10.29.2014 | Issue #3
You were super nice to me on my first day. You sat next to me at staff meal, so I didn’t have to sit awkwardly apart from the rest of the group, and you played along with my pathetic attempts at new kid conversation. You showed me how to make perfect cappuccino foam with the wonky milk steamer. You always had really cool earrings, and you used to complain that all the grown-up frat idiots ordering Stoli and sodas would stare at your boobs too much. You never re-did that top button, though, because screw them.
Pretty soon, we were splitting cabs home after extra-late shifts, linking arms on the way to the bars, and you told me about all the things that strained your relationship with your mother. Real shit! I covered your shifts, you covered mine. And then, after a few months of our condescending and tyrannical GM, you decided you’d had enough and Irish-exited that gig like a pro. A few weeks later, so did I. I haven’t seen you since, because that’s just how life works out sometimes.
And I’ll tell you what else, I absolutely cannot remember your name. Does that make me an asshole, or is that just how it goes in this line of work?
I have never experienced anything else—job or otherwise—that comes close to the strange and wonderful world that is the industry family. It’s a little self-sustaining pod, riddled with dick jokes and shots of whatever’s handy. There are incestuous affairs, fights that last only through service, and humor that encourages direct hits and being quick on your feet. These are the people that know exactly how to keep you afloat, and exactly how to screw you over. Do well by them, and you will be welcomed, no matter how far-flung the locale. No call, no show? You know how that goes.
This family, in the age-old tradition of stirring the pot just to keep things interesting, smushes together two very different groups with their own agendas and loyalties—back of house, and front of house. Kind of like those science experiments when you were a kid, where you split a white carnation stem down the middle? One half goes into blue food coloring, one into red, and you wind up with one freaky-deaky, but very cool-looking, carnation. When something good is there, when the stars align and the right people stride through the door at the right moment, that freaky flower is what makes or breaks the whole operation.
Watching adults prance around the weirdness of finding a friend is the worst, but here, it’s practically nonexistent. One morning of prep, one evening of sidework, and you know exactly where you fit. If you don’t, give it two months and you’ll forget—completely and without reservation—that there was ever a time you didn’t know where everyone and everything was.
Easing into service is like dipping into a trance; the distilled language (BEHIND-CORNER-LEFT-HOT-GLASS), the fine-tuned spatial awareness, the alert zombie focus that renders you unable to think about anything else besides the task in front of you. And when it’s done and you snap back to the real world, nobody else except this group of people gets it.
Is that why a relationship forged in the fiery heart of a restaurant cracks you straight across, like a bolt of lightning karate-chopping its way through granite? People love to say it’s because you’re bonding in the trenches, which I love to say is a major fucking underestimate of trenches. But yes, I get it: whatever it is, odds are it will be short-lived. The work is not easy. It’s a place where the passionate occasionally collide with the doing-it-to-get-bys, and actually make it work. I don’t know if it’s the whole weirdos finding weirdos theory popularized by Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, but it’s just like any other massive, chaotic, loving family, except every few months people disappear and are promptly replaced by new people. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Perhaps that’s why I’m okay with the fact that I don’t remember much about you (except that you’re great!), Cool Earrings Girl. The fluidity is the whole point. The understanding that people will be in and out of your life with way more frequency than any office gig, the casual but fierce love, is what allows a group of random people—strangers on a few levels, soulmates on others—to get it done every night. It keeps things fresh, and it means that the insane show you’re a part of is never the same twice. The kitchen follows the same choreography night after night, the front of house recites the same script, but maybe someone breaks character, forgets a step, throws their scene partner under the bus. Everything that happens in those few hours happens on the extreme end of the spectrum. You're never halfway weeded; by the time you realize you're in 'em, fuck if you have time to even tell anyone. You don't need that dish now, you need it right now. You're not miffed with your coworker, they are the WORST PERSON YOU HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED. As soon as that curtain goes down though, all is quiet on the Western Front. You’re just psyched about getting out of your apron so you can scrub the urinal/flat-top/grease trap, down a staff beer, and recap all the weird shit guests did.
And sometimes, in the quiet hours of the morning as everyone scatters into the dark (like that goddamn gross baby roach you squashed before anyone could see it), I think wishing for the nine-to-five might be total BS. Going out on Saturday nights with all the normals, followed by cozy Sundays watching Seinfeld reruns pales in comparison to the dance parties and singing in the dish pit. These people are immediate and tangible and full-scale NUTS, and they somehow love you back. Because that's what families do.