The Mind At Work
By Mike Rose
Back in the day, I always finished my late night bar-hopping with breakfast. One favorite spot was a small diner where they usually had a short-order cook, a waitress, and someone doing whatever was needed. The whole place was maybe only 40′ long but it was jammed when the bars closed.
One night for whatever reason only one waitress was there. She was doing the whole bit by herself.
She waited on everyone, cleaning the counter and small tables where they sat. She set napkins and utensils, brought coffee, water, and took the orders. She cooked the food, served it, checked for follow-up, wrote up the bill and then rang it out. Never missed a step.
Think about that.
“Fix bacon with eggs over and rye at seat 3; omelet almost ready for table 2; Pancakes done for seat 1 -need cleaned up; running out of cups-wash, dry; drunk at table 3 looks like he might skip; guy at register has a C-note for a $3 order- 25 cent tip; scrambled eggs need flipped before they burn; put more bacon on- gonna need it; running low on coffee, brew more decaf…” -and so forth.
She worked fluidly, quickly, no wasted moves; her eyes rapidly scanning, her brain and body interacting with the room, hitting all he coffee cups in a sweep, flipping a burger as she passed the grill on her way to the register, dumping dirty dishes into the sink while a customer dug for payment–and so on, her mind constantly tracking, analyzing and prioritizing everything quickly for at least the hour I was there. How long before or after, I don’t know.
Amazing. I don’t think many people could do that.
Mike Rose is a believer in working people, and recognizes that “smarts” are neither simply defined nor confined to the sometimes self-serving definitions of academia. He should know. His mom was a waitress, his family blue-collar and he admits to slacking in high school. He was a late bloomer, and a maverick.
As any building trades apprenticeship director can tell you, some people don’t test well, write well, or compose sonatas (neither could Attila the Hun as he conquered his world). But they perform surprisingly complex work with competence and analytical thinking on the job.
Rose gets into a lot of commas and qualifiers. Lamentable example:
“For all the administrative rationality and meritocratic logic of the differentiated curriculum, academic counseling can be irregular and inconsistent, can be affected by, among other things, parental power and teachers’ and counselors’ beliefs about race and social class.”
You’ll have to dance with sentences like that, but between the words you can hear the music.
Rose writes of the mental side of manual work, of the limits of I.Q. tests, of disrespect and stereotypical misconceptions toward and from people who work with their hands, and the ups and downs of vocational vs. academic education. He also explores the “for every action, there’s a reaction” aspect. If one “egghead” decides all working people are mindless “rednecks”, working people are likely to decide that all academic types are clueless “eggheads”. Both are wrong. Time to grow up.
There’s things (and attitudes) happening constantly that we never think about.
We should. Rose takes a close look at it all.