It’s 9:30 PM on Wednesday night and Café Machiavelli’s been empty for almost an hour. Thinking we might close early, the owner sits down behind the hostess stand and starts tabulating the night’s receipts. Eager to go home, the food runner starts cleaning the menus with Windex and the busboy starts mopping the tile floors. Within minutes the remnant aromas of cooked food are pushed aside by the acrid stench of cleaning solvents. Willem and I have already finished our sidework and are drinking post shift cocktails. It was a slow shift and I’ll be lucky if walk out of here with $40. Getting home before midnight would be the evening’s only saving grace.
Then the door annunciator chimes.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Willem grumbles.
A young couple walks into the restaurant. Oblivious to the fact that the restaurant is empty and the waiters are semi-inebriated, the man goes up to the owner, flashes a veneered smile, and says, “Table for two, please.”
“Don’t seat them,” Willem growls under his breath. “Don’t you dare fucking seat them.”
The owner looks at the prospective diners, smiles back, and says. “Of course, sir. Please follow me.”
I glance over at Willem. With both eyes popping out of his head and the vein in his right temple pounding furiously, he looks like he’s trying to set the owner on fire with the power of his mind.
“Goddammit,” I whisper. “Just when we’re almost outta here.”
“You wait on them,” Willem snorts.
“And get them out of here fast,” Willem says. “No appetizers.”
“I am serious,” Willem says, looking at me hotly. “No appetizers.”
“You can’t not give them apps,” I reply, aghast.
“You want to be here all night?”
“It’s the job Willem.”
“Fuck that,” Willem snaps. “Do what I tell you.”
I look at Willem coldly. “Try rephrasing that Willem.”
“Talk to me nicely or don’t talk to me at all.”
“Listen,” Willem sputters, “I’m sick of your shit. You think you’re better than everyone else around here.”
“Whatever Willem,” I say, not breaking eye contact. “But ask me to take the table – nicely.”
Willem tries scaring me with his telekinetic fire starting powers but when he realizes I’m not even breaking a sweat, he capitulates.
“Would you please take care of that table?” he says, his voice dripping with forced politeness.
“But of course,” I reply.
My exchange with Willem may seem petty but it’s not. If you let people get away with treating you poorly, eventually everyone will do it – even nice people. Like water always seeking its own level, its human nature to treat people with the lowest amount of consideration possible before encountering resistance. I usually come across as a laid back, friendly sort of guy, so people sometimes think they can intimidate me. I used to turn the other cheek when that happened but, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the truth of what Raymond Chandler meant when he described the character of his iconic detective, Phillip Marlowe. “He will take no man’s money dishonestly,” Chandler wrote, “And no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.” Eventually word gets around that you’re not a pushover and fewer people try testing you. Besides, if you let people push you around in the restaurant business, you’re dead meat.
I pop a mint in my mouth and walk over to my new table. I’m friendly, polite, and tell the couple that the kitchen’s closing in half an hour. Suddenly realizing they’re the only customers in the restaurant, they skip appetizers and order two simple bowls of pasta. It’s axiomatic that the last meal ordered in a restaurant is always cooked the fastest so, within ten minutes, the couple’s enjoying their dinner.
“Give them their check,” Willem says.
“But they just got their food,” I reply.
“You gonna give me a hard time over this too?”
“They know they’re keeping us. It’d be impolite to drop the check.”
“Why don’t you do what I say?” Willem almost shouts, still trying to scare me.
“Because what you say is usually wrong,” I reply evenly.
Willem stares at me open mouthed and then walks away. He could fire me, but he knows I couldn’t care less. When the couple finishes their dinner they forgo dessert and pay the bill. They leave a nice tip.
“I’ll give you the cash out tomorrow,” Willem says, not looking at me. “I’m too tired to do it tonight.”
“So I work all night and don’t get paid?” I reply, thinking of the gas I need to put in my car.
“Those are the breaks,” Willem says, smirking. I guess that revenge thing works both ways.
The night ends. As I’m heading home Willem’s angry words “You think you’re better than everyone else around here!” echo inside my vodkafied head. That makes me feel bad. I know I’m not better than anyone who works at Café Machiavelli. With the exception of Willem, everyone at the restaurant likes me. But Willem’s sensing something all right. He’s picking up on the “I can walk away from this job at a moment’s notice” vibe I’m giving off. Don’t get me wrong. I need a job and money like everyone else – but I don’t need to work in restaurants anymore. The restaurant industry has been very good to me, but I’ve been mentally leaving it for months now. Oddly enough, I understand where Willem’s coming from. I once hated waiting tables so much that I felt resentful towards any server that told me they were leaving the business forever. I’ve been where Willem is. I’ve thought the same thoughts and felt the same anger. All waiters end up at this crossroads. One or two servers might rededicate themselves to the restaurant profession, but the vast majority of waiters leave. Due to my “unusual circumstances” I’ve probably stayed long past my welcome.
If I wait tables much longer I’ll stop being a good waiter and become a soulless automaton rattling off specials and running credit cards. When that happens, I’ll won’t be earning my tips – I’ll just be expecting them. “He will take no man’s money dishonestly,” I say, feeling Chandler’s words circle back on me. The restaurant industry got nine good years of my life and, when you read my book, you’ll see how the industry helped save my soul. The restaurant business deserves my respect, Soon it will be time for me to go.
Realizing that fact was the evening’s saving grace.