Every afternoon we would arrive at Manna fearing it would be our last. The apocalypse would come, we all knew. It was only a matter of waiting long enough. We would fold the linen napkins, wipe the silverware, fill ceramic cups with Manfred’s garlic-truffle sour cream. Then, right at five, the enemy would start filing through the doors, hungry for flesh, thirsty for wine. I hated every one of those people. Night after night, they would make unreasonable demands, grumble, cry, accuse us of being lazy, contemptible, of not being friendly enough, of pretending to be friendly in order to earn a bigger tip.
At least the money was good.
Easter Sunday was invariably one of the busiest days of the year. Lent was over now, and it was right and proper for everyone to stuff their faces with everything they had given up. Due to a mid-day nap and faulty alarm clock, I arrived at Manna almost half-an-hour late. Bruno, the bartender who was also part-owner of the place, was sitting on the Leopold bench by the back door, smoking a cigarette.
“You’re late,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter. Kyle’s been here since two. He’s prepped fucking everything. Not much to do except maybe check the dining room.”
I nodded. It was no surprise. Kyle often came in early at his own expense. He trusted no one, and liked to be sure that everything was properly stocked before a potentially busy shift. Bruno thought this was crazy, but it was against his nature to turn down countless hours of free labor.
When I got to the kitchen, Kyle was pouring honey into little cups. I was used to Kyle’s obsessive pre-shift activities, but I’d never seen him prep honey before. We used it maybe once a month, when someone wanted it with tea.
“How’s The Dane?” he asked, by way of greeting.
This was our usual method for gauging how busy it would be. If The Dane was hopping in the late-afternoon, we’d probably take a pretty good hit. When I’d passed it on my way to work, the lot had been packed, and cars were being towed from the no parking area on the street.
“Not so bad,” I said, “considering it’s a holiday.”
He looked up from the honey. “You’re such a liar.”
“No. Really.” When you’re lying, I’d learned from experience, never back down until confronted with the indisputable truth.
Kyle looked me over, still doubting, but wanting to believe.
“I think I’ll go check the dining room,” I said and whisked through the swinging doors.
The dining room at Manna possessed the quality of quiet elegance. At least, that’s what the brochures claimed. Altogether there were twenty-four butcher block tables, set with modern flatware and cobalt blue linen napkins, spread out over two thousand square feet and dimly lit by three distressed steel and crystal chandeliers. A dining room this size would usually be divided into four or five stations, but any time Maria was working, Bruno saved a little money by making it three. I took seven tables, Kyle took seven, and Maria took the remaining ten. It sounds unfair, I know, but Maria didn’t mind. She had kids to clothe, feed, and raise, and it was the only way that Kyle and I could manage.
The dining room seemed in perfect order, so I walked over to Nikki, the hostess, who was working the phone at the front podium. All five lines were flashing. Nikki was squeezing in another name at seven-fifteen.
“Shit,” I said, blinded by all of that red ink.
“It’s going to be a hairy one, yes?” came a hoarse deep voice from the shadows to my left. It was Manfred, our Austrian chef and Bruno’s partner in the business. He was jotting down the day’s specials on the marker board.
“It looks like it, but don’t tell Kyle.”
“Yah. It is verboten. Nobody must tell Kyle.”
Manfred laughed. He had always found Kyle’s skittishness amusing, though deep down he respected every man’s inner demons and fears, having himself come precariously close to death in a motorcycle accident. He had told me the story once—the fog, the slide across the pavement, the smell of the muddy ditch where he’d found himself, his right arm torn almost completely away. Blind and helpless, he’d experienced what seemed like an eternity of terror, until a light of some kind—later he’d realized it was an angel—had miraculously sliced through the dark and fog, directing him back to the street, where he was eventually picked up and taken to the hospital.
That’s what the accident had left him with, a belief in angels, as well as a right arm he would never again be able to lift above his chest. But even with one arm he was an extraordinary chef, known throughout the city for his “angry veal.”
He had won many accolades for his talent, but he seemed not to take any pride in it. “Some call me an artist,” I had once heard him say, “but really I am nothing more than a butcher- chemist. They flatter themselves, those artist cooks…”
*Rack of Lamb with orange-date chutney
*Charred octopus pancetta
*Fresh grouper stuffed with roasted fennel and boletes
These were our specials for the night. Manfred went on to the soups when suddenly I felt the earth move. Something had changed, something to do with Nikki and the telephone. When I looked over, I noticed that she had tears in her eyes.
“…But what does that mean? Is she going to be okay?”
It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Maria yet. She almost always came in punctually at four.
Nikki glanced up at us, distraught. “Maria’s had a mini-stroke.”
When we cannot admit something to ourselves we grope for reasons, find absurdities. I had heard the words but was still trying to put them together. Stroke, stroke was bad. But hadn’t it been “mini.” Mini meant there might still be some hope.
“So when is she coming in?”
Nikki was great friends with Maria. They were both divorced single parents and often went out together to the clubs. “She had a stroke, you idiot.”
“Let me talk to her,” I said, though clearly I was grasping for straws. Maria would not be coming in. Most likely she had lost the use of one of her limbs—a leg, an arm? But didn’t Manfred work without an arm?
Stop it, I said to myself.
Maria was finished, she was done. She meant nothing to me anymore. Nikki continued to cry; Manfred was muttering words of sympathy and concern; and I was already thinking of something else—reinforcements.
“Call Eric,” I ordered, knowing perfectly well no one would be answering their phones, “and Debby.”
I heard something behind me, a shifting of weight: Kyle had heard everything. I expected to turn around and see him melting into a pile of jelly, but when I turned and looked, he was smiling. There was a focused, peaceful quality to his expression. Perhaps I had misjudged him in some way. He breathed out, slowly, calmly.
Then some other sounds: the swinging of doors, the patter of feet, a party of twelve.
When you’re busy in a restaurant, time no longer functions in its usual way, with second following second, marking off minute, leading to an hour. Instead, it flickers. An hour will go by in no time, or else thirty seconds will feel like an entire afternoon. Memory too is affected—faces melt into one another, dramatic events are forgotten almost the moment after they occur, as others cascade into the foreground. Only a handful survive the carnage. These we call history, the truth.
Early on, I remember Bruno asking, “Where the fuck is Maria?”
I remember the exact moment a party of nine people said they needed separate checks.
I remember a woman pulling on my hand, begging, pleading. What was it she wanted—some extra butter, a carafe of Red Zinfandel? But already I had slipped away.
And one incident with Kyle I remember in particular.
Even while I, with every new table, had fallen further behind, Kyle had managed to keep up. I was sinking; Kyle was thriving. He was floating, moving effortlessly, taking his whole half-dining room as if it were one table, one fully functional family.
Since he was doing so well, I rationalized, would he really mind if I borrowed that bowl of chilled gazpacho he’d just dressed with a dainty dollop of crème fraiche?
It was the moment, perhaps, of my greatest depravity. I was Judas, Benedict Arnold, all of the back stabbers wrapped into one, and I knew exactly what I was doing. The plastic tub of Manfred’s pre-made gazpacho was deep in the walk-in cooler miles away. Kyle had found time to prepare his in advance, to place it on the counter. It was waiting for him there. But Kyle was thriving, while I had twenty, or was it thirty, things to do. The minute it would take to prepare another bowl might just be too much.
Did I do what I did, or was I only imagining it?
Five minutes later, Kyle confirmed it with a look. He knew I had taken his gazpacho knowing that he needed it, and he knew I knew he knew. Maria in this situation would have looked at me with disappointment. She would have felt sorry for me, acutely aware that the guilt resulting from my actions would further slow me down.
Kyle only wanted to stab me in the throat, but he had no time.
We went on this way, time passing, moving back and forth. Kyle’s side of the restaurant was smiling; mine was frowning. The enemy was attacking in giant, never-ebbing waves…
I remember a three-year-old child, dressed in a pink jumpsuit, saying, “You butthead.”
And so it continued, on that Easter Sunday, in what was one of Madison Wisconsin’s trendiest “hidden-gem” eateries. Maria had abandoned us. Bruno was wrangling a row of thirty drink orders and greedily loving every second of it. Manfred had disappeared into a Zen-like trance of quality food construction. Nikki? Who the hell knows what Nikki was doing? And as for Kyle, Kyle kept on smiling, all of his fears and associated prep work finally and completely justified. There were also others involved of course, a sous chef, the dishwasher, bus girls and boys—ancillary staff with tangential roles whose names I have forgotten, so I’ve edited them out, killed them off, so to speak.
And all of us—alive, maimed, and dead—were driving headlong into the dark tunnel that waiters call the rush, the usually one hour period when the restaurant is filled to capacity, prime dinner hours, somewhere between 6:30 and 8:00.
The foyer was a sardine can of starving families wearing their Sunday best. The bar was so packed you could see martini glasses raised protectively in the air above people’s heads. New patrons were jamming in, while others were fleeing in frustration, taking their shekels elsewhere. As soon as Bruno realized that money was leaving his establishment, he decided to offer up the row of cocktail tables for full dinner service.
When Nikki informed me that I had three new tables in the bar area, I laughed nervously at what I thought was a pretty good joke. I’d never pegged Nikki as someone with a dark sense of humor.
“I’m not kidding. Bruno’s extending the restaurant into the bar. He says it’s going to be the best night ever.”
“What?” I howled, but Nikki was already gone, and I was left by myself in the middle of the dining room, having completely forgotten where I was in my chain of to-dos. Two of my tables were waiting for their drinks, one for appetizers, three for dinner, and another for desserts. Two needed their checks. Six more, if you counted the bar tables, hadn’t even ordered yet, including a two-top that had been seated at least thirty minutes earlier.
I ran for the food and almost wept when I saw that some kind soul had trayed up two of the dinner orders for me. There they were, cooled to room temperature but tangible. I grabbed one of the trays, ran it out, plopped down the plates, and retreated before anyone could say anything. As I grabbed the second tray, I noticed my appetizers were up in the window. Okay, second dinner out, then two-top order, then appetizers—a strategy was developing, a thin ray of hope. I ran out the second tray, ignored some discontented mumbling, and pivoted to the two-top.
They were an older couple who looked put out by the wait but also happy they were finally getting their turn. “Welcome to Manna,” I said, flashing the usual fake smile. I blitzed through the specials and asked them if they wanted anything to drink.
“It’s our thirty-year anniversary,” the woman offered coyly, probably angling for some free cake.
In other circumstances, I may have bit on this, but couldn’t they see that tonight we were in assembly line mode? “Isn’t that great for you,” I responded, perhaps too sharply. “How about buying some drinks to celebrate?”
The couple glanced at each other. “Well,” the man said, “we’ve had plenty of time to peruse your wine list here … and now we’d like some help deciding between the Gravello and the Jekel Cabarnets.”
“Do you have a recommendation? How are they different?”
I considered telling him that the more expensive ones were almost always better, but he was clearly looking for a deeper analysis. Doubtless, he wanted subtleties—exact characteristics, vineyards, growing seasons, the minerals contained in the native soil… Just pick one for Christ sake, I was thinking.
They looked appalled, and it took me several seconds to realize I had said my thoughts out loud. Fucking shit, I thought, or was it said.
“Um.” I stepped back and turned away, hoping to somehow reboot the encounter, but before I could collect myself, my eyes caught on four pairs of waving hands above another one of my tables, and then the giant finger of a musclebound man pointing down at his plate.
“This isn’t what we ordered,” he shouted, loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear. My lip quivered as it occurred to me that since the two last dinner orders had both been four-tops, it was possible that in my haste I had mixed them up. Unlikely and unthinkable, but certainly possible. Anything was possible. I was starting to feel dizzy.
“We were supposed to get the Angus veal, not this…”
The other table in question had already dug in, but I could see they were also agitated, getting ready to make a fuss. All of these people had waited for an hour to get served, and fixing this could easily take an hour more.
“Is there anyone here who will take our order?”
“Where’s our bone marrow?”
“I need my check right now…”
“Why is that boy crying?” a little girl said.
Tears were indeed streaming down my face, and I could feel parts of my brain starting to shut down. “I’ve got something in my eye,” I explained, but it came out as a high-pitched keen. I bolted to get the appetizers, but when I got to the serving window, I just kept going. I ran through the doors into the kitchen, as if I were heading to the walk-in cooler. I kept running all the way through the kitchen and out the back door, then a half block down the side alley, where I finally found a quiet deserted alcove. I slipped down to the concrete and brought my knees to my chest. A faint voice from my past was telling me to get up, to get up now or never again. Just give me one minute, one short minute, I mumbled, and fell into the deep sleep of the dead.
What more is there to say? A question leading to other questions… Why had I done this work? Was it really the money? How could any amount of money be worth the stress and the insults? How can one put a price tag on one’s own self-respect?
These are things I ask myself nearly two decades after that final night of my food service career, now that distance separates the failed waiter from the man.
The truth: it wasn’t only the paltry money. I always told myself that it was, but in many ways my attitude, my cold harshness, was a front, expressly designed to enhance effectiveness and preservation. Now, when I think over my days as a waiter, what gives me satisfaction isn’t the memory of pockets full of ten and twenty dollar bills. Rather, I think of the energy, the nightly barrage of pure adrenaline one might fairly describe as the opposite of boredom. I think of the fellowship of disparate souls thrown together in a crisis. I think of Manfred’s “Seven Heavenly Sins,” a dish his mother used to make him before she died, which he prepared several times for the staff but—to Bruno’s great dismay—refused to sell for commercial gain, though it was the best food, the best manna, I’ve ever tasted, and doubtless would have made him even more of a legend in these parts.
I ran into him on State Street about a year after that humiliating night, and he seemed genuinely happy to see me. He told me that things were plodding along at Manna, and that while he had nothing to complain about (and who would listen if he tried!), the day-to-day grind was starting to get stale, and he was seriously considering taking his game to a bigger city—Chicago, New York, possibly even Paris or Berlin. Ours were the glory days, he said wistfully, those couple of years when Maria, Kyle, and I had been working there. Maria had never come back either—he had heard that she had become a secretary—and Kyle eventually got recruited away to The Red Cellar, where the prices and therefore the tips were higher.
Manfred seemed to believe that we had been closer than I remembered, because he went on to say that he had initially been angry at me for not contacting him after I left, for changing my number and thereby making it clear that I wanted nothing more to do with them, as indeed I had. He’d been angry not as an employer, he said, but as a kindred spirit, as a friend. He told me that everyone has only so many such people enter their lives, and he wanted me to know that due to my irreverent and honest good-naturedness, I had been one of his. He gave me a smile and pat on the back, and left me feeling disoriented and confused. The way he’d described me was not how I remembered myself, though I could sense a glimmer of the truth in it. Goodbye, I yelled after him, and then never saw him again.
We are who we are, but I think I started viewing my past a little differently following that encounter with Manfred. I started squinting for the cracks of light. And, yes, I agree, I admit it—those were glorious days, full of truth and lies, full of flavor and curiously satisfying multiplicity, the rapture of battle, the plying of the enemy with heart-attack-inducing desserts.
Even my relationship to the customer was more complex than I would have had anyone believe. I will not say that I liked them, but on given days we could achieve a certain rapport, a kind of symbiotic interdependence in which every one of their needs was anticipated, and every nuance of my performance was properly esteemed. This was possible only when it wasn’t very busy and even then it was a rarity, because time is the least of the elements necessary for the type of service I am attempting to describe. Perhaps I achieved it four or five times in the years I was a waiter. I can only call it grace.
© Louis Wenzlow
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Louis’ interview]