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On the House: Abandoning Autopilot and Nearing the Start Line

This is the fifth installment of On the House, biweekly essays by Joshua Lewin, illustrated by Katrina Jazayeri, documenting the opening of their first permanent restaurant, Juliet.

Juliet, under construction.
Juliet, under construction.
Photo (and illustration below) by Katrina Jazayeri

"He could shave with a straight razor on a transatlantic liner in a storm. The electric razor fosters no comparable talents."  —A.J.  Liebling

In certain places, at certain times, certain experiences are just about automatic. One could try to fight them, but why bother? This idea could apply to significant events of all stripes, for sure, but in this case I’m thinking along more mundane lines. The everyday goings on that propel us through our days, the natural chain of events that take us from waking, to breakfast, work, lunch, work, play, dinner, sleep, and whatever else in perfunctory succession in between. Hundreds of variable minutiae that make each day unique, but don’t require, or prefer, our direct intervention.

These things happen largely in the framework of our typical days. We don’t notice them, but they are there. Pushed out of our comfort zone for any reason and the autopilot feature clicks on a little less frequently, for shorter intervals. Forcing us to think our tasks through with greater attention, to get in the way of the inadvertent experiences, interject our will into the small things, interrupting the natural course of simple events. But we can’t interrupt it completely. Nature is still going to have its say.

Those were the thoughts that lodged in my mind and remained fastened there as I rounded mile six and turned left to route my path up, around, and on to the span of the Golden Gate Bridge at 6:30 a.m. That’s 3,000 or so miles from my house, my restaurant, my life — in other words, no small disruption of my mundane. That’s three hours earlier than I normally do anything of any degree of significance in the morning. By the end of this run that would take me still twice across the bridge, once away from and once right into the by then well-placed San Francisco sun, I’d be logging exactly three more miles than I ever had run continuously before.

San Francisco has its own special experiences built in, including the ones that — even 3000 miles from home, living outside the comfort zone on high alert — manage to wedge their way in without intervention or permission. That’s where nature creeps in. One of my favorite recurring experiences each time I visit San Francisco is that I have no choice but to witness the sun’s gradual morning climb over the bay. It’s automatic. I don’t adjust to time zone changes rapidly, so I basically have no choice but to wake up in time for the sunrise when I jump back three hours.

That’s how I found myself with tightly laced sneakers heading out just before the first rays of the heavily diffuse light of a typical bay area morning broke the dark and shortly after with the sun rising over my right shoulder, slowly warming my creaking knees and pushing away the cool fog in creeping wisps as I moved forward. One foot in front of the other I found myself winding along the waterline, watching casually as pelicans occasionally glided low across the water, bellies dipping gently onto the surface as they scanned for breakfast. Then up and around the hilly climb overlooking a repurposed military development turned recreation and community center for a new vantage point over dog walkers and yoga classes in the fields below, the Golden Gate Bridge still about two miles in the distance. Left foot, right foot, incomplete thoughts still bouncing around in strange paths like oval marbles in my just-waking skull. Those two miles disappeared behind me; five miles became six, then seven. Who stops running with their toes at the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge? Eight miles. Back again, that’s nine. Why leave off at nine when the next one is all downhill? Need to go that way anyway. Ten.

Somewhere along the fifth mile it all just became compulsory. It would have taken more effort somehow to stop at five than to make it to ten. A bigger interruption to turn and trudge tired legs back downhill than to shuffle them easily over the bay water and then back again before slowing to a gradual, unforced completion a few miles and a new record later. All I had to do was open my eyes that day, choose not to get in the way too much, and natural experience took care of the rest.

Or maybe the past 650 or so words are really just me stalling a bit. Postponing whatever it is I have to share this week. Likewise, maybe miles eight, nine, ten, were just me enjoying the autopilot of one foot in front of the other while indiscriminate thoughts rattled around with minimal consequence and without deliberation. Kicking the can of responsible thought and decision another ten, twenty, thirty minutes into the future.

Juliet 5 illustration

Why all this sudden celebration of delay? Because a week ago our contractor looked at me and matter-of-factly asked if we had picked a target date for opening the restaurant. Open the restaurant! Until now it’s been someone else’s job to build the restaurant. Now it’s our job to open it. Months ago I never thought I would hear those words, would have done anything to bring the day closer. Now it’s suddenly rushing forward faster than I am ready for. Our contractor has put on an excellent performance throughout these past months in bringing our vision to life. I’m sure he took a little bit of satisfaction in seeing me squirm at the questioning. I’m holding him up now. He didn’t say as much, but twelve weeks ago I was pushing him to move faster, break ground sooner, check boxes more rapidly, deliver on milestones quicker. Now I’d like him to buy me a few extra days somewhere. He deserves that satisfaction.

We landed back in Boston on Monday morning about 3 a.m. Time for a nap before our standing construction meeting on Tuesdays. We walked in to the sight of our wood floors unsheathed after eight or ten weeks under protective wrapping. The next day they were sanded down to their blonde surface, exposed like a freshly shucked oyster after years of grinding away on the sandy floor of the ocean. Years of weathering stripped down and laid raw. Tomorrow those floors will be stained a pigment that Katrina decided on after weeks of back and forth debate. We’ll have a week of limited activity as those floors dry and cure, and then we will charge into the details. Shelving, table bases, chairs, stools, doors, and knobs.

None of it is automatic now. Every agonizing decision needs to be made quicker than I prefer. There is no letting nature take it on while the mind bounces around as it will. Hours like this feel like days again now. Days like weeks. But what I would give for a few more of those days! How different than when we started…

We have chosen a target date. I’m not going to tell you what it is just yet, but I am going to do everything I can to meet it. We’ve put out a few well-received employment offers to some really exciting potential candidates. We are fielding inquiries from others and accepting more. We are happily taking donations for Toys for Tots with a collection box just outside the restaurant. We’re hoping you’ll pull the door and peek in when you drop off your toys. We are ready to show off a bit. Juliet is now something to behold. We’ve scheduled one last pop-up event before we settle in to a real address for good, a preview of our prix fixe breakfast option at Juliet, hosted by the Boston Center For Adult Education on December 5. We’re selling gift certificates on our website and are looking forward to seeing them redeemed.

Like in the previous four installments of this column, the epigraph at the top is culled from phrases that I stumbled across throughout the week. The intention being just another look at what is going on inside our heads as we build our first restaurant. Unlike the previous installments, this quote from A.J. Liebling doesn’t relate as directly to the writing or the construction work this week at the restaurant. But when I thumbed open the book and the first thing I read was a sentence like that, I knew better than to fight the urge to purchase it. Finally, something I could do naturally and without careful consideration or without running ten miles in a strange city in order to elude the raging storm in my head. I can’t do that everyday; I don’t have time to do all that laundry. What a well-placed distraction this was! I had no choice but to buy it. I’m looking forward to a few more phrases like that. The kind that get stuck rattling around in your brain, expunging for a minute whatever internal debate might be torturing you in there. Thank you, Liebling. Thank you.


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