22. Mark

My days of employ at Zemblanity are numbered. The road beckons once more, as does Europe for the first time, as does the hope of something better. “Dear Tanya,” I wrote in my notice, “March 30th will be my last day. It has been a surreal pleasure to work amongst a cast of such colorful characters. My experience of New York will forever be entwined with this magnificent old restaurant.”

I ripped out this sheet of paper and handed it to Tanya as she marched by to which she said, “Aw, a ripped sheet of paper? You know, you almost got it perfectly right.” This illustrated in sharp relief the sentiments opposite to those that I had expressed. Zemblanity is just a stupid, cruel, waste of a job that tears down character. It makes me practically giddy to think about throwing off the shackles of this place.

But then, just to complicate matters, Tanya came down from her office and put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I really liked your note.” And she smirked her tough guy smirk, nodded, and marched off. Of any of the characters I have briefly examined here, she is the most perplexing of all. One moment, she’s a terrifying, bloodthirsty valkyrie and at the next moment, she’s your buddy, she’s your pal. The lady is an enigma.

I rather wish that I could show her this blog, or anyone at work for that matter, although I know that I won’t. How strange it has been, walking around the workplace amongst my fellow employees and all the while with an undisclosed volume of observation scribbling itself behind my eyes. Perhaps everyone feels like this. Perhaps everyone has a vast, unread manuscript of thoughts tucked between their ribs… uninhabited and dusty palaces... unvisited libraries…

Actually, come to think of it, I have told one person that work with about this blog. His name is Mark and he was the receptionist when I first began. He left a month or two into my time at Zemblanity to go to work for the New School and now only fills in from time to time on the weekends. I figured that he would be safe to tell because he’s sort of an outsider at the restaurant and promised never to divulge the contents of these secret tracts.

Mark is a tall drink of water from the state of Alabama, complete with rolling southern drawl and a set of almost antiquated manners, all “yes ma’ams” and “y’alls.” Everyone loves him partly because he seems impervious to the spirit-tarnishing grind of working an unsatisfying job. Now that he only works part time, he’s doubly impervious. As he often likes to ask, “what are they going to do? Fire me?” Then he impersonates Michael Jackson, singing “woo!” and laughs. The dude makes himself laugh all the time.

There’s a sort of manic, attention-deficient glee with which he cartwheels through the workday. He seems to have no filter whatsoever and says whatever ludicrously stupid joke springs into his mind. Actually, part of the reason that he’s so hilarious to work with is that his jokes are so unfunny. He seems to take a bizarre sort of pride in allowing himself to shout out profoundly random non-sequitors. Here are some approximations:

“What if I had hooves instead of feet?”

[While speaking in a squeaky voice] “What if I talked like this?”

“Would it blow your mind if I just disappeared right now in front of you?”

[Under his breath to a rude customer] “Oh no you didn’t, you old pig face.”

“Gosh darn, I smell like a turd today, don’t I?”

“You know what I love? McDonald’s sweet tea. No lie.”

Once Mark told me a story about Mr. Charles coming in with a new cologne. He wanted Mark’s opinion and said, “Marcus, smell my neck. No, you can’t smell it from there. Come close and smell my neck Marcus.” MY GOD! How creepy is that? Mark and I got a few rounds of hearty laughter out of that one.

Last weekend, I told him that it wouldn’t surprise me if in a fit of weird hysteria, it popped into his head to burn the whole place down for a laugh. He thought this was pretty funny. His brand of wonky, delirious hysteria effects everyone who works with him. Last weekend, several times, I ended up laughing so hard that I had to step out in the hallway so as to not disturb any of the patrons. As far as I’ve seen, this ludicrous, unfiltered sense of humor is the best defense against an existentially hollow stretch of employment. It is a flailing, farting, discombobulating sort of rebellion. If your work makes no sense, it’s okay to make no sense.

At the end of the shift, I took him aside at said, “Okay Mark, you’ve got to check out this website of mine but you seriously can’t tell anybody. I mean no one. It’s a secret.”

Recent Celebrities:

Pre-Oscar Jeff Bridges, Lady Gaga, Kevin Pollack, Some America's Top Model and... Barbara Feldon, who played "99" on the old Get Smart. Every year, she and her best friend celebrate their birthdays at Zemblanity. They sit in Marilyn Monroe's old booth for over three hours and don't tip nearly enough to make up for it. "There's nothing we can do," says Miss Annette. "It's always the same every year. This is Zemblanity and it's the way things are."

21. The Game of Life

I found Mr. Charles reading a newspaper review of the Russian Tea Room. Old school restaurants of the tacky, kitschy variety rarely receive press but ever since the Tavern on the Green closed down, all eyes have been on the Russian Tea Room, the last remnant of the legacy of Warner LeRoy.

Surely you have seen the Tavern on the Green. Remember in Ghostbusters, when Rick Moranis runs up to the glass of a schmaltzy restaurant as he’s being chased by a ghoulish gargoyle dog? He screams and falls down and all the rich people stop momentarily, look over, and then return to their conversations. That’s the Tavern on the Green and it’s actually in Central Park. That is, it was until New Years when it closed its doors because it couldn’t pay the bills.

It was a big deal for New York. That ridiculous, outlandish relic of a bygone age was a real landmark in this city of cities and it’s closing came as a shock. The ooze of it’s glitzy “magnificence” was an embarrassment (my wife once mocked it’s faux-luxury as we walked by on a particularly pleasant summer stroll) but when it shuttered its doors, it was like losing an old friend. And New York said goodbye the best way it could- they sold every bit of that restaurant, piecemeal at an auction, every nut and bolt. Mr. Charles probably obtained the mirrored butterflies in the same manner, by picking over the corpse of Josephine Baker’s defunct Parisian nightclub.

Well, the same guy who ran the Tavern on the Green, ran the Russian Tea Room. Back in the day, this place was a wonderland of Eastern European and Russian glamour, all dazzling reds and gold. Wild intellectuals and ballet companies would drop in for parties. A radio interview show was broadcast regularly from one of the dining rooms. The place was on top. That was before old Warner LeRoy kicked the bucket a few years back.

Now there’s this review in the Post that is as bloodthirsty an evisceration as I have ever read in print. Here’s a few delicious, horrible tidbits from critic Steve Cuozzo.

The RTR has been plagued by rude and/or moronic hostesses since the LeRoy days… A $38 Shashlik ‘tasting’ was evidently inspired by the shoe Khruschev pounded at the UN: skewered chicken, beef and lamb burnt to a uniform leather no street vendor could likely replicate.” He goes on. “Chicken Kiev ($38) contained mysterious hollow apparently meant for herbs that took the night off.” The herring is called “Supermarket-Grade.” The gravlax was called “mucilaginous.” The kitchen is said to be “beyond hope of rescue.” The headline reads “Just Say Nyet to Terrible Tea Room.”

To me, it seemed that as Mr. Charles read this review, he was looking into a sort of mirror and his reaction was interesting. “Well, it’s just a sort of oversized monstrosity now, an enormous white elephant. It’s bound to happen to every restaurant. People get bored and move on, especially now with the influx of cuisine with such refined tastes. Even the most loyal customers can be two-faced. People can be real mother-fuckers.”

This is the only time I’ve ever heard Mr. Charles use foul language.

“If you own a club or a restaurant, two years. Two years is all you have to make your money. We’ve been very lucky to have lines out the door for all these years but you know what they say. Nothing lasts forever.”

To me, Zemblanity is many things- comic, ludicrous, mysterious, cruel. But it’s difficult for me to imagine how Mr. Charles must feel about the restaurant that he has devoted over fifty-five years of his life to. It makes me think about how Walt Whitman wrote the same book, “Leaves of Grass,” over and over throughout his life. He just kept revising it and adding to it and putting out new editions of it. He thought of the book as if it were his body or his life. I imagine that when Mr. Charles considers Zemblanity, he must think of it as interwoven with his own life- his history, his memory, the lives and deaths of his best friends, the passing of time and question of mortality. Mr. Charles just turned 78. He must wonder what will happen to Zemblanity when he dies.

Yesterday, an old man was helped through the front door by his good looking, well dressed and (apparently) successful son. This old man was very feeble but seemed kind and cordially addressed Mr. Charles who returned the greeting. After I had seated the father and son, Mr. Charles came over and asked, “Do you know who that is?”

I did not.

“That fellow invented a board game for Milton Bradley called LIFE. Made a fortune on it too.”

I looked at that old fellow, chatting happily with his son and remembered playing that game as a kid. You’ve got your little plastic car and you eventually go to school (or just get a crappy job) and get married and then get kids, which are little pink and blue pegs that you stick into the car. You turn the multi-colored wheel of fortune (which is situated on the game board up inside a green mountain) and you try to make a ton of money so that you can retire in style. What a truly existential board game that was… like a proto-typical Sims.

And there’s the guy that thought it all up, sitting there at table 32 with his son and he seems pretty happy. Good for him. He shook my hand on the way out and thanked Mr. Charles and me for our hospitality.

Later, during that same shift, Miss Annette started coughing and coughing. It was the horrible, gut-wrenching, emphysemic, bellowing sort of cough that breaks the ribs of old people. “God,” she sighed after regaining her breath.

“I don’t think I’m long for this world.”

20. Zemblanity Day

A few days ago, I was cleaning what I thought was a large wooden cabinet hung on the wall. “Hey Mr. Charles, what’s this big thing that I’m cleaning?”

“That,” said Mr. Charles, as he regarded it like a painting, “is a mailbox from Goshen New York from the 1890’s. Do you see the little key holes there? The mail officer would put the mail into the back of those chambers and residents would use their keys to get it out from the front. That’s probably one hundred and twenty years old.”

“And what’s that creepy head in there?” I asked. I was referring to what I had thought was a disturbing looking Mardi Gras mannequin head displayed in one of the mailbox windows (refer to Zemblanity #2).

“Don’t you make fun of her,” said Mr. Charles in his mischievous way. “She’s famous. That is an old-fashioned wax mannequin head that I brought back from Paris many, many years ago, when I was an aspiring designer. She’s probably worth a lot of money. One time, Salvador Dali was in – this was when he was living in New York… the mid-sixties, I think – and he took one look at her and said, ‘I must have her for my show!’ So I said, ‘Why yes. Of course!’ and he walks out with her.

“Well, for my contribution he gave me a free ticket to the show, which was at the Museum of Modern Art and there she was, at the bottom of an enormous fish tank. She was surrounded by car parts as though there had been a terrible car crash into a river and there were shells and snails all over her face. Who knows what it all meant.”

“So Dali brought her back?”

“Yes, a week or two after the show had closed. And then we had a waiter who was also a hair stylist and makeup artist. I was gone on vacation one summer and he put that wild wig on her and that makeup all over her face. I don’t much like it that way to tell you the truth. Makes her look like a hooker. Loses some of its authenticity, don’t you know.”

I touched the waxen mannequin face. Wow. This was a part of a work by Salvador Dali. I probably should have guessed.

“Did you also know that those mirrored butterflies upstairs came from Josephine Baker’s nightclub in Paris? She was the black dancer from Chicago who would dance in Paris wearing only a string of bananas around her waist. The Parisians absolutely loved her. The stained-glass butterflies downstairs aren’t from her club, they’re from the Tiffany Company.”

At this point, Miss Annette shuffles up in her flamboyantly red shaggy coat that looked as if it had been made out of a hundred false feather boas or perhaps a quantity of skinned Elmos. It occurred to me that she was the legendary Madame of Zemblanity and that when she died, it would be as if a great and scandalizing library had burned down. She was chuckling and reading a book from the Zemblanity General Store entitled “How to Live with a Huge Penis: Advice and Meditations and Wisdom for Men Who Have Too Much.”

“My God,” said Annette. “Get this. Did you know that Hitler had a one-inch penis when erect? And that the Nazis prized small penises? My god, do you believe that or what? I wonder how they found out about that. It would sure explain a lot of things though. Says here Churchill knew that if Hitler won the war, men everywhere with big penises would be in danger. God, do you believe that?”

Then, only a few minutes later, Zemblanity’s publicist comes down and hands me a piece of paper, which I promptly copied down. It reads:

Whereas: In this culinary capital of the world, New York City’s restaurants are true Meecas for gastronomic aficionados. And no restaurant fits the bill better than Zemblanity 3, which opened its doors in our City in 1954. Since that time it has been dishing out such delectable treats as its signature Icy Hot Chocolate to countless customers from around the globe. Today, the City of New York is proud to join in celebrating Zemblanity 3’s more than five decades of success as it serves its ten millionth Icy Hot Chocolate.

Whereas: As New York’s first coffee house boutique, Zemblanity 3 opened with just four tables, sixteen chairs, and a sturdy espresso machine. Its Icy Hot Chocolate recipe is a highly guarded secret, but what we do know is that this combination of fourteen different premium cocoas has become an iconic gastronomic experience for locals and visitors alike, who will wait on line for hours to enjoy one.

Whereas: On behalf of the City of New York, I commend all those associated with Zemblanity 3 for bringing the wonderful art of the Icy Hot Chocolate drink to our great city for more than five delicious decades. Please accept my best wishes for an enjoyable celebration, many more years of success, and (at least) another ten million more Icy Hot Chocolates!

Now therefore, I, Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of the City of New York, do hereby proclaim Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010 in the City of New York as:

“Zemblanity 3 Day!”

19. Interview

Way back when, Zemblanity was a suit and tie sort of place. Mr. Charles and his partners, Kitt Caruso and Billy Mann, would stand at the omelet buffet and would make custom omelets for guests while each wearing three-piece suits. They would sometimes cook pies and casseroles and the like in similar attire. All the waiters wore suits. All the male guests wore suits and the women wore dresses. I asked Mr. Charles when dress code stopped being enforced.

“Oh, my word, some time in the seventies I suppose. That’s when everything seemed to get so much more casual. We dressed in suits in the fifties because everyone wore suits in the fifties. Everything was so much more formal then, so much more naïve. Now everyone thinks they know more than you do. Back then we were so spontaneous, this restaurant was so wild!”

I thought it over awhile and asked him why things had changed. Why don’t we play crazy pranks anymore or act wild and spontaneous at the restaurant?

“Well, you see, back then it was only the ‘it’ crowd stopping in to eat with us. I remember when Cary Grant and Grace Kelly stumbled down our stairs. They were just back from France where they had been filming To Catch A Thief, you know, the Hitchcock movie? Well, I think they must have been having a little affair because Grace didn’t seem to care at all what she looked like and had that glow about her.

“Anyhow, for a few years this was the scene, the crème de la crème and that was all it took to keep us in business. That’s what created the lines outside. And you have to keep that momentum for years and years. Now that we’ve had that momentum for so long, it’s self-perpetuating. On the other hand, it isn’t as many of the celebrities, or as many of the young and fashionable. They will always find new hotspots. Now we mostly have families and tourists. They don’t take outlandishness very well, do they?

“You know that Andy Warhol used to come in here out of the blue…”

At this point Mr. Charles begins in on a story I had heard him tell several times about how Andy Warhol would come in and place a copy of Interview Magazine (of which Warhol was editor) on every table without a word of explanation. The kicker was that when he left, everyone would ask who that strange fellow had been and Mr. Charles would say “Andy Warhol” and everyone would freak.

“All he ever seemed to say was ‘Wow…’” Mr. Charles imitates Warhol’s fey, stoned-out-of-his-mind way of speaking. “You know, he used to have a crush on me. I’ve told you about those 32 drawings that he gave me.” Here, Mr. Charles shows me a picture of the portrait that Andy drew of him. “You see the little heart there? They’re all covered in little hearts. But I couldn’t be with him because I was with my partner Kitt.”

Kitt Caruso, one of the other founders of Zemblanity, died of AIDS a number of years ago.

This was probably the most that Mr. Charles ever said to me at once so I decided to keep him talking. I asked him about where he had met his friend August. August is a long-time friend of Mr. Charles who stops in from Palm Springs for a week or two every so often.

“Oh, I met August at the disco.”

Studio 54?

“Of course! My god we used to have such wild times. It had been a theater before. Well, they took out all the seats and made the dance floor but kept the stage in tact. The bar ran in front of the stage and they kept all the box seats in the balcony. At four in the morning, they opened a bridge, which extended through the air across the theater. People would go dancing across it and oooh, if you looked down it was so terrifying but that was part of the kick. And the drugs… and all the sex…”

I heard it was real hard to get in. How did you always get by the bouncers?

“They knew us, for goodness sakes! We were all so famous then. And it was their job to let us in. That’s how you start a successful club. You get all the right people in. Annette and I would waltz right in the front door while all the Plebes waited in line (that’s what we called the people, Plebeians). I should show you a picture I have of Annette in a shag bikini I made for her. You wouldn’t even believe it. And the dancing was just out of this world!”

Here’s a quote I found from an article about Andy Warhol biographies in the New Yorker by Louis Menand which, I think, augment’s Mr. Charles’ memories in an interesting way:

“The culture around Warhol was a culture of high artifice—it’s icon was the drag queen—and the gossip, the posing, and the pretense were part of that. They do not make reliable history.”

For some strange reason or another, Old Miss Annette decided to open up on the very same topic during the very same shift. In the end, she expressed the regret of the restaurant’s soul very succinctly: “We just got too famous for our own good.”

But then, as if the restaurant were itself arguing for its continuing intrigue, a middle-aged woman came up and put her arms around Miss Annette. They chatted and commented on how well the other looked and Annette took this woman a very nice table. When Miss Annette came back, she said something which has baffled me profoundly:

“That woman used to come in here once a week in the eighties. She would come in with this really good looking guy. They both worked for NASA and their job…” At this point, she sort of stops and chuckles. “… Their job was to have sex on spaceships. I don’t know why, some sort of experiment. So I started talking to her about this just now and she said, ‘Annette, I just can’t believe you remember what my job used to be.’ And I said, ‘How many people do you think have jobs where they have sex on spaceships?’

I didn’t get a chance to ask this woman, who is now apparently a painter, how or why or what the hell this sex work for NASA could have possibly had been motivated by. This woman and her project, like so many things at Zemblanity, remain mysteries.

18. Five Episodes

1. Right when I walked in the front door today, Zemblanity’s repairman asked the cashier, “Do you believe that there are people out in space, on other worlds?” After a lengthy discussion of this, he asks “Okay, well then. Do you actually believe that astronauts landed on the moon.” Commence conspiracy theory discussion. Later, I found the repairman back in the kitchen and the cooks were really going for it. The fry cook, named Ed, was practically shouting about how genetic history proves a higher intelligence and that scientists have found- they have ACTUALLY FOUND- computer programs in our DNA. “Ones and zeroes, baby, ones and zeroes.” Diners, this is where your food comes from.

2. I was telling Miss Annette that I was going to see a Streetcar Named Desire with Cate Blanchett. She says, “I think Tennessee Williams lived in a hotel near here for awhile. Apparently he came in from time to time but somehow I always missed him. I would have liked to have met Tennessee Williams.”

I told her that I had just read that Tennessee Williams had been a big influence on John Waters of all people. “Well… yeah," she says. "They’re both crazy. But I doubt that Williams would ever have Blanche Dubois eat dog shit. John Waters did that you know. (I did know). In Pink Flamingos that was. You know, I knew Divine. We went out together to stay at this condo for week or two out at Fire Island. We had this cook friend who told us he would make us anything we wanted and so we said ‘Chicken.’ Well, Armond, that was his name, comes back with four whole chickens and I said, ‘there is no way that we’ll eat all that’ and Armond says, ‘these are just for Divine.’ She ate the whole thing. God, she’d sleep at night in nothing but a jock strap and would have to sleep diagonal so that she fit. I remember walking by when she had the sheets over her thinking she looked just like the biggest cream puff in the world."

Then Bernie, the accountant for Zemblanity, walks out, overhears us talking about Divine and says “Ah Divine… she was one of the greats.” Then Bernie walks off down the street to wherever it is he goes.

3. Big Gay Sam told this amazing story about how he would wait on Jacqueline Onassis in her twilight years. She was a very sweet lady, very demur. Once, after taking her order he went back into the kitchen and there was one of the other waiters, wearing a basket on his head in place of a pillbox hat, sitting on the counter and re-enacting the Zapruder film. “Oh… my… god! Roland! Don’t you have ANY decency!?”

4. I ought to say that for all the fracas, melee, and generally angry bedlam surrounding the holidays at Zemblanity, the actual holidays themselves were quite magical. For some reason, the crowds on Christmas Eve were really quiet and manageable. Everyone was happy for reasons no one seemed able to explain. All of the customers were kind and aglow. It was as if the impossible storm had finally broken and calm had washed over the island of Manhattan. But it hadn’t broken. After Christmas the next few days before New Years was a riot but… New Years Eve was a shift full of gladness. All of the busboys shook hands and exchanged greetings in their own languages. The cooks wore party hats. There was a kind excitement. Hell, I even hugged Tanya as I left. Ah, New Years in New York City!

5. Miss Annette: “God, there was this really good eggs place we used to go to after dancing at Studio 54. Where was that place? We used to only be able to stay awake for like five minutes or something before our faces started dropping into our plates."

17. The Cold

As the final week before Christmas approached, things at Zemblanity became even weirder- a fiercely surreal holiday glow resembling the panic of a refugee mob. Now, every single day of the week (even Monday mornings and Tuesday afternoons) was overrun from opening until close. Standing in the kitchen, it was almost possible to make out the whining complaint of the overtaxed gears as the dungeon churned out a quantity of food beyond its capacity. Everything was beyond capacity. The pistons are buckling! The ovens and dishwashers are breaking down!

Several times, the vents above the kitchen gave out and actual smoke came billowing out into the dining areas, curling around in wreaths around the flamboyant Christmas tree, which burned pinkly in the haze. The manager would run out to me and tell me to stop seating, STOP SEATING! so that the kitchen wouldn’t receive anymore orders while he frantically called maintenance. Having the manager shout at me to stop made me think of myself as an engineer shoveling coal into a furnace, only the diners are the coal and the entire restaurant is a madly barreling locomotive, close to coming off the tracks.

At one point- and keep in mind, many of these shifts seem like a dream- I remember my manager Gabriel shaking his head and saying “This whole damn place is coming apart!”

The worse loss, by far in my opinion, was when the heaters in the entryway gave out. A few days later, the repairman said that they had just been turned on full blast for too long. You see, the front door of Zemblanity often stays almost fully open. People are coming and going through in perpetually- to add their name, to check their reservation, to look through the gift shop, to take a picture, to go get the rest of their party… who knows what these people were doing? But what they WERE doing was opening the front door and upon each opening an arctic blast of such frigid intensity was invited in that everyone on the first floor shuddered in unison. When those two mighty heaters out front gave out, it became unbearable. Customers came up to me demanding to be reseated. “I WAITED FOUR HOURS to be seated and I DAMN WELL better get a warmer table!” It’s hard to blame them really, I certainly wouldn’t want to eat ice cream when its 20 degrees or lower in the restaurant. On the other hand, and for the same reasoning, I can blame them and do. Why’d they wait four hours in the first place?

“I heard the wind chill is five degrees!” says one guest.

“Stop squishing me!” exclaims another.

“Close the door!” I shout.

Thus, the manager arrives at the horrible decision that the entire crowd has to be moved outside into the cold. This is no easy feat. The human animal does not want to wait out in the cold. The human animal wishes to avoid the five degree wind chill. But it was precisely for situations like this that God invented Brooklyn and people from Brooklyn and the Brooklyn accent. Gabriel (in sort of an angelic pose, now that I think of it) holds the clipboard of names above his head and belts out, loud as a bullhorn:

“Alright folks! Guess what’s going to happen now? You aren’t going to like it. We’re all going to move outside. I’m not taking another name or seating another person until we’re all outside! Got a question? Take it outside! Need to check your status? Take it outside! The faster we all get outside, the quicker we’ll be able to seat you! Move on back folks, move on back!”

Then he sort of herds them with the clipboard like cattle out the door, every one of the folk braying and kicking up a horrible fuss as they are pushed back out into the mind-boggling cold. Eventually, people can’t even move out of the front door because the people on the sidewalk aren’t moving far enough out. So I have to run out the side door and tell people to keep continuing to back away. Soon it is impossible to walk down the north side of the sidewalk on 60th street between 2nd and 3rd avenues because a scene like something in Dante is taking place.

Great throngs of miserable people crowd up around poor Gabriel as he starts to sort out the mess. Only the next few parties waiting to be seated can wait inside at any one time and he sends them inside to be seated by the host. As soon as those people have been sat, the next few parties are sent inside. This means two things. Many of the people who have three hours yet to wait, realize that they cannot stay in the cold and leave, seeking warmer climates. This is part of the point. The other thing that it means is that to run this system of seating, you must have one person inside to seat people at tables and one person outside at all times to send in the next parties in line. The person outside, in the five degree wind chill was oftentimes me.

I’ve had a job where I had to root around in a dumpster. I’ve had a job where I had to change old people’s diapers and had to jab a guy in the muscle with a really thick needle. But I’ve never had a job even remotely as shitty as my job at Zemblanity when I’m standing out in the cold. People came up to me complaining that their toddlers were freezing in the cold and couldn’t they come wait inside? Old people would show me their chilled purple and blue arthritic fingers and ask if there isn’t just a little spot where I can sit inside while I wait? It was my job to tell them no while waiting myself out in the miserable, piercing cold. It got so I couldn’t feel my feet anymore and had trouble gripping my pen whenever anyone added their names to the godawfully long list. “Yes,” I told these freezing, pathetic people. “The wait really is four hours long. Do you still want to add your name?” And still they did, as some sort of bewildering masochistic punishment for some terrible thing they must have done in a past life. But what about me, the gatekeeper?

Every so often, the manager would come out to relieve me. It was so cold in New York that the only way to keep the restaurant warm inside was to keep switching off in shifts. Going back inside, I would immediately head for the kitchen, the fires and steams of which now felt like a balmy tropical paradise. The men who were sweating fiercely in their doo-rags over the ovens and boiling pots looked at me and laughed and laughed as I rubbed my bone-white knuckles over the heat. It was actually my feet that hurt the worst. They got so cold that I could barely stand it to walk around.

My wife would like me to take a moment to acknowledge that for a couple of these shifts, I left the house so quickly in the morning that I forgot to bring a hat. Luckily, we at Zemblanity have a rather hilarious lost-and-found. Although there are many warm hats to be found within it, all the hats were women’s hats. So now picture me, 28 years old, heading out the front door of Zemblanity into a vast multitude of angry and bitterly cold people. All around me Midtown Manhattan swirls with snow and the energy of the impending holiday. And I am wearing a woman’s hat.

Just before leaving me outside to confront the cold, Gabriel comes back out with a cup of coffee. He hands it to me and, sipping it, I realize that it has been spiked with whiskey. “There we go boy,” Gabriel said, giving me a fist bump. “That’s how we do it.”

16. What's in a Name?

Kind of a dumb question, especially considering that, due to their names, Romeo killed his cousin, was banished, then Juliet faked her death, then Romeo kills himself then Juliet kills herself for real. None of this would have happened if Romeo’s last name had been Johnson [aside: Romeo Johnson might be my new stage name]. Things might have worked out between these two (I still would only give them three years, tops).

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Not true. As I have often and disgustingly argued, if roses were known as “poop-sticks,” “i-hate-you’s” or “baby-rapes,” you would not give them to your lover. The smell of a dozen baby-rapes would not evoke the amorous sighs of the beloved other. You would get yourself dumped. Hard.

This is to say A LOT is in a name. For our lovers, Capulet and Montague were their class, lineage, position and crossed stars. Entire biblical histories of begats are embodied in these written and spoken symbols by which we identify ourselves. Our names have weight and meaning and force.

I bring this up because every day I stare at unbelievably long lists of names. I probably write out five or six hundred individual names by hand every shift. If someone gives the name Jennifer or David, I always ask for a last initial because the odds are extremely high that I’ll get another before the first is called. My job is based on names and the remnants of one of my shifts consist of pages and crumpled pages of scribbled out names.

It sometimes occurs to me that all these names, at some point, meant something literal. Native folk had literal names- Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, etc. We do too, only our original languages are lost to us. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Names, my name literally means “Gift-Of-God, Bright-Sea, Long-Tall-Stone.” I have considered introducing myself as this at parties. Stephen and Mary and Benjamin and Alice, these have as much literal meaning as words and are not just telephone numbers to which our souls are assigned. Your parents most likely considered the meaning of your name when they named you or they named you after someone important to them. This also constitutes a hereditary species of meaning.

Other people make up their own name. My friend Quail Dawning (which is a pretty fantastic name to begin with) changed it to Olivia Pepper. Another friend legally renamed herself Jenna Jack-o-Lantern. Whoa. In my time, I have known people named Lunchbox, Lazer, Frogg, Rainblo, Crazyglue, The River Euphrates. Celebrities these days are going absolutely bananas over weird names. Here, briefly, is a sampling: Apple, Princess Tiaamii, Audio Science, Aurelius Cy, Blue Angel, Bluebell Madonna, Diezel, Fifi Trixibell, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, Jazz Domino, Jermajesty, Kal-El Coppola, Kyd, Luna Coco, Moon Unit, Dweezil, Diva Muffin, Moxie CrimeFighter, Pilot Inspektor, Poppy Honey, Rocket, Rufus Tiger, Sage Moonblood, Seven Sirius, Zola Ivy… the list goes on FOREVER.

There is a man in Ireland who has renamed himself every James Bond movie. His name (legally) is “James Dr No From Russia with Love Goldfinger Thunderball You Only Live Twice On Her Majesty's Secret Service Diamonds Are Forever Live and Let Die The Man with the Golden Gun The Spy Who Loved Me Moonraker For Your Eyes Only Octopussy A View to a Kill The Living Daylights Licence to Kill Golden Eye Tomorrow Never Dies The World Is Not Enough Die Another Day Casino Royale Bond.” There is a Swedish kid named who is actually named “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116,” which is pronounced “Albin.” There is an English football fan named “John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood” and an ex-politician from Tennessee named “Byron Low Tax Looper,” who is now in jail for murder. Pedro V, King of Portugal’s full name was “Pedro de Alcântara Maria Fernando Miguel Rafael Gonzaga Xavier João António Leopoldo Vítor Francisco de Assis Júlio Amélio de Saxe-Coburgo-Gotha e Bragança.” He was so beloved a king that when he died, his people actually revolted. And of course, there is Dick Assman, the Canadian gas station owner.

So I man the host’s stand like St. Peter at the gates, transcribing names like David, Stephen, Amanda, Nick, Gina, Robert, Tiffany, Sarah, Paul, Donnie and so on… although what I’m really writing is Beloved, Crown, Worthy-of-Love, Victory-of-the-People, Queen, Bright-Fame, Manefestation-of-God, Princess, Humility, Ruler-of-the-World; a strange, high-worded poetry of what our forebears saw or hoped they saw in their children.

The day before yesterday, a man walked up and asked to add his name to the list. He gave my name. Although my name isn’t uncommon, it was a little startling to hear it and surreal to write it down at work. Amongst all the other names, it stood out when I looked down. And after 45 minutes, I called my own name and led myself back into Zemblanity.

15. Little Hurts

My feet hurt at work. This is due to two reasons. (1) I have to wear dress shoes at work which are not comfortable or supportive. (2) I run up and down the stairs all day. I have often wondered how many shifts it would take me to run up to the top of the Empire State Building. I posed this question to my manager Freddy and he replied, without pause, "100 floors? Two shifts." Having given this matter some thought, I believe I could make it to the pinnacle of the Empire State in less than one and a half.

I sometimes like to imagine my accumulative altitude gain by picturing a bare staircase, with no supportive architecture, rising into a clear sky over the city of cities. And, having been to the observatory deck of the Empire State Building, you cannot even make out the figure of Zemblanity. It is possible to see the general section of the city in which it resides but amongst those groves of great towers, it is all but invisible.

And after six consecutive shifts, everything hurts. The balls of my feet, the arches, my calves, my quadraceps, my hamstrings, every part of my back complains like mistreated baby. I sometimes stand motionless in the hot shower at home, after work, for a long, long time.
Nonetheless, I make no bones about the ease of my crappy job. I do not work in a sweat shop, I am not a prostitute, I do not dig trenches or shovel gravel, I am not a coal miner or even a hale bailer. I have enough in the tank in the evenings to write about the day.

Still, it is telling that this has been my hardest physical job. In fact almost all my jobs have been "non-jobs." I have been attracted to positions that were easy, that in no way interfered with writing or the playing of music, that paid the rent and left enough dough to buy cereal, burritos, and beer. This is, of course, not a very mature outlook upon employment but one that has supported my meager ambitions and made me happy until now.

For the most part, I have worked as a baker's assistant, movie theater box office attendant, projectionist, gallery salesman and picture framer and dishwasher. Nothing. I did however work a very difficult (in one sense) job (but very easy in another). For five years I worked with the developmentally disabled.

This was an easy job in that all I had to do is work two 20 hour shifts a week, cooking and cleaning and passing out meds. This was a difficult job in that I had to help two of my beloved clients die, had to rescue one from a diabetic coma with a gigantic needle, dealt with violent seizures and became so emotionally attached to my clients that they became as wondrous and difficult as family members to me.

Physically, that position was an absolute cakewalk compared to the exertion required as a host at Zemblanity. Having worked with my beloved retarded population, I think, has prepared me for dealing with the ridiculous behaviors of spoiled, Upper-east-siders.

And while my body certainly hurts, it is very little compared to the hardship of Abdul, my favorite busser. All day he clears tables and hefts away the remains of meals. The weight of these dishes is substantial. He works harder and then works harder and then gets yelled at to work harder.

Abdul has been married for six years. He offers me advice on marriage in broken english. He has only seen his wife and two children for a month at a time, two times over the last five years. Every dollar that he earns other than what he needs for rent and food, he sends back home. And while he works his back breaking work, he sings.

Even though I am in New York for a reason and work for a reason, I may never fully contemplate the difficulty of Abdul's work. He likes that he and I are both married. He sometimes holds up the ring on his finger to the ring on mine as we pass and says "Ah! You got a lady! You got a lady, Man!"

14. The First Christmas Tree

It’s December now and the Season of Joy is upon us! In Mid-town Manhattan this constitutes a no-holds-barred, cannibalistic fist fight to the death. Raggedy consumers drag their beaten bodies (their clothes hanging like the tattered shrouds of a ghost ship’s sails) from gift shop to beleaguering gift shop in search of that perfect something for that special someone. Through the grinding gauntlet of blood-strewn streets the exhausted soul slouches through the boulevard of the shadow of death and at every turn- the gnashing of teeth, the blaring of bus horns, the stabbing cold and a thousand Santa Clauses, bellowing that ominous, merry chuckle like a legion of evil Nordic clowns. And finally, the thrashed pilgrim finds their way into the glittering doorway of Zemblanity. At which point, I inform them of our FOUR HOUR WAIT. No, sir, I am not joking. I am deadly serious.

Ho. Ho... Ho.

The epilepsy inducing glut of spectacular holiday decorations went up the day after Halloween, an obscenely early date by any rational standard. Christmas trees in every grotesque shade of neon hang upside down from the ceilings. Vast confusions of lights, tinsel and fake holly are smooshed into every conceivable corner. And far in the back of the restaurant, there is a tree so bewilderingly and blindingly pink that it defies comparison. Henceforth, if I ever need to describe something as very pink, I will (hyperbolically, of course) compare it to that flabbergastingly pink, twinkling phallus in the heart of Zemblanity.

Digression: Today I saw the Governor of Alabama, Rob Riley, sitting next to this flamboyant tree. His security detail stood outside in the cold, snickering at seeing so powerful a man dwarfed by the supremely gayest incarnation of Christian holiday ever dreamed up in the minds of men. I wondered something similar when Sarah Palin was in. What is so conservative a politician doing in so gay a restaurant? This was one of the first places that was safe for gays in the city. There was, upstairs, where the offices are now, a room full of cots where fellows would indulge themselves with other fellows without fear of a police raid. And here is the Governor of Alabama and the ex-Governor of Alaska, beaming, shaking hands and posing for photographs in front of the fruitiest Christmas Tree in history. [End Digression]

And folk see fit to wait for four to FIVE hours to eat in this exaggeration of Christmas. Why? More and more, I have been troubled by this question. While at first, it was merely amusing or interesting from a sociological perspective, it has begun to make me more and more uneasy. What is wrong with these people? Why do they subject themselves to such an excruciating test of endurance?

Sometimes a person will get truly angry at me. They have waited in the freezing rain for three hours and I inform them that they have an hour yet to wait. They will explode upon me, demanding to see the list of names, making outrageous claims that all the people who checked in with them have already eaten (although this is obviously and sometimes hilariously false). They see me as a figurehead of this miserable and inexplicable process and they hate me (HATE ME) for it. I have to become a rock that ocean breaks itself against. I think, "You chose to endure this. It's your own dumb fault for waiting this long for something you only suppose is worthwhile. Your misery is your own problem and has nothing to do with me."

But this attitude is not very in keeping with Christmas spirit, is it? More often, I feel a true sense of compassion for these poor fools. More and more, I have taken it upon myself to become an entertainer at the host stand. I perch at the podium and, in an attempt to ameliorate the hardship of the wait, loudly regale the claustrophobic crush of patrons with bizarre, funny and pseudo-mystical stories, the same stories I relate to you, dear reader.

In a sometimes futile attempt to turn the wait into a worthwhile experience, I describe the lobby as the busiest square feet in all of Manhattan. I compare it to a submarine or a subway car. I tell them of Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe, of Oprah and Jude Law, of the 25,000 dollar desert or the World's Largest Hot Chocolate. I plunder the recesses of my memory for interesting tales from these very blogs, in a desperate attempt to foster the feeling that, Yes, we are all fools and yet, we are doing something entirely unique and entirely New York-ish.

I ask the multitude of hungry souls if we should all go stand over the tables and watch the people as they eat. Maybe we will scowl and point at our watches. Or what if we turned over an hourglass on the table? Would they get the F-ing hint? Or what if we just screamed "We're Hungry!" at the top of our lungs? Would that help?

When everyone in the lobby looks at each other with knowing glances, when everyone in the lobby laughs at the same time or says "Wow" together, I feel warm in my heart, an honest glow. And back at table eleven, a tiny, beautiful little girl laughs a laugh so loud and pure that even the hardest and most cynical of Zemblanity employees can't help but grin. And outside, it is beginning to snow, the first of the season.

And on my way home, I will buy a Christmas Tree out of my bribes. It will be the first tree my wife and I have ever had together. And she will pin a picture of her beloved and recently departed pug, Pierre, at the top. Pierre was an angel of dogs and loved Christmas Trees more than anyone.

13. Three Episodes

Every so often, there is a slow shift. My new thing is to ask whomever I am standing around with to "tell me a story." Everyone at Zemblanity is brimming with stories. Thus, we'll take a break with these three little episodes.

1. One time, the sidewalk was overrun by patrons waiting to get inside. One woman in particular was being troublesome and so, the general manager Tanya went outside to deal with this cranky lady. As Gabriel put it, "She got kinda nasty with this lady," which is not too difficult to imagine. Well, this woman came inside to lodge a complaint and asked for the manager. She was directed to Gabriel who then listened to this woman expound upon the great indignities to which she had been subjected. The staff was all listening on. So Gabriel said, "You know what? I'm going sit her down and reprimand her. Don't you worry Miss, I'm going to have a talk with this individual." Of course, it almost impossible to imagine Gabriel scolding the general manager, his boss. All the employees got a kick out of trying to imagine it though.

2. Phil, Zemblanity's best waiter (in my opinion), tells me this story: "So there must have been three or four feet of snow outside the door and this stretch hummer limo pulls up outside and Bruce Willis gets out. The restaurant's almost empty and he goes upstairs to eat with his daughters. Now, at the time he was dating... oh, I'm blanking here... the mousy one, you know, the shop-lifter." Winona Ryder. "So anyhow, as they're all leaving, she's holding up the show, browsing around at all the trinkets. He turns to her and says 'Alright now honey, no shoplifting.' And she turns to him and gives him this... look." At this point Phil busts up, remembering her icy glare of reproach. You know what, Bruce Willis seems pretty cool.

3. Although Miss Annette's name is not really 'Miss Annette,' it seems that I was almost clairvoyant when I picked that moniker. You see, when she started working at Zemblanity some 40 years or more ago, she used the fake name Netta. There was some reason that she changed it having to do with her modeling career. Anyhow, Netta worked the days either at photo shoots or doing runway or working at the Max Factor counter at Bloomingdale's. Then at night, upon Mr. Charles' request, she would stop in and work as a model. Zemblanity had a lot of models in those days, back when Mr. Charles was an aspiring clothing designer. Netta would strut the length of the restaurant, wearing one of his dresses. Customers would just buy these dresses right off of Miss Annette's back for hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Anyhow, after the epic work day, she would go out and party and then often wind up crashing at Mr. Charles' fifth story walk up which was about a block or two away from Zemblanity. In those days, in the mornings, Mr. Charles would call down to the restaurant and ask one of the waiters to bring over a pot of coffee. What a life!

And now, a poem.


All that remains
of her glamour
hunches in a grizzled husk
amongst the gravelly remains
of a hundred thousand cigarette butts,
ground out, as forgotten as days.

Ah, but once, her body
had been a silk ribbon
of silver smoke, bending
as lithely as a blue note
in the ashen streets of dawn.

Her lovers
bent over backwards
at the slightest gesture
of her flawless wrist,
the angle of her neck,
her hip cocked
with the corner of her lip.

Her laughter had been
a perfect bell.

Now she coughs wrinkled growls
and cracks mirrors
in the burned out apartment
of this old woman's body.
Everything hurts.

But most of all-
this parade of women, young
and brimming with sex, heart-
-breaking in their short skirts
and long lashes.

"Laugh now Princess,
you won't be beautiful forever."

12. Ghosts

Here’s a strange tale. Big gay Sam told me that, for a spell, the section known as “West,” tables 21 through 26, was cursed. Saltshakers would inexplicably shatter and spill salt everywhere. Mirrors would crack untouched. The section never made decent money and tips were small, even for the most accomplished waiters. A bedeviled pall hung over the West.

So, Mr. Charles decided to hold the first Zemblanity séance. It was generally accepted that the newly installed Andy Warhol effigy, which hangs above table 21, was somehow responsible. And so it was to Warhol’s soul that Mr. Charles turned.

I have never seen one of these séances but I can imagine. Knowing Mr. Charles, the affair is most likely half deadly serious and half in jest and meticulously choreographed. I am picturing him in a dark, sequined robe, sitting in the darkness of the dining room, lit only by hundreds of candles which cast eerie shadows against the otherworldly hodgepodge of artifacts dangling from the ceiling and hung on the walls. The wait staff holds hands around table 21, chanting and then listening for a communiqué from the other side.

According to Sam, Mr. Charles asked Andy Warhol if he was happy in his new digs. Warhol replied “yes but… where are my shoes?” You see, the little Andy doll had no shoes and so Mr. Charles sent Sam on a mission to the Baby Gap. Sam returned with a suitable pair of canvas loafers, which the doll wears to this day. The curse was broken and West returned to normal (which is not very).

I have not yet determined how haunted Zemblanity is but my instinct is that every inch of it is overwhelmed by ghosts, the specters of old patrons and celebrities returning to their old hangout from beyond the grave. I know that the spirits of the other two owners, Kit Caruso and Billy Mann, now deceased, are woven into the very wood or the chairs and tables. When the eyes of children grow wide upon seeing a place as outrageous as Zemblanity, they are becoming outward ripples of the imaginations of these men.

My theory is that New York is the most haunted city in America. It is certainly one of the oldest of our cities. It is also the most important and storied of our metropolises. The quantity of life and death, the hummus of time upon this small island is immeasurable. However, I think that this city is too populated by the living, too furiously alive, too noisy with moral traffic for those auras who have passed before us (leaving their fingerprints on everything) to be audible.

In my experience, New Orleans has seemed more haunted than New York. It is also very old and by nature, New Orleans is a spook, full of voodoo and black magic. But what really makes it seem more haunted is that it is slower, quieter, darker. The shadows have space and weight. It is quiet enough that the ghosts of the Delta are given audience. This is also true of the little haunted mining towns of the West and Southwest. They are quiet enough to hear the ethereal, see-through voices of those who made the past into the present. In New York, the living have little time for the dead. This is with the exception of the World Trade Center.

In the mornings, when I clean the menus and stare at the enormous World Trade Sandwiches on the front, I think about how Zemblanity stayed open on 9/11. Mr. Charles said that the weather that whole week was unseasonably perfect. There was no wind or a cloud in the sky and vivid clusters of bright butterflies all over Central Park. When those towers, which had their own zip code, came plunging to earth, Mr. Charles said he stood out on 60th street and could see the cumulous plume of dust and smoke rising straight up over the brownstones into the perfect sky.

I have not found out who made the decision to keep the restaurant open but when I asked what the mood was like in Zemblanity that day, the manager Micah told me that it was like it was everywhere else in New York and in the country. The whole city was trying to get off the island and so a vast multitude of New Yorkers walked across the nearby Queensburough Bridge. I wonder who came in on that day and why.

I suppose to feel comforted. To go to a place that has been a happy staple since childhood. A place draped with memory. This will be a good way to distract the kids while we wait for the phone. It would have been quiet inside the restaurant. A man would have sat at table 44, eating an Icy Hot Chocolate and looking out the window at the white plume in the blue. Did any of the waiters cry?

11. Play Acting

And now, dear pilgrims of culinary ludicrousness, to the issue of work tone. By this, I am referring to the difference in the way people talk at work compared to the way they normally speak. On the one extreme, we have flight attendants, whose saccharine lilting is akin to the way that mothers coo at toddlers and oozes with an almost sarcastic note of concern. On the other hand, we have most bartenders who often sound as if they could give less of a shit about you. These are, of course, stereotypes but you catch my meaning- the verbal mannerisms we adopt in order to adapt.

The difference upon opening the restaurant is stark. We stand at toward the front, preparing for the onslaught of eager customers who press their faces to the (recently cleaned) glass, peering in at us like animals in the zoo, giddy with anticipation. The comments before opening are on the order of “Stop ogling us you morbidly obese bovine,” or “Just wait your turn turd-face,” or “you’re never getting in here poop-for-brains.” After opening, it’s “Welcome to Zemblanity ladies! We’re so happy to have you, right this way!” This mirrors the music on before and after opening. The cooks usually have on hard-core gangster rap in the kitchen, which is totally surreal in that glittery fantasy land, but when we open Mr. Charles will turn on some polite American Idol album or Christmas carols.

The waiter, Duncan, has the worst and most obvious work tone. His eyes grow wide and the music of his speech is a condescending sing-song that fools no one. As he stoops to gaze with sickly smile into the faces of diners, I wonder if they believe that they’re being openly mocked. It makes me laugh. Duncan, is a really lovely person, very nice and intelligent outside of work, he just has trouble lying.

The reasons for this charade vocal and physical performance are myriad. There is simply too high a volume of human interactions to be negotiated in all earnestness. Adopting “the tone” facilitates an ease of dialogue which can still be construed as polite and concerned. Another reason is that it is impossible to anticipate what sort of treatment a customer may require. The tone is a formal neutrality, a blank slate from which many interpersonal strategies may be launched. A service workers tone is further dictated by the social strata of the job. If the establishment is ritzy, the customer is payer for a higher quality of coddling. If you’re at a corner bodega, the expectations and probability of offense are low. At Zemblanity… I don’t know what people expect.

Politeness, after all, is a show. It is a ballet of gestures meant to imply kindness, generosity and benevolence. It is a gesture meant to put people at ease (again, like the cooing of mothers) and, in an explosive environment like Zemblanity, this comes in handy. It is a well-intentioned falsehood, which keeps the world from erupting.

I remember hearing an interview with David Bowie on the radio. He said that when he was first coming out with stuff like Ziggy Stardust, he was competing against a lot of folk like Bruce Springsteen. Most critics believed that Bowie was creating and playing these parts on stage, like an actor. Bowie said he felt that the singers like Springsteen were modeling themselves after the likes of Bob Dylan, wearing white T-shirts and jeans and trying their damnedest to show no signs of pretense. Bowie thought that these singers were putting on just as much a show, acting just as much, still playing a part. But by becoming Ziggy Stardust, he was admitting that it was a show, a projection, and he felt that his glam persona was actually more honest. Bowie thought explicit acting was more honest.

Maybe this is one of the reasons that my manner at work is so humorously exaggerated. My personal opinion is that customers don’t necessarily have to believe that I’m really like that so long as they enjoy the show. This is why I, and so many of the waiters, have little cards of funny interaction that can be pulled out and played in a number of situations. I like that Sam often greets his tables by saying “Hello thrill-seekers, are we ready?” I like that when they ask him what is good, he will tell them that if they choose something bad, he will sarcastically ask “Really?” I like that whenever Craig brings a hot-chocolate with whipped cream when it should have been without, he’ll laugh in a really obviously fake way and say “Just kidding!” I like that when Phil presents a sundae, he will say (in a very unconvincing way) “Ta-da!” These little performances do a number of things- they often make customers laugh or chuckle, make customers believe the waiter is “trying,” they allow the waiter a manner of attending to the customer without being overly disingenuous. Duncan could probably learn a thing or two from these older waiters. He’d probably make more tips.

Sometimes I get to talking in work tone to such a degree that it takes hours to wear off after work. I will finish talking to someone and say “enjoy!” but what would they enjoy? We’re not at a restaurant. Or I’ll hold open a door of a bar for someone and say, “right this way sir, come right on in.” What? Why am I talking like that?

10. Stay Alive

In my way of thinking, there are two basic strategies for dealing with the problem of existing in the world. The first is to change the world, to manipulate the situation into something more lovely and pleasing to exist in. This strategy belongs to great inventors, revolutionaries, politicians, crusaders, social workers. If there is injustice, right the wrong, fix the problem. My wife much more adept at this than myself. If there is a problem, she isn’t content until she has solved it. This is one of the reasons she is a master’s student at one of the most elite art history institutes in the country and I am a lowly host at this batty restaurant.

The other strategy involves manipulating your inner condition so that you are acclimatized and evolved in such a way as to make your difficult situation pleasing or rewarding or at least livable. This strategy belongs to messiahs, optimists, philosophers. It comes in handy, especially with regards to situations which cannot be solved or fixed, like growing and old and dying, for example. An enlightened spiritual being like Jesus could turn inwards, sublimate an experience like being tortured and turn it into a triumph celebrated for millennia. The Buddha could see through the suffering of this plane of existence and realize that by changing his mind and his heart, he could be set free. Perhaps a messiah is someone whose worldview is so supernaturally malleable that anything can become anything else to the point that it actually does change the world.

I bring this up because it is 4:30 pm and it is time for me to go work the night-shift. Can I find happiness in the midst of this shitty job? We shall see.

I can only imagine and only suppose that to an enlightened soul or to a genius, every detail is doorway, a slumbering poem or symphony, an entire encyclopedic history, a window into the center. We mortals however (and I am, perhaps incorrectly, assuming that you are a mortal, dear reader) have to use a number of little tricks to sustain the heart through the burdensome trials of toil and time.

My manager Gabriel, as I have noted in an earlier entry, takes bribes. Another manager has observed that Gabriel can, not only spot who will “tip” and who won’t, but how much. Working a shift with Gabriel is akin to being on a fishing expedition- the patient banter of drinking buddies during dry spells, the thrill of the bite, the satisfaction of landing a whopper. Even more than for extra profit, I think the game helps Gabriel pass the time. To get through the day, he plays the sportsman.

The general manager, Tanya, gets by on anger. She told me once, “I thrive on stress. I love stress. It’s like a drug for me.” And it’s true. She charges around Zemblanity in a perpetual state of emergency, high as a kite on the urgency of her position, constantly in crisis with the sky always falling. Her role is important. This is survival of the fittest.

The reservationist, Zach, plays the drums in his head. Zach is a very mild mannered kid from Bloomington, Indiana who is helping his sick mother pay off her mortgage. To hear him answer phones all day- “Hello, this is Zemblanity. How may I help you?” – you would never suspect that this dude shreds at the drums. But that he does. I could not believe my eyes and ears when I saw him play at a crappy bar on the Lower East Side. He was transformed. Now, all the time, I notice him tapping his pencils and pens for a spell and then transcribing the notation for the elaborate beats in his head.

Big gay Sam sings show tunes while he works. He has been in musical productions for twenty years and knows more show tunes than anyone I have ever met (by far). From Oklahoma to The Little Mermaid, every time he passes by, the song is different. Actually, lots of the staff sing a bit at work but none as prolifically as Sam.

Music always helps. Some of the best music ever written in America was written to pass the time under intense labor. When I first arrived at Zemblanity, I was astonished by the quantity of Santana and Rob Thomas that the employees ingested and endured, almost subconsciously. And for all the talk of Andy Warhol, we never heard the slightest peep from the Velvet Underground.

So I began smuggling in mix CDs. As a musician and knowing as many musicians as I do, I know that it can be difficult at times to believe in the worthiness of this pursuit. But let me tell you, at work, music can make all the difference in the world. A good song can transform the entire environment. When Beirut or the Cure or Paul Simon or David Bowie are bellowing their beloved guts out, I literally start dancing around the restaurant as I seat guests. Many of the diners laugh at my buoyant flailings and I laugh right back at them. When Neutral Milk Hotel is going full tilt, the petty doldrums of labor seem to fade like a silly and unimportant joke.

For this reason I have taken it upon myself to completely reshape the musical landscape of Zemblanity. Many of my musician friends in Portland will be happy to know that their efforts are in heavy rotation in one of the strangest places in New York.

Often times, in the evening, my wife and I will watch episodes of The Office. We are on season four. It is somewhat surreal to come home from work to watch a show about work but it is also entertaining and instructive. The likeable hero, Jim, is a hero in a very modern sense. He is able to stay affable and humorous and amused even in the most banal and soul crushing work space imaginable. This is what makes him heroic. Part of what makes this possible for Jim is the camera, the fact that others are in on the ludicrousness of his everyday life. He looks at the camera all the time as if to say, “See? Are you seeing what I deal with? Can you believe it?”

The camera is important. Imagining that you are an actor, a character in a play, is important. Even the most frustrating characters become characters worth watching. This is the real reason for this blog. I am now a character and by god, my shining soul will stay alive. You, dear reader, whoever you are, are helping to keep my inner life intact.

One reason that working a job a fourth grader could manage is nice is that there is plenty of left-over brain space to think. While seating customers, a whole part of my mind is free to wander over vast landscapes and to compose lines of poetry. I wrote this about the walk home after work over the course of two shifts at Zemblanity.


Walking home

through a dark city

after the graveyard

shift, the old brakes

of garbage trucks

sing whale songs

in canyons of skyscraper.

Discarded plastic sacks

are spirited like doves

in circling gusts

around haloed street lamps.

No, not doves-

the ghosts of children

playing tag

in the air.

This is the city

that never sleeps

but it sleepwalks.

Take this hunched,

toothless vagrant:

his cart, a museum

of rubbish, clattering

aimless blocks

in endless circles.

When he glances at me

I notice that his eyes

aren’t even eyes

and who’s he talking to?

Obviously, someone

who is invisible, who startles

the gatherings of cats,

someone with a scent

but no shadow,

someone made of memory

who hears everything-

The distant sound

of a human voice barking

at something unnatural.

And closer, a whistled tune,

off-kilter and eerie.

And closer still,

the cold clap of footsteps

on an empty street.

9. The Dungeon

A restaurant is a chaos of intensity, primarily because it involves large quantities of humans feeding. Sometimes I chuckle to myself and shake my beleagured head- all of this trouble just to get food into people! But, like sex, eating is one the primal necessities and sits at the lowest, foundational eschelons of Maslow's heirarchy of needs. When we eat, we are no more than beasts.

That said, one can pay various amounts of money to disguise this carnal truth in clever ways. One can spend a pretty penny to pretend that actually living creatures have not been slaughtered for the feast, that living plants have not been torn from their roots to sustain your moral vessel. And the reason you tip your waiter is so that you don't have to enter the kitchen yourself.

The kitchen at Zemblanity is a riot of angry, desperate, animalistic carnage. I have heard that more sophisticated establishments employ what is called an "expeditor," who fuctions as an intermediary buffer between the frenzied world of cook and waiter. At Zemblanity, no such veil exists and the exchanges between the cook and waiter are raw and sound like the screams of warfare. They bellow at each other in cuss-heavy pirate tongues and there is a sense of impending murder lingering in the air like bacon grease. Twice, I had to alert the manager that a physical altercation was preparing to break out. I have seen actual pushing and shoving, actual violence. "Where's my motherfucking Icy Hot Chocolate you monkey's penis hole!!?" But when the food arrives at the table it's "And here is your food sir and madam. Please let me know if everything is to your satisfaction.

However, The morbidity of the kitchen is nothing compared to the dungeon. Like many restaurants in Manhattan, much of the kitchen is on the basement level to conserve real-estate. I call it the dungeon because that is how it looks and feels. The ceilings are only about six feet tall and dank, dripping pipes hang at about five feet. To walk around down there, you have to hunch down and squeeze through the cramped, ill-lit alleys of machines. The kitchen manager, Jim, says that over the years he has employed a number of military men, all of whom attest to the fact that Zemblanity's kitchen is more claustrophobic and dismal that one on a submarine. Like a submarine, the men who work in the dungeon never see the light of day during their shift in that miserable hole.

All of the people who work in the kitchen are men. A feminist might argue about inequality in the work place but in this case, the inequality is a blessing for the fairer sex. No woman, or human person for that matter, should have to work in that bleak prison. Furthermore, most of the men that work down there are Africans. There is still screaming but it is in African languages that I do not understand. I get the gist though. Ostensibly, this situation is due to the fact that the English of these men is too broken to work on the floor. But the racial implications of this arrangement make a white, middle class, suburban-bred dude like myself very uncomfortable.

One time, I ventured down into this primordial pit to fetch some rags and witnessed something beautiful and heartbreaking. Amongst the vats of boiling chicken, chopping blocks, dangling pots and ladles, enormous freezers, fiery ovens, way back amongst the steaming hot dish washing machines... I saw Abdul when he thought no one was watching. He is a bus boy from Bangladesh, much further from home than myself. I heard Abdul, very quietly and sweetly, singing a song from home in Bengali.

And two floors up, the south room sings Happy Birthday to an eight year old girl as she is presented with a flowery sundae with a candle in it. And two floors up, the PR director of Zemblanity plots the next publicity stunt in the quiet office. And up the crooked, warped and slumping staircase to the fifth floor, a very old woman hangs a wreath upon the front door of her apartment. It is the only apartment in the five story building. None of the employees at Zemblanity seem to know the old woman's name.

8. Reality

On a (relatively) slow day this week, Mr. Charles was telling me about another slow day that he remembered several decades prior. Greta Garbo happened into the store all by her lonesome, drawn in by the splashy window display. Mr. Charles and Miss Annette tactfully pretended not to recognize her, much to her relief. These were the days when Greta was perpetually hounded by the media at every turn and it was nice for her to pretend to be a normal person. They chatted about the cheeky merchandise and laughed together. Ah, I can see them now- the three of them, young and in their prime, at the height of New York society, their laughter as light and sparkling as a thrown fistful of golden glitter. But then some waiter, “some little tart,” as Mr. Charles put it, walked by with a tray of dishes and screamed “OH MY GOD! IT’S GRETA GARBO!” and dropped the tray, everything shattering and deafening and poor Greta ran out of the store. It’s so hard to be a movie star.

Today’s special guest at Zemblanity: Katie Holmes (Mr. Tom Cruise’s wife and supposedly soon-to-be ex-wife) and her daughter Suri. She came in at a time when the restaurant was a real mad house and my managers were nowhere to be found. I was piloting this ship of fools on my own and took her and her friends in to the table where Andy Warhol always sat. She looked tired but Suri, truly one of the most beautiful little girls I have ever seen, was amped up and seemed to be having a ball in our sparkly Christmas dreamscape. Children love Zemblanity. I felt sorry for the poor little thing. After all, her father is Tom Cruise. Can you imagine? No. No you can’t.

As would be expected, a large milieu of dastardly paparazzi gathered outside. These dudes really are as douchey as they are made out to be. They all pulled up on their douchey mopeds with their douchey helmets and douchey cameras. Like I said. Douches. They all knew each other too. When a new one would pull up, they would all exclaim, “Well look who decided to show up late to the party! It’s douchey Johnny!” And douchey Johnny would smile and crack wise about some of his other predatory assignments. Listening to these guys talk outside was gross. They are the scabby symptom of a sickness in our culture, I sickness I am now often forced to confront.

Katie’s bodyguard was pretty cool though. I’m probably in no way qualified to be a bodyguard but, so far, they all seem to be real swell guys. I showed him the side door from which to make a furtive escape. He shook my hand and thanked me for my help and tipped me a fiver. Top notch guy.

By the time I got off work, there was a gigantic semi-circle of photogs (an aptly disgusting term) surrounding the entrance. I walked out onto the sidewalk and it was like walking out onto a stage. The douches took pictures of me and so I decided to take pictures of them with my phone. Then, on my walk home, I counted 34 magazine covers with Katie Holmes and Suri on the front with disgusting titles. I stopped and examined these magazines featuring the person I had just talked to and watched eat. These photographs were probably taken by the same douchebags.

Looking at these magazines gave me a strange feeling. It is one that I have felt before at work: a slight vertigo induced by the muddling together of fiction and reality. A lovely example of this awkward position is to watch a reality show being filmed. So far, this has happened to me twice.

The first time was a reality show for MTV. Table 51 was reserved for a reality show and, per usual, two or three tech guys showed up first. They scouted out the premises and made preparations for the arrival of “the stars.” Soon, a bratty and grotesquely attractive couple arrived. I don’t mean to imply that they were very good looking, I mean to imply that they were grotesques, distorted exaggerations of the concept of good looking (which isn’t actually good looking at all). First the couple comes in, looks around, waits to be told what to do, then exits the building so that a shot can be taken of them entering the building. Then a shot ascending the stairs. Then a shot sitting down.

It was strange so watch this… reality being staged. They sat upstairs and spoke (fought) with each other very loudly although I doubt this was necessary. Some of the other patrons were amused by this unseemly spectacle and some were bothered and asked to be moved. Now, as I was working, I ought to admit that I didn’t see the whole business filmed. But here’s what a know. The couple’s waiter said that the couple was completely calm when the cameras where off and completely angry when the cameras were on. Is this acting or an effect of the all-seeing gaze of a national television audience? Also, said the waiter, the cameramen prompted the girl when to leave by asking “Do you both just want to hang around here all night?” It was in the cameraman’s best interest to encourage movement.

Thus, while all the staff was downstairs, debating whether or not the frat boy “star” was gay, the heroine of the reality show ran down the stairs in tears, screaming on her phone while running out the door. A cameraman ran after her down the street. We all laughed.

Some minutes later, the dude protagonist trudged down the stairs, looking at his Blackberry with a bored expression. Either this dude was not really just broken up with, or he did the breaking or it was all arranged in advance. I wanted to know and so I went outside to smoke with him and interrogate him. “What is the theme of the show?” I asked. The response was magnificent and ludicrous.

“Ah shit braw,” (no I’m not making this up this is how he spoke) “it’s about how I’m all playa’ and she can’t take it.” I should mention that this dude is as white as a cloud and has the dumbest tattoos and clothing I have ever seen worn by a human person. “The show’s all about how I just don’t give a shit. Like upstairs, all those people were looking at us and I just didn’t give a shit. I act all crazy and shit. I couldn’t even give a fuck. See, I’m trying to get a reality show of my own. And all you got to do is get on tv and act all crazy and shit and they give you your own show.”

I stared at the foolish baffoon, baffled by his stupid stupidity. How in the world can someone operate under such a worldview? And while I should have quickly dismissed his heinous outlook on fame, people as or more stupid that this absolute monkey have become famous on reality shows and have, I assume, made a fair chunk of change in the process. By the way, while the two of us were on the sidewalk, it turns out that his “girl” had just ended up in the parking garage across the street, soliloquying into her phone and into the camera.

As I left work that evening, this dude was still out on the sidewalk, texting on his Blackberry. I nodded to him and said, “good luck with your televised misadventures!”

He put his fist in the air and said, “Fucking A right I will!” Neat.