An Election Night Memory: A Portentous Party in Paris
- Published on Tuesday, 13 November 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Were We Having
The night these guys faced off, I was facing down a guy in Paris, trying to get some face time in the hopes of getting faced. I failed.
Okay, I lied. In my article three weeks ago about following the American election from France, when I said that I had spent every election night since 1984 at Harry’s Bar, that wasn’t quite true.
This article’s digression advisory level is: Yellow
On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 1992, I attended a party thrown jointly by Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad at one of those big hotels in Paris — possibly the Concorde La Fayette at Porte Maillot, although I don’t remember clearly.
What I do remember crystallinely is that tickets to the event were quite expensive, but included a voucher for the first drink. The festivities took place in an enormous convention room fitted out with giant-screen TVs for watching the returns, plus a large stage for the musicians and speakers, a medium-sized buffet off to one side and a good dozen or so smallish bars all around the perimeter, tended by temps.
I repeat: temps. Of course I realize that this is essentially the only kind of manpower for this type of one-shot shindig. I further realize that a great many intelligent, talented people do temporary work by choice.
However, as would soon become painfully clear that night, when you’re dealing with temps you are dealing with people who might or might not have the training, skills and experience to do the job they were hired to do. Just to pick an example totally at random, say training as a bartender, skills in bartending and experience tending bar.
The first drinks stand that I tried upon arrival happened to be manned by someone from the “might not” category. The doors had just opened and hundreds of party-goers were besieging all of the bars, eager to get their hands, tongues, stomachs and, ultimately, livers on their already-dearly-paid-for drinks.
There was no discernable line, so I joined the mosh pit of voucher-waving revelers surrounding the bar, which was already four or five people deep. In the eye of this libational maelstrom was one lone guy, probably in his mid-twenties, dressed in one of those cheap beige tuxedos that catering company personnel wear to let you know that they’re catering company personnel, and he was trying to fill one lone order.
By which I mean trying and failing. Obviously, the customer he had somehow selected out of the thirsty throng had asked him for a glass of red wine. Obviously, the first glass of red wine that anyone had asked him for that night, because the bottle was unopened.
And apparently the first glass of red wine that anyone had asked him for in his entire life, because he was holding the bottle in one hand and a corkscrew in the other, without bringing B anywhere near A, scrutinizing them from different angles as though he had no idea how to proceed from there.
And, by golly, he didn’t! Time passed. Impatience mounted. Finally, it seemed to dawn on him that the helical, screw-shaped part of the corkscrew (Hey! So that’s why they call it that!) was supposed to be screwed (Hey! So that’s also why they call it that!) into the cork (Hey! etc.).
But he couldn’t quiiiiiiiiiite manage it somehow. He kept poking and picking at that cork as the minutes ticked by and his customers got even more ticked off.
Digression advisory level: Orange
Actually, since we had already paid, I will revise that sentence:
He kept poking and picking at that cork as the minutes ticked by and his creditors got even more ticked off.
Figuring that “Died of thirst in front of a table full of drinks, 1992” would look pretty ridiculous on a headstone, I gave up and went to another bar, where, after only a 20-minute wait, I was rewarded with an undersized and over-iced gin and tonic.
Digression advisory level: Vermillion
Recounting this story reminds me of something that has bothered me for years. Why is it that waiters all over the world, no matter how good or bad, smart or stupid, green or experienced, are all, without exception, absolute virtuosos in the fine art of not looking at customers?
It’s as though this is the first and, in many cases, only skill required for working in a bar or restaurant. Whereas it seems to me that one prerequisite for working in a bar or restaurant should be precisely the opposite: the habit of regularly scanning the room to see if anyone needs anything.
When I eat in a restaurant I am paying to have someone wait on me. Why should I have to take minutes out of my meal to try five or six times to get my waiter’s attention, especially when he’s 10 feet away and I’m flapping my arms like it’s day 16 on the life raft and I think I just saw a ship on the horizon? Huh? Why?
Please note that I’m not demanding instantaneous gratification. I am aware that waiting tables means having a constant stream of things to do, all of them urgent. All I ask is that my waiter look around once in a while, notice that I’ve got a hand up and then nod and/or say, “I’ll be with you as soon as I can.” Simple, easy and customer-friendly. But I have never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, not even once seen a waiter who does this as a matter of course.
This should be Waitskills 101. A waiter who doesn’t do it should be considered a bad waiter. Seriously, why don’t restaurants teach their staff to glance around at the diners every couple of minutes? Even more seriously, am I the only person in the history of humanity who has ever thought of this?
Even that inept, incompetent bumbler in a cummerbund at the election night party was a world-class expert in eye contact avoidance. Which brings me, at last, back to my story, and, at long last, its point.
As I was thinking back on that experience, it occurred to me: the bungling bartender provided, if not vino, at least a bit of veritas in the form of a rather neat metaphor. There he was, ensconced at his work station, dressed in a suit, with massive resources at his disposal and possessed of only the faintest, vaguest clue as to how to deploy them in order to satisfy the vociferous, irate multitude of people pressing in from all sides to demand his goods and services, which they had already paid for.
There was a certain parallel between him and the president-elect who, in a matter of hours, was going to find himself in a very similar situation on a much larger scale. At least when he took office, Bill Clinton had the presence of mind to glance around at the White House interns and say, “I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”
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© 2012 Paris Update