Saturday, August 04, 2007

Next To Nothing

What do I know—and why don't I mind my own business?

That's what she asks me.

So I have to think about it, and that's when I realize: I know next to nothing. It's true. That guy over there, in the corner, holding a little paper cocktail umbrella over his crotch—I bet even he knows more than I do.

In fact, I only know a few things I can say with any certainty.

For example: This jacket isn't mine. I borrowed it from Nancy, the woman who runs the catering company—the woman who told me to mind my own business.

Actually, I stole the jacket out of her car. She doesn't know it yet. When she finds out, she'll fire me—and only in part because of the jacket; the other reason is that, as she puts it, she is "P-M-S-ing" tonight. Once her period gets going, she'll call me up to apologize and insist that I come back to work "A-S-A-P."

That's how Nancy operates: She fires you, then she hires you back expecting that you'll come to your senses and act like someone who's lucky to have a job. It always works, too.

Nancy likes to tell people she knows "a thing or two" about food. I've been here a couple of years now, and I would say that figure is accurate. Nancy's company specializes, basically, in appetizers, and most of the ones she makes are designed to be smeared on bread. She buys from the best baker in town, so why wouldn't it be delicious? But there I go again, acting like I know what I'm talking about.

One thing I do know about food is that it takes a long time to set everything up, to make it look pretty. Food isn't naturally pretty. It may be naturally gorgeous or it may be ugly, but it isn't pretty until a crazy person comes along and arranges it. And anybody in this business will tell you: it's all a waste of time, because it's going to be ruined in a couple of minutes.

Before you finish, there will be some jerk arriving early with a bunch of starving friends; and they'll start to scavenge: Walking and talking and eating…

"One more bite of the flaky puff, and one lean scrap of the crispy orange thingie… Oh! And only one little, teeny, tiny bit of the cheesy ooey-gooey…"

People are pigs. It's true. Half the time, all we're thinking about is what we'll eat next.

Tonight we're supplying hors d'oeuvres for one of Nancy's regular clients, a woman who spends all of her spare time raising money to save one non-profit arts organization after another. This time, it's a fundraiser for a small theatre company that goes out of business once a year.

Most of tonight's guests have money, plenty of money, but the hostess also invited three-dozen of her favorite actors and painters and poets, to show her wealthy friends what a bohemian she would have been, if she hadn't married a senior executive at the largest software company in the world. Pretty soon she will make an appearance in a dress designed for this occasion, and she will carry a single, red rose.

Behold the free spirit! What a wild and merry time she will have, running barefoot between meticulously trimmed hedges, in her faux Japanese garden, with a $700 bottle of wine in each hand! She might just run away with the moon tonight!

More likely, by eleven o'clock, our hostess will be locked in her private bathroom, upstairs, sobbing and refusing to come out. No one will know why, only that someone said The Wrong Thing. Friends will take off their shoes and hunker down to plead through the keyhole:

"Stah-see-ah! Stasia! Please come out! The smoked oyster puffs are wonderful!"

It's the same scene they have to play at every party at Stasia's house. It seems that Stasia's evening is not complete until she has burst into tears and several grownups have been reduced to groveling on the floor and assuring her that she is adorable—and not at all because of her husband's fortune, not at all.

Nancy hates it when we make fun of the clients. At first she pretends to join in so she can be one of the gang, but then she remembers how much money these people are worth to her, and her comments fade away, and finally she says:

"Okay, okay. That's enough. After all, our customers pay the bills, right?"

I think Nancy has a brain tumor. Sometimes her left eye bulges out for no reason, and she has a lot of trouble telling time. After she stares at her watch and opens her eyes wide and then squints and holds her wrist at a distance and opens wide again, one of her suck-up assistants will always jump in and shout out the time. Then Nancy shakes her head and says:

"Wow! We'd better get busy gettin' busy, kids. I've got a menu to plan!"

"Getting busy" in Nancy's world is a lot like wasting time doing stupid little things, in mine. See, Nancy doesn't actually plan anything. She makes a list, and she throws it away. Then she makes another list, and throws that one away. After five or six attempts at working out the logistics of informal yet delicious hors d'oeuvres for three hundred nouveau riche, Nancy is stymied.

She starts to sweat, and that's when another suck-up assistant has to come to the rescue. The assistant will then decide on the menu, and make all the assignments, while Nancy stands to one side nodding and uttering noises of approval as though she would have done exactly the same thing.

Nancy never pays extra for any of this. Maybe she thinks we're privileged, to be gaining the food service experience. But we're not actually learning anything from Nancy. I've never met anyone with less aptitude for her chosen profession.

Maybe she was better off waiting tables at that French restaurant downtown. There, at least, she had someone telling her what to do all the time. Now that she's in charge, Nancy doesn't have a clue. She knows what success looks like, but not how it pays the bills. Every business improvement puts her deeper in debt. One day, one of her assistants will steal her clients, and she'll have to go back to Chez Madeleine.

For the moment, though, she is able to shop on credit at the most expensive boutiques in the city. She owes $80,000 for clothing alone. She has credit cards her husband knows nothing about, and every employee has taken a vow of secrecy. It's only a matter of time before somebody cracks, and Nancy's world comes apart. But right now she's the best-dressed woman I know.

"You gotta dress the part, if you wanna hang with the rich kids," Nancy likes to say. Talking folksy when she's over-dressed is one of her "things." Another one is referring to every action or idea she encounters as a "thing."

Now the guy with the paper umbrella is pretending to make his cock speak to the brunette sitting next to him. He's lifting the tiny umbrella up and down over the corduroy pants housing his dick, and he's talking in a high, squeaky voice. The brunette starts to laugh. Then she starts to scream with laughter. She's laughing so hard she knocks over a martini, which crashes against a plate of carefully displayed foie gras, and it slides onto the rug in front of the fireplace, and you can guess who gets to clean that up.

"No, no," I say to the brunette. "Let me get it. It's my job."

If I'd known I would be doing this for two and a half years, I would never have moved here. I'm a perfect example of why people should not believe the hype about a boomtown. According to everyone I meet, if I'd arrived a few years ago, I would have been one of the lucky ones—the fortunate people who happened to be around when gold was falling from the sky, and everyone had three BMWs and vacationed in Cancun and Jamaica four times a year. I was just that little sliver too late, for life to smile on me.

Instead, I am waiting in line with everyone else to get a good job and I hope I have medical and I dream of dental and a bus pass would be nice. Meanwhile, here I am, one of about 200,000 people in the city who have resorted to Plan B:

"No, no. Let me get that. It's my job."

Our hostess, the valiant Stasia has hired a DJ for the evening. Maybe Stasia thinks this is cooler than simply playing CDs on her $3,000 sound system. She keeps wiggling her way to the DJ's table asking for "phat tracks." When she walks away the guy stares after her as though he'd like to bury a phat track in her ass.

The jacket I'm sporting tonight pinches under the arms, because it was tailored to fit a young woman Nancy fired when she caught her giving a blowjob to a Microsoft programmer at a fundraiser for homeless teens. Our jackets are tailored to fit each of us perfectly. This is more important to Nancy than comfort or the ability to breathe.

Sooner or later, she will notice my outfit isn't quite right. But I had no choice, after I made a barbecue of my own uniform last week.

I was drunk, but that's no excuse. My excuse is: I finally had a second job interview through a legitimate agency. I thought I had a good chance. If anything, I was over-qualified, and there were only 250 other applicants, and the list was narrowed down to 40 people after the first interview. I had a good feeling about this one.

So I got drunk and set my catering uniform on fire. Then I stuffed it into the brick barbecue pit in the 6' x 6' courtyard behind my apartment building.

The day of my second interview, while I was getting dressed, I got a phone call. An ingratiating voice said:

"We just want to let you know, so you don't have to waste your time: Don't worry about coming in today, after all. We just hired someone yesterday afternoon. But thank you for taking an interest. We just don't have enough positions available for all the really, really talented people we interview."

"Don't worry about coming in"—as if you had so many other things to do, besides making a living. And as if this call won't change your life or make you hate the owner of the ingratiating voice, who is fortunate she never has to know how close you came to striding through the front door of her office wielding a butcher's knife, just to see the expression on her chubby face.
(Here's a little secret: When people smile here, there is always a chill behind it. It's like everybody who's being nice is only waiting for an opportunity not to be nice.)

Anyway, when Nancy called, I had to take this week's catering assignment. And I had no jacket. And her BMW was sitting there, unlocked, with the discarded uniform of the blowjob girl lying on the back seat. Voilà!

Stasia is now wearing her single, red rose in her cleavage. She is barefoot, as I predicted, and she is starting to touch people in places where they clearly don't care to be touched. She runs her hands over the face of the brunette after running her fingers through the hair of the man with the paper umbrella on his pants.

Behind her, at the baby grand, a tall man with a one-foot stack of kinky red hair shrieks and jumps on top of the piano in the middle of an anecdote about mice. Stasia pretends to think this is terribly amusing. The brunette makes a face when Stasia wanders away.

Nancy likes to pretend she belongs in this crowd. She dresses the part and she revels in the weird dietary necessities of the wealthy. That's why her catering service is popular among the got-rich dot-com people who own the city: Nancy makes them feel entitled, loved, and special. She pretends that her employees like them, too, that we care about them and don't wish them dead. She indulges every eccentricity, so long as it comes with a five million dollar mortgage. Whatever the diet—Macrobiotic or Atkins or South Beach—no problem!

Here's another thing I know: Once you start going along with someone's odd habits, there's no end to it. At about half the parties we handle, we are commanded not to wear fragrance—not even scented deodorant—because some guests might be "sensitive." The hostess can tell us how to smell. If the sensitive are that sensitive, maybe they should stay home. Really, you would think some of these people were living in the court of the fucking Sun King.

Of course, Nancy is in business, so she doesn't see it that way. She intends to retire at age 50. So the client is always right, and pretty, and generous, and smart. I guess her attitude would make sense to me if she obsessed over every detail, but she doesn't. She isn't cut out for it. Nancy is known among her employees for promising everything and checking nothing. After all, she says, she has "people" who take care of that—meaning us.

Not that we're actually Nancy's sort of people.

Nancy and her unemployed architect husband live in a four-bedroom house they can't afford, and so far only five pieces of opulent furniture have been deemed worthy to reside with them. They never turn on a lamp or a heater if they can avoid it. In the winter they wear big, lumpy sweaters and huddle in their frosty living room like the last, doomed survivors of a North Pole expedition.

But it would never occur to them to move to a less enviable house. If they did, Nancy's friends and clients would think the business was in trouble. Word would get around, and she would be ruined. And Nancy would actually die before she would accept a less beautiful lifestyle.

My living quarters perfectly reflect my status: 80 square feet of studio apartment slung on to the back end of a crumbling brick building. For this, and a ¼ view of the bay if I hang precariously from a side window, I pay $950 a month.

"It's the view that makes all the difference," the landlord says. "Without that view, this would be a dump!"

Every six months, I look for a cheaper place. Every six months, I find I am already living in the cheapest building in my neighborhood—that is, if I don't want to find shriveled-up junkies and giant rodents sleeping in the hall.

Oh. Here we go: Somebody said The Wrong Thing to Stasia, and she is now stumbling up the stairs to her amber and olive Tuscan bathroom sanctuary. Pretty soon her brave little entourage will follow. But most of the guests will simply go on drinking her booze and trashing her house, and never notice that she's gone.

The brunette is tired of the man with the paper umbrella. She wanders off in the middle of a joke.

"Did you run this jacket through a washing machine?"

Nancy wants to know. She is touching my collar and sleeves, and frowning at me. She says:

"These uniforms are never, never to be washed, only dry cleaned, as you know."

The truth about my jacket's origin is beginning to dawn in Nancy's left eye and it starts to bulge—but, suddenly, she's distracted…

A barrel-chested man wearing an Armani suit over a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt jumps up from his chair, grabs his throat, and starts coughing up bread smeared with Brie. The man's wife runs to the middle of the living room and shouts:

"Does this bread have nuts in it? Can someone tell me if this bread has nuts?!"

Well, I can. One thing I know is: The bread does, indeed, have nuts. In fact, nuts are second or third on the list of ingredients. This is a tiny oversight in what was supposed to be a nut-free menu.

Of course, Nancy did not select the bread. One of her assistants chose the bread at the last minute, while Nancy went downtown to pick up her new Italian shoes. Earlier in the evening, I tried to point out that the bread her assistant had chosen was not on our list of approved items, but Nancy cut me off with a wave of manicured fingers and an order to serve the wine and mind my own business:

"Don't distress me!" She said. "You know I'm P-M-S-ing right now!"

Apparently, Nancy never noticed that the blowjob girl she fired was friendly with the assistant who selected the gag-inducing nut bread. But I noticed. I had plenty of time to notice. Now, while I watch and stifle a deep, hysterical laugh I realize that Nancy's business will be absolutely destroyed by morning.

There will be no more assignments. No more jackets. No more paychecks. No more brunettes wiping goose liver off their high heels. No more sobbing hostess handing out $500 gift certificates to Tiffany's as a door prize. No more special diets for special clients with special needs. Alas!

Now another man is gagging, and the woman next to him is throwing up, out of sympathy. I guess these people really are sensitive.

"Oh boy! Heads will roll," says the guilty assistant, merrily. She sidesteps me on her way out the front door.

I smile as I think how little we actually know at any given moment.

Heads will roll.

And pigs will fly.

And everything comes to nothing, by and by.


© 2007 S.P. Miskowski/ Daughters of Catastrophe. All rights reserved.

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