It’s Christmas Eve and Café Machiavelli is bursting at the seams. Since we’re overbooked the wait time to be seated has crept past the half hour mark. Several customers, upset with the delay, have stormed out in frustration. Christmas cheer is in short supply. The kitchen isn’t helping matters either.

“Excuse me, waiter?” a frazzled looking woman at one of my tables calls out. “Does it usually take thirty minutes to get appetizers in this place?’

“No madam,” I reply.

“My kids are starving and we’ve got Midnight Mass at ten o’clock. Go in the kitchen and find out what’s going on.”

“Yes madam. Right away.”

To humor the lady I cross the crowded dining room and duck into the kitchen. I don’t need to ask the chef why my customer’s apps are late. I already know. The kitchen has crashed.

A kitchen crash occurs when the cooks manning the line can’t keep pace with the volume of orders pouring into the kitchen. This condition often occurs as the result of shoddy prep work, short staffing, the deleterious effect of chemical substances on the brain, lack of sleep, executive chef egomania, or garden variety stupidity. Tonight’s situation, however, can be blamed on overconfidence. The chef offered too many complicated items on the special Christmas menu and overestimated the ability of his kitchen to churn them out in a timely manner. Basically, we’re fucked.

“Hey Osvaldo,” I shout to the food runner. “How long for table 3’s apps?”

Osvaldo, a skinny El Salvadoran kid, frantically looks along the long line of pink tickets hanging in front of him. Each ticket represents a table. It’s Osvaldo’s job to bring out the food and tell the kitchen to start cooking the entrées. He’s a good food runner, but tonight he’s overwhelmed.

“There’s no ticket for three!” he shouts back.

“What are you talking about? I gave it to you half an hour ago!”

“It’s not here.”

I walk over to Osvaldo’s station and look though his line of tickets. He’s right. It’s not there. I anxiously leaf through completed orders impaled on the ticket spike. Sure enough I find table three. Osvaldo lost the ticket.

“Dude,” I say, holding the ticket up to him. “You never put the order in!”

“Mierda!” Osvaldo hisses.

“I need those apps now!”

“Oh no,” Osvaldo groans, examining the ticket. “They need a risotto and a veal chop medium well.”

“We’re fucking doomed,” I sigh.

Suddenly a shadow falls across Osvaldo and me. The executive chef, all six foot three of him, towers over us – radiating pure homicidal rage.

“What the fuck’s going on?” he asks. I tell him.

“You guys are destroying my kitchen!” he screams. “Get out of here!”

“Chef,” I say calmly. “I need those apps on the fly.”

“OUT!” the chef yells. “GET OUT!”

“Dude,” Osvaldo whispers in my ear, “When he’s like this just run.”

Since discretion’s the better part of valor I egress the kitchen and walk over to my customer’s table. To placate the woman I do the only thing I can do – lie my ass off.

“The chef’s terribly sorry for the delay,” I announce. “He’s working on getting your appetizers out as soon as possible.”

“This is nuts,” the woman barks. “We’re paying good money to eat here.”

“I understand madam,” I say. “Can I get you and your husband another drink? On the house of course.”

“That’s the least you can do.”

Luckily for me the alcoholic appeasements mollify my cranky table until their apps come out – forty five minutes late. The hostess throws me another table. Struggling to maintain my happy face, I cocktail them and recite the specials.

“We want to order our appetizers first,” the host, a chubby bespectacled fellow wearing a red sweater vest, says. “Then we’ll decide what we want for dinner.”

Normally it’s a bad idea to send a table’s order to the kitchen in two parts. On a calm day the cooks hate it. If I try and pull that shit tonight they’ll cut my balls off.

“Sir,” I say pleasantly, “To ensure your meal runs smoothly I need to send the entire order to the kitchen.”

“Don’t you dare hassle me tonight,” the man says, his face suddenly matching the color of his sweater. “Do what I tell you.”

I tamp down the savage flare of anger surging up my esophagus. If my chubby customer could peer inside the cinema of my mind he’d see himself being trampled to death by a herd of rabid reindeer. Suddenly I feel a kinship with Ted Bundy – smiling on the outside, murderous on the inside.

“Sir,” I reply politely, “I’ll put your appetizer order in right away.”

Of course I don’t put the apps into the computer. I just wait until the entire table’s picked their entrées and then send the complete order to the kitchen. It’s going to take them an hour to get their food anyway. Besides, I’m quite fond of my balls.

Needing a hydration break I walk over to the beverage station and pour myself a glass of water. As I drink I watch the fat man we hired to play Santa walk through the dining hall and hand out candy to the little children. I guess I should be grateful for tender mercies. If Mr. Kringle wasn’t here to keep the whiny hungry proto-yuppies distracted, things might really start spiraling out of control. I take a deep calming breath and steel myself for the ordeal to come. Experience tells me that the kitchen’s so far gone that they’ll never recover. I’m going to spend the remainder of the evening wearing out the words “I’m sorry.”

Finally the night ends. After getting paid out I limp home. My feet are so sore I feel like I’m walking on bloody stumps. The chef didn’t feed us so I stop at a 7-11 and buy one of those awful pre-made sandwiches and a bag of chips. Under the convenience store’s fluorescent lighting everyone looks like a lost soul. I pay for my purchases and walk out the door. In the dilapidated apartment building across the street a cheery neon snowman waves happily in one of the grimy windows. It’s the only Christmas decoration in a building that holds a thousand people.

When I arrive home Buster, my joint custody dog, is thrilled to see me. He has no conception of the holidays. For him every day is the same. I’m much the same way. My apartment is completely devoid of Christmas ornamentation – not even a neon snowman to wave at passersby. After I take Buster for a short walk I take a shower, pour myself a drink and eat my sandwich by the light of the television. After my second drink the sandwich stops tasting like cardboard. I look at the clock on the VCR. It’s one-thirty on Christmas morning. Slightly drunk, I clumsily walk into my bedroom and pick a poorly wrapped present off my dresser.

“Here you go Buster,’ I say, placing the package in front of him. “Merry Christmas.”

Buster rips the wrapping paper to shreds and uncovers his new chew toy. Ecstatic, he tears through the apartment, doing his best to destroy his present in under twenty minutes. Sipping my drink I watch him play. Suddenly my eyelids feel like lead curtains. I stretch out on the couch, close my eyes, and drowsily listen to the news. After a while I hear someone snoring. Before I slip into oblivion I realize it’s me.

Waking up stiff and aching ten hours later, I realize I should have left for my parent’s house in Pennsylvania a long time ago. I call to tell them I’m running late. My brother and his pregnant wife are already there. My parents are big holiday people. Their house looks like a Macy’s window display – fully trimmed live tree, animatronic Santa hovering Godzilla-like over a Victorian Christmas village, two mangers, lights, tinsel, and personalized stockings hung by the fireplace. I’m almost forty and I still get a stocking.

‘We’ll wait for you,” my mother says. “Your father’s still cooking dinner. Drive slowly and get here in one piece. “

“Thanks Mom. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

After filling a thermos with hot coffee, I bundle Buster into my car and start heading west. Before I know it, the urban landscape is replaced by rolling hills and farmland. As I feel the stress leave my body I catch myself humming Christmas carols. Suddenly I’m grateful that I still have a place to go on holidays – a place where there’s still a stocking with my name on it.

That’s something you really never outgrow.

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