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Last night at a lot of places

Posted Aug 15 2010 12:00am
I read a book recently, called "Last Night at the Lobster" by Stewart O'Nan , that made me think of all the boarded-up stores I'm seeing in all these downtowns I come across.

I can't help but think, as I look at the stores that sit next to the ones that are gone: Who's going to be the next one to go? Who's the next to get a big hunk of plywood slammed onto their storefront window, leaving no trace of life behind?

I think of what was behind those pieces of plywood. They were stores that sold anything from sandwiches to running shoes. I think of the people who worked their butts off to get people to buy shoes that nobody could afford. I think of how hard they worked to get people to pay $100 for sneakers, even if they were out of their mind to do so.

I think of the ice cream places on the way to the beach that left their buildings empty, except for the freezers that still sit there, unplugged from the walls. I think of how busy they once were, and how the workers will still scurrying around on Sunday nights in the summer, pushing buttons on machines and struggling to pull out of a four-inch scoop of cookie dough ice cream from a bucket below.

I think of their last nights, or days, and what they did, and how they could get through the last hours, the last minutes and the last seconds of watching a dream die. I think of how there was life behind the plywood, and how we shared in those lives, and how unfair it is that we never really get to know how it all ends.

With O'Nan's novel, at least, I get some idea. I get the idea of the social strata that exists behind every wall of every store, and how a bad economy not only destroys dreams but also ends a culture.

There's a social dynamic behind these walls that gives people something to live for, and something to hope for. Even more so, it gives them something to relieve the boredom of a hum-drum life, whether it's a life of high expectations or dead-end limitations.

I think of the book, and its main character, Manny, the manager at a Red Lobster in Connecticut who got high before he walked into the restaurant every day. I think of that last day, just as he was preparing to say goodbye to people who not only worked with him, but loved him.

I think of Ty the cook, who worked at a fast pace and always criticized another guy named Fredo, who had a habit and spilling things or has difficulty with many other tasks. Would Fredo ever get a job again? We can only hope, but not expect.

Manny, like Fredo, had a lot more troubles than just business. He had a girlfriend Dena and children, but much of the book is about his past love, a love he couldn't get over.

He couldn't get over his former affair with one waitress, Jacquie. He was surprised when she showed up for work on this particular day, since many others blew it off, knowing it was the last day.

But Jacquie came because she said she would, just after her husband dropped her off. Even on a day of endings, they knew there was something between them that would never go away.

On this last day, just as many things went right as they went wrong.

Though snow was falling, no snow plow came for hours. Manny and the staff scrambled to get things set up. Manny cleared the sidewalk and reminisced. But, mostly, he was working to head off disputes among staff.

Manny's former wrestling coach came in and, despite getting stuck in the parking lot on the way out, left a big tip.

A big farewell party - a party of 14 - came in and took up four tables. The staff struggled to handle it, and Manny tried to do what he can to alleviate the strain on the staff.

But it was still a struggle - especially when one of the customers found plastic wrap in his food.

A woman with a toddler who was behaving badly got snotty with the waitresses, while Nicolette, another waitress, did battle with a group of elderly women.

The elderly people complained that they can't use coupons - even though they stole all the sugar packets. They left a one-penny tip, and Nicolette threw a fit.

Manny finally got fed up and stormed out to the mall. Before he left, however, he gave everybody their paycheck, just in case they walked out to.

When he returned about an hour later, Manny saw the parking lot was partially plowed. Some employees he left, but he still had a staff, a cook, a couple waitresses. Just as life was ready to end, he got a short reprieve.

Manny also didn't care. He got ready for dinner, even though the snow is much worse. Nobody came in for dinner. A bus came by with people who just wanted to use the bathroom. Manny and the remaining staff played lottery tickets that Manny bought for Eddie. Nobody came close to winning.

Around 8 p.m., Manny decided to just shut it down. He cleaned everything, and threw everything away. He then dealt with phone messages from his preganant wife.

But even then, he couldn't get the intimate images out of his head with Jacquie.

In the end, it was just the two of them. They had avoided each other all day, almost. But they were the hardest workers there, so they were the ones who saw everything through.

In the end, they embraced. They said this is the best, though they definitely wished things were different.

If only their wish could be their command.
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