EVERYONE MILLING PAST PIER 64 is a potential customer, a potential ‘Hey how’s it going today?’, a potential mess to be cleaned up, and a potential buck or two to be made. Walking towards the employee entrance, I don’t see anyone outside I want to serve today; no guffawing groups of gay dentists, bejeweled Bellevue housewives, or famous novelists — just everyone else.
I yank the back door open, the one that Corporate locks with a stupid 4-digit coded door panel, the one that every server, busser, and cook has to wrench free from the door jam with a distressing ker-snap! That’s how you tell who is entering the Clam Shack — the have’s have the code, the have-not’s use brute force.
The break room is deserted. There’s a cold plate of fried clam strips looking like an offering of mummified monkey penises to some well-fed fried food deity. Also on the table are seven bottles of ketchup, one bottle of A-1, one bottle of mustard, one bottle of Cholula, and one down-to-the-last-squeeze bottle of Sriracha.
The latter has been splattered next to the tepid pile of crispy brown bivalves. I place a crusty clam strip between my lips but withdraw it as soon as my teeth bear down into the rubbery breaded squiggle. I fling it against the far wall, the wall with the outdated minimum wage information and confidential numbers you can call if you are feeling suicidal. I can’t start my last shift with cold clam strips.
I have served tables off and on for 9 years at 8 different restaurants. I have refilled tens of thousands of Diet Cokes, I have cranked my lips into millions of insincere smiles, split scores of checks, and have no doubt caught dozens of viruses through my constant but indirect contact with the orifices of complete strangers.
I tuck in my white button-down dress shirt and scrape at some glob that clings to my collar. I cinch my chowder-stained tie and push wide the double doors that welcome me into the dining room with a whoosh of warm fishy air.
I have served millions of calories worth of chowder — at 500cal per 5oz serving, and assuming I’ve served an average of 8 cups of chowder a day for my tenure here at the Clam Shack, that totals 2,500,000 calories of clam chowder — 3.5 years’ worth of the average American’s daily caloric intake. This is something I have to live with.
Fried cod hangs in the air like a fishy fart. Diego, a 30-something busser from Oaxaca, is forever texting his many girlfriends but takes a moment to chirp our standard greeting — “No me chingas!” / “Don’t fuck me!” — before he goes back to ignoring customers.
Diego’s brother, Juan, is also a busser. Almost completely spherical, he has a nose ring and many gold caps on his teeth.
His vice is not texting women pictures of his chubby anatomy while on the clock, his vice is food. Juan, after a 10oz NY strip, a mound of french fries, and a bowl of chowder, would claim near starvation and lobby whatever poor manager had been assigned to babysit that night for a second — or third — shift meal. Juan’s eyes rove for uneaten calamari unceasingly. Maybe he eats for the same reason that beavers chew on wood — to blunt the growth of his gold teeth so they don’t grow through his jaw, killing him. Or maybe he is just fat and hungry.
The last busser I see is Frank — a 76-year-old Filipino who looks like a turtle without a shell and has an upsetting propensity to referring to his dick as his “little boy.” Frank, rather than being bedridden or resigned to whiling away his twilight years watching infomercials, has continued to soldier on, hoisting trays of dirty dishes and humming songs in a language that sounds made up. With over three decades of Clam Shack service under his diminutive belt, he is undoubtedly its oldest and most faithful employee. I actually don’t know if this is true.
I greet the bussers and turn the corner to the coffee machine, where the pre-shift meeting is already underway. A plate containing the special is surrounded by a half dozen servers, a manager in a pastel tie, and the Chef.
I have stood nodding at hundreds of pre-shift meetings, waiting for the moment when I can pounce on the daily special with my fork.
“Tonight we have an 8oz piece of grilled King, purple Peruvian smashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts with a white wine/pear reduction. I got a walk-in full of this fucking fish I have to move, so please, fucking sell this fucking fish.”
The line cooks pay me no heed aside from a passing look of contempt. The cooks don’t despise me, but they aren’t sending me any Christmas cards either. We have worked together, separated by a stainless steel partition, for 2 years and they still only know me as “Princess,” “Asshole,” “Tom Cruise,” “Ballerina,” or, my personal favorite because I have always wanted to levitate, “Chris Angel.”
Here’s a little axiom of foodservice: Cooks and servers are as civil as hyenas and zebras — no affinity, no love — just a bitter struggle until one side lies bleeding on the dusty savanna ground. A tenuous truce is struck in the name of Customer Satisfaction.
I have listened to 15 high school prom-goers ask 15 times if I have Dr. Pepper (I don’t). I have patiently suggested a nice fume blanc when a persnickety patron prodded me for the best wine pairing for his fish and chips. He didn’t believe me when I said Coke.
I have folded thousands of napkins, scraped thousands of plates, and watched ton after ton of perfectly edible food fill 50-gallon waste bins. I have snapped pictures of frozen, quivering smiles, enduring the patronizing reminder that “it’s the big button” on the top of the camera that makes it work. I have shielded hundreds of tiny dollar-store birthday candles from the fickle dining room ventilation and commenced as many heartfelt renditions of “Happy Birthday.”
Night after night, I have described the bread pudding in an offhand, after-thought kind of way as not quite as good as my grandma’s — but close. I have listened to people oooh and aaah when the free bread arrives and disappeared to task when told that they will need yet more butter.
I have watched a too-drunk-to-exist woman lose consciousness and nosedive into a steaming pile of lingcod and chorizo. When this happens, get a manager.
I have watched napkins, scarves, bread basket liners, and tortilla chips burst into flames. More than one woman has had the pluck to tell me that she is deathly allergic to seafood, especially shellfish, and that I must tell the kitchen staff of a seafood restaurant not to touch any seafood while preparing her chicken burger. I believe this death would not be entirely undeserved; however, I would have to tip my busser extra to clean up her anaphylactic corpse.
I have adopted (and justified with Venn diagrams) many racially based suppositions towards tipping that I wouldn’t mutter in mixed company but I secretly know to be true. I will not elaborate on this.
“Josh are you ready? We sat you,” the lead hostess informs me.
Instead of rushing to the two-top to fawn over their hunger, I top off my coffee and engage in some harmless flirting with coworkers. I want to start this last shift relaxed.
Over the decades, the Clam Shack has become famous (“World Famous!” if you believe the menu) for its chowder. As I take the orders of my first table, I talk in reverent tones usually reserved for first-ever sexual encounters and other moments of satori.
“I have eaten a bowl of chowder every day for the last year (lie) and I not gotten sick of it (truth).”
- Can you take the clams out of the chowder?
- Does your chowder have bacon?
- Can you take the bacon out?
- I want to try your chowder, but I can’t eat pork for religious reasons.
Have you considered Atheism?
- How big is the cup?
- How much is 5 ounces?
Approximately 150 ml.
The surfaces proximal to the chowder station are splattered with dried and drying clam chunks petrifying in a creamy paste. The steaming cauldrons of chowder need stirring, so I give them a swipe with the ladle and then dole out approximately 150ml of chowder into two cups. I wedge a package of oyster crackers between the cup and saucer and try to pick out the two soup spoons that have the least amount of goobers stuck to them. I pinch some dried parsley between my thumb and fore finger and garnish the opaque slop.
I drop off the chowders, order the entrees, and sidle up to the POS station to catch up on whatever gossip my coworkers are dishing. Apparently, it is been a busy week by way of hiring and firing. Two good-for-nothings let go and one hired. So it goes.
There are really only two things you will get fired for at the Clam Shack: not showing up, and offending the delicate sensibilities of the customer in any way. CS management treats each inbred chowder swilling buffoon as if he might be the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama.
Jimmy strolls up, his apron swaying under the freight of wine keys and receipt books, and slams down a Merchant Copy.
- “Fucking Japanese tourists! That’s it, they can fire me, I don’t care, I am never waiting on the Japanese again!”
“They don’t tip in Japan.” I offer.
“Oh, I see. They club helpless dolphins but they don’t tip. Well I am canceling my trip to Okinawa!”
“Lemme see that.” Angie takes the receipt. “That is Mandarin, you idiot.”
“I don’t care what part of Japan they’re from.”
Tom squishes between Jimmy, Angie, and me and swipes his card, illuminating the POS screen. Without looking up from his screen he says, “Table 11 – position 2, world champion MILF.”
Four pairs of eyes focus on tanned Floridian funbags. The woman isn’t so much gorgeous as she is nearly naked. Out with her family and clearly not from around here, she has the look of Midwest car dealership money. Perhaps a KFC franchise.
If there is a mildly attractive woman, or a woman who has the temerity to show more than half an inch of cleavage, the restaurant is abuzz. Starting with the bussers, who come to a complete standstill at the sight of cascading boobs or a miniskirt, the staff finds excuses to circle the table or offer some small service. I find myself refilling her water while Jimmy takes the empty bread basket for a refill and Juan stands at my elbow dropping off some unrequested lemon slices.
“For you water, Señorita.”
This leisurely pace is shattered when a walk-in 14-top is followed by a surge of cruise ship passengers recently disgorged from the bowels of some Carnival or Princess vessel.
Snacking, flirting, shit talking, and texting come to an abrupt end and the staff of the Clam Shack is a sleeping giant awakened to serve the barbarian hordes. We weren’t hired because we are lazy or horny, we were hired (and not fired) because we can handle this.
On good days, when the restaurant sells enough seafood to finance a small war, we servers will work 14 hours with scarcely enough time to shove a fist full of sourdough into our sweating faces. Splash Goldbond down damp under garments, swig Redbulls, and at the end of the night count the Benjamins with the spent joy of a kid sorting Halloween candy.
This would not be one of those nights. The restaurant dies down again and I am sent home so the closers can make some money. I tally my sales and loosen the knot of my apron. I tip Diego and pretend to wish I could afford to give him more.