind the counter, holding a towel, was stability, a regular paycheck, knowing where you'll be five days every week. Just outside the door was chaos, mystery, drifting with currents. I knew exactly what would happen in the restaurant. I had no idea what would happen up 101 when the $64 ran out.

Looking back on it all now, more than decade older and as fully employed as a guy can be, with health insurance and an excellent credit rating, I can tell you one thing I am absolutely certain of:

That show rocked.

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