In late afternoon, the chairs that have spent the night like overturned bugs, with their legs pointed toward the ceiling, return, upright, to the floor. Pushed in and out, and in and out, over the course of the evening, the wood will support the warmth and weight of life: the first date, the proposal, the 14th anniversary, the after-therapy respite, the Thursday-night routine, the parents’ visit or the simple craving for familiar candlelight and a pork chop. For the moment though, the chairs sit patiently open. The tabletops have collected dust during the day, and the western light illuminates it like snow. The soap from closing has streaked and dried and needs wiping off. Someone on Table 6 didn’t use his saucer last night, and the teapot left a scalloped dullness where the varnish will need shining.
There might be music from the kitchen. There might be the sound of the peeler, removing from the beets their wine-stained skin. The twang of knives being sharpened resonates like a Jew’s harp; I feel it in my teeth. Oven doors open and close, water runs, “Caliente!” But the dining room is still, quiet and expectant. After the tables are cleaned, the linen and flatware are arranged; napkin in the left-hand corner with the fork centered on the left-facing knife. Forks are my favorite part of setting tables. The bowed slope of silver tines will offer a cold and steadfast complement to the rough, warm suppleness of the tongue. Aware of what awaits them, I find something irresistible about the way they hold themselves, about their shape. Heavy and silver, forks have one specific job and were well-designed for it.
The sturdiness of kitchen things entices me: stainless steel and thick woodblock and pans that hang from the ceiling. I like big spoons and big pots and big boxes of muddy greens. I like the way kitchens inherently promise possibility but also remind us of the measured, modest steps necessary to take one thing and make something else. A kind of readiness waits in empty pots. The cold metal will become the heat of sustenance; the depth of each pan will become plenty. The fundamentals of earth science and chemistry are at work. Brining, braising, boiling—transformation as old as fire yet mysterious as magic.
The smells of yeast and shallots remain constant. The others, in rotation throughout the night, depend on the season. Shad, for instance, pungent with spring, is impossible to escape even with the hatch open for air. Duck fat, foie gras and even some wild mushrooms—their aromas dangle, almost heavy enough to see. The sumac, the ras el hanout, the quince—these are subtler and harder to individuate.
Stocking wines from the walk-in cooler, I whisper a prayer for the cold calf on the floor. The intact hooves stick out of the box like unshrouded feet extending beyond the wood of a funeral pyre. The feet, in death, always look to me the most unchanged, the most still alive. Running my fingers along the capsules of the wine bottles, I let myself be momentarily transported by the names and calls of port. I like knowing these grapes are from Portugal, these grapes from the Loire, these from Piedmont and this beer from Brooklyn. The curves on the necks of the bottles serve as essential reminders of the simple, ancient truths of export and drink.
Getting ready for dinner offers routine and patience. The stillness and the steady tick of minutes provide a calm that readies me for the traffic and noise to come. The customers remain conceptual, not yet needy or demanding or blocking the entrance to the kitchen. For the moment, everything is predictable, and nothing is yet in short supply. The quiet hour of lighting candles and setting tables, knowing the lamb is marinating and the wine is coming up to room temperature, is, for me, a rare indulgence into abundance.
One is rarely a waitress by choice. But working at night and for cash has its advantages. As with any position of service, though, the abruptness with which I arrive in the midst of others’ lives can yield strange results. There is not only a physical closeness as I pour wine and lean in and reach over, but also a sudden extrasensory transparency, where all the family dynamics of effort or uncertainty are on the table, as palpable as the salt and pepper. In this culture of how-are-you/fine, closed doors and polite avoidance, the proximity of the waiter, a stranger, in the middle of supper can make everyone seem vulnerable.
It’s not just that I overhear conversations between husbands and wives, and wives and husbands. Sure, there are sisters and friends and gay men in perfect pinstripes, and sometimes the whole family with Granny double-fisting glasses of Bordeaux Blanc and five cups of Joe. But mainly, at this restaurant, in this neighborhood, over this kind of food, there are husbands and wives, often with grown or growing children who occasionally appear around holidays and who may or may not be offered a glass as I open the wine. The peculiarity of being at the table isn’t just that I see how they order: how they decide to share or not share, or both have the same thing despite the redundancy. First, it’s that I’ve held their forks and glasses, taken the forks away and put new ones down as often as four times in one meal. And I have looked them in the eyes. I overhear everything, including all that goes unsaid. I have seen them as human, uncomfortable or apathetic, willing or unkind, and with their mouths full—even if they haven’t seen me back.
Except for the folks who appear to know me too well, who tell me too much, who misinterpret those two or three hours at close range as something else, something more. Once a woman claimed to tell me about her divorce before anyone else. Granted, she and her husband had had their 10th anniversary party at the restaurant, but still. … When she asked me not to mention it to her soon-to-be ex, who’d been coming in alone on opposite nights, I wondered about her understanding of my role. Many couples look for distraction from one another and turn, instead, to the menu, to the food or to me. After ordering and tasting and commenting, and if I am too busy to have a chat, they then sit silently staring past one another, not quite as far away from the feeling of home as they wanted.
Over four years at the same restaurant, I have watched courtships evolve into marriages and then pregnancies and parenthood. These relationships are almost heartbreaking in their inevitability. When they bring the newborn in for dinner, there might be a small gratis bottle of champagne. People we really like even get the good stuff. The baby might make it through the meal; she might not. The mom might be fine with nursing in between bites; she might not. She will be tired, he will be tired, and they will feel self-conscious when the baby cries and the small room fills with open-mouthed need. They will take turns. He will take the baby first, into the foyer, and try to distract her with the same shiny kitchen tools that distract me. If things are looking desperate, he will take the baby outside. Meanwhile, on the banquette, the wife is forking her greens into her mouth out of habit. She’s not sure anymore why she bought the dress, the special nursing dress, that she thought would be worth wearing to dinner. Then they will trade. She will take the baby. He will finish his no longer hot lamb kabob. He will make more of an effort to smile, to say everyone’s doing “great,” to drink his wine with a kind of enjoyment instead of just out of obligation. After they have skipped dessert, she will think silently to herself how it’s no longer worth a hundred bucks to sit where they used to feel almost famous, only to feel so lonely.
Then there are the women who come in with lots of different men. They call too late on their way over and ask for a nice table even though it’s Saturday night and there are no tables at all, not even the awkward ones in the middle of the room, which I always kick or back up into by accident. They say to their dates, “Oh, the lobster mushrooms here are fabulous,” even though lobster mushrooms are no longer in season, and they ask for that great Grenache I have by the glass even though it hasn’t been on the wine list in the three months since they last came in, with someone else. The dates will usually be a little thrown off. They will not have heard of many things on the menu and are not used to being told what farm the duck comes from, but they will not want to come across as stodgy or unwilling, only amused. They will order the steak, but medium mind you, not bloody, and they will be surprised, in the end, by how good it all tastes. From the waiter station, I will wish they could feel the same unexpected delight with their dates.
Sometimes, famous people come to eat. One waitress I know collects their credit card receipts. Not to use for anything illegal, but they are autographed, after all. John Turturro spells his last name when making a reservation until we whisper that we know who he is. Meryl Streep eats her meat as rare as it should be, which is to say very. Her nose is as elegant in real life. Paul Auster is older than in the photograph on last year’s book cover, but strikingly handsome nevertheless. He drinks Vouvray Sec.
Then, there are the people who are famous to us if not actually famous. For the painters and sculptors I work with, the arrival of gallery owners is always stressful. In my experience, accomplished writers can be just as judgmental. Once, at a literary event, I was introduced to a woman by the editor of a publication in which we both had work forthcoming. She looked so familiar, but it wasn’t until a few uncomfortable moments later that we realized I was her waitress, and she scoffed openly at me for not having known, all this time, who she was.
Ideally, we all meet somewhere in the middle ground of good food, where I am neither marriage counselor nor servant. Unavoidably, however, everyone knows that the customers are paying my salary. Every interaction ultimately ends with a tip, and all the insight into human nature I’ve earned is not what pays my rent.
Despite all the awkward interactions, moments of shared understanding flicker through most every exchange. We recognize one another in the simplicity of eye contact, which buoys my faith but can also break my heart. I will never forget the plaid shirt and the rolled jeans of the man whose hand shook so much he couldn’t get his spoon to his mouth. Now, his wife comes in alone to order take-out, which we rarely do, except for people we like. The wife has long gray braids and a yellow rain slicker with a pack of smokes in the pocket for when she’s out walking the dog or picking up the food. She loves him, but he’s making her crazy. She’s got decades left in her and knows it. He does not. Another couple I’ve watched navigate old age is similar, though that wife is tiny, with dyed brown hair and timeless men’s white shirts and big, black-framed glasses. She looks more Upper East Side Guggenheim than she does Brooklyn, and I like her for this. He could hardly eat soup any more and eventually went into hospice. The following night, she came in with a friend to celebrate, which seems about as much as anyone can do, really. The owner poured them top shelf bourbon, which is not something we even serve. The women toasted each other and didn’t blink twice.
Most people, most of the time, are simply predictable. Many people have no manners. Many more were never taught not to make faces at words like sardines or rabbit loin or pork belly, even though grown-ups should know better than to grimace when the waiter describes something they think is yucky. Most people have awkward dates. Many people can’t make decisions to save their lives, even if it’s simply a question of flat or fizzy water. Over time and bread and wine, and more bread and more wine, people all slowly become the same people—the same first date, the same 15th anniversary, the same marriage.
Because I heard these conversations last night, have been hearing these conversations for years, I often find it very difficult not to join in:
“My father thinks Larry Bird is Jewish.”
“Do you like jazz?”
“You’ll be fat as a house long before I’m fat as a house.”
“They don’t call them ‘mulattos’ anymore.”
“I love jazz.”
“I’m afraid of getting it rare.”
“Is this the biggest spoon you have?”
“Well, it’s not my fault.”
“Jazz is great.”
“Does that mean it’s road kill?”
“Is ‘local’ from the Gowanus Canal?”
But in between wiping flatware and biting my tongue and resetting the forks for each course, I take comfort in taking care, in providing reliability and in feeling the solid weight of silver. The provision of warmth and nourishment is as timeless and universal as love. There is joy in abundance when it is not careless. Regardless of how much life might change from one season to the next or how it doesn’t change enough on some nights, there’s something to be said for pulling out a chair and inviting someone I don’t even know to have a seat.