Waiting tables nearly killed me. the weight of crushed dreams slipped into one armhole at a time, pulling the argyle sweater vest over my head, careful not to muss my hair, trading gay barbs (gossiping really–Klaus’s latest chicken conquest the current topic du jour) with Marvin at the next locker or admiring John’s gymnast body as he stripped down to his jockey shorts, changing into his street clothes, ready to leave for the day, wondering–silently–what it would feel like to slip my hand down between the elastic waistband and grab his ass cheek without getting beat up–he was one of the few heterosexual waiters on staff–felled finally by my best friend Jimmy, who’s specialty was fucking ‘straight’ men. (We pause now for a moment of jealousy, still.)

It felt endless, this roundelay of ” what would you like from the bar?”, “let me get the wine steward to answer your questions,”  “I’m sorry you’re not happy with your filet,” “thank you, thank you, thank you.” the obsequiousness of serving strangers gritty sandpaper against my psyche, rasping away until all that would be left would be a toothpick–could I have seen that far ahead, or recognized the signs of decay, stagnation, bumping up against nowhere, no how, no why.

At the time I thought I’d accepted the loss of my teenage dreams of being a theatrical star, as amorphous (and ill-conceived) as that was; lacking the fire to keep at it, so easily sidetracked by sex, drugs, disco, the easy money of waiting tables. It wasn’t so much the setting aside of that want as it was the unformed thought of what else could I do with my life. The dead end looming ahead yellow and black, shiny, vibrating in the wind tunnel of my vision of the future.

I overcompensated by being a bitch with a sharp tongue and quick wit, droll; counted on by the other waiters to leaven the momentary disaster of our shift with a sidelong glance and a wry reference to literature, art, a fuck. our ghetto a result of sex, education, and the sudden freedom of the revolution we were in the midst of, all of us a Che or Fidel, a Lenin or Trotsky, a Franklin or Jefferson.

Physical sickness would descend, my quack Dr. Button, a matronly blond woman wielding a huge syringe filled with B-12 (her answer for everything), her offices in a filthy building in the center of the Loop, with unwashed windows looking out onto an air well, a prison infirmary for the dispossessed. I don’t think I ever fully recovered from one illness before I would walk back into work (money trumps everything), and begin again, “Hi, my name’s BobPatrick and I’ll be your waiter this evening.”

[A note on BobPatrick: I let people in high school call me Bob. it continued into college, but shortly after arriving in Chicago and studying at the Goodman, it became BobPatrick, one word, forget the hyphen (I’m not the hyphen type, although at one point I thought about taking my stepfather’s last name and hyphenating it with Patrick…trying desperately to remove the traces of my errant father.) It was not until I broke free from waiting tables that I was able to reclaim Robert.]

It’s possible that the good nights at work are > than the bad ones, but it’s the bad ones, the outright disasters, the “whatever made me do that?” that stick and although now they’re quaint stories of growing up during the revolution in a “Daddy, what was it like in the war?” kind-of-way, at the time it was those horrible people who contributed to my decline.

I’ve tried to analyze what happens to ordinary (and extraordinary) people when they go out to dine. In most instances, the experience is pleasant or even unremarkable for the waiter and the guest; everyone does their job, the waiter waits, the diners dine, a check is presented, they pay, they tip, they exit. Everyone is happy.

And then there are those diners who take an adversarial approach to dining out, either through ignorance of what is expected of them in any establishment (high, low, in-between) or sheer contrariness, a ‘fuck you, you moron waiter, I’ll show you who’s the boss” attitude. It can only end disastrously for the diner. Regardless that the diner may claim the battle a victory to his friends, the waiter will always have won the war. It’s something you might want to keep in mind the next time you’re out to dinner…not that I’m saying you’re an asshole, but that even the kindest of people may run up against the bad day of the person standing at your table, saying “may I take your drink order?”

You may be a famous painter (Leroy Neiman, for instance, whom I famously jousted with one day–he may have thought he’d won, but he was wrong; his complaint written on the back of a drawing he was working on conveniently framed by the G.M. before it was given to Arnie ) or a famous stage actress (Carol Channing, for instance, who came with her own food and would not speak to the waiter–that would be me–instead instructing her publicist in Channing-speak, who in turn would then translate her requests to me,) or you may be just be some regular dude with a chip on your shoulder (the fear of looking out of place) and a new girl on your arm that you’re hoping to impress so she’ll give you some head later who proceeds to bully and demean the waiter (again, let’s pretend that waiter is me) to the point where the waiter has to complain to the maître d’ who in turn brings the complaint to the manager, who in turn mentions it to Arnie, who goes up to the schmuck of a patron and asks him to leave. I rest my case.

[It should also be noted that the kitchen staff was often at odds with the wait staff, not an unusual occurrence I grant you, but you’ve not lived — barely — until the salad chef chases you through the kitchen with a very large butcher knife for crossing an imaginary line and invading their space or a line cook comes at you with a knife up and over the expediter’s warming stand because you’ve just handed their smart-ass head back to them on a platter in a “you don’t fuck with this queen and get away with it” Salome-and-John-the-Baptist moment.  Only the manager saving you at the very last second from having one less eye.  The defense rests once again.]

Those are just some highlights, the real work of grinding down your spirit is done by little bits and pieces, the everyday indignity of being at a stranger’s beck-and-call, even after you have ‘regulars’ who apparently love you so much they ask for you again and again, in spite of yourself, it just digs away at you until one morning you wake up after a hard night at work, and possibly even a harder night out at the bars and you take a good, long look at your face in the mirror (you’ve bent over the sink to splash cold water on your face and you rise back up watching your forehead, eyebrows, eyes, nose, lips, stubbly chin whiskers with your hands on your cheeks water dripping down, eroding really — the metaphor not lost on you at the time — your soul. and it comes to you then, that now is the time to bring this career to a close, ending it before it ends you.

[A note on Irv & Essee Kupcinet: Irv Kupcinet was the Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons of Chicago. his ‘Kup’s Column’ appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times forever and it detailed the goings-on of the rich, the famous, and the infamous of Chicago society as well as any visiting celebrities. the Kupcinets would always accompany a visiting celebrity to dinner at Arnie’s where I worked from 1974 until 1980. Arnie Morton would pick up their tab and the next day in his column, Kupcinet would write, “Carol Channing was seen dining and dancing at Arnie’s last night.” the sad part of this transaction, and one that lasted for quite some time, is that the Kupcinets never so much as acknowledged the wait staff with a tip, a slight that Arnie was not aware of until one night when I had had enough of them and their demands and I told him. I’m not sure what he said to them, but after that evening, the Kupcinets always left a $20.00 bill for the waiter. I rest my case once again.]

The Rex Reed Story [a mostly true account written for a “New Journalism” class I was taking at the University of Illinois in the spring of 1976, the graded paper—I got an “A”—with a note from the professor: “This really happened!?!?” To which I reply, “Yes”.]

I was sweating more than was needed to maintain an air of casual, comfortable waiting–waiting tables that is. There were little rivulets of perspiration running down my cheeks, and I was hoping–for god’s sake–that I wouldn’t drip on one of my customers.

“Two Steak Arnie’s, one rare, one medium-rare–an asparagus, and two baked potatoes. Picking up!” I had to serve this order soon or the customers would surely be upset.

On this particular evening things had not been running smoothly at Arnie’s, an expensively decorated art deco restaurant, on the near north side of Chicago. Orders were taking up to thirty minutes to be processed and served. People were not pleased. Waiters were running hither and yon without purpose or result. I was still trying to get my order out of the kitchen.

“Bob! Guess what?” one of the more flamboyantly feminine waiters came swishing up to me.

“What?” I was in no mood for guessing games.

“Guess who’s sitting at your new table?”

I offered no reply, busy with my order and did not want to be bothered.

“Well?” he persisted.

“Well, what?” I retorted

“Well, don’t you want to know who’s at your new table?”

“No. I’ll find out soon enough.” I said as I pushed my cart into the dining room. I had to pass the captain’s stand and as I did so, Mr. Morton, the owner, stopped me.

“Patrick, do you have table sixty-two?” I replied with a nod. “Take good care of them.”

“Yes, sir.” they must be important, but who cares? You have to treat everyone the same, I figured, no matter who they were.

I served the dinners I’d wheeled out to the table next to number sixty-two and when I’d finished I turned to face my new guests.

It was Rex Reed. With Essee Kupcinet, the wife of Chicago columnist, Irv Kupcinet, and a theatrical producer in her own right. Her dyed red hair, worn in an update army helmet-style, was noticeably unmoving, shellacked perhaps. Maybe she hadn’t had time to have it washed and recast. Joining them for dinner was Carl Stone, a nice, middle-aged [fairy, eek!], who is the owner-producer of Pheasant Run playhouse in the suburbs of Chicago. Sitting next to Rex Reed was an anonymous young male beauty, who never uttered one word all evening long, his dinner ordered for him by Mr. Stone.

Mrs. Kupcinet and Carl Stone were engrossed in conversation. Rex Reed looked bored. Anonymous looked blank. I looked at them. “Would you like a cocktail before dinner?” no response. Perhaps in the din of the restaurant they hadn’t heard me. This time in a louder voice, “good evening, Mrs. Kupcinet. Would you like something to drink before dinner?” still no response. They hadn’t even blinked an eyelash. Essee and Carl were still talking, rex was even more removed. Anonymous might have been dead. I was becoming annoyed. I had other things to do and I wasn’t standing there for my health.

“Perhaps you’d like me to come back to you in a few minutes.” I was practically (and metaphorically) standing on the table. Again, as before, nothing. Screw it, I didn’t have time for this, so I turned around and checked on my other tables.

When I did return–about fifteen minutes later–they had been given menus by the floor captain and they were ready to order.

“Mrs. Kupcinet, what would you like this evening? I was trying to be nice.

“I’ll have the tomato salad and I would like the tomatoes peeled.”

“I’m sorry, but we do not peel the tomatoes.” I gave her one of my best smiles.

“Last time I was here the waiter peeled them for me.” she was not trying to be nice.

As diplomatically as possible I said, “Then your waiter must have been a fool.” that compelled her to finish her order without further complications. The next two orders were no problem. Saving the best for last, or worst as the case may be, I turned to Mr. Reed.

“And what would you like this evening, sir?”

“The New York strip,” he made it sound like a royal decree.

“And how would you like the steak done?” all my diplomacy had been replaced with a curt business-like attitude.

“Well done.”

“We do not serve our steaks well done.” [Under orders from Arnie himself.]

“I would like it that way.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied as I wrote medium well on the order.

I placed Mrs. Kupcinet’s unpeeled tomato salad in front of her.

“I wanted these tomatoes peeled.”

I had expected as much. “ma’am, if you want your tomatoes peeled, peel them yourself.” I turned on my heel with a smug sense of satisfaction and did what every waiter eventually learns to do. I got lost.

[You might wonder how this story ends. I never waited on the Kupcinets again. even if they were seated in my station, another waiter was given the table. It was a mutually agreeable conclusion for all concerned.]

The Education of a Young Man

Nothing at the Goodman (or for that matter anything other experience in my life up ’til then) prepared me for life at Arnie’s.  In April of 1974, Arnie’s (Arnie Morton–of Morton’s Steakhouse fame) put out a call for wait staff at the Goodman (Arnie’s wife, Zorine, was an alumna.)  Like a casting call, hundreds of young men descended upon the unfinished restaurant (designed by Richard Himmel) on State Street to ‘audition’ for a role in the hierarchy of restaurant life.  Arnie stood before us and said, “We are looking for theatrical, dramatic, beautiful young men,” to be the wait staff. It couldn’t have been any gayer.

For the most part, he got his wish.  The occasional heterosexual made it into the ranks, but if they didn’t quickly assimilate into the culture of the majority, well, they just didn’t last.  Looking around at the array of young, gay men that afternoon of the audition, I was struck at how extraordinary they were.  Flamboyantly coiffed (curls ruled!), extravagantly attired (bell bottoms, platform shoes, polyester print shirts)–they all seemed so sophisticated and comfortable with themselves, at least to me.

For all my education and airs, I was still a bit of a rough cut stone socially, but to be thrust into the glare of Chicago’s haute society; the staff was as much a part of the event of going to Arnie’s as was the food–at the time ‘bread and circus’ were the twin pillars of restaurant criticism–was not unlike being examined under a magnifying lens.  The patrons wanted a show and we gave them one.

At its most manic, the restaurant was a roar of live music with Stanley Paul at the piano, aflame with the sparkling lights reflected in the Art Deco mirrored walls and pier tables, candlelight shimmering in the brass fixtures; cigarette smoke like fog wafting through the room; laughter, raised voices, glasses and plates and silver clinking, clanking, clunking (thank you Cabaret!); completely run amok–literally the hottest saloon (Arnie’s word) in town.

If you were a celebrity in town for any reason, you had dinner (or lunch) at Arnie’s–and always mentioned in the society column of the Tribune or Sun-Times the next day (Remember Irv & Essie Kupcinet? They were the doyens of celebrity-hood at the time): Bette Davis, Gloria Swanson, Princess Grace, Christopher Reeve, Ginger Rogers, Henny Youngman, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Robert Altman (actually the whole cast of his “The Wedding” showed up one Sunday brunch), Rex Reed (a whole other story…), Phyllis Diller, Leroy Neiman, Jim Irsay (owner of the Baltimore-Indianapolis Colts,) Jo Howard (Playmate of the Year 1964 and a fave of mine.)

What I learned:  how to put on a show (not that I didn’t already know how to be dramatic, icy, mercurial, obsequious); design—both of food, plating, but also of interior display; fashion; friendship is not easy, ever; you can fall in love, but not always be loved in return and that that is okay; waiting tables is soul-destroying.

And I learned about loss: Michael D., Jimmy C., David B., Michael W., Marty B., Mark B., Marvin M. (who, on occasion would wear a sauna girdle during his shift to keep his “girlish figure”, he’d trill), Lee A., Mr. Fred King–the Salad Queen, Bob Y., Preston E., Gary & Tim, Ralph W., Ben K. This the short version.

Several favorite moments:

  1. Being chased through the kitchen by the manly, blond and hirsute French chef, Michel, as he wielded two live lobsters–me giggling, he roaring like a bear (that he was, indeed.)
  2. Being chased through the kitchen by the completely mad (and completely sane) Fred King, the Salad Queen; he wielding an immense knife, me running in abject terror. (I had ‘violated’ his work space by entering his zone.)
  3. Henny Youngman to me, “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”  Yeah, right, you think, but actually there was (a real one.)  Oops!
  4. After work at the after-hours boite Punchinello’s on Rush Street where the comic Pudgy made her name (and waited tables) and we drank brandy and ate their famous turtle soup and smoked and laughed.  Pierre Wimmer, the owner, with his sweet roll (like a Danish) of white hair (pre-Donald Trump) trilling hellos in his thick Austrian accent (a la “Cabaret.”)

My Modeling Career

The Carol and Irwin Ware Fur Salon (at Bonwit Teller or I. Magnin? I can’t remember, but it overlooked the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue and was the ne plus ultra of fur salons in the city at the time–197_) put on a runway show in the Wicker Room of Arnie’s restaurant where I was working. So I’m standing there minding my own business, when Mrs. Ware comes up to me and says, “You, what’s your name?” “BobPatrick,” I replied. “come with me,” she said taking me by the hand and into the hall where she promptly pulled a man’s fur coat off the rack and handed it to me, “you’ll wear this,” she purred as she helped me into a Nutria-lined trench coat, pushing me into the room to walk the makeshift runway that ran between the tables where much of Chicago’s beau monde was seated.

So I walked, bitches. I tied  the trench’s belt, I untied it and opened the coat to show off the Nutria lining, I walked to the end of the runway and stopped and stared off into space with a look of “let them eat cake” disdain gracing my 20-something mustachioed face…and turned and repeated ‘the walk’ back through the tables.

Mrs. Ware gave me another coat to wear and later, after the event was over, asked me if I wanted to do it again at her shop. Which I did and while there, when I thought I knew it all, I suggested to her “what if I put a belt with this mink coat,” she stopped cold, turned her steely gray eyes to me, half-glasses perched at the end of her nose and said, “do not gild a lily.” A lesson I’ve tried to remember throughout the intervening years (unless, of course, I’m in a particularly Rococo mood, then everything gets gilded.)

My Week with Phyllis

You would have been surprised; I was. She turned up at the Captain’s Stand at about noon on a Monday sometime in 1979 and said, “Table for one, please.” I knew I knew her, but I didn’t want to make a big deal about not having her name on the tip of my tongue, so I seated her at a deuce right next to me—“deuce” restaurant parlance for a table for two. She was dressed in Chanel as befitted a woman of her age and level of success—ordered a martini—I think—pulled a New York Times crossword puzzle out of her bag and proceeded to complete it while she ate her salad.

When I finally came to my senses and said, “How nice to meet you Ms. Diller,” she cackled that laugh—the room suddenly still with recognition—and said, “see you tomorrow, sweetie!” She ate lunch right next to me that entire week and no one bothered her.

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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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