Twenty-eight summers ago, I was young and jobless and living in my parents’ basement.
Each day, while my partner gathered her books and went to graduate school like a legit emerging adult, I concocted some excuse—apartment-hunting, a meeting with a nameless editor in a vague locale—and slipped out of the house.
Then I drove to the Main Line Center for Bartending, where I learned the difference between a martini and a gimlet (it’s the lime juice) and how to layer shots, the lighter liquors floating on the heavier ones like a Rothko painting in a glass.
The idea was to gain a marketable skill, land a job, come home at the end of each night with a pocketful of sticky tips, and eventually get the hell out of the basement.
It worked. After a few days’ stealth, I fessed up to my parents—who, to my relief, did not mutter about the tens of thousands they’d kicked toward my bachelor’s degree in English. They even brought the neighbors to my bartending “graduation,” a boisterous evening at Manayunk’s Pitchers Pub during which I slung pints of domestic beer and received a wallet-sized card declaring me a certified mixologist.
Happy hours at Olive Garden
The following week, a manager at the City Line Avenue Olive Garden looked skeptically at my resume. No, I had not ever worked in a restaurant. Yes, my most recent employment had been as a freelance theater critic and an emergency services worker with homeless youth in Portland, Oregon. Yes, I knew what went into a Long Island Iced Tea.
I got the job.
Some nights, amid the eclectic mix of dating couples, solo adults, rowdy workmates toasting the end of a long week, and bleary just-off-call osteopathic students from the medical college across the street, my parents would show up in the restaurant’s bar—casual, cheerful, as if they’d just been passing through the neighborhood and decided to pop in for happy hour.
My mom would order a salad—dressing on the side, please—and a glass of white wine. My dad may have been the only customer in the chain’s history to request a Campari and soda along with his shrimp scampi. I slipped them extra breadsticks and tried not to spill their drinks.
“Are those your parents?” That would have been Jerome, my favorite server. “Girlfriend, they are so cute!”
I looked their way: my mother skimming the sauce—too many calories—from her baked ziti; my dad (a gourmet cook as well as a sports writer) pretending he didn’t know the iceberg lettuce and carrot slivers had come pre-chopped out of a giant bag.
I warmed with embarrassment and gratitude, protectiveness and pride.
I imagine the feeling was mutual.
Twenty-eight years later
All of that flashed back in full this spring. On a stunningly mild Monday evening, I threaded my way among bicycle couriers and jacket-less commuters to surprise my own twentysomething daughter in the Manhattan restaurant where she hostesses while (like a legit emerging adult) taking intensive summer classes in Russian lit and consumer culture.
I dressed for the Olive Garden in a boxy green polo and khakis that would be stained with cheap merlot by the end of my shift. My daughter goes to work in black palazzo pants and heels, with a crisp new mask to match.
I filled mug after mug with Rolling Rock, ignored the half-drunk guys who called me “Kitten,” and wrote about my adventures as a feminist bartender; she deftly manages diners who insist on a window table overlooking Central Park South and creates wry Instagram stories for her friends about the Maira Kalman-esque characters who walk through the door.
That long-ago year of 1993, a federal judge sentenced two LAPD cops to 30 months in prison for violating Rodney King’s civil rights. Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shook hands in Washington, D.C. President Bill Clinton announced his “don't ask, don’t tell” policy on what were then called “homosexuals” in the military.
Now Israel/Palestine is aflare again, locked in another grim cycle of domination, resistance, and jostling for power. Police officers are still not being held fully accountable for their brutality against Black citizens. And the US Defense Department says trans folks can serve in the armed forces.
In 1993, I was emerging from seven years on the West Coast, a fraught period of coming out to family and friends, a stretch of self-discovery that was equal parts pain and deep delight. Now all of us are climbing out of Covid quarantine, a shattered, grievous year-plus laced, for some, with interludes of humanity and joy.
Everything echoes. Everything is squeaky-new.
Daughters and parents and daughters
The Olive Garden was not my parents’ kind of restaurant. My daughter’s workplace—grand rather than intimate, with lofty prices for avocado toast and Black Sea bass—isn’t really mine.
But love tugs us to unexpected places. I wish my dad were here to see his granddaughter’s tenacity and self-possession, to watch her grace and kindness, to see the cities he loved—New York, where he was born, and Philadelphia, where he made his longtime home—wobble back to life. His eyes would mist, as they always did at life’s taut, transforming moments, to see one generation move the needle slightly past the one before.
Maybe he’d order the “Bed of Roses” cocktail, which includes Campari and costs $17. When it arrived, he’d raise a glass to all of us, to dark times and liberating ones, to our fierce and fragile spirits, to his daughter and her daughter and to all that happens next.
Image description: A photo of four colorful cocktails with different garnishes, in martini glasses, lined up in a bar.
Image description: A view of the front of an Olive Garden restaurant.