Waiters in their actor-model-artist phase find personal attacks slide off them as easily as beurre blanc off a polyester tuxedo. Then one day you find your dreams in retreat along with your hairline.
I was careening toward this midlife meltdown when Virgil Sharpe appeared in my station at Joie Des Vigne and changed my life. Having not yet rocketed, with the benefit of my fuel, to the success of his later reality shows, “Inside the Vatican” and “Prison Confidential,” he was still but a lowly segment producer for a Bay Area magazine show. Far more illustrious celebrities frequented Joie regularly. So, when the hostess palmed me a Post-it exclaiming the severity of his status: Not VIP, but VVVIP, so designated by Chef Elda Des Vigne, herself, I knew something was up. The loose translation: champagne on the table, dinner on the house and balls on the chopping block if the slightest thing goes wrong.
Lucky for me, people confuse my composure for ease. Like an actress in a long running play who brings her audience to tears, while in her mind she’s composing a shopping list; I apparently appear relaxed and confident when, unbeknownst to my guests, the full menu of my inner landscape has been whittled down to rage and terror. In the grip of the latter, I mustered all available charm to reflect the flirtation oozing toward me from Virgil’s table.
He and his posse, a cameraman, an editor and a personal assistant were attractive and surely gay. Between rallies of intense project chatter, they paused to scrutinize me, murmuring and smirking like schoolboys at a junior high dance. At the end of their meal, Virgil, the most attractive, flashed the kind of crooked smile that is irresistible. Bashfully he said, “We’ve been watching you all night.” The others pretended to gather up their gear, as phony as newscasters shuffling papers.
I returned my best ‘Ah shucks!’ expression.
“You’re very good at your job. But, we all think you’re hiding a lot. We’d love you to meet us at our hotel for a drink when you get off.”
This was a rare moment. Once before, I went down on my knees to mollify a guest. Having slopped a wad of aioli on the Ferragamo’s of a corporate CEO, I instinctively dropped to the floor to wipe them. He sighed, looked down at me clinging to his ankle, swabbing his shoe, and shook me off as if I were a lap dog humping his leg. I admit any of these guys—even all of them at once—in any other circumstance could have had me in a heartbeat. As I see it, guests and servers enter an unspoken contract: We agree to pretend that customers are dear friends enjoying the hospitality of our home. To bolster the illusion, we further agree not to discuss crass monetary transactions or otherwise cross boundaries into the cold face of reality. In plain words, ‘Don’t get personal and think you know me just because I can be who you want me to be for a few hours. It’s called acting, Sweetie Darling!’
Blood began to flame my cheeks. “I’m flattered…” My feet were nailed to the floor. “But I make it a rule not to socialize with guests of the restaurant.”
They laughed out loud.
The frightened little boy on the playground, always the target of jokes, flickered beneath my performance.
Virgil caught it and silenced the others. “We’re shooting a TV pilot. We know you juggle a million things to make your job appear effortless. We’re betting that home viewers want to peek behind the curtain. We want the perspective of a front line soldier before we pitch the idea to your bosses. That’s it.”
I fell in love right then. His tidings were the herald of an angel. I grokked at once what he wanted to do and simultaneously realized in a thunderbolt of inspiration how desperately he needed my help.
At the hotel lobby bar, Virgil filled in the details. A half-dozen camera operators would slither throughout the restaurant to document an objective day in the life. Two major networks had already expressed interest. Reality shows were the next big wave and he intended to surf the curl. As he recounted obstacles thwarted and opportunities seized; he exposed the honed, cunning instincts of a true hunter, as dogged and resourceful as any soap opera vixen out to bag her man.
“The cameras need absolute freedom to roam,” he argued. He seemed to be rehearsing for an imagined opposition as he lurched from his seat. When it bloomed in the foreground of his distant calculations, he froze halfway to his feet. “Elda’s integrity is legendary…” He deflated back into the button-leather booth and downshifted into a reverent hush “You…” he said, pointing a finger in my chest, “know her, work with her every day. Will she suffer the intrusion?”
Such enthusiasm tempered by astonishing naiveté. He was accessible, adorable, and most importantly, gave me room to add something to his equation.
“You’ve never worked in a restaurant have you?” I asked. “Trust me. So many things you think you know are absolutely wrong.”
It was either pluck or the way I dove naked into the deep pools of his wide-eyed conviction.
He swallowed, perhaps a little nervous. “You can illuminate me?”
I pushed my knee into his and he responded in kind. “It’s brilliant but won’t work the way you’ve set it up.”
His cohorts, now certain they were on the outside of a seduction, split for last call elsewhere. I doubt I would have had the nerve to share my vision if we hadn’t made our carnal connection. In the morning, after breakfast in bed, we hashed over the fine points. My scheme turned out to have problems of its own. Virgil’s solution, now mythic, was a brilliant ruse around the quagmire of attaining binding releases from subjects photographed in less than flattering light.
A panel van follows me to work as I walk my familiar six blocks to Joie Des Vigne. A wireless transmitter is strapped in a garter to my inner thigh and a video rig is micro-contained inside horn-rimmed glasses. They’re identical to a pair I always wear but feel as though they’re made of lead.
I look everywhere at once. Down to my feet—it’s the opening shot of Saturday Night Fever. Up through a neurotic tangle of trees—look at me, I’m Ingmar Bergman. The AD sticks his head out the van and screams to hold my head steady. “We’re not shooting establishing shots of NYPD Blue!”
The van parks across the street from the restaurant. I go in and see everything with new eyes. I feel the faceless millions looking over my shoulder. Right this way; I’ll be your guide.
To our left, lurking under the grand staircase like trolls under a bridge is our reservation team. These velvet-voiced gargoyles are guardians at the gate. Raida’s in charge and been here the longest, a 300 pound hen to her brood of wayward chicks. Hung over from all night X-athons, they miraculously juggle who gets squeezed in; which callers go on perpetual hold; whose turn it is for a junk food run; gossip that the boyfriend of whoever isn’t there is bisexual—might as well be queer, Girlfriend—and integrate couch surfing, party and work schedules into feasible logistics.
Soon, the rest of the staff will arrive and fill the place with frenetic energy. But now, a single voice floats down through the open atrium. Strident and familiar, it sings out against the incessant phone chatter. Chef Elda is conducting a round table meeting with her Sous Chef lieutenants; Larry, the General Manager; and Jackie, personal photographer, PR attaché, liaison to the lesbian community, and all around closest advisor. Her life-partner, Lucy, always at her side, is nursing their new baby.
Raida knows me well and holds the reservation sheet out like a white flag while she turns her face away. Roughly translated this means, ‘Don’t blame me for your pathetic life!’
I scan the numbers and understand. “Shoot me now,” I say with my signature sigh of exaggerated despair.
“Take a Valium, girl.” Her mouth is full of Cheetos, but her eyes show sympathy. “You knew Silly Billy wouldn’t miss this.”
The usual suspects have all confirmed, including the two most hated clients, Mayor Billy Rose and society maven, Clarice Dale. The Mayor will land in my world; but pitiful Brad, our newest waiter and recent New York transplant, must suffer the far worse fate. It all bodes well for heightened drama. Still, they expect my dread and I deliver. “Hurry, cough it up. Dish and make me forget this misery.”
Raida complies. “No sooner do I plant my fat ass down when my first call wakes me up with this load of crap, ‘I want to make a reservation and register a complaint.’ And good morning to you, I say. Which would you like to do first?”
I start to laugh, but she cuts me off.
“No, that’s not even it. She says she works for Clarice Dale and Mrs. Dale is furious because she’s monitored the street parking in front of the restaurant. Since they’re always the same cars, she’s determined the ‘service people’ here take all the free spaces. I swear to God she used those words. I asked why it was a problem for Mrs. Dale that people would want to park where they work. She got all huffy and said it forces our patrons to pay the outrageous valet charge.”
“She has more money than God!” I squeal. My mouth is gaping, and I’m thinking. ‘This is being taped for posterity.’
“Shut-up, there’s more.” Raida shifts to a loud whisper. “I know I’m awake when I realize I recognize the vampire accent…”
“I tell her I’ll have the manager refund Mrs. Dale’s twelve dollars the next time she comes in, even if I have to take it out of my own pocket.” The mischief in Raida’s eyes is delectable. “She says I’ve missed the point. She’ll have my head on a platter if I embarrass Mrs. Dale with such trivia. Well, I say, thank-you for your comments Mrs.… What was it again? ‘Never mind!’ She barks at me. I give her a second. Then I ask her. Would you like to make your reservation now? She slams the phone in my ear. An hour later, the same voice, calling herself Mrs. Dale this time, calls back to reserve for tonight. She hasn’t been here in six months and demands her usual table—like I would know. Besides that—and this is what’s creepy—she was sweet as pie.”
I say, “Maybe she’s like Sybil. Some of her personalities don’t know the other ones.”
“She won’t be alone, Honey,” Raida says. “Having cameras in here tonight will be like turning over a rotten stump in the woods.” She gives me another look of pity. “You must have slept with your head on backward.”
“You’re as stiff as Michael Jackson at a Cub Scout meeting.”
I grab my shoulder, thinking, ‘My camera work is way too obvious.’ “Yeah,” I say, “I always end up pulling the same muscle.”
“I thought that was Stefano’s job. You could go blind, you know.”
Raida gets the last laugh, as usual. I leave up Joie’s famous staircase. The banisters are berry-laden T-vine trellises sculpted in bronze. The carpet is textured and plush, a golden pattern of fallen leaves. If my station were closer to the manager’s meeting, I could polish my setups and get an earful of their evil plot. As it is, the best I can do is skirt past them to retrieve a missing spoon or fill a saltshaker.
Virgil affects me like no one I’ve hooked up with, nothing like Stefano, the pastry assistant I’ve amused myself with the past few weeks. Attracted and intimidated all at once, I‘m compelled to impress Virgil with a job well done. As I approach the honchos, I look over the whole room so viewers at home can get a sense of the grandeur. Tables downstairs are plainly for those who can’t demand to be seated up here. A thirty-foot circular wall, wine storage floor to ceiling, forms the perimeter of the mezzanine and support to the backlit, trompe-l’oeil dome projected with a sky of ever-changing weather. Grape velvet booths on the highest tier look down one level to a spiral ramp lined with tables. Upstairs, everyone gets a view of the little people below crowding up to the bar. The caste system, a one-night fantasy for some, banality for others, is a mandate silently built into the architecture.
I cruise by close to the conclave, too insignificant to be noticed. The Chef rolls her eyes toward her partner, Lucy, as if to say ‘Can you believe what I have to endure with these fools?’
“At any given moment the cameras need to find you cooking,” Jackie says as she pats Elda’s hand. “Anything else and you’ll never live it down.”
Elda jerks away. “I can’t believe I agreed to this. It’s Frank and Ryan’s menu… I don’t even know the dishes…”
Ryan, one of the Sous Chefs, interrupts, “We can make you look busy if we put you on broiler. The action is all in sauté.”
The heat is on Elda to step up to her stoves. As I make a second pass, Jackie’s face is lowered to the table. She looks up at Elda, who refuses to look back, and suggests in her best rendition of sincerity, “I promise. The James Beard Society will piss all over themselves to give you another award after this.”
Larry, the GM, winces, turns and catches me staring. His homicidal glare and finger pointed to Hell are cues for me to book downstairs. Pronto!
As quickly as I understood the brilliance of Virgil’s idea, so he comprehended my explanation of why it wouldn’t work. I told him that a TV station once sent a reporter to Joie to ask servers how much they thought diners should tip and what they had a right to expect in return. The word came down the day before. We could kiss our jobs goodbye if anything remotely derogatory got on the air. We all swore we didn’t care about money. I thought a certain waitress would burst into flames when she puked up this quote, “I rise each day exhilarated by the privilege of injecting a little joy into my guests’ challenging lives.”
Then I gave him my subjective view of Elda Des Vigne and her legendary integrity. Down a carcass strewn trail blazed by many a big shot, Elda wandered blindly, believing her own PR. Disdainful of hot and dirty kitchen toil, she considered her dues fully paid in that regard. Still, her instincts told her the appeal of cooking was personal and sensual, a semiotic link to a nurturing mother who otherwise might live only in imagination. For the pollen of celebrity to attach to their wings as they fluttered from restaurant to restaurant, foodies needed to believe that the chef’s own hands had touched their meals. In truth, she rarely stepped into the kitchen named for her passion and joy. Her Sous Chefs created and executed the menu responsible for her success and reputation. If they dared to make a move for their own recognition, Elda’s dream of retiring in Provence was threatened. They were dispatched and replaced with the next starry-eyed cook willing to sacrifice their life for her glorious name on their resume.
Virgil saw the futility of asking for an unbiased look inside a world that thrives on manipulating the media and exploiting public misconceptions.
“What if you didn’t ask?” I offered. “What if you rigged me with a hidden surveillance camera to record what really happens?”
“Impossible,” he replied. “You can’t publish anyone’s photographed image without a signed release.”
Still, the thought of it got us hot and bothered. Virgil wasn’t too rowdy in the sack, but he had potential. Stefano, my Latin lover, was a fiery pepper but as smart as a pound of hamburger. Virgil and I made sparks bumping brains; something I’d never experienced.
“Unless…” He popped upright, his eyes flickering. “We get the signatures in advance.”
“But they’d see us coming.”
“Not if we do it my way,” he paused. “And your way.”
I didn’t get it yet but I liked the way he made it sound.
“When people call for reservations, we’ll tell them we’re shooting a new reality-based TV show profiling the restaurant. Would they be willing to sign a release when they arrive? Later, as everyone jockeys into position for their fifteen minutes; they’ll assume all the decoy cameramen wandering around are capturing the action.”
My train of thought bumped his and coupled. “No one suspects my hidden camera because they don’t know there is an untold story to tell…”
“…And our releases for principle and incidental photography are binding.”
We squealed like little girls. It was wild, clever, sexy and fearless. Virgil began to make phone calls immediately. I was a man drowning in open sea that first finds a lifesaver, then sights land. Could we be the new kids in Tinsel Town? Host fabulous dinners in our Hollywood bungalow with Ellen, or Rupert or maybe even Tom. Who knew where it could end? I had nothing to lose.
Larry, the GM, calls, “Line-up!” From my usual chair, I establish the scene in a panoramic sweep by pretending to stretch my stiff neck. Servers, bussers, runners and the rare attendance of the entire kitchen staff coagulate into disparate tribes for the pre-shift muster. Nervous banter and giddy expectation charge the air, despite everyone’s best efforts to feign disinterest.
Behind Larry, Chef Elda ascends to the top of the stairs, a visitation from the bowels of Faustian mystery. Nary a hair strays from her signature tieback. Heavy makeup, so alien that a smidgen of rouge would be alarming, gives her parched complexion the nap of a Camembert’s bloomy rind. Her crisply tailored chef-coat is white enough to summon a celestial choir.
Next to me, Tom, a new face among the runners, whispers in my ear. “Is that someone I should know?”
He’s only been here a few weeks. I pretend not hear him.
Larry hushes the cross talk while Jackie nudges Elda forward to address her minions.
“We have a tremendous opportunity tonight to show the world what a great restaurant we have. Though I get all the credit and awards, the so-called (finger quotes here) celebrity status…” She giggles and looks to Jackie and Lucy who display no reaction. “It’s Larry and Ryan and Frank and each of you that lifts me up. All of you are truly the wind beneath my wings. Let’s get out there and show them how it’s done.”
The crowd is hungry for praise and breaks into applause. Larry invites the kitchen staff to gather around Elda for a group photo that Jackie will shoot to promote the show. Dining room blue jackets remain behind to get their station assignments, VIP details, and the daily scolding about persistent problems like orphaned dishes in the side-stations or waiters gossiping within earshot of guests.
At the other end of the room, Jackie optimistically assembles a ragtag, burned and crippled, strung-out, tattooed, pierced and scarred pack of white jackets into three tiered rows, a sort of amphitheater of freakdom with Elda in the center. Just as the bulb is about to pop, Jackie detects something in her viewfinder politically unsavory to Elda’s image.
A huddle is called with Elda and Lucy. Elda’s iron-jawed grimace and rolling eyes, Jackie’s and Lucy’s simpering pleas, and conspicuous attention to Elda’s jacket all point to a possible topic at hand. Epiphany arrives when Jackie indicates the appearance of the assembled cooks with a sweep of her hand. Elda looks them over, considers the situation, and suddenly recognizes that, fresh from the trenches of the prep kitchen, the cleanest among them might have just crawled through a sewer. She looks down at herself and reassesses with fresh horror.
Another scenario plays out among the blue jackets. Larry pauses mid-tirade when Brad, a new waiter from Houston, slinks into the meeting late, half dressed, carrying his shoes in his hands.
“It’s crucial we make a good impression tonight.” Larry says. “Although, someone didn’t think it was worth getting here on time for.”
Clearly Brad has had a terrible day. He turns red, but from anger not embarrassment. “The windows in my car were bashed out in front of this place last night. Excuse me for having to wait four hours at the body shop for new ones.”
The other servers, ordinarily happy to see a newbie sacrificed in order to deflect the general harangue, take a U-turn into sympathetic grumbling. A rash of car break-ins, half a dozen in a week, has been a source of misery for everyone.
Larry praises the rest of the staff for leaving their personal problems outside when they come to work. In a final jab at Brad, he announces the VIP list. As I had already discovered, the mayor was to be my personal burden while poor cocky Brad would be responsible for the whims of Clarice Dale. His surprise at all the looks of pity is a clear sign he’s never heard of her.
It’s hard to tell where the juiciest revelations for home viewers might occur, so I swing back and forth to capture everything. At the photo session, Elda has removed her pristine chef’s coat and tries for the shot in a navy blue sweatshirt. Jackie isn’t happy. Posing for a photographer who keeps changing her mind is one of life’s banal, yet intensely aggravating experiences. Among the cooks, the usual rabbit ears, flipped birds, head slaps from nowhere, chitchat and such begin erupting to beat the anxiety. I smile at Stefano, to extend a friendly sign of recognition, as if to say, ‘Can you believe all this?’ He scowls at me and turns away as if he wants to spit. Our star-crossed affection has always flown over the traditional battlefield of whites and blues. I have no idea what to make of this.
Before I can think about it, Jackie makes an announcement. Elda needs to borrow a jacket from one of the girls, about her size, in the middle row. No one pays any attention or responds. Jackie tells Elda that Amy looks like the perfect fit. Elda moves toward the rabble, then jerks to halt and looks back at Jackie. Using tilted eyebrows, a shoulder shrug and an amplified frown she mimes, ‘Help me out here!’
Jackie sees the problem and shouts, “Amy! Raise your hand!”
Elda mimes an exaggerated, ‘Thank You.’ Clearly, she has no idea who Amy is, or probably any of the others.
At last, on Chef Des Vigne, the filthy, food-stained jacket, a testament to Amy’s long hours and grueling labor, is the magic ingredient that makes the Polaroid test shots sing. Elda emerges, a triumphant general willing to wallow through the muck with her troops. Amy, not adding much to Jackie’s vision, and without a uniform, is asked to stand outside the camera’s frame.
The hustle and hurry of the job persist in a surreal atmosphere of expectation and denial. The air is thicker due to inescapable self-consciousness. Orders must be placed, fetched, cleared and prioritized despite the dreamlike sensation of running through sand. The heft of the video glasses on my nose and ears is not imaginary. The pain won’t allow a second of disregard. Diners, too, struggle to appear nonchalant but can’t hide furtive glances into every dark corner on the lookout for roaming Beta-cams. The fake media remains at ground level, a disappointment to upstairs guests, and a relief to their waiters.
I arrive to take the order of a lady in a tailored, white Chanel suit. An angry shock of silver hair and decades of stylishly self-imposed starvation completes her silhouette as an anthropomorphous Q-tip. My eyes wander as I listen to her jabber on, asserting her self-importance.
“If my halibut tastes fishy, I’ll send it back… blah, blah, blah…I have a very sensitive constitution…”
“Perhaps a non-seafood entree would be more to your liking.” I’ve heard this ‘I require extraordinary handling’ routine so often, I’m only half-listening. Below, through the atrium, the ameba like crowd in the bar is shape shifting, highest density following the camera lenses.
“Make sure Elda knows she’s cooking for me.” Then, in an aside to her pursed-lip crony, “Elda is a magician with fish. But on her days off, watch out!”
‘That would be everyday,’ I’m thinking. “My pleasure,” is what I say.
Above the shellacked, beauty parlor bouffant of the other woman, I see Brad in the distant bus station motioning for help. He looks afraid.
Clarice Dale has just landed in his station. Larry’s instructions are unambiguous. Under no circumstance is she to be refused any request. Brad begs me for the 411.
I punch Q-tip’s order into the computer, sans any special instructions; scan my station for flag waivers; see that my own special horror, the mayor and his entourage are filing toward my last empty table; and give Brad the skinny on Mrs. Dale.
“Supposedly, she swam across some God forsaken river in Transylvania to escape the Reds. She made a Scarlet O’Hara vow to never go hungry again and outlived two husbands, a Hollywood mogul and a retail magnate. They left her enough money to buy Fort Knox. Let’s see. She reigned over the social register with an elbow length glove and a dagger behind her back for thirty years. Now, women with newer money and fewer facelifts are nipping at her Manolo Blahniks and it’s made her kind of loopy. She’s so cheap; she carries one of those double-sided plastic cards that tell you how much to tip. One side has fifteen percent, the other twenty. The side with twenty has a big black X through it so she won’t make a mistake after she’s had one too many. Let her take the lead and never look her in the eye. Cheers!”
Mayor Billy Rose looks like a million bucks and always works the room. If you didn’t know him, you’d assume he was the maître d’. I wind my way over to greet him and try to dampen potential flare-ups along the way. While some of the regulars derive their self-esteem from the location of their table, others monitor my face time with them and compare it to the charms they see lavished on others.
The most hateful thing about the Mayor makes serving him nearly tolerable. Since waiters are invisible, beneath contempt, it’s almost impossible to offend him. His orders are mini-oratorios delivered into midair. I have rolled my eyes in disgust right in front of him, secure that he would have to look at me to see it.
After I pamper his party into sufficient docility, I linger at the table, hoping for a candid pearl or two.
“A green light for us will displace an army of homeless. That’s the media position,” says one of the smug, banker types flanking Bold Billy.
“Yes, but only down the street,” says the other.
“I clean up crime one block at a time, Gentleman,” the Mayor chimes in. “If other cities are a Roadside Six aspiring to be a Hilton, this town is exceptional. Not everyone gets to live at the Waldorf Astoria.”
They all laugh and swirl their wine.
Tiresome fetching, dull guests, and tedious banter are duly consigned to the editing room floor.
Again, I’m marooned with a guest’s endless queries when Brad pops up in the background. He’s performing at the Mayor’s table, all wild arm angles, fully engaged, like a suburban white kid rapping Ebonics on a daytime talk show. When I manage to break free and track him down, he’s in the bus station mysteriously trying to dislodge a behemoth, silver-plated dessert cart from between the dishwasher and espresso machine.
“What’s up with you at the Mayor’s table?”
“Give me a hand, Dude.” He’s fully focused. “The Mayor’s cool. I had a complaint to register, that’s all.”
“Wait a second. What the hell are you doing?” The obsolete cart hasn’t been used in months.
A vein popping effort jerks the silver beast free, toppling a pyramid of demitasses above the espresso machine and landing Brad on his butt.
My gaping jaw pleads for an explanation.
“She ordered me to clear her plates and bring the dessert cart. I tried to tell her we don’t use it anymore, but she waved me away before I could finish. I’m already on thin ice. Tell her ‘No’ and I’m toast! Give me a hand with this bad boy.”
His logic is sound and ridiculous at once. We bump chairs right and left, jostling diners with soupspoons halfway home. The video glasses pinching my nose remind me to let the madness unfold.
I remember why I came over. My face says I want to scream, but I whisper, “Who are you to complain to the Mayor?”
“A citizen just like you…” Brad speaks right out.
“He’s cool. I told him, my car got trashed in a string of break-ins. I asked him to help me out. Put more cops on or something? He said he was glad I brought it to his attention.”
I have no time to consider everything that’s wrong with the picture of Brad’s idiotic breech of decorum. All eyes are nailed to the silver dinosaur rolling up to Clarice Dale’s booth.
She ignores us completely, holding court with a contingency of Junior Leaguers, all suitably in awe. Our great shiny object, like a giant fish lure, steals the attention of her novice patricians, one by one. Mrs. Dale, more experienced at taking servants for granted, glances our way for a split-second, only when it’s obvious that her audience has changed channels.
“Ah, finally!” she announces with a dismissive wave, rattling the jewels around her bony wrist. Though her speech is lazy from martinis and wine, her resolution persists.
The younger women stare at the empty cart, frozen like rabbits hoping to disappear when a predator approaches.
Eons pass in tortured silence. Something is amiss. The face that took Hollywood to its knees reemerges. Desolate eyes that sent Wall Street running for its life now focus on the empty cart, a challenge most undeserving.
Brad, intimidated by no one without a weapon, is compelled by dark force to begin stuttering a plea. “I… I tried to explain… we don’t… I… this cart… it’s not…”
“Young man!” Her first instinct: stop the unseemly—and incriminating—gush of confession. As she processes the implications of the empty cart, you can almost hear the dominoes fall behind her exquisitely waxed brows. “As a frequent guest here, I’m well aware. Turn the cart so my guests can see it.”
She hasn’t been to Joie in ages. I’m transfixed and follow orders.
Brad is bewildered. “Our desserts…” he begins.
“Are obviously not worth waiting for and were never worthy of display on this charming anachronism. Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“We don’t use it anymore,” is Brad’s dumb reply.
Brad and I again cease to exist as Mrs. Dale, fully recovered, waves us away.
As we wrench the thing back into motion, I watch and listen as she seamlessly turns all things to her advantage.
“Isn’t it marvelous?” Her devotees are recaptured. “It represents a whole style of life that’s vanishing. I’m thinking of one for the cottage in East Hampton…”
An inspired performance captured for all time. My own section beckons when Brad lobs his final bomb in my direction.
“Word up. Stefano’s flippin’ out in the pantry over you hangin’ with the TV dude. Threatening to make a scene or some shit.”
Which way to turn? On my way downstairs, I cruise by the Mayor just as the two bankers are leaving the booth, presumably to smoke or go to the john, leaving him alone with his personal assistant. In a flash of genius—OK, the video rig was giving me a headache and a bitch fight with Stefano was the last thing I wanted to record for posterity—I put the glasses down, facing the Mayor near a potted orchid. That clip now belongs to the ages.
I stepped into the kitchen to find Stefano and instantly remembered why I never went in there. The usual hostility and torment behind the line had devolved several rungs down Dante’s ladder due to the rare and disruptive appearance of Chef Elda. Disappointed guests had returned a fortune’s worth of overcooked meat, pushed into a corner of her supposedly easy broiler station, awaiting future employee meals. The two things she hated most were losing money and cooking. She lashed out at everyone, blaming them all for her rusty skills. I was captivated by her stunning hypocrisy until I remembered that America was no longer peeking over my shoulder. It was nothing new to me.
I scanned for Stefano’s face in the pantry and knew I was in trouble when I found it. He slammed his pastry bag down so hard it sprayed crème fraiche all over the Sous Chef. Ryan, at wit’s end from the Chef’s shenanigans, was in no mood to suffer a lover’s quarrel. Stefano tried to shove me away as he made for the door. Through hot tears that would make Maria Callas look like June Cleaver, he threatened to find a roving camera and announce to the world that Virgil had stolen his man.
Ryan seemed certain to pimp-slap both of us, as if we were two of his line-cook whores. When he stopped, knife in hand, and just stared at the unfolding drama with a shell-shocked gaze, I remember thinking the laws of physics were suspended. I lied and told Stefano we were the victims of vicious rumors. Gossip is the only thing faster than light blah, blah. Though I had every intention of dumping him later, at that moment I said whatever I could think of that would reassure him back to his tarts and cookies.
Mission accomplished, I retrieved the glasses in time to say goodnight to the Mayor. The phony camera crew was wrapping it up. The frenetic energy was dying down. I slipped into the alley to gather my wits and smoke a quick cigarette out by the trash. I knew I captured some good footage, but I worried that Virgil might be disappointed. Our future together, our glitter town bungalow, all of it depended on worthy material.
High heels against the sidewalk clicked into my attention. The dark apparition of Clarice Dale, cape billowing behind her, staggered toward me drunk and mumbling, as if invisible sycophants hung on her words. I crouched behind a dumpster and held my breath.
“Goddamn junkers… in my space…” She addressed a road weary station wagon. “Charge me ten dollars… make me hire a limo…” She looked around frantic, as if someone might see her, before zeroing in on her actual target. Wooden slats to hold produce crates off the ground near a service elevator were propped up by cinder blocks. She kicked away the boards with the toe of a beaded sling-back, then bent over to retrieve a brick. “I’m sick of paying faceless thugs to do this…” She tottered back to the car, bashed the brick through the passenger window and started to sing, “Another brick might do the trick.” From there, she dashed to the middle of the street and summoned her driver with a rattle of the ice dangling off her bony wrist. It scooped her up from her nefarious deed and sped away into the night.
I felt pretty damn lucky and went looking for Virgil. I found him camped out in front of huge monitors inside the remote studio van parked on the other side of the restaurant. I wanted to sneak up on him, ask whether the scene I had just nailed down with Clarice Dale wasn’t electrifying. ‘If that isn’t great TV,’ I wanted to cluck, ‘I don’t know what is.’ He was intent on a piece of tape I didn’t recognize from anything I had just experienced. It was the infamous Mayor clip, the first time I ever saw it:
Mayor Billy and his assistant sit across from each other in the wide velvet booth. Both wear expressions of inconsolable distress.
When the Mayor speaks, his assistant flinches as if braving a sandstorm. “The nerve of that suck-ass waiter bringing me a load of shit about street crime in front of my guests…”
“I think he admired you…”
“Make sure Elda Des Vigne knows I’ll never set a foot… no, even better, let her know city health inspectors will find violations in this greasy pit if that little fag isn’t fired.”
The assistant buries his face in hands before the Mayor delivers his most famous line.
“If you can’t afford to have your car broken into now and then, you got no business livin’ in this city.”
“Wow!” I couldn’t believe it. “All that after I put the glasses down?” I squeezed Virgil’s shoulders only to feel them recoil at my touch. “Come on, this is great stuff. Add that to Mrs. Dale’s crime spree. What could be better?”
“Sure, it’s great. Let me show you some other tape that’s great, very revealing.” His voice was strangely disaffected.
He pointed to a different monitor and pressed some buttons. It was a scene shot from inside the kitchen. Amid background chaos and noise, the Chef is in focus talking straight into the camera. A door shuts behind her and I realize she is inside the walk-in cooler:
She says, “There’s too much staff falling over each other. I want a twenty percent cutback.”
Another voice speaks, “I can’t put people out on the street. This food is labor intensive. We need everyone.”
“They’re losers. None of them has what it takes to make it.”
“Get free interns from the cooking academy,” is her coldhearted answer.
I started wondering who could have been in the position to get these shots, and then I recognized the Sous Chef’s voice. “My God, you wired Ryan, too, and never told me.”
“That’s right,” he slapped my hand off his shoulder. “And he got more…”
The tape scrambled forward to a scene I recognized. I flashed on Ryan standing there shell-shocked, knife in hand:
Stefano is sobbing, back to the camera. I’m petting his hair, holding him together. Quietly but clearly I say, “You know me. Why would I hook-up with that flaming queen when I have you? Virgil is a repulsive, flabby-ass troll who has crooked teeth.”
There wasn’t a shred of truth, except for maybe his crowded incisors, for me his most adorable feature. I tried to explain, but I was no Clarice Dale. His vanity exaggerated that tiny shred into a shame so huge it could never be undone. When he ordered me to get out and never call him again, he screamed through clenched lips like a bad ventriloquist. He couldn’t even force himself to look at me.
I skulked back into the restaurant to gather my things and contemplate, if possible, the ironclad finality of my shattered dream and overripe career as a waiter.
At a table I was notorious for neglecting, a young couple was scanning the room so they could pay and leave. It shocked me back into the moment. As terrible a waiter as I sometimes was, I saw no reason why they, who had been pleasant enough, should suffer the consequences of my absurd life.
Just as I was about to beg their forgiveness, I saw the energy between them changing. She pulled away and crossed her arms like a shield. He stuck his jaw out as if he were daring her to say another word. Instinctively, I took a step back from the table.
“We’ve been ready to go for some time,” he said to me, staring blankly at her. “We thought maybe you went home.”
“I got sidetracked, to say the least. I’m so sorry…”
“He’s been wanting to go home since we got here,” she interrupted.
“So I don’t like to sit and gab for two hours,” he said, still no expression.
“I’ll get your check right away…” I saw my feeble attempt to escape was doomed when she smiled at me and gave him the stink-eye.
To me she said, “I should have known better than to bring him to a nice place like this,” as if together, she and I had agreed that her companion was an ignorant lout.
In truth, it was much easier for me to see why ten minutes with her would be impossible.
He tapped his finger into the table so hard I thought it might poke through. “You’ve got sixty seconds to bring the check, you candy-ass bootlick!”
His choice of words, like my unfortunate jab at Virgil’s crooked teeth, pierced too close to home. It had practically been my job description. That it was a job I had outgrown did not escape me. A wash of calm rushed through my veins. My fate was no longer tied to some cretin confusing his hatred of women with his frustrated disdain for me.
I spoke a simple truth. “I’m afraid you’re in the unlucky position to run into me at the end of my career as a waiter. There is no fear left that could motivate me to do your bidding. I’m not going to scurry off and pray that I can please you so you won’t get me fired. You can’t make me care. I’m going home now and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
He smiled and got up from his chair. I actually thought he was appreciating the moment, would ask to shake my hand, maybe wish me luck. I was an idiot not to realize I had just dissolved the contract, the thin veneer of civility, which at that moment and for all my years as a waiter had been my only shield against savage and deeply repressed rage. He punched me so hard that I was still in the hospital when the show finally aired.
The resulting media circus was such a boon to Virgil’s career it was easy for him to set aside his rancor. He even acquiesced to appear with me in public during our short-lived glory on the talk show circuit. No doubt, all those appearances with my face rearranged helped my lawyers squeeze out a healthy settlement for me. Fame and notoriety were equally fleeting, but I learned volumes about the subtleties between them. Joie Des Vigne became a Horn of Plenty, a chain of pile-it-on, steam table buffets, and was soon more popular than ever, though to a markedly different crowd. Chef Elda retired to her family farm in the Central Valley that bears no resemblance to her dream of Provence. The Mayor, after a tearful Mea Culpa that any TV evangelist caught with his pants down would be proud of, lost his bid for Governor. He now pontificates to rush hour commuters through the airwaves on FM radio. Clarice Dale emerged from Betty Ford unscathed to reclaim her society throne. Interviewers asked me: would I do it again? How could I not?
©1997-2004 Blithe House Quarterly : all rights reserved