“You will never be a waiter…” he said. So I showed him…
The street’s rounded stones, polished by hoofs and wheels, looked slippery in the sunlight…
BREAKAGE (The Medieval Town)
“Every customer is a celebrity and deserves to be treated that way. They deserve proper service and professional advice.” That’s how an award winning Montereyan magazine(1) quotes my own words in 1992. However my life would most likely have been different had there not been the The Medieval Town incident in 1964:
Overflowing with anticipation, I was the first to step from the blue and white bus at the bus station. Here I was, just outside the historic town. The Medieval Town, in the southern part of Germany, was a walled medieval town, a relic from another time, on the bank of the river Tauber. Inside the tall solid stone on stone walls, the use of cars was widely limited. Large trucks and buses were not able to pass through the narrow gate-towers. It was my first visit. I did plan to attend the upcoming Meistertrunk ( the yearly reenactment of a medieval drinking contest won by the town’s mayor which had once saved Rothenburg from total destruction). I was going to see everything there was to see in this museum like town. Surely I would get souvenirs for the few friends back home who had had had envy written over their faces when I had told them about my moving to Rothenburg.
The apprenticeship contract for the finest place in town was weighting heavy in my suitcase. My dreams had become reality. I did not have to go back to the Oberrealschule (high school), to the teachers who didn’t understand me. I would not have to return to the school where the Lutheran kids had been laughing at me, the Catholic child from a poor war-uprooted family. Most of all, I would never again be forced to go to church on Sundays. Thus meant I did not have to go to confessions either, indeed I would be allowed to have secrets.
Independence and wealth were waiting for me. I hopped from the sidewalk onto the street’s rounded stones, polished by hoofs and wheels. These looked slippery in the sunlight. I skipped over a few cobble stones and jumped back onto the next pedestrian walkway. Everywhere I looked, cleanliness. Taken back in time I stopped, examined the various flowers in the window-boxes. The official buildings and walls were fortified and made of solid stones. In front of me the yard-less rows of houses had been built in the traditional Franconian style. Brown painted structural beams exposed to the viewer, acting as a framework, were bearing the whitewashed mortar covering the variety of stones used as building material. The gabled roofs were mostly red-tile and here and there they had covered one in black slate. Real antiquities were everywhere for sale, so were look-a-likes. Colorful postcards and trinkets got my attention for just a moment. The few Dmarks, knotted into a green and white handkerchief, weighting more than their worth in my pants’ right-pocket stayed right there; I planned to do my shopping after my first paycheck.
At the luxurious hotel, my new work place, a wealthy looking well-dressed lady with spectacles hanging from a gold chain, directed me to a building four houses down the street. Here another apprentice showed me up a creaking circular staircase, to a tiny kammer in the attic. They had crammed one bunk and two single beds into the room. It was warm and stuffy. The smell of unwashed socks was lingering in the air. Two tired looking lockers, for the clothing, leaned outside in the hallway, holding each other up. To me this was an improvement compared to from where I came.
On my first day at work, lured by the splendor displayed at the Hotel, the tapestries, the old swords, the dented shields and full body armor, I went to explore my new surrounding. A gigantic painting, in a carved gilded frame, caught my curiosity. It was much the same style as the paintings I had seen in several old cathedrals. Paint flakes were peeling off in two corners. However, this work of art was not about saints and angels. This one showed men in long robes starring at a beautiful smiling woman on a white horse. No saddle was on the horse’s back, not even a blanket. Long flowing blond hair covered the woman’s nudity. I tried to read the engraved brass-sign on the carved frame. A group of noisy hotel-guests stopped next to me. I looked around in the spacious lobby and felt out of place, small, a lot smaller than my 4′ 5″ at the time, at age fourteen. An overdressed stuffy fellow wearing white gloves and a black suit with dovetails reminded me that I was outside my territory. “You have no business to be in the front of the house, go do your assigned work!” He said in a low near whispering voice.
On this first day at work, they had been teaching me how to clean and polish the silver, the brass and copper items. Halfheartedly I trudged in direction of the kitchen, where my silver cleaning area was located. I faced the two doors separating the heavenly guest-side and the doomed back of the house. After carefully choosing the door which did not get much use, the one to my left, I kicked the copper-clad door with my strong soccer legs wide open. I did this exactly the same way I had seen them waiters doing it. Everybody heard the impact. Above me was a tray, airborne! Behind it a waiter was slamming into the door. It was a mistake. I should have tried the other door to get back into the kitchen. The crash-boom, a clack, a clunk overshadowed the loud slam-bang of the waiter’s body against the door’s edge. The tray’s contents followed the laws of gravity. A metal-plate-cover came with a clink-clunk to rest at my right foot. Meat, vegetable, garnishes and sauces, next to a not yet filleted whole sole, looked most unappetizing. Between the covers and fooditems sharp corners and pieces of once expensive china were pointing at me. Dark brown and sticky yellow sauces drip-dropped from the off-white painted door and frame. In the midst of the most unappetizing food display on the floor, keeping the door ajar, was a momentary helpless human being. He looked out of place in his black patent leather shoes, black socks, black tuxedo pants, the starched white shirt, the black bow-tie and his black dovetail jacket.
I wanted to say: “I’m sorry! I didn’t want to do you harm! As you know, it was the door’s fault!” I didn’t get to say a word. A sheer endless cacophony of shouted words came from the kitchen. It was the Chef de cuisine(4) who was jumping up and down waving a two-pronged dangerous looking utensil in his hand, “. . . grande merde (5) . . . ! What did you do? Moi Bearnaise (6) , moi Choron(7) and the sauce Diablo?” The cook threatened the speechless waiter. He promised to run the fork up his sore-end and take out of the waiter’s hide and tips every cent. He also said he wouldn’t rest until the damage was paid for in full. The poor fellow in the penguin outfit slowly raised himself off the floor and, obviously in pain, he limped away holding his rear end. A dishwasher and two maids cleaned up after the accident. Within minutes it was all back to normal. The incident barely interrupted the steady stream of waiters going into the kitchen and coming out, as business started to pick up, it was all back to normal.
Nevertheless, to ease my own guilt feelings, as a God fearing Catholic, I went to the chef. Yet I waited till after he had put the large meat-fork down. I confessed to my mistake. He looked at me and started to call me by names, many of these I had never heard before. It must have been some French dialect. His eyes were more scary than the moisture and hot air behind those unbelievable swear-words he was spitting at me.
The second day on the job, I took a break from silver-cleaning. Somehow I got into one of the banquet rooms. A large banquet was in full swing. Fifty or so people in long dresses and suits and ties were having dinner. Fascinated I watched. At the table closest to me, a waiter balanced a huge platter on his left hand and forearm. By means of a large fork and a big spoon he transferred meat slices onto each individual guest’s plate. A second waiter followed him with a vegetable platter even larger than the one on which the meat was. He too served just the right amount onto each customer’s plate. At every table — there were five — two waiters served the food. All went like clockwork. The waiters didn’t talk to each other. Nobody was giving them commands. Each of them knew what to do. I saw myself out there, soon waiting on tables, just like them and being close to these rich folks and dignitaries. I knew waiting on tables paid good and was excited about the idea to get to see a class of people which I would otherwise have never been allowed to meet.
An older waiter had told me a few stories about his work experience. He had told me about the Herrenvolk(8) , Royal families, heads of states and stage stars. Such impressed me. To be less noticeable, I stepped back. The massive four to eight foot walls within the thousand-year-old sandstone building offered spacious doorways, much bigger than the size of our bathroom at home. This doorway was sparsely lit. I felt safe, much hidden from the guests’ eyes. This was a perfect spot for observations. I was also out of sight of the steady flow of waiters, who entered and left the room on the far end, the kitchen side. Nosy, standing on my toes, I spied through the round window in the door behind me. I recognized, on the other side, the, at this time, empty bar and lounge area. My back to the door, I took in the whole picture of the dining event. The five tables were arranged to an open oval under the many multifaceted glittering cut glass pieces of two huge chandeliers. The guests sat on red upholstered, white painted wooden Windsor style chairs. The white linen of the table in front of them was loaded with different glasses, silver candle holders and flower arrangements. Surefooted waiters floated between the tables. Chitter-chatter, nibble-gabble and here and there a yak and yakety-yak-yak filled the air.
The sound of knives and forks on the plates, made me feel hungry. A rich looking woman was slurping full size spears of asparagus. Holding the green vegetable just the right way with her asparagus tongs(9) she nibbled, then sucked half a spear into her mouth, a gentle bite, slorp-slurp. Drips of butter were reflecting of her chin. Her eating utensil grab another long thin green asparagus. There was no meat on her plate. “Herbivorism” I thought and looking at her table partner, the one with the Schnitzel(10) “Carnivorism”! My mouth, a few minutes earlier dry thirsting, was filling with saliva. My belly made growling sounds.
I watched with mixed feelings, afraid to be caught venturing out and excited about this discovery. Here in this room with the customers: That is where I wanted to be instead of hidden away in the dungeon. Then the door hit me hard at the small end of my back. I tumbled forward and fell on my knees. I didn’t have time for a prayer. Glass was exploding, shattering in many pieces. It had a high pitch to it. I didn’t know that this was the typical sound of crystal exploding. Then the noise yielded to a calm, near complete silence, except a few muffled sounds from the last table! The guests looked in my direction.
They all heard the wine-waiter’s whining voice, “Dummkopf . . . Sau . . . , . . . bloeder Hammel . . . , . . . dummer Hund . . . !” cussing vigorously. I wished I could have gone in hiding, maybe in a flowerpot. Huge clay pots with exotic plants in it were close by, but there was no vacancy. I hated to face the reality.
I felt the eyes of the guests who were pointing at me, the surprise door stopper. However they were able to figure out that the waiter carrying a full tray of glasses, coming from the bar, hadn’t seen me standing in front of the door. Some woman giggled, another joined in, hearty laughter contagiously caught on. They laughed about the wine waiter’s most hilarious use of language. He called me “Arschloch” but I had the customers’ sympathy. I looked around. Now I saw the red painted area on the floor, where I had been standing earlier, which was supposed to signal “Stay clear of this area in front of the door!” I didn’t know that that’s what it meant. My superiors forgave me once more.
The next day I didn’t dare to move from the silver cleaning station in the back of the hotel’s preparation-kitchen, except the trip to the employees’ bathroom. I washed my hands carefully. The rotten-egg-silver-cleaner-smell was hard to get rid off. I asked one waiter, “What does Diablo mean?” “Devil,” he said. I tried to slip unnoticed by the kitchen-pick-up-line. The Maitre d’ hotel and the headwaiter cornered me. My back was toward the kitchen counter. It was hot and humid in the kitchen. The air was loaded with a variety of pleasant smells from roasts in the ovens and the always going stockpots on the stoves. I had loved all these kitchen smells at first. However, now I despised them. The heat was rising. Sweat pearls started their steady drip under my arms. I felt the water running down my back caught in the furrow between the buttocks, uncomfortable to say the least. I was afraid, shivering on the inside, sweating on the outside. Frozen in place I listened. “…Helmut we doubt that you have what it takes to become a waiter!” Behind me I heard the Chef de cuisine. He had a lot to say, but nothing good at all. The chef was taking inventory of my lack of qualities and it was a long list.
To my surprise the Maitre d’ spoke out in my favor. “Gentlemen! It’s our fault . . . we haven’t trained Helmut right . . . let’s work together . . . !”
Turning to me, he said: “One more complaint from anyone here and I will wring your neck before I, myself, throw you out! You hear me?” The creator of the devil’s sauce was mumbling, “No-good-for-nothing. He doesn’t deserve another chance . . . useless trash!”
A busy waiter came to my rescue. He carried above his left shoulder a full tray loaded with dinners and a second tray on his right hand. “Eh! Son! Eh! You! Can you follow me with the gulyas soup?” Speechless, I nodded. Finally somebody recognized my unlimited potential. They needed and wanted me. Under the humiliations from my superiors I had shrunk in size, my self-worth compared much to a little louse, unwanted, unneeded, one wants to get rid off quickly. Nevertheless, now the Maitre d’ pointed at the large soup tureen. He gave me instructions: “Pick it up with both hands and just follow him. Listen! Use only the doors to your right! Never stand in any red marked area! You understand? Go!”
The devil in a white cook’s jacket added: “If you drop this . . . I kill you!” I was going to show them. My strength and good spirits returned as fast as they had before vanished. Proud and sure of myself, with vigor and no second thought, hastily I grabbed both handles of the silver bowl. I lifted it from the kitchen counter, chest high, only to let it fly. It hit the manager above the knee. The gulyas soup was running over the Maitre d’s shoes.
At the moment the silver-soup-tureen hit the floor, long before its lid came to a rest, my painful screams were echoing between the white tiled kitchen walls: “Autsch! Scheisse! That’s hot!” My burned fingers were not important as I dashed past the momentarily stunned superiors. I sprinted out the kitchen’s delivery entrance, slaloming (zigzagging) between purveyors. My mind was telling me to run for my life. I expected flying knives from the chef. I knew if my superiors got hold of me they most likely would make me suffer for my wrongdoing. Afraid of torture or possible strangulation, I did not stop running till I had passed the north gate of the walled city. I didn’t get to see the beauty of the historic city, but I felt the cobblestones at every step I took. I didn’t know how narrow and windy the roads in town where till I raced through them. I knew it was a tourist town but had no idea how many foreigners there were until trying to get by them. Coworkers had told me about the Glockenspiel at the Rathaus(11) tower overlooking the big open square where they held the weekly markets. I knew about these fancy woodcarvings by Riemenschneider(12) . They had to be somewhere in the famous Gothic Franciscan church. I didn’t get to see the tourist attractions. Nonetheless I had seen enough.
Breathing hard, outside the town’s walls I had to stop. I felt relief when I spotted the blue and white bus. Trying to catch my breath, I counted the coins in my pocket. I was glad the money was still there. I hadn’t had time to spend it yet. I headed for safety. It just happened to be the right bus to take me home. On the bus, looking back, I still smelled the stench of paprika from the gulyas soup. I blew air onto the blisters on both my hands, souvenirs from The Medieval Town. “Defeated I was retreating, only to regroup and attack again!”
However, my mind was set. I was going to become a waiter! I was going to travel the world! I was going to become rich and famous in spite of what those dressed-up-stuffed-shirts back there had said and thought of me.
A month later I started my apprenticeship as a waiter far away up north in Hamburg. I had learned from my initial awkward behavior and never made the same mistakes again. As you the reader can see I did not start out as a perfectionist, actually I have never reached the stage of expert superiority and flawlessness. I try not to make the same mistakes twice, but sometimes I do. But whatever I do, I have a lot of fun while attempting to do a reasonably good job in relation to what I am paid for doing what I am doing.
1. Adventures in Dining, 1992.
4. Head chef
5. Oh shit (cussing)
6. Hollandaise sauce, made to order from butter and eggs
7. Hollandaise sauce like Bearnaise but tomatoes added, to make these sauces is very time consuming.
9. Asparagus tongs, a device for taking hold of asparagus in the proper way, uncommon in the United States, but found in the cutlery box of the finest European restaurants. It does look somewhat like the tongs used for escargots.
10. Schnitzel, thin piece of meat, breaded and pan-fried, specialty in German and Austrian restaurants (Wiener Schnitzel, Jaeger Schnitzel, Schnitzel “Holstein”, Schnitzel a la Meyer to name just a few.)
11. Town hall
12. Tilman Riemenschneider (1465? – 1531) German sculptor, one of the greatest of his day.