I’m not the first nor will I be the last writer to wait tables. More illustrious authors in this category include Tennessee Williams, Michael Cunningham, who tended bar before he penned The Hours, and Cynthia Huntington (who was once told by her boss that she was the ‘best-educated barkeep in New York.’) While I don’t aspire to become what Anthony Bourdain describes in Kitchen Confidential as a “lifer” in the restaurant business, restaurant work has provided me with a flexible schedule and lucrative means to support myself while I work on a novel.
On a Friday night not too long ago, I approached a new deuce in my section, a couple. The woman seemed familiar and I pegged her as a publishing type. I don’t know why I decided this, except that I wait on a lot of publishing types and they are different from other business people. She seemed intelligent and fashionable, someone who could reference both Dostoevsky and “Sex and the City” in the same phrase. I thought that perhaps she was someone I had waited on before. I brought drinks and conducted the usual menu FAQ, describing the skate wing and just exactly what Basque-style means in reference to the veal tongue. Meanwhile, a bass drum thudded in my ears. I recognized the woman’s sultry voice. I was waiting on my agent.
The last time my agent and I had met face to face had been four years ago at a restaurant near her office on the Upper West Side. She had just offered to represent my first novel. The next logical step, it seemed, was that my novel would sell; a work that had been four years in the making. No such luck. Now it was almost one full novel later and we were meeting in a restaurant again. Only this time I was wearing a designer uniform and a little leather pouch-belt full of pens, wine key, paper and mints, and I was selling her on the Poached Salmon Tartar.
It was 8 p.m. My section was slammed. In the back of the house, co-workers noticed the dazed expression on my face and asked, “Is everything okay?”
“I think the woman at table seven is my agent,” I told my friend Erica.
“What’s her name? I’ll check the reservation.” Erica ran upstairs to the maitre’d. A minute later she passed me in the crowded aisle as I maneuvered a tray of spent cocktails. She leaned against my shoulder and spoke into my ear.
“Fucking great,” I murmured.
“Do you want me to take it?” she said. Erica, a Columbia graduate, understood the humiliation of serving an acquaintance. Her bane was that former classmates always sat in her section, usually out to dinner with their parents. Whenever this happened, we swapped tables. Being a servant, however high-paid, requires a delicate balance of pride and anonymity.
Just a week before, my agent and I had exchanged e-mails. She was planning to attend a reading series that I curated. Surely, when we met again, she would remember me from the restaurant and wonder why I hadn’t introduced myself? Each time I approached her table I tried to forget my discomfort while she, not totally unaware that something was up, seemed to study my face for clues. I decided to wait until the end of the meal, preferably when she was on her way to the door, to say something.
My biggest challenge was executing the rest of table seven’s dinner and those of the tables around it without a disaster. Double-checking my work, I saw that I had indeed mis-ordered table seven’s entrees. A trip to the kitchen to correct my mistake helped me to focus. Pots and plates clattered. The chef called out the tickets that kept rolling out of the printer. I realized that this was just another night, one that I would get through. Soon I would be on the F train heading back to Brooklyn reading my New Yorker and recovering from eight hours of accumulated adrenaline in my bloodstream.
After dessert, as my agent was walking towards the ladies room, I stopped her beside a wine bucket. I had been holding back for two hours now. What if I said something stupid? I re-introduced myself, starting with, “This is kind of awkward, but—”
She smiled. Yes, she recognized me. What were the odds? We stared at each other in disbelief, exhilarated by coincidence. She was flushed from her meal.
“You know, after you came to the table the first time I told my husband that I knew you were a writer.”
Her husband’s response had been, “Fiction or non?” but she said she’d known the answer to that. I swaggered. I leaned into the outside edges of my shoes. My hand gripped my leather pouch-belt as if it were a holster.
“In fact,” she said, “I told him that you might be one of my clients. But I wasn’t sure. You look different from the last time I saw you.”
She looked glamorous. Her hair was a bit longer. She was wearing a low-cut dress. I told her that she looked great.
She was clasping her handbag daintily in front of her with both hands, staring at my shoes. She too seemed embarrassed and at a loss for words. Embarrassed to be waited on by someone she knew in a professional context. And possibly embarrassed for me.
“How long have you worked here?” she asked in a non-judgmental tone.
“A little over a year.”
“It’s a nice restaurant,” she affirmed. “Our meal was great. Service was great too!”
I wanted to crawl away. Shit! Why wasn’t it my night off? What was I doing?
“I was looking for a day job,” I explained, my heart beating faster. She stepped a little closer, to hear me over the din, and I backed away.
“This is the best way for me to get writing done. And go to colonies. They let me take leave here.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” she said. I became aware of her blinking and I felt myself also blinking excessively. Her thoughts came across loud and clear. Who was this client? A loser with a waiting job? Can she pull it together? When is she going to finish her goddamn novel?
I wanted to plead. I’m not a loser! Sorry that the first novel didn’t go off, but the next one is coming along! Thank you for your patience and for believing in me!
My agent was everything a writer could hope for. I’d known this before. Smart, cosmopolitan, successful, and genuine. A winning combination. We often communicated in baseball metaphors. I was glad to have her on my team. The first novel had struck out, but she wanted me to rally with book two.
But seeing her again this way made me sad about what might have been. There was a time when I desperately needed her to sell my book. My self-esteem hinged on a sale and she was the one to make it happen. How many agents had I queried before her? She alone had liked my work enough to take it on. When it became clear that my novel was a tougher sell than she’d thought, she urged me to move forward with the next project.
I suddenly felt badly that I’d cut her off on the way to the loo. Maybe I should let her go. But she didn’t excuse herself. I took this as a good sign. She wasn’t so uncomfortable that she had to escape. She told me that she and her husband were celebrating their tenth anniversary.
“Hey, you don’t want to go to Bread Loaf this summer, do you?” she asked, referring to the writer’s conference with a caste system more rigid than a Soviet gulag. “I just got the nomination forms.” Now it was my turn to lean towards her.
“The only way I can apply is as a waiter.” I shrugged.
“I guess not!” she laughed.
Now I wanted to cry. Why didn’t I give the table to Erica? If she’d been sat even two tables away in the aspiring rock star’s section, I might not have even noticed her. But I had chosen not to be anonymous this one time. Having an agent was my ‘at least’ these days as I plodded along in anonymity. Tonight I was more than just a waiter to one person in the room. Two, counting her husband.
She was waiting for my manuscript. I was waiting tables. Her job was to encourage. Mine was to produce and seek support. Obviously business was good for her. Even her skin glowed with success.
My eyes darted to table twenty-four. The needy four-top of Westchester retirees were finishing up entrees that they had waited too long for, and would be raising their hands for dessert menus soon. At seven, my agent’s husband waited patiently. The room was busy and I couldn’t count on co-workers watching my back. We had about twenty seconds left, tops.
“How’s the novel?” she asked strategically. I could tell she’d been saving this question.
“Good,” I said. “It’s coming along.” I didn’t want to go into detail, but I was making progress.
“Good. I can’t wait to see it!” She was earnest. My spirits buoyed. Could it be that we still had a chance, that she was still the one? I wanted to go home that night and finish my book.
My Westchester people were goose-necking. Time was up. As my agent and I said good-bye, she leaned over and hugged me. I felt a huge relief. She went to the ladies room. I disappeared into the crowd of diners, anonymous again, thank god.