(May 31, 2012)
In late 2007, for exactly three and a half weeks, I worked at Canter’s in Hollywood. Canter’s is an authentic kosher-style deli near the intersection of Fairfax and Beverly, which has been owned and operated by the Canter family for over 70 years. In the fifties Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor ate there with their husbands. Decades later, Guns & Roses hung out there after high school with the owners son. At the time that I dropped off my application, it was coming up on Thanksgiving and I had just finished my first tour of the southwest which, as tradition would have it back then, barely covered the cost of gas and food let alone yielded any profit to live on through the holidays. The writers strike had just hit LA and swallowed up the only work I was qualified to do besides folksinging (that would be ‘background acting’ and freelance audio engineering). I had hoped to stay in California until at least after the New Year, but I had nothing to do and no money to live on. A friend happened to mention that she saw a ‘help wanted’ sign in the window at Canter’s, and it was good enough for me.
Canter’s is a large, sprawling diner with a long, vintage soda counter, a stone grotto-esque backsplash and rows of cushy booths that spill over into an overflow room that is even bigger than the main room. The cash register at the front has been there for over 50 years, and so have some of the waitresses. The managers were nice to me and offered me positions as a server or at the cash register. I chose the latter, based loosely on the knowledge that Georgia servers are paid a fraction of what the minimum wage was decades ago (plus tips). I figured the job that paid actual minimum wage would be better for me. As it turns out I was wrong about the money; in sunny California, servers are paid current minimum wage plus tips but you are required to, um, wait tables… so it’s probably better for everyone that I chose the path with least potential for food-spillage.
They told me that a fulltime cashier position would open up after the New Year and, until then, they would train me in various positions around the restaurant so that I could sub for people as needed. I started off behind the glass case at the bakery. Canter’s has an in-house baking facility upstairs that is the same size as the entire restaurant, where they bake all of their breads, cookies, pastries, strudels, brownies, cakes, pies and rugelach every day. My favorite part was giving free samples to kids. My second favorite part was the foul mouthed bakery manager — an older woman who had been working that job since long before I or any of the sweet gay boys working behind the counter were born — who did not give a good god damn what any of the other managers of the restaurant had to say about anything. The bakery had its own rules.
My next shift was on the cash register. I was trained by a dragon disguised as a lady who, while neither sweet nor helpful, was exceedingly entertaining. She had been working there at least twice as long as the bakery manager. Her daughter worked as floor manager in charge of the hostesses and the two of them were not interested in making anyone’s friend. Everything I had learned about customer service was contradicted in my first ten minutes on the job, as my till training mentor barked at and argued with every customer who crossed her path. Sometimes I would stand behind her and mouth “I’m sorry” or “She doesn’t mean that.” I couldn’t help it.
The cash register itself was a historic monument, a glorious piece of machinery from the turn of the last century, clearly made by a factory that had cut its teeth churning out cannons and carousel gears. It housed rows of round metal buttons, each engraved with a number; to ring up a hamburger that cost $17.54, for example, you would first press the ‘$10’ button, then the ‘$7,’ then the ‘$.50,’ then the ‘$.07.’ The keys made a satisfying THWAK every time.
I developed a savory tooth during my time at Canter’s. I’ve never much cared for salty foods, but by the end of my time there I was putting away Rueben sandwiches with the oldest and most grizzled customers in there. I had a harmless flirtation with a waiter named Daniel. Seeing as I was spending time in LA to visit with my then-boyfriend, and everybody knew it, the flirtation was, as I said, harmless and mostly consisted of him sneaking away from his tables to say inappropriate things to me while I told him to go away and the waitresses egged him on. I can’t say it wasn’t fun.
I also trained as a hostess. I learned that servers are complicated creatures with a complex hierarchy of desires. They do not want to have too many people sat in their section at one time. They do not want to be less busy than other servers. They say they do not care about having the celebrities who would inevitably come in for a private, low-key meal at one of Hollywood’s most iconic restaurants sat in their sections, but the minuteAdrian Granier sat down, servers from other sections would invariably swoop by my podium and hiss “I got tables 2 tables open, you know.”
Other celebrity seatings included Jonah Hill, several castmembers from the then-airing first season of “Heroes,” Mark Wahlberg, Coyote Shivers, Slash’s mom and - probably most excitingly - the guy from the freshly viral “Leave Britney Alone” Youtube video. Who acted the most stereotypically famous? I think, friends, that we all know the answer to that…
My least favorite part of the job was counting my till at the end of my cashiering shifts. This was always the part that suggested that perhaps I had been mis-cast for the role. I couldn’t remember the sequence in which I was supposed to tally, account and staple, and there seemed to always be pressure to do it quickly. My numbers were always off.
Right around Christmas, I had three consecutive days off. My boyfriend and I decided to drive to Mexico, since neither of us had ever been, and it was just a few hours to the border. We drove past Tijuana and spent 2 days in a beach town called Ensanada. We found a local flea market on a pier, ate clams fresh from the water and broke open a coconut with our (well, his) bare hands. Sitting on the beach, I borrowed his cell phone and called my boss at Canter’s and quit. I felt guilty about quitting — they had basically been plugging me into the schedule to help me out until after the New Year, when my real job as a fulltime cashier was supposed to start. While it was true that my last tour had been something of a disaster, and I didn’t know exactly what my next step would be, I did know that it wasn’t boxing pastries, ringing up celebrities or battling sauerkraut breath in a historic deli.
For all of my snarky commentary, I truly loved the experience of working there. In the breakroom, the career servers would tell amazing stories about “the old days.” We talked about their families, many of whom they were supporting and providing with health insurance from this job (which I thought was amazing). The younger staff predictably consisted mainly of aspiring actors, musicians and writers; extroverts who were generally boisterous and friendly and made the job entertaining.
I went home back east with fresh inspiration, truly motivated to make doing what I love my full-time job. Starting early in ‘08, I dialed touring back to part time and took on a few guitar students to support myself while I was off the road to write and record Mystery Prize. Since that album was recorded I have been on the road basically non-stop, working every day to keep building something stronger and more sustainable than they day before.
And if that falls through, at least now I know I can always find work in a diner ;-)
Thanks for reading.