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Monday, February 18, 2008

As life-changing moments go, it was pretty small.  It wasn’t quite a Gordon Ramsay moment.  It wasn’t even a Howard Beale moment.  It didn’t solve any mysteries of the universe, it is not the little acorn from which mighty oak trees grow, and odds are that I won’t live happily ever after as a result of it.  Really, it was less of a life change and more of an attitude adjustment.  That said, things are different with me now, all because I decided to leave a restaurant yesterday.

Now that I am unemployed, the hours that I keep are eccentric, to put it mildly.  I still wake up between 6:30 and 7 in the morning so I can have coffee with Lloyd, and I still go to bed around 11 or 11:30, depending on whether I feel like watching Alton Brown (I usually do).  In the intervening hours, I write, I look for work, I eat and I go to the pool, but I rarely follow the same hours twice.  Some days I look for work all day, some days I write for two hours and then spend the rest of the day cleaning the kitchen, some days I just bail on everything and head to Brooklyn or Chinatown, camera in hand.  I have had days where I don’t eat breakfast until 11:30 in the morning, I don’t eat lunch until 3, and then wonder if I will be in the mood to eat dinner when I serve it to Lloyd around 7:30.  This shaggy dog schedule only grew doggier during the school application process, when I spent hours glowering at my essays, and then during the week after my apps were finished and submitted, when I caught the powerful, misery-inducing flu virus making its merry way around New York City and Points Everywhere Else.  I spent over a week living on Theraflu, Gatorade and oranges, watching Kim and Aggie come up with impressive similes inside of filthy homes, and doing very little else.  Now I’m feeling better, but the eccentric schedule still rules the day.

This is how I found myself yesterday at 2:30, after a morning of scouring the want ads and an afternoon of cleaning the kitchen floor.  I was ready for lunch and decided to go to a restaurant in Astoria I had walked by many times, but had never actually visited.  It is a favorite of my pals in the neighborhood, who like to go for breakfast on weekends, and I had thought that their menu looked intriguing.  Seeing steak frites on the menu put the cap on my decision, sending me into reveries of oooo, steak, oooo, red wine, food for the blood, oo, oo, oo.  I walked in and was instantly struck by the fact that it was close to 3 and the restaurant was full.  Granted, it was a small restaurant, seating 30 people at maximum, but it was still full; moreover, it was full of people still eating and drinking, not lingering dreamily over coffee or aperitifs.  Later I would learn that this was holiday weekend brunch traffic, not typical for this place at this time—but I am getting ahead of myself here.

I placed my order—steak frites, mesclun salad with apples and cucumbers, a glass of shiraz—and sat knitting my sock, sipping my wine and watching the crowd.  At the time I had no plan. I was happy to sit and wait, and wait, and...uh oh, here comes the floor manager to apologize to the women sitting next to me, who, I realized, had been there with drinks when I was seated.  “We’re really sorry about the wait, guys,” said the floor manager.  Normally it’s not this busy.  We had two big tables come in at the same time.  I know you’ve been waiting for a while.”

I looked at the big tables.  Six at one.  Five at another.  Every other table was a two-top or three-top.  Uh oh.

The floor manager came back.  “Guys, they’re plating your food right now,” she said to the two women.  For giggles, I checked my phone.  It had been half an hour since I had arrived at the restaurant.  Still no salad.

Five minutes after she said that the food was being plated, the plates finally arrived at the table next to mine.

I put the sock away and watched the room for a while.  More food came out, going to a three-top that had also been seated with drinks when I had arrived.  The floor manager and the waiter ran around the room a lot, disappearing into the kitchen, re-emerging without food, going back into the kitchen.  It was ten minutes to four, nearly an hour since I’d arrived, nearly 45 minutes since my order had been taken.  No salad.  No steak.

The floor manager came back out, bearing more food—and here was the moment where my mind was officially boggled.  She delivered the food to the six-top, to a table full of people who had been eating their entrees when I had arrived. Apparently not everybody’s food was ready at the same time.  Back into the kitchen she went, back out she came with more food, this time for the five-top, another table full of people who had been working on their entrees when I got there.

It was at that moment that I decided to cut my losses, pay for my wine and leave.  Obviously something had gone seriously amuck in the kitchen, and the chef was in the weeds.  Maybe the chef was working alone that day, trying to juggle a full restaurant without support.  Maybe something had gone wrong with the kitchen equipment, pushing service back until it could be fixed.  I knew that all kinds of trouble could befall a restaurant, and that one bad night, or one bad afternoon, was not indicative of the general quality of a restaurant.  I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I asked the waiter for my bill for the wine.  He looked nervous, said, “uh, okay,” and disappeared.  Within a minute, the floor manager was at my table.

“Do you at least want us to wrap it for you so you can take it with you?  Because, I mean, they’re making it now.  I know you’ve been waiting for a while, but they’re making it now.”

“No, I really would just like to settle my bill and leave.  It’s been close to an hour and I haven’t even seen my salad, never mind my entree.”

“Well, ma’am,” the manager said, switching to the tone of voice my mother used to use when I’d been caught in a statement of wild-eyed exaggeration, “I don’t think it’s been *quite* an hour.”

“It hasn’t been an hour since I’ve ordered, but it *has* been an hour since I arrived,” I replied, but she cut me off quickly.  “You have to remember, we’re a small restaurant.  We don’t get this kind of crowd at this hour, and we had two tables come in at once.”

This is normally the moment at which my creampuff personality is revealed, where I would realize that these poor folks are dealing with circumstances beyond their control, where I would just sit down and politely agree to stay for my meal.  This time, though, something was different.

“But,” I said in what I’d like to think was a firm yet pleasant tone, “you’re a restaurant.  Being full up at lunchtime is a good thing.  And it’s a holiday weekend, and on holiday weekends tables fill up.  You have to be equipped for it, and you have to be staffed for it.”

“We ARE staffed for it, ma’am,” she answered quickly.  “We are staffed for it.  We have three people cooking today.” The shock on my face at the news that this mishegoss took place at the hands of three cooks must have been palpable, because she changed tacks.  “Look, they’re all ready to go.  You really don’t want to wait just a little longer?”

It was 4 p.m.  My last ounce of benefit of the doubt was gone.  “I would really, really, really like to just pay for the wine, and to go now.”

“Well,” she said, her demeanor softening, “of course your wine is on the house.”

“Thank you,” I responded, kindly, I hope, and left.

Again, it’s far from the worst experience anyone has ever had at a restaurant—hell, it’s far from the worst experience *I’ve* ever had at a restaurant.  It didn’t cost me any money; it didn’t cost me much time.  It didn’t even leave me with a bitter taste against the restaurant.  Their menu is still compelling, their food still looks great, and I’ll bet that when the kitchen is working the way it should, they’ll make me a terrific meal.  I also knew that yesterday they had every intention of making me a terrific meal, but for the first time ever, I didn’t care about anyone’s good intentions.  I didn’t care that they were doing the best they could under difficult circumstances.  I didn’t care of what they were capable of.  At that moment, I cared about their actual performance; I found it lacking, and I didn’t feel patient enough to reward them for trying. I was disappointed, and I wanted to get the message across. 

I thought about this on my walk back through the neighborhood.  This was a big deal for me—but why?  Why did it feel so weird to lose my patience like that?  Upon further reflection, I understood a little better.  I had taken the Golden Rule to ridiculous extremes.  I have a bad habit of shrinking from criticism, of hoping that if people notice how hard *I* try, or how well-intended I am, they won’t feel compelled to share any brutally-honest assessments of my own work.  So, of course, if I want to be given a lot of rope, it’s only fair that I should give a lot of rope to others.

I believe the phrase for which I am casting about is “pernicious nonsense,” as in “This argument is a load of...”

The time for delicate flowerhood is over.  I am on the verge of starting law school, or at least I hope I am.  In law school, and in court, you don’t get credit for almost winning your case, or for wanting to win your case, or for having every intention of winning your case.  There is only the quality of the work you do, just as it is the quality of the meal that is actually served to you, not the meal that would have been served to you if the kitchen staff hadn’t been in the weeds; just as it is the quality of the novel you write, not the vague idea of a story you’ve had kicking around in your head for the past ten years.  It shouldn’t have taken me this long to figure it out, but at this moment I’m less concerned with what took you so long? and more concerned with what now? Now, things are different with me now, all because I decided to leave a restaurant yesterday.

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