Excerpt

The Waiter

Matias Faldbakken, trans. Alice Menzies

October 26, 2018 
The following is from Matias Faldbakken's novel, The Waiter. In a centuries-old European restaurant, a middle-aged waiter takes pride in the unchangeable aspects of his job, but when a beautiful young woman walks, she upsets the restaurant's delicate balance and all that it has come to represent. Matias Faldbakken is an artist and writer who shows with the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. The Waiter is his first novel in nine years.

Every morning regularity and service act as a bulwark against inner noise. I work as much as I can. My days might seem endless, but that’s how I want them. Every morning begins with me putting on my waiter’s jacket. I take the white jacket from its hanger in the cramped changing room behind the kitchen. In with one arm, then the other. Shrug it onto my shoulders. Do up the buttons. Always the same. Sheer routine. I’ve had the jacket for eight years, minimum. We get our jackets from a manufacturer in Belgium which also makes military shirts. The jackets are of the highest quality, made from the same type of thin, plain-weave cotton canvas as the military shirts, and they’re just as hard wearing. The jackets have a row of twenty-five-millimeter horn buttons on the front, plus two small pockets. I use the right one exclusively for the bottle opener; the left one is usually empty. The jackets do show wear, but in the nice way robust clothing does; the quality of The Hills’s interior is found again in the jackets. Both The Hills and these jackets are from a time when things had to be durable and settle through use. Find their form. Not useless and disposable, like most things today. “The adornment of a city is manpower, of a body beauty, of a soul wisdom, of an object durability, of a speech truth,” Gorgias writes in the Encomium of Helen. The part about the body is the only one which still applies, it seems. The durability of objects has been thrown overboard, at least. Some hold up; the tools the head chef surrounds himself with are durable—all of them. He avoids replacing things. As far as I know, he owns zero electronics. The fact that you constantly have to buy new electronics means that they aren’t reliable. Electronics are a source of endless aggravation. We have the jackets washed and pressed three times a week, and the aesthetic span arising between a durable but worn piece of clothing and the rinsing and pressing of it, plus any possible starching, is irresistible. They use the same jackets at De Pijp in Rotterdam, Majestic in Porto, and Fuet in Badalona, as well as at the old Kronenhalle in Zürich. The waiter’s jacket is standard dress, and that suits me fine.

“The durability of objects has been thrown overboard, at least. Some hold up; the tools the head chef surrounds himself with are durable—all of them. He avoids replacing things. As far as I know, he owns zero electronics. The fact that you constantly have to buy new electronics means that they aren’t reliable. Electronics are a source of endless aggravation.”

It’s not so easy, the whole clothes thing. What do I wear when I’m not at work? Normal clothes. Deeply ordinary clothes. As Edgar says: the fact you have to get dressed every day means that, every day, you have to say yes to the aesthetic choices made by a random fashion designer, high or low on the ladder, on either a good or a bad day. I often agree with Edgar, even if his reflections can be a bit grandiose. When I wear normal clothes, either on the way to or from work, I find myself falling into such a pattern of thought. My attention moves from the random designer behind the design of my underwear to the man (usually a man) who has designed my marine-blue socks, the person who came up with my tank top undershirt, the everyday shirt on top of it, my trousers. I picture the designers. There they are, on good or bad days, designing clothes which I might pull up my legs or over my head before I go out, through town, heading straight to The Hills and home again, and in a way I’m giving them publicity, these clothes and their creators. I parade their business concepts all around town. That’s not something I’m comfortable with. I’m not saying I’m much to look at, and I dress as neutrally as possible, but around one conference table or another, in one office or the next, the word “neutral” has been given as the designer’s motivation for this piece of clothing, and here I am, showing off this wretched designer’s idea of neutrality, and that kind of thinking can make me all hectic. And as though that weren’t enough, my thoughts then move on to shoes, watches, handrails, and so on, into town, until that attitude also takes over facades, display windows, road networks, food, movies, etc. And I walk around simmering away in my own mess, convinced that everyone is caught in a trap weaved from everyone else’s more-or-less successful aesthetic choices and clever ideas. Business ideas, pure and simple, conceived during more-or-less successful working days, and always driven by money. And it’s this money-driven lobster trap that I’m caught in. I wrap myself in a herring net of unnecessary business ideas every single day. I’m innocent in all of this. Not once have I asked for such a transaction, and not once have I forced such a transaction on anyone else. Now I sound just like Edgar.

*

As a result, when I get to The Hills at 6:45 every morning, I can free myself from my “self-chosen,” “neutral” clothes. I peel them off and pull on my uniform. It gives me breathing space. My relationship with the waiter’s jacket is clear, because it has a time-tested design, with deep roots in tradition, meaning that it doesn’t have to express some odd, cash-whipped jacket designer’s generic idea of “now,” “normality,” or anything like that. I like the waiter’s jacket, and I left it on a hanger in the back room yesterday, as neatly as possible, so that it would be ready to wear today. Ready to be pulled on, every morning, on the dot. We go through the kitchen and into the wardrobe corner of the cramped changing room one by one and pull on our jackets. All the waiters and chefs take it in turn, aside from the Maître d’. He arrives ready dressed. I think he thinks the wardrobe corner is a bit nasty, a bit cramped, which it is.

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The kitchen at The Hills resembles a forge more than a kitchen: it’s burnt, carbonized. The gas flame the head chef has burning in the corner looks like a furnace. The torching and sizzling has climbed up the walls and into every nook and cranny. His helpers stand at the other end; I don’t have much interaction with them. There is an opening between the kitchen and the restaurant, a mixture of a hatch and some kind of kitchen island. It isn’t something that was designed: it has grown organically over the past half century, through use and additions. It’s difficult to tell what’s wall, what’s shelf, what’s pan hook, and what’s bench or serving counter. The ceiling is as black as coal. The chef sweats away beneath a ceiling so opaque that you don’t even see it; it’s virtually gone. There are more pots and pans and other tools hanging above him, and above those is the ceiling, but you can’t see that. He has stood there, the chef, flambéing and flambéing, and burnt away the ceiling, so to speak. There’s an absence above the chef ’s spot, a void, a hollow above. That’s how sooty it is. The ceiling reflects nothing. The kitchen is relatively small, and the chef stands in the spot where the head chef stood before him, and the one before him, and has always stood, frying up this and that all day long, and not least flambéing those endless flambés.

“My relationship with the waiter’s jacket is clear, because it has a time-tested design, with deep roots in tradition, meaning that it doesn’t have to express some odd, cash-whipped jacket designer’s generic idea of “now,” “normality,” or anything like that.”

His knives are lying clean and ready on a cloth to the right of the well-used chopping board. There aren’t too many of them; each one has a limited area of use. From an aesthetic point of view, they are a constant in relation to the chef ’s robust build, while the purity of their steel stands in sharp contrast to his harried face—something which links him, visually, even closer to the knives, possibly paradoxically, but that’s how it is. He’s heavy-handed and lacks the gift of the gab, as they say. He’s as big as a blacksmith himself, a boor with a God-given but flat-bridged nose for gastronomy, a gorilla super-taster. He doesn’t say much. When he first speaks, he’s stiff and harsh. Like the time he mumbled that in the Maître d’ a civil war between alcohol and homosexuality is being fought.

*

I wipe the marble surfaces. I wipe them even if they’ve already been wiped. I spread starched tablecloths onto the underlays and straighten them out with my hands. I bring out water. I write the day’s specials in chalk on the old board by the side of the kitchen hatch. I feel like a teacher when I do that. The papers have to be brought in. It’s my job to sort them out every morning and to put the long wooden clip onto the spines of each, the so-called Zeitungsspanner. I hang them on the newspaper rail by the entrance. We don’t offer the Norwegian daily papers in a place like this; they’re too primitive. We try to maintain a Continental standard. Instead, we hang the few international papers still available in printed editions. Not that we’re desperately Continental, but, unfortunately, offering the Norwegian papers isn’t an option. They don’t abide by the duty to provide information. From time to time, when it’s quiet in here, I read one of the papers by the bar. There’s no plowing through it on my part. I read carefully and turn the crisp pages slowly. Slowly making your way through the crisp pages of a broadsheet is an activity which, from a purely aesthetic point of view, is related to tailoring or the saxophone. In other words, to a bygone era. Totally passé—over. Reserved for those with special interests. But it works perfectly. Call me old-fashioned, but changing what cannot be improved is also known as decline.

It’s clean when I arrive at work. “Clean.” The floors and surfaces are washed every night, but The Hills is in every respect a grubby restaurant. Ingrained. Not unhygienic, exactly, but it has to be said that it is a bit grimy in here, overgrown. All the years of food and fumes and breathing have essentially taken hold of the walls and formed a kind of film over the furniture and the little mosaic tiles, not to mention the ceiling. People used to smoke indoors, as one might remember, and the interior of The Hills still bears the remnants of hundreds of thousands of smoked cigarettes, from decade upon decade of smoking. The glasses and carafes are of the highest quality, traditional, not over-designed and snazzy. The cutlery, as I might have already mentioned, is early Gebrüder Hepp, or original Puiforcat. The crockery has the characteristic Hills emblem in a Delft-blue glaze, with the perfectly drawn wrapped in an oval at the top. I feel vigilant every time I place these plates on a table. That’s what happens with good quality. It gives you vigilance.

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From The Waiter. Used with permission of Gallery/Scout Press. Copyright © 2018 by Matias Faldbakken.




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