Sunday, January 6, 2008

Real Magic

I repeated the word all day long. “Magic. Magic. Magic.” I was determined to wrest some kind of supernatural power out of the ether. “Magic. Magic.” My silent mantra would bring me the powers of great sorcerers, saints, or mystics. The sheer force of my personality would summon inexplicable abilities. I was finished with prayers and supplication, I wanted magical powers, and would not rest until I had them.

During the flurry of serving breakfast and lunch, I was too busy buttering toast or removing dishes to always remember my mantra. But in the late afternoon, when the restaurant was empty, I folded cloth napkins into pilgrim caps and repeated the word, seeking solace for my aching soul.

It was a dare to the universe. I would say the word forever until something happened. And if nothing? I would die soon, probably. My depression was deep.

Day after day, I stood in the shadows, between the bins of dirty dishes and the iced water pitchers, repeating “magic, magic, magic.”

A turbaned, African woman sat in my station. She had been reading for several hours, nursing herbal tea. I moved around her, resetting the tables for lunch, repeating the word in my heavy heart. I seemed at peace, but there was a conflagration within. An endless inferno. I needed a partner. And a purpose.

I glanced at her book. The title sounded metaphysical. Spiritual with a touch of self-help. This was comforting to me. Ever since my move to California, I felt at home. A lost soul surrounded by other lost souls.

We chatted about the book as I envied her figure. She was wiry but muscular. Wrapped in a long robe of bold red, green, and yellow. Her easy smile dazzled. I asked about her occupation. She was a psychic.

“Really? How much do you charge?”

“Thirty dollars an hour.”

She was cheap. I admired that in a psychic. I had been desperate to find one, to discover my future, since I hated my present. But besides the expense, I knew there were few legitimate seers. Most were frauds. Going to a charlatan was not only a waste of money; it could put dangerous ideas in my already overly suggestible brain. I had begged the Universe to send me the right psychic. Perhaps it was Tametha. She gave me her card. I continued with the silverware.

A half-hour later, making my rounds with water glasses, I asked if she was waiting for someone.

“I'm not sure. I got up this morning and I couldn't get the word “magic” out of my head. I had the strong impression that I was supposed to come here this morning. I don't know why.”

I smiled in confusion. Could she believe my story? For all my earlier bravado, I could barely believe it myself. I had conjured up a psychic to visit me with my own stubborn will! I told my dramatic tale, with all the poetry I could muster, to my most tolerant friends. Mostly Californians. We all looked forward to my consultation with Tametha.

Yet, despite our miraculous meeting, my psychic’s prophecies proved mundane or indecipherable.

She had seen colors and an image of the Tin Man. All that trouble to be told I was looking for love? Anyone could tell me that! I stopped my mantra. Life was a bad joke. I needed to stop fighting the pain and just give up. I wouldn’t literally kill myself, but I could stop pursuing relief and just repress what was pulsing inside.

I had little to compel me out of my stupor. Every day I delivered food, retrieved dishes, counted tips, went home. I sometimes got high with friends. But more often, I simply huddled close to my tiny electric heater and stared for hours into the glowing orange coils.

I sometimes enjoyed waitressing, but mostly I loathed it. The money could be great, but also unpredictable. I loved the exercise but the stress of a poorly-managed restaurant spiked my blood pressure to dangerous levels. Free meals were habit forming, but getting them from abusive cooks was demoralizing. The biggest dividend was working with the other servers. We were an eccentric bunch. Artists and iconoclasts, we could be fierce and cutthroat when competing for lucrative stations, but our briefest exchanges were generally heartfelt and intimate--like those of all soldiers in combat. We stood side-by-side in the trenches, scraping plates and listening for sounds of our enemies—some customers, cooks, and most horrible of all--management. They came and went with great frequency, but their disorganized policies lingered, causing chaos in the restaurant, and havoc to our income.

To save money on additional staff, management’s newest scheme required waitstaff to provide their own bankrolls. Instead of using the cashier, we were given a supply of checks and the responsibility of making change. Huddled in any available corner, we rifled through our aprons. Disorganized servers (like me) struggled to keep checks and bills from disappearing as we ran around the restaurant. As cash vanished, so did our pay for that day.

Rushing though a particularly hellish Sunday brunch and feverishly counting money in the dark hallway, I suddenly saw the flaw in the system. Since brunch didn’t require orders from the kitchen, I could, theoretically, reuse the same check over and over. At the end of the shift, I would balance with management. If I had fewer checks, I would hand over less cash. The corporate geniuses had created a procedure that actually encouraged theft. Even I, who had never stolen before (except a few pens from the office), had never plagiarized in school (why cheat myself of learning?), had never lied to friends or lovers--even I could not force myself to make a new check for each group of customers. It was easier to use the same check a few times. If that provided me with an extra $60-120 per table, this was not my fault. Management should have created an easier and more secure system. It wasn't my fault.

Several weeks went by. The new sparkle in Angela's eyes told me that my favorite co-worker had possibly discovered the same magical formula for doubling tips. I longed to discuss my fears and guilt with her but I kept my windfall secret. I fought the temptation every Sunday but always succumbed to reusing a few checks. I felt little loyalty toward the corporation. What undermined my enjoyment of this fiscal miracle was my growing fear of getting caught. Every week I struggled against greed, lest I recycle too many checks and invite scrutiny.

Eventually, after a month of bountiful Sundays, I gave notice. I didn't have another job, and didn't know where I was going. Angela seemed confused--I was leaving the restaurant? Forfeiting this financial sorcery? Yes. I walked away. If I had conjured a psychic and an amoral windfall, perhaps I had also invoked a solid core inside myself. I walked away and began a new phase of life. There was a miracle in that.

© 2007 Lewis-Barr

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