Tuesday, February 05, 2008

I used to catch an episode of Rescue Me on FX every now and then. Rescue Me stars Dennis Leary as a NY firefighter in post 9/11 New York. In one episode a firefighter reluctantly attended a group therapy session in an attempt to deal with the trauma of 9/11. One by one, the group members shared their feelings of loss and anger and despair. The firefighter, who had been skeptical of the benefits of therapy, listened intently to the others’ stories of grief and feelings of hopelessness, and seemed to be identifying with the group. He finally found the courage to speak, and asked one of the men where exactly he had been during the attack. I don’t recall the exact answer, just that the man had been far away from the attacks –like in Maryland. The firefighter was livid. He began questioning everyone in the group and discovered that he was the only person who had actually been present at the attack. He started screaming and cursing about how he had lost his best friends that day, how he had pulled dead bodies from burning buildings, and how he had seen things that no person should ever see. He was outraged at the other people’s anger. He bellowed at a crying, sniffling man to suck it up and get over himself and cry about something that really happened to him – that he didn’t deserve to be upset.

I feel a little bit like that crying, sniffling man -extremely sad for something that happened to someone that I didn't know, and somehow personally affected even thought I'm not. I can’t stop thinking about the O’Charley’s manager who was murdered on Sunday morning, and frankly, I am surprised at the intensity of my feelings. It has been on my mind constantly. As soon as I heard the news, I called my friend who is a manager at the same store to make sure he was OK, and to get the whole story. As he relayed the story, I could see every detail in complete clarity. The parking lot. The back door. The lights from Mrs. Winner’s. The sound the back door buzzer makes. The way the place would have smelled –like a mixture of food, soap, and steam. The radio on the kitchen line. The cooks whistling as they hurried to finish cleaning, doing a slipping, sliding dance across the wet floor. The servers as they checked each station and counted their money. And finally, the manager. In a tiny, dingy, cramped office. He would be counting all the money from the day. Checking each server out and listening to them groan about their worst customers or maybe talk about their plans for after work. Recording the day’s sales, noting anything that would have affected the sales for next year’s reference – the weather, an event in town like a sports tournament, or even a television show. Believe it or not, there are many factors that affect restaurant sales. I remember the night of the Seinfeld finale –the restaurant was basically empty – but of course, that was pre-Tivo era. The manager would be rushing around, in a hurry to get home, but still paying attention to every detail. Is there enough silverware for tomorrow? Are the microwaves clean? The shams? Are all of the lights off? Are the tables and chairs clean? Were the bathrooms cleaned properly? Are there any stray balloons that might later set off the motion detector? (It has happened.)

I know these details because I spent a little over a year in that same restaurant, in that same cramped little office, doing the same thing that Nader Bahmanziari was doing that fateful night. And I can’t get his image out of my head. Even though I didn’t know him, and it has been nearly 8 years since I closed that restaurant down, I feel deeply affected by this tragedy, and my heart goes out to his family and to all the employees who thought that night was like any other, and who will now never be the same.

The restaurant world is a tight community, and if you have ever worked in one, you know what I mean. I have not found that type of camaraderie in any other job. Something about the long hours, or maybe the teamwork that is necessary to run the place –it creates tight bonds. Eight years later, I talk daily to people that I met at that O’Charley’s – one of them being my husband. Although I can't begin to imagine the grief the family is feeling right now, I can somewhat imagine the grief that those employees feel for this tragic loss. That same O'Charley's was rocked by another senseless death in 1998, and I remember the immense effect that it had on each and every employee. Just last year, 50 or so people gathered for lunch in the back room of that O'Charley's in somber grief and disbelief at yet another senseless loss. And today, as the family mourns and the employees struggle to pull themselves together and get back to work, a few miles away, at a 9-5 desk job, in a different zip code, I feel a little bit of their pain.

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