The Saturday Read – ‘Sweetbitter’ by Stephanie Danler

Who will you become? That’s the question we should ask when we consider a new job, but often the promise of a new opportunity obscures the answer until we find ourselves caught in the rip tide of the unconsidered.

The Saturday Read this week is ‘Sweetbitter’, a novel by Stephanie Danler perfectly captures what it’s like to be 22, taking your first job in New York City.

“Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. with the sun circulating and dawning, the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open.”

There it is. That moment when we shed one identity and begin to sculpt the new. This is the magic of the author’s prose; transforming the familiar.

Set to debut as a six-part STARZ series on May 6, I encourage you to snag a copy and read this book while imagination is still your own and small screen images can’t get in the way of literary transport.

“…nobody remembers what it feels like to be so recklessly absorbent.
When you can’t see in front of you life is nothing but surprises. Looking back, there were truly so few of them.”

I’m not sure why we rely on non-fiction to inform our knowledge of life@work. Best seller lists are full of management philosophy exuding from ivy covered walls and concrete corporate towers. But it’s the fiction writers who add a touch of imagination and humanity to the workplace, who are the true management gurus.

“I don’t know what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.”

‘Sweetbitter’ is a book about work and the communities we build around us to manage the connection between self and the enormity of place, in this case, New York City. It’s about expectations colliding with reality in a spot where following your dream invites on-going comparison to an alternate career path.

“We called them the Nine-to-Fivers. They lived in accordance with nature, waking and sleeping with the cycle of the sun. Mealtimes, business hours, the world conformed to their schedule. They were dining, shopping, consuming, unwinding, expanding while we were working, diminishing, being absorbed into their scenery.”

On the last night of her paperback book tour last June, the author read from the novel and shared her own career narrative with a group of readers at independent bookstore, Pages in Manhattan Beach, California.

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She alluded to similarities with her main character, Tess, and her early career working as a waitress in Seal Beach and later in NY at the Union Square Cafe. “At age 22 you are in the stream of experience, nothing is premeditated; autonomy without consequences. After six months at the Union Square Cafe I was no longer a writer.”

She pursued a successful path in the restaurant industry until she was confronted with “a hinge moment – the crushing feeling in your chest” when you realize your current commitment @work is delaying your dream job.

She applied to graduate school, went back to serving tables, took notes and spent 12 hours on Tuesdays creating a manuscript – ‘Sweetbitter’.

“That is the story of how I stopped waiting tables.”

One more thing, Stephanie Danler is obsessive about poetry. And that’s the strongest argument to read the novel before viewing the series. The book is beautifully written, in one instance transforming the cacophony of random dinner conversation into a poem.

If you’ve ever been a server, this book may stir a memory or two. A restaurant is where many of us started out, absorbing and ignoring life lessons on the fly. It was our workplace and Ms. Danler was one of us.

 

 

 

 

‘Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West’ a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

In August poet, author, activist, playwright and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti released ‘Writing Across the Landscape’, a record of five decades of travel drawn from his journals. This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West’ from a 1994 collection and considers life after work.

“Ferlinghetti felt strongly that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals. His career has been marked by its constant challenge of the status quo; his poetry engages readers, defies popular political movements, and reflects the influence of American idiom and modern jazz.”

In a 1993 interview with William H. Honan, Mr. Ferlinghetti shared his observations on the evolution of the American poet.

“Today’s young poets, he continued, tend to come from working-class families and are not college graduates. That’s a change from the Beat poets, many of whom met at Columbia University in the 1950’s, and from Mr. Ferlinghetti, who earned a Ph.D. in modern poetry at the Sorbonne.

“It doesn’t require a great intellect to write poetry,” he said. “Great sensory perception is more important. Also, bright young people today are just as interested in film and video. I would be, too, if I were starting out. The single, unaccompanied voice can’t compete with those images.” ‘Bohemian,’ Not ‘Beat’.”

Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West

Retired ballerinas on winter afternoons

   walking their dogs

   in Central Park West

   (or their cats on leashes—

   the cats themselves old highwire artists)

The ballerinas

   leap and pirouette

   through Columbus Circle

   while winos on park benches

   (laid back like drunken Goudonovs)

   hear the taxis trumpet together

   horsemen of the apocalypse

   in the dusk of the gods

It is the final witching hour

   when swains are full of swan songs

   And all return through the dark dusk

   to their bright cells

   in glass highrises

   or sit down to oval cigarettes and cakes

   in the Russian Tea Room

   or climb four flight to back rooms

   in Westside brownstones

   where faded playbill photos

   fall peeling from their frames

   like last year’s autumn leaves

Lawrence Ferlinghetti   ‘These Are My Rivers’ 1994