My essays on here have been getting less frequent and more personal. I’d guess that means that I’m just more focused on my personal life than on comics and pop culture right now. Probably for the best, as I’m getting married in eleven days — an event I’d certainly hope would be more important to me than Future’s End or the Death of Wolverine.
The following review of Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley contains spoilers for the entire book as well as for the entirety of my own life.
That’s the opening to the first proper chapter of Seconds, the second proper graphic story from Bryan Lee O’Malley, the first proper cartoonist many people of a certain age fell in love with. And if the preceding sentence seemed improbable and convoluted, it’s only because it is so freighted with meaning.
For readers of a certain age, that is.
When I first started reading O’Malley’s breakout work, Scott Pilgirm, I was in much the same place in my life as the titular character. Fresh out of school, in a cramped and highly unglamorous living situation, at best marginally employed, and dating a much younger and more innocent girl largely because it was the easiest thing to do at the moment. I was, too put it mildy, a selfish whelk woefully unprepared for the realities of adult living.
Fast forward a few (too many) years and very little has changed. I mean, I’ve got a fairly grown-up looking apartment, I make a decent living, and I’m in a stable and healthy relationsihp of equals. But I still see myself reduced to the simple clean lines of a Bryan Lee O’Malley comic.
I’ve been talking to myself more than usual.
I’m twenty-nine years old. I work in the restaurant up the road. I love the restaurant. It’s not my first one. Restaurants, like women, mark phases in your life, lessons learned.
My first one was a neighborhood star that had shone brightly for a year and since fallen on hard times. This place, let’s call it The Café, had already broken up the chef-owner’s marriage and sent one general manager running for the hills. The new manager was a hard but humorous fellow who had worked his way from dishwasher to maitre’d in the most legendary dining rooms in New York before relocating to Chicago, which he viewed as the hinterlands. We at first seemed to have little in common, but soon discovered that we were both alcoholics, and for that reason perceived each other with a grudging sort of respect. I grew closer with the crew there than at any other place I’ve since worked; I watched my coworkers get married, have their first children, move across the country, and in many ways grow into themselves. I was the youngest of the bunch but I felt in many ways like we were all growing up together. Still, after a couple of years the whole environment proved too volatile, and I walked out at the end of a particularly tense shift.
The next place, which I shall call Lé Chic, was a very elegant and very expensive lair with a prime bit of real estate just close enough to downtown to draw the big crowds but just far enough away to maintain some illusion of edginess. They had just brought on a new rising star to run the kitchen and undo the damage done by the previous chef (another alcoholic — the world is positively full of us, if you know where to look). Those ambitions were rewarded in my first year there, when the restaurant earned a Michelin star. After the turmoil of my first restaurant, Lé Chic showed me what a real, functional restaurant could be: the attention to detail, the completeness of the experience, the overwhelming emphasis on going well beyond the guest’s expectations, and more than anything, the level of complexity and technique that was actually required to make deceptively simple food at high volumes and ensure that every morsel was delicious every time. Although the sense of pride I felt in being a small part of such a place was immense, I also knew that Lé Chic was, for its owner at least, more a business than a passion, and as I saw more and more decisions being made solely in the service of profit margins (often at the expense of employees’ well-being), I had to once again move on.
After a couple years spent in the wilderness of sales and marketing for a meat, cheese, and specialty goods purveyor, I missed the fun and flexibility of restaurants and asked a chef friend about a job at his new spot, aka The Hipster. I realized when I joined up that I had gone from being a young curiosity (a well-educated waiter, probably on a pit stop on his way to some sort of real career) to an old and tired cliche (an over-educated waiter who never made much of himself in a real career, and now knows the restaurant business the way a mercenary knows the war business). Still, I loved it. Saturday nights at The Hipster were like being on stage. The best looking, coolest and richest people in town were all clamoring for a table in the city’s hottest dining room, and I was one of the beautiful people chosen to entertain them for the evening. The truth is, I never would have left, unless provided with the perfect opportunity for something even hotter, even younger.
Enter The New Place. My first time opening a restaurant. It would be the latest project from a chef and a group that had dominated the city restaurant scene for the last half-decade, and best of all, it was just up the road from my house.
Seconds focuses on a crucial period in the life of Katie, a 29-year old chef suffering through some serious ennui. Unlike O’Malley’s previous protagonist, Katie seems to have life pretty well figured out. She’s the most popular chef in town. She’s on the cusp of opening a restaurant of her very own. But for the time being, she stuck living most of her life out at Seconds, the restaurant she helped create but feels little love for anymore. All tied up with this is Katie’s fraught relationship with her ex (and ex-sous chef), and her semi-secret relationship with (you guessed it) her new sous chef. When an ill-advised hookup leads to a chain of events that ends with a young employee being seriously injured in a kitchen accidents, Katie is overwhelmed with regret.
And then things gets pretty weird.
Your early twenties are a great time to make, and learn from, mistakes. Your late twenties are a great time to make, and reflect on, regrets.
I regret changing colleges after sophomore year. I regret slacking off and never giving a thought to a job or life after school. I regret doing what my father (a chef) told me never to do and getting into the restaurant business. I regret not getting out sooner. I regret not keeping up with my friends from my old school. I regret the way I treated every woman I was ever with before the woman I’m with now. I regret not spending more time with my Granddad Bill. I regret not sticking with golf like my brother did. I regret not seeing my brother grow up. I regret downing a half dozen pain pills and five Guinnesses the day I got fired from my first job. I regret not letting rehab stick the first time. I regret not writing almost anything at all from roughly 2006 to 2011, which probably should have been my most productive period as a creator. I regret all the times I missed a social engagement because I was either passed out or too drunk to drive.
I love the New Place. It’s the greatest restaurant I’ve ever been a part of, and this time I’ve been there since the beginning. It has a concert venue upstairs that focuses on musicians native to the surrounding area, a onetime mecca of entertainment that has since fallen into obscurity. The food is incredible. The space is full of plants and light and basically looks like an oasis of joy in an otherwise dreary stretch between a strip mall and an L.A. Fitness. There’s an adorable little coffee bar in the back where I can quietly make myself an espresso and then look over a room full of happy, laughing people, and feel like I’ve actually been a part of creating what I see in front of me.
I also sort of hate the New Place. Cutting out my long commute and working in the neighborhood was supposed to give me more time at home with my fiancee, but we didn’t count on the significantly longer hours. I also have less time to write, and I’m exhausted more often than not. I think about it when I’m not there. I have stressful dreams about it. I’m afraid I’m going to regret leaving the easy money of the Hipster in favor of working a lot harder for the same pay at the New Place.
Overcome with guilt after allowing harm to come to a coworker, Katie discovers an opportunity to make things right. When she wakes the next morning, everything is okay.
She was only supposed to get one chance, but Katie uncovers a loophole that allows her to go back and fix more mistakes. Despite the warnings of the hip young House Spirit that has started haunting her, Katie embarks on a program of course corrections, going back to change increasingly important moments in her own life.
And all of this, of course, has unintended consequences.
If I had never left home early, and then if I had never changed schools, I never would have met the love of my life. If I hadn’t gotten fired from that first job I never would have found something of a calling in the restaurant world. If I hadn’t hit rock bottom, I wouldn’t have been so lucky as to start curing my addictive behavior early in life. If I had held on to the same old friends, I might never have had room for the amazing ones I have now.
Still, I obsess over tiny moments of the past, reliving in minute detail the way things did happen and the way I wish they would have happened. If I, like Katie, had the power to do-over any moment, the list of things I would change would be almost infinite.
But, given that my past mistakes indicate a life-long history of poor decision making, what would make me think that I would be able to go back and do a better job?
Who’s to say I wouldn’t just make things immeasurably worse?
And that’s precisely what happens to Katie. She doesn’t just mess up her life by trying to redo the past. She messes up the whole space time continuum.
The inner-workings of a restaurant are a frightening and mysterious thing
I focus most of my attention on the past, and the rest on the future, often with very little regard to the present moment. Lately the universe has been conspiring to remind me that that is precisely the wrong way to do it.
In the beginning of Seconds, Katie is the same state. All of her emotional energy is tied up in the past (her relationship with Max) and in the future (the all-too-distant opening of her new restaurant). Attempts to change the outcome of the latter by altering the former are met with disaster. In the end all she has to do is focus on the present, on being present. It turns out the work of changing the future is difficult. Back-breaking. It can’t be done by flicking some single switch in the past. There is after all no lever of sufficient length to lift the whole world. Progress can only be achieved in real time. By focusing totally on the present moment, and on doing the right thing in this moment.
Ha. Maybe there’s something I can take away from that.