Cheddar Bay Biscuits with a Side of Ennui

I just finished reading Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, which is a really lovely little book.  It takes place a few days before Christmas, which happens to also be the last night in the life of this particular Red Lobster.  The next day, they will be shut down, and the manager, Manny, will break the news to any customers who come by hoping for a little shrimp scampi or those fantastic biscuits.

While Manny frets over his relationship with two women, he also wrestles with questions of loyalty to the company that closed him down without any explanation (although he and four other employees were given jobs with the Olive Garden, which is part of the same parent company) and what it means that he cares so much about life at the Lobster.  Employees he expected don’t show up, and others come to work even though there’s really nothing in it for them after this final shift.  Manny finds himself wanting to do a good job for the company right up until the end, and he struggles with the realization that all the rituals he’s used to performing to get ready for another day are pointless.  There is no tomorrow for this particular Lobster.  It’s a bittersweet book, but I really enjoyed it.  In all fairness, when Chuck Klosterman spoke at UCA on Tuesday, he mentioned that in a lot of literary novels not much happens, and that’s true here.  It’s a simple story, but a nice one, athough  I also can’t say how much I would like this book if I had never waited tables.  That’s not to say that you need to have worked in food service to enjoy the book, but I couldn’t read it without thinking about how much I used to loved that job.

I was a waitress for almost three years, and in some ways, it’s the most fun job I ever had.  I had lots of cash and very little responsibility, which is a pretty sweet combination.  I started out at a chain TexMex restaurant that I still sometimes see along the highway, although I think they’ve all gone out of business by now.  The restaurant business attracts interesting characters, and that seemed particularly true there because the rules were pretty lax.  Like, drinking at work was not encouraged, but it happened pretty regularly.  Once, a guy named Paul got so drunk that he had to get someone else carry a tray of food because he couldn’t manage the four steps between him and his section.

There were always stories to tell about Todd, who had an ass so flat, I could never figure out how he kept his apron on, and Russ the bodybuilder, who always got on to me for swearing too much, or a Hispanic guy we called Buddy, who would call me “mi amore” and be calling the next girl that before I was even out of the room (a quick glance at him, and he would whisper, “No, no, YOU!  Only YOU!”), and Randy, who couldn’t come to work once because he was in jail and may have married a girl named Amy with Chiclet teeth.  There was also an architecture student named Josh Danish, who never stressed out no matter how in the weeds the rest of us were.  He was one of my favorites, and not just because he helped me move my furniture once.

Even more than the people, though, I loved the drama of it all.  Waiting tables was the only job I’ve ever had where, once I became really good, people put up with my occasional flares of temper and brattiness.  I got away with being more blunt that I could anywhere else, and because it was said in the heat of the moment, it was usually forgotten when things calmed down.  The worst thing I remember doing was slamming a pitcher of salsa down (splashing salsa up the wall and hitting the ceiling, where traces of it may still be today) and yelling: “You’ve got to put the fucking pitcher on the fucking tray!”

Now, in my defense, this had been my mantra for about two weeks, and the reason I was so adamant about it was because it was a health code issue.  The problem was the dining room was only about half full, so there wasn’t enough ambient noise to drown out what I thought was going to just be an angry sort of FYI to any servers in the kitchen.  Turns out, there was no remote section that hadn’t heard me.  All the other servers ran into the kitchen to see what was going on, and they all talked about the obscenity heard round the restaurant.  To make matters worse, it was a Sunday afternoon, so the diners were mostly the after church crowd, which is not the best audience for that type of outburst.  My boss laughed at me, but I didn’t get in trouble.  I even got in another dig about where the salsa pitcher goes.  And when I left the kitchen, I shook my head and looked disgusted as if to say, “Can you believe the mouth on that girl in the kitchen?  Some people just have no class!”

It’s an exhilarating job, although I couldn’t do it any more.  It’s pretty physical, and I’m not interested in running myself ragged the way I did when I was 22 or so.  I also remember why I left.  I had moved on to a rib joint–in part because I could wear jeans instead of khakis–and I was waiting on a drunken group of people celebrating a birthday.  They hated me, and I know that because they said so.  A small group of guys in the party, however, suggested that if I danced on their table that it might improve my tip, and that was it for me.  I got through that night and started making plans to go back to school.

There’s something different about working in the restaurant business, and even though I quit the Tex Mex place roughly every six months, I kept coming back because I loved working with those people.  And that’s one of the nice things about Last Night at the Lobster because it captures the way that those relationships could be dysfunctional, but they could also feel very satisfying.  Like Manny, I probably cared too much about the restaurant and the people in it.  There’s a beautiful sadness to the way the crew works together, as they also prepare to go their separate ways.  It lacks the shrieking, devoted following of Twilight (or maybe not?  Maybe there are some hard core Red Lobster fetishists that I don’t know about?  I would love that.) but it’s a very nice read.

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