A Love Affair with Sugar Bacon

Home of the best blueberry pancakes in New York (perhaps, some would argue, the best anywhere), the ten-hour Sunday brunch, and the three-hour line, my restaurant is one of the most thrilling and exhausting places I have ever known. I started working there when I was broke and career-less, covering the weeknight hosting shifts where I sat about thirty customers and made twenty dollars in tips over the course of five hours. Nights turned into crazy hectic mornings and then into long weekend days, and somehow, seven months later, I have not left. Though it has meant giving up one of my two days off, I never really considered quitting.  I tell my incredulous friends that I stay for the tips, for the stability, to keep myself busy. But the truth is that I have never found a job more rewarding, or been able to take such pride in my work. The friends I have made there are some of the funniest, most stable and determined people I have come to know. And though at the end of the day, all I am really doing is ushering hundreds of angry, hungry, desperate-for-pancakes tourists in and out of a thirteen-table restaurant, every Sunday feels like a small victory. And that story, one of battles with strangers and ten thousand steps and pounds gained from bacon and lost running to and from the kitchen, of how weekends working as a hostess changed me, is  the story I want to tell this week. 1174906_649843458359027_1204571973_n

Here are a few things I have found to be true, in no particular order:

There is something exhaustingly liberating about physical work, about getting up with the sun on a weekend morning, standing out in the cold and taking down names on a reporter’s flip book, drinking your coffee black as three hundred people parade in and out of the restaurant, demanding and whining and pleading and (even sometimes) praising. The fatigue blends into a strange sort of freedom.

Breakfast always tastes better when eaten standing up, in the delicious heat of a working kitchen.

When you smile, nod, and say “absolutely” enough, you become almost untouchable. Even the most selfish and impatient of customers do not seem to know what to do with optimism.

Salsa, early jazz, and Motown are great Pandora stations to dance to, provided you do not drop a plate of eggs on anyone in the process.

Language barriers, especially those between a too-white hostess and the Mexican kitchen staff, can almost always be bridged with creative miming and a Corona or two. Over the past few months, I have learned that the Spanish word for “cat” and the French word for “cake” are acoustically pretty much the same, leading to a great deal of confusion. I have also learned the proper way to fry an egg, how to open a beer bottle with a metal spoon, and that intelligence has very little to do with a college degree.

Supportive shoes are easily the most important thing any of us own.

People will use almost any excuse to be seated. I have been informed that children are going to starve if they have to wait fifteen minutes longer, have been told a women’s father was going to go into a diabetic coma unless I sat him (to which I, seasoned by then, offered her a muffin), have been slipped twenty-dollar bills in handshakes (which I have always returned, wishing I did not have to!).

995686_10151486057147677_1628337629_nNo one wants to wait outside when it gets too cold or too hot.

Relationships come in so many forms and iterations, it is incredible what one can witness over the course of an hour-long meal. I have seen engagements, religious conversions, screaming fights and amorous embraces. I have seen a baby projectile vomit across two tables of diners, while his parents looked on in horror and the rest of the restaurant only smiled and helped them clean up, impatient, angry, hungry people suddenly turned into understanding neighbors. I have seen old couples, transgender couples, couples who do not speak and couples who hold hands across their pancakes. No two tables are ever alike.

 

After nine hours on your feet, movement becomes its own kind of inertia. I find myself drifting from my hostess stand to the kitchen to drop off plates, behind the bar to make a latte, then dipping down to a table to drop off an egg sandwich. When my coworkers ask where the energy comes from, I answer that standing still somehow is somehow more tiring than activity.

Cappuccino foam should never have air bubbles in it. Tapping the cup down on a surface makes the milk denser.

Everyday life is truly stranger than any story I could ever attempt to pen. Perhaps the real reason I stay is for the people-watching, for the the volumes of stories I mentally amass as time goes on. I have seen a new mother cream her coffee with her own breast milk, tourists sterilize their cutlery in cups of boiling water. I have been asked whether we have sugar-free alcohol, have met Ban Ki-Moon’s wife, grandchildren, and bodyguard (who, after a moment’s hesitation, happily settled down for pancakes), have been hugged and cursed out and thanked profusely. People, normal, unremarkable people, hold the greatest capacity for wonder.

Neighborhoods are what keeps New York from becoming a soul-less urban sprawl. It was not until I started working around the block from my apartment that I felt truly grounded in this city, could put down roots. Familiar faces, from the tiny, angry Rabbi who comes to get change from time to time, to the hipsters from the Moroccan juice bar across the street, to the socially strange customer in the baseball cap who always comes by with whatever girl he is currently dating, are what make a city of eight million people feel like home.

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And by the end of Sunday night, after the last customer has come and gone, the bar has been dismantled and cleaned, the ice melted, the burners in the kitchen scrubbed with lemon juice and the money counted and subdivided, I wrap my thin sweater around me, pocket a few scones for my coworkers on Monday morning, and walk the one block home. My ankles are sore, my shoulders tight, and my stomach far too full of sugar-cured bacon (the menu item that I hold solely responsible for any and all weight gain). But it is a satisfied kind of tired, a simple, exhausted contentment that I keep tucked under the corners or my lips as I climb in and out of a steaming bath, pull on my pajamas, and drift off into dreams that smell like maple butter.

Together Again, and a Confession

My dearest, darling readers, to whom I should never lie, I feel I must confess to you the current state of this project. I am, like Nora, bogged down in the first section of Within a Budding Grove, mired in Proust’s dense, cyclical prose. And although I fully and completely intend to see this project through to its very end, at the moment, page 4,211 seems a million miles away.

I spend most of my time on this blog likening various aspects of my post-college life to Proust (to varying degrees of success!), and pointing out different aspects of the author’s writing that appeal or relate to me. Well, for once, I would like to take a moment, for reasons of full disclosure and mental wellbeing, and ruminate on those aspects of the nineteenth-century novelist’s work which I do not love. Proust can be long-winded, verbose, and at times seemingly random. His prose is more immersive than narrative, his characters tableaux rather than active forces. There are nights when I lie in bed and plow through forty pages of a description of a single afternoon tea, days when my commute to work is dedicated to Marcel’s thoughts on Odette’s various nightgowns. Sometimes, to be perfectly blunt, Proust is boring. And I get bored fairly easily.

My friends have, of course, born the brunt of my literary frustration, encouraging (coaxing, and chiding) me to keep going, to find beauty in the narrative, and sometimes just to suck it up and write. Comparing our endeavor to that of Julie Powell, whose efforts to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking fueled her blog, book, and later, the film Julie & Julia, Sam told me this was like the low point of her project. Overwhelmed by her task, Julie has a breakdown about halfway through the movie, and laments the futility of the project:

“This is that moment where you’re lying on the kitchen floor, covered in chicken liver, and crying,” Sam joked. I enjoyed the comparison, especially as this moment for Julie ends with the phone call from a food writer that eventually leads to her discovery. When I first began this post, I fully intended to confess to my horrible procrastination, apologize, and, as I always do, vow to carry on with renewed enthusiasm. But Nora’s entry and Sam’s words brought home a refreshing reality: it’s okay for this project to be hard. We are allowed to hate it at times, allowed to want to want to sit on the kitchen floor and throw a tantrum, covered in liver. We are allowed, in short, to live.

I have fallen behind on both my reading and writing this past summer, moved to New York and was (and still am) so terribly in love with life here that I neglected my art. September has come, and along with it the slight panic of a life without the routine of college, and the fear that I am behind on things I should be doing. Nora is back and the nights have begun to grow crisp, and I have remembered why it is that I came here. I mentioned the need to return to my writing last week at dinner, and both Nick and Sam responded with “what have we been telling you for months??” Balancing life and art, work and play, is always a challenge. But as much as it is now time for me to get down to business, I have decided not to regret my procrastination, not (for once) to apologize.

For unlike Marcel, I am never content with stasis. It is only through narrative, through living, that my art comes alive.

The Names, and Summer Bliss

There is a certain magic in names. They can conjure up a place, Aruba or Oklahoma, that contains in its very syllabic construction the spirit or essence of its locale. They can represent a person, quirky or bland, transform an egg into a soufflé or an evening into a soirée. Naming an object or event, transforming one word into another, imparts a certain significance onto it, gives it power, substance, force.

Before I was born, my parents discussed several names I could have been given, a significant ritual in the development of a new family and the beginning of the relationship a person has with his or her title. My potentials were Nicholas or Harry, if I had been a boy, or Augusta, were I to be a girl. When my mother lay in the delivery room, however, holding her purple and (I have been told) screaming child, she looked down at my new, ruddy face, and said to my father a word he had never heard before, a pronouncement they had not discussed at all.

“I think we should name her Maeve.” She said, and there I was.

My mother had lived in Ireland for a year in college, and knew Queen Maeve was a mythical warrior who led her troops to battle and is buried standing upright on a mountain in Connaught that bears her name. She wanted to raise a daughter with a strong name, and my father agreed. My grandmother, very excited at the birth of her first granddaughter but rather hard of hearing, thought my name was Nave, and called everyone in the family with that pronouncement. It took weeks to fully clear up.

Having a more unusual name than almost anyone I know, I went through childhood alternating between loving and hating it. For almost a year, I insisted my mother call me “Lillian,” the name of my adopted grandmother and my very favorite alternative to my own. By the time I reached middle school, I had looked up my namesake and discovered her rather promiscuous past (it seems that, in addition to being a strong leader, she slept with half her army). Maeve in Irish means “she who intoxicates,” and, though I have never identified with its more risqué implications, and occasionally give my mother’s name for ease of spelling when I go to restaurants or cafés, I could not imagine being called anything else.

For Marcel, names carry a similar power, calling forth the allure of foreign places or the intimacy of a potential lover with the utterance of a few sounds. He recalls,

I need only, to make them reappear, pronounce the names Balbec, Venice, Florence, within whose syllables had gradually accumulated the longing inspired in me by the places for which they stood.

His childhood love for Gilberte (something I foresee developing in the coming chapters) is mostly based upon the utterances of her name, her father’s (for, as we learn, she is Charles Swann’s daughter), and, in a moment of masterful divulgence, that of her mother Odette. As it turns out, she and Swann do get married, despite what appears to be the unravelling of their relationship, founded on jealousy and affairs. Marcel, it appears, has a few tricks up his frilly sleeves.

Names came back to grace my morning as I awoke at dawn to head up to the beach with friends. Nick, Sam, Laura and I got up at 630 and boarded a MetroNorth train from Grand Central station (itself one of my favorite places in the city, vaulted and majestic with gilded clocks and tracks that still bear the stone numbering of another century). We rode up through Connecticut, discussing the relative wealth of the towns we passed (the entire state is a contrast of extremes), and how thoroughly and repetitively they had been named. For every West Haven there was an East Haven, for every Morningside an Eveningside, and we spent a good deal of the train ride devising new nomenclature for the towns we passed, abbreviating South Norwalk to “So No” and the imaginary “No No,” and asking Laura if there was an “Afternoonside” to go with its morning and evening equivalents.

We got to Fairfield and lay on a nearby beach, alternating between splashing in the Long Island Sound (or in Sam’s case, wading), and stretching out on the sand as we slowly turned into human lobsters. Names, I will hold, carry an unmistakable power. But so do days of summer, washed in sun and friendship, windswept and salt-kissed, and tinged forever with that sense of fleeting solar eternity. As Marcel confessed to me today,

Often in one we find a day that has strayed from another, that makes us live in that other, evokes and makes us long for its particular pleasures, and interrupts the dreams that we were in the process of weaving, by inserting out of its turn, too early or too late, this leaf torn from another chapter in the interpolated calendar of Happiness.

And for these moments, I cannot pick a name.

Oh, and did I mention that, halfway to becoming a lobster on the Fairfield beach, I finished Swann’s Way? One down, five to go! Marcel, I will master you yet.

It’s not a wheel; it’s a carousel

And… finished with Book One! This past week, I escaped to Vermont with my father’s family for the first family reunion of my lifetime (organized, funnily enough, by my mother). I actually wrote a post concerning my hiatus, but I tried to post it from the DC metro while on my way out of town and, surprise surprise, it didn’t work.

I used the week to relax on the beach, polishing off the first volume and biting off a sizable chunk of Within The Budding Grove.Well, that was the plan, but the universe rarely works that way, and instead I mostly played with my second-cousins-thrice-removed or whatever they were. The point is, there were many children there, and they were all adorable and a riot and left little time for reading.

The staging of the reunion was Proustian in and of itself. The clan traveled to the camp my great-grandfather opened on Lake Champlain in Vermont. My father, his brother and cousin all were campers there in the 50s and 60s, and the camp has barely changed in the past half-century. For many family members, it was the first time seeing Camp; for others, their first time back in decades.

As a child, my parents took my sister and me up to Camp every summer, and they remain friends with the family who now owns the Camp. The setting is beyond idyllic — cabins sit on a bluff that descends directly into the lake where I learned to swim and first paddled out in boats. The last time I was there was almost ten years ago. Returning, everything seemed smaller and much more beautiful than I remembered it ever being.

In Search of Lost Time focuses so heavily on memory that the acts of recalling and remembering seem to consume the novel’s very plot. In attempting to describe my own nostalgia returning to Camp, I began to comprehend what could have driven Proust into the lunacy of a seven-volume epic that explored his own memory.

It wasn’t just my own memories that overwhelmed me; it was the collective consciousness of my family, the recollections that gave each generation some ache of reminiscence. I think that the narrator’s intrusion on Swann’s memories makes more sense given how communal the past becomes as it grows more distant. I realized that the inside of Cabin Five smelled the same way it always had, that the water was cold in the same way it always had been, the rocks on the beach made me trip in the same pattern, and I wondered if and how these sensations had affected my dad when he was younger than I am now, and how they were affecting him now. 

I took a lot of pictures in the past week. Images, as Proust points out, are a useful archival tool for documenting our memories, but they are a poor substitute for that emotion that emerges from the intersection of sight, sound, smell and sentiment:

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

In my copy, I underlined the above passage (which concludes Swann’s Way) and wrote next to it “sums up life.” Or, as Don Draper says,

Reflecting on nostalgia and one of my favorite Mad Men moments brings to mind a New Yorker article on Instagram, which ruminates on how the popular app manufactures “instant nostalgia.” Reading Proust operates in a similar way. I think that navigating Swann and Marcel’s memories makes us more aware of our own. When Proust gives up (or so it seems) on Odette, he does not let go of her, but of the memory of when she loved him, and the hope that the past will resurrect itself. Conversely, while some memories can be hard to let go of, some moments announce their importance by the lack of a memory to accompany them, such as when Swann realizes he does not desire to possess Odette but he does not know when he felt that way:

He discovered it was already too late; he would have liked to glimpse, as though it were a landscape that was about to disappear, that love from which he had departed (411)

So I leave Swann’s Way as Swann leaves behind the landscape of his love: quietly, and without really realizing at the time what was happening. In the final passage Marcel really lets his own nostalgia show–he decries the inelegance of “modern” women as compared to the refinement of Gilberte’s mother. I expect more nostalgia in the volumes to come. In the meantime, here’s an image that is succeeding in making me nostalgic for Vermont right now.