It’s eleven o’clock in the morning and I’m walking towards the intersection of Spring Street and Sixth Avenue in SoHo. It’s a hot, humid day and sweat is already starting to soak though my polo shirt and khaki pants. Normally I wear t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops in this kind of weather, but today I’m meeting a photographer from an online magazine that’s running an article about my book. I have to look nice. I even shaved.
This is my first photo shoot as a published author. I’m excited, but I’m also ambivalent about having my picture taken. On a good day the camera makes me look like a constipated man on his way to the gallows. On a bad day? Don’t even ask. But there’s another factor that’s making me uneasy — people are finally going to see who I am.
For the past four and a half years I’ve been anonymously chronicling my exploits as a server in a white tablecloth restaurant on a website called Waiter Rant. I wrote under the nom de plume “Waiter” because I didn’t want my customers finding out I was writing about them and start leaving me bad tips. But as the website grew more popular and attracted media attention that eventually resulted in a book deal, the effort to keep my identity under wraps became more intense. Remember that scene in film Munich where the paranoid Israeli spy’s hiding in a closet with a loaded gun? Well, things weren’t that bad, but you get the picture.
I have read that many authors, especially first time writers like me, get nervous just before their work is published. While I’ll cop to checking my Amazon rankings with heroin junkie compulsivity and reading customer reviews until my internal organs start surging up my throat, I also have a source of anxiety not many authors have to deal with. I have to worry that one of my old customers is going to run up to me at a book signing screaming “You sat me next to the men’s room on purpose! Now you’re gonna get it!” I know it isn’t on the same level as the stuff Salman Rushdie has to worry about, but hey — aggravated Foodies can be just as bad as Al Qaeda.
When I reach the intersection I see a pretty young woman looking cool in a short linen dress and holding a camera that costs half as much as my car. I figure she’s the photographer so I introduce myself.
“So, you’re the mystery waiter,” she says, her face breaking into a smile.
“Yep,” I reply. “And you must be the photographer.”
“That’s some camera,” I say, admiringly. “How many megapixels?”
“Wow,” I reply. “That must’ve cost a bundle.”
The young woman rolls her eyes. “You have no idea.”
“If you fall you’re gonna shield the camera with your body, right?”
“You better believe it,” the photographer replies. “I keep telling myself I should insure it, but I can barely insure myself.’
“Lot of that going around,” I reply.
The photographer suggests we walk around SoHo and find a nice café to serve as backdrop for our pictures. As we walk down the busy, steaming streets I tell her what a bad photographic subject I am.
“Don’t worry,” the young woman says. “I’ll make you look good.”
“But can you Photoshop the sweat stains out of my shirt?” I ask.
As we stroll through SoHo we stick our heads inside several restaurants but the photographer rejects them for a variety of reasons. “This place is too gaudy” she says of one garishly decorated bistro and dismisses several outdoor cafés because, “The light’s bad.” I can’t take a decent picture of my dog so I defer to the young woman’s expertise.
While we search for the perfect spot, I ruminate on what’s going to happen to me over the next couple of weeks. I’ll be doing book signings, print and radio interviews, giving a talk, and maybe even appearing on television. While I realize I’m very fortunate that my book is garnering all this attention, I’d be lying if I said the publicity doesn’t scare me. No, I’m not worried about Foodie hit teams making a run at me in Barnes & Noble. I’m worried because I put so much of myself into this book. Parts of my life will be exposed for everyone to see. While I’ve been doing this anonymously on a blog for a long time, it’s a different ballgame when people know your face and name. I guess all the pictures and interviews are concrete reminders that my anonymity’s going out the window. There’s no going back now.
“How about that place?” the photographer says, pointing to a restaurant across the street.
I shake myself out of my funk and look. The restaurant’s a French bistro straight from central casting. It’s perfect.
“Sure,” I say. “Let’s take a look.”
We walk across the street and peek inside the restaurant. The bistro’s empty except for several bus people enjoying their midday meal. The photographer’s happy with the light levels and backgrounds so we go inside and ask the manager if we can take some pictures. He graciously says yes.
As the photographer sets up her equipment, I listen to the bus people talk in a mixture of Spanish, English, and Portuguese. The clatter of silverware on china and the laughter of hardworking people getting ready for a busy shift start lulling me into a sense of security. I smile to myself. When you get down to it, restaurants are the same everywhere. And even though I’ve never been inside this place, it’s starting to feel like home.
As my perspective is cleansed by the familiar sights and sounds of an industry I know so well, I begin to realize it’s a good thing my anonymity will disappear. I’ve done everything that I can do. I wrote the best book I could. I might be venturing into unknown territory, but my agent, publisher, editor, and publicist know their stuff and are watching my back. I’m in good hands. I’m overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude that I’m even getting this chance. Besides, I’m old enough to know this little joyride won’t last forever. I might as well take my Mom’s advice. “This time will never come again,” she said. “Enjoy it.”
“Ready to get started?” the photographer asks.
“Ready,” I reply.
“Let’s try a few pictures of you sitting at this table.”
“Okay,” I say, sitting down.
“Put your elbow on the table,” the photographer says. “And lean forward.”
I follow the photographer’s directions and stare into the camera lens. “Should I smile?” I ask.
“Just try and look natural,” the young woman says, her finger moving toward the camera’s shutter button. “Relax. This is going to be fun.”
My face breaks into a smile. This is going to be fun.
The camera clicks and whirrs — capturing a moment in time that will never come again.
Man, I hope I don’t look constipated.
This entry originally appeared as a guest blog post at Powells.com. It describes events that occured before my book’s publication on July 29th.