Saturday, May 2, 2009

Restaurant Reminiscing - Review # 8

I spent a good number of my teenage years working in restaurants.  The days spent in a black and white waitress uniform at a New Jersey diner provided the funds with which I bought my periwinkle Acura Integra.  I learned to carry four glasses at once.  I could (still can) balance four plates on one arm.  More valuable lessons included learning how to remember names of the regulars, providing good service even when the customer was less than polite, and settling into the realization that one's boss might be downright mean.  Most importantly, I learned how to work hard when I was at the diner.  Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan provides a moving commentary on the value of hard work with a restaurant as the backdrop.

Last Night at the Lobster chronicles the final day in which a Connecticut Red Lobster will be open for business.  Manny, the manager and  main character, is tireless in his desire to work hard, even though it doesn't matter any more.  His work ethic and his leadership skills are inspiring.  He works hard because it is his job to do so, not because his next promotion depends upon the day's numbers.  He works hard because it is the right thing to do.  

My favorite scene in the story occurs a few hours before closing when an obnoxious toddler overeats and vomits in front of a table of grandmothers trying to enjoy their late afternoon lunch.  The toddler's equally obnoxious mother is furious that the restaurant staff is not immediately providing a glass of water for her son.  O'Nan writes about what Manny has to do to rectify the situation:

"While he scrubs the stinking rug and fills a bus tub with nasty rags, Nicolette has to relocate the grandmothers to a booth as far away as possible, which is the equivalent of seating and serving them again.  Jacquie takes a tray over.  So does Kendra, as Roz shares an open-mouthed look of surprise with him.  While he's down there, he notices a couple spots of gum on the underside of the table and before he can stop himself, he thinks he should find the putty knife later and take care of them...
The wetted carpet reeks like and overpowering cheese.  He fogs the spot with disinfectant, then spends a couple minutes at the hygiene sink washing his hands.  Once the mess dries he'll vacuum, but not with guests present.  The idea is to let things settle, let them all forget.  Impossible in real life, and yet here it works perfectly.  In fact, once the kid and his mom are gone, and infectious laughter circles the room as if they've all been holding it in, the grandmothers included, hooting and slapping the table top so hard their silverware rattles."

There is no surprising climax to this novel.  It is about hard work, plain and simple.  O'Nan captures the environment of a restaurant so well; if you are working or have worked in such an environment, you'll find your self nodding in agreement throughout this entire book.  If you decide to check it out, I think you'll be pulling for Manny the whole way.  You'll wonder if "corporate" will show up and decide that the restaurant shouldn't be closed after all.  You'll hope he wins the lottery with the ticket he buys for his staff on the last day.  And you'll remember a time in your own job when you really were getting the short end of the stick even though you were working as hard as humanly possible.  


1 comment:

  1. This book looks awesome! I'm going to have to check it out!