The Thin White Line
The wait staff gather in the early afternoon hours of the coming festive weekend. One smokes a cigarette while the bartender staff joke and banter with one another. All of the waiters and bartenders know each other from days of setting up and breaking down special events. The best, worst and most humorous sides of waiter staff and bartender staff come out after a twelve hour day. Especially so when catering staff are sweating in the damp air unloading trucks or bar staff end up cutting fingers while racing to uncork forty bottles of ‘red’ as fast as possible.
The rental equipment and glassware arrive and the bartender staff get up. Most of them worked well past the waitstaff the night before and everyone is a bit creaky, if still in a good mood. The event manager is stressed of course, but the giddiness of the catering staff helps to lighten everyone up with jokes and memories. Last night might have been rough, but afterwards, in the closest bar, the beers had gone down cool and refreshing.
Jumping to it as if fresh from a full night of rest, the crew swings into action. This is a job of ‘hurry up and wait’. One minute you’re relaxing, but you are always ready for the hammer, signaled by the cargo trucks arriving. You have to be able to move at light speed and stop on a dime. Rest is something you can do when you start your car in some empty lot after everyone else in the city has gone home to bed.
The silverware and glasses fall into place on the tables carpeted with rose petals and vibrantly-arrayed centerpieces. The charger plates are placed exactly at the table’s edge and the chairs are pulled the correct distance from the table. Forks are on the left and coffee cup handles are at five o’clock. These are fundamentals of the industry in its fine-tuned state. It is a million moving intricacies fanning out in all directions. No detail is missed, and for those who appreciate details, it is a fun game for the mind.
There is never a dull moment and every minute is different than the last. One moment you’re fluffing a table with magical-colored materials for the buffet, next you’re draping vines across the railing. The eye candy swirl of colors becomes spellbinding as the details of the event are brought together by a delicate dance of managers and artists working to beat the ‘curtain call’ deadline.
It’s barely two o’clock when the crew begins carrying stacks of chairs six-high from the loading dock on their backs. Everyone is lean and sinewy from months or years of lifting, carrying and walking a hundred miles a week in their black polished shoes. They are all masters of the talent of the setup, or will be after one runaway train season. The veterans know that the next four months are the time to “stack your Franklins”; and that December is mad money as the holiday festivities continue at a feverish pace until they’re finally satiated by the arrival of Christmas. It’s in those final weeks that the eighteen-hour days get stacked back to back and off days are rare. Crews mostly just sleep every moment they’re not at work. But since this is the beginning of the season, the crew is happy to be working again.
The lighting technicians begin testing the lights and the colors glint through the glassware being set. The crystalline explosion of color is mesmerizing. The work does not stop, but races on in seeming pandemonium. Florists and technicians keep moving in and out of the double door entrances and loading bays with arms full and their intent furrowed on their brows. The facilities staff and the guest greeters begin taking their positions in hallways and behind draped tables with arrayed name tags.
The controlled chaos has a predictable rhythm even if every day is a new event, new place, new faces and new experiences. The mer de noms is unavoidable and you do your best to remember everyone. And despite the continuous changes day to day, the work becomes meditative in its simplicity. But just as you slip into a meditative repetition of folding napkins or “tweaking” the silverware, you’re pulled off to do another task that simply has to be done right away. So, off you go, all the while making sure to not forget the important contradiction of rushing while not appearing rushed.
And suddenly everything is set. It’s a wonder where the hours went, but it’s just money so what does it matter. At least the day was not spent in a cubicle farm, interacting with a computer all day. Lifers in the industry tend to be people persons, and consider interacting with others essential to their job happiness.
The servers and bartenders who fill the rank and file of the industry are many times the schooling doctors and single parents who are reaching for the next rung up on the ladder of upward mobility promised by our Constitution. The dream of generations of Americans has been to better their lot, and serving filet mignon to guests is not a bad gig in the interim, even if it does break you in the process. Ultimately for most, the industry is a way station for moving on to other things. The transient nature of a wait staff means it may be the last time you see the people you are working with today.
As the setup reaches its climax and the hustle and bustle finally dies down, the managers begin relaxing. Trickles of Eton-jacketed worker ants begin arriving as the sun sinks low into its orange-hued cloudscape. The parking garages are still disgorging cars into the downtown bumper to bumper mania. Stepping outside into the coming evening, the setup crew takes a breather. They have five minutes to cram a bite down their throat – that is if they can find, coerce or thieve anything to eat. Chewing is optional and generally discouraged because it takes too long and you might get caught. If possible, they’ll throw back a quick bottle of Evian or whatever else can be scavenged from the leftover beverages. It is time to suit up.
It’s fondly called the ‘penguin suit’. With cummerbund folds facing down in modern form and white Eton jackets crisply covering any wine stains from last night, the setup crew transforms itself in corners and bathrooms. Modesty is a luxury mostly unaffordable in the cramped server bathrooms. But whatever problems one may have with this are masked behind the perma-smile everyone is required to have.
Colognes mask the sweaty day while breath strips mask whatever was found to eat to fend off certain starvation. Everyone in this business is perpetually hungry and will inhale just about anything edible given any chance to do so. Being fed is a luxury and fending for your own stomach is a necessary survival skill. With a little luck, a crustini from a hors d’ oeuvre tray or a treat from one of the sympathetic cooks, one can push away the gnawing hunger for a little while. Dressed and ready to go, the crew makes their way back into the ballroom they just spent all day setting up.
The thin line of white-jacketed waiters rests along the wall. They primp each other’s tilting bowties and joke and talk about old times and new. They are a conglomeration of all walks of life that join together into a melting pot of hopes and needs. They are all ages and both sexes, and they represent the collective success, reality and dreams of a better tomorrow.
The thin white line stands prepared for the controlled chaos that is about to ensue. This cadre will ensure that the evening is a success and that the guests are wined and dined in synchronized fashion. In the spirit of the masquerade, the crowd will descend upon them with relish. At a bird’s eye view, it resembles a line of British colonial redcoats being overrun by a brilliantly-adorned tribal horde.
The guests arrive in glitter and satin, and adorned by the wealth of their station. Champagne flutes on polished silver trays meet them at the door. With proper smiles and nameless faces, the thin white line stand in flanking rows. A laden tray can weigh up to ten pounds and begins to hurt after holding it in one position for several minutes. Once a tray arm gets stiff, it screams out to be relaxed and the ache to be shaken out.
But despite the tray’s torment, the jacketed servers engage their guests with a well-worn welcome, slightly extending their silver trays topped with bubbling nectars. A courteous “thank you” slips off their backs as easily as arrogant indifference. But while rudeness occurs occasionally, it is the greater part of the swarm of charitably-donating guests that will warm one’s heart. They are a mindful and cultured group with an appreciation for the arts and sciences, and it is a privilege to pamper them with everything they desire. To that end, nothing is spared.
Thus, the women begin being seated in chivalrous fashion and white linens are draped across their laps. Wearing the most exotic, beautiful, or gaudy fashions and materials, they add a delicate deliciousness to the evening. The men are suited in tuxedos which always make them appear handsome. With polished charm and cigar-scented jokes, the tuxedos swirl around the peacock array of women. The guests are here to enjoy the sport of conducting business through social networking. As a cultural anthropological study, it is interesting to be the lower socioeconomic class, serving the upper socioeconomic crust. But after much study and introspection, one will find that there honestly is very little difference between the types and variance of people and attitudes you find in the two categories.
The uproarious evening shifts into fifth gear as the announcements of dinner begin. White jackets appear at each table, pouring wine and twisting the bottle at the last moment to avoid the inevitable drip. Everywhere thin white lines of waiters weave through the partially-seated crowds carrying plates in white-gloved hands. Circling a table with precision moves, they serve the seated ladies from the left in unison. Service is from the left to avoid crashing into someone’s glass of Bordeaux or Pinot Noir while serving, since glasses are set for a right-handed world. The gloved waiters step to the gentlemen seated beside their dates and place the second plate at the Captain’s nod. The synchronized effect is sharp and professional because it is so ritualistic.
The appearance given to the ballroom attendees may be one of unhurried swiftness, but the reality of the situation is a far less perfect picture. No plan survives intact, but is modified to make it work. Behind the curtains, doors or facades, a seeming madness has ensued, with harried chefs and dashing server teams all moving way too fast. It is a controlled environment but the hurriedness is completely unmasked here.
Everywhere commands are being barked and food is being plated. Meat goes at six o’clock and the decorative garnish has barely been placed before a gloved waiter grabs it. Servers must be able to move fast and stop immediately if a collision is imminent. With the mass of waiters spewing into and out of the makeshift kitchen, you would think this must be impossible. The swirl of activity resembles the ‘Costa Rican umbrella dance’ seen daily on the rainy-season streets of the capital, San Jose.
Almost suddenly, the merlots and sauvignons have increased the volume of the conversations in the room and the collective din is barely covered by the music pouring from the stage. Moods are festive and the party goers can barely stay seated. Everywhere business is being born from the social intercourse. Tuxedoed impasses pose difficulties for the flowing white lines pouring through the crowd handling their two plates apiece ritual. White-napkined bottles of intoxicating nectars circle tables and empty into awaiting stemware. Surgical aesthetics are visible everywhere just beneath thin threads sewn in low-cut fashions. Everywhere, beautiful visages of humanity entertain one another with witty conversation and humorous jokes.
For the servers, the feet usually begin to hurt first, but they soon learn to block it out. Thresholds of every sort are being reached everywhere among the staff. Stressed managers call out orders to the oddly-capped cooks and the jacketed servers streaming into and out of the kitchen. The balmy night pushes sweat out of the faces of the line cooks pulling and topping the racks of desserts. Waiter captains work hard to hold their jacketed lemmings in a line behind them. Bathroom breaks are an impossibility, but the servers sweat out all the water they own anyway. There is no time for any personal need below the medical emergency level. Finally, dessert is laid and white gloves come off as coffee is offered to the restless guests.
The dance floor’s alternating red and blue hues signal its need for rosy-cheeked guests waving half-filled glasses. The music pumps from the black boxes with its juicy temptation to leave all inhibitions with discarded linens at the tables. Networking business talk is replaced with celebratory jiggling and swaying. The mass of swirling flesh and clothing separates from the dining area with a vitality born of drunkenness and enchantment.
Discipline breaks down in the ranks as the thin white line tends to its collective, pent up needs. Captains maintain enough staff to clean tables but the troops are restless. The feeding frenzy ensues as waiters clear plates to the back. In ones and twos they disappear to eat some shred of food they have allocated for their hard work. Bottles of Perrier and Evian are swilled in temporary hiding spots and uneaten desserts are horded for later. The line cooks work furiously to wrap up everything and stow their gear so they can leave. They are the worst paid and the hardest worked, but they do get to leave early and skip the breakdown’s hardest parts.
Within forty-five minutes of coffee service, all discipline has eroded as the troops demand some free time. Only essential requests pull the seated staff from their individual reveries or their jovial backslapping conversations. Captains and managers peel off to smoke a cig or plan the reduction of the beautifully-ornamented ballroom. Hurry and wait has been the order of the day for them. Most of the worker ants now get to leave but the crew must wait until the night has grown late enough to herald the party’s end.
Soon the detailed patina of this “night to remember” will be forgotten. The festive guests leave in twos and fours, content with the spell that that has been cast upon them. Once again the faceless vendors and the thin white line with its leaders created and executed the plans that made this evening a sterling success for its guests. Grateful guests wave their farewells to one another as they stream out to waiting valets. Paradoxically, the off-duty police officers make sure that the drunken guests make their swerving departure free of beggars, bums, and criminals.
Inside sits the daunting task of whittling down the beast that was created for this night. The crew has reappeared in t-shirts, after removing their jacket masquerades. Armed with glass racks and rolling carts, their task is set upon in earnest. Everyone wants to be done with this night of revelry they have taken part in. Everywhere tables lay naked as their jeweled centerpieces and clothes are stripped from them. Chairs are stacked and beverage stations are taken apart piecemeal under the harsh white lighting that pours down onto the disassembling wreckage. As if a battleground, a clamor of sharp noises fills the vast room as the strike crews attack the scenery and tables with cordless screwdrivers and storage boxes.
Finally, the beast that once was is no more, and the managers cut everyone left. Maybe they’ll see the same people again, but maybe not. That is just the nature of the industry. The evening is finished and the hour is late. Tired feet carry the last of the crew through the deserted downtown streets. The enormous buildings are resting with their uniformed watchmen, both awaiting the coming dawn. The crew walks through the still, balmy air, past the arranged trees and bricked walk of the downtown park. Quietly they shuffle into the hushed garage. It is not difficult to spot their cars between the pillars, as they are the only ones left in the whole place. With white jackets slung over shoulders, they call their farewells to one another and walk off alone, reflecting on the evening.
The drive home will surely be introspective as it always is. But the rising sun is not far away and sleep pulls upon their tired minds as they sink into their car seats. The sun will be back again much too soon, but tomorrow is another place with another party for them and everyone else who fills the ranks of the thin white line. by: Justin Atkinson Copyright 2009 Justin Atkinson