I worked at Keen’s Restaurant, in New York City, when I was in my early 20s, after I’d come back from abroad. It was one of a string of restaurants I waitressed in, though Keen’s was the most chichi of all of them. But it was also poorly run, and full of psychos of varying stripes. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Few of the people there were full-blown psychotics, but almost all of us were unhappy––experiencing the kind of contagious unhappiness that is bred by bad management, wielded by people who have been given power they aren’t able effectively (or fairly) to wield.

The man who owned the restaurant was a German doctor who had made a lot of money and, as a hobby, had bought up a number of Manhattan restaurants with which he “experimented.” I think he saw himself as a cross between a seer and a sociologist. He enjoyed promoting people to stations they weren’t qualified to run, and to carefully selecting who would staff each of his (very different) restaurants. I know all this in part because everyone working for him knew it, and in part because he hired me two different times to work as a waitress for him (though he didn’t know this). He had a standing ad in the Village Voice (a bad sign), and the first time I interviewed with him for a waitressing position (yes, bizarrely, he did all the interviews himself), he hired me to work at a restaurant called The Noho Star. If you’ve ever been to The Noho Star, you’ll probably understand why I left after my first day. Though the restaurant has a primo location, the food was and is mediocre, the servers crazy, and the management inept. I got an interim job at the Fulton Fishmarket as a caterer instead (which was its own special kind of nightmare), and when I bagged that, I interviewed again with the German meister. That next interview landed me at Keen’s. It wasn’t as bad as The Noho Star, so I stayed for six months.

(Was I infected by the man’s penchant for experimentation? That I turned so much of my experience there into fiction?)

Which is what I want to talk about: Wait(ress)ing as a form of existential endurance, an undergoing of the is. “Serving” as a metaphor. By which I mean: I served up that same experience by using it as material for my first novel, and later, in a write-up here on e2.

In Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov mentions having given away his childhood memories to different characters in his fictions. I can’t claim that the memory I used in the e2 story has been taken over by the main character, but the real proposal was markedly different from the fictionalized one.

But here’s the weird thing: I’m not quite sure how the two are different. I just know that they are.

In the real experience, the man who proposed to me during a lunch shift wasn’t as obviously exploitative as the man I presented in the short story. He wasn’t your Weeds-typical rich guy. First of all, he came in after the lunch rush. I’m pretty sure he asked to be seated at one of my tables, but I might be wrong about that; I might have simply suspected that he asked to be put in my section. He ordered something light, and a drink, and he smiled at me as I asked him if there would be anything else. It was later, after I’d brought his food, that he proposed to me, and then, too, he smiled, so that I didn’t know how to take it, his asking me to marry him. I looked at him, and he smiled, and I was simply flummoxed.

I gave the guy in the story based on this event a more defined kind of weird unreadableness. The truth is, I had no clear sense, there at Keen’s, as to the character or intentions of the guy who proposed to me. I had no sense of what he really wanted from me, and I have no clearer sense of these things now, looking back at them in retrospect. But I do think that I lack this clear sense, at least in part, because, in the course of fictionalizing the event, I’ve ended up blurring my sense of what actually happened. Well, it was twenty-one years ago. At the time, I know, I took (or appeared to take) the man’s proposal in stride, in a way that my female protagonist wasn’t able to. I laughed it off.

But the thing is? When I laughed, the guy continued to smile. But he didn’t laugh with me. That’s the thing I remember. His smile was steady, unflinching, ambiguous, and penetrating. He was saying to me: I dare you to take me seriously. I dare you to.

I didn’t dare.

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