Lord knows, thinking can hurt.
I guess I know how a dog feels. It's wine tasting night, I'm up there by myself, and the parties come in, largely unannounced, unpredictably. A few faces, of course, I recognize. The shift starts hungover, as I ran out of wine as I cooked in the night and pulled out the Fernet-Branca liquer, the current shot of choice, and a decent one, of the DC service industry. Herbs, many of them, kind of like Yaegermeister, without the annis, something like that. I should have stuck with wine, or just gone to bed, but, the mind seemed to have needed a blank place to relax, and psychologically I am working on improving this tendency. Anyway, a regular customer shows up with a 2005 Morey St. Denis to have with dinner at the bar and he has me try it. The next people come in, and I mumble about the free wine tasting and the bottle discount, all of which seems to make me appear like a madman, offering something unexpected and perhaps inexplicable. But the night goes on, and I judge how far to render my schpeil accordingly. To offer a free wine tasting, of course, is to open a can of worms.
So the ladies come to dine, they come to catch up with each other, and I know this and try to be helpful and as unobtrusive as possible. Would the malbec go with the curried chicken, I don't know wouldn't be my choice (New World jamminess), but here you go and here's a sip of two other wines. I've got time, and otherwise, really, my job would be too boring and generally pathetic if I didn't take some pedagogical interest in wine and service. Don't take it personally, I'm not trying to be too kind or anything or too friendly.
But this is the world of being a servant. You come over to a table, stand around, try to figure out what the fuck people want or why they came here, and you hope they will at some point reveal the nature of their mysterious presence, their relaxed attitude. One table, three sisters and a friend, I recognize the sisters, are talking about serious stuff when I approach to offer the free tasting. I might like to talk about how Beaujolais is a beautiful place, appropriate neighbor to the gastronomic capitol Lyon, how Anthony Bourdain was seen swilling down the stuff with the great chefs there, or maybe a note about the granite soil Pinot Noir doesn't do well in, but that sort of thing is immediately rendered unnecessary and trivial when people are talking about, say, melanoma, a health issue that comes with aging. (And a barman never really knows what kind of stuff might be going on in people, and not understood the last encounter with a man who looked puzzled and a bit out of it, not saying something, that he would soon pass away.)
But a dog, take a beautiful chocolate lab bitch, I see her look up at the table, and she wants to eat what we are eating, and she also wants to talk, to be part of the human experience, but she doesn't have the ability to make words as we know them, just a tiny bit shy of that skill. And when I wait on people I can feel like that, like a child in an adult world, kind of like an overgrown idiot, or simply there being no bridge between my deep human realities and those of the people at any given table.
The dog wants to be with people, wants to leave with them, sit and relax and be a part of conversations and add to the experience, but by and large to do so would be vastly inappropriate. You share what you can, you answer questions, you try to entertain, and often times in a city full of successful people there has to be a hanging question, what happened to you, what brought you here to wait on tables when you're obviously intelligent, what kind of craziness or bad choices did you fall into, or what failures amounted to the one well represented by the fact of you standing there waiting on people, because, you know, we wouldn't expect someone with brains and talent to be doing any such job, the irresponsibility of it all mounting.... Life reminds one of the Monty Python sketch of John Cleese playing "the village idiot," secretly erudite and aware behind the expectation of babbling he must put on for a passer-by.
But in a way, perhaps it was all staring me in the face, that really and truly the wine bar is a Zen temple for the modern secularized belief-free world, or it can be. And perhaps at the core of such a truth is something often referenced and often forgotten. To state its kernel of truth would perhaps be a kind of arrogance, and something we would find basically untenable, unbelievable. But on a good day, for a brief shining moment, it can be repeated, he who would tend to the least of us would be the greatest, as we move into the spiritual realm, the last citadel of deep truth. It's the highest person who would get down and wash the feet of those willing to learn. The act stands for itself.
(But of course we live in such a world where we do not accept the practical physics of it. For a long time leading up to the Gulf War, those in the know, DC cabdrivers, natives of the region could tell you, plainly and simply, don't go in there, it's three different countries, three different peoples, three different outlooks, and if you go and topple old Saddam, it's going to be a huge unending mess. But, of course, there was that notion that since we are the greatest we should do something, and not see being the greatest by the spiritual light, a position full of humble duties, almost passive in nature. )
Of course, it rarely ever feels like you are aligned with the best of humanity when you are a professional waiter eking out a living of some form. There is something, sure, plain and clean and decent about waiting on people. Maybe it brings good karma, but at a glance it doesn't seem so wonderful a profession for personal relationships and responsible family life, no.
But if one is aligned with the deep truth, then there is not so much to fear, beyond what we all must fear, death, poor health, aging, obscurity, loneliness, anxiety, things we must deal with. And maybe that is where the Zen comes in, that doing such a job on a daily basis really does lead one to understand deep stuff about how the mind must be observed, how meditation helps, that sort of a thing....
Such a circumstance speaks of the molecular goodness of the Dostoevskian, that imprisoned obscure outsider condition, the Siberian penal colony, of the odd life of a gambling writer itself, which was able to imagine that humble purity, that humble situation allowing him to observe the things he was capable of rendering.
The obscure idiot will tonight return to work, have all the feelings the dog does, wishing to engage, wanting to participate, but of course waiting on the master, wordlessly enduring, his thoughts left to himself whilst people cover the infield with talk, lots of talk, lots and lots of talk.