(Blogger’s Note: Every Friday an excerpt of the soon-to-be published book, “Faux Pas is French for Restaurant” is published on this blog.)
I had to escape the personal financial destruction the Royalton Hotel was inflicting on me. My large losses at the Casino of the Three Card Monte had eaten up my hotel budget, and my daily tariff at the Royalton was soon to be my residential demise. A call to a friend in Burlington produced another friend in Burlington, who had a friend, who knew a friend, who was looking for a roommate. By Monday night the Royalton Hotel was history and I had a share of a comfortable apartment on East 91st Street and Second Ave. One problem solved. And, on the Upper East Side. I turned to what every starving artist before and after me has ever done in New York City upon a vagabond arrival. The "Restaurant Help Wanted" section of The New York Times was as massively intimidating as the streets and avenues I had little familiarity with. Why hadn´t I listen to that chicken recipe from Frenchy?
If I had known in 1981 the path I was taking would eventually lead to the building of a restaurant conglomerate in the distant future, I would have paid more attention. But, I didn´t plan on becoming a professional restaurateur or even a restaurant professional. I was in looking for a guest gig. I needed walk-around money. A few C-notes to get me to my real job interviews. I needed shifts for a couple of weeks. A few tables, not a big section, stash some the cash, work hard, build up a freelance writer’s war chest, get out. Get published. How hard could that be?
My Tuesday morning introduction to the neighborhood explained why so few suits had moved north of 86th Street in the early 80´s. The shabbiness of the buildings, the obvious lack of desirable retail, and vacant restaurants were each signs this was further "up" than the tony Upper East Side that was being written about in the society rags of the day. Not run down enough to be a Bohemiam enclave, the likes ofTribeca, or the likes of Soho, the neighborhood was in a state of gentrification.
Elaine´s was an oasis at 88th. Street. A diner or two in Yorktown seemed cordial enough, but no place to apply for a job. The prospects of working in the neighborhood I now lived seemed bleak. I would have to commute.
Tuesday passed slowly, prospecting was poor. The day didn´t go well. Nor did Wednesday. Thursday sucked and forget job searching on the weekends. First week results were not very impressive. I still had reason to believe, however, I could snag a job as a waiter; I just needed to find the right place, whose manager was so desperate for staff that he would hire a guy without any hospitality experience.
By the next Monday morning New York was winning mentally. The enthusiasm in my step was slowly waning by the time I was close to the "Please, please hire me" portion of my pitch. Applying for a waiter´s position at the diners on Lexington Avenue wasn´t the brightest career move. Those Greek diner guys were always encouraging, but the verbal volley always turned out to be a waste of time. Back then, and still today, they hold the torch for the most hospitable culinarians in Manhattan. The problem, of course, is that Greek families are much too large. You have to marry into a job at a Greek diner. I had no time for that. The Greek courtship rules of bonding, whether for marriage or waiting on tables, are extreme by the mere American standards for both.
Biting blisters on my heels were painfully making their presence known, allowing me to favor one leg more than the other. I was acquiring a hobble instead of the New York swagger the suits that surrounded me displayed on their walk to Wall Street. An inexperienced waiter, with a slight limp- today, maybe. Back then, absolutely not.
Aside from the encouragement from the Greeks, the beauties that stood in line in front of most restaurants seeking wait staff also boosted my adrenaline. Until, of course I realized that those beauties were beating me out of every job in the classified section of The Times.
Everyone was reading the New York Times´ restaurant help wanted section. Thousands of people would show up for one wait staff position. I didn´t even have a resume with any restaurant experience. A limping non-resume guy with no experience looking for a quick gig. It was a stand-up act waiting to be performed at the Comedy Club, but I didn´t have the confidence to take the stand-up road since it was being stripped away with every slamming door.
And, reviewing the candidates in front of me, as I waited my turn at the restaurant cattle call, I realized the faces in line were more beautiful, handsome, and hipper than the one I was carrying. Actors were obviously at the front of the line. Vocalists came next. And then, looking at the stretch pants, and the contour of the legs and asses they covered, dancers were the third group. By the time eyes wandered to the last section of the line, nerdy guys and girls, obviously the writing segment of New York´s hopeful artist community, tended to be towards the back. A daytime duplication of the disco lines by night. And I was at the end of both.