When was my first job at a restaurant? A clumsy dancer’s guide to diners’ tease-tasting techniques
The trick was to kindle the right feeling in myself — I have something they want and I want to give it to them, but not yet — to render the plates of food a symbol for something else, to exude an air of slight withholding. You can make a person believe you if you suggest that they want something with enough confidence.
Every shift was a test of seduction, and each one had a number of tips to give me feedback on my success.
I honed my skills quickly. After a few weeks, I could balance five entree on one tray, calculate a bill in my head, and just as easily read the customers. I could tell if a diner wanted me to tease them, treat them with mild disgust (rare, but they did exist) or welcome them like a long-lost family member. My scatterbrained nature, which made me clumsy in my everyday life, was focused by the stream of social cues. The rhythm of it was so easy to understand that I was a dancer catching a beat. When I was working, I didn’t think and I didn’t make errors — which was good, because my livelihood depended on it: In 1996, the minimum wage for tipped employees was $2.13 per hour.
My second job as a server was at the Greenhouse, another storied Cambridge institution. The dining room was always fogged with cigarette smoke due to the overpriced diner’s green sign. As if we were in on the same joke, the female professors wanted a dry little flirt, sprinkled with irony, as they tipped big. Blue-collar men ate at the counter and liked to be teased a little. I sometimes dropped my money when talking to them. Are you after that on mahble rye?
I came to learn that this was a rule in restaurants: No matter the quality of their service, male waiters got bigger tips. They also rarely had to put up with the kind of abuse that we did.
On the etymology of the places of sanctuary: the final circle of hell in Inferno and the fate of the host
The hostility of hostis was not final. As a result of this came the name of the places of sanctuary:hospital, hospice, hotel. Still, its etymology also reveals a threat, for hospes is an elision of hosti-pot-s, in which “pot” signifies “master” (hence “despot”), and thus translates more literally as one “who has power over the stranger,” as the German media theorist Bernhard Siegert has written. A host may be benevolent or hold someone hostage with the smallest shift of emphasis. When it comes to Dante’s final circle of hell in Inferno, hosts who abuse their power by inviting visitors to a feast then killing them, is essentially the plot of the book.
How can we tell the difference between a guest and a parasites? Jacques Derrida muses in a book. And yet the code of hospitality is ancient and nonnegotiable. When sulfur is rained down on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, the precipitating incident is not the sexual promiscuity for which their populations are usually blamed but the attempt by a mob to attack two foreigners who are in fact angels in human form; only the family of Lot, who shelters and protects the angels despite not knowing their divine origin, is allowed to escape. It is not so much that we should offer welcome and succor to the stranger at the door but that we must.