Home > Sweetbitter(6)

Stephanie Danler

I moved toward a trough laden with dirty dishes that ran the length of the room. I set my stack down apologetically. A tiny, gray-haired man on the other side of the trough huffed and took my stack, scraping the food off of each one and into a trash can.

“Pinche idiota,” he said, and spat into the trough in front of him.

“Thank you,” I said. Maybe I had never actually made a mistake before in my life and this is what it felt like. Like your hands were slipping off of every facet, like you didn’t have the words or directions and even gravity wasn’t reliable. I felt my trailer behind me and spun around to grab him.

“Where do I—” I reached out for an arm and noticed too late that it wasn’t striped. It was bare. There was a static shock when I touched it.

“Oh. You’re not my person.” I looked up. Black jeans and a white T-shirt with a backpack on one shoulder. Eyes so pale, a weatherworn, spectral blue. He was covered in sweat and slightly out of breath. I inhaled sharply. “My trailer person I mean. You’re not him.”

His eyes were a vise. “Are you sure?”

I nodded. He looked me up and down, indiscreetly.

“What are you?”

“I’m new.”

“Jake.” We both turned. The woman who knew the wine stood in the doorway. She didn’t see me. Her gaze distilled the kitchen light to its purest element.

“Good morning. What time does your shift start again?”

“Oh fuck off Simone.”

She smiled, pleased.

“I have your plate,” she said, and turned into the dining room. The doors swung back violently. And then all I could see was his feet pounding the last few stairs.

THEY SHOWED ME how to fold. Stacks of plastic-wrapped, blindingly white linens. Crease, turn, crease, fold, fan. Wrap with napkin bands, stack. The servers used that time to catch up, engaging in full conversations. Crease, turn, crease, fold, fan. I was lulled into a trance by the motions, by the lint gathering in my apron. No one addressed me. At least I can fold napkins, I said to myself, over and over.

I watched Jake and Simone. He stood at the end of the bar hunched over his plate with his back to me, and she talked without looking at him. She tapped the screen at the computer terminal. I could tell they were attached far underneath the surface of the restaurant. Maybe because they weren’t laughing, or bantering—there was no performance. They were just talking. A girl with a button nose and a debutante’s smile said, “Hey,” and stuck her chewing gum into the napkin on my lap, and the trance was over.

I DIDN’T LOOK UP for weeks. I asked to work as many days as possible, but there was an alarming delay in money while the new paycheck cycle started. And when it came it was training pay. Nothing. With my first paycheck I bought a used mattress for $250 from a couple moving out a few apartments down.

“Don’t worry,” they said, “no bugs. It’s full of love.”

I took it, but that to me was more disturbing.

ON THE OTHER END of the linen spectrum came the bar mops. Every new trailer opened the session with, “Did someone explain bar mops?” And when I said yes they said, “Who? So-and-so always fucks it up. I have a secret stash.” I learned four different and elaborate systems for managing what were essentially rags they kept under lock and key.

There were never enough. We could never attain healthy bar mop equilibrium. The kitchen always needed more, or the guy in the back never got set up before service, or the bartenders went on a cleaning spree. Invariably you forgot to save some for yourself. The victim of this bar mop negligence got to yell at you. When you asked a manager for more, they got to yell at you too, for burning through bar mops before service even started. If you begged—and everyone begged—the manager would unlock the cupboard and count out ten more. You told no one about the ten extra bar mops. You hid them, and then doled them out heroically during emergencies.

“THE KITCHEN IS a church,” Chef screamed at me when I asked my trailer a question. “No fucking talking.”

Silence was observed in the kitchen. People entered on tiptoe. The only person allowed to directly address Chef during service was Howard—sometimes the other managers tried to do it and got their heads bitten off. The silence probably helped the cooks, but it made learning anything difficult to impossible.

IN BETWEEN shifts I went to the Starbucks that smelled like a toilet and drank one cup of coffee. On my evening off, I bought individual Coronas from the bodega and drank them on my mattress. I was so tired I couldn’t finish them. Half-empty bottles of warm beer lined my windowsills, looking like urine and filtering sunlight. I put slices of bread from the restaurant into my purse and made myself toast in the mornings. If I had a double I took naps in the park between the shifts. I slept hard, dreaming that I was sinking into the ground, and I felt safe. When I woke I slapped myself to get the grass marks off my cheeks.

NO NAMES. I didn’t know people. I grabbed whatever characteristics I could: crooked or fluorescent teeth, tattoos, accents, lipsticks, I even recognized some people by their gait. It’s not that my trailers were withholding information. I was just so stupid that I couldn’t learn table numbers and names at the same time.

They explained to me that this restaurant was different—real paychecks first of all, and health benefits, sick days. Some nonsalaried servers even got hourly raises. People owned homes, had children, took vacations.

Everyone had been there years. There were senior servers who would never leave. Debutante-Smile, Guy-with-Clark-Kent-Glasses, Guy-with-Long-Hair-and-Bun, Overweight-Gray-Hair-Guy. Even the backwaiters had been there at least three years. There was Mean-Girl, and Russian-Pouty-Lips, and my first trailer, whom I called Sergeant because of the way he ordered me around.

Simone was Wine-Woman, and a senior server. She and Clark-Kent-Glasses had been there the longest. One of my trailers called her the tree of knowledge. Every preshift the maître d’ rearranged the seating chart because regulars demanded to sit in her section. The servers would line up to ask her questions, or they sent her to their VIP tables with a wine list. She never looked at me.

And Sweaty-Boy, Jake? In those weeks of training I didn’t see him again. I thought maybe he didn’t work there, had just been filling in that day. But then I came in to pick up my first check on a Friday night and he was there. I put my head down when I saw him. He was a bartender.

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