It's Barely 9AM and temperature outside is reading 90 degrees. From my battery-operated radio every station is tuned into the weather. Where it will be hottest. Where it will be coolest. What to do. What not to do. It's all the same information we hear in January. Expect then they're talking about ice storms and blizzards. Snow, just the thought of it makes me feel like I've lived another life. It's hot, there's no doubt about it, and I slurp down bottles of diet Gatorade. The sweat runs down my eyes, but it doesn't sting. I lick it off my lip, but it tastes like water. This must mean something, but I have no idea what. The day is busy, in a slow kind of way. Customers take their time ordering and I don't rush to whip out egg sandwiches.
It must have been quarter to noon when the lights went out. Nothing dramatic- a deep sigh as the fans slow to a stop and the rattle of refridgeration cuts to silence. I've just finished making a wrap and he glances at my overhead lights (or lack therof) but says nothing as he waves and leaves. I move quickly to the power box, convinced that I've blown a fuse. Or rather, blown all of the fuses. I know that the refridgerators are working overtime in this heat, and I appreciate their hard work. And the freezer and the electric grill and the small portable frialator. Just please, don't quit on me now! I mutter out loud. Not when it's a hundred degrees out. Not when I'm counting on you most! But the switches aren't blown, or maybe they're so blown that it's not even registering on my power box. Cindy, my sweet landlord stops by and says that she's lost power and have we? Oh no! Could it be that I've singlehandedly powered off our take out stand and three entire rental properties? I'm in the midst of apologizing and planning an emergency rescue for the 12 pounds of (used to be) frozen lobster meat when we notice people spilling out of the surrounding buildings. The power is out all down the strip. It wasn't me. It turns out that I am, in fact, not the source of all energy, (despite my recent elation at several really nice reviews by people who are kinders than we deserve).
And so, for two hours we operate without electricity. The line is out to the road (which, for us, means about 5 people) as I make cold wraps and lobster rolls to order. Working with cash and rounding down prices so that everyone can pay and no one goes hungry. And people are incredible. There's no complaining (except for one annoyed man who thought it was "a little strange" that we had no power and I still had on the radio. I guess his doesn't have batteries). My customers are worried that I'm going to overheat. They wait 20 minutes in temperatures that are reading 104 in the shade for wraps that aren't even grilled off. They're cold, like the deli wraps you'd get at a supermarket. I'm embarrassed and grateful and we continue this way for a solid two hours until someone mentions to me that there's power again. There's been power for the last 30 minutes, he says. Didn'tcha know? I didn't. Because in my worry, I had turned the main power switch to off. We have a laugh as I switch it all back on while Rich pulls up with 160 pounds of ice. Ice that we no longer need for lobster. And the final customers pull away as we grab another gatorade and sit on top of the ice, trying to chill out.
There are so many Canadians in Old Orchard this week. It's a holiday up north and Canadian currency is strong against the dollar, which explains why the streets are packed with tiny Toyota hatchbacks. All of them speak French, some of them English. And it's hard for me because communication and the swapping of stories is key to our business. It's how we connect with our customers. It's my favorite part. So this week was difficult. There was more sign language than normal. Pointing and acting. Trying to explain the nature of english muffins and aioli.
Just yesterday a man pulled up in a cross-over minivan. He pointed to our special sign and said. "5." Our special happens to be a honey mustard chicken wrap, and I had just run out of chicken. And honey mustard. I shook my head, "it's going to be 30 minutes, I called out," as I searched the space for the plug to our portable fryer and pulled the frozen chicken tenders from the (bottom) of our chest freezer. "I'm out of chicken." He stared at me. Then pointed to the sign again. "Sorry," I shook my head, "it will take almost a half hour. I have to cook more and make more dressing..." I found the plug and started the fryer, pulling together the ingredients for honey mustard. Meanwhile the man who wanted the wraps gave me a long hard glare before getting in his minivan and slamming the door. He pulled away from the curb with the touch of a squeal, but I barely noticed. I was too hot and stressed about chicken and still flying off the adrenaline of a two hour rush. It wasn't until later that I realized that this customer probably only understand the shook of my head. He probably didn't understand the whole bit about running out. He might have just thought that I was refusing him service. Because he wanted five. Or because he didn't speak English. For the first time, I watched a customer leave angry and I didn't do a thing about it.
It's easy to care about most of our customers. I ask questions and we trade bits and pieces of ourselves, looking for connections and things that we recognize. We exclaim with delight when we discover the other person lived in a town next to the one we once visited during a junior high school field trip. Anything to affirm each other. To say that we are more than just a face. But without the language I am at a loss.
The annoyed would-be customer came back for breakfast today. He ordered two sandwiches, not quite looking at me. Turning his back once he'd paid, while I made them. He didn't drop his change in my tip jar. Who could blame him? I wanted to apologize but I'm not sure what for. For not understanding or not being understood? How do you apologize for being raised in a different culture? For speaking a different language? So I didn't say a thing. Instead, I made those two breakfast sandwiches to be the best he'd ever have. I apologized through eggs and garlic butter. Because food cross all lingual boundaries. It might be the only thing that does.
This week I've seen more families than ever. Reunions. From Alabama, from Massachusetts and New Hamshire. They come in groups and clump around the picnic tables while I make their breakfasts. Then three hours later I cook them lunch. I've come to learn who's on what diet. The new mom who can't have dairy. The fifty year old man who orders with his wife beside him. He tells me "no meat," which is our code for "load that burrito up with sausage, ham AND bacon." I've learned who to save the biggest blueberry muffins for and who can singlehandley drink a 12-cup pot of coffee.
Yesterday, I was rushing through half a dozen orders, trying to keep my patrons from waiting too long. Glancing up, I was surprised to find one of our picnic tables filled with people. Not one family, but three families. A couple from Massachusetts, looking refined and a bit out of place at the octogon-shaped wood table. A pair from New York, rough around the edges with their thick accents and plastic party cups. A local woman who was grabbing a bite before starting a long shift at a nearby beverage-mart. All of these strangers and they were talking. Laughing,even. Like this was their own family reunion. And it felt really good to be part of bringing people together.
This morning I watched another family say goodbye; some of them leaving some staying for another night. They kissed and hugged and well-wished for ten minutes and I wanted to join in. People who I've known for four days.
Maybe this is what it means to be in the food industry. Maybe the long hours and seven day work weeks (without pay) are the cost for this opportunity. Not to get rich quick. Not to win some sort of contest. But to watch people gather around a table. To serve them food that you believe in. And in doing so, to be part of the family. Part of a hundred different families. Every week.
Here, by the sea, we know faces, not names. I spend more time in conversation with strangers whose names I’ll never know, than with my own family whose faces I so rarely see.
There's the couple from central Idaho. They’ve been travelling East for a
week, him and her and two giant golden retrievers. They reach the coast here, in Old Orchard and the dogs swim in the salty water while the humans eat wraps and clam chowder. He’s taken a job in Portsmouth for the summer, so they up and came. We welcome them to Maine. We tell them we will be their friends. And I’m sharply reminded of our own trip across the states and the people who welcomed us. The Oregonians who gave us housing and jobs and natural foods.
There’s the couple from New Hampshire who went grocery shopping for us. They heard we needed Sherry to make Lobster Stew and so they drove off in their VW convertible with New Hampshire license plates, picked up the cooking wine and a sack of potatoes and delivered them within fifteen minutes. They wouldn’t take money. They wouldn’t even take Stew; they were on their way home. And I’m floored by this kind of active love for strangers. I wonder when I last went out of my way to help someone I barely
knew. I don’t know if I ever have.
I remember the Canadian biker who stopped by, in the rain, on a BMW
motorcycle. He pulled his wallet out of a plastic bag and we talked for twenty minutes- water streaming off his jacket and helmet. We talked about Canada and America, about travelling on a motorcycle. We talked about the nature of people. About the Dead Sea Scrolls in Ottawa and why Americans eat fried dough that’s as big as their own head. And then he drove away, packing his wrap in some sort of dry compartment and waving through the rain.
There’s the man from Massachusetts who went up and down the beach
declaring that our Lobster Rolls were the best. The motel two places down that posts our menu at their desk with a sign that reads “send people here on sunny days.” There’s the reviews online from people I barely remember, saying the kindest words.
Here, by the sea, we know faces not names. We know stories. And there’s always time for one more.
It's 7:30AM on July 4th, what will perhaps be the busiest day of the season for us. I'm sitting outside the shop. Locked out. We open at 7... at least that's what our sign says. But the keys to the front door are somewhere between here and our home in Harrison (a solid hour away), in the car that we didn't drive today... where I left them last night.
Rich tried to break in the side door. He's convinced that this latched lock is an easy break-in, but it holds and the only thing keeping us from trying to kick in the door, is the fact that there are vacationers sleeping with open windows in the hotels and motels around us. So we wait. We wait to be bailed out by my parents who are driving the second car with the keys.
Rich has been using the extra time to grill off chicken out back, but we've just run out of propane and so he takes off in search of the fuel while I wait for our early morning delivery and hope that the frozen product we've ordered is frozen solid. Because there's a good chance that it will be sitting outside with me for the next 30 minutes.
Is this an omen, I wonder to myself. A sign that we're not cut out for running this kind of shop?
No, I decide. This is just bad organization. Or no organization.
People wander by, some ask me if we have coffee. I explain that we do, but it's locked up right now. I wonder how they know this is my place. Is there panic on my face? They laugh, they tell us they will walk the beach and come back later. They say it happens to the best of us. And I'm reminded again of the type of people who we serve here. The kind who wait and encourage and laugh about the things that make me want to kick in doors.