Although a man about town, the big, unkempt guy had a homeless-base close to the dumpster behind Portland’s Asylum on Center Street. Lucid enough to say hello and have brief, but cordial conversations, he usually chose not to.
For years, regardless of the time of day, I saw him there three or four times a week. Smack dab in the middle of the city, he blended in with restaurant employee cars and the newest graffiti wall murals, courtesy of a few ambitious MECA students.
The guy didn’t seem to be a druggie and I don’t recall seeing him drink. Mostly, he just sat there deep in thought, in the alley that allows people who know to cut through from Free Street to Monument Square.
As the weather grew colder and the holidays rolled around, the guy’s night shifts grew less frequent. Hoping a bed and hot shower were on his agenda, he left my mind as soon as my car hit Congress Street.
It was near the end of one already difficult year that our cars started getting broken into. Windows were smashed, cup-holder quarters and unwrapped holiday gifts were stolen. Victimized or not, we all lost something of value (namely, a sense of safety), and I will never, ever forgive the jerk who took my entire collection of pre-“Born to Run”-era, bootleg Springsteen CDs. I still wonder if they ended up at the bottom of the dumpster just a few feet away.
As more cars in nearby open lots were vandalized, the break-ins became the topic of choice at industry last-call hot-spots. “I’ll bet it’s that homeless guy behind Asylum,” a server from Margarita’s said. “He creeps me out.”
“I don’t know,” chimed in Dish Dog from Binga’s. “People smoke back there before shows and it can be pretty sketchy. I’m not sure I’d pin it on that dude. I think it has to be somebody who knows when people are working and stuff. I think they’re looking for what we don’t want to report stolen. You know, an inside job by somebody who knows who keeps what in their glove box.”
It had never dawned on me that the break-ins could have been by one of our own, regardless of the motivation. Instantly ashamed that I, too, had thought it might be the homeless guy, I chastised myself for jumping to any conclusions at all.
Throwing a few blankets and some non-perishables in my car, it was a few days before I saw him again. “Here,” I said, handing him the goods. It’s getting nasty out.”
Looking up from the spot on the ground he had been studying, he said, “Thanks. Somebody else gave me a blanket today, too. And some oranges. Now, I have two more blankets.” He looked back down at the ground. I had been dismissed.
As I walked into work, I remembered it was a short day because of the Thanksgiving holiday. I had a ton to do before I could leave, but I hoped the guy was happy. It bugged me that I had secretly accused him of something the police pegged on two thirty-something thugs. I suspected others felt the same way.
And so it is with this week.
Accusations out of fear and jumping to conclusions are in vogue. It’s Thanksgiving season, and I sincerely hope sharing our blankets stays in vogue, too.
Q — My nephew is graduating from culinary school in the spring. I know people new to a restaurant kitchen have much to learn so what piece of advice can you offer? — Harmony C., Falmouth.
A — You didn’t mention if your nephew already has experience in a restaurant setting. If so, he’ll have a preliminary feel for what to expect.
My advice is do whatever needs to be done without asking. Jump on the dish tank, grab the broom if something drops, and ask a lot of pertinent questions when things slow down. Asking “What’s the advantage of Himalayan pink sea salt over table salt in that dish?” will show a legitimate eagerness to learn the executive chef’s recipe-thought process.
And have very thick skin, be kind to the waitstaff and keep a sense of balance between work and play. Otherwise, like newbies before him, the job he wants to love will chew him up and spit him out.
Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to email@example.com, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.