In 2002, at age 33, I’d been waitressing at Julienne, a high-end restaurant in San Marino, Calif., for over eight years. My husband, a painter and graduate of Art Center College of Design, worked at a local private school. Our two sons were toddler-aged. We juggled parenting duties. I squeezed in writing time. Forget about writing at home: laundry, dishes, and chaos. I wrote at coffee shops and libraries, craving solitude and quiet, and never quite managing to get it.
The closest I’d come was a decrepit coffeehouse in Alhambra (long since out of business), the main clientele of which seemed to be ditching teens. The teens made out on the ratty couch near my chosen workspace and mostly left me alone. They had a system: rotating lookouts for the truancy officer who periodically stopped by. A long whistle, and then I’d watch as they scrambled and disappeared. After the truancy officer left, they’d come back one by one, wariness and giddiness in the air.
When I would turn on the light to use the dimly lit, token-operated bathroom, cockroaches would scramble and disappear (one time scurrying over the skin of my flip-flop wearing foot) like a bug reenactment of the ditching teens.
There was occasional drama. Drug deals, homeless people, fights, and yelling. But I could stay and work without pressure to give up my space for other clientele, since there really wasn’t much other clientele, and people mostly left me alone. The coffee was awful, the food bad. The workers behind the counter (they didn’t call themselves baristas) were in their early-20s, respectful and friendly. They shared their newly acquired tattoos with me, told me about their hangovers, and complained about the owner. Often they’d turn the music down for me. I can’t count the number of times the live version of “Free Bird” played while I wrote.
Sometimes workers wouldn’t show up (too hung-over, they’d explain later). I’d wait outside for someone to open the doors, and then finally concede defeat, resorting to the dreaded corner Starbucks, where I’d sit beneath a poster of a man holding a steaming toffee-nut latte while playing with his golden retriever. The poster asked, What Stirs You?
Right around Christmas that year, David Partridge, a wealthy businessman, came into Julienne for lunch. I served him, as I’d been doing for eight years. He — like other preferred regulars — had a personal account, meaning he didn’t pay by cash or credit. He signed for his meals and was billed later. I knew that he worked across the street in a red brick building. He collected art and was on the boards of museums. Like other regulars, he often ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner (taking it home) from Julienne.
After so many years of serving him, a familiarity had grown between us. He was one of my favorite regulars, openly optimistic and kind. He often asked me about my writing. That afternoon while signing he said, “You can work in my office.”
When I didn’t speak, he looked at me and said, “I mean it. I’m serious. Come by tomorrow before your shift, or after. Work. No one will bother you. It’ll be quiet.”
Writers know what it’s like: countless rejections, everything and everyone seemingly an obstacle. Looking back, it wasn’t just that Mr. Partridge offered me a quiet and private space. He believed in me. He — with his booming, confident voice — said, “You can do this! I’ll help.”
I showed up the next morning in my Julienne uniform — dress shirt and dark slacks, my tie in my pocket — and waited in the lobby for someone to open the door. From the lobby window, I could see the servers and customers at my workplace across the street. David (he asked me to call him David and not Mr. Partridge, and though this never came easy, I’ll try again here) shared his workspace — a floor of offices — with lawyers. I’m not sure the arrangement, but I assume that David must have owned the space, since no one ever kicked me out.
A secretary to one of the lawyers arrived and opened the door, giving me a strange look when I entered. She never did warm to me, nor did the other secretaries: over the years, their open hostility turned to indifference. But I grew to appreciate their cold professionalism. They worked, so I worked. How could I not? It seemed wrong to fiddle around on the Internet or stare into space when others diligently worked nearby.
It was a conference room: quiet and private. I fell in love. A long table with chairs around it, reminding me of scenes in movies of important business meetings. A large window overlooked the other offices, the kitchenette, and the bathroom on the floor. A couple of abstract paintings hung on the wall. I scanned the bookshelves: financial records and business books: The Changing World of the Executive, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Innovation in Marketing, U.S. Competitiveness in the World Economy, The Achieving Society. I began to leave some of my books (William Trevor, Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, and Alice Munro) amongst the business tomes, like wild, beautiful hippies poking through a humorless crowd of overachievers.
Unfortunately I had to share the space with the lawyers when they had arbitration and deposition meetings. David set up a daily planner/calendar on a table by the conference room door for the lawyers to fill out, so that I could see when the room had been signed out and plan my writing time accordingly.
David said I could share his office with him when the conference room was occupied. I tried once. It was just too weird, his booming voice discussing money and such on the phone. He owned and operated Data Devices International, which sounded like a huge company, but was actually run by him and his private secretary, an Indian woman named Patty, who also looked at me with skepticism. He had big crate boxes on the floor, and a Fed Ex man came every now and then to take them away. From what I understand, his business erased data permanently from computers. He did very well, his daughter once told me, during the Bush years.
That first morning, David lightly tapped on the conference room door, poked his head inside and asked, “Can I get you a coffee?”
“This is weird,” I said, and he laughed before shutting the door.
Later as I was leaving, I told him: “When I publish a book, I’ll thank you in my acknowledgments.” It bothered me that I couldn’t reimburse his generosity, and it was the only thing that I could come up with.
“I’d like that,” he said, nodding.
I wanted a key to the floor, since waiting in the lobby was inconvenient, only to find out that the conference room was signed out. But I didn’t dare ask David. Businessmen and lawyers came through on their way to their offices. I’d watch them go up the stairs or take the elevator to the second floor. Some said hello, others ignored me. I waited on most of them across the street.
I hoped not to run into Mr. Galbraith, another regular with a personal account. Sometimes I delivered his breakfast to his office. Two poached eggs and dry toast. For my small effort, he tipped me five bucks. But he made me nervous — an A-type personality. I didn’t want to explain to him why I was there.
One morning Mr. Galbraith (he’s asked me more than once to call him Jim, so from here on, with the usual difficulty, he’s Jim) found me in the lobby, my laptop opened on my lap.
“I like your office,” he said.
“Actually,” I said, “Mr. Partridge lets me use his conference room. I’m just waiting for someone to open the door.”
“Well,” he said, “good for him.”
Soon word spread through the restaurant that I worked at David Partridge’s office. The other waiters and busboys teased me. My bosses didn’t like it. It felt like the boundaries of the conventional San Marino class hierarchy had somehow smeared.
About six months later, Jim told me that I could work in his office instead of waiting in the lobby for the conference room. Tuesdays and Thursdays were best, he said, since his partner didn’t come in on those days, and I could use Andy’s desk. I said I’d think about it.
A few weeks before Christmas of 2003, Jim found me waiting in the lobby yet again. He invited me upstairs to write. I took the elevator with him. I started using Andy’s office.
I could hear Jim on the phone while I worked, which made me want to work more, since Jim’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.
He poked his head through the door at one point, offering me coffee or water. I declined. I couldn’t believe it: Mr. Galbraith offering to serve me!
Phones rang, doors buzzed. Jim got hot because of his Crohn’s disease, and so he kept it very cold. The secretary arrived and answered Andy’s phone from her desk. Andy’s office was a mess, papers everywhere. His wife smiled at me from a photograph on his desk.
At one point, my boss warned me, saying that Jim couldn’t be trusted. He would want something in return, she said. Be careful. He’s a ruthless businessman. (He’s a corporate finance lawyer, I found out later, and he apparently helped pioneer the concept of leveraged buyouts.) But that wasn’t my experience. Sometimes he showed me photographs of his children and grandchildren. We chatted. He tried to be easy going. I appreciated his efforts.
For five years, I alternated between working at David’s conference room and Jim’s partner’s office. David gave me pep talks and encouraged me. Jim’s seriousness rubbed off on me and helped me work.
Drift, my collection of short stories, was published in 2009. In my acknowledgments I wrote:
Thank you, as well, to David Partridge and Jim Galbraith, for serving a waitress by acknowledging her as a writer: they gave me a space to work, away from the countless interruptions and distractions of libraries and coffeehouses.
David told me he bought a box full of my books. He died of complications from pancreatic cancer on March 29, 2014. His daughter emailed me: “My dad adored you.”
“I adored your dad as well,” I wrote back.
Jim and I are still in touch. His eyesight has dwindled due to his Crohn’s disease. He has told me more than once, “I’m your biggest fan.”
Image Credit: Pixabay.