Monday, October 23, 2006

Onions At One O'Clock

I Could Do With The Money, You Know That I'm So Wiped Out With Things As They Are

Beginning with the important disclaimer that I am always grateful for the opportunity, I nevertheless will use some of this precious blog space to vent, for lack of a better term, over the many hardships your narrator is forced to endure as he wends his way through the high-pressure world of high-stakes catering. After working Monday thru Thursday of last week proofreading at LT, I was booked for two weekend parties, back to back and belly to belly, hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles, or at least the Big Knife & Fork of Damocles -- Saturday night at Fordham Prep in Los Bronx, then last night at Birch Wathen School on the Upper East. With no Yankees to be found in the World Series for a third straight year, and the Cowboys not playing on Sunday, it wasn't like I was missing anything important, so why not make some much-needed cash by actively participating in the employment sector.

I always dread the Fordham gigs because it's such a fucking ordeal ... not so much to get to, but to get back from. I take the 4 train about, oh, 15 stops from the 59th/Lex. stop, then it's a good 15-minute walk to the campus, where I always get lost trying to find the high school. The party itself was some faculty get-together, a buffet style dinner for around 130 souls, with a dance floor set up in the middle of the dining hall and DJs playing a weirdly disjointed melange of soul, '50s crap, salsa, mixed in with modern-day musical frauds like Justin Timberlake. We were at least one staff person short, and so we hustled to cover all the tables.

I wasn't crazy about the captain that night, the person entrusted with the mission of running the rest of the caterers, coordinating the event so that it runs like a well-oiled machine. She shall remain nameless so that if by small chance she stumbles upon this wildly popular Internet blog, I can maintain at least a possible plausibility of denial. I am not hard to get along with, as long as you're down to earth and have a sense of humor, we can deal. Now, I know I am still technically a novice in the catering biz, but there were like 30 instances where I felt condescended to, and that's not the best way to get the most out of staff. For instance, you don't have to point out that a rack of glasses is called a "lug" -- after working close to 50 parties over the last six months, I think I absorbed that bit of arcana, thank you very much.

Anyway, long story short, we got out of there around 10:00 Saturday night -- too late for the 9:40 Metro North, too early for the 10:40. So four of us walked in the direction of the subway. Instead of joining the rest of the crew taking the D train, which doesn't help me as it's a West Side line, I walked a few more blocks to get the 4 train downtown. It's a dicey neighborhood even in the daylight hours, so after dark let's say it's best to remain vigilant and alert at all times. But as soon as I swiped my Metrocard in the turnstile and headed up the stairs marked Brooklyn/Manhattan, I noticed yellow police tape barring the way. Great. Then a small fucking sign on the token booth informed me that to get downtown, you had to take the uptown 4 train three stops and then change over. Just what I wanted to do, head further uptown! So I got off at Bedford, crossed over to the other side, and then waited like 10 minutes before the train rumbled through the Bronx night into the station. Even on a Saturday night, the trains in New York are filled, so I couldn't even get a seat right away. It took about, oh, a half-hour to get to 59th Street, where I switch over to the N/W line. I could not believe how many people were already waiting on the platform at this hour (11:15 PM or so), going my way, absolutely no difference from a rush hour crowd. Luckily the train came like a minute later, and I was able to get a seat in the last subway car. I had missed the opening game of the World Series, no biggie, so I had a quick snack and, exhaused, fell right to sleep.

The next day I had to be at the school by 3:30. This was a full-on sit down dinner for outside appraisers (don't ask) in the school cafeteria -- replete with white tablecloths and napkins, three different kinds of glassware -- plus accompanying events in the first floor lobby and second floor library. This time it seemed we had too many staff, which can be just as inefficient as having too few; there being a fine line between the two contingencies. The captain this time I had worked with before, but she also will remain nameless as I reserve the right to say bad things about her later in the post. We had the requisite gay black caterer (seemingly a strictly enforced federal statute in the foodservice/catering business) who will invariably turn out to be a dancer/singer/performer. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it seems your homosexual class tends to believe they have an inherent monopoly on interesting by the very nature of their "chosen" orientation. I was in no mood to dissuade or disabuse people of that notion on this day, but let me here stress that I will also reserve that pleasure for another day. Usually I enjoy the camraderie of my fellow wage slaves, but somehow on this day, not so much. So it goes...

I spent most of the day passing out appetizers and bussing and prepping while the more seasoned catering veterans interacted with the distinguished diners. I had the honor of "plating the salads" before the guests arrived. For some reason it matters a great deal to somebody somewhere that the salads be uniformly symmetrical in appearance, to the minutest detail. I kid you not that we were directed to make sure the sliced red onion on the salad plate was set at 1:00 relative to where the person would be sitting! Being a natural questioner of authority and seemingly senseless edicts, it was difficult for me to refrain from belittling such a practice. As I've found out from experience, my running commentary on such matters is not only futile, but also unappreciated, so I contented myself within the safe confines of my interior monologue. In fact, if anything, I often surprise myself with how civil and friendly I am as a cog in the worldwide service industry, given my confirmed status as a misanthropic malcontent; didn't think I had it in me. (Whenever I feel incivility creeping up on me, I repeat the trustworthy maxim, first uttered I believe by Noel Coward: No One Can Make You Feel Inferior Without Your Consent.)

By this stage in my life I had hoped to be wealthy beyond all societal bounds of taste and decency, with a successful literary career well under way. So imagine if you will the bitter disappointment that accompanies me as I am forced to wait on and serve people whose only advantage over me in most cases is an accident of birth and/or good fortune. Alas, my only chance for easy monetary riches probably vanished years ago upon my father estranging himself from his mom and dad, who turned out to be worth much more than anyone realized when you consider their accumulated property and various other sundries, such as my grandmother's extensive antiques collection. Because of the fractured relationship between my dad and his parents, I grew up without knowing my paternal grandparents until I was almost 13 years old, during a brief rapprochement which ended almost as quickly as it began -- the upshot being my father excluded from the will. I can't say I blame my dad for most of the bad blood: he found out that he had to grow up in stultifying poverty as a direct consequence of my grandfather having two families and two wives in two different states. The phrase "short end of the stick" was one I heard uttered on a consistent basis growing up. But that's another story for another post. (I love you, Dad, and I know you did the best you could.)

Anyway, after the guests left, we started breaking down the party, clearing the tables, stacking racks of glasses, plates, cups, etc., the hundred different things you need to do before you can change out of your monkey suit and get the hell out of there. We were about halfway done when the captain told me to make a plate of food, as per usual: we eat what the guests eat provided there's enuf to go around, and there usually is; sometimes we eat during the party one or two at a time, sometimes at the end. So I make a plate for myself, grabbing one of the last pieces of salmon, and sit down at the table where the kitchen staff is eating along with the captain. But as soon as I sit down and literally put fork to mouth, she informs that she didn't say I could eat now, just make a plate and then continue cleaning. For some reason, I thought that was petty, because I could have wolfed down the small amount of food I had (small piece of fish, small salad, some rice) in less than 5 minutes, and she had already been sitting there for close to half an hour while we cleaned up, and two staffers had already changed and gone. I mean, this was like five hours into the shift. It would be nice to eat the fish while it was still on the business side of room temperature, but okay, I can deal.

So another 20 or so minutes passes, with me and three other guys continuing to work the room. They had already made up their plates and set them aside, but when I looked around for my own plate, it was gone. I asked Ms. Captaincy where my plate was, as it was right next to her when I last espied it. She said she hadn't noticed it was gone, real blase about it. My temper is legendary, or as it's euphemistically called these days, I have had anger management issues in the past (got that piece of the old DNA from dear old dad), but I am usually able to hold it in; I have gradually learned it's best not to say anything if you possibly can, rather than say exactly what's on your mind and have to regret it later ... it's a fine line between holding your feelings in too much and letting the dam of emotions burst. And yes, I probably overreacted, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I was very pissed off. I didn't yell or say anything rash yesterday, but when I found out there was no more salmon, I decided to just finish up and leave without eating. I made sure I wasn't rude to anyone, but I just was in no mood to be friendly anymore. That wasn't the only thing she did yesterday that bothered me, but the cumulative effect of a few slights can add up. Bottom line, I guess I really wanted that piece of dead fish. Maybe you had to be there. I know I was.

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