I should have asked

I’ll call him Doug in this story, since that was his name. Doug was a young man of 24, a co-worker at the restaurant where I work. He’d been hired a few months previously as a delivery driver with some other duties: light prep work, food running when not out on deliveries, expediting the pass. Not rocket science, but a job certainly requiring more brainpower than “just” being a delivery driver.

Our commercial kitchen is small. Get two drivers, four line cooks, two dishwashers and five servers in there at once, and it’s a clear victory each time we avoid descending into chaos. If you’re anywhere near my age, you’ll remember those slidey-bit puzzles that had only one open space you had to navigate around to solve the picture. I’m often reminded of those as we go about our shift, yelling, “Behind you!” or “On your left!” and, the mother of all directives: “HOT PAN!” (automatically giving you the right-of-way; everyone else has to squeeze out of your path immediately or risk someone getting burned). My point is: When you work with someone in such tight quarters, you inevitably have lots of contact with them, physical and conversational.

I liked Doug right off the bat. He was obviously smart, with a wicked sense of humor. He told us his previous job had been at a fairly prestigious restaurant in Louisville. He didn’t really explain why he no longer worked there, and I didn’t ask. In the beginning, he was a great conversationalist; he knew lots about foodie stuff and nationally known chefs and fancy-pants cooking techniques – all subjects I like to talk about (note to my boss: talking while working!). We had a long discussion about professional-grade knives one day. He teased many of us hilariously after only working with us a few weeks.

After those first few weeks, though, his demeanor changed. He always seemed tired and dispirited. Folks he shared duties with complained he wasn’t doing his part. He was coming off as lazy, and I hadn’t thought he’d be a lazy co-worker. One day he was being so argumentative with a fellow employee that I asked him to stop being a dick. We all shook our heads. Whispers spread. “He’s in recovery, you know?” Recovery from what? I didn’t know. I didn’t ask.

It’s not unusual to brush up against somebody who’s in recovery in our business. That’s a true industry standard these days, and it seems to be getting worse. It’s also not unusual to work with somebody who’s in the stage before “recovery.” Late-night hours and easy access to drugs and alcohol are a reality of the hospitality trade. Few restaurants drug-test; the old joke goes, “If you drug-test restaurant employees, you won’t have any.” (Please believe me, I am not advocating for widespread drug testing of hospitality workers. Tossing folks out of the job for smoking weed would be beyond ridiculous.) However, there are more sinister substances dragging our brothers and sisters down these days. It’s nothing new, I guess – but it does seem more prevalent than ever, especially in Doug’s age group.

On June 25, Doug didn’t show for his lunch shift. Despite his lackluster performance of late, he had never pulled a no-call, no-show. A manager called and left him a voicemail; perhaps he’d misread the schedule. We didn’t hear back from him. Another driver was called in to cover lunch.

A few hours later, word went up on Facebook: “Lost a great employee and genuinely good kid today to this stupid disease. RIP Doug. Gone way too soon.” I burst into tears. I punched the numbers into my phone to find out the details.

By several accounts, Doug was found dead in a pile of syringes and Plasticine bags by a friend who went to check on him. Last fall, he’d completed a court-mandated drug program. One of the last photos he posted to Facebook was of a “certificate of recognition” for “successful completion of Phase III of Jefferson County, Kentucky Drug Court.”

If you’re keeping track, I have said “I didn’t ask” twice in the paragraphs above. If you know someone’s in recovery and you see obvious warning signs, throw ideas about decorum out the window and talk to them about it. They’ve probably shared more with complete strangers in their program and – although they might tell you to mind your own business – what if your asking keeps them alive?

I should have asked.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and CafĂ© Lou Lou.