….always, always a procrastinator. This is going to get really sticky in the next couple of weeks. Why do I see myself rising at 6am on the 30th, while the world sleeps peacefully under flannel sheets and down comforters, brewing a pot of coffee I intend to drink entirely by myself, and flipping open the laptop to type furiously for 18 hours with breaks only to use the facilities in a mad dash to finish my novel and take my place as a NaNoWriMo winner? Possibly because history wills it so. Didn’t get much writing done this weekend due to a massive catching up on sleep, a friend’s birthday party and unprecedented housecleaning. All of which sound like horribly lame excuses in hindsight. Will try to write more at work this afternoon. But, in the meantime, here’s what I’ve managed to add:
Perhaps this had something to do with his sudden partner crisis. Either way, I didn’t budge or change a thing after he was gone. His problem with the way I lived was his problem.
But there was no denying the mounting stress involved in being spoken down to by snarky diners night after night (no matter how great the tips were), in keeping the rockband machine rolling with a perpetual to-do list of marketing, booking and keeping the damn band from breaking up every five minutes, in spending one day a week bagging up overpriced desserts while my English degree grows multi-colored mold colonies.
These thoughts would well up from the deep from time to time, and when they did I would quell them with the reassuring knowledge that I had chosen the road less traveled! I was not a member of any herd! I go out on Sunday nights! I grocery shop at 3am! I. Am. Different.
“And look where it’s gotten you,” says the voice in my head, the one that is distinctly mine, but says all the things to which I will never outwardly admit thinking. “Your life hangs by a rotting thread, Jules. You have no savings. You’re the proud owner of a just-manageable sum of debt. You sleep alone. You are not a rockstar, and, let’s be honest, the band has become a burden – the fun has been sucked out of it. Oh, and don’t forget you still don’t have insurance and you haven’t seen a doctor, or a dentist while we’re at it, in four years, and you could very well be dying and not even know it.” My inner critic has a tendency to be grim and over-dramatic.
I’ve fogged a tiny circle of the glass storm door, which I reflexively turn into a miniature frowny face before shutting the front door on it. I shouldn’t be tired having slept a good part of the day, but I am. Market mornings are early, and its best if I take advantage of my fatigue and hit the sack now.
My dreams are standard fair this time around – something involving waiting tables in an ever-expanding labyrinth of a restaurant. I’ll be trying to get drinks for one table, which will become an impossible task for one reason or another. Meanwhile the hostess will be informing me that I have several new tables who’ve been seated, but I can’t even find my way back to the first table because the restaurant now has a three stories, two turrets, Escher-like staircases and a vast patio on the other side of a mote.
I love the market best in my first two hours there. Mornings here are like the forest just before sunrise – the strange anticipation in the air, a single bird typically awake before the others, sending out tentative, questioning chirps. The atmosphere humming with potential energy.
Despite being surrounded by countless vendors in the bright, enormous warehouse we all call home, I work alone. Every Monday morning I go through the ritualistic process of placing Austrian pastries and cakes on delicate paper doilies and brewing coffee (mostly for myself, because most of our customers buy their coffee from the roasters down the aisle) and wiping down the countertops and unending glass surfaces.
“’Morning Julie!” Mrs. Nguyen – the early songbird. She runs a little Vietnamese restaurant and grocery in one of the warehouse’s corners. “Looks like you had a rough weekend.” Did I mention intrusively intuitive?
I smile and nod, still positioning mini fruit tarts on a platter. “It was that,” is all I give her, though she’s propped herself on the pastry case and is eyeing me from above, expecting details. She is the Mama Bird of the market (this nickname is used for her by most of the vendors), a tiny thing, flitting about, ensuring that all is right in her forest. She’s been looking after me from the first, bright summer morning when I began my training for a job I thought would last three months. I remember she told me I had lucky eyes and to call her ‘Lo’ (short for Loan). The plan back then was to work the market for three months, save up some money, then jump ship and move back to school and on to greener pastures. So why am I still here, eight years later? This is the one question Mama Bird has yet to ask. I wait for it every Monday.
“Big show?” she asks. Bait.
“No. No shows this weekend. It was Halloween. Masquerade weekend,” I offer.
“Ah,” she lifts her chin, knowingly. “Big costume party, huh? And who were you?”
I’ve only been giving her my partial attention, but the phrase shakes me from my work. “What?”
“What did you dress up as? I can see you as a black cat,” she says, squinting her eyes at me, as if she actually can see this if she strains hard enough. “Or a mermaid, perhaps.”
I let out an unbridled laugh at that one. “A mermaid?”
“What? What’s wrong with mermaids? They’re beautiful and they sing and they lure handsome men to their deaths in the sea. That’s a great Halloween costume, right?” she looks a little offended that I shot her idea down.
“I think you might have the wrong mythological character, Lo. The mermaid was duped into giving up her voice and screwed over by a prince who decides at the last second to marry another girl because she’s hotter and can talk. Then she spare’s this pompous asshole’s life despite the fact that he’s caused her imminent death,” I explain.
“Huh,” she says. “Yeah, that’s not you at all.” There is something in her voice that borders sarcasm.
“The sirens were the singing women who were irresistible to sailors, who would be tempted to watery deaths in the ocean deeps.”
“Well, yeah, that’s what I meant then,” she says, but still looks a bit perplexed. “But maybe you’d make good mermaid, too, I don’t know. So what were you really, then?”
“A pirate.” Wench omitted.
“A pirate, huh.” That’s all I get from her on that. “Maybe next year, you go as Cinderella, find yourself a nice white knight, yeah?”
“What did you say?” I’m leaning far into the pastry case to place a sacher torte and almost nail my head on the glass as I pull myself out.
“I said you need to be a princess next year and snag yourself a prince,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“No, you said a knight. A white knight,” I insist.
“So what? A prince, a knight in shining armor. You know what I mean, Julie. You need to drop all the specifics and just let your life happen. I don’t care if you’re a princess or a mermaid or a ….”
“Yeah, a siren. Whatever. You start doing what makes you happy and you’ll figure out what you are. And some handsome prince will find you irresistible.”
A meaningful pause (one that I hope she takes to mean, ‘Lo, you are endlessly wise and wonderful, how will I ever live without your sage advice,’ despite the fact that I’m really contemplating making breakfast of the one napoleon that doesn’t look so hot, strictly as a means of quality control).
“Just don’t go and drown him, ok?” she says pointing a finger at me, attempting to feign seriousness despite her big smile.
“Yes, Lo,” I say. “Want some coffee? I did Pumpkin Spice today.”
She let’s out a little gasp. This is her favorite flavor. She asks about it year-round despite the fact that we only ever brew it in the fall. “You have to ask?”
I pour her a cup and pop a plastic lid on it. She drinks her coffee black. I slip a cardboard sleeve around the paper cup so she won’t burn her tiny bird hands and pass it over the counter. Her head bobs ever so slightly as she says thank you. She blows delicately on the little opening, and looks as though she’s about to continue her rounds, but pauses, brow furrowed.
“Hey Julie,” she says, turning back to me.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, baby, but… why are you still here?”
The week goes by, slowly, uneventfully. Soon it’s Friday night, and I’m curled in my bed, watching the first snowfall of the year, which has arrived far ahead of schedule. It’s four o’clock, but I ignore this. Just as it’s better to dive headfirst into a chilly pool rather than try to manage the cold inch-by-inch, I also find it easier to get ready for work at the restaurant if I only leave myself the fifteen minutes it takes to dress, tie my hair back and drive five blocks to Zeta, the desperately hip neighborhood bistro where I work.
When I arrive (somehow always on time), Trevor, the night manager, is already doling out extra cut duties. Seems Chef was in that afternoon and went on one of his now-regular drunken rampages through the kitchen and wait station railing against the squalor into which his restaurant was falling. He’d fired one of the sous chefs then and there, and here’s Trevor left to make sure the demands of our tyrant gourmand are met.
“Hey Julie,” he starts, when I walk into the wait station, still trying to adequately arrange my tie. “Thank again for closing last night, I really appreciate it. Look, everyone’s taking on just a little bit of extra cleaning tonight to make the place look great for the Children’ Hospital benefit tomorrow. I’ve got you down for baseboards in the dining room. Sound good?” This is not a question. I will be wiping down baseboards after a six-hour shift tonight, like it or not.
“Yeah, that’s fine Trevor.” My voice says that clearly it is not fine. Trevor and I compete at professional level for the gold medal in guilt-tripping. I see his face drop as I walk out of the station. A nice enough guy – a good sense of humor and extremely intelligent, great conversationalist. But he lost my respect long ago when I realized he was a hospitality zombie like the rest of them. Mind you, it’s probably a fine thing that there are people out there who understand the importance of a properly rolled and positioned silverware wrap, who make sure each table has the correct number of armed chairs, who never let the salt or pepper levels drop below the silver shaker caps. By god, these things keep the world turning. I just can’t, myself, be brainwashed into thinking my life should revolve around such things. And this is typically where to two of us butt heads.
Despite the weather, the dining room begins to fill early. I’m sitting in the back wait station when the hostess pokes her head in to say my section’s been seated. The poor hostesses. We servers have such a love/hate relationship with our tables that this news, depending on the day, hour or minute, can be met with either jubilation or death stares. They never know which it will be, and this one can be identified as a seasoned by the pained expression (a sort of tight grimace) with which she delivers this news. Like she’s anticipating a warm embrace and a swift beating all at once. “Thanks,” is what she gets instead.
I dive into the pool once again, quickly approaching the family of four now seated at one of my six tables (we’re down a server who’s on vacation, so sections are larger than normal tonight). It’s an older mom and dad, I’d say in their fifties, what looks to be their daughter and current or future son-in-law. There is a bottle of wine, placed in the center of their table. I don’t recognize the label as one of ours. I smell trouble immediately.
“Good evening,” I say as I arrive at the table’s edge. “How are you all tonight?”
Good ol’ Dad looks at me as if I’ve interrupted the State of the Union address. Mom mumbles something about being fine, daughter and S.O. stare longingly into each other’s eyes. O. Kay.
“Fantastic, well, my name is Julie. I’ll be taking care of anything you should need tonight.” I run through a list of specials. No one appears to be listening, so I give them the abridged version. “Can I bring you a cocktail while you’re looking over the menu?”
Again, Dad looks a bit irked. “Actually, I make my own wine. I’ve brought a bottle for us the table. We’ll need four glasses.”
I don’t know where this is allowed, but no one has ever asked this of me in the past. We have an extensive wine selection, and for some reason this seems to me like brining your own snacks to the movie theater (which you do, of course, but at least you know to hide it with whoever’s got the biggest purse). But he’s made his request so like a statement that I feel perhaps I missed a memo somewhere. “Right, I’ll just have to check with management to make sure I can do that…” I start.
He stops me. “Why wouldn’t you be able to do that? We do this all the time.” Now he has rolled his eyes at me. I can handle a lot of things, and have, in my years of serving. This is not one of them. Before I turn completely red in the face. I reiterate to them that I just want to be sure, and swish off to find Trevor. Another table has been seated in my section.
“Trevor!” I call over the clamor of the kitchen. He’s on the line, helping the expo. “Trevor, there’s a guy out there who brought his own wine to the restaurant and wants me to open and serve it. We can’t do that? I mean, can we?”
Trevor, thankfully, looks vexed. “No. God. No. What the hell? Who does that? Tell him we’d love to, but state laws and our liquor license don’t allow it.”
“Got it, thanks. That’s what I needed to hear.”
After greeting a couple new tables, I arrived back at my charming four-top. “Sir, unfortunately, due to state liquor laws and the limitations of our liquor license, I can’t open an outside bottle of wine here. Is there a bottle on the list I can bring you instead?”
I expect him to be mildly disappointed. Possibly another eye roll. Instead: “You’ve got to be kidding me? Let me talk to your manager.”
“I spoke with the manager just now. He gave me the answer to your request, but I’d be more than happy to bring him over for you.” I’m saying all the practiced things I’ve got up my sleeves for trouble tables.
“No, I want to see the owner,” he says.
I’m incredulous at this point. This man, a good 25 years my senior and quite well-to-do, is acting like a five-year-old. “The owner isn’t in at the moment, but his wife and co-owner is the hosting tonight. I can have her over in just a moment.”
“Good. You do that.” And his dismisses me. With a wave of his hand, as if shooing a fly from the table. My cool is gone. I’m flustered and embarrassed and angry. I’ve been doing this for years. I thought I was unflappable at this point.
I’ve now got five tables running at once. As I’m dropping drinks at one, I see Heidi, Chef’s wife, explaining exactly what I’ve already said to them. Dad protests at one point, and Heidi deftly but gently shuts him down. It’s the matronly, German accent. Works wonders. His wife puts a hand on his arm and says something to him, or Heidi, or both. The bottle gets put away. Dad looks furious.
Heidi nods to me to meet her at the hostess desk. “I’ve explained the rules, but they’re from California and I guess this is okay there, so he’s a little upset. I’ve offered to remove the corkage fee from any bottle they order, okay?” I nod, solemnly and still dreading my return to the table. “Julie, there are always going to be people who will try to walk all over you. Sometimes it’s good to at make them think they have won. You and I both know who’s right, yes? So, go make them happy, okay?”
Make people happy. This is loosely my job description.
Angry Dad does finally, reluctantly select another bottle of wine. When I reiterate that we’ll be sure not to apply any corkage fees to his choice, his response is, “You’re damn right.” To which his daughter give only a mild, half-smiling ‘Daddy!’ as if this is a child who is being bad but still laughably adorable. I don’t see the humor in the situation, but try my best to play alone. They order dinner. This table seems to be settling.
The dinner rush is now full wing. All five tables remain seated, a permanent sweat has arisen at my hairline and I feel a full flush across my cheeks that won’t go away until madness subsides. It’s time for Angry Dad’s entrees to roll, I grab two and ask for a follow with the other two. Arriving at the table, I ceremoniously place the dishes, ladies first, then the young man, and finally I take the last plate from my follower’s hands and place it before Dad. “Fresh cracked pepper for anyone?” Everyone ignores me. “Anything else I can bring you at the moment, then?” I try one more time.
“Well, yes, you can bring my dinner,” Dad says.
“Sorry?” I ask, looking down at his plate, and simultaneously realizing that the server who followed me grabbed the wrong dish. Oh GOD, why now? This could happen with any table, but not this one. NOT THIS ONE.
“Well clearly this is not a pork chop.” No. Clearly it is a steak well done. “You put in my order wrong. How long will it take for pork chop? I mean, am I going to be eating after everyone else has already finished?”
“Oh no, not at all. We’ve simply picked up the wrong plate,” I say, quickly picking the steak up from the table. Damage control, full steam ahead. “I’ll have your pork chop out in just a moment. My apologies.”
“Sure you’re not going to go back there and try to slide my order in as fast as you can and try to get it out here before I notice I’ve been waiting forever? Because I’m serious, I’d rather not eat at all than hold up the table.”
I can’t believe he’s seriously doing this.
“Not at all, sir. It’s waiting for you on the line, give me just a….” He doesn’t let me finish.
“You can go now,” he says, and turns back to the table and resumes the conversation. I’m baffled, but take the opportunity to turn and go. “Jim,” I hear his wife say, wildly scorning him as I go.
“What?” he replies, indignant. “Our waitress is a complete idiot.”
I stop. The room stops.