Wall Street almost drove the whole country into the ground. On the flip side, even the most ayatolloid Che Guevara T-shirt-wearing leftist would have to admit to the physical prettiness of New York City’s Financial District, this grid-less labyrinth of narrow European-style streets wending their way between beautifully architectured mostly pre-war buildings whose sheer height nevertheless renders the scenery uniquely New York. Adding a charming hillside touch, the entire area slopes toward the East River, with nary a car to spoil the walking-around experience.
Since money and I naturally repel each other like the negative poles of two magnets, I seldom journey south of the Village, or SoHo at the most; hence it doesn’t happen every day that I can be spotted strolling down Wall Street. (For the Manhattan-challenged, the Financial District is located near the southern tip of this elongated island.) Strangely, whenever it does happen, passers-by seem blissfully oblivious to the rarity of the event they are witnessing. If they saw a giraffe lope past the Stock Exchange, would they ignore it, too?
Perchance my neck is too short to attract an appropriate amount of attention.
These days, my life bears an eerie resemblance to Wall Street. Wall Street in the early fall of 2008, that is, on the eve of the calamity. Except that I simply don’t owe enough, and hence my personal situation is far more precarious. If only I found a way to rack up an additional few hundred billion dollars in debt, then the U.S. treasury would rush to my aid. As matters stand, however, I’m screwed like a few hundred billion light bulbs instead.
So until I figure out how to acquire and then blow hundreds of billions of borrowed greenback for the purpose of scoring a bailout (I’m no financial expert, but as far as I can tell, that’s how the system works), I shall continue my bungling quest for employment, to which end I keep dispatching electronic résumés through cyberspace at an ever accelerating clip as if my life depended on it, which, in a way, it does. (At least my life as I know it, i.e., a life featuring food and electricity and like amenities.)
Yesterday, in response to one of these cyber mailings, some Wall Street area dining establishment called and invited me to come in for an interview later in the afternoon. I catatonically agreed, hung up, and instantly headed to the kitchen for a big knife to slash my wrists with. As always, I didn’t make it beyond the hesitation marks stage, whereupon my cowardly self resolved to repair to the dreaded appointment.
I stepped off the 2-Train at the Wall Street stop, exited the subway system, and was, once again, bowled over by the quaint beauty of this neighborhood, which I had not visited in quite some time. As is generally the case when I’m down there, I promptly got lost. Below Houston (the street, not the city), the famous Manhattan street grid goes haywire, and you can forget about simple coordinates such as 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. My destination Hannover Square between Pearl and Stone didn’t exactly lend itself to the count-and-find method which is so eminently useful in other parts of the city, and as I do not travel thither that often, my mental map of the area was spotty at best.
After perambulating about in circles for awhile and enjoying the pretty architecture, I somehow wound up at my (un)desired destination just in time and introduced myself to the hostess, who checked my name off a list, handed me a pencil and an application form, and lead me to a table in the bar area where I was to complete the paperwork. The manager would be with me shortly.
A cocktail waitress materialized and inquired if I wanted a beverage. I declined and ordered a steak knife instead. No, I didn’t. There was no need for another weapon, as I had already been given a pencil with which to puncture my jugular in case the anguish of sitting there in yet another cocktail section of yet another restaurant completing yet another application form for yet another server position became unbearable and I were at long last able to muster the bravery to take arms against this sea of trouble.
Suddenly, the aforementioned cocktail toots plunked a fancy little wooden basket filled with popcorn in front of me. Her explanation was that she didn’t have any “real” customers right now, so I could have what her “real” customers usually got. That was nice, because I hadn’t eaten all day, as I hadn’t gotten around to stealing any food yet.
Over the years, I’ve seen various items put on tables for people to munch on while sipping their dopey cocktails—all kinds of bread, bread sticks, bruschetta, potato chips, corn chips, olives, cold cuts, you name it. Quite frankly, though, popcorn served in a restaurant was a first for me. Of course, I immediately asked if I could order a movie with that.
The moment these words had escaped my lips, I knew. I could tell by the expression on the waitress’s face and by her forced attempt to feign amusement: this was precisely what everybody said upon encountering the popcorn basket for the first time. People see popcorn, associate movies, and then goofily cast their eyes about for a screen and ask what’s playing, obviously laboring under the delusion of being exceptionally original. And day after day, the poor waitstaff must play along and pretend this is the funniest thing they’ve ever heard.
Here’s the classic incarnation of this scenario:
A customer has finished their meal, having devoured everything including the parsley sprig. The waiter comes over to clear the table, and the customer, referring to his or her perfectly empty plate, quips, “I didn’t like it.”
Now, the first dozen times I heard this line I may have found it mildly amusing. The following few hundred times I took it with stoic indifference, yet responded with a mechanical grin which probably failed to extend very far north of my upper lip.
But the last approximately tens of thousands of times some clown attempted to regale me with this mother of all shopworn dining room japes, I struggled to restrain myself from summarily landing a dynamic uppercut to the jester’s jaw and following up with the kindest of smiles and the words, “I hope you liked that.”
Should I ever write my waiter’s autobiography, it will be titled I Didn’t Like It—a felicitous double-meaning, for not only is it absolutely true, albeit in a grotesquely understated kind of way, but it also happens to be one of the top-three things most frequently said to me in a restaurant setting.
The other two, of course, being Check please and You’re fired.