This post is a response to a writing exercise for Expressive Subjects.
The key to being a good waiter is to serve unnoticed. A good server is organized in the background and doesn’t intrude. Some waiters just don’t get that. They think that the customers came out to watch them perform, that they are acting on some spectacle stage and are going to make people watch whether they want to or not. When I served I always had a joke or a magic trick or a story if the customer wanted one, but I didn’t ever want to show off. I never wanted to be a performing seal.
I had just shown up for the lunch shift at Cruzzo in Malahide. I went into the kitchen to see what was on the go that day. There was a new kitchen porter starting and he shot me a bewildered look, as all new kitchen staff do.
“Hey Nate, how you doing?” said Paul. “This is my son, Cosmin. Here Cos, say hi to Nate.”
“Paul’s told me all about you,” I said as I shook his hand. “Welcome to Ireland.”
He was about my height and had the same strong facial features as his father. I knew that he was twenty and had just finished a college program in mathematics from conversations I'd had with Paul. They were from Romania and were both in Ireland illegally, as was Paul’s older brother, Viorelle. Viorelle had been working at Cruzzo as a kitchen porter in partnership with Paul until he was found to have placed an egg in the toe of a chef’s casual shoes. The chef had been particularly cruel to Viorelle by giving him scalding hot pans to clean, burning him in the process. To me it seemed harsh to sac Viorelle, but the Romanians literally had no rights in Ireland. Viorelle got another job somewhere as a painter, and incidentally, the mean chef was demoted to kitchen porter and quit about a week later, only to be replaced by Cosmin.
“Cos, you know Nate is good guy. I tell you. Remember I say?"
Paul was beaming he was so happy, just to have his son with him. His was such a hard life, to do what he did and be so far from home, and I couldn’t help but feel good for him.
“It’s nice to meet you,” said Cosmin in perfect English. “My father has told me a lot about you. It’s nice we get to know one another.”
“Likewise. I’ll get coffees and we can go outside and have a smoke, okay?”
“No Nate, no!” said Paul, “You and me smoke, but Cosmin no!”
I smiled at Cosmin and nodded, noticing the smoke pack outlined in the shirt pocket of his smock. “I’ll get three espresso. Hold that thought,” I said as I backed out of the dishpit.
I took a quick look at the specials board on the way by the pass. “Same as yesterday,” I thought. “Creative lot of chefs working here.”
I didn’t need to check and see if the bar was ready for service. The code of Irish bartending requires that you leave a bar cleaner and better stocked than you found it. All I had to do was wait for the customers. I went to the end of the bar and made three macchiatos.
Paul and Cosmin were already out back when I caught up with them. They seemed to be hotly debating something, and I may have learned the Romanian word for cigarette if I’d been paying more attention to them. I was drawn into looking at the arrangement of plates on the top of the shoulder height stonewall closing in the alley. Whenever Paul had a plate come through the dish pit that looked as though there was an artistic rendering in the leftovers he would put them aside and save them. Most often this was the medium of young children, making castles from mashed potatoes, and cut off straws with pieces of tissue for flags. It was not, however, exclusively children who make plate doodle designs, and the ones that struck Paul as the most inspired were kept for the alleyway collection.
“Which one you like best?” said Paul, as he reached to relieve me of the two extra cups.
“I don’t know Paul. It’s hard to pick just one, but if I had to choose I’d take the chicken bone clock.”
Paul and I had had this conversation many times before and I always noticed when a new piece was added to the gallery. Paul’s favorite was one made of olives and mustard in the shape of the constelation Orion, reaching for the Seven Sisters. The piece was minimalist, or so he said, and this appealed to Paul’s practical nature. He would admire it every morning while we had coffee and say, “I like easy to wash.”
One other that was particularly good was an outline of a thunderbird made with asparagus and orange peels. It had the look of a phoenix waiting to be reborn on a pyre and it was one of the first that Paul had kept. He had put it on a shelf next to his wash-up area for all to see. The manager at the time had frowned on the practice of keeping the plates out of circulation. He saw it as wasteful, I guess. But after the whole Viorelle-egg-shoe incident they let Paul do whatever he pleased, not wanting to lose the rest of their cheep labor.
In Romania, Paul and Viorelle both had good jobs. Paul was, in fact, a retired teacher, and Viorelle was a truck driver. They left Transylvania, which they assured me was a bountiful and magnificent place, and came to Ireland to illegally work in kitchens cleaning dishes because the money was so much better. I always thought it was funny that a nation so close to the rich western countries was that unequal, and it made me wonder what the rest of the world was like.
We chatted away for a few minutes, enjoying the sunshine and cigarettes and the easy nature of Romanian humor. When I was around Paul and his friends it made me wish that Ireland was full of Romanians. I tried to start most of my shifts by having coffee with the Paul and the porters. They had the worst job in the place, and yet the biggest smiles.
The hands on my watch rolled past twelve and I knew it was time to start back to work.
"Hey Nate," said Paul. "I have new plate to put up on wall. Think this one better than all the rest. You tell me what you think."
On the white background of the plate sat a single sprig of lettuce, slightly molted and shrivelled up -- it looked like a battered boat sitting on a calm sea. Inside it a single passenger, a gold ring with a red stone, the significance of which I have never been able to understand.
Paul held the plate before his son and said, "A nu se lăsa niciodată pe nimeni să vă spun sunt mai puţin pentru munca cinstită pe care o faceţi. Sunteti pe fiul meu şi te iubesc."
Cosmin looked for a moment at his father. He picked up the ring and put it in his shirt pocket and gave Paul a hug. I couldn't help but feel I'd missed out on something important and magical, though I knew instinctively I was in the presence of a father's unfolding artistry and the heart of the ages, passing from one hand to another.
(Link to a translator if you're interested in what Paul said)