Through the Back Door | Teen Ink

Through the Back Door MAG

January 15, 2012
By expressionconfession GOLD, Cooper City, Florida
expressionconfession GOLD, Cooper City, Florida
16 articles 0 photos 7 comments

I grew up and grew inhibitions at the same pace – fast and forced. The two were inextricably linked, but one could not excuse the other. The story begins in a small diner with sparkling, red-cushioned stools and a brick-lined kitchen window.

As a child, I adopted a specific routine for entering my parents' restaurant: follow Mommy through the back kitchen entrance, scan for Daddy (often found behind a steaming pan of something yummy), embrace him with the passion only an anxious puppy could match, and then saunter to the main dining room. Through it all, I'd greet the busboys and cooks with familiar jokes, paying no mind to our differences in class and race.

Fast forward to 2001: a tangential tragedy took Daddy's life. Without his presence, my reasons for winding my way through the kitchen gradually diminished. The heat was unbearable, the stench odd and uncomfortable. I felt guilty wearing designer jewelry paid for by the kitchen workers' hours of sweaty labor. I felt intimidated and isolated because I didn't share their language and color. I felt snobbish for not wanting to ask about their well-being or even learn their names. To me they were The One With the Big Eyes, The Female, The One With the Do-Rag, The One Who Is Always Mopping, and The Solemn Scary One.

Without a husband to lean on, my mother turned to my brother and me, finding opposing support and instability. I became her buttress and she mine – for each year, it seemed I gained a decade of maturity. We discussed restaurant issues, family dilemmas, my brother's rebellion – as equals.

But as my independence and strength flourished, a perverse intolerance grew in me. Suddenly I was 14 and I was avoiding the kitchen at all costs. When necessary, I'd stride through quickly, making eye contact with no one. I had no problem with the waitresses; they always resembled trashy-but-loveable relatives, and I didn't mind their fawning. For years, I failed to address my discomfort with the kitchen staff. I thought it fair to assume that growing up going to a private school with the children of cubicle workers and CEOs excused me from an obligation to associate with minimum-wage workers.

Flash forward again: just past the summer of ninth grade. My brother had worked in the restaurant for a few months. On this occasion, my brother, my mother, and I had taken the same car to the restaurant together, a rarity. That day, my brother's and mother's bodies blocked the tight hall connecting the kitchen to the dining room, and I couldn't carry out my usual rapid walk-through. Trapped, I looked on in uncomfortable awe as my brother ambled down the line, offering hugs, high-fives, and waves to all the men in the kitchen, including dishwashers. What astounded me wasn't the actual action as much as the mutual affection radiating from the exchange – this was real, not the strained script I'd so often imagined.

I trained my eyes on the back of my brother's head, not daring to make eye contact with any of these men and woman I'd tried so long to peaceably ignore. Something about the nature of my brother's bond with them stung me. He, too, had lost his father and his reason to venture into the kitchen among the dark, looming figures. He, too, spent the fruit of their labors on luxuries like video games, computers, and a car. Yet this hadn't impacted his feelings about the kitchen staff. So where had my inhibitions come from?

In my gated community, in my two-story, Pottery Barn-furnished house, and at my school, sitting among the children of lawyers and surgeons, I'd adopted a mentality my brother had avoided. My awareness of social class inhibited me from bonding with the kitchen workers. I had never before acknowledged the discomfort they stirred in me, the involuntary clench of my fingers around my purse, the irrational fear and mistrust with which I regarded them.

At the root of it, I had adopted silent classist discrimination. It wasn't about color – no, it was about education and income. Part of it came from listening to my mother's rants about their laziness, their untrustworthiness, their immaturity, but a larger portion stemmed from the irrational part of my brain that told me my proper grammar and economic situation meant I was better than them. Not once had I considered the fact that they had maintained these jobs for decades, and that I'd known them for as long. All I saw was the beat-up turquoise car with bubbling window tint parked next to my mom's Mercedes, and that was answer enough.

Now, as I weave my way through the kitchen, the heat and stench do not suffocate me as much as the unbearable sense of shame. I offer strained grimaces to those I once ignored: a lame white flag of surrender. I consider speaking but have no words. A thousand excuses rise to my defense, but the truth is as clear as it is contemptible: somewhere in the back of my mind, buried beneath the explanations of a damaged family life and a private-school culture, there exists a link between socio-economic stability and moral worth in my skewed evaluation of a person. I don't know that it can be shattered in an instant, but with constant recognition and refutation, over time it might just loosen of its own accord.

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