Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Lesson at J.B. Big Boy's

Tonight at the Healdsburg sangha, Darlene shared part of a talk written by one of her students. The student compared the forms and rituals of Zen to her time working as a hostess at a McDonald's fast-food chain. The talk was funny and insightful, showing how we can find Zen lessons in almost any setting - it's life, after all.

It brought to mind one of my own experiences. When I was 21, I did an internship as a lobbyist for higher education at the Montana State Legislature. After the session ended (the Montana Legislature doesn't meet year-round like California and other more populated states), I had a couple of months to kill before going back for my final semester of college at Montana State University. I decided to stay in Helena, the state capitol, and find work.

But the only job I could find was as a hostess at J.B. Big Boy's Restaurant. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this chain, it's similar to a Denny's, only with a huge cartoonish "Big Boy" statue standing next to the sign outside.

My job was to seat patrons, serve coffee and other drinks, and act as cashier. Pretty simple. Right from the get-go, though, I had real attitude. What am I doing here? I'm so much smarter than everybody else! This is completely beneath me! Last month I was giving testimony in the Senate, and now I'm wearing a polyester wrap-around skirt and a horrid poly-blend blouse with a big bow at the neck, pouring coffee for losers who have nothing better to do than hang out at a sleazy restaurant. I wore a permanent scowl on my face. Every request from a customer was an inconvenience and an annoyance. I spent my entire shift watching the clock, praying that more than five minutes would have elapsed since the last time I looked. I was miserable, and I was certainly sharing the wealth, making everybody else miserable, too.

And then one day, I had a moment of clarity. Who knows why it came - but I realized that I could make this an awful experience, or a good one. It was entirely up to me. I softened; I greeted people at the door with a genuine smile, and refilled coffee cups with attention and care. I began to know the regulars, to care about them, to trade stories and teasing. I finally paid attention to my co-workers, learned what their lives were like, and some of them were brutally hard. They started to feel like family.

Miraculously, the clock became unfrozen. My shift went by quickly and effortlessly, because I wasn't enduring it. I was living it. I was in the here, instead of thinking about how soon I could escape.

I know that the transformation wasn't just in my mind. Just about one month later, my manager came to me, and asked for a private chat. He offered me a promotion, to head hostess. And he said, "A few weeks ago, I almost fired you, because your attitude was so bad. But this dramatic change - now I know what kind of an employee you can be."

Since then, I have had many jobs, of all kinds, with varying degrees of responsibility. Nothing, though, can compare to hearing those words from my boss, and knowing that I did have the ability to wake up, and change my life.


  1. Michelle,

    Your early days at J B Big Boy are a perfect example of how we cause our own suffering.

  2. .......... and also a perfect example of how we can turn things around!

  3. The funny thing about the human condition, is that I learned that lesson at age 21, and then I've had to learn it again about every six months or so ever since. My only consolation is that time between acute suffering and change of action/relief is getting shorter.... :)