living underground in the real world

six months

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I’m at Commissary! dicking around and X’s mom just stopped me to tell me how much X appreciates the job. It’s Father’s Day. Her dad died about a month ago. When I walked in, I felt so grateful she was working. Take your mind off things. I told her what I did on Mother’s Day: no social media, no news. She nodded. We’ve got each other’s numbers.

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I made another business.

OK, two.

They’re warm arms for an orphaned girl. My first job is all mine—even though Jacob does tons of work for it, I’m the owner 100%. These other two I opened up with business partners. Jacob for one & Maresa for the other. Less stress. More meetings and shared Google docs. More chances to talk to my best friends, too.

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The one in the city—do you know ninth street in the East Village? Maybe the gentlest street in the whole city. Everyone warned us about opening a shop in the city. We’re working in reverse, upstaters get sort of mad about it, you know? You’re supposed to live in Park Slope/Williamsburg ten years ago then move upstate when you trade in your Manolos/super skinny jeans for Toms and shoot a being out of your uterus and spend $40,000 redoing your upstate kitchen with wormy oak cabinets because you’re working remotely now and make luxurious soaked-granola foraged-serviceberries breakfasts for you and the baby.

I did everything wrong. I moved from the city when my career was just getting going and built my empire up here. Thank god. All my former-city friends were all “Oh the regulations! Such a schlep! Customers are so mean!” And then it all came together in just a few weeks and our customers hugged us right into the neighborhood. When I work at the shop it’s a parade of people saying, “Every year my husband and I spend a week upstate just so we can go to your New Paltz shop!” and “I love the Turtle Bar!” and “How can Maresa’s macarons be this good???” —everyone seems to know our products already and it’s humbling and I’m in awe.

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I figured everyone on the street would be side-eyeing the new place in town, a vegan sweets shop with the moxie to think they can make it in the big apple, but the first week we were open everyone kept walking in and saying, “I own the boutique next door—so excited for chocolates in this neighborhood!” and the taqueria people brought us chips & guac and there are not one but two witch-supply shops on the street and one of our longtime customers worked at one for years and it’s maybe the only real street left in NYC and the Superiority Burger dudes became our best pals, complete with in jokes and a seemingly endless parade of specials walked the quarter block from their place to ours and vice versa. I’d drive 75 miles to go to SB any day, Brooks & Co. cook the food my glum heart needs right now and always, but to be their neighbors is an ever-unfolding treat. Brooks’ book was my favorite cookbook of 2015, but I try to keep my affection for his feminist punk heart in check when we’re chatting.

When we had a meeting at Outdated in January to plan this thing, Maresa & Jacob and I debated neighborhoods. Maresa had been looking up rents. $20k a month in Chelsea will get you a nice 1000 square feet. And worst of all, then you’re in Chelsea, with its big box stores and bullshit. We decided the EV and LES were the only neighborhoods we would try for. Rents hovered at around $5000 for 300 square feet, which was all we needed. If we could negotiate with the landlord a little, if we split the rent we could just squeak by.

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Every time Maresa or I work in the NYC shop, we text the other one: “This place is so beautiful.” Because it is. We’re doing just fine, even though it’s summertime and who buys chocolates in the summertime? People do, who knew. When I’m there my favorite time is when I’m alone. I look out at the SB guys constantly walking to their prep kitchen across from us, I watch the dogs walking by. The combination of chocolates I made up in my brain reflecting off the big picture window with City People walking by is deeply pleasing.

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Newbie number two is in New Paltz around the corner from the chocolate shop. It’s on Church Street. It’s a strange street, filled with pleasantly weird nebbishy artist dudes gossiping outside and business owners hanging outside their businesses for no reason I can figure out. A hang out street. No business owner but me (and the two independent bookstore people on the street) seem to be doing any work at all and if that sounds conceited who cares. (Wanna hear some small-town hilarity? The guy mentioned in this post is my landlord.)

I spend my mornings there and my afternoons at choco-town and my evenings back at Comm or some combination. Really I just walk back and forth every day, trying to be in both places at once.

I get to cook again. Casually. I have a partnership with farmer pals who grow special veggies for me and I make food specials with whatever they have that week. My life is Chopped. I get a delivery and I make dishes with no recipes from it. Our little crew is so tight, I go through the new specials with them and they plate them up so pretty. They invent new slushy flavors with whatever fruit is around. They make up little sweets specials: matcha tapioca pudding with strawberries and some B-grade macarons Maresa gave us. Coconut yogurt with chai-infused granola. We all took a training class on espresso at Stumptown, even though most of us (not me) were baristas already. When the barista on shift dials in the espresso machine we all taste their espresso and talk about how the body is (dose up or down), if it’s too bitter (make the grind a little coarser) or too sour (make the grind a little finer). Alexis who works at the chocolate shop made all the cups for us and Molly made our sign and everyone we know helped out a little.

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It all sounds so idyllic, doesn’t it?

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Mostly it’s because I’ve gotten real good at firing people.

Really. If someone’s not going to work out I’ll know it within a week. And then they’re gone. I used to treat employees like a garden someone else planted: wait and see what comes up, have some patience before you rip it out. Maybe it’s a flower, maybe it’s a weed, only time will tell. I lavished attention and training on new employees—ignoring signs that they had no work ethic, no artistic sensibility, gossiped so much so loudly that you couldn’t ask them to wipe down tables. Now I’m quiet when a new person starts. I watch them. I listen. And I listen to myself. Maresa and I talk about this test a lot: would you have done that? When you’re giving someone leeway because they forgot to work a shift, or fucked up a giant thing and don’t seem to care, remember you when you worked at jobs: would you have done that? If the answer is oh hell no, I’d be ashamed, never in a million years—you gotta have a talk with them.

So I have talks with people. I used to chicken out and email people. Now I take a deep breath and focus on all the good things about them and have a sincere talk with them. It work most of the time. And if it doesn’t I have my ways. I’ve only overtly fired one person ever—in thirteen years of running a business. But I’ve quietly pushed many people off the schedule, expressed regret that we no longer had shifts for them, put the idea in their minds to quit. Techniques I picked up from an article on how firing is done in Japan, techniques that work in a small town, techniques that work for a chickenshit like me. But also: I love my businesses too much for you to fuck them up. So I will fire you, however I can. Someone I fired so gently that she thinks she quit once told someone I know that she quit because we’re “too corporate.” We all had a good laugh about it, but I know what she meant: we have standards. And we close in around them. If you can’t live up to them you are outside the circle. I have training programs now, not just tossed off “Oh, and you do this like this” on your first shifts, like we used to do.

So it is idyllic. Because you don’t see the work behind it. And that’s how it should be.

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Last night we had our first show. We have space, why not have shows? Kate’s booking bands every month. Queer people and people of color and women, pretty much. No space for dickheads. We didn’t know how many people would come to the first one: Swanning and Adult Mom, both touring bands she knows, and Tiny Blue Ghost, a New Paltz college kid. Just the right amount of people came, just the right people came. Everyone was so sweet. It became our unofficial grand opening—everyone saying how beautiful the space is. I figured I’d work it alone and only make quiet drinks. I didn’t realize that since it was during dinnertime everyone would want cheese plates & soup & salad, so A. and I. helped me through the rush. Then we just watched the bands. At one point C., who’d said that Adult Mom was one of her favorite bands, stood next to me behind the counter to get a better view, and I noticed she was crying during this song. I gave her a big hug. How good it feels to hug your employees.

Afterward, hanging out with my friends while we cleaned up and swept, two pals came up to me and said almost the exact same thing: “This sounds weird, but—I’m proud of you.” I got quietly teary.

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I have this theory about Commissary!—everyone working here was pulled to us because the universe knew they needed to be there. Bullshit I would never have believed in before. Some of us have sadness at our cores I haven’t teased out yet, some of us desperately needed to leave soul-killing jobs—most of us have had crushing losses recently. Have you ever worked a foodservice job? Your co-workers become your best friends sorta whether you want them to or not. Being able to talk while working changes things. Interacting with the public at your job changes things. Foodservice jobs pull people together—even years later I know the secrets of all the women I worked with at Bloodroot like I know my own. When we were doing our week of training for Commissary! I would look out at our little crew, six people who had never interacted before, and think: “you’re all about to become lifelong friends.” Weird. Or, of course, you hate each other. But somehow you’re still each other’s secret keepers, in weird ways. It just happens. There’s so much stupid work to do. What makes putting the gross disgusting so-heavy rubber floor mats in the dishwasher at the end of a long shift bearable? Deep-soul gossip.

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I watch them. My crew. Because there is no middle ground because they work their hearts out or they’re out, this leaves me with people I’d do anything for. I’m fiercely protective of them. I’m here for them. If they’re sick I’ll be the one to work for them, if they need anything I’ll go get it for them. Recently I was walking back and forth between LL and Comm, schlepping, tidying here & there, deadheading flowers, sending emails, one of those days, and I stopped to ask A if he needed anything. He’s used to working in a kitchen where the “chef” throws pots. He stared at me. “What can I do to help?” I asked him. He confusedly shook his head. “Do you need anything?” “No…?” It occurred to me that maybe a boss had never asked him what they could do for him.

I am water, I flow where the droughts are. I fill in the cracks. My heart hurts so bad, all the time. I’m always late to both jobs, because in the mornings I remember the way my mom’s voice sounded and how much we were each other’s people and I can’t get out of bed until I’ve matted every cat’s fur with my stupid useless tears. But then I’m there. And I flow. Mama bear, watching over her den, her cubs. No one fucks with us. We are doing our best work, dragging our leaden hearts alongside us. I’m grateful every second for so many reasons to get out of my bed made of sorrow.

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4 Responses to “six months”

  1. nr

    It’s nice to see you in this space again. I love your writing, your work. So inspirational.

    Reply
  2. Selma Miriam

    Dear Lagusta,
    We are planning to go to fancy Food Show on Monday, and hopefully afterwards to Superiority Burger, We would love to see your new place, and maybe you? Open Monday? Till what time?
    Selma

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Sadly I won’t be, but I’ll be there on Thursday. Veronica will be there, though, and she is amazing and wonderful and a dear pal, and I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to meet you. We’re open Monday until 8 PM at 9th street and Ave A, 440 east 9th street.

      Reply
  3. becatgrowinghome

    Oh, you beautiful person. Now I’m matting cats fur with tears. Your passion for your business, your staff, and for giving people the best experience whichever side of the till/ cash reigster they are on… and your mum, your gorgeous mum. Its uplifting… and terribly poignant.

    Reply

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