Little Children

I was 22 when I met Shannon. We'd both been hired to wait tables at a new restaurant in downtown Charlotte, a semi-fancy place that billed itself as a Euro bistro. For me this marked a significant step up—I'd spent the past year at a high-volume brewpub down the street, where I'd struggled to achieve and then maintain a tentative table-waiting competence. 

My first impression of Shannon was that he knew things I wanted to learn. How to open a bottle of wine while carrying on a conversation and never glancing down at your hands. How to bullshit with the good old boys, and how to explain our menu's foreign dishes to new-money rednecks without coming off as patronizing. How to know when a table wanted you to chat them up and when they wanted you to be attentive but invisible, like the hired help in a British period drama. Within a few weeks of the restaurant's opening, Shannon had regulars, people who would request his section and might even wait at the bar until one of his tables opened up. Some of these people, I assumed, had followed him from his previous gigs. 

I did not have regulars. I wasn't bad at the job—I've always hated to disappoint people, so I tried very hard—but I wasn't exactly graceful. Even at the slower pace of upscale dining, I often found myself two or three steps behind and fumbling to catch up. I was, as Shannon once remarked, "sort of comically inefficient."

When I picture Shannon now, he's at the servers' station, looking bemused, while I try to cash out multiple checks, or decipher my own handwriting, or assemble a complicated hot-tea service in the middle of a lunch rush. "The main thing," he says, leaning against the counter, chewing on a toothpick, "is not to get excited."

 

*

 

Spoiler alert: at the end of this, Shannon will be dead. I mean he's dead now. The whole reason I'm writing this in the first place is that he's dead, even if by writing it I'm trying to breathe a little extra life into his lungs, reanimate him just long enough to show you what he was like, and why he meant something to me. 

 

*

 

Shannon was only a few years older than I was, but our friendship always had a bit of that older-younger sibling imbalance to it. I suspect this had less to do with age than with experience. Shannon had already spent several years in the industry—as a waiter; as a bartender; as a manager for a place that booked the sorts of jam bands you might find on the third stage at a summer festival in West Virginia. He'd come from New York, but he'd lived in Charlotte long enough to know people all over town.

I'd moved to North Carolina the year before, after graduating from a college in Virginia with a degree in English and philosophy and a plan to avoid the sort of white-collar office job most of my college friends were sliding into. I had some hazy, ill-defined notion that a job like that would crush my artistic soul. I wasn't so full of myself to ever say "artistic soul" out loud, but I thought it, and that's embarrassing enough. I'd recently begun telling people I was a writer, though in fact I did very little writing. Mostly what I did was work, and drink, and experiment with recreational drugs. I slept late, and I saw many, many sunrises, often from Shannon's house, a popular after-hours gathering spot.

Driving home, I'd hang my arm out the window and smoke a final cigarette and watch the neighborhoods waking up: people out for a morning jog, or standing on their lawn in a bathrobe, waiting for a dog to finish up its business. I regarded these people with a wholly unearned smugness. I congratulated myself on avoiding their dull fates.

I had a lot of ideas back then—about life generally, and about my life in particular—but few of these ideas had been forged through actual, lived experience. Given how little patience Shannon had for pretension, it's rather amazing he hung out with me as much as he did. Maybe he could see I was just trying to figure it all out. Maybe he found me amusing. For a while he took to calling me "professor," which was both a term of endearment and not.

 

*

 

Shannon sold so much of a particular Cabernet that the bar manager kept having to up the restaurant's order. Every night, I'd watch him carry bottle after bottle across the dining room. Finally I asked him about it. What was so great about that wine?

"Oh, I've never actually tried it," he said.

"But you're always recommending it to people."

Shannon rolled his eyes and grabbed a wine list and I knew I was about to get another lesson in a series called Things You Should Be Able to Figure Out On Your Own. 

Most people, Shannon explained, if left to their own devices, and assuming they didn't know or care very much about wine, would pick a bottle somewhere below the mid-point, price-wise. "Right around in here," he said, illustrating with an index finger. "I mean, nobody wants to seem cheap, and this is high enough up the list to look respectable." Shannon's logic was that if he tried to sell you something too expensive, you'd not only balk, you'd lose all faith in him, assume him to be a huckster simply trying to take your money. But he could convince you to go up a couple rungs from where you'd started. "What's another fifteen bucks, right?" And that's where his favored bottle sat on the list: about fifteen dollars up from what he assumed to be the average person's default position.

He had a different sales pitch if a customer seemed like a real spender—some banker with an expense account and clients to impress, or a paunchy middle-aged guy with a woman much too young for him. "I've got a whole song-and-dance about this one," he said, pointing to a $90 Meritage. "Which I have tried, and which is phenomenal. But most people, if you suggest they spend ninety bucks on wine, they're gonna think you're an asshole." 

I still couldn't believe he'd never bothered to taste the mid-range Cabernet he sold so much of. We could take home bottles for cost. "You're not even curious?" I said.

Shannon shrugged. "I assume it's ok," he said. "No one's ever complained or anything."

 

*

 

At 22, there was something a little glamorous about working in a restaurant. I know most people work service-industry jobs for pragmatic reasons—because it's the job they're qualified for and know how to do; because it pays a lot better than other jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree or technical training; because it gives them the flexibility to schedule their lives around their other, more meaningful pursuits. But for me, part of the attraction was the place itself, and the sense that each night you were putting on a show. One manager used to call it "playing restaurant," as in "let's all go out there tonight and do a good job at playing restaurant."

I liked the energy of a busy dining room, and I liked the improvisational nature of the work, how each night presented its own slightly different set of challenges. I liked the calm-before-the-storm feeling at the beginning of a shift, polishing silverware and tasting the specials and knowing that in thirty or forty minutes the entire place would be buzzing with activity. And I liked the calm-after-the-storm feeling at the end of a shift, having a few drinks and swapping stories and laughing about how crazy everything had gotten, how close you'd all come to letting the wheels fall right off the bus.

Part of the attraction for me was the restaurant itself, but it was also about everything that took place outside of the restaurant, hanging around with all those restaurant people. I'm not sure how to describe that world, or even my sense of it at the time, except as a kind of access. You always knew someone, or at the very least you knew someone who knew someone: The bartender. The guy working the door. The DJ, or a couple members of the band. You didn't stand in lines. You didn't put your name on a list and wait around with a buzzer in your hand. Tables opened up when you needed them. Drinks appeared, often without your having to order them. When the check came—if a check ever came—you left an obscene tip because you'd gotten so much for free.

The people who paid full price for drinks were suckers. Weekend warriors. Maybe everyone just needs to feel superior to someone, and so we spent our time feeling superior to the young bankers and lawyers who tried to impress their dates by ordering expensive dishes they didn't know how to pronounce. The amateur drunks who got dolled up on Saturday night so they could stand five-deep at a crowded bar, waving dollar bills around and trying to get the bartender's attention.

Our job, Shannon told me once, was to separate all those annoying people from their money, so we could go out and enjoy ourselves with our friends on the nights when they stayed home.

 

*

 

If you work in a restaurant long enough, you start to know people all over town, because restaurant people are notorious job-hoppers. But sometimes it felt as if Shannon knew everybody. There was always someone who owed him a favor—because he'd helped them get a job, or introduced them to a girlfriend or boyfriend, or stood them a few drinks on a night when they were out of cash. 

I remember driving Shannon to his house one night, late, after last call. "Shit, I don't have any beer," he said. "If people are coming over, we've got to get beer."

"Nothing's open," I said.

"Something's always open," he said. "Just let me think for a sec."

Eventually he named a bar, several blocks away. It was dark when I pulled into the lot, though there were a couple other cars. I smoked a cigarette and watched Shannon go up to the door, knock, and then disappear inside. Maybe fifteen minutes later, he emerged carrying two twelve-packs under one arm. In his other hand he had a rocks glass precariously full of bourbon.

"I had to promise to bring the glass back tomorrow," he said. "Don't let me forget, ok?"

 

*

 

There was always a lot of drinking. There were always drugs if you wanted them. If you worked a double, in between shifts you went to the "library." There was the Irish library, and the Cajun library, and the soul-food library, where you could get cheap chicken and dumplings and a can of PBR. If you ever needed a little pick-me-up during a shift, one of the bartenders would give you an "energy pill," which was one of those GNC supplements that later got banned for containing ephedrine. At the end of a busy night, my friend who worked at the host stand would give me a Xanax if I asked nicely enough.

On Monday nights we went to the Double Door, where the house band played covers of R&B and soul-music hits, and on other nights we tried to catch a few drinks wherever we could, after work, before the city shut down for the night. We bought bottles of wine from the bar and pot from whoever had the best pot and we drove to Shannon's house, because Shannon had an actual house, rather than an apartment, and we could drink late and listen to music and get loud and no one would complain. On Sundays we sometimes went to "church," which meant one of several restaurants where we could eat barbecue or seafood and drink bloody marys until it was time to start drinking beers. Sunday nights were for the gay club on the edge of town, which had a drag show and then a DJ and where for the sake of convenience they should've just rolled the price of ecstasy into the cover charge.

Even back then, I could see that Shannon was often outpacing the rest of us, but only by degree. Everyone drank. Everyone took drugs. Whenever I see those cheesy self-help columns about "saying yes to life," I chuckle a little, remembering that brief period in my life when the word "no" had mostly fallen out of my vocabulary.

Though I did say no occasionally. When one of my coworkers offered to sell me crack. When another coworker asked if I wanted to come home with her and her husband and film a video. When a stranger at a club asked if I wanted to buy meth, and when that same stranger, maybe thirty minutes later, asked if I wanted to pay twenty bucks to watch his girlfriend pee. 

I also managed to avoid cocaine. I think I still saw it as a "bad" drug, probably because of the central role it played in the Just Say No messaging of my late-80s youth. I was in fourth grade when Len Bias died. Later, in middle and high school, we'd have annual scared-straight assemblies in the gym, and someone would always close out the show with the same party trick, inserting a length of string into one nostril and then pulling it out the other. 

Plus, Shannon told me I was better off without it. "It's a hassle," he said. "You wind up wanting more, so you're chasing it around all night. And then God forbid you want to sleep. God forbid you want to have sex."

Shannon told me all this in his living room. I was sitting on his couch and watching him cut lines on the coffee table.

"Besides, you talk enough as it is," he said. "On coke? I think you'd annoy the living shit out of me."

 

*

 

Looking back, you can't help but wonder what role you played—however small—in normalizing someone's addictive behaviors. Joking about them. Aiding and abetting them. You wonder this especially if you're someone who has occasionally struggled with your own.

I remember a restaurant crew party where I watched Shannon, over the course of an afternoon, drink an entire fifth of Jack Daniels. The remarkable thing was that he didn't even seem that drunk. He was irritated that his girlfriend wouldn't let him drive us all home.

"God, we all partied so much back then," a mutual friend recently said. "I guess some people just have a harder time getting out of that life than others."

It feels strange to write about this part of Shannon's life: the after-me part. A few years ago we reconnected briefly, via Facebook, but it was only small talk. Shannon was a face-to-face guy, and I hadn't seen him face-to-face in nearly fifteen years. So I can't pretend to know his life, only a very small sliver of it. From the same friend who told me he died, I found out that in recent years he'd been in and out of rehab. He had a son. He moved north of the city, up by the lake. He struggled with depression. He stumbled, and he picked himself up, and he stumbled again. A couple weeks ago, for reasons it's not my place to even speculate about, he killed himself. 

 

*

 

I wonder if Shannon would be surprised to learn how often I've thought about him over the years. In memory he's become a larger-than-life character, though in real life, too, he was a big personality. At 22 I was attracted to big personalities, in part because I'd yet to figure out what my own personality should look like. 

Shannon was loud, and funny. He could be an asshole—I doubt he'd dispute that assessment. At work, he could hide his disdain for customers who got on his nerves, but he was less diplomatic with his coworkers. If he thought you were slow, or stupid, or otherwise lousy at your job, he'd let you know it. If you were in his way, you were standing in between him and his money. He snapped at me a few times. Usually I deserved it. He'd always apologize later, though I came to understand he didn't apologize to everyone. The two of us would have a few drinks. Everything would get smoothed over. "The heat of battle," he'd say. "You know how it goes."

When he drank, he tended less toward anger than sentimentality, at least in my experience. I saw him get teary on several occasions. Mostly what he wanted was for everyone to have a good time, and he wanted to be at the center of that good time. He was one of those people who exerts a gravitational force, and it was one that pulled a lot of us into its orbit.

In the last few days, I've seen pictures from that time, thanks to Facebook, and I've had the same reaction we all have when confronted with documentary evidence of our past: God, everybody looks so young! And the clothes: I'd forgotten there was a time when I owned several shiny shirts, and regularly wore a beaded necklace. We all thought we were so cool. We all thought we were adults—so worldly! so sophisticated!—but looking at those pictures now, what strikes me is that we were all just little children, half-formed and delicate, flailing and flailing and flailing. 

 

*

 

Shannon's story isn't really mine to tell. In the grand scheme of things I was only a tourist in his world. Which is why this has turned out to be less his story than a brief chapter in my own. I suppose it's a reminder of how many lives each of us lead, all the little ecosystems we step into and out of, especially those of us who move around a lot, who are nomadic either by choice or by circumstance. It's a reminder that those lives continue in our absence, even if in memory they're frozen permanently in amber.

In memory, Shannon is frozen in amber, back there at the breaking of a new millennium: a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, a surly face for the camera, as if he's annoyed to have this moment documented, though anyone who knew him would see the affection in that look, the jokey put-on of it: not real grumpiness so much as a comedic performance of grumpiness.

You were a good guy, Shannon. You taught me some things, and you made me laugh like all hell. I loved you, and I know you loved me, too, because we said those words to each other on more than one occasion, and I suppose that's something else to be glad for: that we were the kind of guys who could say those words out loud, even if we had to warm ourselves with a few drinks first, even if we had to puff up our voices a little.

It's weird to say that I'll miss you, because I already missed you. I'll have to let go of the vague, half-formed notion I'd been carrying around all these years that we'd see each other again eventually, that we'd share a meal and a few laughs and catch up on each others' lives for real. But that loss is only the loss of an abstraction, a hypothetical. It shouldn't even count, really, not when it's placed on the shelf next to all the very real losses: the people who still saw you every day, or every few weeks, or every few months.

I suspect some of our mutual friends from those days might be reading this. If so: hello, old friends! It's been too goddamn long. I think about all of you more than you might imagine. Those couple years of my life, they were a struggle in plenty of ways—I had so much to figure out, not least of which was myself—but those years were magical, too.

A couple nights ago, after I'd exhausted the pictures on Facebook, I went down to the basement to retrieve an old photo album. It's funny to me now, to think that amidst all the craziness of that life I managed to take pictures, and to save them in an album, like some sort of dorky class historian. But there they were, and there I was being glad for their existence. In those pictures we're at shows together. We're at work. We're playing boozy rounds of golf. We're having cookouts and pool parties and house parties. We're drinking and smoking and throwing our arms around each other and posing for the camera. We all look so young.

 

**