It’s Not Too Bad, Man

Author: Dylan Walter ’13

Hola, güerito!” A voice from the kitchen yells, over the clanging of pots and pans, the sizzling of a grill and the general clamor of a restaurant kitchen preparing to open.

“What’s up!” I yell in no specific direction, ripping out my generic white iPhone headphones and shoving them into my backpack. I was late, again, and frantically dove into bar prep. Ice. Mats. Menus. Lemons. Limes. Orang-

Güerito!” I hear from the kitchen, through the expo window — the metal shelving between the kitchen and the bar, where hot plates are organized and distributed to hordes of slightly-peeved Hollywood tourists, yelling children, and the occasional poor drunken soul who wandered in looking for a burger. Slightly annoyed, I look up to see one of the cooks, smirking guiltily through the expo window as he slides a plastic Tupperware jar across the metal shelving, quickly, slyly, so as not to be found out.

Güerito … cerveza, por favor.” He grins.

Without a word, I take the plastic jar, go over to the nearest beer tap and fill it. When the coast is clear, I slide the jar, now full of cerveza, back to my friend in the kitchen. We’ve done this many times, my kitchen compadre and me. Sort of a pre-work ritual, if you will. Originally, I had resisted his requests for a foamy pre-work inebriant. After a while, though, it became quicker to just fill his plastic jar than to attempt to argue with him about the various house policies and state laws that should prevent any experienced bartender from treating the sous chef like a college student on his 21st birthday.

“Whatever you want, brother.” I slide another beer across the expo window to my friend, who’s name I had forgotten many times. I assumed he had forgotten mine too, as he had resorted entirely to calling me “güerito” (pronounced gwe-ri-to and meaning, literally, “little whiteboy”). It was a term of endearment, apparently, and I had grown up in New Mexico hearing similar terms of endearment my whole life. Simply, I loved it.

I was a bartender at a tourist trap in Hollywood, California. My fellow front-of-house warriors (read: bartenders and servers) were an eclectic and talented mix of models, actors and musicians who had come to Los Angeles from the various four corners of these United States, chasing dreams of escaping normalcy and landing instead in the grueling underbelly of it. I myself was right there with them — a musician who had pursued my passion tirelessly, from my dorm room in South Bend, to various stages and studios in Denver, Colorado, to this TV-show-themed bar in Los Angeles. The stuff of Hollywood dreams.

My front-of-house coworkers and I had a lot in common. Profoundly ambitious. Never satisfied. A pervasive attitude of “why are we here?” exuded from our very pores. It wasn’t without reason, though. This was a tough job. When we were busy, the sound of drink orders coming in faster than we could possibly hope to fill them, crushed under the noise and chaos of patrons we came to despise, the complaints came easily: “Man, this sucks!”

On the other hand, when it was slow, our precious, college-educated minds going to waste under fluorescent bar lighting, staring out at an empty restaurant, knowing that our hourly wage was not nearly enough to pay our bills without the generous tips from our beloved customers:

“Man, this sucks.”

One night, the restaurant mostly empty and my mind wandering as I stared out onto Santa Monica Boulevard, my boss barked at me to begin my state-mandated 30-minute unpaid break. I stepped outside, into the concrete alleyway behind the restaurant, to complete the daily task of sitting on a curb and groveling to my coworkers about having to waste 30 minutes of my day sitting on a curb. On this particular evening, my cerveza-drinking compatriot from the kitchen was also outside on break.

“What’s up, Diego.” I said, realizing at the moment the words came out of my mouth that I had called him Diego, and hoping that that was his name.

Güerito!” said Diego, confirming that I had remembered (guessed) correctly, and feeling relieved that I was still just “güerito” to him.

I sat next to Diego on the concrete, and for the next 30 minutes, we talked. He told me about his daughter back home in Mexico. His wife. He told me about his journey to the States, and about how he and many others were sharing a one-bedroom apartment in LA. It worked, you see, because all of them spent so many hours of each day at work, that the apartment was surprisingly empty most of the time. He told me that he had worked seven days a week for the past two years straight, without a single day off. Most days, he cooked for eight hours at a breakfast place, then made his way to another restaurant where he cooked for another eight hours. The dinner shift.

“It’s not too bad, man.” He said with a gentle smile.

He told me about his dream of saving up enough money to return to his family in Mexico, and maybe, someday, to start a restaurant of his own. “Nothing too fancy”, he said. Something simple, like a taco stand. His eyes, forever happy, lit up even more when describing this future. He told me about the difficulties in making a living, or owning a business, in Mexico, and that it was necessary for him to be in the States for as long as he could, saving up money for his family and for his taco stand. The seven-day, 14-shift work week was all worth it, knowing the future that awaited him back in Mexico.

“It’s not too bad, man.”

I think about my friend Diego often. I no longer work at that establishment, and neither does he. In fact, no one does. Almost two years into a global pandemic, it’s hard not to bear witness to the differences in privilege in this country, and even more, to the differences in attitudes toward struggle that those privileges breed.

I think about how many people in my life, comfortably retreated to their home offices, in their spacious apartments rife with Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Uber Eats and health insurance, spent the year complaining: “Man, this sucks!”

I think about Diego and his 12 or so roommates, and just how different this pandemic must have looked and felt for them. No “work from home.” No savings. No social safety nets. These people kept working, cooking and delivering food, building, cleaning, risking their own health to keep this town, this state, this country running through it all.

“It’s not too bad, man.”

I think about my home, New Mexico. Formerly part of Spain, then Mexico, annexed to the United States in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (in which 55 percent of Mexico’s landmass was ceded to the US for $15 million). To Americans at the time, it was a foreign, distant region, settled by a “primitive,” Spanish-speaking population of Hispanics and native tribes. Known for the “Indian Wars” and the Wild West. While other territories included in the treaty were quickly welcomed into the Union (i.e. California, with its gold), the New Mexico Territory was not given statehood until 1912. Simple terms can never fully encapsulate the complexities of historical context. However, the delay in statehood for New Mexico can mostly be boiled down to xenophobia; the attitude among the American people and their elected representatives that the New Mexico Territory was, among other things, too “Mexican.” Not American enough. This prevailed for 64 years.

Eventually, after decades of Anglo-American culture had been imposed on the region, and it fit national interests, statehood was granted. A line on a map was moved, and the previously foreign inhabitants of New Mexico became American citizens. The lucky strokes of history, that have everything to do with the decisions of our ancestors and nothing to do with our own. Diego and I grew up separated by a border that was drawn on a map just over 100 years ago, and yet we grew up worlds apart — with different rights, different privileges, different freedoms and, perhaps most importantly, different attitudes. I still have a lot to learn from Diego.

What makes this country beautiful is not our traditions. We should know by now that these traditions are not ours. What makes this country beautiful is not the land. We should know by now that the land is not ours.

What makes this country beautiful is the people. The people from all walks of life, from all over the globe, who made their way here, bringing their experiences and their perspective to a land that so desperately needs it.

The people who turn “Man, this sucks” into “It’s not too bad, man.”

People like Diego.

Dylan Walter’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2021 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Walter, aka Dylan Montayne, is a musician and songwriter from Santa Fe, New Mexico, currently living in Los Angeles. He recorded his first songs in the study rooms of Knott Hall, where he was supposed to be doing his engineering homework.