Monday, June 30, 2008

The Rats, Pt. 4

“It is cheering to see that the rats are still around---the ship is not sinking.”
---Eric Hoffer

While our restaurant may have passed all inspections by the NYC Health Department---we still have rats. I can say, from personal experience, that a clean bill of health from the NYC Department of Health does NOT mean that rats are not on the premises.

In fact, it simply means that the rats have gotten smarter.

Rats are intelligent creatures. They actually have a mental capacity pretty darn near close to that of a dog---which is why (the tame ones, anyway) make great pets. Never had one as a pet myself. But once, years ago, had my big blue eyes on a white and brown spotted rat at a pet store in St. Louis.

My aunt, seeing how I’d taken to the rat, was eager to buy him for me. Unfortunately, I was living in Minneapolis at the time and was planning on flying back the next day. But this little guy was such a cutie-pie that I went downstairs to the food court and got on the phone to the airline.

The lady at Northwest Airlines was mortified.

“No! We don’t allow rats onto the aircraft!”

“But he’d be in a cage and everything…”

“No! Not even in cargo! Just dogs, cats and small birds. Why would you want to bring a rat on the plane, anyway?”

Unfortunately, I had to decline my aunt’s generous offer. And yes, there are regrets. A life lived without rats is… Well, you get the idea.

Fortunately, I work in an establishment that never seems to run out of the little guys. Sure, they’re not the sort you can take home to Momma. But they’re cute too, in their own way.

A few months ago, some of them discovered the charming trait of chewing thru rubber electrical wires. Of course, we saw the signs early on. They started on the Christmas lights in the front (which our GM seems to think look festive up year-round). We pointed out this chewing behavior. But nothing seemed to be done about it.

Then, a few weeks later, the bartenders and porters started cleaning up for the night. As the porter threw a bucket of bleach water onto the floor, the beer cooler suddenly caught on fire and nearly exploded. The rats had chewed thru the electrical wires, leaving them exposed. And the water on the floor was now electrified. Professionals had to be called in to deal with the problem. The bartender was in shock, the porter was literally shaking, and the assistant manager on duty was both embarrassed and terrified. The GM was unfazed. His philosophy seems to be, if you act like a problem’s not there, no one will talk about it. Good luck with that.

“Humor, a good sense of it, is to Americans what manhood is to Spaniards and we will go to great lengths to prove it. Experiments with laboratory rats have shown that, if one psychologist in the room laughs at something a rat does, all of the other psychologists in the room will laugh equally. Nobody wants to be left holding the joke.”
---Garrison Keillor

As a waitress, I tend not to see the rats as a reflection upon myself. I didn’t do anything personally to cause the rats to show up. I’m a clean person (at home and at work). Nothing I have either done or not done has any bearing on the fact that our restaurant has rats.

Which is why I find it odd that more than a few of our servers are embarrassed to let their friends and family know that we have rats. But most of these servers are what we call in the business---Lifers. They will be servers till the day they retire on the company pension.

Me? I could care less if anyone (outside of customers and the NYC Health Department) knows. In fact, I love to talk about the rats. Not everyone at a party is equipped with an arsenal of rat stories.

I have since discovered that everyone loves a good rat story---provided that the story doesn’t end with a gruesome end for the little guy. Not everyone thinks they’re just vermin. You’d be surprised how many people feel sympathy for the rats. In a way, it’s your archetypal underdog story. Rat verses Man. And, in a really human way, we like seeing ourselves done in by a rodent. It shows our weakness as a species and offers us lessons in intelligence, fear, rationality and persistence.

Horatio Alger meets Aesop.

I believe it is the mark of a truly human man (or woman) if they can let themselves be ridiculed. This is why ancient kings submitted to having wise fools. Why heads of state allowed free press and parody. And why William Shatner offered himself up to the Friar’s Club Celebrity Roast.

Most of us are able to laugh about the rats. We make jokes all the time. Things like, “They’ve been here so long, they’re in the union, now.” And we never seem to tire of rolling a potato near someone’s feet. Actually, an onion works even better. The onion skin makes that dry, pitter-patter sound.

And, as mere workers in the establishment, what else can we do besides keep the place clean and laugh a little? As long as the Health Department doesn’t discover a nest or a rat runs across their foot during an inspection----well, we’re just trying to get thru our day. And that makes us feel at one with the rats. We’re just trying to survive, too.

“It would be ugly to watch people poking sticks at a caged rat. It is uglier still to watch rats poking sticks at a caged person.”
---Jean Harris

Not only do I not see the rats as a reflection upon myself; but frankly, I don’t see my job as a waitress as a reflection upon myself. At least, I try not to. Sure, the job title may seem a bit demeaning, but I once worked with a part-time waitress who also worked full-time as a hospital nurse. She had education, training, a degree, tons of common sense. But she also needed the extra once or twice a week waitressing money to pay the bills. Isn’t it a come down, I once asked, to have to go from being a being a nurse to waiting tables?

“Actually, no, “she replied. “This is more relaxing. Being a nurse is just like waiting tables---only with sick people.”

Frankly, I’ll take crabby sick people any day over the constant jabs and insults that are regularly hurled at waitresses. Not long after my surgery, I was back at work (still swollen and with a partially paralyzed face) and happened to overhear a young man complaining to his server about the gratuity added to his check. I should mention that we occasionally offer live shows where I work, and, for these shows, gratuities are automatically added onto the check. This is standard for live events in New York. Comedy Clubs, Jazz Clubs, etc. I can’t speak to its legality. But frankly, a gratuity is a just that---a gratuity. You’re certainly never obliged to pay it. However, unless you received particularly egregious service, you’d be a real shit not to.

But it is common practice in NYC and at many other music, comedy and theatrical events across the country---particularly on the coasts. Don’t know how it started. I’m not a tip anthropologist. It just is.

Anyway, as I listened to this young man complain, I decided to step up in defense of my fellow-server. I very nicely explained the afore-mentioned facts and simply let him know that it’s certainly not obligatory, but, like his server said, it IS standard in the city.

“No it’s not.”

This said with a southern accent. Tourist.

“Actually,” I ignore the obvious out-of-town accent and explain, “it is. I used to work at a comedy club here and I’ve been to a lot of jazz and comedy clubs and it’s always included.”

“No it’s not!” he cut me off as his friends obviously started to get embarrassed. “I’ve been to clubs here and they don’t add the gratuity! And hello!---you’re a waitress! I’m a lawyer! I THINK!”


Honestly, the kid didn’t look over 22. If he had been in my section, I would’ve carded him for that beer. He was pre-law, at most. And, for someone claiming to be a lawyer, I certainly would’ve expected to hear a more compelling argument than, “No, it’s not!” Good luck with that one on the jury, Mr. Dershowitz.

As he continued to repeat his statement of fact that I was a waitress and, by default, must be stupid, his 20-something friends started to look down at their shoes in shame. I, on the other hand, looked him right in the eye.

“Excuse me, sir. That was REALLY insulting. And that was completely uncalled-for.”

His friends immediately began to apologize. He apologized. But he wouldn’t back down on his statement of “the facts”. Apparently, he’d just completed the course titled, “If You Keep Repeating Something, The Jury Will Eventually Believe It’s True 101.”

But I didn’t. Why? Because I knew the truth first-hand. And I think and observe and make intelligent deductions from those observations. Idiot.

The server brought back his change (leaving him with the tip to do with however he pleased). The embarrassed friends grabbed their coats and, as Doogie Houser, J.D. protested, they told him to shut up and left the waitress even more than the proper tip---continuing to apologize for their friend all the while. I actually felt bad for the friends---lassoed to that idiot all night. His girlfriend looked particularly distressed. I hope she took that as a sign and got the hell out of that relationship.

How much do you want to bet that ten years from now, that guy will not only be a practicing lawyer---but also a regular at the Atlanta Bondage Clubs? Hope he doesn’t protest to the added gratuity there. They have ways of punishing you. But then, he’d probably like that. Seems like the type.

People like these are the true vermin of my un-chosen profession. I’ll take the rats over scum like that, any day.

“The trouble with the rat-race is that even if you win, you're still a rat.”
---Lily Tomlin

I have to get out of the rat race.

I just can’t do it anymore.

And recently, an opportunity cropped up that could possibly shake things up a bit.

No, not a writing job. Or anything close. But about a week ago, one of our bartenders didn’t show up for his shift. The assistant manager stepped behind the bar and started making drinks. I jumped in (unasked) and started taking drink orders and then hopping behind the bar to make the drinks, as well.

A few days later, we were short a bartender again. The assistant managers decided that since I already knew how to make drinks and already worked there, well, maybe I could fill in. So, I came in on my day off and apparently did such a bang-up job that when the night guys came in and I stuck around for a few more hours, they went to the assistant manager and said they wanted me back there permanently. Before I left for the night, the assistant manager came up and asked me if I was interested. Since the money was amazingly better than waiting tables, and since the head manager had been screwing with my schedule and putting seventeen servers on the floor when we only needed two… Sure. I’m interested.

If nothing else, it was a change of pace. Some days, I’m just standing around so bored and all there is to do is to turn to a bus boy and say, “How do you say ‘crazy old lady’ in Bengali? How much Bengali can I learn???

The problem came in when the General Manager discovered that I’d been given a bartending shift. Despite the fact that I’d been given glowing reviews by the two head bartenders and the two assistant managers---he didn’t like this idea.


Well, a few months ago, I noticed that he suddenly started acting differently towards me. We’d got along fine in the past, then suddenly he started doing little things to mess with my schedule, shot little looks my way like I was doing something wrong, little passive-aggressive comments. The reason I was running so fast for that train when I fell and broke my jaw was because the GM had been giving the Fish Eye to people who came in late and I was determined not to even be 5 minutes late for my shift.

But I knew something was off, and, a few days before my accident, I tried to sit him down and find out what the problem was. In a nutshell, he replied, “No, I don’t have anything against you.”

But the weirdness continued.

“Whenever there has been talk of exterminating rats, others, who were not rats, have been exterminated.”
---Gunter Grass

It was only a few days ago that I realized what had happened: He thought I called the NYC Health Department about the rats.

You see, someone HAD called the Health Department. And it was only recently that I remembered two very odd conversations with both the GM and the District Manager. Little things like them reminding me how much they’re doing to get rid of the rats. And me just standing there going, “Yeah. I know.”

And then the GM telling me that he discovered who had called about the rats (I didn’t even know anyone HAD called) and he found out who had done it and it was someone from the restaurant and he called the Health Department and they gave him the name of the person. My reply: “Oh. Who was it?”

He just looked at me strangely and muttered, “I’m not going to say” and walked away.

Of course, later I was told that the Health Department will not under any circumstances give out the name of an informant.


And I only found out last week that someone HAD done it and the person who had done it actually fessed up a while back and said, “Yeah, I called about the rats. Because you guys weren’t doing anything about it.”

But by the time they found out who had actually called about the rats… well, they’d been messing with me for months and I was standing my ground and not letting myself get pushed around.

Overall, lesson for management: If you think someone in your employ did something---maybe don’t just GUESS who did it. Maybe find out some facts before you start harassing an innocent employee.

So, essentially, I’ve been getting punished for months over something I didn’t do.

In fact, more than one person at our restaurant said, “Oh yeah, everyone thought you had called on the rats.”

What? Why?

The answer: Because I was the one who was trying to help get rid of the rats.

And I was trying to get them out of there because I NEED my job and I DIDN’T want the Health Department or the customers to know about them.

Wow. Management is amazing.

“One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
---Ida B. Wells

But the funny part now is that the guy who’s been trying to see to it that I make less money on my shifts and has been doing all sorts of little things to try to get rid of me---well, I’m now getting a promotion.

He’s not happy about this at all. But there’s not a whole lot he can do. He certainly can’t keep me back because of performance. And basically the entire staff is now going behind his back to hand over shifts to me.

In a nutshell, due to his harassment of me and several other employees (no, I’m not the only one) he has now lost the confidence of about 95% of his staff. And when he goes down, there will be no one there to help him.

“An old rat is a brave rat.”
---French Proverb

About two weeks ago, they found a dead rat behind the bar.

The Old Guy, they called him. Apparently he was so old and beaten and bruised that even human beings could recognize his advanced age.

The rats seem to like it behind the bar. Maybe they’ve taken to lapping up spilled beer and over-poured Cosomopolitans off the floor.

Or maybe it’s just a good place to hide.

I have no idea what other sort of paranoia and made-up things in his head this GM has about me. But one thing’s for sure---he can’t fault me for not doing my job.

I did learn a long time ago that being an intelligent, well-spoken person who does their job seems to be something that restaurant managers find intimidating. It’s as if they need to “figure you out”. They want to spot your weakness. They need to have something ON you---whether they choose to use it or not. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years.

Overall, I think they’re intimidated by people who could do their job better than they could. And frankly, yeah, I could.

But I don’t want his job. Have NO DESIRE WHATSOEVER to be a restaurant manager. And frankly, I wouldn’t even care if he was in that position or not as long as he left me alone to DO MY JOB.

So, for now, I’m just trying to hide behind the bar like the rats. I might be laying low, or I might have gone back there to die. But at least I’m brave enough to give it a try.

“You can drop humans anywhere and they'll thrive-only the rat does as well.”
---Jeannette Desor

I’ve worked two bartending shifts, so far. The money is definitely better and at least I’ve got something to keep me busy. Sure, I won’t learn as much Bengali back there, but I can live with that.

My first official day behind the bar, I wasn’t there ten minutes when a guy came in, ordered a glass of cabernet, and five minutes later told me he was going to come back there and lick my pussy.

My response?

Sorry. I’m a little busy right now, sir.

I still called him “sir”. A little hold-out from waiting tables.

I spent years on the other side of the restaurant and all I got was, “This coffee is cold.”

I’m not behind the bar for 15 minutes when…

Yeah, you get some crazies. But it’s a different kind of crazy that sits at the bar. These crazies, you can kick out.

I kind of like that.

And the bartenders have been really supportive. And these guys are tough. When they were originally asked how they felt about me picking up my first bar shift, I was told that one of them replied, “Well, it’s kind of like you’re not sure you want to invite someone to the party.”

And then he paused and said, “But I will say this---she’ll get the job done.”

And I did.

And for doing that, I get glowing recommendations from the two best lobbyists in the restaurant.

As I was leaving that day, I was stocking the bar cooler when I caught myself laughing. The bartender asked what was so funny.

“Well, I was just thinking that after that crazy guy this morning…all I need now is for a rat to run across my foot.”

He laughed and said, “Welcome to the bar!”

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Food Network

When you break your jaw, you realize that the ability to chew is something you simply took for granted.

Sure, I occasionally enjoyed turning on The Food Network. Before my accident, I became fascinated with a show I mistakenly referred to as Paula’s Deep Fryer---because the woman seemed like she was constantly deep frying everything. Every recipe started out with a stick of butter. And when I watched her make a cup of hot chocolate with pure half and half and then top it with a huge dollop of heavy whipping cream----well, it was like stopping to watch an accident. You just couldn’t help but look.

However, after my surgery, I became obsessed. After all, if I couldn’t eat, I could at least watch people cook up tasty dishes.

As I sucked down yet another jar of baby food, I watched Guy Fieri shove huge deep-fried things into his gigantic mouth on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. For weeks, I ate vicariously thru him.

And Giada! She is just so adorable! You just want to hang out in the kitchen with her and watch her make you a delicious pasta dish and a tasty salad. I love her recipes and constantly try whipping up things like her chicken carbonara and her tasty cupcakes with mascarpone cheese. Her dishes are always crowd pleasers. When I made her balsamic vinegar truffles and took a batch of them to work, one of the guys said, “Which cook is she?”

“You know, the cute Italian lady.”

“Oh, the Food Porn Lady!” he said with a laugh. Apparently there are quite a few men out there who simply enjoy watching her cook.

Of course, my absolute favorite is Alton Brown. His show, Good Eats, helps take the mystique out of things like risotto, soufflés, leg of lamb and he even devoted an entire show to the intense workout involved in making a true coconut cake. I love his sense of humor, his pop culture references and the fact that he will squeeze in about five different recipes in an episode about milk. For heavens sake, the man showed me how to make cottage cheese! I always thought that if I had to take a regular 9-5 job, it would be working as Anderson Cooper’s assistant---but that’s a whole other blog. However, in second place, I would happily work for Alton Brown any day. Sure, you might not get to travel around the world---but at least where he goes, there are no wacky wars going on.

Of course, probably the biggest star on The Food Network is Rachael Ray. Tons of chefs (including The Food Network’s own Anthony Bourdain) have made fun of her simple, quick and easy dishes. But com’on, I’d say that about 99.9% of Food Network’s viewers AREN’T chefs. And honestly, sometimes chefs aren’t the greatest cooks. The vast majority of viewers are people like myself---just looking for fun ideas for different things to make for the family dinner or to feed some special guests. Rachael Ray is our hero. And, when I could finally eat somewhat solid foods, her parsnip and potato hash was one of the first things I ate. And it was yummy!

But speaking of chefs, the ones featured on The Food Network are definitely approachable. Even Iron Chef Morimoto, the Japanese chef who is constantly speaking English and still having his English subtitled below. I understand him. Why the subtitles? And, beyond that, he looks like a Japanese Johnny Depp. He could make sushi for me anytime.

And, speaking of Anthony Bourdain---his culinary travels are amazing! And, despite his dig on my lady Rachael Ray, he seems like he would be a great guy to hang out with. A bottle of wine, some Tom Waits and a whole mess of oysters. That’s a great night. I also hear from a friend who has a friend who works for The Food Network that he's a great guy and that all the crew and Food Network Kitchen chefs LOVE him. Not a surprise at all.

And then there’s our loveable Sondra. Sondra’s catch-phrase is “semi-homemade”. She does what she has to do to get delicious, nutritious food on the table. And if anyone has a fascinating life story… Wow. The woman looks like a Barbie Doll with G.I. Joe’s guts.

But there are so many to love. The Barefoot Contessa (I feel a particular affinity with her dishes), Tyler Florence (just so entertaining and great comfort food), and the new pair of The Neelys, and Jamie Oliver. Oh, there are so many!

And I love them all! Why? Because I am completely addicted to The Food Network. What started out as an occasional cooking show here and there has now reached AA proportions.

You see, I’ve always loved to cook. I think my first entrée into the kitchen was helping my Aunt Joyce bake a cake. I was given the arduous chore of sifting the flour---which I charmingly mispronounced as “sniffing” the flour. And I still remember the day I was finally allowed to use a potato peeler. I was given a red potato and a peeler, along with very careful instructions on how to safely operate the sharp instrument. My aunt sat down next to me and peeled almost five pounds of potatoes in the time it took me to do one. However, despite my slow potato-peeling pace, I was rewarded with so much praise and was able to utter my favorite commercial jingle, “It’s Shake and Bake! And I helped!”

However, while my Aunt’s Kitchen was kid-friendly, my Grandma’s Kitchen was no place for a child. Grandma didn’t have the time for my slow potato-peeling pace. The kitchen was no place for fun and games. Meals needed to be on the table and there was no time for nonsense.

And Grandma’s Kitchen was enormous. Two refrigerators. Cast iron skillets. Contraptions like waffle irons and electric mixers. And an entire room off to the side of the kitchen known as a Butler’s Pantry---the cabinets of which were stocked full of spices, flours, dried fruits and nuts, rice, and things like Baker’s Chocolate (which, I learned the hard way, was not tasty at all).

It was a culinary wonderland.

My Grandma was 100% Polish, but born in St. Louis---so her style of cooking was based on a mix of heritage and regional fare. The Polish dishes she grew up with combined with the Southern cooking that comes from St. Louis being right on the border of what I like to call the Biscuits and Gravy Belt, mixed with a bit of Italian influence due to the influx of Italian immigrants that had migrated to the South Side of St. Louis where she lived.

One day you’d get Spaghetti with homemade meat sauce, the next you’d find Southern Fried Chicken on you plate and the next…well, it would be something weird and Polish. Trust me, Polish Kielbasa and Sauerkraut was a good day. Some of those Polish dishes were scary.

Grandma was also my part-time baby-sitter and, may I say, lunch was a crap shoot. Many was the summer day I’d come inside after a long and vigorous morning of playing in the back yard, only to be greeted with a Head Cheese Sandwich.

And for those of you who don’t know what Head Cheese is----well, it sure ain’t cheese. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that what I’d been eating was actually parts of a cow’s head (lips, eyes, snout, etc.) held together with the gelatin from the meat. Grandma would take two pieces of white bread, dip them in a plate filled with apple cider vinegar, and slap a piece of Head Cheese in the middle.

“There you go. Lunch.”

Oddly enough, I actually found this sandwich delicious. Well, you pour a bunch of apple cider vinegar on pretty much anything and I could call it a meal.

It wasn’t till college that I learned that Head Cheese wasn’t actually cheese and I haven’t been able to touch it since.

Head Cheese Sandwiches aside, I was not to be deterred in the kitchen. While my mother worked full-time and really only had the energy to make a weekly Sunday dinner---I was a kid with lots of time on my hands. And suddenly festooned with my newest baby-sitter---my Uncle Virgil. And Uncle Virgil couldn’t cook.

My first classic dish was a little something I liked to call Buttered Noodles. Shell noodles boiled up and covered in melted butter----mmmm. Well, actually it was margarine. But my brother and I did love our Buttered Noodles. It’s noodles and it’s butter. What’s wrong with that?

My second classic dish was Corn Bread and Beans. A can of great northern beans heated up in a saucepan with a quick mix cornbread. Simple and delicious! I alternated back and forth between these tried-and-true dishes for months. Despite the repition, no one seemed to complain.

However, when I wasn’t reading, writing, practicing the piano or cleaning the house---I generally found myself in my Mom’s kitchen with her Joy Book of Cooking. To this day, my Mom remembers coming home and finding little dishes I’d cooked up all on my own. Once, she was out at a relative’s birthday party and came home to find me in the kitchen, welcoming her home with, “Hey! I baked a loaf of bread!”

She didn’t believe me. But I did. And it was amazing. The smell of fresh, baked bread alone was enough to make me want to learn more and more.

When I went away to college, my Aunt Joyce gave me a hot pot for my dorm room. I could make entire meals with just a hot pot and a little mini-fridge. People would come from down the hall to get my spaghetti and my tuna and noodle hot pot casserole.
At my job before moving to New York, I was known for bringing a Soup of the Day into the office. The office loved my homemade lentil soup, my cabbage soup, chicken noodle and all the fresh baked breads I made to go with them.

To this day, I still don’t have a fancy kitchen like the kitchens on The Food Network. But you’d be surprised at what you can do with a few pots and pans, a stocked spice cabinet and a trip to the Farmer’s Market. And, despite my small Manhattan Kitchen, I have all the ingredients of the world available to me in this city.

I moved into my lovely apartment almost a year ago to the day. I do love it here. It’s so peaceful and yet, still Manhattan. Tho don’t get my started on the A Train. Last night I wrote my THIRD complaint letter to the MTA. I’m waiting for my pat response regarding the “ongoing track work”.

In any case, I realized that a year has gone by and I have yet to have any kind of a housewarming party. Of course, a year later, it’s not really a house warming party. But who cares? It’s a party. And the most important thing to me is making some super fantabulous dishes for my friends. To that end, I am glued to The Food Network for ideas. Sure, I have a few tricks up my cook’s sleeve. But I always love trying new things, new ingredients and new techniques. The plan is to practice a few dishes to see how they turn out. Planning the fest for about a month and a half from now. And the party plan will be to show a few of the new films I’m shooting with friends and just have a great feast with great food and drinks.

And, after my accident, I'm a survivor, damnit. I deserve a party!