Not bragging when I say this (and far be it from your friendly bartender) but I’ve always had this knack for doing impressions. Not so much the voice of the person but the overall… well… the overall “impression” of the person. You know, gesture, rhythm, phrasing, etc., somehow becoming the character whose story I’m telling. Even when I was a kid I seemed to have this thing down pat, imitating my relatives at family gatherings.
“Do Aunt Milly,” I’d hear on such occasions, so I’d grab a pencil to serve as a cigarette and off I’d go as Aunt Milly and level the room. Then, “Do your Uncle Joe,” I’d hear, who was Gleason in Cagney’s body, which meant that I’d do a rant in Uncle Joe bombast. And on it went. Relative after relative til I ran out of relatives or the family ran out of patience with little Rich Little. But I loved every minute of it. Even now the gift stays with me (or the curse as you shall see) for when telling a story regarding a customer I’ll end up doing that person in telling his story. (Geez, if only my customers were famous I’d have me a nightclub act!) But forget about that, let’s get on with the story.
When I started out in this business as a waiter at P.J. Clarke’s, I dealt with a lot of customers not from this country. For in addition to Clarke’s being a celebrity haunt and mecca for after work singles and the local business crowd, we attracted a lot of Europeans who’d heard or read about us. And I, at the time, being new to New York wasn’t used to this. Talking to foreigners, that is. So what I found myself doing a lot, without even realizing I was doing it, was talk to these customers in the accents I heard them speaking. Idiotically! I was doing an “impression” of these people right to their faces.
If an Italian asked me a question in a decidedly homegrown accent filled with gesture, I answered the guy like Pauly fucking Walnuts. If a German asked me what beers we had, I’d answer the guy like I had on a pair of Lederhosen. Which brings me now to this ridiculous encounter with the French.
“Does zee bur-guerre come with zee potato fries, please?” asked the woman who was sitting closest, who seemed to be the translator for her group. There were two other women and a guy who made up her table.
“No, this one it does not,” I said, “the home fries, you see, they are extra.” Then she duly passed this info on to her friends.
“Okay, thees eez okay then. So let us have zee four bur-guerres with cheese on zee top, no? And two orders of potatoes wheech we weeel share. Is good?” she added at the end with a coquettish tilt.
“Oh, yes, this is very good, ma’am, this I’m sure you will like. Our burgers they are famous but how shall we cook them?” I sounded like freaking E.T. phoning home!
“Pardonne moi?” she asked.
“Do you like these burgers rare, medium or well done? You know, how shall we cook these burgers?”
“Oh,” she said with a chuckle, “vetty, vetty rare!”
“Vetty good,” I replied, in my best Pierre. “Vetty rare it is!”
Now I wasn’t doing the “zee’s”, mind you, close as I came to doing so, but I did let loose those couple of “vetty’s” not to mention a phrasing that made me sound like an alien. But hey, I was having an out-of-body experience, or, better put, out of country, one that placed me somewhere in the French Alps. Or in fucking Bellevue!
“And also eef you don’t mind please,” this beautiful woman went on, this beautiful woman in her late thirties who could’ve, with little prodding, have me give up my citizenship, “what can you recommend in zee wines that are red?” Then she smiled and looked expectantly into my eyes.
“Ahh, this is no problem,” I began, in a tone that if Lautrec had been there my ass would’ve been on a poster within the week, in gay pastels. “Let me get for you this wine list we have. I’m sure you will like it.” Then as I walked away from the table on my way to fetch the wine list, this whole crazy thing suddenly hit me over the head. How I’d been talking. And more so after I said to the bartender, “Where do we keep this list of our wines that are red?” Jeezuz, what’s going on, man, I thought as I stood by the bar, you’re talking like you just climbed out of the Seine. Why you don’t you slap on a fucking beret, break into full Can-Can and get it over with? Sure the woman’s pretty but get a hold of yourself, you’re dangerously close to Clouseau’s, “Does your dog bite?”
“Huh?” said the bartender, trying to piece together the request and the accent. “You want the wine list, is that what you said? Hey, if that’s what you want I have no idea where we keep it. You gotta go ask the guys in the front,” he snorted. He was a tough old bastard in his early seventies who like everyone else at Clarke’s avoided the wine list. Like the plague. They were afraid they might have to answer a question like, “What’s the year of the vintage?” tricky stuff like that!
So returning to the woman’s table now with the laminated list of the ten or twelve wines that we carried, having clearly seen the foolishness of my Gallic ways, I decided to return to my roots and talk like a person. A real person. Not some freaking idiot straddling the Atlantic. But, alas, I never got that chance because when the woman accepted the wine list, graciously and with a smile, she looked up and said with alluring curiosity, “You have thees vetty interesting way wheech you speak… where are you from, monsieur?”
“Pittsburgh,” I said, embarrassed, what else could I say?
Oh,” she said, perplexed, what else could she say, Then her eyes dropped down to the wine list scanning the reds.
And from that day on I tried to watch my “p’s” and “q’s” when I could, por que I didn’t want to look like a blithering fool again.
Au revoir, mon ami, see you next week-end!