Losing a job is a gut-wrenching experience. The first time is always the worst since it’s a new feeling, one we’re not quite sure how to process. If you throw in moving to a city like New York on top of it all, losing a job can seem like the end of the world. The first time I was fired, it was from a wait staff job at an Italian restaurant — a bistro down the street from where I lived in the Prospect Park West section of Brooklyn. I had just moved to the city a few days earlier.
Upon dropping me in the city and helping me unpack, my family and I decided to take in dinner before they headed back home. The restaurant looked reasonable and unassuming; a small corner bistro with a seating capacity of about 30 on a busy night, but that afternoon we practically had it to ourselves. Good food, fair prices. On the way out after our meal, I noticed the “help wanted” sign hanging in the window.
I had a part-time job lined up that was set to begin in another two weeks, but needed to pad my income in the interim. Besides, I certainly needed something to take my mind off the immensity of the city I found myself in. Few things are as overwhelming as focusing on your own insignificance in a city this size. Having a job would help me avoid this while I got my footing. I talked to the manager and he agreed to take me on a trial basis. I’d spend a week making hourly wage, essentially learning the ropes until coming on as a full-time staff member.
“I can’t believe my luck,” I thought to myself. “I found a reasonably-priced apartment in a beautiful neighborhood with nice roommates, and basically just stumbled my way into a job.” Oh, how little I knew.
To begin with, my prior experience as a catering waiter back home in Pennsylvania had not prepared me at all for the rigors of serving people in New York. It’s not as if being a waiter in the city is different from being a waiter anyplace else, it’s fundamentally the same job. The big difference is in the people; they all seem to take their dining experience so seriously. Even if they say their experience is “fine” when asked, they stare down at their penne with a contemptuous glance as if I’m intruding to even offer my aid. This is not to say that I found the restaurant patrons rude or overly hostile. No, the main element that hampered my time as a waiter was my fellow staff.
Starting from the top, there was the manager who agreed to take me on without so much as requesting a resume. For privacy’s sake (and perhaps legal reasons, more on that later) we’ll call him Leopold. He fit the mold of a restaurant owner if you were waiting tables on the set of The Sopranos. He was a stocky, spike-haired Sicilian fellow who seemed one step away from a backhand slap to your skull if he saw something he didn’t like.
Arriving eager for work my first day, I was told to meet him in his basement office where he would debrief me on what to expect. I went downstairs to find him covertly exiting a tiny room.
“Hey, Leopold,” I greeted.
“Uh, hi — Gordie?”
“Right. So what are you doing here?
“I’m here to work.”
I mentioned that I had been told to meet and asked if his office was the room he was coming out of. He abruptly slammed the door and said no, then bade me follow him down the hallway. I looked back at the door wondering what was behind it.
I was paired up with a more experienced waitress named “Stephanie,” another alias. She was the sort of person who had clearly been working her job for far too long; a college dropout, she lamented her lot in life while doing nothing about it except continuing to wait tables in quiet desperation. When I had a question, I was told to ask her — that is, when she wasn’t scamming a cigarette break behind the building or somehow finding a way to pass the blame of missing alcohol off on the busboys. I was told she’d show me around and help me with the ins and outs of being a waiter in an Italian restaurant. Largely I was on my own, but I did learn some of the rules.
First: Learn the menu. This is standard in any eating establishment. But since I wasn’t allowed to take the menu home with me and this particular eatery didn’t have an online menu, I was forced to learn it all on the premises. This is a daunting endeavor when you’re trying to keep up with a backlog of orders and learn just how to pronounce all the menu items and differentiate one from another.
Second: Learn to open a bottle of wine. Simple enough. I’ve opened many a bottle of wine in my time. The trick, however, is to make it look effortless. Don’t anchor the bottle against your body. Don’t let the cork roll when you set it on the table. And above all, don’t drop the bottle! It’s lucky for me I wasn’t assessed any damages from the bottles of wine whose blood will be forever on my hands.
Third: Respect your kitchen staff. This was the easiest rule for me to follow since these people were truly the lifeblood of the establishment. The cooks and bus boys were decent, easy-going people who never allowed the hectic atmosphere to affect their cool. Better yet, when I reported to work at two in the afternoon, they were always quick to say hello and offer me a spot at the table in the staff lunch prior to opening. Small kindnesses go a long way when every day seems like survival.
In spite of a bumpy learning curve, by the end of my first week I began to feel more at ease. The restaurant was just a few blocks down from my apartment, so the commute couldn’t be beat. I was getting the hang of balancing customer orders, I certainly wasn’t going hungry and best of all, I got to play DJ with the restaurant’s CD collection. The first couple of nights I was allowed on the stereo, I eagerly sorted through the music expecting to find some generic Dean Martin compilations. Instead, I was delighted to find a fine arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker and ambient house music. Few things are as self-affirming as seeing a room full of diners eating penne to the chilled tunes of Massive Attack and Portishead and not noticing how out of place it all sounds. I started to think this might just work out after all.
At the end of the week, I reported to the restaurant to get my schedule for the week. Leopold had asked to see me in his office. I passed by the suspicious door to find it bolted and padlocked. I met Leopold in his office. He sat behind his desk looking like he had a message to deliver. I had seen The Godfather enough to beware Sicilian messages, but I sat anyway. He presented me with a meager check for my trainee week and made a casual declaration.
“I don’t think it’s working out.”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“I just don’t think you’re a good fit here.”
He went on to explain how he didn’t think I fit the mold of a typical staff member. Which is what, you may ask? He never bothered to explain.
He also went out of his way to deride my career choice since I had mentioned moving to the city to pursue acting. Normally, this would have stung, but I was too disjointed to feel insulted or hurt. He topped it all off with a wry summary:
“It seems as if you don’t like the job.”
I let this inane comment seep in before replying. I leaned forward.
“Nobody likes waiting tables,” I deadpanned.
“Go ahead and whack me for saying that,” I thought, fearing swift fulfillment if I dared say it.
I could see his mind was made up. I made my way up through the dining area and passed the other staff members as they enjoyed their lunch. No one offered me a spot. Stephanie shot me a knowing look with a slight touch of contempt. I laughed to myself as I left, unsure of what to think. I wondered what I would do next — and just what was behind that door — but decided I was better off not knowing.
Two months later I came home from work on an uneventful day in mid-July. The part-time job I had lined up took me on a full-time basis and I was pulling in a fair income. It was a business development position that largely consisted of relationship building with potential clients. My bosses there gave me good feedback and I was building a nice network of contacts. It was good to know that at least somewhere, my efforts to satisfy clients were paying off.
I passed by the restaurant and noticed an NYPD squad car pulled up outside with its lights flashing. At first I thought this was a coincidence, the car had probably been called to an apartment adjacent to it. It wasn’t until I saw Leopold being led away from the place in handcuffs yelling and cursing at the officers that I realized this was exactly what it looked like after all.
To this day, I don’t know what Leopold did or didn’t do — allegedly anyway. Nor do I know what was behind that door in the basement. The place went out of business a couple of years later, and I moved away from the neighborhood just last month. Still, I took away an important lesson: Sometimes losing something is for the best.