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Looking For Order

A writer’s tale of working tables

Jonathan Bartlett

The customers are long gone. The silverware and wine glasses, ice buckets and coffee pots, leather-bound menus and tabletop kerosene lanterns have all been wiped down and stowed away in the cabinets, drawers and on the shelves of the waiter stations in my restaurant. All the tables are set and ready for lunch service tomorrow.

All the other waiters and waitresses – we’re collectively called “servers” in this age of politesse – have long since finished their cleanup duties, counted their receipts, cashed out and bolted out the kitchen door, dispersing through the streets of the city to whatever home, lover or vacant bar stool awaits them.

Everyone but me. I am the closer. I wait until everyone is gone. Then I mop the floor.

Most of the other servers hate closing. No one likes to mop a restaurant floor after a busy night, including me. But the closer gets to come in at 6 p.m. instead of 4:30, and that hour and a half is pretty much the only time of day I get to see my kids any more, other than the very sleepy drive to school in the morning, during which my parenting skills are not at their sharpest.

Not since this job. Time is a precious commodity in this new life of mine. At age 53 I’m waiting tables for the first time in my life. The night shift.

With my black apron, black vest and black tie hung on a kitchen hook, I roll up my white shirtsleeves, screw on a fresh mop head, pour in the floor detergent and steer the big, sloshing yellow bucket up to the front of the restaurant to begin my solitary evening ritual.

On the good nights, it’s a time for shutting down the mind after a full day of looking for freelance writing gigs and finding very few. Then getting my kids home from school, off to their practices, preparing a dinner for them to heat up later, making sure their homework is started and then spending six, sometimes eight hours on my feet balancing trays, filling water glasses and running food and drinks.

And smiling. You gotta keep smiling. You tell yourself: It’s like hosting a dinner party that someone else is paying for. You tell yourself anything that keeps you going.

It is exhausting, every bit of it. And on the not-so-good nights, instead of shutting down the mind for a while or drifting off into daydreams, my thoughts race while I swipe the mop under and around the tables and chairs. I sometimes get consumed by equal parts shame, bitterness and humility.

How did I get here? I have a Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times Bestseller and was hailed in this town as a hero in the days after Katrina. I was a local celebrity. Folks in New Orleans took to calling me The Voice of the City, telling me the stories I wrote for the newspaper after the storm made them feel connected and gave them hope. Even kept them alive.

I was on “Oprah.”

And now I strap on an apron every night to work in a restaurant where I can’t even afford to eat. I can’t get any writing gigs. With each passing day, week and month, I have very little evidence to support my firm belief that the voices in my head are correct when they loudly proclaim: I don’t belong here.

I should be doing something else.


That was then. This is now.

From November 2013 to November ’14, I waited tables to support my family. The last time I had worked in a restaurant before was as a dishwasher at a Turkish restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1981, when I was 21 years old.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past 30 years as a professional storyteller, it’s that people love a great rags to riches tale; the arduous climb from obscurity and poverty to fame, fortune and universal acclaim.

And the only story audiences like better than that is the exact opposite. From feast to famine; from glory to the gutter; from the penthouse to the outhouse. There is nothing that stokes a reader’s interest as much as when the hero takes a fall.

I was that hero. At least, that’s what a lot of folks said. They said it so damn much that I had the great misfortune of believing it for a while. And then one day I was out of work. I got fired from my journalism job for standing on principal. But here’s the thing about standing on principle, about getting fired for the right reason as opposed to the wrong reason: Either way, you’re still broke.

For a long time after that, I couldn’t find any steady work. Loyal friends suggested I was being blackballed. Long-time critics and local bloggers suggested I was washed-up. I just figured I was paying the price for living a very public, reliably un-filtered, often immoderate and sometimes irresponsible enough life to make me a bad bet for local mainstream publications and broadcasts.

But here was the real problem: After striking out all over town looking for writing gigs, I realized I needed to switch careers. And that’s when I realized: I don’t know how to do anything else but write. I possess no marketable skills other than writing and talking. And nobody’s paying much for either of those commodities these days.

My dad, bless his heart: He taught me how to spell carburetor, but not how to work on one, nor what it does. So I did what every other starving artist in the world does. I started waiting tables. In the greatest restaurant city in the world. With no experience at all.

At the restaurant, they taught me about the food, gave me tastings, gave me tests. No different from anyone else who worked there. They wanted us to know and trust what we were serving. That made all the difference for my entire tenure as a waiter: If you believe in the product, it’s easy to sell.

I believed.

And then, after a week of training, they sent me out to the floor to do my thing. Wait tables. Take orders. Make recommendations. Put people at ease. Entertain them. Keep believing. And keep smiling.

I was nervous as hell the first night. After a week of training, they might have been convinced that I could handle the job, but I sure as hell wasn’t. I still didn’t even understand how to operate the computers. I thought waiters just wrote stuff on a piece of paper and sent it to the kitchen. I was wrong about that.

I was wrong about a lot of things.
 


Waiting tables gives you a unique, prescient and discerning glimpse into the breadth and depths of the human condition. And the human condition is, indeed, broad and deep. My firm belief is that everyone should wait tables for at least three months of their lives.

We would all treat each other better; of that I’m sure.

But that’s not why I got into it. I didn’t wait tables to build character or to research this story or for any other reason than I needed a job and fast. I lasted exactly one year at it. I did my best at it. I would even go as far as to say I did well at it. And I regret not a minute of it. Although it was a surrealistic journey from the minute I first strapped that apron around my waist.

I was terrified when I started. And humiliated. I thought people would recognize me and I would have to explain things, play the world’s tiniest violin, keep my chin up and, more than anything, keep my sense of humor. And, the most embarrassing thing I can say about it all is that – at first – I was embarrassed to be waiting tables.

That is, until I found out that it’s one of the hardest jobs on the planet; if the restaurant is good, in particular. And even more so if you give a damn about your self-esteem.

It was the hardest year of my life. Restaurants – all restaurants – are freak shows. Staffed largely by poets, misfits, drunks, narcissists, jesters and misanthropes, the restaurant business is a fringe community. It isn’t easy. And if you don’t hustle your ass off, you won’t last.

I had spent my life working on deadline, working under pressure, but there’s no pressure in the world more powerful than facing down hungry people waiting for their food. Truthfully, waiting tables is terrifying. And humbling. And character building.

And when everything else fails – blame the kitchen.
 


The tourists, they just want to have an adventure. They want your recommendations and they love the stories you tell about certain dishes or drinks, their histories and weird ingredients and flavor profiles.

Flavor profiles. Now there’s a term that didn’t used to be in my vocabulary.

Anyway, the visitors, they just eat it up. Literally. They are in New Orleans and their expectations are high and their excitement is sometimes palpable, and once you start going on

Your job is to make them love you.

That is when they tip you.

and on about the sweetness of Gulf Coast pompano, chargrilled on a brick of Himalayan salt and topped with roasted pecan butter and red onion marmalade, proceeded by an amalgam of fresh Louisiana blue crab meat rolled up with Creole cream cheese, flash fried and served over a puréed corn maque choux, proceeded by a carefully crafted French 75 or Sazerac or some other drink they’ve never heard of but which blows their mind, well … that’s when the job is fun.

That is when it’s the dinner party that someone else is paying for. That is when they love you. Your job is to make them love you. That is when they tip you. And that’s how you live on a job that pays $2.13 an hour.

Yes, $2.13 an hour. The rest is up to you, your performance, your skills, your knowledge and your ability to convince people that they’re having a good time. And if you believe and if you hustle and if you keep smiling – nine times out of 10, they will.

Dealing with locals was a little trickier. We had a fair amount of locals in our restaurant, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent on any given night. And they were the ones who made me nervous. Because, nine times out of 10, they knew who I was. And that would launch my nightly ritual of accommodation, explanation, laughter and forgetting.

Locals were easy to identify. Once I walked up to a table and announced my name and began my spiel and they heard my voice – they would start looking at each other. Then me. Then each other. And yes, it was awkward. All the time. Every night.

Eventually someone would say: “You said your name is Chris?”

Yes, ma’am I would say.

“Chris Rose?”

Then: “The Chris Rose?”

How am I supposed to answer that? Why, is there another? Or: I used to be! Or: If you’re implying that I look like that washed up hack, then let’s step outside and settle this the old-fashioned way, man-to-man.

Truthfully, I tried out all three of those until I settled on: “Yep. That’s me!”

And then.

And then any number of possibilities might follow. The most common was: Are you doing this for a story?

Not entirely unreasonable. During my 25 years of newspapering, I became well known, sometimes infamously so, for my willingness to engage in prankster journalism. I punked the Jackson Square tarot readers and the Bourbon Street mimes; I impersonated panhandlers, prostitutes, producers and politicians.

So it’s not a stretch to think I would wait tables as a prank. A joke. A story.

But that’s not what I was doing. And when people found this out, they had all kinds of reactions. I watched it happen all the time. Surprise. Disappointment. Horror. Jubilation. Anger. Pity.

Me, I got used to it fast. I was surprised – and mildly relieved – that after the first night I never felt embarrassed about what I was doing. It is a human life. Shit happens. I am waiting tables.

“Are you still writing?” people would ask.

“Your order,” I would reply – but not as snarkily as it sounds. Laugh. Make them laugh. Everybody laugh. Then we can all breathe and get through this.

But yeah, it got weird sometimes. I might deliver a salad to your table and maybe a cherry tomato rolls off the plate and onto the floor and under your table. Well, then it’s my job to get under your table and get that cherry tomato. And then you’re all sitting there looking at each other thinking: Chris Rose is under our table. Getting a cherry tomato.

Well, now everyone has something to post on their Facebook update, don’t they?

Like I said. Shit happens.

But it’s OK. After a while, they settle comfortably into the situation. They say nice things, ask after my health, ask after my children, ask if I am, in fact, still writing. And, in truth, sometimes, every now and then, they’ll feel so profoundly sorry for me that they would leave an overly generous tip. Sometimes, if it was two couples and one was from out of town – and paying the bill – one of the locals would stick a couple 20s under their coffee cup before they left.

God in heaven, people can be so kind.

Because they know from whence heights and accolades I’ve travelled. Because somewhere along the line, they remember hearing stories about how I fell on hard times here and there. Because they know I have three kids. Or maybe just because they like me, they’re rooting for me. Or maybe just because they pity me.

And so it goes. Night after night. Shift after shift. Week after week. Like that. Our fish of the day is grilled pompano, prepared with a roasted pecan butter and caramelized red onion marmalade, set on a bed of assorted citrus and collard greens and, yes, no problem, I can make sure the chef holds the pecan butter; we’re as concerned about your nut allergies as you are, and thank you for dining at the Kingfish tonight.

Please come again.

I said that night after night, week after week, month after month. And I was always hoping that if and when they did, I wouldn’t be there.

And then one day, I wasn’t.

 

 

 

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