Of soup, Big Sur, and starting over

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I had slogged my way through the paperwork and preliminaries, and suddenly we owned a large chunk of a Big Sur ranch on an isolated, ocean-front slice of the central California coast.

Now what? My partner, a brilliant and successful designer, said: "I'll design a house for you and another one for my wife and me. You'll leave the business world and write books" - my stated dream -"and I'll get out of designing furniture and learn to paint," which was his stated dream.

So much for stated dreams. You do have to be careful what you dream, should they come true. For all the wrong reasons, my dreams lay far afield from where I was at this hour of my life. I knew nothing of hotels or restaurants. "Bloom where you are planted," said a motto on a friend's bulletin board. So that's what I did. Of course, my partner went on to paint beautiful pictures that sold like hotcakes. I wrote one book. I now use the back pages of the manuscript for scratch paper.

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On the highway where our ranch began was a small cafe, a gas station, and a campground. I quickly became a pumper of gas, a cook or a waiter when we were desperate, and absolutely useless in the campground, where a kid half my age ran it superbly.

But then a huge rainstorm sent a mudslide down our mountains and blocked the road. Our cook, Fern, could not get to work, so I was recruited to go into the kitchen that morning.

"Oh, I can do that," I thought. A bunch of orders of ham and eggs suddenly came in from the road-repair crew. I flipped one fried egg just the way I'd seen our cook do it when I was a little boy. It flew high into the air and then slipped behind the stove, onto the floor. I think it stayed there until we tore down the cafe years later to build our new hotel and restaurant.

Our waitress, Samantha, finally strode into the kitchen a few minutes later, after I'd told her we were all out of fried eggs and only had scrambled eggs. She announced that a patron was standing on a chair, pinching the edge of a cremated egg between his fingers and demanding to know - at the top of his voice - if we expected him to pay for his breakfast.

Samantha gave me her order book and apron and took over cooking. I took over taking orders. By the fourth day, I wasn't bad. People said they liked my wisecracks as I served them. They laughed at my lines.

Then one day a young man entered, dressed in a pinstriped dark suit and wingtip shoes - the whole banker's uniform - very much out of place, sartorially, among our cowboy clientele.

"The soup is good today," I said, shoving a menu toward him. "Vegetable noodle. You'll like it."

He nodded, and I wrote it down, adding expectantly, "And then...?"

"That's all I have time for," he replied. "I'm playing hooky from my job today, just exploring this beautiful coast. You're fortunate to live here. What's it like?" I started my glowing replies until I looked at his face and realized he was the one who wanted to talk. Later, after he'd finished his soup, he complimented it and began telling me a story.

"Look, this Big Sur is the most beautiful place I've ever seen," he began. "Uh, I was just wondering if you had a job you could give me if I come back in a few weeks. I'll dig ditches, anything at all."

"No," I replied, "that's the vice president's job. He's worse at it than I was, but fortunately we don't need a lot of ditches dug just now."

Then it all poured out. His wife was leaving him, taking the kids. He hated his job, even though he was already the youngest vice president at a huge American corporation near Chicago. He felt he had no one who cared, nowhere to turn, and by the time he'd finished our great soup, he said, he'd decided: He wanted to make a clean break from the past and move to Big Sur.

I looked at his shoes.

"You'll last one week here," I said.

"I've got exactly one pair of jeans and some work boots, and I'll do anything you say. I'll work hard." I started to shake my head. The stranger quickly added, "My dad was an admiral. I went to Annapolis but didn't do well there. I never wanted that life, but I was trying to make him proud of me, and so I...."

He ran out of gas. So that was it. Why hadn't he just said so? I was an honors graduate from the school of trying-to make-Dad-proud-of-me. Empathy swept over me. I stopped shaking my head. I nodded it. He shook my hand, smiled broadly, and drove away in his corporate rent-a-car. Oh well, I thought; we'll never see him again.

He pulled up again three weeks later, in an old car towing a small trailer that held all his worldly possessions, as he put it. He was wearing jeans and work boots. What could I do? We put him to work. We gave him the hardest and least attractive chores. How long could a well-educated, almost-former-military officer, who had a bright career as vice president of a prestigious corporation last in Big Sur?

The answer: quite a while.

Ten years later, I sold the hotel and moved away, but I heard years after I left that he was still there, with his new wife (one of our former waitresses) and their family. He had founded his own local company, which made art products. No one ever worked harder for us, or served us more faithfully. He was a fine person in every way, someone who had awakened to discover new sources of happiness. He became a pillar of our tiny community. It was a privilege to know him.

Yes, but how did I know that on the day I'd served him soup and nodded my head? The answer is, I didn't know that. Listening helps; I just did as I was told.

The other thing I did was to continue to stay out of the way most of the time. And you know what? Our place became a huge success.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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