I remember the first time in which I definitively decided I no longer wanted to be a freelance sportswriter. It was about a year ago, actually, and it was Ash Wednesday. Because I do not hope to turn again repeated in my mind, and, as if emboldened by the spiritual challenge of a new Lenten season and the words of the poet’s conversion, I felt ready to move past an onerous stage of my life. I had already left behind one writing gig — a food one, for a site where the readers could have cared less about the things that bring real purpose and joy to living — and knew I wanted to leave the uncertainty and anxiety of the one job I continued to hold onto. Yet like the frustrated sinner looks up with tired eyes to a change they can only half-believe in, I faced the lonely and sobering question of ”now what?” when reembarking towards complete unemployment.
I had a glimmer of hope though, and consider myself blessed to have had a job interview that day. It wasn’t much — a sentence-long email response from an online application I had filled out for a local soft serve ice cream chain — but it was something. And when you only know one routine and identity for so long, something can mean a world of difference when trying to break the cycle. Especially when your living thousands of miles from friends, and especially in an economy where nothing seems to come easy.
That was the day I first met Eric.
There’s a lot I could say about Eric. A former Division I quarterback, young father, and the quintessential small business owner who you can’t help but root for, he immediately struck me as theperfect boss. Even at minimum wage and even straddling that line between part-time and full-time status. So I signed on to work as a minimum wage ice cream guy, pulling day shifts with high school kids who asked me what school I went to then looked on in awe when I told them I was done with college. Jaw drop. Mouth open. Clearly, they hadn’t connected the dots that just because you’ve gone to college and done”stuff,” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be destined for anything less than your ideal world afterwards.
I wasn’t complaining. Those days of working at Rita’s Frozen Custard might not have been ideal, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t I love them. The interaction with the customers. The swirling of soft serve machines and dishing out smiles. The regulars who left me small tips for going a little overboard with the hot fudge, and even the high schoolers who’d gossip about this or that amidst slow shifts. I felt young. I felt funny. I felt…my God, I felt fun. Even the really rainy days in the spring, when customers were sparse and it was just Eric and I in the store for eight hours. He was a cool boss — is a cool boss — and despite my many screwups, he always gave me another chance. He could see I liked working for him, and I could see he loved cultivating his own little piece of the American dream. To me, the guy’s fearlessness to start his own business was an inspiration, and his hands on leadership by example was a testament to the virtues which seem to elude so much of the work force.
I bring this up because when I was working for Eric he was in the process of applying for franchisee status for a Jimmy John’s sub shop. I had never eaten at a Jimmy John’s before, but Eric talked about it like it was the greatest chain ever. “Every day I ate there,” he’d tell me, recounting those lean economic years after college in which he lived with his parents while saving up money. He’d tell me about the business model, explaining the popularity of the chain and the case studies for how other sub chains (Quiznos) had fizzled out with local franchises. It certainly seemed exciting, and even though I left Rita’s Italian Ice and working for Eric after obtaining a full-time desk job, I remembered his plans to open that Jimmy John’s.
Well, it finally did open, and having gone months without saying hello to my old boss, I figured I’d check I’d congratulate Eric while finding out what was so great about the chain with the cult-like status.
The sub I bought was $5.57 after tax and did not come with cheese, as many condiments as I wanted, or my own personal instructions to the kid behind the counter making it. Smaller than a Subway footlong, it was wrapped up tighter than a Aaron Rogers spiral and delivered, as they say, freaky fast. I mean, literally before I finished digging out the chain from my wallet fast. Caught off guard by the speed of service — which on that particular day wasn’t of prime importance for me — I paid for my sandwich and nearly walked out before actually doing what I came to do. Turning around amidst competing orchestra’s of rock music and customer chatter, I stepped over towards the owner – my old boss, Eric – to congratulate him on his new store. I shook his hand, he went back to making sandwiches and working with his young staff, and I left. I walked back into a snowy Saturday of having nothing on my mind but dreading going to work on Monday.
I couldn’t get those thoughts out of my mind, so I dug into my #2 Big John with no mayo, add hot peppers, cucumber, and Dijon mustard even before I got back home from running errands. It was o.k. but just o.k. The bread — which I had heard so many great things about– tasted plain, perhaps a bit stale, and felt altogether skimpy on the topside, while the tomatoes were an unnatural red and the hot peppers were about as hot as the sunshine on an otherwise cold February day. The Roast Beef was a notch or two above Subway, with striations of fat and whole muscle tendons indicating it was clearly deli quality (meanwhile, the portion was more generous and filling.) But it tasted under-seasoned, and even the Dijon couldn’t help it much. I guess the point is to have it with mayo, but one would hope its still possible to get something tasty these days without an extra 100 calorie blob of white goo. In either case, I don’t think it makes or breaks a sandwich. Like I said, it was an o.k. sub.
There are very few occasions in which I’m satisfied with my purchases when eating out anymore, and maybe that’s one of the reasons for why I feel a tinge of regret every time I do. With the exception of a #1 at Chick-fil-A or an Einstein Brothers bagel, the experience of eating out always just leaves me feeling like I’ve wasted money on something I could have made better. A part of me feels this way about Jimmy John’s. But not Eric’s Jimmy John’s.
No, there was something different about his store, if only for that day and only that time. I could feel the energy in there. From the music to the goofy murals of various pissing scenes in the guys room, the whole place just screamed a college town vibe. I should have expected as much. Before Eric, the only association I had with Jimmy John’s was from my time in college, when I used to interview the coaches from Utah State in their offices during “off hours.” I don’t know if it was just coach Gary Andersen’s preference or if they all really loved it, but there wasn’t a day when a Jimmy John’s sandwich didn’t pass through that office. Judging from the crowd in Eric’s store on Saturday, something tells me more than a few local businesses around me will soon be experiencing similar scenes.
Jimmy John’s makes an o.k. sandwich. I probably won’t buy one again and I know I can find better value, but that’s o.k. Sometimes, it’s not about what I think of the taste and it’s not about my feelings about the money. It’s about people, and those of us who are brave enough to get up every morning and do what makes us happy while chasing a dream. In Eric’s Jimmy John’s on Saturday, I could see that. I could sense that feeling of accomplishment from him and his staff, and not letting detractors or anyone else stand in the way. I knew they were taking care to be real people who knew their customers, and not anonymous “artists” who can hardly surmise a few English words. Walking out of the store by myself, at war in my own mind about so many things — about the blog I no longer feel compelled to write, about the job I never seem to be at peace with — I can’t help but look back at that storefront. Towards a man chasing his own piece of the American dream, and wondering if I have the same kind of courage to turn again from a “sure thing” to something that really helps give me meaning.