Catering

I’ve been doing an inventory of my life over this last year. Looking back on the sins, successes, excesses, and all those things we carry with us.

I’ve concluded that the world is insane and I’m living in some sort of unending horror movie. At any moment, a man wearing a flash mask is going to leap out, run me down, and brutally murder me.

I’ve also been thinking about all my jobs. I have six jobs, currently. Too many. Something I plan to remedy over the next year. What really hollows the soul is the realization that I’ve been working multiple jobs at a breakneck pace since 1991. On the weekends, I’m a manager at a major rental venue and oversee a rotating staff of 15 catering firms. This past Labor Day was the first time in 20 years where I had two days off in a row, and that was only allowed because I took the nasty, 15 hour Monday shift that nobody would touch. Every other Labor Day, I’ve worked 50 hours or more in back to back shifts.

I’ve come to hate working more than normal people, I think. After 20 years in various tiers of the service industry at the majority of my multiple jobs, I really just want to die. It’s been a life of insane, abusive customers, and co-workers who make the Thuggees from Temple of Doom look pleasant, and supervisors who scream at the walls of a dry manic-depressive well.

All old complaints, really. I was sitting on the train, on my way to my day job, cooking up the bones of this article, and I found myself thinking about one of my early jobs – working for a tiny catering firm in West Virginia during my time there in college. I think it was 1993-1994, but, to be honest, the early and mid-90’s are kind of a blur. Maybe it’s leftover resonance from Party Down, but my 20 years involved in the catering industry (in one way or another) is almost crystallized in that very short year working as a waiter for a troubled catering firm.

I had exiled myself from DC to a tiny school in the mountains of central West Virginia. A place that, then, was kind of hard to get to. Yet I still drove home most weekends to work multiple shifts and destroy myself. Getting tired of that, I decided to parlay my experience into a job with a new little catering firm run by a 50-something woman who believed herself to be some sort of civilizing culinary force. She catered exclusively to the highbrow elite. The central West Virginia highbrow elite, whose idea of dressing up for a formal party was to look like they just walked off the set of Dallas in 1982.

“Culinary civilization” and these folks didn’t quite jive, and the owner would spend most events holed up in the kitchen, openly weeping.

The problem was all the usual stuff I’ve since seen a thousand times – inexperienced caterers trying to be fancy despite their customer’s ignorance. The insistence that catering is on par with some great restaurant experience and not, you know, warmed over food made a week ago for a bunch of drunken rubes, a good portion of whom – whether here in DC or in the hills of West Virginia – have never really been to a formal sit-down event before.

My heart went out to her. But I was in my early 20s and much more taken by the camaraderie of being a regular old floor server and all the insanity, drugs, sex, and alcoholism that involved. I loved that world. Though I should be grateful for that job, because it also taught me that I should stay far away from that world. I never returned to proper catering, but I try to live it vicariously through my weekend job, which I’ve maintained since 91. When you’re the supervisor of the venue, there’s a soft, comfortable barrier between you and whatever inhumanity is playing out in the kitchens. Yet you can still cheat, steal, drink, and sleep with bridesmaids. Best of both worlds, really. Fill the trunk of your car with stolen beer but, when Hector loses his mind at the dishwashing station, you can fade back to the offices and barricade yourself behind glassy eyes, dull-witted responses, and multiple computer monitors with simultaneous solitaire games.

Which is, by the way, how all supervisors should behave. No normal human being should know what happens in the kitchen. My favorite extreme kitchen story from that West Virginia job involves this guy named Martin. We’re cleaning up, it’s 2am, we all want to die after about 12 hours hustling around, and he turns around and screams, “What up, motherfuckers!” then throws a gallon-sized freezer bag full of cocaine into the air. He’d put a cherry bomb in the bag and it went off like a stun grenade. What followed was the real life reenactment of the plutonian nyborg scene in Heavy Metal.

I went back to my dorm room and sat in the dark, haunted by visions of depravity.

At the time, I wondered how someone could be so wasteful with what, I presumed, was a very expensive bag of drugs. But, now, so many years later, I’ve seen waiters and bartenders tipped with cocaine and other drugs so many times it doesn’t even register. I see that more often than I see a tip paid in cash. It’s also strangely above board. Like, here ya go! Bag of drugs on the bar in a crowded restaurant, or at the head table with the bride and groom, or at the lawn bar surrounded by waiting customers. I guess the rules are different at private parties? I don’t know. I don’t fucking ask.

In the overall “inventory of my life” theme, my weekend job (and the occasional jobs related to it) isn’t really objectionable. My friends think it’s the worst of my six jobs, because it steals my weekends and exhausts me for eight months each year. I agree on those points, but I have a hard time divorcing myself from the job. The sense of belonging that comes with such a long tenure is only the tip of the emotional iceberg. The fact is, deep down, despite my enraged complaints about the people I’m forced to deal with, the weekend job is a secret joy. I peer through the looking glass at the insanity of food service, I collect an endless supply of insane and horrifying stories that nobody actually wants to hear, and I steal at least $150 worth of alcohol from every event, as well as toilet paper, paper towels, dental floss, dishwasher detergent, soap, medical supplies, articles of clothing, and the few personal items that actually survive their journey to the lost and found. And I’m a saint compared to the caterers.

I’m also constantly trying to figure out how to fuck the bride. I’ve not managed that yet. 1,480 weddings later. At this point, I sort of feel like that’s when it’s okay to leave the job. The day I have sex with one of the brides. The pinnacle of my service career.

Not a joke, either. It happens. A lot. I’ve been in the position Bourdain describes in No Reservations where you look out the window and the head chef is fucking the bride over a trash can out back. Except the brides I service aren’t quite so highbrow. They’ve done waiters, photographers, best men, random guests, and, once, the guy who brought the white horse that she rode down to their fancy outdoor ceremony. That one was amazing. Everyone’s down there at the ceremony spot, we’re ten minutes from show time, and I head to my car because I have to drive down and physically block traffic during the ceremony, and I find the best solution is to simply barricade the street. The car is parked behind the horse truck and, right there in the parking lot, with the horse clomping around impatiently, the horse handler is giving it to the bride. Yee-ha!

Frankly, I’m afraid to leave the weekend job. I’m afraid I’ll miss the show. Every time I think I’ve witnessed the absolute limit of evil and insanity, I’m proven wrong. Twenty years later, it’s moved from sick fascination to a sort of reality show-style game. How much can I take?


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