February 06, 2008

What I did for love...er, research Posted by Lorraine (L.L.) Bartlett Saturday I arrived at the Craft Antique Co-Op and Grammy G's cafe to do some down-and-dirty research. See, in my next book one of my characters wants to open a lunchtime cafe. My friend Gail owns Grammy G's--a lunchtime cafe. So on Saturday I turned up to "observe" what goes on in such an establishment. I arrived with big round eyes and ready to take on EVERYTHING. I was going to learn about the business BIG TIME. I was willing to pull up my sleeves and wash dishes and bus tables and do anything she needed. Only...it didn't happen quite like I thought. Gail was willing to answer every question I had, but ... I found I didn't have as many questions as I thought. I kept thinking: Say something. Ask something. CAN'T YOU BE MORE PROFOUND? Nope. I felt stupid and, worse, in everyone's way. Gail's Saturday helper was Susan. Man, that woman worked her buns off. But she made it all seem effortless. I was standing right next to her and never saw her make coffee. She showed me how to run Gail's peculiar register, but it went in my eyes and fell out my ears. Gail and Susan smoke. A couple of times they left me (the STOOOOOPID one) alone behind the counter when they went to burn a quick one. (And man, they were QUICK ciggies.) A woman and a little boy came in and wanted a hot dog each. I panicked. "GAIL!!!! COME QUICK! HOT DOGS NEEDED!!!" You see, there are laws that forbid someone like me (not licensed) to do even that easy task in her kitchen. As it happens, Susan used to be the personal assistant (for 22 years) to a VERY BIG, MAJOR, VERY-HUGE, NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING AUTHOR. Standing in her presence I was dumbfounded and felt extremely insignificant. What could I ask her? I told her about my terribly small (in comparison) problems as a mid-list (and really, so far marginally published) author. She nodded sagely. She told me that Ms. BIG, BEST-SELLING NY TIMES BEST-SELLING (million-dollar) AUTHOR would pray for BAD (really rotten) Publisher's Weekly reviews. The worse the review, the better her books sold. Go figure? But Susan's life in New York is now over, and here in the boondocks of Rochester, NY, she's more interested in selling milk-glass dinner plates in her booth at the co-op. But man, I felt like taking her a bottle of Beefeater gin and making her a few really good martinis (her drink of choice) and PUMPING her for information. But, as usual, I digress. After all, I was there to learn about managing a small cafe, right? Instead, my friend (and fellow booth-owner) Jane and I shot the sh*t for more than 1.5 hours. Her daughter is a character in my next (and the one after that, and even MORE SO in the book after that) novel. (I made her a character because at 16 she said, "I WANT TO BE IN YOUR BOOK!!!!" and since she's a teenager who actually READS for pleasure, I said, "sure!") When Jane had to go back to work, I bussed a few tables, made notes about the stuff in the kitchen, and tried not to get in everyone's way. The truth is as a small businessperson, the State and Federal government really f*ck you. Yes. The BIG NASTY F word. (I already knew this because my husband is a small businessperson and that's what happens in this, the land of plenty.) But in food service, the F-ing becomes even more profound. If you patronize any small business and bitch about the cost--you should thank your lucky stars that these dedicated people are out there to serve you. Because if you aren't Halliburton, you are being majorly screwed by our government. Local. State. Federal. Sorry, but the truth does HURT. Why does Gail continue to do this? Because she loves to cook. She loves people. As chief cook and bottle washer, she often doesn't get to spend much time with her customers. I did. They're funny. They're thankful. They're nice. I'm not sure how I will work all this into my story, but one thing I know is true...I will henceforth give a lot more credit to the small business owner--who is, after all, the backbone of our free enterprise system. Did you know that anyone with a tummy ache will sue for at LEAST a million dollars these days? That costs a lot in insurance. (Do I even want to think what doctors pay in malpractice insurance?) Did you know that you MUST have a triple sink and that there must be a break in the plumbing for sink #3 (the veggies washing sink) in case the plumbing fails/backs up so that contamination doesn't happen? That a restaurant owner has to PAY for licenses for EVERYONE who works in her kitchen? (At least on the local, if not state and federal level?) I learned lots of other weird/silly things. But most of all I learned that I will never, ever bitch about the cost of a BLT or a bowl of soup in a mom-and-pop establishment again. These folks exist by the skin of their teeth. And they do it for the love of doing it. Kind of like why I write, because god knows it sure ain't for the money.
"911. What is your emergency?" posted by Jeanne Munn Bracken Reading Kate's blog about riding around on police patrols, I have been struck by the difference between a small city like Portland and a much smaller town like Littleton. Every state probably has a Littleton, but if you're keeping track, I'm talking Massachusetts here. We have a weekly newspaper called the Littleton Independent. I've written stuff for that paper for ...yikes! ... almost 30 years. Some things change: The editorial page gets moved around, the op ed page gets moved around (and is not always "opposite" the "editorial" page, either; go figure), The news stories sometimes jump to the second section (a journalistic no-no, I understand, assuming several family members are actually reading the newspaper at the same time). The editors change so often that I could field two baseball teams with the folks I've written for over these three decades--and that includes bench-sitters and somebody in the bull pen. The paper was owned by a local man 30 years ago; since then it's been sold to various conglomerates including the New York Times and the Fidelity investment folks. None of which did me a whit of good when submitting freelance articles. On the other hand, some things never change: The second section always leads with sports, from high school to whatever pee wee league is in season, with lots of pictures. The ads take up a lot more room than the news stories. And one you can bet on: The Police and Fire Logs are always at the top of page two. Some newspapers actually make their Police and Fire logs boring. "Police responded to a citizen call on Main St." "Police made 24 traffic stops." I mean, yawn! The Littleton Independent, on the other hand, often has really interesting fare. Some of my favorites, in no particular order: A mother called 911 because her son refused to get out of the water at the town beach. A father called 911 one morning because his teenaged daughter had had a telephone call the previous night at 10 pm. The older lady who called 911 because she was sure there were burglars in her attic. (Disclaimer: this was not in Littleton.) The consensus of the responding officers was that the lady actually had "bats in her belfry" and they weren't talking about flying mammals, either. And the winner is: The three-year-old who dialed 911 because her father told her to clean her room. As is often the case, the punch line was "peace was restored." Of course there are real emergencies in any town. Within a block of our house we've had many automobile accidents as well as a murder and a small plane crash with loss of life. Our family has had more than our share of medical crises, so we actually revere these men and women who have literally saved our lives. Still, we can be part of the problem, too. A few weeks ago the police came to the door to make sure all was well. They insisted that someone had dialed 911 from our house, then hung up. Because the line was busy, they sent an officer to check. We were baffled but safe. A few weeks later I figured it out. The used phone I'd bought for a dollar from a church sale had a safety feature: just pressing the little on-off button a couple of times sends a 911 call. I forgot to look, but I'm guessing it was reported as a "well-being check on Goldsmith St."

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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