Although I didn’t lead the life of debauchery that Tess, the first-person narrator of Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter lives, I did spend most of my twenties working in the service industry. Those were the best of times and the worst of times. For Tess, too.
Tess arrives in New York City without a plan. She’s 22-years-old and she left home to escape something – although she is perhaps not quite sure what:
The twin pillars of football and church? The low, faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs? Mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts? The sedated, sentimental middle of it. It didn’t matter. I would never know exactly, for my life, like most, moved only imperceptibly and definitively forward.
She moves in with the friend of a friend, a guy with an apartment in Williamsburg. And then she scores an interview at New York’s most famous restaurant, a place in Union Square. Tess has no real experience (because you can’t count the coffee shop she worked at back home) and when Howard, the restaurant’s general manager asks her why she chose NY, Tess says “It really didn’t feel like a choice Where else is there to go?” She smiles too much; sweats through her sundress. And lands a job.
This job changes Tess. In some ways it chews her up and spits her out. She encounters lifers who make a lot of money – so much money, it’s understandable why they’ve chosen this life as their career.
One of these people is Simone – an ageless goddess who seems to know everything. Tess develops something of a crush on her, longs to be like her, hangs on her every word.
“Tasting is a farce,” Simone tells her. “The only way to know a wine is to take a few hours with it.”
Then there’s Jake, possessor of the pale, spectral eyes. His total disregard for her traps Tess in his orbit.
Of course, there are loads of other characters at the restaurant: the gay Russian, the cranky waitresses, the handsome owner who tells the staff that “The goal…is to make the guests feel that we are on their side. Any business transaction – actually any life transaction – is negotiated by how you are making the other person feel.”
Tess starts as a “backwaiter”, a job I’d call server assistant. It’s hot, thankless work, but Tess is a quick learner. She’s soon part of the family – drinking and snorting coke until the wee hours, sleeping, and doing it all again and again.
I had a few summers like that – without the coke snorting. I do remember running from the restaurant where I worked down to another bar and knocking back a drink during my fifteen-minute break. That was about as wild as it got for me. Still, I could relate to Tess and her topsy-turvey lifestyle. Up late into the night, sleeping late into the day. Always cash in your pocket.
Sweetbitter will definitely remind anyone who’s worked in the the restaurant business of those crazy days when those “loose, slippery bills” filled your pockets. But it is a business that can ruin you. Tess says that “What I didn’t see was the time had severe brackets around it. Within those brackets nothing else existed. Outside of them, all you could remember was a blur of temporary madness.”
I very much enjoyed my time with Tess. And I am very happy that those days are behind me.