July 22, 2007

"I was their tongueless eunuch, bearing grapes."

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When I was barely nineteen I became employed as a graveyard-shift waiter at Denny's, America's legendary last stop between the nightclub and the early morning toilet-hug. The events that led to this are a story for another time, but I will say that my attempts to begin college while working full-time through a temp agency had been a fiasco. As willing as I'd been to mutilate my youth in a world of polo shirts, briefcases, and respectably square haircuts, I could not turn the trick any longer. The crying jags, the heart palpitations, the insomnia that led me to fall asleep at the wheel on my way to work (and at my desk once I arrived)— these factors could no longer be rationalized as part and parcel of the workaday world. I was as courteous as possible during my nervous breakdown; I gave two weeks notice.

I conducted myself at my Denny's interview like I would at any other. Sandi, the general manager, goggled at my resume while keeping a nervous eye trained on my perfectly knotted tie, as if any moment I would realize where I was and bolt for the door; I smiled bravely, waiting, listening to eighteen-wheelers growling practically overhead as they exited the 202 freeway. "Okay," she said finally. "You're hired, and you can start training tomorrow night at ten. But..,” She squinted, grappling with words, and then leaned in close. "But why? Why are you even here?" Sandi had deep brown eyes. She was a mother of two, and mothers need to know these things: why and how. Having rarely been capable of telling the truth to my own mother or to any previous employer, I was surprised to find myself returning her eye contact and saying, "I just... need... to try something else. And I need to stay up late." She nodded sympathetically, having heard and seen it all, and then gave me a maroon apron.

The Denny's dress code was straightforward and inflexible. A button-up Oxford shirt, white or blue. Slacks, black. Shoes, black. It was basically the outfit they give to asylum inmates when they are released back into the wide world. I groomed myself with care for my first day, dismayed to find myself almost as dressed up to haul grits as I had been to fax memos. I needn't have worried. I was trained by Seth, who spoke in a stoner mushmouth dialect and whose own shirt had been washed to a pale-gray tatter. The instinct to render judgment and feel automatically superior to such a person had been ingrained in me by my former life, but it became instantly clear to me that Seth and I enjoyed equal footing on the bottom rung, and in fact I could stand to learn a thing or two from him. By five o'clock the next morning, as I walked home toward the sunrise drawing flies with my ranch dressing perfume, I knew I had found my people.

Denny's was my purgatory, my beautiful ordeal. Swooping headlong into the null visibility of the smoking section, serving meals to people drunk enough to have forgotten what they ordered by the time it arrived, skidding around corners on floors drenched with mop water and sausage gravy, shouting to be heard over parties whose ears had been blasted out by nightclub speakers, explaining each night's litany of fresh disappointments, which soup/pie/dressing our menu promised that we couldn't deliver. The key to getting the most out of purgatory was not to see it as exclusively mine. Nobody was beautiful under our harsh lights, after hours of drinking or dancing. No joke was as funny as it was intended to be, no interaction was as graceful as it ought to be. If you didn't arrive at our restaurant with your own cross to bear, we'd supply you with one: the wait for a table when it seemed everyone had been seated ahead of you, the drink order that never arrived, the wad of gum discovered under the edge of your plate that somehow survived the dishwasher. The way everybody at your table paid what they owed on the check only to find that it didn't add up to the total. I was a custodial presence to these shades, and my favor or dismay could exalt them or break the back of their whole night. I was a mercurial servitor, enslaved by my position but struggling to arbitrate justice and pancakes as benevolently as possible. On the occasions when we servers hardened our hearts and cranked the AC down to 60 degrees in order to drive out obnoxious but otherwise undeserving parties of twelve, I knew that at worst, I was only human.

I grew to crave the thrill of almost certain nightly disaster, the Russian roulette in which the number of chambers, let alone bullets, was constantly changing. You could do everything right and then drown under a wave of too many customers, or you could have everything in your favor and ruin it all yourself by absentmindedly tilting your wrist two degrees, allowing a ham and cheese omelet to slide off its plate and ooze like a mutant slug right down a woman's back. Even then, as you hid in the kitchen so you wouldn't have to face the Omelet Lady, you knew that in an hour everything would be reset: all new customers, all new traps and landmines. I would see my fellow waiters and waitresses go down in flames on either side of me, peeling out of formation to rinse the syrup out of their hair or dissolve into hysterical tears in the manager's office. We were extras in an old submarine movie, running around in a panic throwing levers and shouting into radios while red lights flashed and water sprang through the leaks after each enemy fusillade. Some bore the strain better than others. A waiter who was an ex-marine developed a bad habit of settling problems with his customers out in the parking lot; I hated and admired him.

Once I found my footing at Denny's, I became a rogue entity, shortcutting my way to supremacy and undercutting each new bureaucratic contrivance that stood in my way. I gained access to the label makers they used to make our nametags, and before long the floor was humming with servers named Hoss and Lolita and Ichabod. I managed to escape every single mandatory staff meeting, leave a half hour early every shift, and read the newspaper in plain view of the office's two-way mirror. What could they do to me? Sonny, the waiter who relieved me from duty at six AM, was on work release from prison, dropped off and picked up by the grim penitentiary bus. Clearly the management had more to worry about than my saddle shoes.

You lose touch with reality when everything is always at its worst. You develop those emergency room coping instincts, that gallows humor that made M*A*S*H so hypnotic. One night a drunk sorority girl bolts from her plate of fried eggs with her hands over her mouth, hauling ass to the bathroom with a stream of vomit marking her progress behind her in a dotted line, and you barely look up from the cash register. Then her concerned sister chases after. You watch her skid in one of the puddles of puke and yelp as she flies off her feet, her face connecting with the glass pie-case at a truly astounding velocity, the sound of the impact sickening enough to make several people put down their forks for keeps. You clamp down on the laugh curdling through your nervous system, and you're already mentally listing which of your friends wakes up the earliest so that you can set your alarm clock just to wake up and tell them that you saw this. A fourteen-year-old Mexican boy has been "legally" hired to attend to crises like this, and comes out of the kitchen with a bucket. He begins to patiently mop up the mess; he ladles puke into the bucket with his hands and then polishes the blur of face-grease (and I swear, lip gloss) from the surface of the pie-case with a thin rag, while people mill around him and the unconscious sister, trying to decide which of the girls is in worse shape and who is sober enough to do anything about it. It is four in the morning. You have three tables left and a bucket of silverware to roll, and goddam if a whole week doesn’t go by before you remember this scene ever took place.

The bars closed at one AM, and by three the siege was usually over; I usually had time to wolf down my own clammy salad or fried sandwich before the strip clubs closed at four. It wasn't a surge of patrons I had to gather strength for, it was the strippers themselves, who would clip-clop in at about 4:10, assembling in full regalia for a post-shift feast, their fake hair glinting under our fluorescent tubes. In the beginning, I was confused why all the waitstaff clawed over each other to be the one that served them; life was depressing enough without having to study rancid makeup application up close and explain the word "carafe". I learned soon enough that in exchange for indulging their most capricious culinary whims and royal attitudes, the strippers would generally leave a tip upward of $75, regardless of the amount of their check. The server on stripper-detail would basically forsake all other tables for the rest of the night; would stay as long as they stayed; would pick out all the green bits from the iceberg lettuce to ensure a perfectly white salad; would convince the cooks to invent elaborate entrees that were nowhere on the menu; would concoct exotic beverages from Denny's limited palette, such as half-sprite-half-iced-tea-with-grenadine, and keep the refills coming; and would generally give them someone to feel superior to after a long night of riding poles and laps and coke-sprinkled emotional roller coasters.

At first getting to wait on them was a treat, because of the money. Later, it became a mitzvah because they were lost little girls stranded in their flesh like nymphs in trees. And then eventually even that couldn't get me through it anymore, and I often gladly let other servers help themselves to the experience. If I was the only waiter left on the floor that night, however, they would be mine (and I, theirs), and that was that. It became my bĂȘte noire, the only indignity that I couldn't always subvert or wriggle out from under.

Look at my life, I’d think. It is really happening, just like this. I will always be this, or something similar, mind straining to keep up with what my eyes are seeing, the dark windshield watching the headlights cut through fog. It is my hands in bleach-water, my fingers twisting silverware into napkin sleeves, my face reflected close-up in the white tile above the urinal where I pray hourly and swallow air and wonder whether the future exists, or just more of this. There was plenty of time to ponder as I poured dressing into the little dishes they liked to have on the side, one for each flavor to ensure the most variety and the most waste. They had arrived during the last hour of my shift, and I was trapped into service. Tamrynne unfolded herself from their large corner booth and turned heads all the way to the ladies' room, and I was startled by a low grunt in my ear as Don, the cook, baked his face under the heat lamps in order to peer through and watch her walk. "Damn," he crooned through no front teeth, "Girl look so fine, I'd suck her daddy's dick." Tamrynne was a rare creature among them, possessing a legitimate, profound beauty that made it all the more disappointing to overhear her mental vacancy. The girls had grown to accustomed to my presence, and at times I was touched by the candor of their humor and intimacy when they knew I could hear. I was their tongueless eunuch, bearing grapes.

I sat at the counter, waiting for the chime to signal that their thirty-pound tray of food was ready for me to shoulder. On her way back from the restroom, Tamrynne swerved on a whim, sat next to me as if we were old friends, and began to dish about the most recent flap with her jealous, steroid-swollen boyfriend. Uncomfortable and determined to keep her life at arm’s length from mine, I began to offer her the most careworn, mundane platitudes I could think of—but then I looked up to see her eyes dancing knowingly, and my stream of bullshit choked to a halt. She was really seeing me, listening intently, amused at my discomfort, sad for my position. Aware. We were suspended like this for a moment, and I could feel myself teetering on the brink of some strange profound connection. Well why not? My costume was no less ridiculous than hers, my polyester cowboy shirt with pearl snaps (white), my drawstring cargo pants (black), my Velcro sneakers (black). We were equally alien to this place, to each other. She leaned in close and asked conspiratorially, "Listen, are you gay?" I was still not used to answering this question honestly. I gave her the short version. "Well do you mind if I ask you something, then?" She took my hand; through my haze of exhaustion, I knew that whatever she was about to ask, I was ready to proceed with an open mind.

"When you get fucked in the ass, doesn't it HURT? How can you STAND it? My boyfriend tried to do it to me in the shower yesterday, and it felt like he was KILLING me. Do you ever get USED to it?!?"

My mouth opened, but no sound came out. DING! Their order was up. She fluttered back to her table and told the girls that she was right, the waiter's gay, and picked up with them where we left off. "Do you ever get USED to it?!?"

Look at her life. Look at mine. I guessed we had both better.




contributed by Tom Blunt





14 comments:

bonnie9981 said...

Beautiful, Tom. In some ways I miss those days. The deprevity allowed us to let go any hopes or fears we had. It could not get worse. So, we enjoyed it. Do you remember breaking glasses and throwing away a hundred pounds of jelly a night? Or serving someone a grandslam in milkshake form? Thank you for the moving reminder of my past. Love, Bonnie

Nick said...

You and I have already talked about this story but I think it's truly wonderful. I think it is a nice glimpse into who you were at one point in your life while examining the place you were working.

Space Kitty said...

That was brilliant. More, please.

Tom said...

Thank you so much! The new issue goes up this weekend, so more is on the way...

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