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A little background: I love the holidays. Some of my best childhood memories revolve around the period between Halloween and New Year’s. I grew up in Chicago, and every Christmas, my family would go to my grandmother’s brick two-flat on the south side. She always put up a small artificial tree on an end table between two lazy boy chairs. One of the chairs had belonged to my grandfather, who died when I was two or three. Blue lights and a few hand-made ornaments sparkled on the branches. One year, my oldest sister couldn’t resist peeking at the presents that were stacked underneath the tree and around the end table. She had been wanting Michael Jackson’s Bad album, and one of her presents was shaped suspiciously like a 33. I remember feeling probably as excited as she did, eagerly anticipating the moment when she could finally unwrap it all the way and make things official. The thing about growing up poor is that the holidays are the one time of year when it’s ok to fantasize about material riches. It’s ok because you’re not asking your parents to provide you with the impractical; you’re asking Santa Claus.
So the urge to spend a lot on presents and decorations is normal for me. What was not normal this past year was that my husband and I were in the throes of some major austerity measures. Presents and decorations were simply not an option. Deodorant barely made the list. The one luxury we decided to splurge on was a couple of plane tickets home to see our families since we live so far away from them.
By day, my coworkers planned holiday cocktail parties and implored me to make an appearance.
“You never come out anymore!” One of my officemates lamented. “What do you do after work anyway?”
“I know, sorry, I’ve just been busy. I’ve been doing some projects on the side and they’re taking up all my time. I promise I’ll finagle a way to make it to all the parties.”
I wished I could have told them about my pizza job, but I knew they wouldn’t understand. Some of the women I hang out with at work often talk about making purchases on credit cards and “creative” home financing. I knew they wouldn’t get it if I tried to explain the logic of schlepping pizza around town to pay off my student loans. But the truth is, I missed them terribly. Before taking the pizza job, we would often go out for drinks after work and make fun of our bosses, each other, and the men in our lives. I missed blowing off steam with them.
Of course, working with Reed (Papa John's arch nemesis) put things in perspective. He tried to cheer me up by inviting me out for drinks with all of the drivers after closing one night.
“It’s salsa night next door. There’s gonna be a DJ. Everyone’s gonna get fucked up.”
“Next driver!” one of the cooks yelled from the kitchen.
“Mmm, sounds tempting, but I’ve got the husband at home,” I laughed.
“Oh yeah.” Reed gave me a sympathetic look, unaware that I was mentally shooting him one in return.
That holiday season was not the stuff of Hallmark cards. My mother died a couple days before Thanksgiving and her death only magnified the emotional rift that lies between me and my family. I found out about her death via text message, if that gives you any indication. I don’t think it’s because there is no love in my family. I think there’s just too much hurt, and it outweighs everything else. So during November and December of 2011, I had a lot of time to reflect on holidays past while I drove around delivering post-shopping mall dinners to countless (seemingly happier) families.
The memories warmed me, as well as the tips.
I encountered one particularly generous customer that season. Her house was outside of our delivery area, but it was well past the dinner rush and the cashier agreed to take the order. She lived in a gated mansion in the hills, outside of which stood a grandiose fountain and more than one luxury automobile.
She appeared to be about forty years old and wore a red cocktail dress. I guessed she had ordered dinner for her children since she seemed to be on her way to a holiday party. She was fidgeting a long time with the credit card slip, so I tried to make conversation.
“Got all your holiday shopping done?” I asked.
She looked at me, looked over her shoulder to the extravagant living room with vaulted ceilings and what appeared to be an expensive entertainment system that housed about every gaming console one could acquire, then looked back at me. “I haven’t done a lot of shopping. They’re pretty spoiled as it is,” she laughed.
“Yeah, I suppose so,”I replied knowingly. “They look pretty lucky.”
When I got back to my car, I looked at the credit card slip. Twelve dollars for a tip. Not bad.
I thought about luck while I drove the seven miles back to the pizzeria. I wondered if the kids who lived in that mansion ever had a Christmas like the ones my sisters and I had. Sure, they had every toy a kid could ever wish for. But did they know what it felt like to watch their brother or sister gleefully on Christmas morning, hoping upon hope that just the right present awaited him or her inside the wrapping paper?
Delivering pizza to help pay off debt also made me think about where I ultimately want to go in my life. I thought about that fact that when I took out student loans, I’d agreed to sell my future to satisfy some present impulse. I’ll never do that again. All the late nights driving around town and smelling like marinara sauce were the proverbial chickens coming home to roost.
By New Year’s Eve, I felt like I’d learned my lesson about debt. Trouble was, I still had thousands left to pay off. That’s the thing about the universe. It is just, not punitive. And if I remember one thing from law school, it’s that justice means to make whole again. A few months of menial labor felt like punishment, but I had a long way to go before making things right again. I accepted this fact. I also began to realize that since my husband and I had a long road ahead of us, we needed to enjoy all of it, even the somewhat unpleasant parts like getting out of debt.
So when I came home from delivering pizzas at about ten o’clock on New Year’s Eve (we closed early since NYE is not a big pizza night, apparently), I ran into the bedroom to throw on a dress, any dress, I could find and slap on some makeup so my husband and I could go out.
“Where are we going?” He yelled from the living room.
“You know that party my co-worker is throwing? I told you about it.” I inspected a sparkly black dress that I’d worn to a holiday party a couple years before. It would have to do.
“Yeah, but I thought you wanted to stay in tonight. Aren’t you tired?”
“No, not really.” I was pretty ripe. A quick shower was definitely in order.
My husband came into the bedroom then and looked at me standing there, pantsless, in my black polo shirt with the pizzeria logo on it.
“Where is all this energy coming from?” He asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I just want to enjoy myself tonight.”
I turned out to be a bit overdressed for the New Year’s party. While most of the people wore jeans and sweaters, with a few skirts mixed in, I stood out in my short, black, sparkly dress. I made my way to the kitchen to get a drink when my co-worker ran up to me excitedly and marveled at my outfit.
“Oh my God, I love your dress! That’s so cool that you decided to really dress up.”
“Oh yeah, I don’t know. I like to do that once in a while, I guess.” I finished pouring myself some wine and self-consciously tugged at my dress. If only it were a little less…beaded.
“No, I love when people dress up for parties. It’s great to see people look like they’re actually trying.” She laughed and clinked glasses with me.
I kept her words with me during the rest of my moonlighting phase. On nights when I felt exhausted and just wanted to throw in the towel, I would say it over and over again to myself, hoping somehow the universe could hear me.
I am trying.