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.
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!).
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.
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.