There's something about people on vacation. They're more generous, more patient. Quick to hand out smiles and compliments, slow to lose their cool. And open. It's as if they're willing to share their entire story while waiting for a breakfast sandwich. Because we're all strangeres here, people who pass through, be it for a weekend or a summer. We're all strangers looking for connections. And within a few minutes we can become something closer to friends. A hover in the middle.
We finished our first weekend- our first solid round of introductions and goodbyes, and I'm surprised at this strange sadness I feel bidding farewell to the vacationers.
There's a young couple from Boston. We never learned their names, but they like our strong brew of dark coffee. Most people swirl it in their cups and ask for extra cream. They drank it black. And came back for refills. We made them Whoopie Pies that ended a bit disastrously (note to self: don't put a product that you've never made before on your menu). They didn't complain a bit, even claimed to enjoy them and came back three times over the weekend calling out thanks and good luck as they left from home.
"I don't even know those guys, and I'm going to miss them," I commented to Rich.
"I know. Do you think it'll be like that every week, or is this week special, because we're new?"
"I don't know, but I'm not sure I can take goodbyes every week. It's a little heartbreaking." Pathetic, I know. But I'm a softie.
Another couple pulls over to grab a wrap for the road and wish us well. "We'll be back the third week in July," they say. "We'll stop by again."
A guy from Southie, staying in the motel next door comes by for coffee and bagels every morning. He brings them back to share with his girlfriend. At first I thought he was a tough nut- the way many Southies are. No smiles. All business. With an accent that sounds rehearsed. By his third morning we're talking for 20 minutes about whatever. His bagel sandwiches are cold, but he makes no sign of leaving. "You're alright," he tells me. "No matter what they say about you." I understand that this is as close to a compliment as an Irishmen from South Boston will ever get and I am thrilled.
Now it's Tuesday and everyone is gone. New faces. Enough business. All strangers.
And I realize why I love this business. Because everyone is looking to link with someone. To feel like they matter. And it is my joy to make them know that they are valued, in the five minutes I spend chatting while I make their food. In this, I am blessed.
"What one thing would you change about my working habits?"
It's the dangerous question that I often ask and he usually tries to dodge. Once, when I was a kid, my parents had the idea that we would go around the dinner table and say something good about each person and then something that we thought they needed to change about themselves. The idea was constructive criticism by the people who are closest to you. But, like every other human, none of us accepted the compliments, and we all still remember the criticism. Terrible idea, really. But I tend to gravitate to those ideas, and frequently ask Rich to tell me what I need to change, what makes him crazy about me.
Today, I ask him just after the start of our lunch rush, and he doesn't hesistate for a second.
"Cleanliness!" he blurts out, instantly hurting my feelings. We've just finished serving half a dozen college age kids who are still half drunk from the night before. They order strange food combinations; Bacon and Egg sandwiches and buffalo chicken wraps, fruit with steak wraps and blueberry sodas. The girls are standing in skimpy bikinis, the guys are shirtless and swearing for no apparent reason as they order and wait. It's true, my work area is a muddle of egg shells and wrappers; of buffalo sauce and trails of cheddar cheese as I race to cook their food while Rich is ringing in orders and speaking just a tad too loudly, almost barking at the customers.
"Cleanliness?" I'm angry. If he meant that I was messy, he should have just said messy. Cleanliness means that I don't wash my hands, or that I pick things up off the ground (neither of which is true, of course). Messy is managable, cleanliness is a state of being.
"C'mon, Naph. Don't be mad. That's not what I meant. It came out wrong. What would you change about my work habits?" He knows I'm more hurt than angry, and this kills him.
"I don't want to play this game." I turn toward the wall and begin to organize the chaos. But I can't stay quiet. I want to swear at him, to tell him that if I could change one thing, I would make him less of a... well, you get the point. But in a rare show of restraint, I hold my tongue.
"Customer Service," I say instead. "You're kinda mean to some people. And that's not cool. Maybe I should go back on the register."
"Fine. Do it." He's angry now too, and I remember again why this game is a terrible game. We go from having fun to having no fun. Everyone ends up angry. We work in silence for the next five minutes, before we manage to talk it out. He agrees to try a nicer tone of voice and I say I'll clean up my messes as I go. And we do. Together we make it through our first (somewhat) busy day of summer. And no, I'm not back on the register yet.
I'm not allowed to work the register. Rich said so. I keep giving people discounts, and I've been caught. I'm on cash probation. Wrap patrol.
It's not just our friends or neighbors who I've been half charging, it's pretty much everyone.
"Why are you only charging people $5 for their wraps," he asks. Rich is watching me, waiting for an answer. And I know now how his employees at his (other) work must feel. Uncomfortable.
"What?" I feign ignorance.
"And you only charged the last guy for one of his drinks, and none of his pastries!"
"OK, but listen...." And I go onto to explain that I want people to like us. No, that's not quite it, I want them to feel satisfied. Like they got a good deal. I use loaded words like "blessed" and "serve." I talk about hospitality and demonstrating love to people in a tangible way. He can't argue with these kinds of loaded phrases, I muse.
"I understand." Is all he says. And then "Just so you know, you're off the register today. Otherwise we'll be bankrupt before June 1st." He edges me out of the way and I find myself on wrap duty for the rest of the day while he rings up customers and slides credit cards, ignoring my suggestions of "how about we toss in the soup for free on that order?"
Here's the thing. I do want people to feel blessed. I want them to finish their lunch and leaving feeling like they got something extra. I want them to say, "that was a great deal. And it was really good. And wasn't it nice of them to give us a discount." Our pastor would say that this is my way of looking for approval from people. He's probably right. Rich says we're already giving people a great deal. He's probably right too. But each order is an internal battle for me. Well, not anymore. Because I'm not allowed to use the register. We made over twice as much money today as any other day. And tonight, as we're prepping for tomorrow, Rich suggests that we hand out coupons. $1 off, he says. I recognize the compromise, and I'm struck with how much I love him. For being my balance. For caring about both my heart and the bottom line.
Business is slow, to say the least. Rich drops me off in the mornings, and I open the place at 7AM, with maybe two or three customers before noon. It's ok, we're new and I've been able to read through the paperbacks that have been laying around the house half-finished. Today I started the other books- the one's I've been putting off. The ones my father sends me. Annie Dillard's The Maytrees. Books that require all of my attention.
Tourist season hasn't really started yet, in fact other than Memorial Day weekend, it won't be crazy until the end of June. I watch the street cleaners and garbage trucks trail up and down the street as the day heats toward noon.
And then the Locals stop by. Always our Landlord, a kind man who's been known to buy lunch for anyone who's around during the lunch hour. He drops off little presents for us- a butcher block table he found in the garage, a small fryalator. He stops to chat, his cheek smeared with light blue paint from whatever he's working on out back. And he always says that we'll be great. He says our food is awesome. People will love you, he says. And I love him for saying so.
The previous owner stops by to wish us well. She tells us of the time her teenage son ran an ice cream shop out of our space. Apparently it went ok, until he became infamous for pitching maraschino cherries at anyone passing by. She buys croissants, saying them with perfect inflection and pulls out her calendar to tell me when the busy days will be.
One by one they stop by, people who I've never met, who pull us into this summer community and encourage us. Next, our friends show up. People who we kinda know, but who could get away with a quick good-luck. I am humbled by their presence, and I wonder when last I showed this kind of support for someone else.
And all of the sudden it doesn't feel like we're doing this alone. All of the sudden it feels like we're grafted into a community, like we were meant to be here. Maybe that's just the crazy in me talking, but somehow it gives purpose to the slow mornings, and takes away (ok, minimizes) the stress of food cost and turning a profit.
Charlie likes to eat paint. Wet paint is his favorite. A friendly 40 pound bundle of dark fur, I first met Charlie when his owner came to install a third dishwashing sink so that we could pass Inspection.
"Do you real alot of Steinbeck?" I asked the Plumber, who explained that Charlie goes along on all his jobs.
"Nope. He was already a Charlie when I got him, and the name stayed."
It's raining steadily outside and I am perched on a ladder, whitewashing the inside walls to cover last year's dirt and sand and sea-foam green.
Shy at first, Charlie eventually warms to me, and sits at the base of my ladder, watching as I slap the thick white paint across the walls. The plumber trips in and out of the place, grabbing various pieces of plumbing, bolts and nuts and washers. And in the space of fifteen seconds, Charlie nudges closer and begins licking the wet wall.
"Charlie!" I exclaim. But it's too late; his dark snout is freckled white and he licks the wall hungrily leaving a line of fur where there should be paint.
The plumber returns and Charlie turns quickly in guilt. He knows he's been caught. But in turning, he rubs against the wall, smearing white streaks down his entire left side. I'm laughing out loud while the plumber just shakes his head.
"I'm going to be in so much trouble!" he says to Charlie.
"You just had a bath yesterday. You were supposed to stay in the truck today!"
Head down, Charlie lays on his belly, his pink tongue snaking out to catch the paint that still clings to his whiskers. But soon the plumber is outside again, this time to saw a piece of mounting board- a base for the sink. Alone with me, Charlie belly-crawls back toward the wall, his eyes on the baseboard that I've just finished coating. This routine becomes familiar. Me exclaiming, the plumber gently reprimanding and Charlie looking as innocent as a criminal.
Eventually they're gone,off to retrieve permits and finish tomorrow. I continue painting and later we set grout on a patch of tile that is missing. Except for there's not enough tile to fill the space. We pack it with grout and leave the tile to set and walls to dry.
The next day the sink is finished, even before I get to work. It's perfect. And in the newly set grout there's a pair of dog prints, Charlie size.
Have you ever made plans that seemed so good as you were thinking them outloud that you didn't stop to edit. I do this all the time. Constantly. And it's good that I'm married because Rich has become a sort of filteration unit- sifting through the stream of plans that I'm convinced are winners. We filter each other and are able to keep each other away from the crazies. Most of the time. I'm not talking about concept of Mainely Wraps (though the sanity of this endeavor has yet to be determined). No, I'm talking about refrideration. 90 square feet is tiny when you're trying to outfit an entire kitchen. When you're looking for a 3-bay sink, and handwashing sink and various coolers and freezers, prep tables, shelving. It's nuts.
It would be brilliant, I suddenly thought one morning as we were driving to work before most people were even awake, if we bought a household refridgerator. The kind that has a freezer on one side, a cooler on the other and an ice maker in between. Total space saver. Maybe we hadn't had enough coffee yet, I don't know. But the idea sounded perfect. By the end of the day Rich had purchased a fridge on Craigslist and two hundred bucks and twelve hours later we were struggling to shove this great idea through the front door of our little sandwich shop. But in the excitement of enlightenment, we (and I do mean "he") forgot to measure the doorway. The perfect plan came crashing down (quite literally) until we were staring at each other, pointing sharp fingers in the air.
"This was your idea!" he says, while trying to man handle the refridgerator doors apart.
"You didn't even bring a measuring tape!" I shot back. "Who buys appliances without measuring?" He's managed to partially rip out the handles, an attempt to slim-down the refridgerator, but they stick out in the air, L-shapes that make us look as ridiculous as we feel. Twenty minutes later, with the front door to the shop resting on it's side, we manage to muscle the cooler inside. But the doors won't open, and you can't walk around it or even fit it against a side wall. We're stuck with this great idea that has become an even bigger problem. And it's in the middle of everything. In the end, we load the appliance back into our (muffler-less) truck and roar down the street. We pay the town twenty five bucks to scrap it and end up out $225... plus the ten bucks we spend on McDonalds cheeseburgers, trying to salvage a disastrous day.
And it's not until we're almost home before we start laughing out loud, belly laughs that have us holding our sides from both the cheeseburgers and the ridiculousness of our ideas.
"You'll write about this in your blog," he says as we wipe way the laughing tears.
"I will," I say. "And I'll probably blame it on you."
100 Days By the Sea is not the dream.
You see, there's always been the dream. Rich and mine, to open a cafe of sorts where we can feed hungry people wholesome food, and be together everyday. We would spend weekends wandering through quaint New England towns, peering into restaurants and sitting in cafes, crafting how we'd run our own place. We saved and planned and when we learned that we couldn't have children, this dream of ours became more potent. If we couldn't have a family, we would find a way to be together all day, everyday. Perhaps not the healthiest philosophy, but it helped us move past the grief.
100 Days By the Sea is not the dream. It's more of an adventure story, at least I hope so. After two months of meeting with Brokers and looking at empty commercial spaces, it became increasingly clear that the $20k we had saved to invest in our cafe wasn't nearly enough. Brokers stopped returning our calls. They kicked back our e-mails, politely telling us we were crazy and naive. And in the midst of all the dissapointment, I stumbled across 40 East Grand Ave. A tiny take out shack in Old Orchard Beach, just 90 square feet, but right across from the water and available all summer. The rent was reasonable and we had the money, so in the space of three weeks, we leased the building and paid a small fortune in permit fees and licenses. With the help of a kind plumber and a crash course in tiling, we managed to pass the State of Maine Health Inspection and opened for business just yesterday.
And for the next 100 days you'll find me by the Sea, at 40 East Grand Ave selling wraps, meeting interesting faces and pondering life as I stare at the ocean through the take-out window of Mainely Wraps. I hope you'll stop by, or at least follow along as I document the struggles and successes of opening a sandwich shop in
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