Category Archives: Work

Scenes From An Italian Restaurant

This photo of Al Dente (on the corner with the umbrellas) was taken from the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 81st Street. I couldn’t bring myself to get any closer.

Though I try to keep this blog up-to-date with what is going on in my New York life, there is one tale I have yet to tell. In fact, the subject matter is of such a dark and depressing nature I have had to wait until the onset of Spring to even discuss it. And after I write this, I hope to erase the entire experience from my memory. Here goes.

Around mid-January, I found myself to my surprise, still in New York, but also jobless and soon-to-be-homeless. Out of total desperation, I began handing out resumes in every cafe, bar or restaurant where I thought I could stand to work. With no prior experience in the food and beverage industry I was compelled to make up a phony resumé which stated I had worked at various places in Italy where I used to hang out. One afternoon I had an interview on the Upper West Side at Nice Matin, a spacious brasserie-type restaurant on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 79th Street, in the same building as the Hotel Lucerne. On the way I dropped my resumé off at a small unassuming Italian ristorante called Al Dente, a block further up and across the street, on located on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 80th Street. This turned out to be my first (and biggest) mistake.

I didn’t get the Nice Matin job as I wasn’t legal, but a couple of evenings later I got a call from Al Dente, and the next morning I went to meet with the manager, a slightly tense woman named Mona. She wanted someone to answer phones, make coffees, serve desserts, and whip up the occasional cocktail. It sounded like an easy, fun gig, so I started the next evening.

I thought my Italian experience would help, though I was clearly hired for this particular job as none of the current employees spoke decent English. Mona wasn’t just tense, but also uptight: a micro-managing, hands-on, control freak of boss I hope never to encounter again. She would criticize everything you did and treat you like a small child, constantly breathing down your neck as you’re trying to work. The place itself would get very busy at weekends and quite stressful. After a couple of weeks I realized I was in hell, but I needed the money so badly I had to stick it out. It was frustrating because I’m sure some restaurant jobs can be fun. This one wasn’t.

The food wasn’t bad and we had a number of regulars, including author Philip Roth (who always ordered a Sprite with no ice). Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld) ate here one night, and former mayor Ed Koch came in once before quickly realizing he was in the wrong restaurant (this happened often). Sadly employees weren’t treated to the same fare, but the nights were so long I’d actually look forward to my 11 o’clock bowl of over-cooked rigatoni swimming in thinned tomato sauce washed down with a tumbler of Diet Pepsi.

I spent most of my time on the phone taking orders, which could often get out of control. Al Dente is the only restaurant in the western world which still uses the carbon paper check, which means that to change an order requires crossing out and rewriting on three separate pieces of paper, resulting in lots of scribbling and many screwed-up orders. You try mixing a flirtini, slicing a strawberry to be served atop a panna cotta, and making three decaf espressos while on the phone with an angry Central Park West resident who wants to know what happened to her side of grilled zucchini every night. Sometimes when the delivery boys were extra busy I’d be sent on local deliveries. This was always a thrill for three reasons: 1) it was a sudden chance to escape the hell of the restaurant and breathe; 2) I’d invariably receive a handsome personal tip; 3) and more importantly, I’d be afforded a sneak peak get to peek inside the home of an affluent Upper West Sider.

Mona herself knew very little about Italian food or wine, believing penne alla vodka or spaghetti and meatballs (her bestselling dishes) to be the height of European sophistication. She also refused to acknowledge that someone could be more informed than her on this (or any other) subject. I got the impression she felt she was doing people a huge favour just by letting them eat in her restaurant, and I felt her general the-customer-is-always-wrong philosophy was an unfortunate attitude with which for someone in the hospitality business to be burdened. On many occasions people took issue with her petty rules and extortionate drinks prices. I ended up losing count of the people who left saying something to the extent of “I’m never coming back.” She’d often tell busboys off with the line, “This is not a diner,” which she’d repeat, almost like a mantra, as if it were her who needed convincing.

But this was the least of her problems. She spied on us through a small camera connected to a computer, and when she wasn’t in the restaurant she would call to tell me not to talk to the other waiter or to ask the busboy not to stand in the window. Employees weren’t allowed to try the actual dishes we served, so when customers asked I had to say something stupid like “I wouldn’t know actually, but it sounds nice.” During the long day shifts, when the restaurant was generally empty, I wasn’t even allowed to make myself an espresso. When I decided to change the CDs in the CD changer (there’s only so much Norah Jones and k.d. lang a man can take) Mona scolded me for going through her private things. One day I saw actor Jerry Stiller (Frank Costanza on Seinfeld and Ben Stiller’s dad in real life) walk past the window. I wanted to chase after him shouting “SERENITY NOW!”

A particularly slow afternoon in March was livened up by an unexpected visit from the Health Department. Panicked, Mona immediately sent me upstairs to try and keep silent the cat which lives in the restaurant, but I guess she didn’t count on the inspectors finding the open can of cat food in the fridge. “You got a cat?!” one of them exclaimed. I could barely contain my laughter. Mona made up some lame story about the cat being there because her son was allergic, and they let it slide. That cat — whose name was Fusili — was arguably the most ridiculous aspect of a ridiculous job. At the end of the night we’d have to take it out of its cage, feed it and then barricade it in the kitchen, where it would no doubt eliminate any vermin that tried to enter. Of course, before being tucked in for the night, Fusili enjoyed roaming like cats do around the dining room floor and under the tables, and we were often let out several minutes late as Pedro the dishwasher chased after it with a napkin. On these occasions I’d just stand in the window and try and focus on the NBA game on the TV in the restaurant across the street, incidentally called Mona.

Towards the end of my time at Al Dente there were several changes in personnel. Bussers and delivery boys would rotate as often as the week’s specials, but the restaurant also went through its share of waiters. When the Nepalese head waiter suddenly quit, a series of potential replacements were brought in, none of whom lasted longer than a week. One of them was an American named John. Around thirty minutes into his first full shift his face had already turned ashen with horror. Needless to say, he failed to show up for his next shift after his girlfriend suffered a “freak injury rolling out of bed.” Mona also rehired a girl from Staten Island named Ann, who had worked at the restaurant previously before leaving to perform as a dancer in Las Vegas. Now, back in New York, she had agreed to return to her old job, which was evidently much worse than she’d remembered. About two weeks later she landed a mysterious position aboard a cruise ship.

So for almost three months I was working days at Mack (see previous post) and nights at Al Dente, leaving the house at nine in the morning and getting home after midnight. I’d squeeze in lunch (a bagel or a slice of pizza) around 4:30pm before my shift started. It wasn’t easy. I was barely eating, and when I was it was sloppy pasta cooked by a short, tired Mexican named José. I was spending more waking minutes per day hanging around on a crowded or deserted subway platform than at home. I was beyond miserable. And eventually I reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. In my final week at the restaurant Mona had just about pushed me to breaking point, criticizing my telephone manner, which she called “abrupt” (this after I’d answered the phone fifty times a night for the last three months) and even questioning my personal hygiene. So one day I called her saying there was work stuff I couldn’t get out of.

A couple of weeks passed, and I still had yet to receive my final check, so I went back one evening after work to ask for money. On one of my nights off, Paco, a smart former busboy who was still owed money, had shown up on a Saturday night with the NYPD in tow — perhaps the one time I’d wished I’d been at work. I arrived alone and Mona, without as much as a hello, told me I couldn’t call her on her cellphone, then berated me for leaving so suddenly and accused me of having “convenienced myself.” This was the tête-a-tête I’d fantasized about. I could have said she was lucky I’d lasted two and-a-half months longer than the average Al Dente employee. I could have told her that she was the most ungracious, unprofessional person I have ever come across. I could have told her keeping a live cat loose in the kitchen is a Condition IV violation of Code 4P of the New York City Food and Restaurant Services Act and that I could have her shut down with one phone call. But it really wasn’t worth the trouble — I wanted to rid myself of the whole scene, and erase the last three months which had unexpectedly managed to tarnish what was one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Manhattan. So I bit my tongue and walked out of there.

To this day I still suffer from a slight nausea whenever I’m on the Upper West Side.

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Who’s The Mack?

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In late January I began another marketing internship at Mack Industries, an event branding agency located in SoHo. After a joint interview I was hired on the spot, probably by virtue of having not finished high school last week. I was excited from the moment I stepped inside the lofty, open-plan office. I filled out my application on a leather couch, as The Cure blasted from an iPod hooked up to a stereo. Other employees arrived on skateboards, while at one end of the room a man paced up and down speaking French into a telephone. The walls were adorned with oversize prints of Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and other icons of popular culture. A series of blown-up images of John Lennon shooting hoops with Miles Davis hung behind the desk of Willie Mack, the company’s jet-setting, flip-flop-wearing boss.

I was immediately attracted to this position, even though I was vague about the job itself. Sadly I quickly learned the “job” was not all it seemed, and it soon transpired I was basically being used as a plumber, decorator, locksmith, DIY expert and general errand boy. In two-and-a-half months at Mack I changed a bathroom fitting, painted an exterior wall, changed a lock, fitted a curtain track rail to the ceiling, ran all over town fetching and buying equipment, and spent an entire day in the snow handing out flyers for a ridiculous “event” called Absolut Machines, in which the Swedish vodka giant had sponsored the creation of an ludicrous if ingenious internet-operated music box, housed at a what a colleague infuriatingly referred to as a “space” on the Lower East Side.

High points did include interviewing models at a Morgane Le Fay fashion show, in which I came up with the killer question, “Which is tougher: becoming a model or dating a model?” and even met a bleary-eyed Brittany Murphy. When I wasn’t running all over town, I was working on writing for Mack’s proposed online newsletter, but even that was impossible. Willie was mostly absent, and so there was little clear direction in the office. Sometimes meetings were held which only served to cloud issues further. No-one ever seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing. Equally infuriating was the office’s insistence on using Instant Messenger for all conversations. When I would ask a question to colleague (sitting three feet away), they’d reply, “Just IM me it, darling.”

I was surrounded by the very type of young person I loathe, and was mad at myself for having been fooled into thinking the place was cool. I wasn’t going to waste any more precious days performing menial tasks for young urban narcissists. On what turned out to be my last day I was sent to organize the picking-up of Willie’s new designer sofa. The following week I quit, demanding the money I’d been promised (I had yet to receive a cent from these guys). A very talented and yet-to-be-paid colleague had warned me early on that the company was “bulls**t” — I should’ve listened to him.

PERFORMA 07

Through a colleague at MoMA, I’d become aware of something called PERFORMA, a performing arts foundation founded by Roselee Goldberg. I was offered the chance to volunteer for this year’s month-long biennial, PERFORMA 07, and without a real job and lots of extra time on my hands I said yes. At a meeting at the PERFORMA office I was gifted a red PERFORMA (you’ll have noticed by now that PERFORMA is always written in capitals) tote bag and assigned to assist with various projects, performances and what I guess they used to call “happenings”.

Allan Kaprow invented the term in the 1960s with his 18 Happenings in Six Parts, a redoing of which I went all the way to the Deitch Gallery in Queens to witness, though frankly I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’m sure it’s a lot more enjoyable if you’re high out of your mind (or if it’s 1966), but to a 21st century audience the whole thing felt very dated and silly.

The next day I went to Washington Square Park to help set up a giant game of mahjong — you know, that sort of Chinese version of dominoes. This piece was conceived by He Yunchang, China’s most renowned performance artist. Of course, as China’s most renowned performance artist, He insisted performing completely naked. So after we’d spent all afternoon lugging a thousand painted breeze-blocks from the Judson Memorial Church into the park, the artist appeared wrapped in a sheet, which he soon abandoned in order to play the game. I became roped into playing since we were short in numbers, but since I’m not a renowned performance artist I was allowed to remain fully clothed. After about twenty minutes a somewhat amused NYPD showed up and He Yunchang was asked to put his jeans back on.

The next day I joined a group of students (and artist Zack Rockhill) in Cooper Square to construct an open-top rectangular igloo using enormous blocks of ice. This was a challenge which was overcome by teamwork and an overwhelming desire to go get some coffee. Everyone agreed the end result was quite beautiful.

The next day I was back at MoMA to assist a backwards march through the museum lobby, as a hundred or so pensioners, children and other people with nothing better to do on a Sunday made their way from East 68th Street to Times Square. Miraculously no-one was hit by a cab, though had they been they’d have struggled to garner my sympathy.

At the Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery on Hudson Street I was asked to attend the opening party of Ulla Von Brandenburg’s La Maison, in which 8 millimetre footage of an old French chateau is projected onto a dark sheet within a maze of brightly-coloured sheets. The whole thing was so dull that one visitor mistook the messy area backstage as part of the exhibit. I was fortunately given the task of tending bar, which proved to be a highlight — if I wasn’t getting any money I was damn sure gonna get me some Grolsch.

Afterwards I squeezed into hip Lower East Side nightspot The Box for Sanford Bigger’s The Somethin’ Suite. Apparently Erykah Badu and Lou Reed were there but I missed them both. That weekend I witnessed another bizarre performance, this time at The Atrium at 590 Madison Avenue. Spider Galaxy was the work of Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, in which a grown woman dressed as a brightly-coloured bird skips and flaps around a wooden “spider’s web” stage for ten minutes before flying/running off in the direction of NikeTown. I sat through this nonsense twice before running off in the direction of NikeTown.

After all this volunteering and sitting through tiresome drivel it was about time I got my own back, and was thrilled to be given the chance to play the role of “heckler”, in Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street. In what was my off-Broadway debut, mid-way through the performance I was required to lead a bunch of “angry” audience members on-stage to confront the dancers. It was only when I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov exiting the theatre afterwards that I became nervous.

The finale and after-party were held at the Hudson Theatre on Tuesday, although after three weeks of PERFORMA I was more than glad I had tickets across Broadway for Caetano Veloso, which I am pleased to say was the best performance I’ve seen this month.

MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street.

It was little over a month ago when I learned I’d be spending the fall of 2007 working at The Museum of Modern Art. I had long dreamed of the opportunity to live in New York City, yet never imagined it would arrive in the form of an internship at arguably the world’s finest Modern Art museum. A heavy application process (including three essays) had ended with a carefully coordinated trans-atlantic telephone interview with a certain Larissa Bailiff, MoMA’s internship coordinator. I was extremely nervous before the interview, and spent that morning researching extensively the museum’s current and upcoming exhibitions. Fortunately, Ms. Bailiff immediately put me at ease, and we settled into a breezy chat which lasted over 45 minutes. I like to think my British charm and wit over the phone was what secured me the position of marketing intern, as less than a week later, back in England, I received confirmation that I’d be spending the next three months stateside. I barely had time to obtain my visa and update my iPod before I was jetting off across the Atlantic to confront a healthy mix of the familiar and the unknown.

Having spent the last four years livin’ la dolce vita in Italy, how would I cope when suddenly tossed into the ultimate modern metropolis that is Manhattan? As it turned out, quite well: all those years spent studying the city combined with intensive previous visits had earned me something of an honorary self-taught degree in Newyorkology, and I felt confidently able in dodging such infamous New York pratfalls as subway navigation, the delicate art of tipping, and the correct pronunciation of Houston Street.

It seemed like an eternity before I finally had to go to MoMA on Monday morning. In my eagerness I had arrived spectacularly early, and spent almost an hour reading in Central Park before I was due to meet Ms. Bailiff and the other interns. When I arrived at the entrance to the Cullman Building on 54th Street I was informed by the receptionist that the other interns had elected to go to Starbucks. Putting aside my usual boycott of the Seattle-based coffee giant I walked over to Sixth Avenue where I met three other interns — from Connecticut, Los Angeles and Paris. I was surprised to discover such an international bunch — something had told me I’d be the sole Brit. Instead nearly all of North America and Europe was represented. I was relieved to find all the interns smart and instantly likeable, yet I felt a bit like a reality show contestant meeting my competition rivals. I suppose this would make Larissa Heidi Klum. Larissa in person was as I had found her to be on the phone: warm, friendly and a very entertaining speaker, to the extent that a side career in stand-up comedy would not be out of the question.

After our welcoming talk and initial introduction I met my supervisor Julie Welch, who immediately struck me as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actress Annette Bening. Julie gave me an extensive behind-the-scenes tour of the museum before introducing me to the rest of the marketing team. She then showed me where I’d be working: a tiny cubicle the size of a phone booth (but without the windows). When Peter told Julie I’d go crazy in there she gave me the option of sharing the back office with three other interns. But for some reason I chose to stick with the private cubicle, despite its lack of space. I took off my jacket and got down to work.

My first task as a MoMA employee was to input survey results from MoMA@Nite, a series of summer parties held at the museum’s newly-renovated sculpture garden. As I spent the next week typing the zip codes and annual salaries of around 1500 New Yorkers (plus about six people from other states) into an Excel sheet from my tiny cubicle on the sixth floor of a Midtown office, I realised what had happened. I had become Chandler Bing.