Eighteen

Christina Curtis

 

The jobs I wanted—hostess or cocktail waitress—were taken so Big Mike offered me the salad bar position, which required that I trawl back and forth between the salad station, whose ceramic bowls were being perpetually depleted, and the refrigerated walk-in, which smelled of cottage cheese and Windex, and where garbanzo beans, loose leaf spinach, carrot shreds, creamed corn and the like were stored in huge, plastic vats. What I remember was a sense of slopping, as I imagined a farm hand might do. Slopping, and I remember Alfonse, an √©migr√© from Haiti, whose two top incisors were capped with gold. With the one other Haitian employee, a dishwasher, he spoke Creole, a language I'd never heard of and in my ignorance would refer to as "Pigeon."

The place was so packed and the salad bar so choice, that the whole operation demanded two of us, hustling. But every night around nine, post salad rush, Alfonse and I would shut the door to the walk-in, squat atop the vats and talk. As I gobbled handfuls of banana chips, we listened over and over again to the complete album of Rastaman Vibration. I thought I had Bob Marley down cold, having spent many a lunch hour in high school getting stoned in the front seat of my best friend's Toyota, listening to Legend, the platinum selling showcase for the sainted, international superstar Bob. From Alfonse's battered cassette player, I got a taste for the sub-Equatorial, pissed off, Liberation Theology Bob.

Discussions with Alfonse revolved around why I wouldn't agree to be his girlfriend. Beginning in media res, he never actually proposed a relationship but spoke as if it were a foregone conclusion that we wouldn't have one, which was true.

"Why you won't go out with me?"

"I don't remember you asking, Alfonse. OK, why do you want to go out with me?"

"You teach me English."

"I can teach you. What do you want to say?"

"Why you won't go out with me?"

Alfonse commuted by bus, and then by bicycle, from the run down exurb where he lived, to our place in touristy, Mediterranean Sausalito, where louche, cocaine-ish yachtsmen dropped in for Oysters Rockefeller.

Toiling at the salad bar was like working as an independent operator of some kind—an adjunct professor or court reporter—you were in the middle of the action but existed outside of it. Ironically, job success was directly tied to your ability to attract as little attention to yourself as possible. Let the mixed greens speak for themselves, bountiful and refreshed.

In fact, the job had no nomenclature. All the other positions—bar-back, prep cook, waitress—were titled. Referring to the job Alfonse and I just called it "working the salad bar." Salad Bar Attendant? A mouthful. Salad bar Steward? Steward, I always felt, implying a white-glove situation. No, definitely not that.


Ancient by West Coast standards, the restaurant was rumored to have been a bordello during the Roaring Twenties. It was set on stilts over the bay and from every window in the dining room all you saw was water. The illusion of floating, of finding myself on a ship surrounded by leisure lovers, not just the independently wealthy denizens of Sausalito, but the staff—surfer dudes waiting tables at night and slow-moving Mexican sous chefs taking a minute, as I passed, to frankly evaluate the shape of my ass—suited me. My father had died the previous year and I'd failed out of an east coast liberal arts college, not academically, but psychologically, my suitemates having telephoned my mother to report that I slept 15 hours a day and ate nothing but Cap'n Crunch.

Living at home again, I arose early to watch the Iran Contra hearings on C-Span, my in situ civics lesson. Days, I went out only sparingly, to my therapy appointments, to Jerry's Deli for turkey sandwiches and two afternoons a week, to the movies. Between the dead heat of my mother's sunroom, where I lay for hours on the sofa and John Poindexter and Ollie North, bargain matinees and long naps, it had been a year of absolute stillness and absolute confusion. Like a bug pinned under a stone I was forced, finally, to stop wriggling, to just give up and turn off. It was the year of no plan and no backup plan, no sensible plan and no throw caution-to-the-wind plan, no nothing, except finally, thankfully, a job. Five nights a week, from 5 to 10:30pm.

And the tinkling of the bell when an order came up, the clanking of silverware and the hum of our refrigerated oasis, the wraparound windows and the red velvet upholstery of the bar stools, the sights and sounds of simple objects, reliable and unchanging, began to stir me as if from a stony sleep. Most reliable was Alfonse, always at my side and the ten-foot-long salad bar constructed in the shape of a catamaran, with its banks of crushed ice, its brass frame and polished hull, an unlikely symbol of redemption, a lifeboat, the vehicle by which I reclaimed my will, the picked over ceramic bowls existing to be filled.

At one and only one point each evening, Big Mike swung open the heavy door of the walk-in, the heat from the kitchen pouring in like a shock, a violent clash of climates, to see how things were going.

"Mike, when you make me bus boy?"
"When your English gets better, Alfonse. Hey, guys, get some towels to wipe this floor. Someone's gonna slip."

When he left, Alfonse would bury his head in his hands, rocking lightly back and forth or troll through his backpack for matches and a pack of cigarettes to go out to the parking lot for his nightly smoke. The Haitian dishwasher joined him there, a laconic sidekick, nodding his head in agreement as Alfonse shouted and paced. Occasionally I'd join him there, too, mildly curious about distress other than my own, but mostly I preferred to sit in the walk-in, where it was dim and quiet. I'd eat more banana chips, trying to memorize the lyrics to sing in the car on the way home.

The truth is an offense but not a sin!
Is he who laugh last, children! is he who win
Is a foolish dog bark at a flying bird!
One sheep must learn, children! to respect the shepherd!

 

Later, I'd ask, "Hey Alfonse, can I borrow this tape if I promise to bring it back tomorrow?"

"Christina, for you, I make copy."


After three months of nights with Alfonse, as promised, a hostess spot opened up and I left the salad bar. Big Mike wanted three smiling faces at the front door to greet customers. Girl number three, that was me. The other two, Jan and Melanie, spoke in disparaging terms, without fail, about every single attractive female as soon as she was out of earshot. When I had to walk away to seat a party of two or refill the toothpick dispenser, I was never sure which was preferable: that they say mean things about me, too, or say nothing at all. Melanie applied lipstick right there at the hostess stand every hour or so, puckering her lips, kissing a cocktail napkin.

I threw out the navy blue pants, dotted with salad dressing stains and hardly ever caught sight of Alfonse anymore. The walk-in shifts, Alfonse drumming to the music, with a salad fork, whacking the vats with wicked, percussive hits and me in my best imitation of Ska dancing, flapping my arms and tipping myself over like a teapot, was a foreign interlude.

I wore mascara and developed a crush on Todd, the head-waiter, trying to brush his palm as I handed him a bar bill. I bought two dresses, with big, floral prints, and some low-heeled, black, patent leather pumps. Big Mike deemed the whole effect "just right." "Classy," he said. "Professional."

Christina Curtis received an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College in 2003. She lives, writes, and raises her children in New York City.