“What was your first job in a restaurant?” I asked.
“I was a hostess,” she answered. “I was 17. I didn’t even apply for the job.”
Our waiter placed the appetizer, fried stuffed squash blossoms, in front of us.
“Bon appetit,” he said in an accent that sounded authentically French.
They were golden brown and crunchy on the outside and filled with creamy Brie and olive oil. We were sitting outside at a little table at a little French bistro on a little street in the West Village a little while ago, on one of those summer nights when you can’t tell the difference between the air and your skin and you seem to fit perfectly into the world.
“What do you mean, you didn’t apply for the job? How did you get it then?” I asked her.
“Well, I had gone in to eat lunch, and I was by myself because my cousin worked there, and he told me they were looking for someone and that I would get the job since I was pretty.” She shrugged as if the fact of her beauty was of no consequence.
“Was that weird — I mean, that you were hired because of how you looked? Did it make you uncomfortable?”
She waited while our waters were refilled. “Thank you,” we both murmured involuntarily.
“I wasn’t uncomfortable, in the sense that I knew I would do a good job. I was confident in my ability.” She paused, biting her lip, thinking. “My whole life I’ve been dealing with people telling me how pretty I am, like strange men following me and stuff. But that summer I was completely objectified. I was told to wear certain dresses and the comments were obscene from the men sitting at the bar or waiting for tables. Somebody grabbed my ass.”
“Did you tell the management?”
“Yeah, but they were just like, ‘Oh, he’s a regular. He probably didn’t mean anything by it. It’s so crowded it was probably just an accident, he probably brushed you when he walked by.’ Stuff like that.”
“Why didn’t you leave?”
“I needed to save money for a car, for school. I didn’t want the hassle of finding a new job . . . and I liked the people, the ones I worked with and the ones I met at the door. It kept me busy and I knew that restaurant experience was something I could take with me when I went away to college.”
The appetizer plates were cleared. “Would you like another glass of wine, madame?” the waiter asked us, winking. We both nodded.
“So when you became a waitress, what was the biggest surprise for you?”
“Um, I guess I was thrown by how frequently people dismissed me. The ones that treated me like I wasn’t even human or like I was sub-level. Like — look over there.” She indicated through the window to the bar, where a single woman was seated. The woman was looking down at her phone while asking the bartender something. He was attempting to answer her while also trying to slide a place mat in front of her, but she didn’t pick up her elbows to accommodate him.
“I mean,” she continued, “if you’re going out to eat, be conscious of your surroundings. I get that I’m here to wait on you, but sometimes you have to meet me halfway.”
“But as a paying guest, don’t you think she has the right to act in a way that’s most comfortable for her?”
“Sure, to a point. But that was just rude,” she said and shook her head.
“Madame,” said the waiter. I leaned back and he placed a tarte flambée on the table. “Bon appetit,” he said again.
“Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you where you’re from?”
“Ah, well. Me, I’m from Argentina, actually. But I’ve been working in this beautiful restaurant for 18 years and I find that people who are dining in a French restaurant prefer their waiters to sound French.” He laughed.
“Did people give you a hard time because of your Spanish accent?”
“Well, let me tell you that it made it difficult to interact, and personally I wanted to learn and meet people, and it was easier with a French accent. But let me tell you, the rudest customer I ever had was offended when I call her ‘Madame.’ She said, ‘This is America. Why did you call me that?’ I cannot believe it. But, you know, I have dignity. I was proud of how I handled it. I’m still happy, laughing, enjoying myself. I don’t have customers; I have friends. You beautiful ladies enjoy your dinner. You need anything, I’m right here.”
I watched him walk down his row of tables, checking on each one in turn, smiling, asking a question, clearing a plate. We bit into our entrees and sighed at the flavor. We lifted our glasses of wine and drank. Our bodies melted into the air and all around us people ate and drank and the waiters waited.