Age: 17, Grade: 11
School Name: Packer Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Meredith Whitehouse
Category: Short Story
A Good Job Is Hard to Find
Julian woke up to his alarm blaring. He hadn’t heard the awful ringing in his ears in a week and was tempted to ignore it. Glancing to the side, he saw that the clock read 9:30. Thank god he wasn’t late and thank god it was a Wednesday, nothing particularly exciting nor stressful happened on Wednesdays, just his typical 1-12 shift at the restaurant.
Julian waited tables at Vetri Cucina, an upscale Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan that attracted mostly pretentious snobs who, in Julian’s eyes, knew nothing about good Italian food and just came for the scene. He liked the place, got along with the staff, and was paid well. The past few jobs Julian had, he was treated poorly by the restaurant management. At Vetri Cucina, the staff was like family, the kitchen like a boy’s club. That’s what made the long and tough days at the restaurant manageable and now more than ever he needed the money.
• • •
Julian opened the back door to the restaurant and greeted the staff: “Morning bro.”
“Whaddup brutha. Long time no see,” George, the chef, said.
“Missed you too Georgie. I gotta admit though, it was nice to have a break,” Julian responded.
Julian had taken time off so he could visit his mother in Long Island. After the passing of her husband and recent dementia diagnosis, she wasn’t doing so well. As the only child, Julian felt obligated to check in on her. While the week wasn’t much fun, it was still a break from the hectic life in the city. And unlike the small one bedroom apartment he shared with his college roommate, Julian had an entire room–and bathroom– to himself. Plus the fridge was always stocked. Lily used to cook the best omelettes for breakfast and homemade Lasagna for dinner. Now, it was his turn to do the same for his mother. He knew that it wouldn’t be long before she’d need full-time help, but where they would find the money, he had no idea.
Today, though, he needed to focus on work. Julian quickly eased back into his waiting groove, as he always did. He mapped out his route: first up was the couple by the front, then the family of six near the bathroom, and finally the group of businessmen at the big round table. He walked over to the couple first and began his spiel.
“Good afternoon. My name is Julian and I’ll be taking care of you today. How is everyone doing?”
“Great, thank you,” they responded simultaneously.
After a long smile, he walked them through the drinks menu, then the food menu, then the specials, making sure to emphasize the most expensive items, just like Mario, his boss told him to do.
Next up was the family of six.
“Bon Giorno ladies and gentlemen. Are we ready for some nice food?!” he asked the family in the slightly-phony Italian accent he’d been trying to perfect.
“Starving!,” the older man, presumably the father, responded. Julian wondered whether the family had been there before; because after a ten-second look at the menu, they were ready to order. A nice and easy one to remember: four Veal Parmesans and two Rigatoni Vodkas.
Having dispersed with the family, Julian rushed over to the businessmen making sure no other waiter got there first. Businessmen were the biggest tippers since it was on the company’s tab, not theirs.
“Afternoon gentlemen. How are we today?” Julian asked.
One of the men looked up from his phone and responded: “In a bit of a rush actually, so we’re ready to order if you are.” He took their order and made sure to give it to the kitchen first.
By the end of his shift, Julian was exhausted. He had one table left to wait before the best part of the day: staff dinner. At around 11:30 when all the diners had finished eating and the tables and floors were cleaned, the entirety of the restaurant’s staff would gather in the kitchen to finish all the leftovers from the day–and if there wasn’t much left, the cooks always whipped up something good. For them, it would be a sin to let workers go home hungry.
• • •
The next day Julian slept through his alarm. Only after five minutes of the awful ringing in his ear did he realize he was almost an hour behind schedule. He jumped out of bed and sped through his morning routine. Once dressed and ready to go, Julian locked up and headed out.
He arrived at his usual subway station and saw that the train wasn’t coming for another thirteen minutes. Fuck, he cursed under his breath. He was supposed to be at work by 11:30, just in time for the lunch shift. At this rate, it was looking like he wouldn’t get there until after 12, which would mean he would miss the daily brief or “morning meeting” as his boss called it.
Sure enough, Julian arrived at the restaurant just as the meeting was ending. I’ll be fine.
“Juli-boy, where you been, huh? Strollin in thirty minutes late to work ain’t gonna get you a fair share of tips today,” Mario, Julian’s boss, shouted. The tips at Vetri Cucina were always split evenly at the end of each day unless someone was late. In that case, typically $40-50 was deducted from their cut. Mario didn’t play around.
“I’m sorry, I totally overslept. You know me Mario, I’m usually the first one here. You have my word it won’t happen again,” said Julian.
“Ok then, Juli. You’re off the hook for today, but you better hustle before I change my mind!” he said with a smile.
Julian ran straight to the kitchen, put on his uniform, a tightly-fitted maroon suit with a crisp white button-down, and headed into the lunch rush. He was ready to attack the day and make up for his lateness.
As diners spilled into the restaurant’s main dining room, Julian spotted one of his usuals, Ms. Zucker. She ate at Vetri at least twice per week.
“Hey Ms. Zucker,” Julian greeted her. “How’s my favorite customer doing today?”
“Just fine Julian, Thanks for asking,” she responded.
“So what’s it gonna be Ms. Zucker? Your usual orecchiette alla gricia with a side of funghi trifolati. Well, you’re in luck today because we happened to get a fresh delivery of mushrooms just this morning,” said Julian.
“Fabulous Julian. The orecchiette alla gricia and funghi trifolati it is.”
After Ms. Zucker, Julian took care of a couple two-tops, a large party of seven, and helped an incompetent busser who kept breaking glasses.
As the customers filed out, chatter subsided and natural light began to dim, signaling it was time to prepare for the dinner crowd. Waiters had a ten minute break and then raced back into serving. Tonight would be a particularly difficult shift, as the restaurant was short-staffed. When Mario summoned him into the back-of-house, he explained that Julian would need to cover double the number of tables he had. Great, Julian thought, just great.
• • •
Two hours into the dinner rush, Julian began to fall behind. He had to check on two tables upfront, who kept changing their orders and then quickly rush back to the kitchen to find out what happened to the Chicken Scarpariello that an unhappy guest sent back.
Julian pushed through the double doors, connecting dining room and kitchen. He was greeted by the delectable, comforting smell that almost always caused his stomach to flutter.
“Yo George, where’s that Scarpariello I brought back for more fire. It’s been almost twenty minutes,” Julian shouted.
“I got a million other things right now Juli, gimme a minute,” George responded while frantically scanning the kitchen for the chicken.
“For-fucking-get it, I’ll be back in five and it better be ready.”
Julian left the kitchen and headed straight to the man who ordered the chicken. Before he could get there, the Maitre’D, Lily, stopped him.
“Julian, you’ve got another one, backroom table-43. And listen–it’s two people and they’re both from–,” Before she could finish her sentence Julian shouted “Right, right I got it,” and walked away.
Wow, Julian thought, what a pain in the ass. This is like the fifth time today she’s reminded me about a new table. By now I think I fuckin’ know when I got a new table. He let out a heavy sigh and raced straight back to the kitchen. Much to his delight, the Chicken Scarpariello was now sitting atop the counter ready to go. He rushed to the table, dropped the Chicken off, and headed for his new two-top at the back of the restaurant.
“Welcome to Vetri Cucina, how we doin’ tonight,” Julian asked his two new customers.
The man was quick to respond. “We’re great, thanks.”
What an odd pair, Julian thought. The man was tall and chubby, wearing an old, ratty button-up that was the ugliest blend of green and brown he’d ever seen; the woman on the other hand, wore a fancy-looking, turquoise dress so flimsy that her breasts were in danger of spilling out at any moment.
“Let me give you a little background on our menu. We have our antipasti, our macaroni, our carne and pesce, and finally the contorni. In general, I recommend getting a bunch of different things to share. That way you get to try more. For two, if you’re pretty hungry, I recommend an antipasti, two pastas, and a meat or fish–maybe also a little something green to top it off,” Julian said.
“We’re both hungry, so that sounds perfect,” they said.
And before Julian could give his recommendations, the man continued: “We’re actually we’re ready to order now.”
“I’m listening,” he responded.
With a commanding expression, the man began: “We’ll do an order of the Carpaccio Piemontese, a Fettuccine Ragu, the Rigatoni Diavola, and the Veal Milanese. How does that sound?” he asked.
“It sounds fabulous. You’ll love every ounce of it. In the meantime, enjoy your cocktails,” Julian said as he reached for the menus. Thankfully he was close to a break. After inputting their order into the computer, he could rest his feet for a bit.
A waiter’s break typically consists of a quick trip to the bathroom and a couple of enormous chugs of water. Though rarely lasting more than five minutes, it was a time that Julian looked forward to. Today, he decided he wanted to step outside for a smoke, a little treat for himself as a reward for the busy night.
There was a cool breeze and a crispness to the air; his cheeks felt like they were being slapped by the cold. He didn’t mind it though, anything was better than the sweaty, warm stuffiness he felt in the restaurant. Julian reached into his pack for another cigarette. As he flipped open his lighter, he heard his name being called. He looked up and saw his fellow waiter, Bobby, with his head poked out the door.
“Julian! Mario’s gonna kill you, Number 43 has been waiting’ for their food for forever. Get in here quick,” Bobby shouted.
“Be there in a sec,” Julian said as the door shut with a bang.
Jeez, everyone’s in my damn business today. And what is Bobby even talking about? Mario doesn’t have time to pay attention to my tables, he said to himself.
Julian blew out the cigarette, ran inside, and headed straight for the kitchen. Sitting on the counter waiting for him was table 43’s Fettuccine Ragu. It had just been plated and was still sizzling from the heat. Fettuccine was Julian’s favorite pasta–a legendary noodle whose flat shape enabled it to stand up to the weight of a creamy, rich sauce. This one, with a thick red sauce and chunks of blended pork and veal, was mouthwatering. Resisting his temptation to taste it, Julian picked it up and waltzed out of the Kitchen making a swift beeline to table 43. Over the years, Julian had learned how to be strategic with his speed. He couldn’t walk too fast with three or four plates of food, but with one or two Julian could be brisk. Not this time though.
About to place the fettuccine down on the table, he heard a loud, “JULIAN.” Startled, Julian flinched and the heavy plate of pasta slipped from his hand. It fell onto the edge of the table, the impact causing the fettuccine to spring up and splatter onto the lap and chest of the woman who sat there. It looked like someone had taken a snow-blower to the dish, the thick sauce dripping down the woman’s silk dress and noodles scattering between the woman’s thighs; her napkin lay crumpled on the table.
“Oh my god. I am so so sorry Ma’am. Let me help you clean this. I’ll get more napkins,” Julian said, as the restaurant’s many eyes stared simultaneously.
“It’s silk,” the woman said.
He apologized again: “I’m so so sorry Ma’am.”
“God damn it. You ruined my wife’s dress,” the man said as the woman stood up and ran to the bathroom.
Julian was mortified. He apologized over and over again as he frantically cleaned the table. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mario advancing from the back with a nasty look in his eyes, motioning for him to come. Julian couldn’t stop shaking.
“My god Julian. Are you fucking kidding? Do you know who you just dropped pasta on? That was Pete Wells and his wife, and I hope to god you know who that is because I explained it to everyone this morning. We put him in your section for a reason,” Mario screamed. “You better fix this, fast!”
“I had no idea, Mario. I missed the morning meeting, remember.” Mario wasn’t listening. He just pointed to disaster and glared.
• • •
Two days later Julian walked into Mario’s office to find him hovering by his printer “Look at this Julian,” Mario shouted as he pointed showed him the newspaper article. It was a review of the restaurant, written by none other than Pete Wells. “We got two-stars Julian, that’s two out of four stars if you didn’t know. That’s what fucking Frankie’s and Felix get. Not Vetri Cucina. We are not a two star restaurant Julian. No way.” Mario was fuming, his veins visible and his voice blaring.
“I screwed up. It’s never happened to me before and it will never ever happen again. I’m one of your best waiter’s.”
“How could you be one of my best waiters and not know what Pete Wells looks like? How could you be one of my best waiters and drop a plate of fucking pasta? A plate of our fettuccine, our thickest and sauciest pasta, on the wife of a legendary food critic. I hate to say this Julian, but you’re done. Totally done.” It was his last day at Vetri Cucina
• • •
Julian’s new morning routine began with checking his email to see if any of the jobs he’d applied for had reached out. It wasn’t easy to find a waiting job in the city, a good one at least. He’d been spoiled at Vetri Cucina. But he also needed the money. His bank account was almost empty and he couldn’t ask his mother. In fact, she would be needing his help pretty soon.
Nothing in his inbox today. Julian shut his laptop with a forceful push and buried himself in bed. He wished he could go back to Vetri Cucina, his favorite job in the world. But dwelling on the past would get him nowhere. He had to find a new job, a way to pay for the bills that had started piling up.
Julian woke the next morning with his open computer lying flat on his stomach; he must’ve fallen asleep checking applications the night before. He saw that there were three emails in his inbox: two were spam and one was from a woman named Linda Wells. It read:
I heard that you were fired over the mishap at the restaurant last week and I feel terrible. It’s true my new silk dress was ruined, but I’m embarrassed at the unnecessary scene I caused. It was an honest mistake and you shouldn’t lose your job over a silly incident like that. I’m sure you’ve read my husband’s review by now and it doesn’t reflect the quality of food at Vetri Cucina. He was actually more upset than I was, and it wasn’t even his dress that was ruined! Regardless, I know how hard it is to get back on your feet after something like this, and since I have some connections in the restaurant world, I’d like to help. I have a good relationship with the management at Marea, which is a fabulous Italian restaurant uptown. They are currently hiring and I’d love to make an introduction. Please reach out to me if you’re interested. My sincere apologies again for everything.