We were all twenty-something and waiting. Specifically, waiting tables at a downtown Mexican restaurant. It was a serving of personalities. The special of the day was always something different. The people who flowed through the doors of the restaurant were like the eye catching assortment that whizzed past your eyeballs under the bright overhead beam of a late night sushi bar, thrust into your face, and then out of view again, with no explanation asked or given.
You had to show some swagger to survive, or the work would devour you. Kevin for example, insisted to customers that he was really an actor. He was saving himself for the big part. Kevin was too proud to wear the mandatory printed paper sombrero held on by an elastic band under the chin.“That’s great,” said one businessman without looking up from his spread sheets. “How about you act like you are getting my steak now”? His associates sniggered. Kevin sniffed, and disappeared into the kitchen to retrieve the steak. On the way he also dropped it on the black and greasy floor of the bus station, ground it into the mire with his unpolished shoe, and spit on the reverse when he returned it to the plate. “Just how I like it”, the business man commented, munching with fork poised in the air. “Nice and tender”. He did not know that he who brings the plate always gets the last word.
Hadar was a waif from an Israeli Kibbutz who looked underage. Her name in Hebrew, translated to “splendour” but that may not have been the first impression when her spindly marionette legs clackety-clacked their way to your table, pad in hand. She was urgent to make good in ‘America’, saving her tips for a promised land not arrived at. She lived with a Jewish man who had a good job at an investment firm and a downtown condo. He got a piece of the land every night, and she in turn, got the taste of capitalism that someone who grew up in semi communism might crave. Her boyfriend would joke to his cohorts that you had to fight with your girlfriend to keep her on her toes. “Tell her she is spending too much money,” he quipped. “That always gets a communist. Or if you want to go for broke, tell her she is getting fat. After the fight, you can aways say you didn’t really mean it. Anyway” he said, “the makeup sex is amazing”.
It was not just the waiting staff. It was the customers too. Dollar-eighty-seven man was one example. He did not know that he was an item of comedy. “Who wants dollar-eighty-seven man tonight?” the hostess called out. You knew he was coming because it was an hour and fifteen minutes before opening time at the cheap movie theatre next door. Tuesday nights he had his customary date with himself always dressed up in the same beige suit. He would have a glass of sangria, then the second glass you brought automatically when you saw the first glass coming to an end. You would place his order, which was an extra spicy burrito with extra diablo sauce on the side, followed by a fried ice cream and a coffee. The charm of dollar-eighty-seven man was that he was predictable. He always ate the same thing, at the same time, and was happy if he did not have to converse with the waiter because interaction created false expectations for a tip. You knew in advance that the bill would be $18.13 and he would leave a twenty on the plate and disappear five minutes before the movies let in. Dollar-eighty-seven man made life bearable because the low bar of expectations gave room for things to get better. His cheapness was like the proverb that if life serves you up a sh*t sandwich, you had better eat it fast. He was like the shiny picture of apple pie on the standup dessert card, provocative in its utter blandness.
And then there was the dazzle of the golden American Express card. It was mute, just like what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, and it was padded every Friday evening with Brian Gold’s ‘business expense’ which always happened to be a different pair of vampish looking young girls whose combined age never matched his own. Salt and pepper, one blonde, and the other always brunette. Brian Gold would reserve a booth at the end, and the golden card would be produced proudly on the end of the table, like an excuse that offers itself beforehand just in case you were asking. “Keep it coming” he would say in nervous excitement. “Don’t ask questions. Just bring them whatever they want”. Brian Gold’s trollops, would order expensive drinks and send them back. They would do the same with food. They wore smeary lipstick and blackened eye makeup, and their untouched dishes were pushed away, sniffing. Their bored haughtiness was just part of the game. “Oh, aren’t they BAD? He would ask, licking his lips. Oh, my, what am I to DO with such BAD girls?” Brian Gold, needless to say, was a good tipper. It kept you quiet just like the card which paid well but held its tongue.
Tony, the flaming gay waiter, kept a mink stole in his locker so that he always left his shift in style. He was kept by an silent older gentleman with white hair, which he claimed was the best arrangement possible. “It’s like getting your dad’s own wallet, and squeezing it for all it’s worth,” he claimed. Tony was full of informative tidbits encompassing all aspects of alternative sex whether you wanted to know or not. “You heterosexuals don’t know what you are missing,” he would scorn. He knew all the possibilities because he had worked the street when first arrived in the city, and would brag about his own version of buying up in life. “You know what the best aphrodisiac is?” he would ask. “Desperation. When somebody is old and desperate, they are willing to offer you anything to stay in the game. It makes you incredibly powerful.” Tony was proud as a peacock, and he especially hated having to serve the secretaries who came in groups to lunch on a Friday. They depleted their meagre paycheques on clothing and shoes, and before rushing back to their various office towers, they would dump a hurried pile of change on the table midst a clump of lipsticked napkins. Tony’s last day went out in style just like his mink stole. When he saw the backs of the secretaries hurriedly departing the crowded outdoor patio, he picked up a hefty handful of change and propelled it through the air like scatter shot from a cannon. “Oh Ladies you forgot your change” he yoo-hooed in a provocative falsetto. He relished their shocked faces frozen in the spotlight as the shower of pennies rained down on the pavement, each one ringing out a protest at their collective cheapness. It was a story he would tell again and again long after being shown the door.
Then there were two head waiters who routinely tag-teamed sixteen hour shifts and bragged about how much money they made. The secret, they claimed, was to be so offensive that the customers would be scared to tip badly. I was too naive to understand at the time, that this was all a ruse. The energy required to fuel those sixteen hour shifts came from a pharmaceutical mix of shiny pills hidden in their lockers, and they commandeered the long shifts because they had learned how to jack the computer NCR system. The volume of a long day would allow them to boldly skim off a portion of cash which paid for their shiny red pills like one hand washing the other. Food theft showed up on the system, but their very audacity seemed to suggest different culprits.
TJ the line boy was not so well hidden. Thinking to get in on the take, he had conspired with a waiter named Howard, to bypass the necessary ticket, and fry the house specialty ice-cream for a kick back of one dollar per dessert. Each ice cream cost three dollars and Howard would apologize to the customers that he had forgotten to include the desserts and coffee and would then hand write them on the tear off section at the bottom of the bill. This scam cleared him a tidy chunk of money from each table and he complained about his arrangement with TJ. “That kid is having it too good,” he said. “One third of the take and for what?” he would ask “Frying an ice cream? I mean, I’m the brains of the operation!”. TJ’s downfall came when his zeal got ahead of him and he was caught loading blocks of cheese and tortillas into his car at the end of a shift. The management was not amused. “That little jerk better not spill the beans if he knows what’s good for him,” Howard had commented. “He should’ve known that when you steal, you have to spread it out so that you are below the radar. “Incompetent.” He had said, dismissively. Howard was however, firmly against organized crime. Or so he had said, when he complained about the bikers who towed his beat up van. Two hundred dollars cash over the counter to get it back. “Those pricks,” he would say, “the system is rigged.” Howard who saw himself as a victim, did not understand the concept of irony.
But all was not jaded. Love also flourished at Chi Chi’s Mexican Restaurant. Gary and Diana hailed from Elliot Lake, a long dead mining town in northern Ontario. They had come to the big city to breathe life into their dreams and they were saving up to get married. They were hopeless romantics whose homespun charm cancelled out each others’ imperfections so that they were perfect 10’s in each other’s sight. They were going to buy a piece of land up north where they would raise bare footed fat babies and grow old together watching the sunset from the back porch. At the end of a shift, they would exit hand in hand to a private paradise that existed somewhere out there beyond the smell of oily sweat and fried chilis.
I have always told people they should wait tables some time in their life, that it teaches you something, except that I could never nail down the exact lesson. Waiting might be the most appropriate of terms because it was the only thing we had in common. Waiting for something that had not arrived yet, just like the Samuel Beckett play, Waiting for Godot. The point of the play is that Godot never arrives. What you are left with was the burning hunger. It hits me every time I hear one of the songs from the loop they played over and over at the restaurant. I am charged with suffused desire that only happens when life is spread out in front of you like a blank spreadsheet waiting to be collected.
And that, is exactly the point. The deliciousness of any endeavour is in the hunger of its anticipation and not in its arrival. Ask anyone over fifty and they will tell you. It’s not the things you miss, it’s the anticipation of things, that you may never feel again.
We were waiting...