Identity Crisis

I worry that my expiration date for working in the food industry might be close at hand. “Two lattes for the Princesses,” my coworker, let us call her B, mutters and we both laugh.

“Two Princess lattes coming up,” I reply, and moments later feel the familiar weight of guilt come to rest across my shoulders like a yolk. On the inside of my left wrist I have a tattoo of the Lewis scale molecular model for water, H2O inked with letters, lines, and dots. The tattoo is an homage to the David Foster Wallace essay “This is Water,” a piece that encourages a reactive mindfulness in human interactions. Wallace offers an alternative to anger in the form of more compassion for those moments when people frustrate or hurt us because we do not and can not comprehend the circumstances of their life.

Princess number 1 and I got off on the wrong foot over the summer when, during our first interaction at the restaurant where I work, I handed her a coffee and she insisted that nobody ever charged her for her drinks. Now, I’ve given out a lot of free coffee in my day, but it will be a cold day in hell when I do so because someone insists they “never have to pay.” Logically I can recognize that the mature response to B.’s comment would have been not continuing to stoke the flame, but in that moment it felt good to diffuse my frustration with a coworker.

It’s getting harder for me these days to grit my teeth and bear it. Direct conflicts are becoming more common, including an hour before the Princesses walked in when a woman pointed to a table we were holding for one of the big shots who dines weekly at our little spot.  On the table was a large piece of paper with the word reserved exclaimed in capital letters and bold print, underlined for good measure , and still she had to grab my arm to ask “Is this one reserved?”

So poorly masked was my astonishment that she actually asked if I thought hers was a  dumb question, and so thin is my patience that I actually replied in the affirmative. “I want to believe that you are a thinking, feeling human being, but you’re making it very difficult.” To her credit, she took my insult with more dignity than I would have mustered under similar circumstances, choosing a different table nearby, one sans reserved sign.

The NPR show Studio 360 aired this interview today with the actor Michael Ian Black about his career path, and two quotes stood out to me. The first was this:

“My mom was Hell-bent on me getting some kind of vocational career that I could fall back on and I was like, ‘No, because that’s what I’ll end up doing. I don’t want to teach theater at a high school. I want to be an actor.”

Relatable in so many ways. I really do enjoy bar tending. There is a rush you get from being slammed for hours on end, from the conversation, from the perfect night when you walk out the door with a fat wad of cash in your pocket and your head still buzzing from the music and enter the relative silence of a city sidewalk at four in the morning. It’s a sense of ownership that is not unlike stepping off stage knowing that you did the work. By the same token, there will be no tears shed on this end on the night that I polish my final glass. My hands are scarred from cuts and my hearing is likely permanently damaged from blaring speakers; my blood is in the bars that have supported me through this phase of my life.

Over Holiday break from the studio, I spent time in Florida with my girlfriend’s family. Half way through our Christmas dinner (Italians, the lot of them — think industrial amounts of ziti) one of her Great Aunt’s friends leaned across the table. “So Tim, what do you do in the city?”

My answer, so practiced : “I’m an actor and a writer but bartend to support myself.”

“Hmmm,” he leaned in closer. “I understand. Your time is coming.”

My time is coming. I wanted to fire back with indignation, the righteous zeal of a person who finds value in all three of the primary ways that I spend my time, but I couldn’t because truthfully, he was correct. I’m getting tired.

Who knows, this could all be a phase. I keep reminding me that any way I spend my time might eventually have value. My first gig out of college was a project for a mentor of mine who was directing at USC. They needed a fight choreographer/movement coach for a play about World of Warcraft. My teen years spent playing various RPG’s plus my undergrad stage combat classes were being called up for action! Combine those things with a high school stint as a competitive fencer, and suddenly I was the most uniquely qualified movement coach in Los Angeles,. Everything happens for a reason, I keep telling myself. Everything happens for a reason.

A few months ago I saw a copy of that play on the shelves at the Drama Book Shop. The playwrights name typed out in fresh ink on the cover, which was a beautiful shade of Tangerine orange (I’ll always be a sucker for the pallets of Sam French.) I leafed through its pages, reading the familiar dialogue, remembering sitting side by side with the playwright during the process, watching her change lines on the fly to better suit the stage action, lines with were now codified in my hands. I could see where our little production had stood in the path of this play making it to these shelves, and even though my name was not in those pages, my blood was in the project as well, a little thumbprint left over the course of three weeks worth of rehearsals in the USC drama building.

What would have been the better move in the situation with the woman who asked about the reserved sign? I’m not sure if I know the answer. The tattoo just up the arm from my water molecule reads, in an homage to another mentor of mine, “To thine own self be true.” I truly want to treat every person I encounter with dignity and respect. I also truly sometimes want to (figuratively) strangle people who ask dumb questions about reserved signs.

Back at the restaurant, I call B. over to me and tell her about my interaction. “Do you think I’ll get in trouble?” I ask, the people pleaser in me cowering. “No fucking way. It was a stupid question” she replies.

If you didn’t listen to that interview above, I’ll save you the last two minutes. The interviewer asks if it might not be better to have a back up plan; after all, not everyone who is working for a career as an artist makes it, right? In response, Black tells him that out of all his friends who stuck with their passions through the good and the bad, the vast majority of them are now doing something that is artistically fulfilling. “Wouldn’t you say the same?” he asks. The interviewer concedes that he would.

This weekend was good at the bar. Saturday was slammed, lining my pockets, and Sunday was dead so I had plenty of time to finish a friend’s book that I’m helping edit and work on my lines for class on Tuesday. “Not the worst life in the world” I tell myself, and it’s true. While printing a headshot and resume for an audition at Kinkos today I watched a man in a business suit frantically fielding phone calls in a telephone meeting. Over my dead body.

My smug sense of artistic self righteousness was quickly repaved with indignation at the $115 parking ticket I managed to wrangle in front of a No Standing sign at the audition location. In moments like these a good plan B would look awfully tempting.

Thank god I don’t have one.


  1. Melodie Bell says:

    I want to go on record as saying that I am proud of my son’s tenacity and following a career path which brings him fulfillment and broadenis his horizons. I am glad I never pushed him towards a vocation and certainly do not think “his time will come”. II believe “his time is here” as is evidenced by this blog and in everything he does. These are the moments and steps of an actor and artist. .A Proud Mother.