It was Saturday night in Paris and as my cab came to a halt outside Maxim’s a liveried doorman charged into the street to meet it. I was ushered into a warm atmosphere of rich wood paneling, cleverly placed mirrors and polished brass fixtures. The employees were dressed in evening clothes. I listed myself for dinner, climbed the stairs to the lounge and seated myself, drink in hand, at the front window. It was Summer, 1986; I was 27.
I shared the large barroom with two other parties. One was a well-to-do French family with four generations of women present. As with any family dining out, the children were subjected to countless small reprimands by people who alternately scowled and smiled. The other party was a Texan couple who, I privately decided, were not married to each other. The fellow was a bit loud; the woman was blonde, painted, shapely and subdued. As the couple descended for dinner they paused on the mirrored landing. The boisterous but sage words of the man reached me: “Never oughta let a woman near a mirror. Slows ’em down.” I sipped my drink, eyed the traffic and pretended I was from Lille. Outfitted in a grey pinstripe suit purchased a few days before at Burberry’s in London, a Repp tie with an opal tie tack from Hong Kong and a Jaguar pin from Coventry, I felt equal to any gimlet-eyed waiter or local patron.
Surveying the lounge I saw three walls of dark-stained wood set with mirrors, a thick wine-colored carpet and an ornate ceiling. The wall facing the street was of windows deeply tinted to discourage the afternoon sun. The bartender and waiter, who both appeared to be on leave from high-school, chatted, eyeing me speculatively. With the normal paranoia of a foreigner, I had the distinct impression they had a laugh or two at my expense for they would lower their voices and look away before they chuckled. Before I could finish either my drink or my observations a polite fellow arrived to lead me to my table.
I attempted at all times to converse in French and found that after a reasonable effort the waiters were happy to switch to English. They were quite courteous about switching, rather a relief as all of the phrases I had been tutored on became jumbled as the evening wore on. I was seated in a corner next to a mother-and-daughter combination of the peroxide blonde variety. As I approached my table, led by a maitre d’hotel, an underling expertly slid the table away from the wall. I sat down and the table was silently replaced, effectively trapping me in my well-upholstered seat.
After conferring with my waiter, a sallow chap in tails, I settled on a seafood platter. I flipped through the wine-list, laid it aside and asked the wine steward to choose for me. After consulting with my waiter, probably on how much they could soak me for, he presented a bottle for my approval. He and I went through the ritual of tasting, and I nodded to his waiting eyes.
I made a small study of the sommelier. He was a roundish fellow dressed in a tight fitting suit and perspiring heavily as he bustled about, issuing curt orders to his assistant. In retrospect, I realized that with the tight placement of the tables, his close fitting outfit was probably to reduce snaggage on the furniture as he pirouetted between tables. His thinning black hair was plastered to his pate and he sported a precisely trimmed T-shaped beard just below his lip that was so small a quarter would have covered it.
His portly build, perspiration, nervous habits and the nature of his employment combined to make me wonder if he had placed his personal affairs in order and of the actuarial tables relating to a sommelier’s life expectancy. Such are the ruminations of a 27-year-old. As the dinner hour was in full swing, the sommelier’s duties seemed to consist mainly of filling empty glasses and whisking away empty bottles. With a deft motion he would pick up the plate the wine-bucket rested on and tip the condensation into the bucket, all the while his eyes skipped from table to table searching for empty glasses. A horizontal glass was his cue to begin navigating the aisles, reaching the empty glass no more than a few seconds after it came to rest on the snow-white linen. With a friendly little nod he would swaddle the bottle to avoid dripping and fill the glass. Before the bottle resettled in the ice his eyes began searching again. The wine he chose for me was, to my untutored palate, perfectly suited to the fish and white sauce I was served.
As I was adjacent to one of the wait stations I was able to observe the nervous coming and going of the staff. There seemed to be nearly one server per table. For the eight or ten tables I could see there were three or four waiters, all in tails, a couple of under-waiters, half a dozen bus boys plus the wine steward and his assistant.
Of the two waiters that seemed to be assigned to me, Number One seemed to be in charge of three or four tables with under-waiters to assist him. Number Two was in charge of the small things: bread, butter, water, crumbs and empty dishes. I was served two rolls of white bread with a shallow silver tray of cool water containing four star-shaped pats of butter. Served in this way the butter pats remained intact, yet perfectly soft. I slowly consumed one of my rolls, and upon picking up the second roll saw the plate whisked away and returned in an instant with two fresh rolls. From then on, as I ate each roll it was replaced by one of a different variety. I consumed a small salad that, as I recall, was not as fresh as I would have liked.
Number One served the main course, hovering first over the cart, then my table, as the food progressed from the kitchen to the dining room. After deftly rearranging the table, he muttered a few unintelligible phrases concluding with “bon appetit”, and subsided to the station where he chastised a underling over the arrangement of food on a plate, rearranging the food as he lectured. As to the meal, my experience living in the Bay Area has spoiled me. I expect to recognize the fish served me, and for it to taste good. My meal that evening did not taste bad: I cleaned my plate.
Appetite sated and thirst slaked, I began to take an interest in my neighbors, the platinum blondes. The daughter, about 5 years older than I, was wearing earrings with diamonds the size of my pinkie fingernail. Rings adorned her hands with the notable exception of the left ring finger. She wore a turquoise dress, gathered to one shoulder that was so simple I assumed it cost a fortune. The mother sported an eclectic collection of jewelry that led me to the generous conclusion that many pieces were gifts she felt obliged to wear, or perhaps she had no confidence in the security of her hotel. She was attired in a black suit over a fine lace blouse. I waited for an opportunity to introduce myself, aware they were unsure of my nationality.
As their table was cleared the younger attempted to cross her legs. The table was a bit too low and there was an awkward moment as the table rocked and a thigh was exposed. Her eyes sought mine to see if I had observed the maneuver. I spoke. The ladies expressed their pleasure at the chance to speak English and we chatted right along. They were New Yorkers, visiting Italian relatives in Italy, and had come to Paris for a bit of civilization. As a matter of routine, I assumed they were connected with the Mafia. They treated me to an assortment of travel tips and anecdotes about perfect strangers and warnings of child thieves lurking about the train stations.
I kept up a show of interest as the old lady spoke and tried to decide whether to ask the younger one to go for a wild night on the town. I figured the odds at about 9 to 1 against, which were validated by their warm recommendation to take the nighttime boat tour of Paris. I began to respond in monosyllables and withdrew to my table. After an animated discussion on whether or not tip was included on the check, the women departed.
By this time, nearing midnight, with a big glass of scotch and three-quarters of a bottle of wine on board, Maxim’s seemed a very comfortable place. My mind wandered as I watched the various servers dance about. I shifted the table to cross my legs and overturned my near-empty wineglass, providing me with a moment’s diversion. I finished the bottle and, having been spared the embarrassment of inquiring about the tip, paid my bill. The total for the delightful three-hour meal, wine, atmosphere, company and service was about half-a-week’s pay, but I had left caution in my hotel room and my interest in the cost was only clinical.
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