“Bad habits lately. Over-elaborating everything, dropping plates, screaming down everyone’s throat. It’s not just me, though, it’s the whole restaurant. When the whole thing goes to rot, it’s only so much you can do to push it the other way.”
We started brightly. Fucking sparkling, to be honest. No water-spots on any of the glasses, even in storage. The ones we broke went to the bin crystalline. The ones we washed came out even cleaner than they were unpacked. We were a machine that made things increasingly and dizzyingly beautiful. That’s what restaurant work is.
But to explain it, I need to know what kind of place you come from. So let’s get some things sorted:
If you’ve got those big-city blinders, fucking do us both a big-city favor and stop here. This is not Gramercy Fucking Tavern, and neither is Gramercy Fucking Tavern. No same river twice, like, and the rest is fiction. So fucking do us that favor already.
But equally, if you’ve got that small-timing, ticky-tack, one-horse-town bullshit backpack on, you can fuck off as well. Genuinely: step off here, close out your tab. Fucking no one else is worried about how your county seat decided we’ll collect the garbage and the recycling. The rest of us have done it a thousand and twelve different ways, and none of us is eaten up with guilt and regret. So if that’s you, here’s your coat.
And that’s the point. Right now, neither of us is in too deep here, so close it, close it, close it all the fuck out and know it’s the best of all possible next worlds, here. Say the prayer of the server station. Ask God’s mercy of swift resolution, the quick exit of customers who shouldn’t be here. That’s all we want as our feet ache, and the shadows of our shift stretch long across the grass.
The question isn’t how big your city is, and thank fuck we’re both past all that.
The question is your city, as filtered through what you can do in your moments, on your block, in your wack civic elections, in your slightly-less-wack regional elections, in your hassling of your stately-minded officials. I see we both know what bullshit it means, and also what joy it means to say you’re from your city. I feel now I’m among friends.
Since it’s just us, I could start with a list of cities I don’t like. New York is the king of over-promising salesmen, and we know that Memphis and Cleveland are right there on its heels. Chicago. I don’t like it, but unlike New York, I respect the hustle of Chicago, so let’s say half of Chicago is completely sound, and the other half are probably from New York originally. And if you’re here talking about LA, we both know how it ends. It’s not a city that can reckon with itself without resorting to nebulous shit or platitudes—even New York refers to itself with the dignity (the pompous dignity) of being a single fucking thing.
Or make a list of the cities we love, the cities (in their times) that showed us the right shit. Detroit. Bath. Baby-Polis. Savannah robed in the nastiness of High-Summer. The Ballou-side of DC. The cities of all them sweat-shirted paysans who call you in off the dusty roadside for a glass of Armagnac in their trailer. We know these places by the tables they prepared for us. Proper cities are always questions of tables.
Is there other cities out there? Yes. But they’re cities who owe themselves answers. (Not us.) So we can’t use this medium as a way to get to them.
“I used to like cooking in Boston. I used to like new weirdos wandering through and upending the whole spot for me. I used to love that know-it-all from the Greek spot on the corner. But I’ll tell you one thing about the ones who last in this game, is that they’re in love—no mistakes about it in love—with the prospect of Butterscotch Miso. If you’re not chasing something oddball and loving, you’re just another line cook, shuffling closer to death. It’s not my rules. Chef told Chef told Chef told me, player. Nothing else I can do about that.”
That’s what Chef first told me that made me think there was wheels turning in his head separate from the machinery of the tables, the servers, the scorching salamanders, and the Basil Hayden’s stashed by the walk-in out in the back lot.
So what do to two travellers like you and I share in this lot? A step to sit, a moment of quiet, a shared jibe at the expense of some well-meaning wage payer, or otherwise-acceptable rando in off the griddle?
No fucking way. We’ve got to be more honest than that. (Right?) No bank man is coming for to bail us out. No food inspector, for to put us into honest work. So fuck’s sake, let’s just have this.
When Jim started, I felt like it was a bad shuffle-&-deal. The kind of new-cards-deck that sticks you with the same motherfucker thirty times in a row for the same deck of shitty sidework. Sarah even called him Sir-Leans-A-Lot, which, as far as sidework goes, is like, fucking, death-knell devastating. How a fella scrapes together dignity after she walks through and says that, who knows. But life goes on.
But look, Jim is one of us. He hustles. He puts money in the pool, and he makes sure we all go home with a little extra crustcrumb. Not every asshole in the deck does that, and in fact: it’s pretty fucking rare. And in that same vein, there’s plenty of good restaurants in the world, but a right one is swimming against the grain like Jim. That’s the tradeoff. You swim this way or you swim that way. You end either way. You get less far swimming that way, but fuck’s sake, Siri, it’s a dazzling ride, isn’t it?
“When Stavros came in just in time for brunch service with his head bleeding, it was bad enough that Kevin had to take him back by the walk in and give him a concussion test. Or maybe just gave him another drink. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor. But I tell you one thing: never had a better service than that. Loopy motherfucker wrapped up that cut and fucking grinded through that shift. Fucking: every plate hit them tables right. Never seen a fella sling brunch better than that, in all the wack cities I plied this trade.”
Or when Chef showed up the morning after knifing the pumpkins to the neighbor’s wall. This is a business that shows us only the best from a professional’s breaking body if they’ve got the requisite level of experience.
It’s one thing to say our shitty home-to-roost bodies mean something in their breaking. It’s an all too glorified thing to say a brunch service means anything—whether you cooked it concussed, or thirty-eight weeks pregnant.
But it’s a real fucking stretch to say it all has to be so. You can have a dirty egg sandwich, it won’t kill you. You can swish back a bottle of Cranky Lake Chardonnay from your grandma’s fridge some Sunday morning. You can always borrow your brother’s car if yours breaks again.
And you can stand to shovel a bit of that ancient grain salad plate down your gullet—for the fiber and the nutrients. We both can.
But we all have to reckon with what’s written on every new week’s marquee; what each optimistic tyrant who considers his dim self a shift manager writes on the menu; what’s left in the fridge after the last brunch rush; and what’s written in the stars for these civic institutions we keep with our honor and our naming. We see the God’s Country Interstate Stop-In Bistro and our hearts puff up like an ankle after a late-night tumble down the back stairs, and our stomachs fold in a sharp, defeated modesty that would have impressed even our provincial mothers; and we see our homes for what they are. That’s what this means. When Jim doesn’t finish the third rack from dish and slides out back leaving you with an extra slab of this bullshit, it’s fucking this. Here. It’s the cash-only version of all the Bruce Springsteen albums your dad couldn’t stop gushing over.
It’s not the feeling of tables in New York or Memphis, or any town caught between the sundown and the terrible prophesy of another tomorrow, another breakfast shift, another afternoon downtime, and another slow dinner shift. It’s the feeling of tables everywhere.
You know them. You’ve sat at them. You’ve served them. You’ve watched the sun set across the sturdy-glossed tops from your side work spot behind the bar. You’ve filled these cups before. You know you’ll fill them again, and you know they’re ready, so you know—you know—what you can do. There’s nothing stopping us.