It makes me miss my days at Russ’… just a little bit.
There is a Rhythm to it. The hum of the overhead fluorescent lights, the sizzle of the burger fat, the clang of dishes and silverware. Buzz, hum, sizzle-sizzle clang! There is no escaping the noise of this place. Sometimes I want to clap my hands over my ears and scream louder than everything around me to regain some sense of control. But the constant and familiar Rhythm sort of keeps me grounded, so I don’t.
Today I hear knives. Not the super-serrated steak knives, but the table knives used for slicing salad and slathering sauces. Crunch-swish! Light tap on the plate. Every now and then the screech of the offending piece can be heard making its mark on yet another of the aging platter. Or maybe there’s just a soft tearing Sound as the bread gives way to the frozen margarine pat. That’s actually not such a bad Sound.
And there is the Yelling. The high-pitched, sharp, intense and needy shout of each Server as they put together the perfect dining experience for each and every individual in their Section. The shout turns to a Smile upon the Kitchen Exit. The Dining Room Voice is always three octaves higher than the real voice. Wouldn’t want them to be able to identify us on the street. Then we have the boss, the Boss-Voice that can creep up unexpectedly when you’re sneaking a dinner roll, or spread itself over all of us like a protective blanket. I really hate that voice. It pushes itself in when I don’t need it, and finds me when I’m looking to be hidden.
My favorite voice is the one reduced to a mummer: The Cooks behind their Line. We are not always meant to hear what they say, but we can catch their words spoken over the sizzle of the burger fat.
“So have you ever?”
“Done a girl up the…?”
At this point I usually look up from typing Orders on the computer and catch the eye of one of them. Then I Smile. I’m one of the Guys, see? I can mummer inappropriately over the flip-flap of an egg spatula. But I much prefer the bubble and gurgle of The Pit.
In The Pit, the flop-soft-velvety sound of the dark grease in its vat can drown out the rest of the kitchen. We can say whatever we want to the chicken strips and fries. I like to slide back there and watch the thick liquid transform a little slice of batter-gooey onion into a puffy ring of fatty goodness. The Evolution of Food Here is amazing.
But today I don’t want to be Here. I am in the middle of a book that interests me a great deal more than Here does. But I need cash.
(We are all something different when we are Here. I know because of how weird-strange it is to see any of my co-workers in street clothes and with hair down. Then they look like real people, not serving drones with that Film all over them. The Film is gross. It smells like ranch dressing and old people, which smell like fat and must. It’s like a torture mechanism, similar to tarring and feathering. It gets all over you and there’s nothing you can do but wash your hands and perk up your Smile so that The Customers don’t notice the nasty wrapping in which you arrive at their Table.
Why do I say all of this about the place which employs me and signs my checks? Why do I want to tell you all about the sticky ins and outs of the establishment you might frequent and be waited on by me and leave a tip? What good does that do? I talk a lot of Crap, but I can hear the Affection in my words. I can sense the familiarity. I suppose there is a certain itty-bitty bit of pride after attaching myself to the same place for almost eight years. Or maybe I just don’t know any better.)
Then there is the sudden hush. They all come at once and they all leave together. They don’t even know how pathetic and predictable they are, The Customers. Like clockwork they stand at the end of the table, shuffle in the purse or wallet for a tip, and walk off with a self-assuring shrug-shake of their shoulders. In line, out of line, out the door, into the lot. Car. The Restaurant Experience is over for today. I wonder if they imagine us, all hanging on hooks on the walls of the Kitchen until they need us to bring them their coffee and sandwiches tomorrow. That might actually be convenient. It would save on gas.
“You, Reilly! Get off that damn hook and get to B-4. They want breakfast, and changeover for lunch is in three minutes. Hey-hey, here we go!”
I would bustle out obediently because I sold my Soul to kiss the big behinds of anyone willing to pay me.
“Good morning! How are you today? Can I get you a coffee while you’re deciding?”
There would be no eyes looking back at me because often the Formica of the Table-top is much more interesting then us Food People. I have learned this several times over.
“Coffee, black. Number three, sunny up, limp bacon and a cinnamon roll.”
Still no eyes.
“I’ll be on my hook until you learn to say ‘Please’.”
But, back to the Task at hand. I am telling you about today. All of those other days spent Here are not important, because each day is completely separate from the last and the next. Everything that carries over is basically inventory. In fact (to illustrate), I once waited on a Customer twice in one week. The first time he said I was the worst server he’d ever had Here. The second time he told me all about it and didn’t seem to realize that I’d been There. He thought I was someone else. Maybe that day I was.
But all the days Here are really the same, and all peppered with my own thoughts repeating and repeating and repeating my wish to be out. Fortunately, the predictable Buzz hum sizzle-sizzle clang will continue to overpower those sounds, and I can pay my bills.
I’m not going to tell you about today. I can’t even hear myself anymore. I want to listen to The Cooks. I want to assist my fellow shouters. I need to hide this soup from the Boss-Voice. In this moment of the Dinner Rush I have thought everything I can, and now I just need to function in my spot Here. Sometimes the stagnancy breeds purpose: There is nothing else I can do right now, so I might as well bring that bastard another soda.
I left Russ’ a short time later, in January of 2007, days from the 8th anniversary of my first day as a busser There. I’m still in touch with a lot of the folks I worked with – some of the best people I know!