There are two distinct eras of my life: Before my counter job at Helen’s Cheese, and after I was let go from Helen’s Cheese. No matter the circumstances, despite the fact that Helen’s was run like a mafia front, the experience at Helen’s changed my life and taught me so much about cheese, like where it comes from, how much it is, which customers to hook up or keep satisfied, and which ones are dead to me.
In short, it made me a better cheesemonger, despite the fact that I’m positive that everyone there hated me from day one. Looking back, that’s probably because I was very late from day one, and always had some piss-poor excuse. Honestly, if it weren’t for the high turnover of “shift leads” Helen would hire remotely while she was “away on business” evading the IRS while establishing various tax shelters all over the world, I might never have lasted as long as I did (fourteen months).
It probably worked in my favor that I never met Helen in the first place, and am not entirely sure that’s her name or even that she exists. Rumor has it Helen is actually five or six people, none of which are named Helen, but that’s all behind me now.
With my tenure at Helen’s over and done with, I took a few weeks off to be drunk. Once I came out of my Drambuie binge, it was time to rejoin the cheese world——my fire had been lit and it needed nourishing. So, I updated my resume with my newfound experience (and expertise, if I do say so myself) and went into town with a new and fierce determination.
My first destination was, of course, Pizzoli’s. I entered the tiny, immaculate cheese shop on my tippy-toes, a little worried that Gary wouldn’t remember me. He was behind the counter breaking down a wheel of Reggiano Parmiggiano and didn’t notice me come in.
As I approached the counter, I said, “Hi Gary.” He looked up and an instant all the color drained from his face.
“No. No no no,” he said. “No way. Get out. Leave, right this minute.”
“It’s okay, Mr. Pizzoli,” I said. “It’s me, Cheese. I did like you said. I worked my way up at Helen’s and now I’m ready for the Big Leagues.”
“I don’t care if you’re name is Parma Ham, get out of my shop!”
It dawned on me in that moment that at some point I had fallen out of his favor, though which of the times I overstepped his boundaries bothered him the most is difficult to discern. It’s also possible he had heard “the story.”
“The story” is the one about how I lost my job at Helen’s. See, I was just 18 years old at the time, still wet behind the ears and hornier than ever. There was this girl, Danielle Butler, who I had ‘met’ on the Internet and who happened to be having a big party that night. I had begged off the schedule so I could go but to no avail. About an hour before closing, I asked my shift lead, Tim, if I could go home early because I was feeling “bad.” Without looking up from his Juggz magazine, he scratched his beard and said, “I don’t care.”
Taking that as a yes, I clocked out, ran out to my little Mazda, cracked open a Zima, cranked the new Pantera and sped off to my parents’ house to change clothes and soak my neck in Old Spice.
It was a long drive to Danielle’s and once there I made my way through the crush of sweaty dancing teens with teddy-bear backpacks and wide-leg jeans twirling glow sticks and smacking gum——but Danielle Butler was nowhere among them. I got tired of searching for her through the crowd and snuck away upstairs to maybe take a nap.
I would give anything to go back in time and not go up those stairs, or even not go to that party, or to just stay at work and finish my shift like a normal person. Alas, I’m stuck with my fateful decision and must suffer for it forever, for it was in the upstairs bathroom that I found, to my shock and dismay, Danielle Butler, the object of my World Wide Web affections, making out with Tim! The shift lead!
Not only was my internet girlfriend cheating on me with stupid Tim, but stupid Tim told everyone in town and soon every cheese and meat purveyor in a fifty mile radius knew me as either someone who fakes sick or someone who was made to look foolish by stupid Tim.
After striking out at Pizzoli’s, I slinked from grocery to grocery, even falling so far as to apply for a part-time position at a Subway, but even they knew who I was, (and not in a good way). Everyone had either heard “The Story” or maybe they had talked to Gary. I knew then that I’d never be a famous cheese blogger if I spent my whole life in Blessed, TX.
I told Venus and Peter that I wanted to go be on my own, to try to become a cheese blogger. Somehow, they both understood. Or, they were stoned and didn’t hear me and were just going along with whatever I would say. My mom gave me a hundred bucks and a nice, new clown wig. “I was saving this for your graduation, but you can have it now. Maybe you can wear it when you blog.” My dad stuffed a freshly-rolled blunt in my top pocket, winked and said “don’t spend it all in one place.” With that, I was ready for the world.
I packed everything I owned into a beat-up old suitcase (absolutely loved typing that sentence), filled up my tank and drove all the way down to Austin, TX. Austin promised hope, freedom, and an artisanal cheese scene that was much more progressive, as in, they had no idea who I was and, so, would be much more accepting.
Cruising down I-35 that day I vowed to myself to be the best cheesemonger I could, without sacrificing who I was.
The problem was: who was I?