Monday, November 3, 2014

The Tears of a Junior Waiter

The only commerce within walking distance of where I spent the latter half of my adolescence — just above Pacific Coast Highway, equidistant from Malibu to the north and Santa Monica to the south — was at a restaurant called Ted’s Rancho Restaurant, overhanging the Pacific. 

The guy who interviewed me seemed as though he’d just walked off a film noir set. He had beady little eyes, slicked back dyed black hair, a cigar, and too much aftershave, and virtually oozed venality. He asked if I were interested in becoming a junior waiter. He gave me a business card — one of those cheesy pearlescent jobs — that identified him as Mr. Lucky. Under his name, in quotation marks, it said, “Your Courtesy.” I have not yet figured out what Your Courtesy was intended to convey, and it's been half a century. 

The place turned out to have no senior waiters, but only waitresses. Maybe Mr. Lucky had forgotten the word busboy. I was issued a little red jacket of the sort waiters in restaurants with red leather banquettes were expected to wear at the time, and began refilling water glasses and collecting dirty dishes in a horrible gray plastic tub that I would then carry back to the dishwasher, a wizened little Negro (it was the mid-60s!) who was forever shrieking at me for leaving the tub in the wrong place. I was being fast-tracked toward college at Santa Monica High School, and have an IQ well into the three-figure range, and by and by it occurred to me there wasn’t actually a right place. 

The waitresses weren’t good at math. They were supposed to share 15 percent of their tips with me. If one of them hauled in $15 over the course of a night’s work, she would give me a buck. I secretly lusted after the cocktail waitress, who was younger than the waitresses, and had the sort of bouffant hair that I’ve always found inexpressibly sexy. Lucky already had his hooks in her, and I was the least worldly boy in southern California, though I was staying up until well after 2:00 a.m. on weekend mornings now, and identifying, as only a self-romanticizing little dipshit could, with Ray Price’s lachrymose "Night Life" on the jukebox, which also had The Beatles and Mary Wells’s "My Guy." The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life. Sing it, Ray, for all of us hard-bitten denizens of the night.

I didn’t understand why the bartender, Abel, and head chef (LOL), Bill, seemed to hate me on sight. Only years later did it occur to me that they resented my having my whole professional life ahead, while they were stuck tending bar and cooking in a cruddy little restaurant in which, as with all Malibu restaurants at the time, the view was spectacular and the food nearly inedible, the exception being the most expensive thing on the menu, the chateaubriand, which set one back $13. (almost $100 in 2014 money). When someone ordered it, the restaurant’s atmosphere would become charged with excitement, Bill, who ordinarily looked as though about to kill everyone in sight, and then himself, might actually smile, though to the naked eye it looked more like a grimace. Even if he or she weren’t seated at the other end of the restaurant, I would make a point to go over for a peek at the high roller who’d ordered the dish. 

A few weeks into my second summer there, my first girlfriend advised that she thought we should…see other people. Oh, fat chance, Gail, given that it took every ounce of my resolve to ask you out those four months ago! I was devastated. After spending a whole day in tears, I showed up for work wearing my broken heart on my sleeve. And face. Someone at one of my tables was insensitive enough to ask, “is it as bad as all that, champ?”

“No,” I eagerly blurted, ripping off my little red jacket, “It’s much worse!” I stormed out, never again to refill a diner’s water glass, never again to be shrieked at by the wizened little dishwasher.  Confirming Abel’s and Bill’s most painful expectations, I went on to the life of great wealth and glamour I continue to enjoy to this day.

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