Posted on April 19th, 2012
I have been the black sheep. Welcome neither in the front nor the back of the house. Exiled to a purgatory between the kitchen and the dining room, in limbo on 18-stairs covered in industrial carpet.
For one short summer I was persona non grata within the social strata of a restaurant in Vail, Colorado. It was Sysco Italian — no more, no less — my first restaurant job, running food from the basement kitchen up to hungry Texans in the dining room above. With a too-small black polo shirt stretched across my back, I was led out into the weeds by a manager with a homespun pot leaf tattoo; unknowing and untouchable.
“Trays are over here, tickets come out here, it’s on you to know what’s going out. Make sure you’ve got everything you need on every order,” the newly promoted night runner told me told me on my first morning. “Keep an eye out for your own tickets, too,” he said, gesturing with his chin to the four-foot by four-foot soup and salad crypt. “‘PASTA FAG’ is Pasta Fagioli, on the right. ‘MINESTRO’ is Minestrone, on the left — but the soups change, so ask the kitchen if you’re not sure. House salads, you make: there’s only one. Subs are listed below, same with the dressing.”
I blinked and nodded simultaneously, expertly betraying my lack of confidence. Barely listening, I wondered how someone just a year or two older than me could exude such authority. This guy, whose name I don’t remember, was all business — the battle-scarred veteran to my quaking-in-the-trenches wimp. I swallowed hard and shouldered a tray, trying not to make eye contact with the cooks. The gesture was wasted: these people wanted nothing to do with me. Neither, I would find out, did the servers waiting for me at the threshold of the dining room, two flights up.
What I didn’t understand was that it was my job serve as the bridge spanning the creek between the Hatfields and the McCoys that summer. Or maybe I was just supposed to be a string with a can on each end, the conduit in a device that only transmitted expletives. I had one foot in the kitchen, the domain of a wiry, bald-headed stereotype of a chef, prone to short but spectacular fits of rage. He was flanked by an unsavory crew of hardcore locals, each possessing the kind of ski town nickname that only thinly veils a horrible truth or shameful habit — the brand of many, many nights gone terribly awry. My other foot was on even shakier ground in the dining room with the servers. Minus the manager and his pot leaf, they were all women in their late 20s-to-early-30s, a Jäger bomb or two past the crest of the hill, picking up speed toward a raspy-voiced future in an overpriced condo unit with an ex-pro skier who answers to “Toast.”
“Get down there and ask chef why 13 is still waiting for that fucking lasagna!” I would hear through clenched teeth, close to my ear as I hefted a tray of dirty dishes. “Go explain to Ashley that I don’t give a shit what she says, she never fired four” was the next, totally unrelated volley waiting for me at the other end of the quick trip downstairs. I learned to never, ever do either. I wasn’t crazy and didn’t want to get stabbed, either quite literally down in the kitchen or more figuratively upstairs by dagger eyes. This was simple restaurant polemics — new to me, but probably ancient. To each faction I represented the other.
In truth I was neither, but they all hated me just the same. My job was up, down, up, down: expo, door, left, right, stairs, 180, stairs, food tray down, bus tray up, stairs down, 180, stairs down, left, right, door, dishwasher, soup, salad, expo, repeat. Fast. There was no beer waiting for me in the walk-in at the end of the night, no shot at the end of the bar. I did get to eat the leftover osso bucco once, but that was about it. In the end I was just another short-stay automaton, a summer’s worth of strong back, an apparition that had to be tipped out — at least until I was gone, when a new me would come along like I had.