A Beautiful Night… Waiting Tables?

A response to the Daily Prompt: Money for Nothing

On one particular night at one particular job that I loved, the universe gave me a glimpse of things that had for so long seemed unattainable and inexplicable to me — comfort, equanimity, security, even luxury and peace. Lucrative and enjoyable work with pleasant and interesting people, and a feeling that all was right between me and the universe.

I couldn’t believe this was work. The air smelled like cinnamon and whiskey and roasting lamb, and golden light drifted down the stone walls to reflect off spotless copper tables. A quiet melody trickled out from the piano under the stairs, dancing effortlessly above the comforting, subliminal hiss of brushes on a drum head. Every few minutes a burst of laughter came from another table, most often followed by a clink of glasses. Everyone was smiling, from the kitchen to the bar to the dining room. I couldn’t believe this was work.

During a service-industry career that spanned a couple of decades, this, penultimate, waitressing job was the only one I’d ever liked. Loved, in fact. Due to an unreasonably lucky combination of factors, the former demoralizing drudgery of slinging hash was, at this place, elevated to a daily practice of introducing comfort, beauty and sustenance into the universe.

The building itself was unique and inspiring: spotless limestone and floor-to-ceiling windows, furnished in the shabby, luxurious overlap between French cafe, cocktail lounge and old-man dive bar, and haunted by a friendly turn-of-the-century whore (everyone on staff had seen her). The place attracted lonely hearts, ladies who brunch, couples in love, party people on their way out (or home), tortured artists, service workers from neighboring businesses, and homeless people from the Salvation Army that was situated catty-corner from the restaurant. Whoever was drinking at the bar — whether coffee or cocktails — was generally worth talking to.

On this particular evening, as it did annually, the restaurant was hosting a private holiday party for friends of the owners. Everyone wanted to work this shift, reputed to be the restaurant’s most lucrative and yet leisurely night of the year. If you were scheduled to work, you dressed yourself for a holiday party and then showed up early to polish glasses, learn the menu, and chat up the jazz musicians as they set up for the gig. If you weren’t scheduled, you drifted in at some point anyway, for a drink at the bar and a look at the festivities.

The owners applied considerable attention and style to their business — along with a comfortable amount of neglect, allowing the staff plenty of room for autonomy and shenanigans. Their liberal hiring practices resulted in an unheard-of compatibility and camaraderie among the staff; behind the bar and in the dining room, we were all artists of various stripe; in the kitchen, exclusively motorcycle mechanics and homeless poets. Vaguely European rules governed the margin between owners, employees and patrons eating and drinking together, so (unless “Dad” had done too much cocaine the night before) there was most often a friendly, family feel in the air.

This year the holiday party began with the arrival of several happy French expats and their wives, bestowing exclamations and both-cheek kisses all around. They dispensed with the stiff and stuffy wine-opening ritual I offered them, instead declaring, “We know it’s good, and we know you can open it. Just keep it coming!” Then they made me pour a glass for myself, our bosses and Michelle, the other waitress, and we all joined in the evening’s inaugural toast. Glasses were also sent with compliments to the kitchen and the bar staff.

Hot, fresh bread went to the tables with plates of butter and oil. Figs and cheese followed. More bottles were opened and poured. The second half of the party arrived, kissed cheeks and sat at adjacent tables, upping the volume in the dining room. More glasses were brought out and filled. A fellow waitress stopped by for a quick one at the bar.

After sharing a glass with their guests,our bosses began to say their goodbyes at the tables so they could slip out to another engagement — leaving the monkeys in charge of the zoo, so to speak. One of them whispered in my ear, “You’re in charge. Make sure they don’t drink too much in the kitchen.” A second later, I heard another voice in the kitchen, “You’re in charge. Make sure the waitresses don’t drink too much out front.” The jazz picked up tempo slightly as the alley door swung closed behind them.

Next, salads went out, topped with tiny roasted pine nuts. One of the cooks ladeled out a small bowl of salty polenta with sweet, tangy roasted tomatoes for us to share in the wait station, before we served larger versions to the tables. Everyone seated ooh’ed and aah’ed when each course was brought out, and proclaimed it to be the best one yet. Someone began telling jokes. Someone else asked which of us was coming home with them for Christmas.

A bit later, after we’d served the roast lamb course and the noise quieted a bit, we left the diners to their conversations. I set plates at the bar for the pianist and drummer. With Stevie Wonder playing quietly on the speakers, Michelle and I rested our feet, sitting next to the musicians while the cooks went out back for a cigarette. The blast of cold air from the alley reminded me how lovely it is to be warm, indoors and fed. We hatched a plan to take any leftovers to the guys who camp on 7th Street outside the Sallie.

After the lamb was eaten and the plates cleared, several of our guests went out front for a smoke. The musicians finished eating and went back to their instruments, opting for some quiet but dramatic French chanson now, and a couple started dancing. We cleared the tables, filled water glasses and set out champagne flutes and dessert spoons. Michelle took advantage of the lull, retiring for a moment to the bathroom to fix her hair & lipstick.

We all spent a few moments enjoying a deep breath during the quiet, then the smokers charged back in with arms full of tiny presents, which they dumped in a glittering pile on the bar, hollering, “Open one! Come on, everybody opens one!” Someone dragged the cooks and dishwasher out from the kitchen and the musicians away from the instruments, and herded Michelle and me to the bar. Then patrons and staff alike grabbed at the sparkling pile of gifts and unwrapped them in a frenzy, holding up Matchbox cars and tiny plastic dogs, little train cars and mini cooking utensils. I looked around for a second at a dozen grown people, crowing over their Christmas toys, and felt tears come to my eyes at the sweet improbability of the spectacle. I couldn’t believe this was work.

After a few minutes of racing their tiny bicycles along the bar and making their minuscule dinosaurs fight, they gathered the remaining gifts into a (now smaller) heap on the bar for the owners and other employees to open the next day. The diners then spread out in twos and threes at several tables, half a dozen new conversations sprouting up and escalating in volume immediately. The smell of cooked custard wafted in from the kitchen, and we began to pop champagne corks. The musicians launched into a fierce tango, and more people got up to dance, dodging around us as we circled the tables to fill the flutes. We grabbed trays of freshly emerged creme brûlées and hurried them to the tables. A delicious madness ensued as we all gorged on the sweets, twirling with spoons and napkin-wrapped ramekins in hands, or champagne and wine glasses.

The dishwasher belched steam from the kitchen, the tango rose in volume to compete, the windows fogged over, the walls began to sweat. Michelle took off her shoes and worked in her stockings. I refilled drinks for the kitchen, then the tables, then for myself. Another couple of employees stopped in to join the party for a minute. The tango crescendoed, diners dipped and lunged and licked dessert dishes clean, and the laughter rose to a roar. Someone picked me up and spun me until I was dizzy. A couple of passersby looked in the windows to see what the hell was happening inside.

Finally the piano brought the tango to a crashing finish and the applause erupted from dining room, kitchen and bar. Dancers fell into chairs, laughing, breathless and thirsty. Our coworkers blew kisses and left as a collective sigh passed from table to table. The men clapped each other on the arm and the women laid their heads on each other’s shoulders and giggled. Michelle and I refilled waters and left two large presses of coffee to steep, then retired to the back with the cooks and musicians. Despite the fun, we had all put in a hard night’s work and were ready to take our well-earned reward, a joint supplied by the drummer (because everyone knows jazz musicians have the best weed).

The piano player had been giving me the eye all night, so I pulled him into to the storeroom to make out. He was tall, so I stood on the step above him. We hadn’t been at it for 30 seconds when I heard a new voice holler, “Busted!!” behind me. I turned to see my roommate Bethany, also a coworker, grinning with two glasses of whiskey in hand. “When I saw nobody but Frenchies in the dining room, I knew you were back here doing something bad!” she crowed, hooking an arm around each of our necks, spilling whiskey and tumbling the three of us out into the back of the dining room — much to the amusement of our diners, who had spread out around the restaurant in a comfortable after-dinner sprawl.

One of the guests proved a good enough piano player to bang out some French Christmas carols, so Bethany and I collected ourselves and brought out coffee cups to the harmonies of “Il est né, le divine enfant.” My flawless high school French surely earned me an extra 3 percent for the night, as I made a big show at the tables of setting down cups rhythmically to the final line, “Chantons tous son evenement,” purely to delight the Gauls — who were, at this point, delighted by most things. Once they had dispensed with “Tintez cloche” and the coffee was poured, however, everyone hit the wall.

As often happens after a long night of food and drink, the coffee worked the opposite of its intended magic. The conversations dwindled and the guests began to look slightly glazed. Michelle took the cue, slipping the Dean Martin Christmas CD into the player as we downshifted and cleared the tables without a word, letting Dino set the final mood of the evening. A couple swayed in one corner, barely moving. The musicians were packing up their things at an almost glacial pace, clearly in reveries of their own. Three guests slumped together on the leather couch in the back of the dining room, edging toward a collective food coma.

In the kitchen, pots clunked and clanged and the dishwasher was back in full swing. Michelle, Bethany and I hustled to break down the bar and the espresso machine. The party’s patriarch came around behind the bar to thank us, and to present a tip that was every bit as generous as we’d been led to expect. Once he returned to the dining room, the party roused itself and began to find coats, hats and bags. Someone roused the three from the couch and others rose heavily from the tables. We traded handshakes, hugs and Christmas wishes all around before they filed out the door, a well-fed, slow-moving parade.

After locking the door behind them, three of us chatted about our guests, debating the merits of French vs. American diners and recapping the night as we finished our cleanup in the dining room and behind the bar. Michelle hugged us and left thru the alley to meet her boyfriend, the musicians following her out and issuing us an invitation to meet them at the bar around the corner. Bethany readily accepted and went out with them, promising to have a drink waiting for me.

As I swept the dining room floor I heard from the kitchen the first strains of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” our cook’s official end-of-the-night anthem. I emptied the dustpan, clicked off the front-of-house lights and ran up the steps to the kitchen to holler at the guys what a marvelous meal they’d made that night. Feeling giddy once again with the pleasure of the evening and the singular joy of after-work liberation, I slammed open the back door — to see a smiling piano player waiting for me in the alley. I couldn’t believe this was work.

Image by Rebecca Kao Wang

2 replies »

  1. Hi Ellen, yesterday I was rummaging around wordpress for an assignment and came across your post. I really really enjoyed the story and your writing style. I waited tables back in the early 90’s and had some brilliant times. Your post helped me reconnect with those memories. Whatever you are doing these days I hope you’re having fun.

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