I worked at Keen’s Restaurant, in New York City, when I was
in my early 20s, after I’d come back from abroad.
It was one of a string of restaurants I waitressed in, though Keen’s
was the most chichi of all of them. But it was also poorly run, and
full of psychos of varying stripes. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Few
of the people there were full-blown psychotics, but almost all of us
were unhappy––experiencing the kind of contagious unhappiness that is
bred by bad management, wielded by people who have been
given power they aren’t able effectively (or fairly) to wield.
man who owned the restaurant was a German doctor who had made a lot of
money and, as a hobby, had bought up a number of Manhattan restaurants
with which he “experimented.” I think he saw
himself as a cross between a seer and a sociologist. He
enjoyed promoting people to stations they weren’t qualified to run, and
to carefully selecting who would staff each of his (very different)
restaurants. I know all this in part because everyone working for him
knew it, and in part because he hired me two different times to
work as a waitress for him (though he didn’t know
this). He had a standing ad in the Village Voice (a bad sign),
and the first time I interviewed with him for a waitressing position
(yes, bizarrely, he did all the interviews himself), he hired me to
work at a restaurant called The Noho Star. If you’ve ever been to The
Noho Star, you’ll probably understand why I left after my first day.
Though the restaurant has a primo location, the food was and is
mediocre, the servers crazy, and the management inept. I got an interim
job at the Fulton Fishmarket as a caterer instead (which was its own
special kind of nightmare), and when I bagged that, I interviewed again
with the German meister. That next interview landed me at Keen’s. It wasn’t as bad as The Noho Star, so I stayed for six months.
(Was I infected by the man’s penchant for experimentation? That I turned so much of my experience there into fiction?)
Which is what I want to talk about: Wait(ress)ing as a form of existential endurance, an undergoing of the is. “Serving” as a metaphor. By which I mean: I served up that same
experience by using it as material for my first novel, and later, in a
write-up here on e2.
In Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
mentions having given away his childhood memories to different
characters in his fictions. I can’t claim that the memory I used in
the e2 story has been taken over by the main character, but
the real proposal was markedly different from the fictionalized one.
But here’s the weird thing: I’m not quite sure how the two are different. I just know that they are.
the real experience, the man who proposed to me during a lunch shift
wasn’t as obviously exploitative as the man I presented in the short
story. He wasn’t your Weeds-typical rich guy. First of all, he came
in after the lunch rush. I’m pretty sure he asked to be seated
at one of my tables, but I might be wrong about that; I might have
simply suspected that he asked to be put in my section. He ordered
something light, and a drink, and he smiled at me as I asked him if
there would be anything else. It was later, after I’d brought his food,
that he proposed to me, and then, too, he smiled, so that I didn’t know
how to take it, his asking me to marry him. I looked at him, and he
smiled, and I was simply flummoxed.
I gave the guy in the story
based on this event a more defined kind of weird unreadableness. The
truth is, I had no clear sense, there at Keen’s, as to the character or
intentions of the guy who proposed to me. I had no sense of what he
really wanted from me, and I have no clearer sense of these things now,
looking back at them in retrospect. But I do think that I lack this
clear sense, at least in part, because, in the course of fictionalizing
the event, I’ve ended up blurring my sense of what actually happened.
Well, it was twenty-one years ago. At the time, I know, I took (or
appeared to take) the man’s proposal in stride, in a way that my female
protagonist wasn’t able to. I laughed it off.
But the thing
is? When I laughed, the guy continued to smile. But he didn’t laugh
with me. That’s the thing I remember. His smile was steady,
unflinching, ambiguous, and penetrating. He was saying to me: I
dare you to take me seriously. I dare you to.
I didn’t dare.