It’s a perfect Friday evening and I’m sitting at a wrought iron table outside Café American. Sitting across from me Beth and Celine, two of my former co-workers, are drinking Cosmopolitans and chattering away like schoolgirls. Hiding out of view behind a street corner is The Bistro. I deliberately avoided looking though its broad plate glass window as I walked by. I don’t need to see it anymore.
I take a long sip from my dirty martini. The sun is beginning to set. The evening breeze is soft on my cheek, like a woman’s breath as her lips travel to my mouth. I feel weird being around my old stomping grounds – like a spy behind enemy lines with instructions to blend in with the local population. The streets are thronged with people. My eyes scan the broad avenue for Claude. He’s nowhere to be found.
“Isn’t this great?” Celine says. “We got an outside table.”
“Can you believe those people who tried to grab it while we were waiting?” Beth asks.
“I believe it,” I grunt. “Yuppies will sell their children for an outside table on a night like tonight.”
“Assholes,” Beth mutters.
“Here’s to not working on a Friday night,” Celine says, raising her glass.
“Damn straight,” Beth says. “I’m never working in a restaurant again.”
We all clink glasses. Bridget, the pretty Irish waitress working the patio, comes to the table.
“Other round guys?” she asks brightly.
“You better believe it,” Beth says.
“Would you like to see some menus?”
“Please,” I reply. “We want to be al fresco dining yuppies tonight.”
“You?” Bridget says, cocking an eyebrow. “Please……..”
“I’m allowed to have my fantasies.”
“Sure,” Bridget says. “Take all the time you need with the menus. No rush.”
The waitress is being very nice to three ex servers. On a night like tonight Bridget could turn this table three times but she’s giving us all the time in the world. We’ll tip well. Karma demands it.
“Excuse me a minute girls,” I say getting up from the table. “I need to expel some metabolized vodka.”
“That’s real classy,” Beth laughs.
“That’s my middle name sweetheart,” I say, my voice slipping into Bogart mode. “Class.”
I walk off the patio and into the dining room. The familiar soundtrack of a hundred people eating greets my ears. As I watch the black clad waiters dance across the restaurant’s wooden floors my body starts to respond to an old rhythm. I haven’t worked a restaurant in months but I can still feel its music in my bones. Walking towards the bathroom I weave around the customers like a fighter bomber maneuvering though mountain passes. My senses enlarge to absorb the activity swirling around me. For a moment I see every customer, notice every detail, hear every voice – for a moment I can see through walls. I smile inwardly. Part of me misses all this.
Done with the bathroom I head back towards the patio. Rick, the owner, is busy with talking on the phone but looks up and says hello. I return the greeting. As I try to walk past him, a shrewish woman blocks my path.
“Rick!” she yelps. “We’re waiting for an outside table.”
Café American is a noisy restaurant. Rick doesn’t hear this woman or he doesn’t want to. I used to pull the deaf routine all the time.
“Rick!” the woman shrieks, her voice sounding like iron nails scraping down a blackboard. Rick hangs up the phone and walks away.
The woman looks at me. “Can you get him?” she huffs.
My face devoid of expression, I shoot the woman a look that blows through her left eyeball like a .357 Magnum bullet. She steps out of my way.
“Excuse me madam,” I say sharply. This shit I don’t miss.
Returning to my seat I say, “God! I forgot how many entitled rude assholes are in this neighborhood.”
“Oh man,” Celine groans. “How could you forget?”
“I’m never waiting another table as long as I live,” Beth repeats tipsily. “I swear to God.”
We all take that as a signal to drink. Draining our glasses we ask Bridget for another round.
“Another one?” Bridget asks, flashing me a wary eye.
“The old neighborhood’s forcing me to medicate my postal worker level of rage,” I say.
Bridget laughs and walks away. I watch her. She used to be a dancer and it shows. When she moves out of sight I spy a familiar couple walking towards me. They’re two of my favorite customers from the Bistro. They don’t notice me. As they walk by I say, “Why hello there.”
It takes a second, but they recognize me.
“I’m so sorry we didn’t notice you at first,” the woman says, genuinely embarrassed. She clumsily kisses me on the cheek, knocking my eyeglasses askew.
“That’s OK,” I say laughing and readjusting my glasses. “I’m out of uniform, sitting down, and not saying ‘And how are you this evening?’”
“What happened to you?” the man exclaims. “We thought you’d get another job around here and tell us where you moved.”
“I’m not working in restaurants right now,” I reply. “But I’m sorry I wasn’t able to say good bye to you. My leave taking from The Bistro was how shall I say it? Abrupt.”
“I understand,” the man says, giving me a knowing glance.
“I feel bad that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to all the nice customers I had like you.”
“Thank you,” the man says.
“We don’t go there anymore,” his wife chimes in. “It’s not the same without you.”
“For some strange reason I’m glad to hear that.”
“You made that place special for us,” the man says.
“So I heard you’re writing a book?” the woman asks.
“Yes I am.”
“What’s it about?”
“The restaurant business.”
“Really?” the man says. “Will it be about bad customers?”
“When is it coming out?”
“I’m almost done writing it,” I reply. “It should be in bookstores by Summer 2008.”
“I hope it does as well as the book that’s coming out tonight,” the man says.
“The Harry Potter Book?” I laugh. “My agent would love that.”
“Hey, a billion dollars?” the man says. “The author made more than the Queen of England. “
“Do you have a card?” I ask the man. “I’ll send you an autographed copy when it comes out.”
The man slips a business card out of his wallet and hands it to me.
“Thanks,” I say. “I won’t forget.”
The woman gives me another kiss and the man shakes my hand. As I watch them disappear through Café American’s front door I sigh. What nice people. Maybe one day I’ll work in a restaurant again. “Once more into the breach dear friends, once more…..”
“Did you see that?” I say to Celine and Beth.
“Those people were great customers,” Beth replies. “Polite, good tippers, respectful.”
“I wish there were more like them,” Celine says.
“Me too,” I say. “Me too.”
Our happy trio keeps drinking. After a while the twilight crumbles into darkness and the first ghostly stars begin to burn low in the Eastern sky. Two cute women sit at the table next to me. They have nice legs and French pedicures. I look at one, then the other. Then I decide to look at both. One of the women catches my look and holds it. She smiles. I smile back. The evening wind blows softly against my face. It’s a beautiful night. Suddenly I don’t feel like I’m behind enemy lines anymore.