Saturday, March 26, 2005

Hamburgers and God

I’m heading in for work when my stomach starts to growl. I didn’t eat much of a breakfast so I stop at the local fast food joint and grab a burger to go.

When I arrive at the Bistro I realize I have a few minutes to kill before my shift starts. I pour myself a Diet Coke (who am I kidding?) and tuck into my caloric monstrosity.

“Hey, you can’t eat that!” Erica, a fellow waiter, exclaims.

“Why not?” I mumble though a mouthful of beef.

“It’s Good Friday. You’re not supposed to eat meat!” she chides.

Hmmmm……………………………………………………………………….

Its many years ago and I’m studying for the priesthood. I’m locked up for a Holy Week retreat at this run down monastery in the middle of nowhere. Most of the monks are long dead so they run it as a retreat center for extra income. Believe me when I tell you – it’s in the Styx.

By the time Good Friday arrives, after all praying, chanting, reflecting, and silence; we're close to losing our minds. Guys are sneaking out to their cars to listen to the radio. The only thing that keeps us sane is the retreat master. A former monk who had been pulled out of his monastery to become an assistant bishop for a southern diocese, he is earthy, funny, and very real. To him religion is not about doctrine and ceremony but getting down in the trenches were real people live.

Asked why he became a monk he said, “It beats working for a living.”

The salty old bishop drives our prancing, ceremony obsessed, closet alcoholic, French cuff wearing academe rector up the wall. We love that bishop.

Late on Good Friday night, starving and restless, we break into the monastery kitchen and liberate several cases of beer. Raiding the larders, we grab all the cold cuts we can lay our greedy hands on and start to assemble some monster sandwiches.

Trying to be good, we decide to wait until the stroke of midnight, the end of the fast, before devouring our ill gotten gain. Try and picture twenty really drunk, really hungry guys, sitting around watching the clock, drooling in anticipation of our surreptitious feast.

At a quarter of midnight, Jim, who is now a monsignor somewhere, leaps up onto the counter and pushes the hands of the clock past midnight.

“Let’s eat!” he screams in true John Belushi fashion.

We dive into our sinful hoagies with gusto.

“Hey, what are you guys doing?” a voice calls out.

Standing in the doorway, dressed in a shabby bathrobe, is the bishop. We’re so busted.

We look at him, mouths full, beers in hand, waiting to be excoriated to within an inch of our lives.

The bishop looks at his watch and sighs. He grabs a beer in one hand and a sandwich in the other saying,

“Well boys, nothing tastes better than a hamburger on Good Friday. "

Party on. We really loved that bishop……………………………………………..

“Erica, nothing tastes better then a hamburger on Good Friday,” I say recycling the bishop’s line.

“Ugh,” Erica snorts, “You’re gonna burn in hell.”

“Like a rotisserie chicken babe.”

Erica walks away laughing.

I smile inwardly. I haven’t thought about that retreat in years. When you’re in the “religion business” you tend to get very familiar with the sacred - often to the point of treating it profanely. It’s kind of like cops drinking coffee and telling jokes around a dead body. The same dynamic is at work.

I get sat a four top. They’re regulars I haven’t seen in a while. After I fetch their cocktails one of the husbands says to me,

“Hey waiter, could you do something about the heat? I’m next to the radiator and it feels like my feet are on fire.”

I can’t help myself

“Well, it is Good Friday sir.” I deadpan.

The table bursts out laughing.

“The waiter seems to know where your headed Jim,” the man’s friend says.

I go, turn down the heat, and return to tell them the specials. While they are asking me questions I refill their water glasses with Pellegrino. I commit a minor faux pas. I pour water into one of the ladies white wine glasses.

“Oh, I’m sorry madam,” I apologize.

The husband laughs and says, “Hey, you’re supposed to turn water into wine, not the other way around!”

“I’ve got the multiplying bread thing down but the wine part still needs work,” I reply.

More laughter. I begin to take their orders.

“I know it’s Good Friday but I want the steak – is that all right with you?” the husband asks keeping the gag running.

“I’m responsible for your gustation not your salvation,” I quip. The table cracks up.

I punch in the order and return with the woman’s wine refill.

“Do you need anything else before I ascend into Heaven?” I ask placing the glass on the table. Obviously not evangelicals, they roar with laughter.

I’m slaying ‘em tonight.

As the table leaves the man hands me the checkbook bowing deeply,

“Dinner was a religious experience!”

“Glad you enjoyed it sir.”

As they walk out the door I look at the tip. It’s pretty big.

I love tables that have a sense of humor.

For some strange reason I’m in a happy mood for the rest of the night.

This time, seventeen years ago, I was raiding a monastery kitchen. Now I’m working in a kitchen.

I realize intuitively, somehow, it’s all for the best.

God works in mysterious ways.


Friday, March 25, 2005

Now I’m a Thief

“Hello, the Bistro. How may I help you?”

“Yeah, I want to talk to the manager,” an angry voice sputters.

“I’m the manager. How can I be of assistance?” I reply sweetly.

“One of your waiters ripped me off last night!” the man yells.

Oh boy.

“Tell me what happened,” I ask bracing myself.

“I ate in your place last night. The check was $100 and I left a $12 tip. I checked my bank balance as soon as I got home and a $120 dollars was taken out of my account. Not $112. $120! The waiter gave himself an extra eight bucks!” he shouts.

“Do you have a copy of the check?” I ask

“Yep, I keep copies of everything,” he crows proudly.

“What kind of card did you use?”

“Visa.”

“Ok, now what’s the name of the server on the bill?”

He tells me. It’s my name. Great

I remember this guy. A cheap affectatious turtleneck wearing wine snob. I remember being pissed at his lame tip. Asshole.

“I was your server last night.” I state.

“You’re a thief!” the man hisses.

I take a deep calming breath. “Sir, did you pay with a check card?”

“Huh?”

“Does your Visa take the funds directly out of your checking account?” I ask

“Yeah, it’s my ATM card too. What does that have to do with anything?”

“When you pay with a check card the bank often holds extra monies aside during processing to cover the gratuity. When the amounts are reconciled the bank will return the extra eight bucks. Your statement will probably read correctly tomorrow,” I explain

“Bullshit!”

“Call your bank sir. They’ll confirm what I’m saying.”

“I’m gonna call them right now. If you’re lying I’ll get you fired.”

“Good, I look forward to your apology.” I say politely.

“What?” he croaks.

“Have a nice day sir,” I say hanging up on him. Prick.

I’ve had several calls regarding bank cards. No one ever called me a thief.

Turtleneck never called back. He probably contacted his bank and they confirmed what I told him. Quick to impugne my honesty he wasn’t so quick to admit when he was wrong.

But I expected nothing less.

What kind of person goes out to eat and checks his bank balance the minute he gets home? A person who can’t really afford to go out to eat?

No. It’s a person constantly in fear of being ripped off.

Turtleneck’s so paranoid that he zealously guards what little he has. Assuming the worst about everyone and everything he immediately arrived at the worst conclusion about my character. Everyone is a threat. Everyone wants what he has. We’re all wolves in sheep’s clothing. He probably treats everyone like that.

Turtleneck must live a lonely existence. Maybe he suffered a trauma that made him that way. Maybe he’s stewing in a hell of his own making.

I recall his date last night couldn’t wait to leave. She fidgeted uncomfortably throughout the meal. Turtleneck went home alone.

Big surprise.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Tsunami

I’m lying outside on the beach sunning myself. I can hear the surf pound the shore. I take a pull on my beer. I’m relaxed and content. Life is good.

All of a sudden my mother stands over me blocking the sun,

“You’re going to be late for your brother’s wedding,” she says.

“Oh my God. Is it today?” I say

“Hurry or you’ll be late.”

I get up and brush the sand off myself. Children run about with water pistols. A group of boisterous teenagers smack around a volleyball. Shapely women sashay around in bikinis.

“Ok let’s go.” I say gathering my things.

Something catches my mother’s eye. “What’s that?” she asks pointing to the horizon.

Like a giant white tipped cerulean serpent, a massive wave silently uncoils itself out in the distant sea. I know what it is.

It’s a tsunami.

“Mom, this is not a safe place to be. You need to go,” I say turning to her.

“Ok, I’ll meet you at the church. Don’t forget,” she says smiling like she doesn’t have a care in the world.

I watch her get into her car and drive away. Suddenly I’m aware of grass under my feet. I’m standing in the backyard of my boyhood home. My suit is inside the house. I need to find it.

I look back toward the beach. Even though I’m several miles away I can still see the young revelers cavorting on the shore. Some distant part of me realizes all those people are going to die.

I have time before the wave reaches me. I go inside the house to look for my suit. I find it crumpled up in a ball at the bottom of a closet. Damn. I run around the house looking for an iron. I can’t find one.

In the distance I hear a horrible roar. The wave is coming.

I race outside. Now I can’t find my car. I walk around with my suit balled up in my hands.

Like a river of liquid concrete, the first waves consume the houses across the street. Mrs. Anderson, the nice old lady who used to give me chocolates, happily waves from her porch as her house is carried away.

Utilizing a childhood escape route, I run through my neighbor’s backyard to the street behind mine. I hope they don’t see me and tell my Dad. I find my car and drive away.

Driving around my old neighborhood I become aware of how dire my situation has become. All around me people are running for their lives. There are too many cars on the road. I can’t get anywhere.

My godfather sits in the passenger seat. He taps me on my shoulder.

“You can’t be here,” I say to him, “You’re dead.”

Putting on his old Greek fisherman's cap he looks at me lovingly with his cool blue eyes.

“Everything changes,” he says.

With a tremendous roar the tsunami arrives in all its fury. Blue green and glistening it towers hundreds of feet high. I can see the shadows of sharks swimming inside. It heads straight for me. I’m going to die.

“And nothing changes,” my godfather whispers.

The wave hits. I cry out. I’m tumbling in darkness.

My eyes open. I’m awake sitting up in bed. The sun streams though the windows. My little dog licks himself contently. No one is screaming. There are no sirens in the distance. I’m high and dry. Safe.

Driving into work I think about my dream. I’ve been in therapy so long it’s easy to figure out. The tsunami symbolizes change. I hate change. But it’s inevitable.

I walk into the bistro and begin to work, moving without the guidance of thought. I’ve performed these duties so often it’s all physical memory now. Often my head is somewhere else. My coworkers will attest to that.

A tsunami is caused by seismic activity deep within the earth. Deep inside me the tectonics of anxiety and desire are rumbling. Change is coming. I can feel it. Whether it comes with the subtlety of wind eroding rock or the violence of a tidal wave - it’s coming. It’s inexorable. It’s inevitable.

I won’t be a waiter forever. I don’t know what I’ll be doing. The future is in shadow like the sharks swimming in my dream’s wave.

I drop off an entrée to an old man sitting alone. He used to come here with his wife. She died months ago. Through force of habit he still eats at her favorite table. He looks like he’ll soon join her.

I walk to the opposite end of the bistro and take a drink order from a young couple. They look like they’re in love. Their baby squirms in his high chair. From one end of the restaurant to the other I’ve just witnessed the entire arc of life. One day the young couple will be old. Their baby will have babies.

Everything changes. Nothing changes.

“Are you all right?” one of the waitresses asks me.

I look at her. For the first time I realize what beautiful eyes she has.

“I’m fine. I just want to go home.” I reply.

I cashier out early and leave. One day I’ll no longer work here and another guy will take my place. I’ll become just another customer remembering what it was like to serve tables a lifetime ago. I hope I tip well.

Everything changes. Nothing changes.

I walk into the Irish bar down the street and order a pint of Guinness.

“How ya doing mate?” Lenny the bartender asks. Even though it’s an Irish pub all the staff is from New Zealand. Kinda like pizza joints being run by Albanians.

“Ok Lenny. I’m ok.” I reply.

“You look a little down,” he notes.

“Not down just – philosophical,” I say.

‘Well drink this,” he says sliding the pint of stout towards me,” that e’ll help with yer philosophizing."

I propose a toast, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man.”

“Damn straight mate,” Lenny says walking away.

I look into my beer glass. The stout stares back at me.

I think too goddamn much. Somethings never change.

Come. Join me in my private hell!

A fellow wondered what would happen if he created a tongue in cheek restaurant newsletter in the style of The Onion. The result is Don't Tip the Waiter.

Clever boy.

Monday, March 21, 2005

It ain’t Shakespeare…….

Most restaurant patrons only see the “front of the house.” The dining room. But if you push on past the hushed tones, obsequious smiles, and culinary kabuki, you’ll find yourself backstage. This is where the real work of a restaurant is done.

A rabbit warren of kitchens, prep areas, and offices; littered with boxes, cabling, and equipment, the “back of the house” is usually a hot, exotic smelling, linguistically varied, and loud place.

Now after reading my blog a lot of you think us waiters spend our time contemplating the mysteries of the universe or waxing philosophically about God and the nature of man.

Wrong.

Here’s a sample of some back of house conversations. Be warned. It ain’t Shakepeare.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
“Hey, Carlos wants to know how old you were when you lost your virginity.” Armando, translating for Carlos our dishwasher, asks me.

I look at Carlos, a little Guatemalan man sporting a sly little smile, waiting for his answer.

“Tell him I don’t know. But if he asks his Mom she might remember,” I shoot back.

The kitchen guys roar with laughter. Carlos shakes his head. He set himself up for that one.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Hey Boloni,” Fluvio says, beckoning me over to him.

“What?” I reply. (“Boloni” is how Fluvio addresses me when he’s exasperated with something I’ve done - which is basically all the time.)

“The guy on table three is a producer with HBO.”

“So?” I huff. I’m really busy.

“I pitched him on idea for a reality TV show set in a restaurant.” Fluvio continues.

‘It’s been done,” I say loading my arms up with platters of food.

“Yeah, but my show would focus on the waiters not the chef. Why do they do what they do? How do they handle the stress?” he elaborates.

“Drugs, drugs and more drugs,” I reply.

“You think you could write the TV show?” Fluvio asks. He is an avid reader of my blog.

“Sure I can,” I reply confidently.

“Good.” Fluvio snorts.

“One thing though.”

“What?”

“You die in the end,” I say smiling.

“Fuck you.”

“Yeah, you get it in the bunker scene,” I say running away.

“I think I kill you first!” Fluvio calls after me.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Why is there an ice bucket on twenty six?” Fluvio asks. It’s a good question. The couple is drinking an expensive red wine. A 1995 Bertani Amarone.

“Guy said the wine was too warm.” I reply.

“So he put it one ice?” Fluvio asks disgustedly.

“Yep.”

"Amateur. It’s been stored at the perfect temperature.”

I shrug.

“Morons,” Fluvio says walking away.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Did you know that ‘puttanesca sauce’ translates to 'sauce of the whore?'” Shlomo, one of our waiters, asks me.

“I did not know that.” I reply.

“Yeah, the tavernas would make that sauce for the hookers. The smell was supposed to attract male customers and the dish kept the ladies warm on a cold night.”

“You don’t say.”

“It became so popular everyone started eating it, not just the hookers.”

“Hey Armando,” I call over to the sous chef, “Does puttanesca sauce really mean sauce of the whores?” I want confirmation. Armando is from Italy. He’ll know.

Puttana means whore in Italian, so yes it does,” Armando replies.

Hell, I learn something new every day.

“But if you serve it to the nobility it’s called "Sauce Bella Donna' or 'Sauce for the Pretty Lady',” Armando continues.

“You can’t call the lady of the house a whore,” Shlomo adds.

“I guess not,” I say.

“We could put that dish on the specials.” Armando says grinning.

“Good evening madam. In honor of the getup you’re wearing we have a lovely special – linguine in a sauce for the whore,” I say pretending to address a table.

“You might get fired for that,” Sholmo chuckles.

“You think?” I say walking away. Everyone here is nuts.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Ask your mother? Drugs? Calling the customers morons? “Sauce of the whore?”

I told you it wasn’t always iambic pentameter back here.

Stay in the dining room if you know what’s good for you.

If you don’t - the magic will be gone.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Madding Crowd

A lot of people think waiters are poster boys for bad behavior. The archetype of the arrogant French waiter is a perfect example. We’re often characterized as mean, patronizing, vindictive, food inseminating malcontents. Well, sometimes that may be true - but it doesn’t hold a candle to the shit customers pull………

It’s a cold February night and business is slow. The other waiter has gone home to his boyfriend and his bong. I have the whole place to myself.

My only table, a three top, has paid their check and is lingering over the last of their drinks. Obviously a business dinner, the trio compulsively typed on their Blackberries, made dozens of cell phone calls, and explored the mysteries of market share throughout their meal. It think they’re in television or something.

The men are silver haired executives. The woman accompanying them is obviously their young go-getter protégé. She’s pretty, blond, and focused –that is, until she starts drinking.

The men downed a bottle of wine apiece. Blondie chugged four Ketel Ones and cranberry. After her second drink I noticed she was getting loud so I watered down the third and fourth rounds. I wondered if I’m doing this lady any favors. She might erroneously conclude she can handle her booze and really get messed up on her next drinking jag. But, since she showed no signs of impairment, I couldn’t refuse to serve her. Besides, they’re my only table and the check is $300. I need the money.

Ah, these little moral dilemmas make life interesting.

The trio wisely decides to sit around and sober up. Their conversation is lively and a bit loud - but nothing over the top.

The door chimes. Two women walk in. I look at my watch. It’s almost closing time. I realize I’m going to be here all night.

“Good evening ladies.”

The first woman, a matronly type wearing a sable coat, wants a quiet table. “Far, far from the madding crowd please,” she asks affectatiously.

I chuckle. “I seem to remember that book didn’t end well for everybody.”

Surprised I caught the literary reference matron scowls, “Quickly please, we’re hungry.”

A quiet table hmmmm… In ten minutes the back of the bistro will be filled the noise of the cleanup crew breaking down the kitchen. Assuming my executive trio will be leaving soon, I seat the women in the front, two tables away from them.

“Our nicest table ladies,” I purr.

They sit and order a spilt Caesar salad and two soups. Great, last of the big time spenders.

“Get me some lemon for my water,” the second woman, a thin shrewish brunette orders.

“Right away madam.”

I deliver the salads. The trio in the window talks animatedly. They’re having a good time.

Overhearing the other table’s chatter the shrewish woman hisses, “This is not a quiet table.”

“I’m sorry madam. I thought they were leaving.” Sensing these women are wound a little tight I whisper conspiratorially, “If you would like I’ll move you to the back,”

“We’re fine here.” Matron says curtly.

“Very well ladies. Enjoy your salads.”

I return to the back of bistro. Ernesto, the sous chef, has prepared our staff dinner. Famished, I tuck into my plate of chicken sautéed with fresh tomatoes, leeks, and white wine. For the first time all day I’m eating sitting down.

Before I finish chewing my second bite I hear a voice screech,

You’re fucking disgusting! How dare you talk like that!”

I look up to see Matron hovering threateningly over the business people seated by the window. One of the men gently pleads, “Calm down, we’re not bothering anybody.”

I race up to the front. Matron spins toward me, voice trembling with rage, “We’re not eating here. We’re not eating in the same place as these FUCKING disgusting people.”

“Then leave,” I respond pointing towards the door. “If you’re unhappy just leave.”

“Why should we leave? Kick these assholes out,” she screams. I can feel her venomous spittle hot on my face.

The shrewish woman starts yelling at the executive blond. “You’re fucking sick! Do you know that? You’re mentally ill.”

“Madam, these people are sitting calmly and you two are shouting obscenities. You need to calm down now,” I say sternly. “If you’d like I’ll move your table.”

Pointing to Blondie, Matron cries, “She said we must be Jews! We asked them to be quiet and she said we must be Jews! I guess you want us to die in a concentration camp huh?”

“Listen she said you were jealous,” one of the silver haired execs says humorously trying to smooth over the situation. “When you asked us to quiet down she said you must be jealous a woman was sitting with two handsome men like us,”

“No she didn’t! She said we were Jews!”

“We’ve had a little too much too drink, we’re sorry. People say things when they drink. We all say stupid things.” Silver Hair pleads.

“Being drunk is no excuse for anti Semitism.” Matron bellows.

The Shrew now starts yelling at me. “Do I have to sit here and listen to this bitch talk about her parents fucking? Do I have to listen to this shit?”

Please tell me I didn’t just hear that.

“Now wait a minute,” Silver Hair yelps, rising quickly from his chair.

I place a hand gently on his shoulder. “No need to make a bad situation worse sir.” Silver Hair slowly sits back down.

“Fucking sick bitch,” Shrew hisses.

Blondie’s face flushes a deep red. Staring with unfocused eyes at the table she whispers sadly,

“My parents can’t be fucking. They’re dead.”

Oh boy. Jew-baiting and necrophilia all in one night

“Did you hear that? She’s sick. Sick!” Matron screeches. Shrew moves menacingly close to the blond woman. This is getting worse by the second.

“Wait a minute,” I think to myself, “this isn’t my restaurant.” I go over and punch intercom.

“Whuh?” Fluvio, the owner, sleepily answers.

“Fluvio get up here NOW!”

Hearing the tension in my voice he’s upstairs in like half a second.

Now, Fluvio’s has been in the business for years. Working in far flung locales like Pakistan, Egypt, Rome, and New Jersey, he’s seen everything.

Quickly identifying Shrew as the crazier of the two women, Fluvio pulls her to his side in a controlling hug while steering her back to her table.

“Calm down everything is going to be fine,” he says soothingly.

Silver Hair stands up and offers his hand to Fluvio, “We are very sorry for any misunderstanding. Please accept my apologies.”

“Ah, things happen.” Fluvio grins.

The other male exec is escorting Blondie out the door. She walks unsteadily.

“Bye” she titters.

Once she’s outside Silver Hair goes to Matron & Shrew’s table. “I apologize for my colleague. She's had too much to drink.”

Now that the owner, the man who can toss their asses into the street has arrived, the women calm down.

“Just go away,” Matron says flatly.

Sliver Hair turns to leave. He shakes my hand. “Thanks for your help. I’m really sorry.”

“Have a good night sir.” I reply relieved.

Fluvio, meanwhile, is busy mollifying the ladies.

“I’m a very important person,” Matron whines, “I don’t stand for that kind of talk.”

Matron is a secretary for a city councilman.

Fluvio comes over to me. I debrief him on what happened.

“Give them dinner on the house,” he says.

“Good thing their bill is thirty bucks,” I reply.

Smiling Fluvio says, “Even better.”

When Matron and Shrew finish their soup they ask for the bill.

“We apologize for the unpleasantness. Dinner is on the house.” I say.

“We insist on paying.” Matron says sharply.

I know her angle. If she pays she can tell all her friends how shabbily we treated her. By picking up the tab we take the wind out of her story’s sails.

“Absolutely not.” I reply firmly.

Matron and Shrew look at each other. Shrew says, “None of this would have happened if you’d moved our table.”

I seem to recall making that offer. Never mind. I say nothing.

Uncomfortable with my silence they shift nervously in their chairs.

“Well?” Shrew says petulantly.

“Good night ladies,” I say dismissing them. They leave.

The night ends and I count my money. It wasn’t a good night. I don’t get paid enough to deal with idiots like Matron & Shrew. I depart the bistro and go home.

The moral of this story? Stop worrying about what your waiter is doing. Spitting in your food? Overcharging you? Arrogant?

Forget about it.

The customers are crazier than the wait staff will ever be. Worry about the person sitting next to you.

The “Madding Crowd” might be you.

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Sour and The Cheap

“The computer’s not working,” Arlene informs me.

Ugh. Our state of the art POS system has froze up again. I go over to the touch screen and tap the glass gingerly.

NO INPUT SIGNAL the screen flashes woefully.

“Open the pod bay doors Hal,” I mutter aloud.

NO INPUT SIGNAL

“Hal, open the pod bay doors.” I repeat.

NO INPUT SIGNAL

Arlene, impatient with my little omage to Kubrick says, “I have to run a credit card.”

Resisting the urge to smack the $1000 LCD display I walk to the back and toggle the power switch on the CPU. Turning the thing off and on sometimes works. After a minute the system reboots and all is well.

“Thanks,” Arlene says swiping the credit card.

“No problem,” I reply. The computer chirps along happily. One day it’s going to kill us all.

The door chimes and two ladies enter. In their forties, they’re wearing bohemian chic getups replete with six foot long scarves and knobby boots under denim skirts. Fetching.

“Good afternoon ladies, may I get you something from the bar?” I ask winningly.

“Do you have lemonade?” the kookier looking of the two asks.

“I’m sorry Madam we do not.”

“Hmmm. Could you bring me a large glass of ice water?”

I say I can. Kook’s friend orders a Coke.

As I deposit the drinks on the table Kook asks me, “May I have some sugar please?”

Setting the sugar caddy on the table Kook says, “And now may I have some lemon?”

I know what she’s doing. I bring one slice of lemon.

“Oh no,” she exclaims, “I need more than that.”

I return to the table with a whole lemon and a sharp knife.

“Thank you,” Kook gushes happily.

Kook cuts the lemon in half and squeezes both halves into the ice water. She adds ten packets of sugar, stirs, and garnishes her homemade concoction with the single lemon slice I brought earlier. Voila, lemonade.

Piling the detritus from her labors on a plate she hands it to me without looking up.

“Would you ladies like to order?” I ask balefully holding the plate.

They order two chicken ceaser salads. Ka Ching!

When I set the salads down on the table Kook asks, “You know what I want?”

Grapes, so you can press your own wine? I wonder to myself.

“No madam.”

“More lemon,” she says smiling.

I bring extra lemon. The ladies tuck into their salads. While they’re eating I catch snippets of their conversation.

“The passion is out of our marriage,” Kook’s friend says. Looking at her getup I can understand why.

“All marriages eventually become some sort of arrangement or another,” Kook replies pontifically.

I look at Kook’s ring finger. Nada, zip, zilch, zero. Hmmm.

The ladies finish and want dessert. They order one apple torte to share.

“Waiter, please bring me a kettle of hot water, lemon, and some honey,” Kook orders.

“Would you like to see the tea box madam?” I inquire.

“No I brought my own tea,” she says.

“But of course you have,” I reply.

Ignoring me Kook returns to her conversation.

The ladies finish their dessert. Kook’s friend goes to the bathroom. While her friend is otherwise engaged, Kook calls me over to the table.

“Yes madam?” I say bracing myself.

“I need your advice. My friend ate more than half the dessert. Is it good form to still split the bill evenly?” she asks.

I wince internally. I think of a conversation my ex girlfriend and I had a few days ago. Seems my ex went out to dinner with a friend on Friday night. After the breakup both my ex and I struggled financially. Money’s tight. When my ex and her friend finished dinner my ex only had two dollars in her purse. Her friend suggested they stop at Friendly’s for ice cream. As they walked into the ice cream parlor my ex mentioned she only had a couple of bucks. Her friend, who is wealthy, turned to her and said, “Well how are you going to get ice cream then?”

The advice I gave my ex was the same I would give to Kook’s companion, “Get some new friends.”

I stare at Kook for a second. I’m pissed. I draw a breath and exhale it slowly saying,

“Madam, I would just let this one go.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Kook replies.

The friend returns from the bathroom. They split the bill evenly. Kook leaves me a pile of change as a tip. It adds up to less than 10%.

As they walk out I think to myself how painful it must be for Kook to be Kook. People like her, due to whatever pathology, are terrified to be generous. They zealously guard whatever they have – which in turn drives people away. Its small wonder there’s no wedding ring on her finger.

I think of the old line from scripture, “even the little that he has will be taken away from him.”

I walk over to the computer terminal to close out the bill. I’m in a bad mood. Even though my breakup was for the best I still worry about my ex. I feel bad that she has friends who are parsimonious like Kook. I want her to get new friends and be happy.

The computer screen flickers and goes dark.

NO INPUT SIGNAL

“And fuck you too Hal,” I sigh.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Vertigo

Larry Mullen, the drummer from the band U2, is a regular at my bistro.

Unassuming, polite, and a good tipper, he comes in with his family whenever he’s in the States. They’re completely normal nice people.

We have a good policy regarding celebrities at the Bistro. We treat ‘em like everyone else. Larry knows we know who he is. I think he likes the fact we don’t make a fuss. The policy is a pain in the ass sometimes. Arlene, another waiter, and I are HUGE U2 fans. We’d love to score tickets to their next area concert. They’re hard to come by. He’d never have to leave a tip again, but we won’t ask him. That’s the deal.

Still, I’m tempted to play a U2 album over the stereo system the next time he comes in.

I read yesterday that Bono, U2’s lead singer, is being considered for the presidency of the World Bank. So that was the coffee station topic of the day.

“The World Bank. Can you believe it?” I remark.

“Do you think a rock star could do the job?” Arlene wonders.

“Well, Vaclav Havel was a playwright and he became the Czech President.” I reply

“But still……”

“He knows a lot about debt relief in Africa. Besides, look at the other guys who had that job. He couldn’t do any worse. Maybe someone totally outside of the banking system could do a better job.” I say.

“So the next time Larry comes in can we ask him to get Bono to front us a loan?” Arlene asks mischievously.

“Be nice.” I agree

“Yeah.”

“If we were a Third World country.”.

“I’ll settle for tickets.” Arlene says.

“Me too.”

We go back to work. The place fills up. It’s crazy. During times like these I play a tune on my mental Ipod to help me focus.

Tonight’s selection is Vertigo.

What else?

The night is full of holes
Those bullets rip the sky Of ink with gold
They twinkle as the boys play rock and roll
They know that they can't dance - At least they know

Rock on boys…………..

Social Darwinist Dead Enders

I don’t like to talk about politics on my blog. When you’re a waiter you don’t alienate customers (and reduce your tips) by saying you like or dislike any particular political party. My bistro is a bi-partisan affair. The only political figures we like to talk about are the dead ones with their faces on the money.

However, a reader sent me a disturbing bit off news about legislation being proposed in the Senate that could have a direct impact on anyone who works for tips. But first some background……

The State of New York requires restaurant employers to pay wait staff $3.85 per hour. The Federal minimum for tipped workers is $2.12 per hour. New York State’s minimum for tipped workers is higher than the Federal standard. Under current Federal labor law employers have to pay the state minimum if it’s higher than the Federal. But, whatever the standard, the idea is that the combination of $3.85 or $2.12 per hour plus tips will raise my wages to the Federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. With me so far?

I make $3.85 per hour PLUS tips. Most waiters take home more than $5.15 per hour. Tips make up the vast bulk of our compensation. No one could live on $3.85 an hour. Come to think of it very few people can live on $5.15 per hour. A person making Federal minimum wage makes $10,700 per year. That’s $5000 below the poverty line if you have a family of three. Hey, even if it’s for one person it sucks. You can’t live in a major metropolitan area like New York on that kind of pay unless you give up some of life’s little pleasures – like eating.

The legislation in the Senate, proposed by Senator Rick Santorum R-PA, would allow, “small and even medium size restaurants and other businesses with tipped employees (to) be exempt from the Federal minimum wage, and state governments would be barred from requiring employers to pay actual wages to tipped workers. Essentially, those workers could be hired for zero dollars and told they had to live only off tips, however little those were." This proposal is being considered in a legislative package to raise the Federal minimum wage. You can read more about it here and here.

Mr. Santorum seems to be saying waiters should no longer get their “waiter pay” of $3.85 per hour or whatever it is in any particular state.

My “waiter pay” adds up to about $150 for a forty hour work week. Most of that money goes to pay the taxes on the tips I earn. If Santorum’s proposal becomes law I might lose my $150 per week. That’s a loss of $600 per month. Quite a chunk of change. If I lost that money I would no longer be able to afford the $400 a month I pay for health insurance. If I’m uninsured and I get sick who pays for my treatment? After I’m hounded into bankruptcy – you, the taxpayer, will. Health insurance is what keeps me in the middle class. If I lose it poverty is fairly inevitable. We all get sick.

I know some of you Ayn Rand dead-enders out there are saying, “Oh poor baby, get another job and make more money.” Well there are about 2-3 million wait staff in restaurants, diners, and truckstops all over this great land of ours. I don’t think we can all get new jobs en masse. Also support staffs that depend on tips: bus people, porters, coat check girls, valets, and bathroom attendants would be drastically affected by Santorum’s proposal. They make much less in tips than waiters do. Most struggle to stay above the poverty line. Not all of them make it. Santorum’s proposal is like kicking them in the balls.

(I am not an economist or political junkie. If any of my facts are in error I welcome corrections. I understand Santorum’s proposal in part of a larger legislative package – I’m just focusing on what's affecting my brethren.)

What really irks me is not the legislation being proposed but the ideology and sentiment behind it.

Why, when Congress, or corporations for that matter, wants to cut costs and trim budgets do they target the weakest members of society? Why stick it to waiters and buspeople? Why take away the little they have? In the larger scheme - why cut drug treatment programs, after school programs, school lunches, and meals on wheels? Why do corporations slash health and retiree benefits, lobby to lift workplace safety regulations, and lay off tens of thousands of workers? Why do they do this but cynically increase the level of their own compensation at the same time? Congress last voted on increasing the minimum wage in 1997 but between 1997 and 2004 they voted to increase their salaries seven times by a total of $28,500. That increase is more than many American’s make in a year. CEO compensation? Its hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times higher than what their employees take home. Why? Here’s my take on the situation.

We live in a country where the phrase “survival of the fittest” threatens to replace “E Pluribus Unum” on the coinage. Every day we’re bombarded by media images telling us what we need to be happy. To achieve happiness we must be: thin, beautiful, young, rich, in shape, popular, wear tasteful clothes, own every gadget imaginable, have fantastic sex three times a day (well, I like that one) and consume products and resources like there’s no tomorrow. Poor? Overweight? Make less than $200,000 a year? Fuck you. You’re a loser and just using up my oxygen. Get out of the way so I can make more money you pathetic drag on society. Ever get the sneaking suspicion you’re not measuring up to some impossibly high ideal? Don’t believe me? Turn on the TV.

This message has taken deep root in our society. It plays out in our politics and our economic policies. Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame. We as a people are to blame. We permit this ideal to run our lives. We pass it on to our children. Now, I’m not saying hard work, entrepanuership, and enjoying the fruits of your labors is bad. Far from it. There just has be enough fruit for everybody. The gap between rich and poor is growing. We are, as Warren Buffet alluded to a few days ago, turning into a “sharecropper society.” He was talking about foreign debt. I’m talking about a cadre of wealthy people, through politics, economics, and media, trying to make us all good little worker bees and pumping our minds full of the social darwinistic spirituality.

This has all happened before. During the “Gilded Age” at the turn of the last century, robber barons accumulated great wealth while riding roughshod over the American worker. Then, as now, they controlled Capitol Hill and the Fourth Estate. In response to flagrant dehumanizing abuses, the Federal Government established safeguards to protect the common man. You know – child labor laws, the FDA, Social Security, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and protection of unions. Little things like that.

I think we are entering another “Gilded Age.” I hope we have what it takes as a nation to get through it.

The ultimate test of a society is not wealth and power but how it treats its weakest members. No chain is stronger than its weakest link. We’ve lost sight of that fact.

You may snort and dismiss that idea as bullshit. That’s your right. But let me assure you, at one time in your life, whether through illness, age, or economics – you’re going to be that weak link. I guarantee it.

Who will be there to take care of you?

The desire to cut pay from waiters and other tipped workers is only a symptom of a larger and pervasive cancer running through society- that survival of the fittest trumps all.

That’s my opinion. Sorry for rambling on. I’m sure readers will shred this post to pieces.

If you agree with me, write your local representative and tell him or her to protect tipped workers’ basic minimum wage.

I’ll be back with more entertaining stories. I know you all come here for the laughs but every once I while I just gotta say what’s on my mind.

The blog is called Waiter RANT after all.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

CNN

A reader wrote telling me Waiter Rant was mentioned on CNN. It turns out that Jeanne Moos did a story entitled “Wrath of the Waiters” for her program “Making the Moost of It.” She mentioned my website by name and showed a screen shot of the title banner.

The funniest part of the story, for me, was when she asked a waiter, “What things that people ask for really get on your nerves?” The waiter replied, “I think every waiter in the world hates people who order tea.” Moos then goes on to describe all the work involved in preparing this “cheapo beverage” complete with video of saucers slamming, sugar packets crinkling, and scalding water hissing.

She ends the segment by saying, “Got tea? Get your waitress teed off,” while showing a screen shot from my post “Tea Nazi.” Priceless.

I’m sure the tea drinkers will be up in arms over that one.

Sadly the video can only be viewed if you subscribe to Real Player SuperPass. If you have that service goto http://www.cnn.com/video/ and look for Ms. Moos program. If the segment’s not there it might be in her program’s archives.

I want to thank Ms. Moos for including me in her story. If she reads this post I hope she emails me so I can thank her personally.

CNN. How about that?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Heimlich Position


Sex is part of the restaurant business. Think about it. Eating and sex are both activities physically linked to the emotion governing limbic system of the brain. How often have you heard someone describe the taste of food as “orgasmic?” Enjoyment of food often leads to the enjoyment of sex. I know this is true because several couples have told me they conceived their children after eating in my bistro.

Just so long as they didn’t conceive the kid in our bistro. That bathroom sink can only take so much.

Every night, waiters the world over lubricate the age old process of boy meets girl, boy buys girl dinner, girl makes boy breakfast. Isn’t it funny that after performing the horizontal rumba what a lot of people do? Eat more food! How many of us have raided the fridge after an evening of libidinal delight? Yes, eating and sex are linked. And if you’re really creative you do both at the same time.

When you go out to eat, getting laid, or the fantasy of getting laid, is often the unspoken desired result of the evening’s festivities. Good waiters know this and try to promote that possibility. When people know they’re hitting the sheets they tend to leave good tips.

But waiters are not immune to the Siren call of carnality that surrounds them. Working in stressful hot cramped quarters, bodies rubbing up against each other, watching customers tango in the dance of seduction, and the sensuality of food insure that us hooking up with one another is not only probable – it’s inevitable.

A few months ago two of my waiters, lets call them Dylan and Erica, did just that. They actually make a cute couple and, gratefully, do a good job of keeping their personal bullshit out of the workplace. (Whenever two waiters hook up - if you have a problem with one you sometimes have a problem with both.) Dylan and Erica seem to be getting serious. I wish them well. Love is priceless in this world.

Of course the other servers couldn’t leave the situation well enough alone.

Before you could say “Brando and butter,” the giggles, laughs, and innuendos started flying. Dylan and Erica took it in fairly good humor. That is until…………………

I arrive early before the dinner shift and clock in. Shlomo, our token Jewish waiter, is counting the days take from lunch. He’s wearing an evil grin.

“Look behind you,” he says smiling.

I turn around. Right next to the POS system hangs one of those “What to do if someone’s choking” posters. You’ve all seen them. By law it’s displayed in a conspicuous place. The poster’s cartoons show the proper technique for applying the Heimlich maneuver. One of the drawings demonstrates what to do if the choking victim loses consciousness. Basically, you lay the poor bastard on the floor, sit astride them, straddling your legs on either side of their lower torso, leveraging your arms to apply sharp upward abdominal thrusts to dislodge a foreign object. On our particular poster the victim is male and the rescuer female. I guess you know where this is heading.

Some miscreants labeled the figures “Dylan” and “Erica” and drew dialogue balloons all over the poster containing a variety of orgasmic vocalizations. Use your imagination.

The piece de la résistance was a cigarette drawn dangling from “Erica’s” mouth accompanied by the caption, “You’re the best Dylan!”

“Well I’ll be damned. The Heimlich Position,” I comment dryly.

“Got to add that one to the Kama Sutra,” Shlomo chirps.

“Somehow I don’t think that’s what Dr. Heimlich had in mind.”

“Well, you know what happens when you talk with your mouth full,” Shlomo guffaws.

Trust Shlomo to take it to the most prurient level. “Who did this?” I ask.

“Don’t look at me,” he shrugs.

The other waiters amble in for work. Dylan and Erica see the poster and are mortified.

“Real mature guys,” Erica bitches.

I give the mandatory “cut this shit out” talk and the waiters chortle silently, promising nothing like this will ever happen again. I’ll bet.

After the meeting breaks up I cover up the dirty bits with a magic marker. We don’t have another poster to replace it. Out of sheer perversity I leave the cigarette dangling from the figure's mouth.

Customers look at the poster and giggle. The kitchen guys pass by, kiss their fingers, and touch the poster as if it’s some shamanic potency enhancer. Dylan and Erica ignore it. I ask Fluvio to get a new poster. One day a customer, or inspector, is going to freak.

Six months later and the poster’s still there - an amateur pornographic testament to waiter lust and the never ending confluence of food and sex. Fluvio keeps promising to get a new one. Someday.

If you choke in my restaurant you might be in for a surprise.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]