learning from ordinary emergencies
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A few days ago, I had a bunch of perfectly over-ripe bananas. Their peels had developed big, deep black splotches and their insides had turned to a sugary mush perfect for banana bread. I’d already mixed the batter when disaster struck. Just as I reached up into the cupboard to get the backing soda, a spice jar tumbled out, crashed into the Pyrex measuring cup on the counter, and shattered glass shards into the banana bread batter, across the counter, and onto the floor. There was nothing to do but throw out the batter. Clean up the mess. While I was disappointed, I also noticed a calm detachment. I realized I’d practiced this scenario before whenever there was a Code Grenadine.
When a glass shatters in a restaurant in or near the beverage station’s ice bin, the employ closest, quickly douses the whole bin with Grenadine, that pomegranate mixer that’s the essential ingredient in a Shirley Temple. The squirts of vermillion syrup, splashed like a horror film slayer scene alerted every one of the danger. Don’t touch.
I worked in restaurants throughout most of undergrad and grad school, and being part of the service industry was such a formative experience that I often have flashbacks like this. Whenever a Code Grenadine happened, almost always during a rush, I was amazed by the swiftness the danger was dealt with. We worked together, FAST, to fix the problem because if we didn’t, beverage service would grind to a halt and everyone would suffer a loss in tips. Whoever was able: bartender, manager, server, food runner, or busser, all hands on deck, formed a bucket brigade. First, gallons of boiling water, enough to melt 6 cubic feet of ice, then a through cleaning to remove all the glass, then the refilling of the ice bin requiring multiple trips with 20 pound buckets of ice, scooped from the machine in the back of the house. This was a tremendous amount of labor.
Those moments when we were all working together to hold our shit together, well, I tell you, that they felt really felt special. Collectively we all had a stake in getting the ice bin back and running, making sure the customer didn’t even notice anything had gone wrong, and that no one got a glass-shard spiked drink. Under normal circumstances, we’d trash talk each other, and prank each other, and fight over side work assignments, but during a Code Grenadine, I never heard anyone berate someone for breaking a glass. It was such a big mistake, and one that was such pure accident, that the unstated rule was the culprit felt shitty enough about it and didn’t need anyone getting all up in their business about it. It was a grace we gave each other.
Once a glass shattered in my hand over an ice bin and cut myself so badly I had to go to urgent care and get stitches, but the second that Grenadine splashed on the ice, my co-workers had my back. They leapt into action to solve the problem my messy accident caused.
In the restaurants I worked at, there was no blaming when the glass shatters, no yelling, because that will only escalate the problem, and if there’s crying, well it’s best done in private, in the walk in cooler. It’s more time-efficient than going to the employee restroom to cry.
I realize that calling this situation a code is conflating emergencies. A Code Grenadine does not have the life and death urgency of a real emergency room code. At my first restaurant job at a Chili’s, the head server used to say, “We’re not saving lives, we’re just serving food,” by which he meant don’t take yourself so seriously. But, I think that these little things do stand in as a metaphoric microcosm. A Code Grenadine reveals the nature of how we can think about emergencies—no matter how slight or serious. Or how quick or slow-moving. Emergencies are unexpected, and what happens after the initial shock is what matters. Keeping calm, steadily doing what you can, as urgently as possible without panicking matters.
I think the reason I’m nostalgically dwelling on Code Grenadine is because I want to see metaphorical slashes of red syrup sprayed on the things I know are in trouble and need our help: the climate, public education, Ukrainians. Then, I want the brigade to start. I want a chain of people working together to solve these big, broken systems. I know that this is happening, it’s just hard to see. It’s hard to see how I’m connected to it enough to do something to help.
Individualism is the bigger blight here. What ails us are our interconnected, failing systems, and they can only be healed in community, by a chain of interconnect lives. I want to stop overlooking the simple ways I can lug a much-needed bucket of ice to a neighbor. I want to weave myself into a small, but urgent brigade.