Humiliating adventures in the food biz
There’s an ad currently running on TV that reminds me of an incident that happened in my youth. The ad shows an elderly waitress clearing a plate off a table and putting it on a shelf, presumably for the kitchen staff to clear and put in the dishwasher.
The waitress sees an untouched half of a sandwich on the plate, then checks to see if anyone is watching after which she takes a healthy bite before putting the sandwich back on the plate. The message on the screen, courtesy of The Salvation Army, informs us that “poverty isn’t always easy to see.” The ad, no doubt designed to bolster the Army’s fund drive over the Christmas holidays, is very effective.
From the time I was in high school until the time I started making enough money to survive as an actor, food service was my chief means of support. My first gig was as a busboy (I believe today, in kitchen lingo, they are called runners.) My duties were quite simple, serve newly seated diners little pats of butter and glasses of ice water. I’d also help the waitresses (and one horny old waiter named Manny) carry the trays of food to the table.
After the diners were finished eating, I’d clear the plates, dust the table for crumbs and serve coffee, if so ordered.
One night, I was returning a plate to the dishwasher rack when I spotted an untouched slice of filet mignon! Like the waitress in the ad, I looked around to see if anyone was watching. I determined there were no witnesses and grabbed the hunk of meat and chowed down.
“Hey busboy!” came a shout from the food prep table. A possibly insane sous chef named Leroy came charging in my direction.
Leroy spoke hardly at all and the general consensus was that he was a few strawberries shy of a shortcake. But Leroy was massive! I once saw him knock an offending busboy against a wall, rendering him momentarily unconscious, after he dropped a plate of food as he was heading for the dining room.
To make a long story short (and also because I don’t wish to dwell on possibly one of the most embarrassing moments of my life), Leroy grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and made me, in full view of the kitchen staff, spit out the filet mignon.
But luckily for me, there were far more Manny-the-waiter colleagues at this restaurant than there were demented Leroys!
I remember I enjoyed working with Manny the most. He’d been a waiter all his life … first in some of the finest hotels in New York City during the
1930s and ‘40s and in the twilight of his career, at this quaint little New England inn called Cooke’s Tavern.
Every time Manny showed up for work he’d have some uproarious (and quite unlikely) tale about his sexual adventures the previous night, usually with one of his many girlfriends, some of whom, because of Manny’s daily descriptions, I began to recognize by name.
I categorize Manny’s tales of his sexual adventures as unlikely because he must have been approaching 80, stood about fivefoot-four and wore a waiter’s tux that looked like it might have survived the Titanic sinking.
Manny also wore a toupee that looked like a crow had landed on his head and was saddled with a set of false teeth that clacked like a telegraph whenever he spoke.
One night, I witnessed Manny do something I still have trouble believing really happened! On busy nights at Cooke’s, we opened a small bar adjacent to the dining room and Manny (also an expert barman) ran it. Manny liked me (perhaps because he sensed I was intoxicated by his many farfetched stories) and usually asked for me to be his assistant, providing an uninterrupted supply of glasses, ice, bar fruit and baskets of munchies.
One night a particularly obnoxious patron sat at the bar for most of the evening. He became more and more loathsome as the evening (and his alcohol consumption) progressed. Finally, after asking for one more refill, Manny informed the guy that, due to his intoxicated state, this would be his last.
The guy flew into a rage! He called Manny every name in the book and told him that if Manny was expecting a tip, he could wait until Hell froze over.
Manny proceeded to mix the jerk’s final drink. As he turned toward the bottles of booze, he whispered to me “Watch this!”
Then in a movement any sleight-of-hand magician would be proud of, Manny, his back turned away from the customer, did something to the glass that I can’t mention in a family newspaper (use your grossest imagination!)
Then as he handed the drink to the jerk, he gave me a sly wink.
The moral of this story … be nice to your food-and-drink servers! They have their own sly way of getting even!