For much of 2017, a writer’s diary has been on my nightstand. I started with Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On, his diaries from 2005-2015; then Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook, written in 1970 and 1976; and finally, David Sedaris’s Theft by Finding, covering a quarter of a century starting in 1977. The genre is not a staple for me. It was a coincidence that three writers I admire published such books within seven months of each other. That I consumed them in rapid succession attests to my previously unrealized appetite for information about their lives.
It would be easy to assume that the casual racism and sexism of the characters in Mimi Pond’s The Customer is Always Wrong are relics, representative of a less enlightened time. But, though lead character Madge is stuck at a “meaningless” restaurant job in the seventies, her experience jives strongly with mine, as a waitress in the early 2010s.
Restaurants are where many of us “artistic” people work in order to keep the lights on while we pursue our truer purposes. And they have several standard characters. There are always coworkers slipping off to the bathroom for extended periods. (The guys I worked with would go together, two or three at a time, always with the same Altoids container; Madge’s junkie coworker Camille slips off with a long black purse.) There are coworkers constantly in relationship-related flux. There’s the guy who’s always angry. (A coworker of mine once punched the wall while holding a salt shaker in his fist. Another chased a table out of the restaurant; they’d written “zero” on the tip-line to a bill for hundreds of dollars.)
A few years after my bar mitzvah, our rabbi disappeared. He was supposed to attend Simchat Torah celebrations, but instead, an interim rabbi was shaking hands and leading songs. I was Jewish by culture more than by creed, attending Shabbat services and youth group only for special occasions. So after my rabbi left, my family changed synagogues, and I didn’t give much additional thought to him or religious education.
Now, my older son is approaching the age where I’d like to start introducing him to Jewish life, and my atheist Christian wife, who has agreed to let me raise our children Jewish, frequently and reasonably probes me on why I change the subject every time she asks about my plan.