. . . and Coleslaw

I can’t believe I have to take the stupid bus.

Lauren tripped over an uneven crack in the sidewalk, further souring her mood. She shoved her hands into her pockets and ran her finger over the nametag she had stashed away for her shift at work. It was bad enough that she had to spend the summer working at Mike’s Deli, a glorified fast-food restaurant; now her parents’ car wouldn’t start and they didn’t have enough money to fix it this month, so it sat sleeping in their designated parking space behind the apartment. And because of the early-morning bus schedule, she had to be either ten minutes late or fifteen minutes early for work.

She had chosen fifteen minutes early, and now as she walked two blocks to transfer to her second bus, she pictured her college friends doing their internships in air-conditioned offices, sitting in lifeguard chairs by the pool, or in Allison’s case, sitting by the pool working on her tan because her parents had all the money she would need.

She was studying for a career in marketing so she could get out of this crappy neighborhood, but ironically, because she had left town to go to school, all the decent summer jobs were full by the time she got home. She couldn’t afford to pay rent, so here she was sharing a room with her little sister again, getting up at dawn to make salads–and coleslaw–before the restaurant opened. Then in the middle of the afternoon, she would meet the Randall kids at day camp, walk home with them, and babysit for a few hours until Mrs. Randall got home from work. She would smell like greasy food and onions until she finally got home and had a few hours to shower, catch up on Facebook, and go to bed so she could do it all again.

“Hey, I didn’t know you took the Number 6.”

She realized someone was speaking to her and looked up to see Carla, the thirty-something woman who was always at the restaurant before Lauren in the morning and didn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave in the afternoon. When Carla had trained her to make the salads, she told Lauren how long she’d worked at the restaurant–she couldn’t remember what she’d said, but it had sounded like a long time. Fifteen years? Twenty? It didn’t matter–she couldn’t imagine doing this for longer than a summer.

Watching Carla make the salads, she had noticed the woman’s hands, which were gnarled and bent, her fingers twisted and cramped. She had tried to pretend she didn’t notice, but she had wondered what would cause this kind of crippling–and how Carla could make the salads so nimbly with her hands in that condition.

Carla was nice, and Lauren smiled back at her. “I don’t usually take the bus. The car broke down, so I’m taking it for now until we can get it fixed.”

“Well, it’ll be nice to have some company,” Carla said. “I ride this bus every day, but the people usually aren’t that friendly. I transfer from the Number 8, and people are nicer on that one. I sit with a woman named Mona almost every day. She tells me about her kids.” She shook her head. “Boy, she has a real troublemaker on her hands. Her son is always in trouble with someone.”

Lauren nodded politely and glanced at the other waiting passengers. Most of them stared blankly into space or at the ground in front of them. One woman stared at a cell phone; another rummaged through a shopping bag. One teenage boy, who looked extremely tired, bobbed his head, presumably to the rhythm of whatever was piping through his headphones.

“So you’re going in to prep salads too?” It was a stupid question. As far as Lauren could tell, Carla went in early and prepped salads every day. Of course she was going to prep salads today.

But Carla treated it like a serious question. “Yes, and the coleslaw.”

Lauren was pretty sure coleslaw should be considered a type of salad, rather than named as a separate category of food. But the manager, Gary, referred to them separately, so everyone else did too. She had no idea why this should irritate her, but it did, so she tried to make a point of not mentioning the coleslaw separately. But people were always correcting her, adding “. . . and the coleslaw” to the ends of her sentences about salad. It had the effect of giving coleslaw prominence in her conversations these days, and she smiled slightly as she thought about how her life revolved around a food she couldn’t stand to eat.

She noticed Carla was already wearing her nametag. “How long did you say you’ve worked at Mike’s?”

“Seventeen years,” Carla said proudly. “I know that kitchen better than my own.” She chuckled softly. “Gary’s a good boss to work for. He’s a nice guy. And he gives me as many hours as he can. Before him, we had this manager who tried to hire as many pretty young girls as he could. He would schedule us for short shifts and spend his time flirting with them while the rest of us did all the work. Gary’s not like that. He’s a family man. We’re lucky.”

While Lauren was picturing kind, pudgy Gary–who seemed to always be sweating–trying to flirt with young women, she saw the bus approaching and moved toward the curb.

Carla followed her to her seat on the bus, so Lauren sat next to the window to let Carla sit next to her. Better than some creepy guy sitting next to me, she thought, although a glance around the bus told her plenty of seats were open.

Right away, Carla started talking again. “You know, you’re lucky to get these early hours in your schedule. Karen used to work most mornings with me, but she quit in February and Gary has been scheduling different people who want the hours. If Karen were still here, you probably wouldn’t get them.”

“Yeah, I need to make as much money as I can this summer.”

“You’re going to college, right?” Carla asked.

Lauren nodded.

“Good for you” Carla said. “Keep at it.” She paused. “I’m trying to make as much money as I can, too. I’m trying to help my sister.” She looked away, and her face tightened in anger. “She needs to get away from her husband. He hits her, that pig. I need to help her get away from him.” She turned to look at Lauren. “She needs money so she and the kids can move out.”

Lauren didn’t know what to say. She swallowed and nodded. “Yeah, she should get away from him.”

They rode in silence for a few minutes, Lauren remembering the family who had lived in the apartment next to them for a few months before moving on. She had heard the father yelling late at night a few times, heard the sounds of fighting, and watched the police approach their door after her family, and probably other neighbors, had called 911. The officers had always left empty-handed, but their visits had made the nights quieter for a while. Lauren had never seen the woman’s face; it was always hidden behind her hair. But she had, even as a teenager, wanted to do something to rescue her and her children, who had the scrappy look of survivors.

“I keep trying to get my sister to go to church with me, but her husband won’t let her.” Carla looked at Lauren, who saw that her face had lost its angry shadows. “I don’t know what I would do without my church. My pastor–he’s a good man like Gary–he encourages me. Sometimes it lasts all week.” She chuckled. “And we all pray for each other a lot.”

She went on, talking about her church and her friends, as Lauren half-listened and half-observed a growing realization: the overriding theme in Carla’s conversation was gratitude. She talked about the simplest things, and she spoke of them as if they were wonderful. Her church. Her sister’s kids. Gary the mediocre manager. Even the opportunity to make the salads in the morning . . . and the coleslaw. Don’t forget the coleslaw.

As the bus braked suddenly and lurched forward, both Lauren and Carla put a hand on the seat in front of them. Lauren briefly stared at their hands side by side, then withdrew her hand and felt sick with shame. Carla’s gnarled hand looked painful–but those cramped fingers mixed coleslaw every morning and served hungry people all day for the sake of survival and for helping a beloved sister caught in an abusive marriage.

I think I’m better than her, Lauren realized. I think I’m above the work we do.

She glanced at Carla–who was talking about the good bread she had found at the day-old store, and her gratitude that she had room in her freezer to store it for her sister. I’m taking care of myself, she thought. She’s taking care of others. And she’s a lot happier than I am.

Why had she thought she was better than Carla? Because she was on her way to a college education? Because Mike’s Deli was just a quick stop on the way to somewhere else? She remembered a Bible verse, from the “love chapter” she heard at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Yes, she was a noisy gong. Her little bit of knowledge had made her proud and kept her from loving others.

She noticed the bus was close to their stop. She turned to Carla, smiled, and interrupted her. “Is there anything I can do to help your sister?”

Carla paused, surprised, then said, “You can pray for her.”

“I will.”

They rose from their seats and shuffled toward the front of the bus with several other passengers.

Lauren smiled. “Now let’s go make some salads . . . and coleslaw.”

  1. Amy says:

    lovely way to start the week. thank you.

  2. Karen says:

    Beautiful. Made me stop and think of how often I am a clanging gong. And how awesome it feels when I give of myself.

© 2013 Amy Simpson.