We finish the shift around eleven thirty. It’s gone well but everyone is exhausted, drained, wrung out. Gary’s face looks like the white-tiled walls of the kitchen. He was working the line in the heat and grease when the barrage of orders came flying in and everyone else was panicking. Gary doesn’t panic; he’s been doing this job too long for that. The head chef, on the other hand, arrived at the beginning of the shift already panicking about the number of “resos” and paucity of our stock and, by the rush, was yelling at the servers like it was a fight in the prison yard, while Gary looked as calm and focused on his work as a tailor. Afterwards, Gary just seems cashed out. The two of us are behind the dumpsters blinking at the darkness of the night sky and having a smoke.
“Well, that was one hell of a shift!” I say and pause before adding “You guys seemed to handle it though!” Gary is a sous chef. I’m a dishwasher, prep guy, and general kitchen stooge. I sit out the panic.
“Yes” he nods but doesn’t say.
“Looks like we’ve got another one tomorrow.” I pick my words carefully, as if leaping across a stream from one rock to another.
Gary takes a long breath of smoke and stares out into the parking lot pensively for about twenty seconds and finally says calmly and reflectively “I do not want to die doing this job.”
Gary (I won’t use a fake name because I’ve nothing negative to say about him) and I met about three years ago when we started our band. He’s three months older than me, also forty, and has been working in kitchens for twenty-six years. Gary looks a bit like a movie cowboy with the crinkled squint and angular leanness, mutton chops hanging down his jaw line, except he dresses in Chuck Taylor’s, black jeans, tee-shirts and tattoos and slicks his hair down like a movie greaser. He jokes and laughs all the time too, and, on this particular evening, I am still chuckling on the drive home about his instructions to a server to describe the entrée as “lightly seasoned with animal tears and semen”. Gary is someone who I would describe to another man as a “good guy”: straightforward, uncomplicated, free of melodrama and totally unselfish. If your car breaks down on a darkened road at 2 a.m., call Gary and he’ll pick you up and joke about it on the drive to get smokes. He is the only original member of our band remaining, aside from myself, and will be the last one to leave, assuming we break up. He is a man in the same way my grandfather was a man: reliable and decent.
So, it is genuinely startling a few months later when Gary tells me he’s going to quit the business forever. “I’m just done,” he says. “I don’t care about food. I’m good at cooking it, but it’s all just focus and repetition. Focus and repetition. I’ve been doing this a long damn time.”
“So what are you going to do?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Going to take a month off and think about it.”
I’m stunned. With quiet men, it’s easy to forget that they have the same endless monologue of doubt and hope and sadness and fear running in their heads that the rest of us do. All this time, Gary was planning to let the kitchen down in spite of being reliable and decent! Oh, brother, are they going to freak out when he tells them! I say.
“Yeah, it’s great!” he laughs. I know what he means. Restaurant owners talk about “labor costs” in the same hushed tones one uses for historical atrocities or the boogeyman. They rarely have enough staff because they never want to pay more than can be pried from between their clenched teeth. At our place, they hire the fewest workers possible, put them all on salary, and work them until they break. When people quit, everyone remaining says they were “marshmallows”. It’s a macho business. The ideal is to be reliable, decent, and tough. I’d never imagined Gary would break.
Here’s a story: we had an Egyptian cook working in the banquet center where we both started who worked every day, constantly, until finally asking if he could go home early one afternoon because he didn’t feel well. No one called him a marshmallow about it because he was always thoroughly reliable. When he got to the front step of the restaurant, he fell over dead of a heart attack, and it must have been a “massive” one because the cops from the nearby station couldn’t revive him. When one of our best servers died in the kitchen a year before, the cops were able to bring him back to life twice and for good. Gary was working for both incidents. When he called about the dead waiter on the kitchen floor, our owner (of the restaurant, not us, you understand) yelled over the phone “I’m in a meeting! What do you want me to do about it?!” He’s dead now too, of cancer. Death might not be described as decent, but it is reliable.
Death is basically a loyal companion, staying with us throughout our lives as sentient beings; unobtrusive, quiet, always there, patiently observing and only calling on us once, if we’re lucky, from the far distance. The guitarist with whom Gary and I started the band has died. Gary’s mother died years ago. As you get older, death sends more frequent reminders, echoed by your body’s. You start to break down and need more repairs. Younger co-workers talk to you as if you’re old. Aging is something shameful and somewhat embarrassing in our emotionally regressive culture. Forty is middle-aged. Half-empty. Well on the way to that appointment in Samarra at any rate. All of this, no doubt, has occurred to Gary and nagged at him.
When he finally announces that he’s quitting, giving the restaurant a one-month notice in order to be decent, they at first try excoriating and shaming him. “You have a steady job and you’re going to throw it away to be a rock star?!” I’m always struck by the dichotomy between how “rational” bosses can be in setting the terms of employment and how moralistic they become in motivating their employees. Gary quitting is supposed to reveal something deeply negative about his sense of priorities, his work ethic, and ultimately what sort of man he is. You’d think he’d cheated on them. Eventually, they calm down a bit.
But there is a danger in life of letting a layover become a final destination. When men of a certain age, and for some reason it’s usually men this is said of, attempt to change their situation and address this danger, we call it a “midlife crisis”, often snickeringly. There’s something shameful and embarrassing about it and a bit undignified. We think of an older man, of a certain income level, buying a sports car or dating a much younger woman. Acting indecently, unreliably. Picture Kevin Spacey in American Beauty or, more grimly, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
Women do these things too, of course, but it’s different somehow. My mother left my dad for another man and went on binge shopping trips in her mid-forties, which was something we described as the messy work of “finding herself” after decades of marriage to a difficult man. A few years prior, he had bought an ultralight plane and started flying up and down the East Coast. That was a midlife crisis. The thought of it sent waves of terror through her, so she asked him to quit flying and he either agreed to or didn’t agree, depending on who you ask, and she then left him with one of the guys in his flying club. A few months later, he quit his job, moved to Maine, grew a ragged white beard, and became a lobsterman. He could have stayed until retirement at his steady, reliable job, friends said. He’d been there for twenty-two years. That would have made more sense. After a certain age, though, you become deaf to those who try to reason with you.
In some sense, women already reached the point en masse that they stopped listening to the entreaties of “reasonable” people, usually men. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) is essentially about the female version of a midlife crisis, what Friedan called “the problem”, and addressing it was the task of the second wave of feminism. “The problem” was, and is, threefold, consisting of: patriarchy, which is as old as human society; the bourgeois nuclear family, a relatively new structure historically speaking and one with a very mixed track record; and finally the labor issue, as the book is, after all, about women’s unpaid work. These issues are still open, but given the complexity of “the problem”, feminism has done a miraculous job of critiquing and transforming society and showing how these norms hinder women, and men too. Patriarchy, paradoxically, gives men social power, while limiting their tangible options in how to live their lives and remain a man.
Feminism, of course, holds all of this up for critique. However, its very understandable lacuna is that it has no real picture of a non-social male. That is, feminism only really conceptualizes a man within patriarchy or rejecting patriarchy by establishing feminist relationships with women, which is still something social, or at least relational. It has no grounds to conceptualize a man existentially, outside of those two social contexts: no “men who run with the wolves” to write. As yet, we haven’t seriously and successfully inverted Freud’s famous question and simply asked: what does man want?
Men have tried, of course, to move in the direction of this question and conceptualize a recovered, non-social manhood with mixed success. The “mythopoetic” men’s movement of Jungians like Robert Bly, which aimed at finding the “wild man within”, seems to have fallen into abeyance recently, but I can recall when it was the subject of a good deal of ridicule (much like midlife crises are ridiculed) as a case of middle aged men in the woods in loincloths banging on drums. More recently, the “men’s rights movement” has been a hot mess, highlighting real problems that men face but getting mired in adolescent femme domme fantasies in which every woman is Tura Satana and every male is Spartacus. And again, it remains relational. It’s amazing how much of our thinking about men revolves around how they fulfill their duties to others and whether or not those duties are just. Whether, that is, men can be dependable and reliable, and not the question of who they are in the first place.
I think these were some of the reasons it was a shock to us around him when Gary said he didn’t know what he wanted, but not this life anymore. Add to this confusion the endless recession under whose threat we now live and the act of wanting something different becomes something quasi-revolutionary, and setting off to find what that might be seems downright radical. I was thrilled. Ideally, of course, society would support men and women in all their attempts to change their path at any point in life. Living would be seen as play and experimentation, as it is. Failing that, however, Gary somehow made a prison break from the expectations placed on men and left the rest of us in the kitchen scratching our heads. Maybe life does begin at forty; it sure doesn’t end. All I know is there are a few others of us left over in that kitchen wondering if Gary can do it, why can’t we?