Marisa Tomei’s mother was furious with me; I hadn’t presented her the option of fresh cracked pepper after running a chicory salad to her table. The house manager, a thin, wiry man with a penchant for firing people, flew into the server station where I was hiding. “She has never been to a fine dining establishment where it wasn’t offered,” he hissed. I placed the peppermill into his outstretched hand and winced.
I could not lose my job. The envelope of cash in my top dresser drawer was too thin to pay the rent on my rat-infested East Village basement sublet.
Besides the threat of homelessness, I had a second, almost as crucial motivation to keep my job: It impressed my family. Back in suburban Minnesota, my parents were captivated by the revolving door of celebrities I served. It helped that I left out the less glamorous details.
“Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos!” they gushed when I called to say I served a plate of bucatini con sadre to Lorraine Bracco. Why mention the pointed look she gave me when I refilled her water glass and a stray ice cube slid toward her across the black walnut tabletop?
Among my relatives, my tales of the rich and famous spread like a game of telephone—through the actual phone. Home for Christmas that year, my aunt approached me.
“How’s the Big Apple?” she asked. “I hear you served Tony Soprano.”
I smiled and didn’t correct her. Growing up in a sports-loving family, attention and accolades were usually bestowed upon my siblings. They were the captains; I was the benchwarmer who once tried to score against his team.
My original plan to get noticed was hatched in 6th grade, when a friend returned home with tales of Broadway, a place where people sang and danced like Cats for a living. If I was bad at sports, maybe I should try the opposite: the arts. Unfortunately, my dramatic skills were on par with my athletic ones. The most lines I had were as a Party Guest/Nazi in a high school production of The Sound of Music. I ran through the auditorium with a flashlight and accused audience members of hiding the von Trapps.
After college, I was ready to relocate. Thespian dreams aside, I still thought living in New York would give me the prestige needed to prove my worth to my family and, in turn, myself. I believed Frank Sinatra when he said if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.
Because it sounded cooler than the unexciting pharmacies already on my résumé, I decided to break into Manhattan’s trendy restaurant scene upon my arrival—despite my complete lack of experience. At a cattle call for servers, I was the only person without a headshot or an acting credit on a Law & Order franchise. I told a well-dressed restaurateur a merlot would pair nicely with duck confit because it had an earthly flavor; he asked if I meant earthy.
When I downgraded myself to food runner, I was hired by an Italian-Mediterranean fusion bistro that was opening in Soho. I got lost on my way to orientation and spent my first weeks looking like a bug-eyed rabbit backed into a corner by a salivating doberman. A server noticed my movements were slow and graceful and asked if I was a dancer—truth was, I moved at a glacial pace because the plates were big and the tables small; I could never figure out where to set things.
To avoid blowups—like the time I delivered food to the wrong table and our celebrity chef shattered a plate of carpaccio at my feet—I often took cover in our dimly lit wine room to polish the same silverware repeatedly. Unfortunately, I made myself too invisible. One night, the servers forgot to add me to the tip book.
“To redo it would be a hassle,” explained Morgan, the young, modelesque staff manager. I gave Morgan my best I’m-on-the-verge-of-eviction face, and she formed her well-glossed lips into a tight smile that said, “We’re done now, halfwit.”
Afterward, I locked myself in one of our lavish marble bathrooms and sat on the toilet fully clothed. Thankfully, my sobs were muffled by the classical music that played overhead.
Panic spread among the staff with the rumor that a major food critic was reviewing us. We hung pictures of him in our stations, and our high-strung house manager eyed diners suspiciously. Once the critic was spotted, I was not allowed near his table; the house manager personally delivered every dish. A server was fired between courses for pouring the wrong wine; I was relieved to be quarantined.
Before the review came out, I quit. Even if we received five stars, I could claim no bragging rights to them. Why stay?
The review, as it turned out, was dismal. A few weeks later, the restaurant closed; I was already back working in a pharmacy. My new job might not impress, but my rent was paid.
Back home for Christmas, I was ready to fade into the background once more.
“I hear you’re a pharmacist now,” my aunt said, backing me into a corner.
“Technician,” I corrected, slightly embarrassed.
She leaned in close, like she had a secret to tell me. “I brag about you to all my friends.”
Maybe I was making it after all.
Brian Kennedy no longer works in a pharmacy. He lives and writes in Manhattan.
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