Scenes from an Italian restaurant

Though I try to keep this website up-to-date with what’s going on in my New York life, there is one tale I have yet to tell. In fact, the subject matter is of such a dark and depressing nature I have had to wait until the onset of Spring to even discuss it. And after I write this, I hope to erase the entire experience from my memory. Here goes.

Around mid-January, I found myself to my surprise, still in New York, but also jobless and soon-to-be-homeless. Having exhausted all other avenues of potential employment I became desperate, and began handing out resumes in every cafe, bar or restaurant where I thought I could stand to work. With no prior experience in the food and beverage industry I was compelled to make up a phony resumé which stated I had worked at various places in Italy. I deliberately chose places where I used to hang out, the thinking being that if probed I could probably invent a believable answer. To my surprise I was granted an interview on the Upper West Side at Nice Matin, a spacious brasserie-type restaurant on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 79th Street, in the same building as the Hotel Lucerne. That afternoon on the way over there I dropped my resumé off at a small unassuming Italian ristorante a block further up and across the street. This turned out to be my first (and biggest) mistake.

I didn’t get the Nice Matin job as I wasn’t legal, but a couple of evenings later I got a call from the other restaurant, and the next morning I went to meet with the manager, a slightly tense woman (let’s call her M). She wanted someone to answer phones, make coffees, serve desserts, and whip up the occasional cocktail. It sounded like an easy and fun gig, so I started the next evening.

I thought my Italian experience would help, though I was clearly hired for this particular job as none of the current employees spoke decent English. I spent most of my time on the phone taking orders, which could often get out of control (especially when busy New Yorkers call for a delivery of “penne with butter”). My other duties included making coffees and cocktails (neither of which I was yet capable), serving desserts, operating the cash register and keeping track of delivery boys’ tips. At the end of the night I’d count the register, give the night’s takings to M and wrap a drawer amount of cash in a rubber band and place it in a tumbler in the back of the fridge. M turned out to be not only tense but also uptight: the kind of micro-managing, hands-on, control freak of boss I hope never to encounter again. She would criticize everything I did and generally treated me like a small child, permanently breathing down my neck. After a couple of weeks I realized I was in hell, but I needed the money so badly I had to stick it out. It was frustrating because I’m sure some restaurant jobs can be fun. This one wasn’t.

The place itself would get very full on weekends and quite stressful. This was the only restaurant in the western world which still uses the carbon paper check, which means to change something requires crossing out and rewriting on three separate pieces of paper, resulting in lots of scribbling and many screwed-up orders. You try mixing a flirtini, slicing a strawberry to be served atop a panna cotta, and making three decaf espressos while on the phone with an angry Central Park West resident who wants to know what happened to her side of grilled zucchini. Sometimes when the delivery boys were extra busy I’d be sent on foot to deliver food locally. This was always a thrill for three reasons: 1) it was a sudden chance to escape the hell of the restaurant and call home; 2) I’d invariably receive a handsome personal tip; 3) and more importantly, I’d be afforded a sneak peak inside the home of an affluent Upper West Sider.

M herself knew very little about Italian food or wine, believing penne alla vodka or spaghetti and meatballs (her bestselling dishes) to be the height of European sophistication. She also refused to acknowledge that someone could be more informed than her on this (or any other) subject. I got the impression she felt she was doing people a huge favour just by letting them eat in her restaurant, and I felt her general the-customer-is-always-wrong philosophy was an unfortunate attitude with which for someone in the hospitality business to be burdened. On many occasions people took issue with her petty rules and extortionate drinks prices. I ended up losing count of the people who left the restaurant abruptly saying something to the extent of “I’m never coming back.” She’d often tell busboys off with the line, “This is not a diner,” which she’d repeat, almost like a mantra, as if it were her who needed convincing.

The food actually wasn’t bad and we had a number of regulars, including author Philip Roth (who always ordered a Sprite with no ice). Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld) ate there one Friday night, and former mayor Ed Koch came in once before quickly realizing he was in the wrong restaurant (this happened often). I also took several orders from the McEnroe household on Central Park West. Sadly employees weren’t treated to the same fare, but the nights were so long I’d actually look forward to my eleven o’clock bowl of over-cooked rigatoni swimming in thin watery tomato sauce washed down with a tumbler of Diet Pepsi.

A further sign of her rampant paranoia, M spied on us through a small camera connected to a computer located in an office upstairs, and when she wasn’t in the restaurant she would call to tell me not to talk to the other waiter or to ask the busboy not to stand in the window. Employees weren’t allowed to try the actual dishes we served, so when customers asked I had to say something stupid like “I wouldn’t know actually, but it sounds nice.” During the long day shifts, when the restaurant was generally empty, I wasn’t even allowed to make myself an espresso. When I decided to change the CDs in the CD changer (there’s only so much Norah Jones and k.d. lang a man can take) M scolded me for going through her private things. One day I saw actor Jerry Stiller (Frank Costanza on Seinfeld and Ben Stiller’s dad in real life) walk past the window. I wanted to chase after him shouting “SERENITY NOW!”

One particularly slow afternoon in March was livened up by an unexpected visit from the Health Department. Panicked, M immediately sent me upstairs to try and keep silent the cat which lives in the restaurant, but I guess she didn’t count on the inspectors finding the open can of cat food in the fridge. “You got a cat?!” one of them exclaimed. I could barely contain my laughter. M made up some lame story about the cat being there because her son was allergic, and they let it slide. That cat — whose name was Fusilli — was arguably the most ridiculous aspect of a ridiculous job. At the end of the night we’d have to take it out of its cage, feed it and then barricade it in the kitchen, where it would no doubt eliminate any vermin that tried to enter. Of course, before being tucked in for the night, Fusilli enjoyed roaming like cats do around the dining room floor and under the tables, and we were often let out several minutes late as Pedro the dishwasher chased after it with a napkin. On these occasions I’d just stand in the window and try and focus on the NBA game on the TV in the restaurant across the street.

As the weeks progressed and began to care less and less about the restaurant there were several changes in personnel. Bussers and delivery boys would rotate as often as the week’s specials, but the restaurant also went through its share of waiters. When the Nepalese head waiter suddenly quit, a series of potential replacements were brought in, none of whom lasted longer than a week. One of them was a tall American man. Around thirty minutes into his first full shift his face had already turned ashen with horror. Needless to say, he failed to show up for his next shift after his girlfriend suffered a “freak injury rolling out of bed.” M also rehired a girl from Staten Island, who had worked at the restaurant previously before leaving to perform as a dancer in Las Vegas. Now, back in New York, she had agreed to return to her old job, which was evidently much worse than she’d remembered. About two weeks later she landed a mysterious position aboard a cruise ship.

During my time at the restaurant I was working days at at a marketing agency in SoHo (another disappointing experience, but that’s another story) and nights at the restaurant, which meant leaving the house at eight in the morning and getting home after midnight, or after one on the weekends. Since I wasn’t technically a member of the waitstaff I wasn’t earning tips, but sometimes the head waiter would slip me two or three bucks which meant I got to eat a bagel or pizza slice for lunch the next day around 4:30pm before my shift started. So I was barely eating proper meals, and when I did it was sloppy pasta cooked by a tired little guy named José. I was spending more waking minutes per day hanging around on a Times Square subway platform watching the rats scurrying under the tracks than at home. And eventually I reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. In my final week at the restaurant M had just about pushed me to breaking point, criticizing my telephone manner, which she called “abrupt” (this after I’d answered the phone fifty times a night for the last three months) and even questioning my personal hygiene. So one day I called her saying there was work stuff I couldn’t get out of.

A couple of weeks passed, and I had still to receive my final check, so I went back one evening after work to ask for money. On one of my nights off, Paco, a smart former busboy who was still owed cash, had shown up on a Saturday night with the NYPD in tow — perhaps the one time I’d wished I’d been at work. I arrived alone and M, without as much as a hello, told me I couldn’t call her on her cellphone, then berated me for leaving so suddenly and accused me of having “convenienced myself.” This was the tête-a-tête I’d fantasized about. I could have said she was lucky I’d lasted two and-a-half months longer than her average employee. I could have told her that she was the most ungracious, unprofessional person I have ever come across. I could have told her keeping a live cat loose in the kitchen is a Condition IV violation of Code 4P of the New York City Food and Restaurant Services Act and that I could have her shut down with one phone call. But it really wasn’t worth the trouble — I wanted to rid myself of the whole scene, and erase the last three months which had unexpectedly managed to tarnish what was one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Manhattan. So I bit my tongue and walked out of there.

As far as I know the place is still in business, and to this day I still suffer from a slight nausea whenever I’m on the Upper West Side.

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