A Laugh Threatening Situation
Chapter 5 – Foodfellas
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My first job that wasn’t babysitting was in the Sharples dining hall at Swarthmore College.
In the main cafeteria, there is a slot in the wall that people would slide their dirty food trays through when they were done eating.
I worked on the other side of that slot. And it sucked.
Trays came through loaded with half-eaten grub, spilled drinks, nasty napkins, greasy plates, crusty silverware, and all sorts of other grossness.
And my job was to sort it all out as the trays came down a long conveyor belt.
Big plates go in this rack. Little plates in that rack. Forks, knives, and spoons in that other rack. Glasses over here, coffee cups over there. You get the idea.
My stepdad was a professor and he’d put in a good word to get me this bad gig so I did my best to make the most of the mundane by inventing little games.
One of them was called “Fruit Fork.”
See, sometimes an uneaten piece of fruit would come in and whenever that happened Fruit Fork was on. The rules were simple: Send a rack of silverware down the belt and wait as long as you could before throwing the fruit and landing it on the upward-facing jangle of forks and knives before the rack disappeared through the steam-belching doors of the dishwasher.
The closest shot to the dishwasher won and meant you got to swap spots with someone in a less gross position down the line
It was an epic hook shot with an orange that got me fired. But the Manager must have recognized my potential because he offered me my job back the next day. I decided to stay as long as it took me to get another, better gig.
Which wasn’t long. My stepdad hooked me up again. One of his students was the part-time manager of an ice cream parlor called the Village Porch and in an effort to get in good with the Prof, got me in.
This job was much better. For starters, I got all-you-can-eat ice cream for free. Every shift I would scoop out fresh flavors for cones, cups, sundaes, and shakes from behind the counter. And in between customers, I’d stuff my face.
I soon discovered ice cream addiction is real. My weekly schedule was Tuesday and Thursday nights, and every week, even long after I stopped working there, I would have a craving just around the time my shift was supposed to start.
Over time I observed that the waiters seemed to make more money than the scoopers. But wait shifts were coveted and hard to come by. If I was ever going to be able to pay for the new Sharp EF777 boombox I wanted, I needed a way to get noticed and move up the ranks.
And then one day a couple dined and dashed. Their waiter came to the front counter to complain he’d been stiffed on a $40 tab. I ran out onto the sidewalk and as soon as the culprits clocked me, the chase was on. I pursued them through the parking lot, back along a row of shops until I saw them make a costly mistake. They’d run down an alley I knew was a dead end. I slowed to a stroll and found them trapped, wild-eyed and dismayed.
They admitted defeat, explained it was just a prank, and sheepishly forked over two twenties.
“What about the tip?” I asked.
I returned to the Village Porch, money held high in a triumphant fist. Surely, I thought, this heroic move would get me in good with the waiters enough for them to welcome me into their ranks. And it did.
I got trained up and was ready to take orders at tables. However it was nearly impossible to get wait shifts that suited my school schedule, so I began to look for other opportunities.
This time my stepdad didn’t help me. All it took was a “Help Wanted” sign outside an Italian restaurant in the Springfield Mall.
This place was everything you think of when you think of a classic Italian joint. Brown wood booths, red and white checkered tablecloths, bad murals of Sicily on the walls, plastic ivy on the ceiling, chianti bottle candle holders – the kind wrapped with woven straw.
The only thing that didn’t fit the stereotype was the Manager. A massive queen with frosted tips, a John Waters mustache, and the limpest of wrists. He hired me on the spot and assured me the waiter job was mine.
On my first day, I washed dishes.
This was, as Mr. Manager explained because I needed to understand the business in the back of the house before I could sell in the front. He promised I would advance quickly and true to his word he promoted me to Assistant Chef. Then Head Chef. Then Junior Waiter. Then Head Waiter.
This happened over the span of a month.
That tells you something about the staff turnover in the place. And how much Mr. Manager appreciated my assets.
He never laid a hand on me, but he must have laid a hand on someone, or maybe somebody complained about all the gay porn he used to leave around his office because right after I got promoted, he got fired. Fortunately, for me, the new manager kept everybody’s schedule the same. And I could keep slinging spaghetti and cheap chianti.
Now, there are lots of ways you can get hurt or even killed in a restaurant. But in an Italian restaurant, if it’s not cholesterol, it’s a cliché. There’s a reason made guys sit with their backs to walls in every mafia movie ever made – so they can see the guy with the gun coming.
And there were definitely made guys who came into our joint. A few weeks after I quit, the place got shot up and closed down. But at the time I never even considered the place might be unsafe. Until one day this heavy-looking mafioso walked in. He arrived with his entire extended family in tow: a big momma, brothers, cousins, wives, and a cute baby girl.
They jostle and scooch themselves into a corner booth. All eleven of them in a space made for eight. Wearing enough bling to costume an entire Bollywood production. Most of them are plus-sized too, so they are really crammed in there with the little baby next to them happily cooing in a high chair.
It’s obvious to everyone that Mr. Mafioso is the man. He’s a real “kiss the ring” type of guy and his entire entourage is laughing at his jokes and deferring to him like he’s god.
One of the things you learn when you’re waiting tables is to identify the person who’s probably paying the bill. When you’re working for tips you want to figure that out fast and make sure they feel special.
But none of the other wait staff wanted to wait on him or his crew. I didn’t want to either, but I’d just been promoted to Head Waiter. So I had to.
I walk over, welcome them, hand out menus, run through the specials, and take their drink order.
- Milk x 1
- Orange Juice x 1
- Chianti carafe x 3
- Coke x 5
- Prosecco x 1
- Water x 11
I know, who drinks orange juice at an Italian restaurant?
Anyway, I gather up all their drinks at the bar and arrange them on a giant oval serving tray, grab a tray stand, and make my way to their booth.
I expertly flick the stand open and just as I am about to swing the tray with all the drinks on it down from my shoulder onto the stand, the little baby throws her arms up in the air and smacks the edge of my tray.
Life suddenly switched into slow motion:
Carafes of chianti wobble.
A glass of prosecco tips over.
I quickly try to rebalance the tray.
The milk tips over.
The Cokes tip over.
The orange juice tips over.
I lean forward to try and save what’s left.
The three carafes of chianti tip over.
And then every-single-drink spills straight onto big momma’s head.
And down her white shirt.
And it’s horrible.
By the time I look up from big momma’s clearly defined bra and boobs, I realize nobody is looking at her. They’re all looking at The Don to see what he’s going to do. And I’m pretty sure that whatever he’s going to do, a weapon will be involved.
He looks at me. He looks at his wife. And after what feels like forever, bursts out laughing.
Everyone else immediately starts laughing too. At this point, I’m still not sure if I’m out of the woods yet, but I spring into action with fistfuls of cloth napkins trying to absorb the mess I’ve made.
I don’t think I’ve ever said the word “sorry” more in one day.
Big momma shrugs it off and says she saw the baby hit the tray. Not to worry.
Big Don is still cracking up. He can’t stop. He doesn’t stop laughing the whole meal.
And in the end, he tipped me a hundred bucks.
Way better than a bullet.
But for a minute, it felt like it could’ve gone either way.
Life Pro Tips
- If you bring a baby to a restaurant they will make a huge mess. Tip accordingly.
- Never dine and dash, but if you do, know your escape plan, and carry enough cash in case you get caught.
- Don’t get a job in a known Mafia hangout. Unless you’re in the Mafia, and even then it’s questionable.