a smile being the line between something forced and something genuine

Steve Wozniak, one of the co-founders of Apple, said at one point, while Steve Jobs was dicking around as a tyrannical team leader in the company, that he thinks a company can be a kind of “family,” an encouraging and comfortable space. Loving.

I would’ve bristled at this idea last year but I’m finding, at the moment, that I’m very happy at the bar where I work. The bar’s inside a corporate restaurant. The restaurant’s been having some issues hiring people so we’ve got a corporate trainer in the store right now, she got flown over from the midwest, and she’s my very same age, bubbly, and she speaks in a way that reflects total devotion to, and enthusiasm about, the company. 

Or if not the company itself than the corporate culture, more specifically; she’s jazzed about its inclusiveness and energy and high spirits, a genuine interest in giving good service to people. 

Maybe it’s bullshit. 

Anyway: the corporate trainer and I are getting along really well and when we were talking at the bar the other day I mentioned the John Updike quote about how “fame is a mask that eats the face”, and how I feel like the same quote kind of applies to people who work in the service industry, people have to spend the whole day in the clutch of this peppy performative servility for a buncha strangers–and the corporate trainer kinda lit up. 

“That’s perfect,” she said, eyes wide, “I’m gonna fuckin remember that forever.” She was acting as though I’d just said the most poetic/revelatory thing she’d heard in a while, and I was delighted to’ve made an observation that landed so well, and rang her bell.

But then I started to wonder…

Is she doing it right now to me? Is she giving me the Treatment? Tryna make me feel like I said something profound and thereby puff me up in the way that we’re constantly puffing up the guests?

I’m thinking one of the work hazards in hospitality is an enduring suspicion about the sincerity of any smile you see.

Because yes, it seems to me authentic that some of us should become legitimately smitten and passionate about the idea of providing good service, about the importance of such a role in society. At the same time, I’m wondering if something like this CT’s enthusiasm about our corporate culture isn’t a kind of….self-delusion. A kind of wilful abnegation of self, a joining of the hive mind, so that we can spare ourselves the burdensome high-wattage questions of “Who am I?” and “What should I be doing with my life?” and “How can I forge my own identity?”

There’s lots of upward mobility in the company for which I currently work and I’ve noticed that it fosters lots of loyalty among employees. I’ve got 27-year-old colleagues who’ve been with the company for a decade. Went from hostess to server to bartender to manager. Skipped college because what’s the point? With just five or six years of experience here they can go on and get a serving job anywhere, or a bartending job, a managerial job…

I’m afraid that, by suggesting this, I’m questioning the intelligence or courage or whatever of all these colleagues who’ve opted for a life in hospitality. Which isn’t my intention at all. I know a lot of people in this industry and I’d say that a uniform quality among its better performers is that they’ve given lots of serious thought to the importance of their work, and how special it is to’ve found a place in this world where they feel at-home, to’ve found a job that they enjoy (precious precious precious indeed). 

Same thing comes up whenever lamenting the fact that most people don’t follow the news, don’t read. 

It’s understandable that they wouldn’t. 


I think David Remnick of all people, editor in chief at The New Yorker, put it perfectly when he was being interviewed, I think, by Fortune magazine, or maybe it was Financial Times, when he said, simply, “Life ain’t easy.”

Then he elaborated: most people work really hard, and still don’t earn enough money to cover their expenses, and they certainly aren’t prepared for the random financial hardship of a busted tire, let alone a broken leg. Or illness. That you should wake up at dawn to start preparing your kids for school, and then preparing yourself for work, and then go to work, deal with its stressors, then come home and tend to your kids all afternoon, try to nail a little more work in the evening, then put the kids to bed, then go to bed yourself and wake up and do it all over again while simultaneously juggling, in your head and heart, the issues of your own dreams, of your family’s wellbeing–it’s a lot to ask of someone!

And that’s just what they deal with when you ask them to live.

To expect them, on top of all that, to study and engage with matters of nation and state, foreign affairs, the iniquities befalling marginalized groups they neither see nor hear from. 

I see plenty of sense in decrying such ignorance as a kind of social or civic failure. 

But I also see it as an ethical failure to give those people a hard time for not knowing the details of their nation’s myriad foreign policies. 

Similarly, I think it’s totally understandable for people to join a company when they’re young, find contentment (“complacency” has a pejorative connotation, but might also be appropriate here), and then stick around. 

Life, after all, ain’t easy.

Edward Hopper, Office at Night

But why, then, do I feel a kind of low-burning irritation with my peers who aren’t more ambitious? That’s an ugly thing to confess, I know, and I suspect it’s a tenet of my totally capitalist attitude toward life: growth is good; wealth should be pursued at all costs.

Cost cost cost.

Can’t find the quote but I seem to remember Norman Mailer saying something about how the pursuit of relentless growth is the mindset of the cancer cell.

Anyway: it’s hard not to point oneself with nervous resolve toward growth and expansion and the rapacious pursuit of wealth when you live in a country where three days in the hospital with pneumonia could cost you a year’s salary and ruin your credit so that you can’t buy a house and your kids can’t go to college. 

My friend Pavel Klein, for instance: he’s a really good writer, I’ve published and cited his work here on the blog many times before, but he doesn’t write very often. I’d say he churns out two or three pieces a month. 

And this floors me.

I nudge him and nudge him, “You’ve got talent, you’ve got ideas, you’ve got time.”

Sometimes it works, and he goes on to write something. But generally he prefers to spend his evenings among family. To watch TV with them. To spend long pleasant evenings over the stove or the grill. 

These are his values.  

And it isn’t like his talents go to waste: he still generates a few pieces of writing each month, and those pieces are uniformly good, and he’s proud of them. They feed his creative impulse.

I, on the other hand, am fucking unrelenting about writing; blog posts, stories, essays, monologues; motivated as much by a passion for the craft as by a terror of stagnation; not only that: I feel a constant need to be read, to be heard–occasionally, very occasionally, I even feel the need to be looked at directly.

I’m not making a point here so much as demonstrating one of the mental glue traps I’ve been clomping on for the past few weeks, in the wake of my eBook’s publication (buy it now on Amazon and leave ae review and help me!), when, rather than diving into a writing project, I’ve been spending virtually all of my free time reading.

And, of course, writing these posts.

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