By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
When I was 16, I got my first job. I was, improbably, a waiter at the now-defunct Parkway Deli in my hometown of Stamford, Connecticut.
In pretty short order, even though I wasn’t pretty or even a short-order cook, I was fired for what I must admit were two very good reasons: I ate the place out of knishes every day for lunch and, in case you are wondering why the deli went under, I was incompetent.
After a hiatus of 46 years, I recently got back into the service industry by working as a waiter at the Modern Snack Bar in Aquebogue, New York.
I came up with the potentially disastrous idea after my wife, Sue, and I had dinner at the popular family-style restaurant and were waited on by Anilee Bishop, who deserves a medal, or at least a raise, for being my mentor when I returned a couple of weeks later to see if I could drive yet another eatery into the ground.
I arrived at the worst possible time — a busy Saturday night — with Sue; our younger daughter, Lauren; our son-in-law Guillaume; and our granddaughter, Chloe.
“Are you ready to go to work?” asked Anilee, who seated us in the large rear dining room.
“Yes,” I said confidently, promising that I would spare the place the humiliation of having me on staff by waiting my own table.
“If anybody in your family is as tough a customer as you are, you’re going to be in trouble,” said Anilee, adding that she was fired from her first waitressing job for spilling water all over the silk dress of a rich lady in the Hamptons. “It was my first day,” she recalled. “And my last.”
But Anilee, 30, the mother of two toddlers who also has been a photojournalist and studied to be a nurse, is still in the service industry and has been waitressing at the Modern Snack Bar for seven years. She always assures customers that the restaurant’s famous grasshopper pie “doesn’t contain real grasshoppers” and likes to tell “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup” jokes to amused diners.
The first thing Anilee did, aside from bringing out menus, which I forgot to do (“You’re falling down on the job already,” she said), was to hand me a pad on which to write down orders. Then she gave me an apron with a large pocket so I could store the pad, a pen and whatever else (straws, napkins, extra spoons) I would need to be a competent waiter and, I fervently hoped, earn a generous tip.
“Don’t forget to fill the water glasses,” said Anilee, making sure that I poured water from “the side of the pitcher, not the spout” and that I turned away from my customers so I wouldn’t get them wet.
“Nobody’s wearing a silk dress,” I pointed out.
“This is going to be a long night,” Anilee murmured.
After taking orders (chicken fingers for Chloe, a Caesar salad for Lauren, a turkey sandwich for Guillaume, crab cakes for Sue and a hamburger for me, even though I wasn’t supposed to eat while working), I showed the pad to Anilee, who said, “I’ll have to rewrite this so the cook and the grill chef know what you mean.”
She took me to the kitchen, which is in the back, and to the grill, which is in the front, and translated my chicken scratch (which isn’t on the menu) into official restaurant code.
While dinner cooked, I refilled the water glasses, not only for my table (B10), but for the nice couple, Lois and Barry, at the next table (“This is the best water I’ve ever tasted!” Lois exclaimed) and for three women, Karen, Carol and Karen, at another table.
“We love you!” Carol said.
“Yes,” agreed one of the Karens. “But you really have to pick up the pace.”
Soon, dinner was ready. I didn’t dare try to balance all those plates on my arm for fear that I’d create a scene worthy of the Three Stooges, so I brought them out, one in each hand, and placed them on the table.
“Boneless appetit!” I said.
Then I sat down to eat and remarked on the good service. Because it’s not polite to talk with your mouth full, nobody agreed.
Later, I brought out dessert, which included grasshopper pie for Sue and Lauren (I repeated Anilee’s joke, but again there was no response) and ice cream for Chloe, 3, who chirped, “Thank you, Poppie!”
At least she appreciated my efforts.
So, actually, did Sue, Lauren and Guillaume, who acknowledged that I tried my best. Sue even left me a nice tip, which went into the till for Anilee and the other servers, all of whom work hard and are unfailingly cheerful and efficient.
“You may need a little more training,” Anilee said when my shift was over, “but you didn’t do a bad job.”
“And we’re still in business,” said John Wittmeier, who with his brother, Otto, co-owns the Modern Snack Bar, which has been in the family since 1950. “Even you couldn’t ruin us. But just to be safe,” he added with a grateful smile, “don’t quit your day job.”
Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima