Saturday, January 02, 2010

"Hi, My Name is Heather, and I'll Be Your Server."

That's what I used to say, what I used to be required to say, at least 20 times a day as condition of my employment.  For 10 years, from 1987 to 1997, I worked in the frustrating, mystifying world of corporate restaurants.  One day, at the beginning of my senior year in high school, my family went to the local Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant for lunch.  My dad had been pestering me to get a job for a few months, and I had successfully put him off.  This time, though, I was trapped-if I wanted to eat, I had to fill out an application.  A week later I was the newest hostess at the Matteson Chi-Chi's.  Surprisingly, I loved my job-and I was pretty good at it (and yes, it does take skills to seat people in a restaurant).  When I went away to college I transferred to the Chi-Chi's in Bloomington, IL.  Back and forth I would go, from Matteson to Bloomington and vice versa, every new semester or holiday break.  Over the years I was a hostess, a busser, a server, an expediter, a cocktail waitress, a bartender-I even worked the appetizer station on the line a few times when they were really short.  I probably worked for 15 different managers, and worked with literally a hundred or more different employees, yet time in the corporate restaurant world has a way of passing with a sameness, each shift flowing into the next shift almost seamlessly, customers faces blending together until each table becomes nothing more than a "two top" or "four top", or the dreaded "large party".  Stereotypes abounded-no one wanted the table of teenagers or the two women with their six small children in tow.  I'm embarrassed to report that tables of teachers were among the worst tippers I ever had, and even when I became a teacher myself I would avoid taking them if I could.  The high stress and the close working conditions, coupled with the strange off hours that we worked, caused the small world of the restaurant to seem like the entire world-everyone's business became everyone else's business, and gossip was taken to the level of an Olympic sport.  Couples formed and disolved at an astonishing rate, and many people with boyfriends or girlfriends outside of the restaurant ended up having their "work husbands" or "work wives"-people with whom they flirted away from the eyes of their significant other, sometimes taking it all the way, but feeling as though what they had done was somehow separate from the rest of the world.  Restaurant communities become very insular and intense, and it is only after you leave it that you realize how ridiculous it all was in the first place.

This environment is captured perfectly in Stewart O'Nan's book, Last Night at the Lobster.  This very short novel, almost a novella, really, tells the story of the last day that the Red Lobster is open in the town of New Britain, Connecticut.  The main character is Manny, the general manager, who has been at that location for 10 years.  It's a snowy winter's day, five days before Christmas, and he and his skeleton crew of cooks, servers, and hosts spend a quiet, desperate day serving their few customers and waiting for the end to come.  There is no great conflict, no dramatic last scene.  As his employees leave-some of whom he'll see again in just a few days as they join the staff of a nearby Olive Garden-Manny is gripped by a sense of nostalgia and loss, but in the end there is nothing to do but drive his car off into the dark, snowy night, and wait for the next shift to begin.

The character of Manny reminds me a LOT of my ex-husband.  He was a prep cook when we met, and became a manager just after we divorced.  He worked at Chi-Chi's longer than anyone else I know, and I can't think about him without thinking about chimichangas and chili con queso.  Like my ex, Manny is basically a good guy-dedicated to his job, willing to do the menial jobs if he has to so he can lead by example, not really aspiring to much more than being in charge of his own restaurant.  He genuinely cares about his employees, to the point of sometimes getting shafted by them.  He has a girlfriend outside the restaurant, pregnant with his child, but he still longs for the girl who stole his heart in the walk-in, Jacquie, a beautiful girl from the islands with a boyfriend of her own.  Manny lives a life of quiet desperation-mourning his grandmother, feeling trapped by the coming baby and the woman who is carrying it, and wishing for the strength to throw it all away to run away with the girl of his dreams.

I feel like I could write the sequel for this book myself.  Because as sure as the Olive Garden serves free salad and breadsticks, Manny will get sucked into the approximation of "real" life that exists in their kitchens and service stations.  He'll say he's going to move out of his crappy apartment and buy a house, but inertia will keep him where he is.  He'll work his way back up from assistant manager to general manager, showing effort and initiative where corporate mostly expects laziness and indifference. And whether he stays with his pregnant girlfriend or not, he will have another "Jacquie"-he may even find the courage to leave the unsatisfying relationship he's currently in to be with her.  He's a lifer-when he leaves his last restaurant gig to take on retirement, he will have nothing to show but years of perfectly made fettuccine alfredo and the ability to face and count money that a banker would envy. Manny's story perfectly showcases the soul-sucking environment that is corporate restaurants.

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