Pin the Tail on the Maitre’d
When I lived in the Beach Park neighborhood of Clinton, my mother went to bar tending school and later got a job at Chello Oyster House in Guilford. She enjoyed working there and encouraged me to apply in the spring of 1979 after I turned sixteen.
That started my busboy career. After we moved to Old Saybrook, Chello’s was a long way off, so I tried a stint at Dock ‘n’ Dine. I wasn’t ready for the atmosphere in that place. Screaming, blaming, shaming, and politics were new to me and I didn’t stay long, even though it was close to our home at 355 Main Street.
In the spring of 1980 I applied to Burger King and to the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton. The boss at Burger King wanted me to start right away, but I told her that if Copper Beech called me I’d go. She understood, so we set a date for me to start. Sure enough, Copper Beech hired me, so I never got started at Burger King.
The Copper Beech was a four-star French restaurant, not a place I could ever afford to eat, and a far cry from the Johnny Cake Inn it had formerly been. I had more than a year experience as a busboy, so I was ready for the challenge. They hired and trained six of us at the same time and it was like a little boot camp. They were dead serious about table settings, cleanliness in all areas, uniform perfection, keeping water glasses full, rolls and butter, clearing the correct way, and so much more.
It was easy for a busboy to run afoul of the many rules. The food was an experience, and they didn’t want the service, even from the lowly bus staff, to detract from the show. You had to work well with your waiter and follow his rules, too, or you could get shorted on your cut of tips.
What amazed me about the place was the treatment of the staff. At Chello’s we were like family. At Dock ‘n’ Dine they rewarded us for exemplary service. At this fancy French theater of food, we were second-class citizens.
For starters, there were no meals. They made sure there was a two-hour break between lunch and dinner so they were off the hook for feeding us. On Sunday there wasn’t a break, which required them to feed us, so they bought some chicken thighs, potato wedges, and frozen vegetables to meet the minimum requirement.
One time when I was covering the dining room while the others ate, another busboy helped himself to seconds of the chicken. When I went to lunch, there was nothing left. Chef Robert (pronounced roe bear) went through the roof, dressing down the culprit who was still chewing the last bite. Then Chef turned to me and asked, “Do you like steak?” Oh yeah.
In just a few minutes I had filet mignon, twice-baked potato, and grilled vegetable medley, prepared by a famous Parisian chef. He even dressed it with fresh hollandaise and a sprig of parsley. Heavenly! I reported back to Chef Robert on how much I enjoyed the flavors, textures, and scents of the meal. Chef Robert was not known for his friendliness, but we had a cordial relationship after that.
Summer was a very stressful time at the restaurant. Seatings were full, the kitchen was a blur of activity, Inn rooms were full, the greenhouse bar was busy, and several Hollywood actors were in town for summer stock. I had the honor of serving Stockard Channing at dinner one evening. She was private, but funny. She even looked me in the eye and said thank you when I served her hot dinner roll.
Another time, Cloris Leachman was at one of my tables for lunch. She was staying upstairs at the Inn and came down without makeup. She was being a ham but wasn’t funny. She scared me and I stayed out of her line of sight as much as I could.
While I was there, several strange things happened. On a Friday evening, near the end of the first seating, the power went out. It had been windy, and a tree fell somewhere in town, so the whole major street was without power. As soon as the giant exhaust fans in the kitchen stopped, the temps shot up over 110 degrees. The staff turned off the ovens and stoves and bailed out the back door. People waited, but power did not come back on soon and we to turn away the customers who had reservations for the second seating.
The following weekend, I think it was Saturday; the power went out during a thunderstorm near the start of the first seating and we lost the whole evening. It was a great hardship for the business, which was running near the edge of solvency. Jo McKenzie was beside herself, looking for someone to hold accountable.
That was also the summer I had double swimmers’ ear I got while holding the fire hose in our pool. We didn’t want it to bang around and put holes in the new liner, so I held on while the pool filled. I had fun getting pushed around the pool by the force of the water, but paid for it with infections in both ears.
Naturally, the infections affected my balance. The first thing to go was my ability to balance a heavy tray full of dishes, so I was dangerous at work. I had to take about a week off during a very busy time.
Later in the summer, when stress levels were high, and we were all getting tired, Mr. McKenzie was being especially grumpy and fired the maitre’d (I think Jo brought him back a week later). He was covering the door himself and barking orders to the wait staff between seating customers. I was griping with a few other busboys and I came up with the idea that we should clip escargot tongs onto his jacket so that customers would laugh at him when they were following him into the dining room.
Since I had come up with the idea, the others said I should do it. I almost backed out, but they would not let me off easy. So I walked up behind him while he was on the phone. He was seated, and his coat was accessible through the slats of the Queen Anne dining chair. I clipped on the tongs and headed for the kitchen hallway bussing station.
While four of us watched him, he stood to greet recent arrivals. The first step he took, the dangling tongs flailed around and hit him in the back of the left thigh. He turned to see what it was, and the tongs hit him in the back of the right thigh. He swung back and forth like that for a few moments before he caught on. But he didn’t blow up. He just removed the tongs, laid them on the desk, and greeted the customers.
Bus boys are grubby people, generally. We used to snag things people left on their plates. Half a steak, lobster claws, untouched chops from a rack of lamb. One night I had managed lamb and an untouched twice-baked potato. I decided I’d make a feast out of it, so I grabbed a set of silverware, a small plate and salt and pepper shakers to take out to a picnic table where we sometimes ate our lunch.
I had wrapped the table setting in my jacket to carry outside and was holding my goodies in a doggy bag, when Ms. McKenzie came across my jacket on a counter and picked it up. The place setting fell on the floor at my feet. That took some explaining. In the process I had to mention the food, and got in trouble for taking that, too.
My time there came to and end just before the Labor Day weekend. I was rushing down the kitchen hallway with a tray and it tapped the wall as I passed the stairs. The tray went off balance and crashed to the floor. It was something that happened to servers sometimes, but at least I didn’t have someone’s dinner on my tray, just dirty dishes.
The sound carried out into the dining room and Jo McKenzie came storming around the corner, red-faced and yelling. I was already picking things up, but she stood over me and screamed like a madwoman. She finished her tirade with the words, “Can you handle that?!” I’d had enough. I stood, looked her in the eye, and said, “No. I don’t have to. It’s your problem.” I left the dishes on the floor, clocked out, and left the building for good. She was still screaming.
It may have been foolish for me to quit a job that paid so well. They were scarce in 1980. But giving up the stress was worth it to me. I had a habit of walking off of jobs when the bosses tried to discipline me. I outgrew that once I joined the military.
As I walked out the door, Chef Robert was looking at me and gave be a thumbs up. He had run-ins with the owner regularly. The following spring I was working at the Cumberland Farms on Route 1, across from Johnny Ad’s. While I was there, a new bakery went in next door. Le Cochon Vert. I visited out of curiosity. There was Chef Robert, wearing an uncharacteristic smile, making French pastries and talking about “real croissants”.