The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule. No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six.
Jorge Luis Borges, lecture on Blindness, 1977
I should have known that my career as a singing waiter was doomed to failure. I had the garcon chops, there was no denying that; I could remember four orders, with appetizers and salads, without touching the pencil behind my ear. I could serve from the right and clear from the left. I could even interrupt a conversation in an ingratiating manner to ask if anyone wanted coffee or dessert so as to speed folks out the door and increase my employer’s “gross” by faster “turnover,” to use the base lingo of the dining industry. There was just one problem; I couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, much less a bucket.
“Breathes there a man with soul so dead/Who never to himself hath said . . .”
And so I was bounced, given the old heave-ho, kicked down the stairs as so often happens to tone-deaf singing waiters. And now I try to make ends meet in a less remunerative field. As a poetry waiter.
Believe me, demand is low, so none of the poetry restaurants stay open all day. If you’re stuck in the “Verse ‘n Veal” field, you’re gonna have to work a split shift; 10 to 2 for the lunch crowd, six to ten for dinner. Nothing ruins your day like having to be on call as a poet for twelve hours, even though you only work eight. You can’t go to the beach, you can’t take the road less traveled by, you can’t wander lonely as a cloud. You can’t do nothing! Your whole day is shot.
Plus the money is nowhere as good being a poet waiter instead of a singing waiter; poets for show, minstrels for dough, is what they been saying since the Middle Ages, which raises the question: How did they know they were in the Middle of history way back when, with so much more time to pass?
No, if you want the big tips you’ve got to sing. Tips for poet waiters start at 15% and maybe–maybe–get up to 18%. If you’re lucky. Singing waiters are to poet waiters what rock stars are to poets; the take from the t-shirt stand at a typical rock concert could buy you a half-dozen poets-in-residence at four-year liberal arts colleges. Singing waiters expect 20% minimum, and if you short ’em the next time you come in with your secretary they sing “Your Cheating Heart.”
“You say you want scrod, no doubt about it/But I tell you you’re screwed pal, because we’re out of it.”
This morning was rough, some guy tried to trick me by ordering “the juice of an orange,” knowing there’s no word in the English language that rhymes with the last word in that line, but I took his best shot and counterpunched: “You’ve ordered a glass filled with juice of an orange/Your voice–it squeaks like a rusty door hinge.”
His jaw dropped, nearly killing one of his pigs in a blanket. He should have rewarded me for rhyming on my feet, but no, he dinged me, tipping only 17.99999%. I suppose if I had world enough and time (hat tip to Andy Marvell!) and could carry that out to a million decimal places it might turn into 18%, but the universe is expanding, I haven’t got time.
Andrew Marvell, or at least some of him.
The dinner crowd begins to filter in and I recognize my least favorite customers; its Judge Samuel Fishback and his wife Dottie, who writes occasional poetry for our local paper, The West Haven Teapot-Picayune. Dottie’s a sweet gal but for all the Yankee swaps and hostess gifting back-and-forth she engages in, there’s one present she’s never received; the divine afflatus that would enable her to write an actual, you know, poem, as opposed to some galumphing doggerel with a meter like a Packard sedan, umpty-dumpty-dumptying along a bumpy metric highway.
Packard: Poetry in motion, at rest.
The Judge, by contrast, is all prose, proving the falsity of Clarence Darrow’s gag “Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet.” If there’s a wreck of a poet in his neighborhood it’s probably one he ran over in his late-model American-made sedan. On purpose.
“Good evening,” I say after the hostess seats them, although it’s rarely a good evening with the Judge. He generally has a whiskey sour first, then a whiskey sour second, then hits the chardonnay. If he’s coming from his club he’s already had a beer or two, so by the time he sits down at Chez de la Maison Pommes Frites, he’s more stewed than the prunes in the assisted living center I hope he’s carted off to before long.
“Hello there!” Dottie replies with a beaming smile, while the Judge goes out of his way to give me a hearty “Hrumph.” Must have broken 100 on the golf course.
“Written anything lately?” I ask Dottie as I fill up their water glasses.
“I certainly have!” she says as she reaches in her purse, pulls out her “readers” and a sheet of lilac-colored paper. “Listen to this,” she says as clears her throat:
How lovely to be a poet,
I feel bless-ed every day,
That I can put down on paper
My thoughts so light and gay.
If really makes me feel sorry
for someone who isn’t bitten by the “bug”
of verse so pretty and beautiful,
it’s like I’m a butterfly and he’s a slug.
The unspoken accusation hangs heavy in the air, and I move to dispel it by launching into my heartfelt recitation of the evening’s specials.
We’ve got lobster risotto that’ll float your boat-o,
and a steak au poivre that’s to die for.
The cost for each is $19.95 in toto,
so the bill won’t be something you’ll cry for.
“Oh, you are so witty!” Dottie says, but I demur: “Really, that was nothing,” and for once I’m being sincere. “Are you ready to order or shall I give you a few minutes?”
“How about a drink?” the Judge asks, like a Bedouin parking his camel after a 40-day trek in the desert.
“Yes, a whiskey sour, and I’ll have the sirloin with baked potato.” That’s the Judge for you; just when you think he’s going to order the same old thing, he surprises you and orders the same old thing.
“Don’t you think you should have a salad?” Dottie asks with wifely concern.
“Rabbit food!” the Judge snaps.
“It helps to keep you regular,” she adds as she touches him ever so lightly on the arm. I discreetly avert my eyes–never noticed that exposed beam ceiling before!
“All right,” the Judge says with grim resignation, as if he’s a prisoner on death row who only got his second choice for a final meal.
“Et vous?” I ask Dottie with what I hope is a lilt in my voice. She often writes-up the Judge’s tip when he tries to stiff me.
“You mean ‘Et tu?’–don’t you?” she asks coquettishly.
“You’re bad!” I say, not meaning it.
“I’ll have a Rob Roy,” she says. The Fishbacks are dues-paying members of the Society for the Preservation of Antiquated Cocktails.
“And for dinner?”
“The lobster risotto sounds lovely!” she says with a big smile.
“That’s funny, they’ve been cooking it all day and I haven’t heard a peep out of it!”
“You’re a stitch!” Dottie says. She’s brought her folding fan, and she gives me a little love-tap on the wrist with it. “And I’ll have a Caesar salad, hold the anchovies.”
“I tried holding them last night, but they complained I was getting fresh!”
I go back to the kitchen and place the order, but the manager is giving me a big scowl. “I heard that alleged poem you recited to them,” he says surlily, and try saying that five times fast. “You’d better shape up.”
“Why?” I ask. “Am I undermining the vibrant bohemian life of your little boit de nuite?”
“No, you dingbat–there’s a restaurant critic here tonight,” he says and he nods in the direction of a table off in a corner where I see–elena gotchko, my former girlfriend and editoress-in-chief of plangent voices, the little poetry rag that I started with her back when we were demon lovers.
“She’s not a restaurant critic,” I say. “She’s a lower-case poetess, and an awfully bad one at that.”
“That’s not what she told me when she walked in.”
“Probably just trying to cadge a free meal. There’s not a lot of money in poetry, as you well know from the low-three figure checks you write me every week.”
He sniffs, and not because he’s checking the lobster bisque. “I pay the going rate, so get going,” he says, before turning on his heel and returning to his maître d’ station.
And so I’m forced to confront my past, and the awful years when I wandered in the poetic wilderness after elena ejected me from the plangent voices offices, displacing me with that awful buck-toothed Brit Bendall Hyde as Managing Editor. I was a ship without a home port, thrown back upon my own devices, which were mainly handy counter-top appliances and stereo components. I eventually clawed my way back to the top of highly low-paid world of highbrow quarterly poetry, to the point where I now have three–three!–tote bags from college literary magazines to choose from when I go shopping at our local natural food store.
But to paraphrase Santayana, those who do not confront their past are still doomed to run into their old girlfriend when they work a split-shift as a waiter in a restaurant, so it really doesn’t matter. All I know is, I’m going to put on the best damn performance by a waiter-poet since e e cummings told a woman “86 on the noisettes de porc” at Le Bocage, the first classic French restaurant in Massachusetts.
It’s salads first, so I come out with the small tray, a Caesar and a “house” salad, so called because it tastes like it’s made with materials bought at Home Depot. I cast a gimlet eye in elena’s direction and begin:
Here are your salads, I also brought pepper,
in a grinder as big as a bazooka.
Don’t take too much, cause the stuff’s got a punch
that will deck you like you’re a Palooka.
For some reason I’ve finally tickled the Judge’s fancy, and he starts to laugh, drawing the attention of several diners, including my beloved lower-case elena. Maybe–just maybe–I can make her jealous enough to ask me back into her life and a cushy sinecure at plangent, as it’s known by writers who want to preserve every precious syllable.
Now it’s Dottie’s turn; it’s a bit like playing tennis against your grandmother, you have to humor her:
I don’t want pepper, you ought to know better,
my digestive system it does not please.
I would, on the other hand, greatly enjoy,
a little more parmesan cheese.
“Coming right up,” I say, and as I walk away I catch elena’s eye, which she’s cast in my direction. I saunter over, even though she’s outside my “zone,” and try to chat her up amiably.
“Well hello stranger!” I say in a voice that could have been exorcised from a Chamber of Commerce Sergeant-at-Arms. “Long time no see!”
elena was always, if anything, more of a bear about avoiding clichés and small talk than I, so she greets me with a sort of sneer/smile–a snile? a smeer?–that could flash-freeze a quart of strawberries.
“hello,” she says, sticking to her self-conscious lower-case attitudinizing. “will you be my server tonight?”
“Sorry, no,” I say with mock regret. “Although you should be able to hear my extempore poetry from where you sit.”
“and why would I want to do that?” she asks bitterly.
“I’ve always wondered–if you’re such a non-conformist, why do you use punctuation marks?”
“You’re”–I had her so riled up she started off with a capital! “you’re playing with text versus speech now, and don’t think i don’t know it.”
“nice to see you,” I say, mocking her no-capitalization affectation.
I head off to the kitchen, where the Fishbacks’ entrees are ready, but I’m suddenly faced with a poet’s predicament; how do you summon the muse to inspire you over–meat and potatoes?
“Table 3 up,” the chef says, and I gulp with dread. Steak, bake, cake, drake, fake etc. All pretty pedestrian. There’s no way I’m going to knock elena’s self-consciously artistic vertical striped socks off with that selection of rhymes. There’s only one thing to do.
“Hey chef!” I yell.
“Give me the cooking sherry!”
He plays dumb for a moment, but I know from experience that drink on the job is the occupation, not the occupational hazard, of a cook.
He hesitates, looks around to make sure the boss isn’t watching, then reluctantly and surreptitiously pulls a green bottle of rotgut fortified wine out from under the counter.
“Leave me some, okay? It’s gonna be a long night,” he says.
“I will,” I reply, “but I’ll try to make your evening fly past faster with some alcohol-enhanced verse.”
“Whatever,” he says, and tourns back to a tournedos of beef.
I take a pull, as much as I can stand, and the varnish-like finish of the jerez hits my soft palate like dragster fuel spilling on asphalt. I shake my head not to clear my brain, but to mix things up. I cast a steely glance across the dining room, and launch my boat laden down with verse across the godawful carpet towards the Fishbacks.
Here’s your steak, I say to the judge,
please chew each morsel thoroughly,
or else to the emergency room you’ll fly
and we’ll bury you tomorrow, quite ear-i-ly.
The patrons gasp–have I been so gauche as to recite a poem that hints at the death of a diner? The only way I can redeem myself is with a chivalric tribute to Dottie, the fair damsel who suffers under the Judge’s pig iron rule.
To you, Dottie, I now proclaim,
I’ve brought the lobster risotto.
You were supposed to get a side of manicotti,
but I decided on you I would dote-o.
You have such a slim, girlish figure, you know,
and it’s surely one worth preserving,
so ix-nay on the carbs is priority uno,
as your profile I’m fond of observing.
There are, of course, some philistines in the crowd who don’t get my innovative a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d rhyme scheme, but elena–who’s been limping along with her trademark a-a-b-b-c-c-d-d pattern for what seems like decades now, is suddenly all ears. And other facial features, of course, but her lobes are throbbing, as they once did when I nibbled on them while we stood over a hot Xerox machine, churning out our first edition!
She rushes up to me and says “you–you’ve progressed quite a bit since . . . i dumped you,” with more than a trace of rue, I might add.
“Poetry is hard work,” I say, chucking her under the chin so our eyes can meet through her sloppy self-cut bangs. “If . . . we got back together, perhaps we could pull our oars in tandem, like double-scullers.”
She’s about to melt in my arms when a projectile piece of meat hits me in the ear, expelled from the throat of the Judge by the force of Dottie’s Heimlich maneuver. She looks at me over his shoulder now that the coast . . . and the Judge’s throat . . . is clear, and she appears more than a trifle–miffed.
“My husband could have died while you were goofing around!” she says.
“Sorry about that, he’s never had a problem before,” I say. “Are you okay?” I ask His Honor.
“I am now but it was a close call,” he says. “I should have known better.”
“why’s that?” elena asks.
“Because his poetry always makes me gag.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”