Kingdom of Sand
It’s the tail end of the lunch shift and Café Machiavelli is empty. Josie, the assistant manager, and I are both working double shifts. Taking advantage of the lull in customer traffic we decide to caffeinate our blood streams with several double espressos. Some waiters do coke, I do coffee.
“Another double,” Josie sighs as she stirs three sugars into her espresso. “I can’t take this shit anymore.”
“How many doubles are you working this week?” I ask.
“How’d you get away with that?”
“I told the owner if he overscheduled me I’d leave.”
“That’s balls on.”
“Yeah,” I reply. “But remember, I have another job. You don’t.”
“What do you do again?”
I give Josie my cover story. It’s a good one, but sometimes telling it makes me feel like Donnie Brasco.
“I wish I could trim back my hours,” Josie says, “The owner’s always got me working.”
“That’s because he doesn’t have enough waiters,” I reply. “We need at least two people to plug the holes in the schedule.”
“He put up an ad on Craiglist,” Josie says listlessly.
“I hope we get some quick answers.”
“Me too,” Josie says. “I can’t work these hours anymore. My boyfriend and I are fighting because we never see each other.”
I look at Josie. A skinny blonde who seems to subsist on coffee and cigarettes, she always seems to be in a foul mood. While working long hours and sexual frustration may be partly to blame, I suspect her drinking and late night partying also contributes to her pissy disposition.
‘Did you ever think of working somewhere else?” I ask.
“I’ve got too many bills,” Josie replies. “And starting over at a new place would fuck up my cash flow.”
“I hear that.”
“So,” Josie says, changing the subject, “You’ve just gotten back into the restaurant world. Have any waiter dreams yet?”
“They started again a few weeks ago,” I reply, plucking two sugar packets out of the plastic holder. “Last night I dreamt that Table 13 complained about getting spinach with their swordfish instead of broccoli rabe.”
“Don’t you hate those dreams?”
“I used to,” I reply, stirring some sugar into my espresso. “Now I realize those dreams are just the mind’s way of processing nervous energy leftover from a shift.”
“What do you mean?”
“Waitering is like juggling several balls in the air at the same time,” I explain. “Your brain is so busy keeping track of what the tables need – cocktails, desserts, spoons, refills – that not all the balls come down and you leave the restaurant with some still banging around inside your head.
“I never thought of it that way.”
“That’s why waiter dreams are usually about little things – forgetting to order sodas or firing a table’s food.”
“My dreams haven’t been about small stuff,” Josie says. “They’ve been nightmares actually.”
“What kind of dreams have you been having?”
“I had a really bad one last night,” Josie says. “I was working here but the restaurant looked completely different. The menu was in Russian or something and the hostess assigned me thirty tables and I went into the weeds. The manager kept yelling at me. It was awful.”
I look at Josie with a start. When I worked at the Bistro I had a similar dream. I dreamt that Fluvio bought a new restaurant across the town – complete with heavy leather bound menus written in Cyrillic. Inside the restaurant’s phantasmagoric interior, Claude, the neighborhood homeless guy, was the French speaking maitre ‘d. Dressed in a three piece suit instead of his usual rags, he sat me two hundred people and started cursing me out when I inevitably went into the weeds. Now that I look back on it, those dreams were my subconscious prodding me to leave. Maybe the same thing is happening to Josie. Man, talk about Jungian archetypes.
“What was once familiar becomes unfamiliar” I reply. “A sort of disconnection.”
“Exactly!” Josie says. “Like I’m not supposed to be here anymore.”
“What do you want to do after waiting tables?”
“I have no idea,” Josie says. “But I’ve been here three years and I feel like my life’s slipping though my fingers.”
I’m familiar with this particular bit of server angst. Eventually most full time waiters realize they have to trade in their aprons for a steady paycheck, health benefits, and Saturday nights off. But the restaurant industry can be like comfortable womb. Sometimes the only way out is to be pulled out – kicking and screaming. It’s a messy process, hence the dreams.
“You’ll figure out what to do,” I say, reassuringly. “You’ll eventually get some of the things you want.”
“I hope so.”
“Just hang in there.”
The long shift eventually ends and I go home. Josie goes out partying with her boyfriend. The next night I come in to work the dinner shift. All the scheduled servers are present and accounted for – except Josie.
“Where’s Josie?” I ask Willem, the general manager. “On break?”
“Uh,” Willem says, looking uncomfortable. “Josie is no longer with us.”
“She left to pursue other opportunities.”
I grimace at Willem’s clumsy use of corporate double speak but don’t press him for details. Later the bus boys tell me that Josie stormed out crying in the middle of a crowded lunch shift. That’s one way to do it I guess.
Since we’re down a server the night’s crazy. Despite the stress Willem’s walking around like he’s king of the hill. He’s obviously happy that Josie’s gone. I always suspected there was a power struggle going on between them. Willem doesn’t know it yet – but he’s inherited a kingdom of sand. He thinks he’s indispensable but he’s not. The restaurant world can be a comfortable place, but it also chews people up and spits them out. Managers are a dime a dozen. The moment you think your irreplaceable the owner’s already looking for your replacement. I once lived in that kingdom. Willem’s a nice guy but he’s headed for trouble. One day he’ll be the one having nightmares. One day it’ll be him crying.