Hu­mil­i­at­ing ad­ven­tures in the food biz

The Beacon Herald - - NEWS - RICK WHE­LAN AS I WAS SAY­ING

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!

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