Sunday, December 7, 2014

Spending Time

“Sit down, sit down,” she’d say in her insistent Italian way that sounded more like discipline than intended affection. Lydia lived like she talked, clearly focused, to the point, no time to waste. She worked hard because it wasn’t worth doing it any other way.

Lydia owned a restaurant that supported a large extended family in a manner that none of them would likely have achieved on their own. The youngest daughter in a family that emigrated from Italy in 1922, she was ten when her father brought them to Butte with visions of golden lodes just inches beneath their feet. Within a few months, creditors hammered those visions into a hard reality. They were poor in Italy, but never so poor as they became in America. Disabled by a wounded pride, Lydia’s father refused to take up any other kind of work. His family were left to make their own way in the new world.

As was common for children of that era, Lydia had little time for play. From the age of five, she spent most of her time helping in the kitchen. At thirteen, she got her first job as a cook’s helper in a local boarding house. Her older sisters got married, her parents had two more children and her father was incapable of holding a job. At fifteen, Lydia became the family’s sole financial support.

At first, she enjoyed cooking. She was good at it and was recognized for it. A mixture of duty, enthusiasm and raw talent fueled her sixteen hour days as she climbed from kitchen help in the boarding house to chief cook at the Rocky Mountain Cafe to owner of her own nationally-known restaurant.

In the 1930’s, the Rocky Mountain was a good place to build a reputation. It was said that people around the world had heard of the restaurant, even if they’d never been to the United States. Once during World War II someone mailed a letter from Europe addressed with only the words, Rocky Mountain CafĂ©, USA, and the letter arrived. The restaurant was famous, but was only as good as the cook. When Lydia left the Rocky Mountain to open a place under her own name, customers didn’t hesitate to follow.

With the opening of her own restaurant, Lydia had the added responsibility of running a business. Sixteen-hour days now filled all seven days of the week. Duty completely consumed enthusiasm as she was also left to care for an aging mother and disabled brother. Her work-day started at two in the afternoon and ended at five the next morning.

One evening during the early1950’s, the accumulated pressures were feeling heavier than usual. She stopped to spend a few minutes with a customer who never failed to have dinner there each time he came through Butte. Desperate for a sympathetic ear, Lydia told him she was afraid she couldn’t get through the next few days. There was just too much work for one person. Being a traveling salesman, the customer understood the challenge of packing long hours into short days. He reached briefly into his coat pocket, then took Lydia’s hands into his. Leaning toward her from across the table, he said in a whisper, “These might help with the work. One should last about twelve hours. Take another one before the last one wears off.” He then transferred a small bag of black capsules from his hand into hers.

Even though she had spent nearly all of her life surrounded by gambling, drinking, and hired companions, Lydia herself never had time for personal experience with any of it. So, when she looked at the stash of amphetamines in her hand, she had no reason to think of them as anything but black pills that could help her cope. The first one was on its way to work before she left the table.

For the next three days, Lydia stayed awake on Black Beauties, completing an improbable number of tasks. Impressed by what she’d accomplished, she wanted more when the stash ran dry. Maybe these pills would finally be the business partner she could trust. She’d supply the will, they’d supply the way. But the salesman never returned.

Thirty years later, still innocent about what those pills really contained, Lydia would tell this story completely without shame, like she was hoping to find another supplier. “Just think what I could do, if I never had to sleep,” she’d say.

But Italians aren’t good at hiding their feelings. The regret in her heart could easily be read on her face as she would continue, “To tell you the truth, though, I think I really kind of burnt myself out.” Then she’d cast her eyes to the ceiling and clear her throat as it tightened. “And if I had to do it again, I’d take more time for myself. It went so fast I just never stopped to think about it. I spent my life before I knew what it was worth.”