After Hawley left, I sat in the apartment for the weekend, crying a lot. We’d been together fifteen years. Eventually, though, I began to consider my situation; it was not good. I had $20 and no income. I had signed a lease on a $300 apartment. I was right in the middle of a semester in University and beginning my research for a PhD. I needed a plan.
First, I went to the real estate agent, a beautiful and sympathetic woman who helped me break the lease, let me have three more days, and gave back my deposit. Now I had $320. I spent two days trying to find a new place to live. Finally found a room with a shared bath in a nasty, old, decrepit, two-story house not far from campus. The rent was $80 per month, bills paid. Deposit and two months’ rent came to $240. I went for it.
I packed up all my stuff in a big pile on the floor. I allowed myself one cab ride for the futon and the fragile things. Everything else I carried more than two miles to my new home. Box by box and cushion by cushion, back and forth, it took all day and well into the night. Finally, I rolled out the futon in my new home and collapsed. Unpacking in the morning, I found a big pile of human shit in the corner, apparently abandoned by the previous tenant. Home Sweet Home.
But I persevered. Spent the last of the cash on paint, varnish, sandpaper, and cleaning supplies. On hands and knees I scrubbed and sanded the floor then varnished to a high gloss. I covered the very high — ten feet — ceilings with flat white and the walls an eggshell white with luster. I painted the mantle a bright, shiny green. With the oriental rug from Hawley, it looked like a Baron’s library. In the trashed out backyard, I found an ancient desk with a busted leg and a broken lamp. With sanding and varnish, the desk looked OK. I propped it on old bricks. I re-wired the floor lamp, and, honestly, the place looked beautiful.
This experience taught me that I could handle whatever came my way, and that good energy could prevail over adversity. It also taught me that I should always live in a nice place. I grinned every time I came into that room, and I always felt right there. Sanctuary.
But I still wasn’t out of the woods. Completely broke now. First thing in the morning I went to the blood bank to give plasma. Donors were limited to twice weekly for a total of $15 (8+7), so I signed on the dotted line and rolled up my sleeve. While lying on the gurney waiting for my blood cells back, I pondered my circumstances.
I needed a job, simple as that. With my years of experience in restaurants, and given the flexibility I needed as a full-time student, waiting on table seemed an obvious choice. I knew that with my background in Europe and in five-star dining rooms, I could easily find a few shifts at one of the high-dollar establishments uptown. Great money so I wouldn’t have to work so many hours. But when I closed my eyes and pictured myself standing stiffly with hands carefully clasped behind my back wearing that black tie and black pants, I winced.
On the other hand when I closed my eyes to imagine where I’d really like to work, I saw a funky student hangout close to campus that served espresso and wine and quiche, a place full of interesting graduate students and sexy women. And, in fact, such a bistro — called Les Amis — existed two blocks from my lab building. The pay however, would not be great, and I’d probably have to work lots of hours. When I imagined working till 3:00AM and then taking a biochemistry exam the next morning at 8:00AM, I winced.
It was a real dilemma. Should I go for the bucks and try to make my life in graduate school a little easier, or should I have more fun and suffer for it? I couldn’t decide. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was already acting so much stronger than I ever had in my life. I was taking good, solid, positive steps to direct my life for the first time. I was climbing out of that hole. Thank you, Scotty.
But I still couldn’t decide. It was time for Winston Churchill’s coin. Just before we’d left Saint Croix, I’d heard the story, which is probably apocryphal. An interviewer asked the old warrior, “You’re a great leader and many times you have to make difficult decisions. Do you have any special tricks or techniques that you use to help?”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” he growled, “I do. First, I learn as much as I can; it helps to set a deadline. If I still can’t decide, I go off into a room by myself and take out a coin. I reduce the issue to a yes or no question and assign each option to a side. Then I flip the coin and let it fall to the ground. Now,” he said leaning forward and stabbing with his cigar, “here’s the trick. I look at my own reaction when I see the outcome. If I’m disappointed, I know I should do the opposite. If I’m relieved, then I also know what to do. It’s a way to isolate how you really feel about something when your mind is a little confused. Like everything,” he blew cloud of smoke slightly upward, “it only works if you believe it.”
I had liked the story so much that the day before we left St. Croix, I bought a fake gold doubloon that came with a little leather pouch, a silly souvenir, but I said to Hawley, “Just in case.” We laughed. Now I went to the desk drawer and dug out the coin. I assigned heads to black tie — high dollar, low hours. Tails became Les Amis — fun suffering. I flipped the coin high and stepped back to let it fall. I walked over, but before I looked down, I closed my eyes and promised to abide by the coin’s decision. I opened my eyes and looked down. Heads — black tie. My heart sank.
So I knew what to do — Les Amis, funky student hangout, for me. I hadn’t mentioned any of this to anyone else, but I had no doubt, sitting broke and hungry in my run-down-building-but-spruced-up-room. Somehow I was convinced that I could do anything and that whatever I decided in that room would certainly come true. Shows you how much I knew.
After my next bloodletting, I dropped by Les Amis. Right on the main corner across from campus, it was located in the ground floor of a big, rambling, 2-story house that had been converted into a hippy shopping mall with several student-type services available – tutoring, music store, mail drop, etc. Les Amis was a classic student café with outdoor terrace, wine, coffee, great sandwiches, chess boards, campus club meetings — just what you’d expect. The place was run by Newman, a very hip guy, and I was directed to his table. I introduced myself, told him I had lot of experience in restaurant business and that I had selected Les Amis as the place I wanted to work. Newman was very kind. Asked me why, and we proceeded to have a very nice conversation. At one point, I remember, Newman asked me what specific job I wanted to do. I told him that I liked working in the dining room; it was fun to wait on tables and interact with the people. But I thought that the heart of any restaurant was the kitchen. That was where the tone was set and where I preferred to work. Newman agreed.
He then told me that he was very particular about whom he hired. A certain type of person. He went on to say that hundreds of students asked for work every year. He added that he didn’t have anything for me right then. Unfazed, I told him I’d check back in a week or two.
I went back to the blood bank. One week later, I went back to Les Amis. Newman sat at the same table. No, he didn’t have any openings, but he thanked me for checking. I told him that I’d be back.
And so it went. Living on $15 per week was challenging. During this period, I invented cucumber sandwiches. Later, when I had money, I added mayo, salt, and dill. I learned to buy tea in bulk and use a tea ball. I fasted. I survived. And I continued to check with Newman week after hungry week. All this time, I never really questioned my decision. I just kept checking, usually on my way back from the blood bank. And finally, on my sixth time, Newman said that he had two weekend shifts in the kitchen. I was in.
Les Amis became my tribe. Newman was committed to everyone he hired. You could always get a meal, even if you weren’t working any more. He bailed staff out of jail more than once. And if you ever needed a job, he’d squeeze you in. I worked there two more times during my life in Austin. Both other times, I walked in, spoke to Newman, and started within days. No worker ever complained about losing a few shifts. We were family. And it was fun at work. We smoked ganja freely in the back and carried on great, interminable conversations in the front. The food was good; we served espresso and cappuccino, and the place was packed with beautiful, beautiful young women — college girls with brains and talent and libidos.
I’d been there about two months. I was shy, reserved, inhibited much of the time, but very attracted to the bold life styles of my co-workers. I felt uninformed because we’d been away more than two years and completely lost touch with pop culture. I felt fundamentally strong, but wounded and raw. I kept to myself. One night late in the shift, I found myself sharing a joint with Elizabeth – a stunning creature of 18, just a freshman and already an accomplished artist with paintings hanging in the hottest galleries in New York. She’d been talking about her work but suddenly broke off and began grilling me about my life. How did I get to Austin? Did I have a girlfriend? And I found myself telling her the story: how Hawley – 15 years together – left me suddenly, split our possessions exactly in half and fled, and feelings started to rear their ugly heads and I, alone at 35, became very emotional with telling her, tears running steadily from my eyes but with a voice nearly steady and no sobs or sniffles, just endless tears.
We finished our shift. It was late and she’d been pounding glasses of wine all the time we were cleaning up. When we were done, she said, “Come home with me.” I nodded, and I did.
Elizabeth had the whole bottom floor of an old house. It was huge. She drank more wine; I smoked another joint. She took me through two rooms filled with huge canvases with quirky figures on them, some ominous. It was a little crude but effective. She took me through her bedroom to the shower. We undressed solemnly and proceeded to soap one another down, but again rather solemnly, without the passion that you’d expect.
All that changed when we got into bed. We fell upon one another like beasts and, when the dam finally broke, she held me. Soon we were at it again. And so forth. During one interlude, Elizabeth got up, padded naked across the room, stopped at the turntable on her way to the bathroom and put Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True on the turntable. I couldn’t believe my ears. Every song was like a collage of several musical styles. It was interesting and powerful at the same time. I remember lying naked in bed, wrapped in a comforter that smelled like sex, watching that stunning woman coming back to me, and thinking to myself, “Holy shit. There’s some music out there.”