How could I not be admitted to Harvard's freshman class? Surely I was the only applicant wearing a 1980's Bruce Springsteen t-shirt and bellbottoms scrawled over with Chinese characters. (FYI, that's the ivy league's most troubling quota category to fill each year. I was a shoe-in.)Luckily the interview was on campus, heightening my wardrobe's potency when contrasted with the staff's smart collegiate attire. Because on my first round of college applications I was denied acceptance to my top choices, I moved to Cambridge to work for a year, experience a new city, and re-apply to a new batch of colleges for the next fall. I found an amazing job as a writer and event coordinator for a non-profit in Boston, and also landed a room in an old Harvard Square mansion. In fact, the law school was close enough for me to smell brains growing.
As I strutted into the admission counselor's cozy office, my goal was to shake up centuries of perceived stuffiness. So as she motioned me to sit and cheerily asked, “So why do you want to attend Harvard University?” I leaned forward and turned the tables: “So why do you want me to attend Harvard University?” I'm not sure if I was genuinely interested in how their species of ivy differed from the others ... or if I was just being a total jerk. She was working a simple form, nodding, smiling.
“What major would you declare?”
“Creative Writing,” I declared.
“We don't offer creative writing as a major.”
Uh-oh ... act like you knew that ... regain the upper hand ...
“Well, English. But I ultimately want to use it for creative writing.”
“Oh, that's interesting. What do you want to write?”
“Lots of stuff. Maybe a carnival folk tell-all.”
She looked at her watch, thanked me for coming, and wished me luck. Maybe it was something I said? Maybe it was my pants. At any rate, I was rejected from Harvard University and its non-existent creative writing program.
Ironically, later that year I would walk those hallowed grounds in a black bow-tie, clearing plates from students, alumni, and variegated dignitaries, as an event caterer. I can't believe I even got admitted to that role. The job was easy because I was terrible at it and didn't do much. The catering staff despised my persistently sunny attitude in the face of my utter ineptitude. Nonetheless Harvard's event liaison kept requesting my sunshine and oral communication skills. So while the rest of the bow-tied penguins were covered in gristle and sweat, I was chatting it up with honoraries. I can understand their resentment.
I'll never forget my big moment, the moment by which I would rise or fall as a seasonal catering temp. It was an intimate dinner in a faculty member's campus quarters requiring only three catering staff. That meant nowhere to hide, no one on whom to slough the heavy lifting. We were positioned like statues, stationed around the perimeter of the room, watching for forks to be dropped. Then, as the host rose to toast, the 6th bearded Emeritus was found without wine.
Thick silence hung over the room, the host's eyes met mine, and I staggered to action. All eyes narrowed their beams as I dramatically draped the towel over my arm, poured delicately into the ballooned glass, and tipped the bottle up with a twist. The room exhaled, turning to the host with glasses raised. I almost burst out laughing at my performance, held in check only by my need for grocery money.
Wow, that year in Boston was something. I got fired from my non-profit job for refusing to lie under oath, which forced me to a cashier post in a burger cottage. My duties included the following: retrieving freezer-burned crab cakes for the line cook, pretending to verify the receipt totals, and encouraging the parsley not to wilt. Against my morals, I stocked mini candy bars, which were not labeled for individual resale. And once I drew a sign with markers advertising fresh-squeezed lemonade. The owner's father, old Mr. Bartley, the founder of the famous burger establishment, complimented me on my rendering of the lemon. It was just the validation I needed to keep me going.
Ambitiously I tried to improve my lot as a waitress, only to leave during my first shift. What happened? Well, the irascible grill-master chewed me out, in front of the entire restaurant, for incorrectly ordering a chicken.
I watched his sweat tremble and arteries constrict, then, channeling Aretha, I snapped, “You will NOT disrespect me like this.” I chucked my order booklet over the counter and walked out. In my recreated memory the dining room bursts into wild applause as the door bells jangle my exit. Not even discounted veggie burgers were worth that degradation.
That's when I reached out to the catering community for employment. The bow-tie was a black ring, not of shame, but of dignity, so far as I was concerned. I had earned it by refusing to lie under oath and be treated like gristle. So what that I had to wear a ridiculous-looking uniform all over the city asking, “Cheddar & Chive Cream Puff?” So what that I still don't know which fork goes on the outside or how to fold napkins to look like a peacock. It was just a couple months to endure under the Boston sun before I was off to USC in the fall. So I took it as a social experiment, writing fodder, and adventure.
And that it was.