Thursday, January 16, 2014

Restaurant Week plus Jazz Night at Bistrot of the Dying Gaul plus Washington, DC attitude equals worst.

Mastroianni played being a waiter, to my knowledge, once, later in life, as a set up for a Chekhovian story directly based on the famous short story about the lady and the pet dog.  I've played waiter, in particular bartender, for, oh, about twenty five years.  I have great respect for one of the great actors for even trying, portraying a lovable loser, a real human being.  I've loved Chekhov as long as I've read him.  And sometimes I find flickers of him.

People in Washington DC, at least of the affluent and successful sort, are the kind to kick you when you're down.  On top of the people who come in during Restaurant Week to make sport of being negative diners intent on writing negative tomes on Yelp, nitpicking, asking such questions as "what is the texture of your flan like," and finding fault with the answer after they've asked twenty other stupid questions, even as their martini arrived right as they sat, on top of those people, on top of the Jazz Night  I'll just drop by without a reservation people with a crowd of South Americans, you get those two ladies:  What does the trout come with?  (Lady, you've had it twenty times.)  Can I directly confirm that the kitchen, a floor and a dining room away, has sautéed spinach tonight as a vegetable at this moment (I end up picking up my cell and calling the restaurant itself to get the answer)?  The snob comes out.

You are busy and sweating profusely, trying to grab what you can, and here come the questions, grilling the waiter, a roll of the eyes in great disappointment as you run from decanting a Madiran for that one Italian guy sitting by himself who is himself beginning to be a bit of a maintenance issue to run downstairs to grab a Cahors for the Argentines, such that you have to stop and go back and ask, okay, what can I do for you, when you are not seated in my section anyway…

I'm reminded of waiting, on just such a busy day, on a famous NPR journalist with a helmet of lady hair.  "The mussel soup, is it a parmantiere?" she asks loftily, chin raised, going in for the kill with her stare, as if to say, I know more than you, imbecile waiter.  Mr. Lehrer, and his wife, on the other hand were a joy to wait on, bringing brightness, stories, questions, humanity and a democratic kindness.  For him I was not a sorry punk loser, but John F. Kennedy about to field a question, or so, at least, I was able to feel one night, and he knew his stuff.

Two at the bar turn to an older gentleman, establish he's worth talking to by Washington standards, and soon the three are talking glowingly about their dogs.  His salmon entree arrives first.  "But how could I come before these ladies who've ordered before me," Mr. Ambassador intones with a great flourish.  I'll only look like an idiot trying to explain how orders queue up in kitchen logic of appetizer and entree and that particular sometimes dicey thing called 'firing' which means telling the chef basically, 'okay, they're about to finish their appetizers, and now, yes, I really need the main event to show up.'  He's a nice enough guy, slips me a twenty before he goes.  I appreciate his sense of humor.  I hear him admit he got a C at a fine institution for his language studies.  He tells better stories than I, one about how LBJ, to keep things even, insisted that American wines be served at American embassies, in Spain for instance.

The night drags on.  Italian guy has worked where they make Ferraris.  He's been a somm himself.  He ends up hanging on, politely, but not paying his check, only finally finally, long after everyone has left. That's okay.  I'm a legend of hospitality.  But on the other hand he's been around since six, has seen how weeded out the   I've been.  We talk about sulfites.  It's all good.  It's all exhausting.

I got into the business only because I was a writer.  I was hungry, thirsty, I needed a social life, home cooking, good decent basic people around me, and many have gone on to get, as I should have, a Ph.D.    I didn't know it would drag on so long, that the poetry I'd write would be stuck like honey around the marauding bear.

"Dear friends, all is lost, all is lost," I want to say after such a night to those who would read.  And I can taste too what might drive a person of some gift to look upon people and see them as a faithless generation difficult and sad to tolerate, addressing them as "ye."

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