It’s drizzling in April, so I take the subway instead of my bike. I never know what party I’m going to cater until I get to the location. Usually I don’t care. Let it be a surprise. I show up at the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Stock Exchange and learn how long the job will be and who’s coming. A museum party doesn’t mean the event celebrates art. Morgan Stanley could be renting the Met’s Temple of Dendur, let’s say, for its annual Christmas soiree. Tables sit around the imposing stone edifice and surrounding sarcophagi. Violet goblets sparkle atop cut velvet overlays, votive candles flicker amid jewel-colored chips of glass, and adorning each table is an explosion of parrot tulips, their serrated lips just beginning to spread. Wall Street eats while the dead sleep.
I feel good. I’m leaving town in a few days for California, where I’ll give several readings and workshops at writing programs. I’m wearing my tuxedo, white dress shirt and the red-and-silver striped tie that is the emblem of the company I work for, Food for Thought. I move swiftly across the Lincoln Center piazza, slick paving stones reflecting a slate sky. It’s 4 o’clock. Most of the others around are workers in uniform, too. I arrive at the New York State Theater, anticipating the food and the mindless riot of doing, and then I see posters plastered on all the doors. The gala is for PEN, the writers’ organization I belong to.
I feel like throwing up and laughing at the same time. I don’t know what to feel or how I feel, except caught. As if the jig is up, though I don’t know what scheme has been uncovered and why I feel guilty. Or is it ashamed? I taste both. Guilt for being ashamed. Shame for becoming a cater-waiter at 53. For needing to. For liking it. For not being invited to the party.
The guards see I’m wearing a tux and let me through the velvet ropes. I mount the marble stairs to the second-floor rotunda, thronged with tables that are peculiarly naked. Usually by now they’d be set. I check in with the head captain, tall, sandy-haired Alex, who sings tenor when he isn’t doing this. He’s writing table assignments on index cards and looks distracted, a general awaiting troops and supplies, up to here with details and snafus. He gazes heavenward, sighs and smiles crookedly. Things are always frantic before a dinner, though they invariably turn out okay, so there is something kabuki and back-stage-at-the-opera about the process each time. He says Party Rental has forgotten to send tablecloths. When they arrive, we’ll make a frenzied rush to get things done.
Two kitchens blocked off by wooden screens have been set up on either side of the rotunda. Near one a group of waiters folds linen napkins into shapes that look like nuns’ hats. Another group adds inserts to programs. Hundreds of them. Eight hundred people are coming to the party. Eighty tables of 10. Looking at a program, I note that I know several of the speakers. Nausea and giddiness rise up again, feeling like a drug, jamming my circuits, slowing my tongue. It’s as if I’ve been waiting for this.
I drift to the third-floor men’s room, where we leave our stuff. Metal coat racks are jammed in as far as the urinals. Garment bags hang from them, and backpacks and totes are lined up on the floor. I set down my bag and check my pockets: quarters for phone calls, a Swiss Army knife for cutting bar fruit, matches for lighting candles, a wine key and, in my breast pocket, lipstick, a lipstick brush and a pen. I look in the mirror, fluff my hair and pop an Altoid in my mouth. It doesn’t quell the flutter in my gut.
Most of the waiters are on the balcony, talking in clumps or off by themselves reading or grabbing a smoke. The air is thick with mist, matching the fog inside me. I wander to one of the kitchens, where Rosie and Simon are spooning lobster salad into cucumber hulls and Ernesto is placing slices of smoked salmon on miniature corn muffins, then finishing them with a frond of dill. Simon kisses me on both cheeks, and I say, “Your eyes are like tropical fish swimming across your face.”
He says, “They are?”
Rosie says, “How are you, mami?”and pushes an hors d’oeuvre to the side of the tray, indicating that I may take it and swiftly pop it into my mouth, since the cooks aren’t supposed to feed us and we’re not supposed to cadge food from them.
I tell Rosie I’m fine, lying, and say I don’t feel like eating. She looks surprised because usually I press her to slip me the edges of foccacia and the ends of roulades as she cuts them into bite-sized pieces. I like the food here. The richness, the overkill, the swank. Everywhere you look, caviar, shrimp as big as your fist, chocolate mousse—intense and bittersweet. I get to shove things into my mouth I would ordinarily put up my hand to like a cop. On the job you burn calories hauling tables, chairs, wine bottles and tubs of ice, walking miles carrying platters and plates. Breakdown takes hours and involves the heaviest, dirtiest work. Thousands of glasses have to be slopped and placed in lugs, which grow heavier with every champagne flute and wine tulip added. This isn’t like serving tables in a restaurant. It’s closer to creating a theater set or a circus tent and then demolishing it.
Almost all the waiters are thin. Many are actors and models, so they have to be, but this is not a group of food deniers. We spend hours eyeing what we serve, and when late in the evening it’s our turn to eat, we pounce. Some people wait patiently and pile up their plates in an orderly fashion, then sit with napkins across their laps and slowly eat with a knife and fork. The rest of us are like wolves, grabbing food with our fingers, shoveling it in standing up, taking more than we can devour, licking our fingers and lips, marveling at our capacity to consume sugar and fat.
I can’t eat now because I’m poisoned with adrenaline. I don’t want to be here, and yet I do. Don’t I? Don’t I like this job? Yes, when I can be robot girl and lose myself in the whirl of incident, when I can schmooze with the cooks and the sanitation crew. I have never been part of a richer mosaic, people of every age from every part of the world, with every skin color, speaking every language, expressing every sexuality. Some vets are standoffish and sour. I’ve heard belches of anti-Semitism—a version of downstairs snobbishness lobbed at guests deemed vulgar and rude. Still I revel in the cross-pollinating and the stories exchanged about how we got here because they embody a New York ideal where every kind of person mixes.
I’m standing next to an enormous urn of forsythia branches that burst 12 feet in every direction like a gigantic Tina Turner wig, when Paul comes up and we kiss. People here kiss a lot, especially the Latinos and Latinas, who make the atmosphere warm and lush. Paul is handsome in a craggy way, with a thick shock of dark hair and mischievous, hazel eyes. He’s an actor, past 40 and in demand in downtown theater, but it doesn’t pay enough to live on. Commercials don’t appeal to him, but movies do, though he’s camera shy, he tells me one day. He gets self-conscious and blows auditions. He’s smart—reads, follows politics. He wishes he were somewhere else in his life but says he’s not the most emotionally stable guy in the world.
“I feel weird,” I say.
“The party’s for PEN. I’m a member.”
“Oh,” he says, taking in the situation, except I don’t know what the situation is. His face opens devilishly. “You know these people!”
“Yeah.” I don’t know how many yet.
“You don’t have to do it.”
“I know, but I think I should. I think I should be okay with my life. Not in the closet anywhere.” This sounds good, but what does it mean? On the surface, that I know how I got here and think service work is honorable. Okay, nothing dishonorable, but maybe there is something questionable about my doing it at this stage. Is it this stage of life or career that I’m wondering about, and who is asking these questions, an artist or a bourgeois? Who is dividing up the world between artists and bourgeoises?
“Laurie,” he says.
“You’re shredding the flowers.” A little pile of yellow petals has mounded by my feet. I look down at my shiny, black shoes with their crisp lines, peeking out from the sharp crease in my trousers. I like how they look. I get a whiff of my perfume: Fendi. If I’d been invited to the party, I’d be wearing Mitsouko, which I save for special occasions because it costs more.
“I think I should do this because something good happens when I’m uncomfortable.” What good? Am I being a masochist? Is this payback for thinking I’m above class distinctions, a boho writer at home in any quarter? Clearly, I’m not. And where is the PEN gala on the entitlement totem pole anyway, where writers, like performing bears, are dealt out to tables paid for by the rich? Usually I think it’s more fun to be a waiter than a hostage to dinner conversation, but now I can’t breathe.
Paul puts his arm around my shoulder, and we walk between the tables. I ask about a play he’s rehearsing, and we chatter about the stock market. He’s got money in a few names, and even though he’s in debt, he’s trying not to sell. We discuss the market because I invest, too. Part of the reason I’m here is to let my savings grow into a pile big enough to live on. (Talk about bourgeois.) I can’t be sure this will happen. Nothing in my life is certain. I tell myself this is how everyone’s life is, whether or not people know it, but the refrain sounds hollow.
I’m not sure when, exactly, catering entered my head, because I think it has always been there: You need money, work with food. No one in my family was in the business or was sensitive to cuisine. My mother’s mother was a lousy cook, and my mother’s only concession to seasoning is salt—which I think got eliminated when she boarded the stroke-anxiety train. For five years at the height of the AIDS crisis, I worked as a volunteer for God’s Love We Deliver, cooking with professional chefs and loving the camaraderie and skill. Before that, when I was 25 and starting to earn money as a freelance writer, I waited tables in a restaurant on Abandon Square. The place was run by a Swedish woman named Vanya, who hired only women. I liked the job, don’t remember why I stopped. Soon I was writing for the Village Voice, and from then on, no matter where else I wrote, I maintained a perch at the paper, which meant money I could depend on.
Until last year. I left the Voice feeling no desire to contribute any longer, though sad about exiting on a sour note, in that the present editor wanted me to go. Two of my books were in print, though not selling beyond their advances. I’d been writing essays and memoirs for the previous few years, and I wanted to return to fiction. My first book was a novel, and I had an idea for a second, a comedy of manners. I felt no immediate financial crunch because of my investments, but if I wanted them to grow, I’d have to bring in cash. I could have looked for magazine work, but that seemed a step backward, and the time it takes to make decent money from journalism would siphon energies from fiction. Plus it’s time-consuming to look for freelance work, and I had no heart for it. I decided to give readings and workshops, and while organizing this cottage industry—sending out query letters and writing proposals—I hit on the idea of catering. Except for that brief stint at 25, I had never been paid to use my body.
It came as a lark, a burst of freedom, a con. The pay wasn’t great— usually around $20 an hour—but the labor was mindless and free of baggage. You did it, got paid, and there were no editors to think about afterward. Most of the jobs were at night, so I could have the days free. I had an oversupply of physical energy. What a hoot to get money for discharging it.
But none of the hoot/con attitude is working for me at the PEN dinner, and just as the nausea kicks in again, Alex announces that the tablecloths have arrived. A hundred waiters move onto the floor in hive mode. Foam liners go down, then bottom cloths, overlays, plates, silverware, glasses, votive candles, flowers, and last, chairs are carried to each setting. The production is so oiled it’s balletic—silverware handed out with the pieces closest to the plates first, wine and water glasses arranged in the order the beverages will be poured. The finished scene is all rather green, it turns out, and with the humid air, Kelvin, a waiter, quips, “Place looks swampy.” He checks the menu and sees that the main course is snapper, the entree he served the night before. “They must be growing them in the basement.”
Alex calls me over and leans his face close. I see red streaks in his hair. “Are you okay with tonight? I didn’t give you a head table, but if you feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to be out here.” I’m touched he’s thought of my feelings and for a moment forget PEN. He says he can replace me, that I can work in the kitchen. I repeat the spiel about thinking I should do this, and he looks at me as if I’ve started speaking a foreign language.
By the time I turn back to the room, the place cards have been distributed. I walk around the tables, unable to believe my eyes. I know dozens of people—friends and colleagues. This one reviewed a book of mine; this one I reviewed. This one I fucked and hate. This one I fucked and like. This one was my editor, this one my agent. I feel like a worm, a toad, a snapper harvested in a kitchen basement. I creep over to see who’s at my table. Miraculously, there is only one person I know, and only slightly, a writer I once had lunch with maybe 20 years ago. I doubt he’ll remember me, and if he does, I don’t care. Why do I care if others do?
I don’t know, but it’s working on me, the fear of being seen this way, and yet another part must want it. Right? Me, the person who doesn’t believe in secrets, the one who thinks there is nothing you can’t talk about if you understand the story. But I don’t understand the story, and now I’m sure of it. I check out the tables near mine and blink with horror. Placed at one is the director of a writing program I have been trying to reach about a job, a man I’ve worked with in the past but who hasn’t returned my calls. At another is the editor of my last book. I’ll call them Moe and Curly. Will they notice me? Maybe. Will I talk to them, explain myself? I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t come to that. What will I say? The truth. Okay, but the truth is a long story, and besides I’m not sure what it is, except for the short version: I need money. I think the truth stinks. I don’t want to need money this way. If I were a better writer, if I had prepared better for the future, if I weren’t a snapper raised in a kitchen basement, I would be sitting with Moe and Curly instead of catering to their needs.
Let’s consider the concept of catering, for a moment, shall we? Actually I like it sometimes. Only a few weeks ago, in this very space, I served a table celebrating the opera debut of a young woman. The other guests were her relatives and friends, and they were all from Kentucky or Arkansas, and they liked whatever I brought them, and when they asked for something special, I went out of my way to get it. The singer was maybe 20, with dewy skin and a plump body, and I marveled at the unselfconscious way she downed ice cream and tart Tatin and licked the spoon. The people at the table thanked me. We all had a good time.
But the thought of carrying a platter over to Moe or Curly and leaning close enough to kiss them and asking if they want a rare piece of whatever and if I should spoon sauce on the side makes me want to rip their heads off. It’s not their fault they’ve been invited and I haven’t. They didn’t exclude me. Who even knows how these lists are drawn up, where some writers get doled out to sit at tables of the paying customers. Perhaps if it had been up to Moe and Curly, they would have asked me along. If I’d invited them to dinner at my house, I’d be happy to serve them, even with a platter, even to offer sauce on the side, but not here, not now. And why not? Well, they should be serving me! No, no one should be serving anyone. But that’s ridiculous. That would mean that everyone would have to eat standing up, hanging over the sink.
It’s not as if Moe and Curly are insanely rich, like some of the people who come to these dinners, dripping with jewels and clothes that cost more than what most of us earn in a year. Those people make me laugh, and it’s fun to be in drag around them. At a dinner at the Met, a bold-faced hooha became so enamored of my service she stage-whispered to her dinner companion, “This one is so good, I’ll have to take her home to work for me.”
At the same table, Al D’Amato turned suddenly while I was serving the person next to him and sharply struck his head against my platter. He said, “You can get the other side when you come around.”
I said, “Gladly.” But the thing about Moe and Curly is I won’t be in drag. They’ll know who I am, and I think they’ll pity me, and the very idea of that makes me start pitying myself.
As luck would have it—or maybe the planning of my captains (there are several on large jobs)—I’m not assigned to the reception, which takes place on the first floor. That means I don’t have to serve hors d’oeuvres or butler drinks on a silver tray or pick up empty glasses and take them to a drop-off station. I don’t have to interact with guests. My job is filling glasses with ice and water. Working on a team of six, I haul out buckets of ice, each weighing 40 or 50 pounds. I turn over place cards so water doesn’t spot them, scoop ice into glasses, return to the floor with pitchers of water, and fill glasses away from the table in order not to dampen the cloths.
The repetitions of catering can be a plus or minus, depending on my mood. Today I Zen-out during the water detail, but some labors are tedious and filthy. Carrying chairs to tables or bagging them after a dinner and hauling them down flights of stairs to a loading dock— entailing trip after trip until, as is often the case, more than a thousand are deposited—I wonder what has possessed me to do this work. The thought hammers like a woodpecker when I find myself on hands and knees pulling up yards of thick waxed paper that is taped to floors to protect them from food spills in the kitchens. Even here, though, I’m sometimes amused by the ripping, outboard-motor sound of duct tape being yanked, and at this point in the night— sometimes 2 or 3 a.m.—we get loopy, pressing against fatigue. There’s wild abandon to the slopping, the hauling of empty wine bottles, the breaking down of cardboard boxes. We grunt and moan, kick and dance, whoop and whirl. When I enjoy these moments, I wonder if I’m making up a story to console myself. Perhaps I am sometimes, but at others, truly, I get lost in collective endeavor, and I like the aggression of the scene and rolling around in mess.
I don’t soft-pedal noxious aspects of this company and others like it, however, though there is an alternative breed, where captains are easygoing and treat waiters with collegial respect. Unfortunately, those companies are small and don’t have as much work as Food for Thought and its ilk, which are highly regimented and wedded to an old-fashioned sense of status and formality. Some captains here— Alex is one—are good-hearted and use empathy to inspire hard work and attentive service. A number of others bark orders and try to intimidate with threats of demotions. They are not happy people. Most expected to be doing something else to earn their keep at this stage of life. The bile they pass down has been accumulated from toadying to the Park Avenue/Southampton set they woo. When I first started working here, I thought there was a lot of cronyism, that the place aped the pecking order of the social set the company serves. It’s true to some extent. There are cliques, and some captains play favorites. Even more dismaying and unfamiliar, given my past among writers and editors who are routinely adversarial to management, some waiters are the biggest apologists for the authoritarian and paternalistic way they’re treated. They like the order, think the system works, believe they have to be kept in line, etc. They are vocal, though a minority But as I got to know the full panoply of workers, I saw how our mutual concern for each other and desire for fairness could trump attempts to divide and infantalize us. When we are happy to come to work, it isn’t only because of the money but because we like each other.
After the water team finishes, another crew places sourdough petits pains on the plates and dishes of butter on the tables, and the lights are dimmed. The place looks fantastical. Though the downside of Food for Thought is its superciliousness, the upside is the great-looking tables. Tonight there are gold chargers under the first-course plates, and the champagne flutes are violet. The flatware is weighty, the flowers brilliantly varied, with small arrangements set on each table in silver vases and centerpieces of French tulips, hydrangeas, roses, lisanthus, anemones and lilacs rising in dreamy shapes and emitting delicate perfume.
We are free for the next 45 minutes. Waiters drift to the balcony, drape themselves on benches on the third floor or schmooze in the kitchens, where there are bottles of soda and mineral water for us and where leftover rolls get nicked. While in other companies, extra food is offered to waiters at various stages of the evening, this company’s policy is modeled on the workhouse in “Oliver Twist.” Eat and perish. So waiters secret pieces of food in hiding places and chew with minimal jaw movement.
By now at the wine stations, bottles of red have been opened and are breathing, and recorked white wine is chilling in ice-filled tubs. At his coffee station, Jeremy has prepared a dark, rich-smelling brew in five six-gallon urns, and he’s set up silver trays with demitasse cups, saucers and spoons. I fill a cup with coffee, add sweetener and a little cream and talk to Jeremy, who indulges my theft and who in general expresses his solidarity with the crew by explaining how each ingredient in the upcoming meal is going to toxify the person who consumes it. Lithe and tousle-haired, he blades to jobs, unencumbered by a garment bag because workers who remain behind the screens don’t have to wear a tux. A painter, Jeremy spends more time making coffee than at his easel, and I wonder at his tolerance for the monotony of his particular job, which, though relatively easy since he’s busy only for a short part of the meal, involves the same tasks over and over. As with most of the regulars, he grabs the cash while he can, since the business is cyclical, with the busiest season in the fall until Christmas and slack periods extending through mid-winter and summer.
Word filters to us that the reception is over and guests are sweeping up to their tables. I am a B waiter, which means I share a C waiter with an A waiter, or, to translate: My table and one adjacent to it—belonging to Leyla, a beautiful dancer in her mid-30s—share the help of Carlos, who works as a trainer in a downtown gym and is relatively new to the company. The job of the C waiter is to serve side courses behind the main waiters, help clear plates and make sure wine and water glasses are filled at all times. Each threesome works as a team as much as possible, butlering drinks for each other’s guests if need be, and today I am pleased with my draw, for both Carlos and Leyla are friendly and fast.
As the guests find their seats, we line up around the perimeter of the room, holding bottles of white wine in service napkins, ready to pour as guests sit down. In this opening display, we’re required to stand at attention. No talking. We’re meant to look as if every cell in our bodies is there to anticipate the needs of patrons, some of whom are flattered by the pose. At one dinner, a man wouldn’t deign to speak to me or make eye contact and instead pointed with a limp index finger to items on the platter.
When I didn’t respond, the finger whisked back and forth impatiently until I said, “I don’t understand sign language.”
He sputtered, “Potatoes.”
At another dinner, as I leaned over to serve a man—he was in his 80s with a potbelly out to here and wiry hairs sprouting from his ears—he slid his hand up and down my back, as if I were a pet. I said, “Take your hand off me.” He didn’t apologize, rather was aggrieved I’d stopped him.
This is a side of life only people in service jobs see, where the boundary between the server’s body and the hands of the served are at times disregarded. At a recent dinner, a silver-haired souse yanked a bottle of wine out of my hand instead of asking if I would hand it to him; then he thrust it back at me, all wordless. I slammed the bottle down in front of him and said, “Next time ask if you want something. I’m not accustomed to having things grabbed from me.” He was startled and angered and would not look at me for the rest of the meal. Waiters around congratulated me, though they don’t all handle things this way. Many blow off rudeness as something they have to endure, while inside they seethe. I can’t do this and by reacting don’t feel insulted. Before catering I knew that things like this happened, but the knowledge has deepened by experiencing it in the flesh.
A few people at my table sit down, and I pour wine. The surrounding tables begin filling up, and soon I see Moe and Curly take their seats. I haven’t made a secret of my job. I’ve told everyone I know. No one showed surprise. Some people thought I was plucky. One friend (a European) said she could be a good proletarian—fix plumbing or build a kitchen, thank you—but she could not do service work because it would be too hard to deal with the class assumptions. Another friend insisted I was brave, as if waiting on people were a perilous descent, which wasn’t at all what she said, but I got so huffy I made her cry. Given the grapevine, it’s possible that Moe and Curly know I’m doing this. But though I’ve told people I’m catering, no one I’m close to has seen me on the job. When I imagined it happening, I thought it would be fun, but it’s not. Except Moe and Curly don’t see me, and that is discomforting, too. They’re not looking for friends among the tuxedoed crew. They don’t look at people in uniform at all. To get to my table, I don’t have to pass directly across their sight lines, and I find myself averting my face as I even get near them. It’s reflexive, a spasm, and as I give in to it, I hate myself for caving.
Luckily there isn’t much time for self-loathing. I finish pouring wine. The man I had lunch with doesn’t know me from Adam. My table is close to the kitchen where the main course will be doled out. To get to the first-course kitchen, I have to traverse the entire room, but I can do it via the balcony, another way to avoid being seen. Carlos stays with the tables, while Leyla and I go to the kitchen and line up with serving spoons and forks. For French service, a large spoon is wedged under the middle finger and over the index and fourth fingers, while the fork is held—its back to the spoon’s front— by the thumb and index finger, allowing the pincer action of a crab claw. That’s how we lift food from the serving platter and place it on the plate—the elements of each course set down in a prescribed pattern, i.e., meat at 6 o’clock, rice timbale at 3, etc. Along with food, the white porcelain platters are heated in proofers, metal closets on wheels, layered with sterno cans and sheet pans. To keep from burning ourselves on the platters, we line our arms with service napkins tucked discreetly out of sight.
The first course is pasta bow ties in a sauce of three cheeses, layered with morels, shitakes and grilled baby artichokes. Smoky, buttery smells punch the air. Before we exit, a cook anoints each platter with a dusting of bright green herbs. I use the balcony to get back to my table and serve each guest by resting the tip of the platter on the space between plates. At some dinners the guests are bored, so they chat with me. I exchange market talk with brokers and bankers. But tonight the guests are engaged with each other, and as I move between them, I’m a silent butler incarnate.
At the signal to pick up plates, I begin with the person I served first and move counterclockwise. The company rule is that waiters can never carry more than two plates in the dining room, one in each hand, with fork and knife secured under the thumb, so silverware doesn’t rattle or clatter to the floor. Even after guests have gone home, there is never any stacking or scraping in the dining room, an image that sends the eyeballs of some captains rolling with disgust and prompts the bromide “We’re not in a diner,” as if said establishment were the ninth circle of hell. Today we pick up a charger and plate in each hand, as if it is one unit. I have to walk to the back of the room, and that’s when I see another writer I know—I’ll call him Larry—an éminence grise who is not an intimate but someone I like. I have the impulse to catch his eye and say hello, but I check it, unable to think of how, rushing along, I would explain myself or why he would care if I did. I don’t catch his eye and think it best to avoid him, though he’s directly in my path to the drop-off station and kitchen.
I make four trips—with Carlos helping—to the drop-off, each time turning my head away from Larry, but the area is beginning to feel mined, with either Moe, Curly or Larry in my path and the faces of new people I know coming into focus. It’s such a relief to be behind the wooden screens and to hand my plates to Dieter, who’s from Germany, that I want to linger here. His fair skin blushed from exertion, he shoots me his ironic smile, saying, “Give those to me, darling,” and uses the edges of the plates to scrape leftovers into a large, plastic trash bin. On the last trip back, we’re handed hot plates from a proofer. Again they have to be held in a napkin, for they are scorching. Back at the table, I set them at each place, then get bottles of red wine and pour.
Next we line up for the main course, with A and B waiters receiving platters and C waiters picking up silver bowls set in napkin nests on silver trays. The main course is a whole, boned red snapper, stuffed with spinach and ricotta and surrounded by a melange of baby vegetables in a truffle-infused sauce. The C waiters have corn soufflés. The fish are so enormous they seem like mutants. I don’t mind their weight. I view it as part of my workout, but the fish are hard to serve because we have to portion them at the table with only our pincer utensils. In the bustle, I’m focused on what I’m doing, less on how I feel—always a preferred state but hard to attain. As I lean over the guests, I smell their scents, notice their dye jobs and plastic surgery, observe whether they are pleased or distracted, consider whether I like their clothes and would wear them. At one point I feel someone step on my heel and spin around to see with horror it is Curly, then immediately turn back as I hear him say, “I’m sorry.” I think I detected a look of amazement on his face, but I might have imagined it.
While the guests eat and before seconds are served, there is time to slip away for a moment—stand on the balcony or have a soda from the kitchen. But the interval is brief because someone may want a drink from the bar or need a water or wineglass filled. I don’t want to station myself on the room’s perimeter because I’m too close to Moe, so I keep twitching like a squirrel, though no one seems to notice. Moe looks handsome and fit, with his peachy complexion and thatch of sandy hair, but then he always looks healthy and confident, and I hate him. I am circling the drain of my life again, when, like a wave making its way toward shore, there is Stanley Crouch, whom I have known for years since our days at the Voice. Stanley and I have crossed paths a few times in the last year. He has a new book coming out, a first novel, and he’s read me some pages over the phone.
I want him to roll toward me. I don’t care if he sees me in uniform because I trust his view of me, no matter what I’m wearing. He grew up amid poverty, has studied class from various positions along his yo-yo ride. Suddenly I want to enter this scene in some way that feels genuine and will not lop off any part of me because I am living my life this way, with Paul and Dieter, Kelvin and Leyla as part of it, and I don’t want to be ashamed of what we do together. Alas, the wave of Stanley breaks before it reaches me. He stops to kibitz with a renowned novelist I know a little and have envied for her success and productivity, though not her books. Her long, auburn hair is swept up in a knot, and she turns her chin up to greet Stanley with a wry smile, and I see her solid chin and the slightly worn look around her eyes, and I note the lassitude in her shoulders, which are careless tonight, as if she’s not burdened by anything.
No one at my table wants seconds, which comes as no surprise, given the slabs of fish I’ve served them, and the clearing process begins again, this time with care to remove any pieces of roll left on the table. I return with a crumbing plate, sweep off bits of food with my service napkin, and remove sets of salt and pepper shakers from the table. Then back with dessert plates and a trek to the other side of the room for champagne. For some reason I take a path through the tables instead of using the balcony—maybe to get a look at the assembled, maybe to flash myself as an antidote to cringing. I think I’m making too much of the situation, whatever it is. With all its conflicts, it’s only a night in my life, and I should stop being a drama queen. I am moving from the back of the dining room toward the balcony along a narrow space when I see Stanley again. His back is to me, and his body is blocking my way.
It is impossible to get around him without announcing myself because I have to touch him. I want to join the party, and this looks like a means, revealing myself in a way that is both public and private, in that only Stanley need see me. I put my hands on his back and say his name. He whips around and gleefully lifts me in the air with a sort of caveman impulse I trigger in him. Our faces are this close, and all he sees is my smile and dark curls. He’s not looking below my neck, and if he takes in what I’m wearing, he may at first register some sort of chic costume. As he turns I see that his body has been eclipsing another person, Judy Hottensen, who worked at the Voice, too, and more recently has been the publicist for a book I published at Grove. As Stanley lowers me, I point to my tux and say, “I’m working here,” smiling, but I see Judy’s face collapse in confusion, and so does Stanley’s. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but the party has become the classic bad dream in which I am running around naked while everyone else is in clothes. I can’t chat with them because I have to get the champagne, but their looks of consternation—or whatever it is—turn in me like a corkscrew. There is no way for me to be at this party with the guests, unless I want to feel like an ass.
I can’t sink because I have to keep moving. I uncork a bottle of champagne and return to my table. I pour, then go to the far kitchen for dessert. On the balcony I see Judy again, but she’s talking to three women I don’t know, or if I do, they are a blur, and I don’t say anything. Neither does she. The desserts—blood-orange tart with a layer of pastry cream—are lined up on long tables, and for the C waiters, there is blood-orange sorbet. The flame-colored pies gleam on their platters, and normally I would be thinking about how good they will taste, but my stomach is in knots and I hate the sight of food. I serve dessert, and Carlos lays out coffee cups. One last trip to Jeremy’s station for a silver pot of coffee and a tray laid with sugar and cream. We don’t leave these items on the table, rather pour coffee and present sugar and cream to guests butler style.
At this point there is little to do but wait for guests to leave, except when that will be can’t be calculated. A band is playing, and people are dancing to Motown and Stones songs, and I long for a gun or some other way out. This is the worst part of the evening because I’m just standing there, and as people gaze about the room and get up to mingle, there is no way that Moe, Curly and Larry will not see me. I feel defeated, partly because I didn’t have to go through with this. Alex gave me an out, and now I can’t see why I didn’t take it. What did I hope to accomplish? Didn’t I know that no matter which decision I made, I’d be cooked? If I’d stayed behind the screens, I would have felt like a coward; out here I feel like Cinderella with no mice, fairy godmother or prince. My circuits are shorted like HAL the computer’s as Keir Dullea unplugged him. I don’t know where I belong, which is not a new feeling, only a reminder that at 53, when I’m not distracted by hope or a pat on the head, my default position is buffoon.
And then, as if from out of the clouds riding a winged chariot, Kelvin saunters by and says, “Miss Laurie, would you like to do waiter food tonight?” He is leaving the floor to organize leftovers for the staff, who will begin getting breaks when the dinner is ready. I scream, “Yes!” shadowing him to the kitchen, where I immediately feel better. As I pass through the screens, it’s like black and white going to color in “The Wizard of Oz.” Everyone looks beautiful. I love everyone. How could I have doubted my place in this community?
Dieter slings his arm around me. “So, you have come to join us.” Laurel, the kitchen captain—a beautiful, diminutive woman who used to be a dancer—fills me in about her knee since surgery. Kelvin doesn’t know how I’ve been feeling, but we’ve been buddies since I started working here, talking politics and race. He’s a singer and DJ, an original who should find his way past this world, though he may not. Born in Trinidad, he retains an island lilt in his voice, though he can just as easily clown as a hiphopster with big hands in your face and a bopping booty. I don’t know where he lives or much else about his life, except that he can’t afford health insurance—he was once badly injured and couldn’t see a doctor.
I hustle to the tasks he sets as if I’ve come awake. I go to the other kitchen and bring over the food there—mounting the stairs, crossing along the third floor, then rolling a proofer into an elevator and wheeling it to Kelvin. There are sheet pans galore of pasta, fish, corn soufflé and pie. I’m ravenous. It’s been nine or 10 hours since I’ve eaten. I mound a plate with shitakes, baby artichokes and golf-ball-size morels—as delicious as they are ugly—savoring their mysterious, smoky taste and the fact that they cost a lot. Usually I resist comforting myself with food because it reminds me of being a fat, depressed teen-ager, and tonight, invisible among the beautiful people, maybe, that’s where I returned.
The music is still playing. Kelvin and I boogie while serving the waiters, piling up their plates with as much as they want. This is the best part of the night, when velvet ropes come down and a party erupts backstage. Paul comes by and asks how my night went. I say, “I unraveled.” He smiles knowingly I feel cared about, and I want to hold onto this sense of belonging, even if it’s a fantasy. I feel it as I help clean up the kitchen and return the theater to its pre-party state. At 2 I hit the streets and walk uptown alone. Broadway looks beautiful and benign to me, as it always does on spring nights when the traffic is light and the air scented with trees in bud. I’m still wearing my tux, but no one notices or cares. What was the crisis of the PEN party? That I appeared to myself like Dickens in the blacking factory, permanently fallen in status? What do I think the arc of a life is supposed to be? A straight arrow up, I suppose, and some lives look like that. Lucky for them or maybe unlucky for them. Mine isn’t that. Not even the arc of a week. One day I’m giving a reading in Southampton to an appreciative audience who buys my books. The next day I’m passing cheese puffs. The next day the stock market rallies; the next day it plunges. One day a story is accepted for publication; the following day and many like it, my work is rejected.
For the coming fall, I’ve scheduled enough teaching gigs and residences to eliminate my money crunch. I won’t have to cater, but I want to. A few weeks after the PEN gala, I was carrying around a tray of sushi at the opening of a crafts show when a well-known art critic and curator—I’ll call him Andy—picked up a California roll and began dipping it in soy sauce. I’ve known Andy for 25 years, have had dinner at his apartment, have eaten with him in restaurants. For a solid year, we met weekly to organize the National Writers’ Union. I’m wearing a white chef’s jacket and chef’s hat (don’t ask), but I am completely recognizable, though Andy acts as if he has no idea who I am. I say, “Andy, hi, it’s Laurie.” He looks at me stunned and puzzled. I ask if his lover, also a friend, is there, and he tells me that his lover is out of town, squeezing out the words, as if normal conversation is excruciating. He doesn’t ask what I am doing carrying a tray. He doesn’t ask what I am writing. He moves off, as if I have something infectious he can catch, and for the rest of the party, though he passes me many times, says not a word and makes no eye contact. I suppose to him I do have something he can catch—failure—which haunts every freelancer (artist, human) at all times. My brush with Andy didn’t go into me. I think his reaction is what’s to be expected, and there can’t be any more surprises about that.
There will be other dinners where I will feel freakish and uncertain, and so be it. In a life like mine, with so much solitude and fragmentation, catering offers a community. No other place provides as much difference in mindset or dramatizes more vividly the resilience of class. Some days when I feed rich, sloppy food to the beast in me and let it rip in a gavotte of demolition, I think this indulgence is why I’m not a better writer. Other days I think the beast is what made the writer.