09 September, 2007

Double Life, Part One

Twelve years ago, when I was not quite seventeen, I was paid a pittance to host at a little bistro of hazily European persuasion in Kansas City. Its cramped kitchen was closed during the day; the place served coffees and light refreshments until late afternoon, relying more on the patronage of the shop in front, which dealt in imported candies and tinned goods, gourmet cheeses and sausages. Passing through the shop, diners were tempted with a savory selection of coffee beans, neatly wrapped Swiss and German chocolates, and rack after rack of wine — from middle-of-the-road Chardonnays to pricier vintage Shiraz. To walk down an aisle, one almost had to turn sideways, to keep from knocking anything off the shelves. The refrigerated glass counter that ran along the left, the length of the shop, bore an obscene variety of delectably fatty foodstuffs that would make any cocktail party or gallery opening the talk of the country club. Several long strides through the front door would carry you into the comparatively open space of the restaurant.

It wasn’t much: eighteen tables clad in virginal white, with black, shiny wooden chairs, and small vases of wildflowers as centerpieces. The building was new and unadorned, with clean, white walls and recessed spot lighting that was only used during the daytime. A couple of ceiling-high windows offered a connection to the outside; otherwise the walls were solid, decorated with framed, vintage posters for olive oil and cognac. At 6:00 every evening, however, a transformation would take place, and the unremarkable coffee shop would, by a trick of the light and a bit of finesse, become a warm, candlelit sanctuary of gustatory delights. Silverware would be shined and glasses polished. Small loaves of bread that had been so diligently baked throughout the afternoon would be swathed within their basket crèches. Pats of butter would be dropped in ice water to keep them precisely formed until they were to be served. Like soft magic, the posters on the walls would spring to life in the ambient flicker of tabletop votives, and the smoke of Billie Holiday’s voice would waft up from hidden speakers — the perfect soundtrack.

Five days a wee, I rode my ten-speed from my mother’s apartment, less than six blocks away, wearing slacks and a freshly pressed white oxford, shoes polished to dark mirrors. The bike would be locked to a guardrail at the far end of the parking lot. Sometimes on my way through the front door I picked up a small handful of chocolate-coated espresso beans and pop them into my mouth before anyone saw. Usually, though, I made a beeline for my lectern — the point at which the shop officially ended and the restaurant began — and started shuffling the stack of notes that awaited me there.

Tim was always the first to greet me. “Hello, Byron,” he would drawl from his roost at the shop counter, always with a tiny espresso cup in his hand. He was fastidious about everything, and it showed through in his work ethic and pencil-thin mustache alike.

“Got your lighter?” he would ask, and by way of response I’d flick a brief flame in his direction without looking up. He kept a hawkish eye on things like that. The status of candles and unlit cigarettes troubled him in his sleep (assuming he slept). If the knot of my tie was found lacking, he let me know with a noisy slurp of coffee and a grimace. Most days, he simply stood there in his apron until the coffee was gone, then flit off to make preparations for his second role as waiter. Every shift he worked was a double, near as I could tell. Without him staring down at me, it was always easier to concentrate on my seating arrangements and the handling of last-minute reservations.

The restaurant was open until 11:00 PM, running much the same during those five hours, as any other establishment of its caliber should. Our diners were mainly wealthy retirees, executives, and middle-aged couples quietly celebrating promotions or anniversaries. Clad in bulky, conspicuous jewelry and slyly tailored suits, they arrived punctually, ate, and departed with little fanfare or fuss. My duties with the telephone usually kept me occupied for the duration, even overseeing so few tables. From time to time, there was a lull and I would help the busboy clear and re-set a table, or lend a hand serving. We all worked well together; no task was delegated. Without fail, the evening flew by.

It was after the last of the diners left that we rejoiced in the languor of closing up. Black ties loosened, sleeves rolled, collars rakishly undone, we’d pull together two tables and set about dividing tips over glasses of wine, smoking imported cigarettes. Sitting backwards in my chair, my arms folded on the back, I enjoyed the loose laughter and easy conversation of my coworkers. Tall and lanky John, emboldened by one too many glasses of Zinfandel, might stand up and offer a song from his latest performance, making up half the words as he went; or Susan, dark-haired and forever worried, might offer up a tale of some hilarious, awful mishap from her week. We reveled in our stories, our jokes. Never mind that this was in America’s heartland, I never felt so French in all my life — not even sitting in that Parisian café, ironically wearing a beret.

Shortly before midnight, we dispersed. The music would be turned off, the lights turned up, the last Shepherd’s Hotel cigarette extinguished, and the spell instantly lifted. It was a jarring transition, but only an intermediate one. The place to which I departed was another world completely.