Rousing myself from tossing and turning, wide awake, with a great sense of dread, I prepared myself to face a first shift in a restaurant new to me. Chilled green tea, a shower, a tunafish on brown rice bread sandwich. Told what to wear, and "you will have fun," I got ready and out to the door for the walk up Massachusetts Avenue, the day hot, sunny, traffic already backed up at 2:30.
Past the mosque, a beehive of activity, a faction across the street delivering through a portable PA system, then the men streaming out at the end of service at the gate in front of the mosque itself, high volume. Then over the bridge, and a breeze as I climbed, walking up toward the Finns, a young woman walking in running gear as she talked on her earphones, pretty, thin, maybe from the UK, passing her as she stopped at a corner, then she passing me, then I passing her. Past the British Embassy at the curve, just passed the Khalil Gibran garden on a knoll, she walked past me on my left mast as a robin climbed before us low, with a little worm dangling in its beak. "Eat your worm, robin," I say, as the bird climbs into the trees beyond the grass, and the gal turned her blond head slightly and chuckled and I felt reminded of soldier humor from the Civil War. Swinging away from sidewalk construction at the corner of the main avenue intersection, cutting through the school on the Cathedral grounds, handsome parents waited in their high end motorcars by the prestigious school to pick up their uniformed boys with ties on. Sweating, now past the great Cathedral, crossing the street, the restaurants up ahead, running five minutes late, picking up the pace, turning the corner, and there the patio and in through the open door.
Shake hands with the boss, tall, trim, neatly dressed, confident with business success and a little gem of an eatery French in refinement and simplicity. This is David, who will be training me once he finishes a few things, I go down and change my shirt into a white button down, putting on some worn work shoes with the metatarsal support inner souls that have seen years of service. And back up the stairs to face my night alone behind the bar, the weather promising a busy night in the open air.
The set-up of the bar is long. Facing forward the dishwashing machine, which handles all the bar glassware, is at the extreme right, and turning around, the point of sale computer system linked in to kitchen and server. Then, facing back forward mid bar, a tap system. Then, to the left, the bar ends with an ice bin, then, a step down a level to that of the dining room, ice bins the server reaches for the chilled wines, the wine glasses hanging on a rack by the back swinging door to the dishwasher's hallway, where bread is warmed and cut, coffee is made, and the dishwasher with his racks and machine and stainless sinks back in the far corner.
The night starts quickly around 5:30, with three Plantation rums served neat, then two lemonades for kids, a few glasses of wine at the bar, and then the quick lead-up to the grind of the night's hit, martinis, whiskey sour, and I handle it all well, but there's nothing one can do about the buildup of glassware back at the far service station, to bring all the way back to the right to place upon the dishwasher compartment's top black matts and in the meantime, verbal drink orders I strain to hear, and a few bottles of wine, and I need to tell someone like a busboy I need bread for two with olive oil.
Finally, the end of the night draws nearer, the drink orders settle down into dessert wines and digestif, and still, beer, bottled and tap. I'm nursed through with a few pointers throughout the evening by the men who have worked the bar and now how to best handle it. At some point a sweet short man, Pedrito, or Jose, in the blur of names, the nice man I met early on in the basement, with a Nike cap and a wrist brace, as he stood why a mop and yellow bucket, comes back to help me with the wiping off bar cloth polishing of each and every glass inside and out, as I file them back away and servers take any wine glass they will get, one or two ahead of them in the chaos.
The man with the freshly shaved head, lean and strong, self-confident, kind to me, helps me through what I need with the restock. I've done fairly well keeping up with everything, the chilled wine coolers, the disparate orders, at least for rookie night, and not made an mistakes ordering or been indignant toward anyone, and rather, with the sense of humor a veteran might possess after twenty five years or so at it, keeping a bar running and getting the crucial work of delivery done as best one can, with a smiling demeanor and distant attentiveness ready to strike when needed to.
The manager, an Asiatic woman, approaches at the end of the night. She's been cool, understanding the chaotic rush I've weathered. "Didn't know what he was getting himself into," she says to the chef. At one point toward the end of the busy part of the server's night, a Caucasian handsome young fellow with neatly trimmed hair and stylish glasses mentions to me, "such bullshit," referring to being back there and the system, speaks of enduring two years of it and the weekday nights where you have to also come round and handle the four four top tables in front of the raised bar, and I reach across the zinc service platform that folds upward should you need to get out from behind the bar and put my hand and his shoulder and say, quietly, in return, thank you. Thank you, nodding.
The manager mentions the checklist, you have to go through the checklist, it's back there somewhere by the cash register computer screen, you have to go through that line by line. I look at her. Yes, the guys instructed me what I need to be doing. And indeed my friend the shaven man comes back and helps me take out the recycling, looks over the shelf where the back-up wines are kept like a bookcase, open, six bottles of Lirac, five Bordeaux, seven Sancerre, and I mention I've drawn up a list from everything from the beer to the large house wine bottles from Coté Mas, red and white, and of course all the rosé, four of them including the sparkler, both in the cooler and upon the shelf. Yes, the checklist, and inwardly I roll my eyes, to me it being pretty obvious that one must restock and then conscientiously clean all surfaces in some order as she sits and picks at the chef's mushroom fricassee, and then the lamb short ribs as she sips a glass of wine. Ring up everything (meaning the drinks for the higher staff and personalities of the end of the night), okay.
She keeps an even tone, not particularly supportively positive of my brave and honorable effort. "It's a strange set-up," I offer, "a lot of ground, from one end to the other (not very convenient a layout for its function), and you can't always hear the server's orders very well." "The servers should ring their drinks in before you make them. (Honey,) "that's not how the system works." She holds to her terms, "nothing should be made in the kitchen without a ticket," and yet I've seen clear example of how the chef is happy to pass along an appetizer to a lady here for happy hour my guy pulled me aside to warn me of, seven o'clock, that's it. (Happy Hour people are regarded as consummate cheapos; where I might regard them with a bit more humanity, a nice chat with a Brit working on a Ph.D. on British influences in the Middle East during the WWI period, asking him if he's ever been to Dorset to visit T. E. Lawrence's Clouds Hill, known for its simplicity, and indeed he has, a nice moment before he's joined later by a friend; and oddly enough at the other end of the bar I'll wait on another couple (oh, sorry, I just found out from the kitchen that we are out of the cod cheeks) with a very prominent Germanic name from that era, the kind with a Von in front of it, the kind you might name an early battleship over, as if the subtle balance that happens in bars will always present itself like yin and yang, bookends.
Sipping her wine, dryly taking a bite, she looks at me as I explain to her what the system in actuality and functionality actually is, a verbal system, there's no other way. She looks at me, "maybe you could come in, say, an hour earlier to get set-up," she says. No, it's not the set-up; I did fine with the set up, we ran out of nothing, the flow was happy enough for the servers and they raced back and forth with plates as I focussed on keeping afloat. A pause after I render my insight, picking up the narrow matts from the well at my end of the bar, those with the names of liquors and such on their rubbery faces, textured to hold spills with the top not swamped, placing them into the dishwasher, wishing there was a compartmentalized rack to hold things. Picking up the matt where water glasses sit, I find that below the matt sopping with moldy moisture, commenting with a guttural reaction, whisking it off into the washer, the spraying away with the windex and the rag. And again, underneath the black matts by the service end underneath the big low buckets that hold with chilled wines on ice, there's a lot of water, sitting, and wetness underneath.
I look up at her, after her suggestion sinks in, of my coming in earlier, and I was an hour early, I say, Well, to tell you the truth I'm going to sleep on it, whether I'm coming back here next Friday.
She wishes me a good night as she leaves, entrusting me with the chef and his buds, and the last antics. Later I leave with the chef, turning the lights off, watching him punch in the code. He's always gracious with me, the general vibe of the place.
The night ends, I take a cab home and slump on the couch without even any interest in the small glass of wine I pour. I wake later, a put myself to bed, difficultly falling back to sleep, have a beer and a valerian capsule. And all the time I've wasted, drinking wine, when I could have been keeping my old mom company. All the years of frivolity, thinking myself incapable of any sort of grown-up job, living not far from paycheck to paycheck, what was I thinking...
Mom calls, she has a cold, sounding like she could use some help getting dinner. Afterward I sit down on the couch on a pair of reading glasses, then getting ready for work.
Those new plans people spring on you from time to time, they boil over, in a Buddhist way, much ado about nothing, just the angst, the stress of getting through them and the decision to say, no thank you.
You can't really be much of a teacher, when you have to run around like a monkey all night, playing a kind of handball with dirty wine glasses and drink orders, service bar. It's an obscure and not necessarily perfectly respected position to be in anyway, to stand behind a bar, waiting, serving, a 'beverage engineer,' as there are important credentialed people who deal in matters of life and death out there in the city, with large cars not bicycles, with big houses and unimaginable responsibilities. And even to realize that you are, or might be, potentially, a form of the teacher that might come from being, well, cut from the image of the Divine, God, the spark of creation, requires a look around at the potential totality of the being, who you are, what you do. To be achieved, this look, as always, in the very skeptical and no-time-for-it, let's-be-practical, and-then-finally-once-we've-achieved-that, then-we-can-relax-a-bit-like-those-TV-ads-for-financial-advisors (God loves them too.) But the look for the potential totality, for maybe a glimmer of, as silly as it sounds, a Gandhi, or one simply with a pleasant and caring sense of humor that sees a lot, as can only be accomplished through years of time and human interaction. And even then, the voice asks, 'then am I teacher,' and one has to always work on that, a bench warmer called to play now and again. The potential is all we can now, and even that necessitates a poetic license employed.
Some jobs, they might allow for that totality to come into light and focus, the assembly of a full person, less obscured in their efforts, driven largely by instinct, to write here and there, to play a bit of music on a wooden instrument or other, to talk to people as a job, in a congenial truthful way.
The Buddha was a writer who took his message public and in person.