Nature can be quite cruel to men. As we age, the hair that used to be on our heads begins emigrating to other parts of our body. In a sort of perverted second puberty, men start finding little tufts of hair sprouting where none had grown before. I myself didn’t have chest hair until I was twenty-eight. The young woman I was dating at the time claimed that my unexpected follicular growth was activated by latent testosterone liberated by her sexual prowess. She was actually kind of turned on by it. But soon after the chest hairs grew in the nose hairs followed – and that did not turn her on. I got a nose hair trimmer for Christmas and the girl and I broke up a few months later. It was probably good we split up when we did. Any more of her “sexual prowess” and I’d have ended up looking like Cousin It.
Several years of nasal fur plucking passed before hair started growing on my ears. At first they grew in downy and soft on the very edges and were easily removed with a razor at home. As time wore on, however, the hairs grew in faster, coarser, and, what’s worse, they began accumulating where I couldn’t get them with a trimmer. My trusty barber, who’s been cutting my hair for years, tried his best but finally had to admit defeat.
“You need to get your ears waxed my friend,” Gus told me during one visit. “Shaving only makes the problem worse.”
At first I was uncomfortable with this notion. Waxing is something that women do to keep their errant hairs from making an appearance. I’m a guy. What would my poker buddies say if they found out? The ribbing I’d get from them would be merciless. But since imagining myself as the guy with bushes growing out of his auditory canal scared me even more, I went in to the “back room” where guys get their toupees adjusted and their bald spots combed over and had my ears waxed. To my surprise, it was a cheap and nearly painless procedure that left my ears hair free for a month. Since having my ears waxed at the barber isn’t always convenient for me, I found a nail salon near my house that does it for next to nothing. Since the salon caters to a female clientele, I go around three o’clock – the time most suburban women are at work or picking up their kids at school – and get my ears shorn in relative privacy. If my nails are ratty I get a manicure too. I skip the polish, however. I’m not a metrosexual.
Fast forward to this past Wednesday afternoon. My publisher’s invited me to attend a book launch party that evening celebrating the publication of SPAIN: A Culinary Road Trip with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s my first swanky Manhattan party so, after making sure my clothes are pressed and my shoes are shined, I take a look in the mirror. My haircut’s still good but my ear hair has made a sudden and unwelcome appearance. I’m not meeting Gwyneth Paltrow looking like a freak. I walk down to the nail salon to take care of the problem. As usual, it’s empty this time of day. When I push open the door the welcome bell tinkles and the salon owner’s eyes open wide with surprise.
“You were on Oprah!” she says, excitedly. “I saw you on TV!”
“Yes,” I reply sheepishly. “That was me.”
“I tell everyone my customer was on Oprah!”
“Ain’t that something?’
“You’re the waiter who wrote a book!”
“Good! Good! So what was Oprah like?”
I tell the ladies in the shop about my Oprah experience as I get my ears waxed and my nails done, After the technician finishes her work, I pay my bill; tip heavy, go home, change, and head into Manhattan. To my chagrin, Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t at the party. But Mario is and I get to shake hands and say a few words. Luckily he’s not pissed at me for writing “I enjoy watching Mario Batali huff and puff while competing on Iron Chef” in my book Or is he? Hmmmm. As the party wears on, several nice people come up to me and congratulate me on my book’s success. It’s nice to be recognized. After talking with some friendly publishing people, drinking fine Spanish wine, and eating an excellent filet of sea bass with black olive tapenade, I take a cab back to Port Authority and hop on a bus headed for home. Hey, that’s how I ride.
The next morning I’m back on that same bus heading back into the city. I’ve got to tape an interview at a television studio on Lexington Avenue. Since I don’t want to be late, I give myself and hour and a half to reach my destination. Traveling by bus into NYC is always a tricky proposition. Sometimes the trip from my front door to the intersection of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue takes twenty minutes. Sometimes it takes two hours. Today, of course, I make it in record time. Since I have an hour to kill, I grab a cup of coffee and head east down 41st Street. The sky is overcast and grey. As I walk past Bryant Park, I let the sights and sounds of the city tumble into my brain. A man dressed in an expensive green overcoat hands a bum a dollar and tells him, “You’ll be okay.” Good looking women smelling of good perfume walk past me, their high heels clicking on the sidewalk as they chatter excitedly into cell phones about boyfriends or work. Construction workers shout above the noise of their power tools as they erect an ice rink in the park while two waiters at an outdoor cafe polish wine glasses in advance of the lunch rush. A policeman, his belt hanging heavy with the tools of his trade, emerges from the park and babbles a series of code words and numbers into his radio. Two bike messengers smoking cigarettes eye the cop covertly and mumble something under their breaths. I look up at the buildings surrounding me. A man and a woman are kissing in a fourth floor window, passionately oblivious to anyone who sees them. I smile, lower my head, and press on to Lexington Avenue. When my interview’s complete I walk back the way I came.
Walking past Bryant Park the second time, I notice that the cop and the bike messengers are gone and the amorous couple has disappeared. Its lunchtime and sidewalks are thronged with people. The two waiters I saw polishing glasses earlier are now racing around trying to serve all the customers lunching al fresco in the cool October afternoon. The construction workers are buying lunch from a hotdog stand and the bum is still panhandling in the exact same spot. I give him a dollar. I consider it a toll for all the people watching I got to do today. When I reach Port Authority I get on my bus and go home.
But it turns out I wasn’t the only one watching people. Someone was watching me.
The next afternoon I find an email in my inbox that asked “Any chance you were near Bryant Park around 11 yesterday, Thurs the 24th?” When I replied that indeed I was, the sender replied, “Yeah – I had only seen a quick picture of you, but from reading the book I could definitely tell the smirk.”
Even though it’s only happened roughly a dozen times, being recognized as “The Waiter” in public always makes me feel slightly discombobulated. It’s been quite an adjustment going from years of carefully guarded anonymity to seeing videos of myself on the internet. Now I get recognized in nail salons. I’m not complaining mind you. I understood what I was getting into when I “outed” myself three months ago. But it’s still weird. For nearly all of my life I’ve known most of the people who’ve known me. Now, after being on television and in the papers, I don’t know most of the people who know about me. And when I think about it – these people I haven’t met know quite a bit about me. My therapist once told me that he considered Waiter Rant his case file. It’s all in there. So when I encounter people on the street who’ve read my book, they already know I like redheads, have gotten lap dances in a strip club, drink dirty martinis, and that I’m a nice guy who occasionally acts like an asshole.
Despite the feeling of vulnerability these circumstances sometimes engender, I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy the attention. It’s been a thrill to meet people who’ve bought my book and read my blog over the years. During the past three months I’ve even met some of the people who’ve left comments on this blog – fleshing out digital avatars with real human faces. Giving up my anonymity was indeed a stress. I had to move out of my comfort zone, abandon my secretive ways, and engage with the world in a completely different way. I came in from the cold. I’m glad I did. My life is richer as a result.
And if you think I’m making too much of this, I’m not. I don’t think I’m Brad Pitt or some kind of literary figure. My family and friends have done a good job of keeping my ego grounded. I’m a guy who wrote about waiting tables and gets recognized on the street once a week. Besides, at the age of forty, I realize the attention I’m receiving is fleeting. I’ll enjoy it while I can because eventually it will end. I’ve got another book and a blog to write anyway. I’ll be busy.
So if you see me on the street, please feel free to say hello. But don’t bring up my ear hair problem. It’s a touchy subject!