About the Author:
Stephanie Danler attended Kenyon College and received her MFA in Fiction from The New School. Upon arriving in New York she reluctantly turned down an entry level job at a publishing house (upon learning the salary was incommensurate with paying rent) and found work as a back-waiter in Union Square Cafe. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
You will develop a palate.
A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.
I don’t know what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.
It is fast money—loose, slippery bills that inflate and disappear over the course of an evening. It can be a means, to those with concrete ends and unwavering vision. I grasped most of that easily enough when I was hired at the restaurant at twenty-two.
Some of it was a draw: the money, the sense of safety that came from having a place to wait. What I didn’t see was that the time had severe brackets around it. Within those brackets nothing else existed. Outside of them, all you could remember was the blur of a momentary madness. Ninety percent of us wouldn’t even put it on a résumé. We might mention it as a tossed-off reference to our moral rigor, a badge of a certain kind of misery, like enduring earthquakes, or spending time in the army. It was so finite.
I came here in a car like everybody else. In a car filled with shit I thought meant something and shortly thereafter tossed on the street: DVDs, soon to be irrelevant, a box of digital and film cameras for a still-latent photography talent, a copy of On the Road that I couldn’t finish, and a Swedish-modern lamp from Walmart. It was a long, dark drive from a place so small you couldn’t find it on a generous map.
Does anyone come to New York clean? I’m afraid not. But crossing the Hudson I thought of crossing Lethe, milky river of forgetting. I forgot that I had a mother who drove away before I could open my eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house. I forgot the parade of people in my life as thin as mesh screens, who couldn’t catch whatever it was I wanted to say to them, and I forgot how I drove down dirt roads between desiccated fields, under an oppressive guard of stars, and felt nothing.
Yes, I’d come to escape, but from what? The twin pillars of football and church? The low, faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs? Mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts? The sedated, sentimental middle of it? It didn’t matter. I would never know exactly, for my life, like most, moved only imperceptibly and definitively forward.
Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. with the sun circulating and dawning, the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open.
SOUR: all the puckering citrus juices, the thin-skinned Meyer lemons, knobbed Kaffirs. Astringent yogurts and vinegars. Lemons resting in pint containers at all the cooks’ sides. Chef yelled, This needs acid!, and they eviscerated lemons, leaving the caressing sting of food that’s alive.
I didn’t know about the tollbooths.
“I didn’t know,” I said to the tollbooth lady. “Can’t I squeeze through this one time?”
The woman in the booth was as unmoved as an obelisk. The driver in the car behind me started honking, and then the driver behind him, until I wanted to duck under the steering wheel. She directed me to the side where I reversed, turned, and found myself facing the direction from which I had just come.
I pulled off into a maze of industrial streets, each one more misleading than the next. It was irrational but I was terrified of not being able to find an ATM and having to go all the way back. I pulled into a Dunkin’ Donuts. I took out twenty dollars and looked at my remaining balance: $146.00. I used the restroom and rinsed off my face. Almost, I said to my strained face in the mirror.
“Can I get a large iced hazelnut coffee?” I asked. The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.
“You’re back?” He handed me the change.
“You were in here yesterday. You got that same coffee.”
“No. I. Did. Not.” I shook my head for emphasis. I imagined myself getting out of the car yesterday, tomorrow, and every day of my new life, pulling into the Dunkin’ Donuts in motherfucking New Jersey, and ordering that coffee. I felt sick. “I didn’t,” I said again, still shaking my head.
“I’m back, it’s me,” I said to the tollbooth woman, rolling the window down triumphantly. She raised one eyebrow and hooked her thumb into her belt loop. I handed her money like it was nothing. “Can I get in now?”
SALT: your mouth waters itself. Flakes from Brittany, liquescent on contact. Blocks of pink salt from the Himalayas, matte gray clumps from Japan. An endless stream of kosher salt, falling from Chef’s hand. Salting the most nuanced of enterprises, the food always requesting more, but the tipping point fatal.
A friend of a friend of a friend, his name was Jesse. A spare bedroom for $700 a month. A neighborhood called Williamsburg. The city was in the grips of a tyrannical heat wave, the daily papers headlined with news of people dying in Queens and the outer boroughs where there were blackouts. The cops were passing out bags of ice, an evaporating consolation.
The streets were wide and vacant and I parked my car on Roebling. It was midafternoon, there wasn’t enough shade, and every business seemed closed. I walked over to Bedford Avenue to look for signs of life. I saw a coffee shop and thought about asking if they needed a barista. When I looked through the window the kids on laptops were thin lipped, pierced, gaunt, so much older than me. I had promised myself to find work swiftly and unthinkingly—as a waitress, a barista, a whatever-the-fuck-job so I could feel planted. But when I told myself to open the door my hand objected.
The waterfront skyline was plastered with skeletons of high-rises, escalating out of the low buildings. They looked like mistakes that had been rubbed out with an eraser. Creaking above an overgrown, abandoned lot was a rusted-out Mobil gas sign—all around me ambivalent evidence of extinction.
This new roommate had left the keys at a bar near the apartment. He worked in an office in Midtown during the day and couldn’t meet me.
Clem’s was a dark spot on a bright corner, the air conditioner rumbling like a diesel motor. It anointed me with a drip when I walked in, and I stood blinking in the airstream while my eyes adjusted.
There was a bartender leaning heavily against the back counter with his boots up on the bar in front of him. He wore a patched and studded denim vest with no shirt underneath. Two women sat in front of him in yellow print dresses, twirling straws in big drinks. No one said anything to me.
“Keys, keys, keys,” he said when I asked. In addition to his body odor, which hit me in the face on my approach, this man was covered in terrifying—demonic—tattoos. The skin of his ribs seemed glued on. A mustache as defined as pigtails. He pulled out the register, threw it on the bar, and rummaged through the drawer underneath. Stacks of credit cards, foreign change, envelopes, receipts. The bills fluttered against the clamps.
“You Jesse’s girl?”
“Ha,” one of the women said from down the bar. She pressed her drink onto her forehead and rolled it back and forth. “That was funny.”
“It’s South Second and Roebling,” I said.
“Am I a fucking real estate agent?” He threw a handful of keys with plastic colored tags at me.
“Aw, don’t scare her,” the second woman said. They didn’t look like sisters exactly, but they were both fleshy, rising out of their halter necklines like figureheads on the prow of a ship. One was blond, the other brunette—and now that I was looking, their dresses were definitely identical. They murmured inside jokes to each other.
How am I going to live here? I wondered. Someone is going to have to change, them or me. I found the keys marked 220 Roebling. The bartender ducked down.
“Thank you very much, sir,” I said to the air.
“Oh, no problem, madame,” he said, popping up and batting his eyes at me. He opened a can of beer, pushed his mustache up, and ran his tongue around it while looking at me.
“Okay,” I said, backing away. “Well, maybe I’ll come in again. For like . . . a drink.”
“I’ll be here with bells on,” he said, turning his back on me. His stench lingered.
Just before I stepped out into the heat I heard one of the women say, “Oh god,” and then from that bartender: “There goes the fucking neighborhood.”
SWEET: granular, powdered, brown, slow like honey or molasses. The mouth-coating sugars in milk. Once, when we were wild, sugar intoxicated us, the first narcotic we craved and languished in. We’ve tamed, refined it, but the juice from a peach still runs like a flash flood.
I don’t remember why I went to that restaurant first.
I do remember—in perfect detail—that stretch of Sixteenth Street that gave away so little: the impersonal, midcentury teal of Coffee Shop, the battalion of dumpsters between us and Blue Water Grill, the bodega with two small card tables where they let you drink beer. Always uniformed servers buying Altoids and energy drinks.
The alley where the cooks lined up to smoke cigarettes between services, the recesses of the alley where they smoked pot and kicked at the rats tearing through the trash. And just beyond our line of vision we could sense the outlines of the scrawny park.
What did the Owner gaze at when he built it? The future.
When I got there they told me a lot of stories. Nobody went to Union Square in the eighties, they said. Only a few of the publishing houses had moved down there. That city has been replaced by another city. The Whole Foods, the Barnes & Noble, the Best Buy—they got stacked right on top of it. In Rome, they dig for a subway and find whole civilizations. With all the artists, the politicians, the tailors, the hairdressers, the bartenders. If you dug right here on Sixteenth Street you’d find us, younger, and all the stale haunts, and all the old bums in the park younger too.
What did those original servers see when they went to the first interviews in 1985? A tavern, a grill, a bistro? A mess of Italy, France, and some burgeoning American cuisine that nobody really believed in yet? A hodgepodge that shouldn’t have worked? When I asked them what they saw, they said he’d built a kind of restaurant that hadn’t been there before. They all said that when they walked in, it felt like coming home.
BITTER: always a bit unanticipated. Coffee, chocolate, rosemary, citrus rinds, wine. Once, when we were wild, it told us about poison. The mouth still hesitates at each new encounter. We urge it forward, say, Adapt. Now, enjoy it.
I smiled too much. At the end of the interview the corners of my mouth ached like stakes in a tent. I wore a black sundress and a pilled cardigan, which was the most conservative and professional thing I owned. I had a handful of résumés folded up in my purse, and my loose plan—if that’s even the right word for the hesitant brand of instinct I forced myself to follow with a sense of doom—was to walk into restaurants until I got hired. When I asked my roommate where I should look for a job, he said the best restaurant in New York City was in Union Square. Within a minute of getting off the train I developed giant wet half-moons of sweat in the cardigan, but the top of my dress was too revealing to remove it.
“Why did you choose New York?” asked Howard, the general manager.
“I thought you were going to ask me why I chose this restaurant,” I said.
“Let’s start with New York.”
I knew from books, movies, and Sex and the City how I was supposed to answer. I’ve always dreamed of living here, they say. They stress the word dreamed, lengthen it, to make it sound true.
I knew so many said: I came here to be a singer/dancer/actress/photographer/painter. In finance/fashion/publishing. I came here to be powerful/beautiful/wealthy. This always seemed to mean: I’m stopping here to become someone else.
I said, “It really didn’t feel like a choice. Where else is there to go?”
“Ah,” he said. “It’s a bit of a calling isn’t it?”
That’s all. Ah. And I felt like he understood that I didn’t have endless options, that there was only one place large enough to hold so much unbridled, unfocused desire. Ah. Maybe he knew how I fantasized about living a twenty-four-hour life. Maybe he knew how bored I had been up until now.
Howard was in his late forties with a cultivated, square face. His hair receded finely, emphasizing bulging eyes that told me he didn’t need much sleep. He stood squarely on athletic legs, balancing a prominent belly. Judicious eyes, I thought, as he tapped his fingers on the white tablecloth and assessed me.
“You have nice nails,” I said, looking at his hands.
“It’s part of the job,” he said, unswayed. “Tell me what you know about wine.”
“Oh, the basics. I’m competent in the basics.” As in I knew the difference between white and red wine and it couldn’t get more basic than that.
“For example,” he said, looking around the room as if plucking a question from the air, “what are the five noble grapes of Bordeaux?”
I pictured cartoon grapes wearing crowns on their heads, welcoming me to their châteaux—Hello, we are the noble grapes of Bordeaux, they said. I debated lying. It was impossible to know how much honesty about my ignorance would be valued.
“Mer . . . lot?”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s one.”
“Cabernet? I’m sorry, I don’t really drink Bordeaux.”
He seemed sympathetic. “Of course, it’s a bit above the average price point.”
“Yep.” I nodded. “That’s totally it.”
“What do you drink?”
My first instinct was to list the different beverages I drank on a daily basis. The noble grapes were back in my head, dancing, telling him all about my Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee.
“What do I drink when?”
“When you purchase a bottle of wine, what do you tend toward?”
I imagined myself purchasing a bottle of wine, not based on price or proximity to the checkout line, not based on what animal was on the label, but by an internal matrix of my own taste. That image was as laughable as my noble grapes, even if I was wearing a cardigan.
“Beaujolais? Is that a wine?”
“It is. Beaujolais, c’est un vin fainéant et radin.”
“Which cru do you prefer?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, batting my eyelashes forcibly, falsely.
“Do you have any experience as a server?”
“Yes. I’ve been working at that coffee shop for years. It’s on my résumé.”
“I mean in a restaurant. Do you know what it means to be a server?”
“Yes. When the plates are ready I bring them out and serve them to customers.”
“You mean guests.”
“Yes, that’s what I meant.” He scribbled on the top of my résumé. Server? Guests? What was the difference between a guest...
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