French Roast Diary

by

01/01/2002

2340 broadway ny 10024

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

frenchroast

French Roast has a gleaming pane glass window looking out onto Broadway, and a gleaming copper bar inside. From where I stand behind the bar, I see the city outside the window as a collection of lights, darknesses, and people who remain anonymous to me unless they decide to venture through the door of the restaurant.

My shift, from 11:30pm to 8:00am, is referred to as the graveyard shift, just as in other professions requiring night labor. Is this because we only come out at night, and emerge into the day as zombies, only to sleep until it is dark again? Is it because this unnatural schedule will send us to an early grave? Is it because so much of what transpires during the gray-blue hours of the morning seems to be remembered as a dream?

What follows is the conclusion of The French Roast Diary and the unfortunate circumstances by which our diarist decided to call it quits.

11:00pm— I arrive on time to find that the manager is particularly angry tonight about a woman who has come to the restaurant asking to speak with him. She is strikingly beautiful and her face has the flushed, high coloring I have come to recognize and associate with just these sorts of visits.

He’s holding her by the elbow, trying to usher her over to the bar and she throws his hand off her. He looks around, embarrassed and wondering if anyone has seen what has just happened. She’s raising her voice, almost crying and at this point its obvious he just doesn’t want to deal with her.

I need to ask him for the key to the liquor room before I can start my shift but at this point all I can do is wait. He has calmed her down slightly, succeeded in sitting her down which is no small victory. Before she can start in again he barks at the bartender coming off his shift to give her whatever she wants and then he walks the other way.

He throws the key ring at me as he stomps out the door.

11:15pm—The pantry level is very warm. I start perspiring after lifting a few cases of beer and run to the walk-in refrigerator for relief. It’s slightly chilly and rather wonderful in there, surrounded by vats of fruit salad and huge chunks of cheese and juice and large containers of sauces. I enjoy a few moments alone leaning against the door and munching on a few cubes of pineapple.

12:30am— Things are at their peak; the first hour of my shift is always the fastest. The manager’s lady friend has disappeared somewhere, I think finally realizing that she wasn’t going to get a chance to say what she had come here to say. This is fine by me since she had a stupid fat-lipped scowl and didn’t tip anything on top of her complimentary drinks.

2:00am—It’s quiet, and the manager finally re-emerges, realizing that the coast is clear. He’s all smiles and kisses and asks for a glass of champagne. Before I can even reach for the glass, he squeezes behind the bar himself. He begins rubbing my shoulders and instantly I tense up.

"Oh baby," he’s saying, with his arm around me "that woman, she give me a headache."

He’s leaning his world-weary head against my shoulder, "She’s kill me." I nod.

"We have fun, you know? We go out, we go to parties, we get high, she’s a nice girl, a beautiful girl, she’s a model, you know?"

I know.

"But now, she comes here, she angry, she angry and I don’t know why, and that’s not what I like, you know?"

I’m wiping the counter. My back is to him and I’m watching the waiter across the room who seems to be involved in a lively conversation with a customer and I wish I could join him.

"You know baby, what of you, you like men? You have a boyfriend?"

Before I can answer, a customer approaches and the manager ducks away. It’s a Ketel One Martini and he wants to see the menu.

4:00am—It’s the latest part of the night now. The bar is closed and the kitchen staff is pulling out the rubber mat from behind it and washing the floor and I’m sitting on the banquette on the other side of the room reading. The manager comes over, he’s a bit drunk or high and probably both and sits closely next to me.

"You read, you always reading. You very much like reading."

I nod.

"What are you reading?" he leans his torso in front of me, squinting at the pages.

He bends further, his head now extremely close to the book, his nose almost touching the paper.

He turns his body around, his legs are now spread out in front of him along the banquette and he stretches himself out and lies his head in my lap, his head resting atop the open book like a pillow. He’s staring up at me now, his torso kind of pinning me against the back of the seat and I have to admit I feel not a little bit frozen. With his face so close to mine I can now distinctly make out his blood shot eyes and clearly register the smoke/alcohol odor.

He’s smiling a stoned and stupid grin and his teeth are not so straight.

"You like men, baby?" He’s trying to push the book off of my lap with the back of his head and I position my wrist so that it can’t move far. "The man in your life, you like to make love to him?" He asks quite slowly.

I say nothing.

"Downstairs, everyone’s gone. You come and hang out with me for a little? You want to come and sit with me?"

At this point my legs tighten almost mechanically, creating a shift in the surface under the manager’s head, and he sits up. We stare at each other silently for more than a few moments, until finally he gets up and walks around the table and back toward the kitchen.

I don’t see him again until I’m almost about to leave.

7:30am—The general manager has arrived to start her morning shift and I see my manager emerge from downstairs, rumpled and pasty. His face is kind of swollen in places and he’s got the creases in his cheeks of having fallen asleep on his desk.

He meets the GM outside, she speaks Hebrew as well and I watch the two of them from behind the bar. They always kiss hello on the lips with quite a linger, and this morning this particularly saddens me—for her. Now they’re outside in front of the big sheet glass window, after a few minutes he begins to gesture animatedly and their facial expressions take on the bite of an argument.

A strange pang of paranoia overtakes me as I see them both look inside the window at me and continue arguing. The manager almost seems to be pointing at me and the GM is really yelling at him now and not only can I not read lips very well, I know I certainly have no chance of understanding mouthed Hebrew.

I’m just left with that feeling, that unsure, slightly vulnerable feeling that comes from having been fired before. People who have never been fired before seem to carry around the misconception that the only way to be fired is to do something really awful like steal or miss work repeatedly.

Those who have been fired before know that sometimes all you have to be is unlucky. This is why I believe that people who have been fired before are more likely to get fired again in the future, and I don’t think this has to do with incompetency. It’s just that seed of doubt that keeps you from getting too comfortable which might at some point prevent you from speaking up.

8:00am—My shift is over and I’m eating my complimentary breakfast even though I’m not really hungry at all at this point. I go for something rather extravagant today, usually its fruit salad or a croissant at the most—my head buzzes too much to even really taste anything fully, but today I find myself ordering eggs, which I’ve never done before. An omelet with goat cheese and scallions and potatoes on the side—a rather involved order for a staff meal, though something tells me I should go all out this morning.

And then…


photo by Josh Gilbert

This morning, the third time I’ve had occassion to make this observation, the sky is violet and gray at once and I pause to admire it for a minute before I begin to walk and feel my step fall into a familiar defeated cadence.

I walk around aimlessly for a while. I walk east on 85th St, not wanting to hit the park but not wanting to change direction either. I also don’t want to go home. I can’t sleep right now, there’s nothing of interest on TV this early, and I reason that the dark confines of my apartment would only exacerbate this numbness.

Feelings of sadness set in around Central Park West and I know that I must head north. I’m suddenly realizing how tired I am, how wasted and downtrodden I must look. I have just come off an all-night eight-hour shift only to be greeted by a termination. And the manager had known it the whole night.

He knew it when I poured him that snifter of Remy Martin that he received with a wink. He knew it when he asked me about school, about my plans for the rest of the year. And he knew it before I even walked through the door last night and at the moment I arrived and he bent to kiss me on both cheeks, he was only counting the minutes.

This realization is the most infuriating.

I think back to only a few moments ago, the manager has led me outside in an unfamiliar, compassionate (or what I now recognize as compassion post facto—or was it pity?) tone and I know what’s coming. He asks me if I want a cigarette and my suspicions are confirmed. It’s like he’s giving me a last request, a symbolic parting gift.

"Baby", he’s saying (that’s what he calls me—only with his lothario accent it comes out more like ‘beh-bee.’) "It’s just not working out here for you. I’m sorry baby, I really don’t want to do this, but it’s not my decision. I told them I like you so much."

He’s staring at the ground, and I’m looking down a bit too, at his left armpit. He’s wearing an orange tank top with red bands around the armholes, and I’m concentrating on the forest of coarse black hair protruding from the niche between his skinny bicep and his chest. He’s going on, more half-baked apologies, more shaking of the head, and finally I look up, a gesture to get him to shut up, to put both of us out of his misery.

We’re staring at each other and I don’t say much of anything for what is there to say really? I just nod, turn on my heel and begin walking the slight incline up 85th St.

I’m five blocks away now, about ten minutes into the future, and its really beginning to sting. This city is kicking my ass. I keep walking, up the East Side of the street on Central Park West where there are fewer people. On the left side of the street, there are businessmen and women leaving their doorman buildings and heading off to start their day.

Sadness is morphing into anger. Something about the way the oblivious, employed people across the streets are swinging their briefcases and popping out their cell phones, I’m scowling at them almost out of my control. I realize I am starting to resent everyone around me. I’m tired.

I really want to get home right away now. I really want to be in my apartment, in the dark, and off the street. I think about hailing a cab, and then realize how ridiculous it would be to spend last night’s tips, the last tips I’m going to get in a while, on a luxury like a cab for ten blocks.

The wind is rushing past my head and I start singing a little, the Pet Shop Boys album that we were playing last night at the restaurant. I like singing on the street and not caring who hears me. Suddenly I’m realizing that it’s a little exhilarating to have an ending like this. To have the sense of a clean break that only slap-in-the-face, externally imposed closure can bring.

It kinda looks as though the sky is more white purple than gray purple for a moment.

#1 "It’s all very wonderful"

"She was so direct, so ahead of her time," this long-haired man in front of me is saying, "I mean she says it all, ‘you can’t get more naked than naked.’" He pauses, tapping the newspaper as if for emphasis, and then, "I’m Ronald." I smile politely and refill his coffee, just then noticing that the entire restaurant is empty except for the two of us. It is some time past 4am and the waiter is asleep on the banquet across the room. The manager has disappeared to his office with his female fix of the night—I wager it’s the woman who was sitting near the door with the dark lips and skimpy tank-top—which leaves only Ronald. And me.

This observation leaves me slightly anxious.

"I really like your boots," he’s saying, "Are they Kenneth Cole?"

"No," I say, "they’re not."

"Are they comfortable?" he asks, seemingly concerned, "they really don’t look comfortable."

"They’re alright," I answer in my best clipped tone, trying to look away.

Outside it is the darkest point of the night, at any moment the first tentacles of light will worm their way in, but for now there are no signs of brightness and nothing for me to attend to.

Ronald is running his fingers through his own hair, it is blond and curly and lies flat against his entire back.

"Standing all night in those things must really be taxing," he’s saying.

I nod dryly.

"Can I give you a foot massage?" he asks, smiling in a way that sends an uncomfortable chill through my body. I concentrate my energies on my rag, steadily wiping concentric circles over the copper surface of the bar.

"I don’t really think I should be taking off my shoes while I’m working," I say, wondering if the waiter might choose this moment to wake up.

Outside dawn is finally emerging, and I can see that the bread truck is making its daily delivery to the supermarket across Broadway. The waiter rolls over on the banquet, his head now just barely supported by the cushion.

Ronald holds my eye contact for a long time and neither of us speak. The moment of silence continues, seemingly infinitely, and both of us stare intently at the picture of Barbara Cartland searching for a resolution. A line from the article jumps out at me: "…I do allow them to go to bed if they’re married, but it’s all very wonderful and the moon beams."

And then, as if spontaneously remembering something, Ronald finishes his coffee and begins to stand.

"Alright, then," he says, putting on his windbreaker and turning toward the door, leaving Barbara Cartland with me to assist with the early morning obligations. "I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable" He is putting on his windbreaker and I am slowly beginning to breathe normally.

"Here’s my number though," he says turning," and goodnight."

Goodnight.

cartland

#2 May-December in August

I am trying to figure out their relationship to one another as they approach the bar. She’s in her mid 20’s, dressed sexy, full make-up and carefully coifed hair, and he’s something different. Older, probably near 60, over-tanned skin and shirt unbuttoned low, I predict jewelry or a flashy watch before I can even see it—an’I’m-only-as-old-as-the-woman-I-feel’ type of guy, I’m betting, or else a recent divorce. But the two of them are not together I don’t think. Definitely not married. Relatives perhaps? But what kind?

She’s clutching her purse tightly in front of her and he’s a step behind, his right hand cradling her waist as he inches around tables. I note the casual touching, but still my standard superficial classifications don’t seem to be fitting.

He pulls out her bar stool and waits for her to sit down before turning to me.

"I’ll have a gin and tonic miss, and," turning to the woman, "do you know what you’d like?" She stares off into the mirror behind the bar.

"I don’t really know," she says, more uninterested than undecided.

He looks at me with slight discomfort.

"How about Campari? Do you like Campari? She’ll have a Campari and soda."

"Fine, whatever," she says, finally turning to make eye contact with me.

"Can I talk to you for a minute?" She asks me.

Of course, I say, a little confused but trying to go with it. She directs me to the far end of the bar.

We huddle over the service area, waiters periodically interrupting our space to peer into the dessert refrigerator behind us.

"I’m pretending that I’m just asking you for a tampon," she says, sotto voce, "But really I’m on the worst blind date of my life and I need you to help me get out of it. I could just kill the friend who got me into this!"

Of course, I say, amused and strangely excited by the idea of a role play.

"I’m going to ask you for a piece of paper, and somehow I’m going to write my cell phone number on it without him seeing, then I need you to call me if you can, and then I’ll say that I have a prior engagement and make my exit."

"Ok," I say, I think I can do it.

"One more thing, do you actually have a tampon?"

She heads to the bathroom and I’m left with the unsuspecting dupe who is now fiddling with his coaster self-consciously. I pour his drink slightly stronger than usual and proceed to attend to a young couple on the opposite side of the bar.

The woman flags me over a few minutes later.

"Would you happen to have a piece of paper and a pen?" She questions, on cue, but to my surprise and perhaps slight dismay, without the smallest hint of a knowing glance. As I turn to rummage through the drawer for a waiter’s carbon pad and a pen, I overhear the man’s struggling attempt to engage her.

"So these two guys were standing outside a hospital when an ambulance pulls up…" She’s staring over his shoulder and draining her drink fast, and I’m hearing everything he’s saying while trying not to look like it.

"…And these guys watch the EMT’s get out of the ambulance and open the back to wheel out a cat. And the cat is strapped to a gurney, motionless, and he gets wheeled into the Emergency Room. ‘What happened?’ one guy says, and the other one answers, ‘Curiosity.’"

He leans back on his stool with a smile, I’m sure thinking he had at least mustered a grain of amusement and I chuckle under my breath. She continues to stare straight ahead.

"I don’t understand," she says.

"Curiosity," the man replied.

"But curiosity is important," she says.

"But curiosity killed the cat." he says.

"Curiosity is important in life," she says, now rather annoyed. He pauses, glancing at his drink and then again at her. I interrupt by asking if they would like another round.

"Not for me, but here’s your paper and pen, thank you again," and now comes the knowing glance, this time a double, to make up for the earlier omission.

"I’ll have another," he says brightly.

I hold her gaze and smile slightly but suddenly I don’t really want to play anymore. Perhaps it was the effort of the man telling the joke or perhaps it was the way that the woman didn’t get the joke, but in that moment, my perception of the look in his eye changed. What I first read as lechery I now saw as simply tired, and what I first saw in her as amusingly trapped boredom, I now saw as juvenile self-absorption.

I pour his drink and deposit the pad back into the drawer and I proceed to busy myself with restocking glasses on the shelves from the dishwashing trays that have been brought from the kitchen. I’m trying not t catch the woman’s eye as I reach up on my toes to straighten the rows of brandy snifters and champagne flutes.

When I finally turn to face her, this time to make change for a waiter, her eyes are questioning and a little pissed off, and I smile calmly, here’s the role play after all I think to myself.

He continues to talk and she continues to smile through clenched teeth and I’m pouring a cognac for a man at the other end and I’m stacking some more glasses and I’m brewing fresh coffee and the next time I look up she is gone.

Her empty stool remains beside him, he’s still sipping his drink and tearing at the edge of his soggy napkin. I can’t quite see his eyes so I look away. A few minutes later he is standing, giving me a short wave, saying goodnight and walking away, leaving me with a tip of $2.00.

#3 Quarters

He is well-dressed—navy blue suit, shined shoes, gold cufflinks glinting, carefully groomed hair. He would be suave if he weren’t stumbling. He’s attractive, almost, but with glazed, disconnected eyes. He takes hurried, loping strides with his feet tripping over one another, pausing every few steps to regain his balance. He stumbles across the sidewalk.

A drunk walks carelessly, as if being pushed from behind. This man’s walk is equally uncontrolled, but it’s as though he is pushing himself toward something far ahead. He has almost walked to the end of the window out of my view when I notice he is crying.

He pauses at the entrance of the restaurant, a hand pressed firmly against each side of the doorway, holding his balance. A woman on the left side of the bar motions for a refill but I ignore her, my feet planted in one spot, anticipating the man’s approach. He staggers up to the bar and throws his head in his hands in front of me. He is sobbing, gasping, squealing, and periodically making the sign of the holy trinity across his chest with his right hand. I look around helplessly, wondering if anyone else notices the situation and is better equipped to be of assistance. The woman is still motioning for her drink, the waiter is running food to a table across the room, and the manager is sitting with his back to me, drinking espresso and typing on his laptop.

The man continues to sob, wiping his hands with bar napkins and crossing himself every few seconds. He is resting his weight on his elbows, his hands clasped together in front of his face. I think about pouring the man a shot of tequila, without a word. I speculate as to whether he would drink it, whether this is the right thing to do, whether I should give alcohol to someone in this state. I ask him if he is alright, almost as a rhetorical question. He doesn’t answer. I think about wanting to touch the man, put my open palm on his shoulder or my hands around his hands. I remain motionless. I ask him if he is alright again. He says no. The manager is still typing, but now the waiter is walking toward me, wondering where are the drinks for his tables which I seemed to have forgotten to make. I say nothing. His sobbing has quieted and the man is reaching into his pocket and for a moment I am petrified. He pulls out a crumpled dollar bill and slides it across the copper surface into my hand. "Quarters," he says without looking up.

"Of course I say, hoping that in some way granting this request will pacify him momentarily. I place the coins in his hand and then bend his fingers gently around them. Before I can ask him if he would like any water, he turns to leave. Outside, he stumbles up Broadway the way he came, at one point spewing liquid from his mouth, but not pausing to bend over, simply walking forward almost without registering it. Suddenly the man is past the window and out of view and it is as if my head has popped back up from being underwater. I slowly turn around to face the people in front of me, as if drifting back into consciousness.

"Miss!" calls a woman sitting at the bar. "Miss! I’ve been waiting for this drink for the past fifteen minutes."

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