Written by Caitryn McCallum
I’m a privileged, white 20-something living in South Boston. My roots are in the South Shore; I was born in a well-to-do small town on the water. I went to a public university in Virginia that could best be described as my hometown high school but with the occasional southern drawl, in classrooms surrounded by historic buildings built and maintained by Thomas Jefferson (well, let’s not forget he had some help), and jungle juice could be found at any/all of the frat parties where you swore you were of age before entering. After graduating from this prestigious university, hungover, with a diploma in one hand and a bagel, mimosa, and cell phone in my other hand, I moved to New York City and BOOM! I came in touch with how the rest of the world lives.
This is only partially true. Moving to New York City wasn’t exactly my first awareness of the many phases of daily existence, and of my privileged-ass place in this world. This, of course, I learned from an early start in the service industry back in my very own home-town.
I started working at a coffee shop at a young age, where I learned a good amount from our customers, from my coworkers, and I learned about myself too. I continued to work in restaurants throughout the rest of high school – in college and during the summer – all leading up to a few years ago when I was back in Boston, after a couple of years in NYC, and I wasn’t at a restaurant anymore. Simultaneously, in no time soon, I was fed up with Boston. I was sitting in the corner table of Olive Garden and so full off free salad and breadsticks that I couldn’t think of the entree. Like, skip the check, here’s your tip, and I’ll be leaving out the side door…now. Fed up with the winters, fed up with only 3 beach-appropriate months out of the entire year, and was missing NYC. Onto the next one, to quote my favorite.
Before leaving Boston though, I made one last attempt: Loco Taqueria & Oyster Bar. I had missed working in a restaurant, I remembered that I had thrived in that ambiance, busyness, and high-energy. I also needed extra part-time cash while I was at my day job trying to figure out a grad school plan, so I showed up one night in January to a large room on West Broadway: empty save for the recently-built bar underneath dark wooden ceiling beams, and about as frigid as the temperature outside with the heat yet to be installed. Soon-to-be-coworkers and I huddled under our winter coats, perched on bar stools to learn about tequila, the menu, our specific roles, and get the overall vibe as set by our managers.
A year later, I’m sitting on those bar stools any chance I get. And those people I met that cold, first night of two weeks of training last January, are my people. What began as a part-time job for me last winter – in my eyes, got me through last winter (if you don’t recall last winter in Boston, look no further), was my full-time gig this past summer, and is back to being my part-time thing again now while I’m working and in part-time grad-school now.
At Loco, I learned about tequila, learned what mezcal really was after all these years of skipping over it on any cocktail list, and I learned that I even liked oysters. I learned that any attempt at cooking cauliflower like Chef Matt is fruitless, that I hadn’t tasted guac until Kelly had her hands on a knife and a ripe avocado. I learned that Papas Bravas by D’Angelo and Jatara after a double shift was food of the Gods, grew to love ceviche just because Harold had made it for me, and learned to always stay curious one eye on on whatever dessert Brian was conjuring up in the back of house. I learned that you can always count on Will to – in five seconds or less – shake you up a coco marg: his own elixir that has probably been tagged in sufficient Instagram posts to warrant its own Instagram account. I learned that talking with Fish on bar is free therapy, and that Mo can make you a drink to fit whatever mood you find yourself in. I learned that my hostess girls always had my back. I learned that smiling pretty when greeting a customer as a hostess goes just as far as cracking an embarrassingly stupid joke as a server for a couple on their awkward first date.
I learned that good owners and management might come here and there, but that dedicated managers who give of themselves to instill in their employees a tangible desire to do their job right and keep a spirit true to their workplace, is not only rare but may be close to nonexistent elsewhere. I work for managers who have done every task in that restaurant — from bill pay, to plunging the toilets, to making pre-shift family meal. I learned that I can complain about an opening shift the day after Christmas (poor, tired me), but there was our owner Mike, in before me, sweeping the sidewalk before it hit 9 am.
I’ve met some of the most skilled bartenders, most passionate chefs in Boston, and the most dynamic and from-all-walks-of-life group of servers. I get to debrief the high- and low-lights of the night with them all over an after-work shiftie. Somehow, our cooks still tolerate me despite my pestering questions over how they made the magic latest dish — these same cooks who trek through a 2-hour commute at times to work a 16-hour shift and then rinse and repeat the next day.
Still learning though. Learning to get out of my analytical, needs-to-be-perfect-or-else head and embrace Mike Shaw’s “it’s all good in the hood” mantra. Learning from Rachel that at the end at the end of the day, it’s just food, it’s just another night in South Boston, and that I can let things just roll out my shoulder, because no one customer or no one night should ever bring your spirit down. I’m learning that coworkers can become good friends – sometimes more than friends — and that the servers I work through a dinner shift with are the same crazy crew that has me returning to my phone on a break from my day job to find 56 group text messages that are each equally hilarious and confirm that we all know (perhaps too much?) about each others’ lives.
I’ve learned that being born where I was, getting into schools that I did (line items on a resume that didn’t make me feel any more connected to others, or worthy) aren’t too significant – really at all; that connections I’ve made with my now-family, do matter. Yes, I’m occasionally guilt-ridden over that label: I’m still some white yuppie chick serving tacos and sticking a lime on the rim of five coco margaritas before they hit the bubbling, drunk group of girls cuddled up in a booth. So be it. I’ve learned that in this restaurant, or anywhere really, I can keep learning from others – coworkers and patrons alike. I’ve learned that sharing a laugh over one of Tommy Berry’s iconic jokes, sharing a fish taco, or sharing a story at Loco is connection. I know that here, I don’t need my broken Spanish to know that our dishwashers are some of the happiest dudes I’ve met. And, despite the soapy-salty-oyster-brine water getting splashed in their face in the loading of dishes, their smiles are contagious: I’m walking out of the kitchen, and back to my tables, smiling.
Loco may be turning only one, but she’s actually wise beyond her years. She’s already inspired me to grow more this past year than I have probably all of the years-in-my-20s combined. Luck for all of us, she serves a damn good margarita too.