I am running up a flight of stairs, cocktails barely balanced by the tray in my left arm. Each step synchs with the pronunciation of a piano key. I am on beat, or maybe the band is.
I am at Gregory’s Jazz club, working my first night as a waitress without a cause. I was hired because I speak English, and most of the clientele are tourists. Tonight we are booked full of Italians, and I don’t speak a lick. I’m jolting in and out of spaces like an eight-year-old boy who drank too much mountain dew. My hair is tied up in a sloppy bun held together by criss-crossing pens. I have no pockets, so my notepad is hugged against my hip by the elastic band of the top of my leggings. I’m starting to wonder if my life is an episode of “I love Lucy.”
The clarinet sounds better than I remember, and the gentle “tsss” of the symbol keeps my energy in balance. I feel myself transitioning from frantic footwork to silky side steps as my hips begin to sway without my consent, navigating through the crowded room like a dance move.
Italians are very relaxed, not troubled by the idea of rushing through anything. They take their time, and shamelessly indulge, which is my favorite aspect of the culture. There is no “to-go” coffee, you take a moment and drink it at the counter. Maybe order something sweet, too, then have a cigarette before you’re on your way. The bad side to this quality is they are largely disorganized, particularly when it comes to systems. The public transportation actually circumnavigates the center of the city, and busses are liable to not just be late, but never come. I had one hour after my last English lesson to make it from Monteverde to the Spanish Steps. Geographically speaking, this isn’t a lot of distance to cover. Still, I was late.
I arrived to Gregory’s out of breath, but high on the adrenaline specific to the experience of racing against the clock. I was determined to transcend the space time continuum, hoping that somehow I could make the ticking minutes multiply.
“Ecolla,” said my manager, as I burst through the doors like I was about to rob the place. He was not mad I was late, rather happy to see me in general. Without missing a beat, I was delivering drinks and staring blankly at Italians. Questions poured from customers looking for simple items my vocabulary could not provide them. My only solace in these moments was the fact we were not working for tips.
“aaahh, sorry, no parlo Italiano. Parlee Inglese?”
With younger people, this was not a problem. After the second world war, they started teaching English in the schools, replacing the previous second language of French. For the older clients, the ones who have made this jazz club their weekend home, my muted vacancy was not impressive.
We were booked to full capacity, yet somehow continued to find new places to fit eager customers. The iPad operating system was very efficient, but the table numbers were confusing and I once again found myself in a new job with few instructions. There were not enough minutes and not enough clones of myself to accommodate the overflowing room. At one moment I decided I was going to quit. I’ve worked in a lot of bars and restaurants, but the chaos of this one had nearly broken me.
The drinks were served, the jazz was swinging, and I finally had a moment to take a breath. “It’s not so bad,” I thought on a long drag of a cigarette, peering through the window, watching the bustle of a busy business. The beautiful thing about the service industry is the ability to meet and speak with people of all walks of life. In this night, I met a surgeon from Berlin. He said he found us on yelp.
“People do not come here by accident,” the owner told me at a quiet table the night I was hired. “They come here for good jazz and good whiskey.”
What I love about Rome is it feels like a time capsule. In this club, I imagine people in the 20’s and 30’s, sitting in a smokey bar, listening to the same notes. Time goes by, but music is everlasting. It can transport you to a specific moment, and connect you to millions of other people who once heard and thought about the same song. Maybe we do not hear the same thing, and maybe the songs are played with a different energy, but at the base of each song is a beat we cannot deny. A compulsion to tap or sway along. Music is the language that moves.
It is the end of the night, but the happy customers show no signs of leaving. They are joking and drinking, with humidors and fat cigars and never-empty glasses of whiskey. I am upstairs, where the stage is, sweeping up chaotic crumbs resting in the dark. A many is softly playing the piano. I hum along.