As part of the routine death-scramble to keep my head above water in New York City, I have taken a series of restaurant jobs. The latest is in an iconic French bistro in SoHo, where a bottle of budweiser costs $8. I find it so strange to find myself in an environment like this–one which I habitually avoid as a necessary evil of living in this city–that I have decided to write about the experience, to try to understand it as much as possible.
My journal entry from yesterday:
“Working in a busy restaurant usually feels like being attacked from all sides. There is a constant bustling in every direction, strange faces in every moment. Every crevice of space–between tables, beside waiter stations, next to the bar, near the door–is filled by some hurtling body as soon as it becomes available. A staff person in the midst of this must be vigilant and tense to the point of paranoia. A blind step can never be taken, for fear of dislodging a food-runner’s precarious arrangement of dishes, bumping a self-important patron, or spilling a tray of drinks. In especially busy restaurants, some staff develop the habit of carrying loaded trays above their heads, almost always with only one hand, adding to the waiter’s apprehension. Scalding coffee and broken glass may come raining down on his or her head at any moment.
Adding to this pandemonium are the customers, who, like aging water buffalo, lumber blithely around, making sudden and irrational movements, jostling heavily-burdened servers, pushing blindly through doors, and so on. Many restaurant patrons appear to suffer from a potent combination of severe cataracts and vertigo, in addition to symptoms suggesting placement in the milder range of the Autism spectrum (waving arms, unwavering fixation on obscure topics, tantrums, and a lack of interobjectivity–that is, the knowledge that others have minds and exist independently of the subject).
There is a certain camaraderie among servers (of equal rank–the busboy/waiter/runner/bartender battles are worth a chapter or two themselves), although to call it ‘camaraderie’ belies its innately conspiratorial nature. Part of the job of a waiter is to exude patience and serenity, in contrast to the harrying truth. The tableside manner of a good waiter, then, represents an alter ego of the true waiter–not false, but not complete either. Expressing pleasure in the buffaloes’ selections, confidence in the face of absurd questioning (“Do you still have goat’s eggs?” “Is the trout vegetarian?” “What are the mussels made of?”) and requests (“Can you make the Eggs Benedict without ham? Or hollandaise sauce? Or muffins?” “I don’t want to spend money on a cab; can one of your staff walk me home?”), all the while maintaining a pleasant air of deference to people who insist on goat’s eggs–these are the facts of a waiter’s life.
But the most troubling moments come before the restaurant opens. Chairs are wiped, salt shakers are filled, ketchup and honey are poured, napkins are laid, packets of sugar are arranged–in short, a pantheon of tasks so unimportant and brainless that they inspire a morbid, exhausting depression in the waiter even before his or her shift begins. Having been led to believe all my life that my brain would secure interesting and fulfilling work–and still sometimes indulging myself in this fantasy–these moments represent the darkness of a life gone wrong, or at least astray.
Lastly, it is a job in which variety is feared and hated (by both the management and the patrons). Changes to the food or service may affect whatever inscrutable factor it was that made the business attractive to begin with. Your job, as a waiter, is to preserve this sameness by completing a sequence of almost inconsequential tasks as mildly and invisibly as possible. It is nearly a formula for abstracting yourself right out of existence.
And for this, for waking up at 5:20 in the morning; for wearing a spotless and pressed uniform; for memorizing pages of fine details about eggs, oatmeal, steak, french fries, salad dressing; for being the butt of rude and entitled behavior; for being summoned with a snap of the fingers; for working twelve straight hours on your feet, often without eating, you may hope to be paid $28,000 a year.