The World Behind the World

When Nixta’s manager called me in for an interview, it was four in the afternoon on a weekday and the restaurant was sparsely populated. A few employees waded through the crush of wooden chairs, aligning napkins with the perpendicular axes of the table edges. I met Patrick at the host stand. He pumped my hand up and down and grinned so hard he appeared to be laughing soundlessly, cheeks squished into little mounds by the ravines of his smile lines. Coupled with his gingery hair and fondness for cusswords, polo shirts, and the color green, he gave off the general impression of a teenaged leprechaun who loved golf. Or a preppy Joker. My thoughts flickered to my bosses at Sushi Ai, the restaurant I’d served at the previous year, after graduating from college. John and Ivy were both just a few years older than me, but with a three-year-old daughter and another baby on the way, they’d always struck me as world-weary, with sloping shoulders and pouches of fatigue beneath their eyes. They’d been curt with us and invisible to the customers, hiding in their office in the restaurant’s rank basement, where they monitored the goings-on in the dining room through hidden security cameras.

Patrick sat me at a table in the banquet room, crossed one black-socked ankle over his knee, and brandished my resumé before him in one hand like a manifesto. “Washington University, huh?” His eyes flashed from the crevasses in his cheeks, wet and cold, like dimes winking from a storm drain. “I went there for law school. But I ditched all that bullshit immediately, ‘cause fuck. That. Right?” I opened my mouth to agree, but he was already over it. “So, what, you served before?” Fifteen minutes after walking through the door, I walked out again with a Nixta T-shirt slung over my shoulder and instructions to come in that Saturday night.

Nixta, unlike Sushi Ai, was the child of one of the local restaurant dynasties. The food scene in St. Louis was a confusing amalgam of the following: (1) trendy, health-conscious fast-casual spots with names like “Lulu’s” and “Lana’s” and “Frida’s;” (2) St. Louis-born chains like Imo’s Pizza, which exclusively served cracker-crust pies topped with Provel, a plasticky cheese-like substance invented in the city after World War II; (3) barbecue joints (which, I’d learned, was a category of food, and not an adjective — the first time a friend had requested we get barbecue, I’d asked, “Barbecued what?”); and (4) triple-dollar-sign bistros with sexy atmospherics, all owned by the same four men who traded chefs like Yu-Gi-Oh cards. Restaurants shuttered as regularly as new ones opened, even those considered local institutions, like Niche, a Number Four that had once earned the owner a James Beard Award.

Nixta’s owner, Ben Poremba, was a youngish Israeli chef and culinary entrepreneur who wore expensive linen tunics and owned five eateries under the Bengelina Restaurant Group, a clumsy portmanteau of his first name and that of his wife. Four of the five crowded the same corner in one of St. Louis’ more expensive residential neighborhoods, six square blocks that were “up-and-coming” a year or two earlier but had now up-and-come. Nixta, a sort of industrial-chic modern-Mexican cantina, was housed in an old garage that they’d gouged and painted beachy shades of indigo and salmon and turquoise.

At the time, I was dating a local barista, and I’d melted into his hodgepodge crew of St. Louis coffee people, beer people, and punks. There was always someone quitting or getting fired from that pizza place or that coffee shop or that bar in the Grove, and always someone who could “put in a good word” at any of the above. It was all So-And-So might be able to get me a job at… or So-And-So is opening a pay-by-the-hour cocktail bar and they need someone to… all the time, like a game of proletariat musical chairs. After decades of deindustrialization, globalization, offshoring, white flight, federal deregulation, and buyouts of St. Louis-based companies (or, as Leslie Jamison cogently put it, Reagan everything. Bush everything), St. Louis felt like a small town. Every scene was distinctly sceney, a word my coworkers at Sushi Ai had used to mean obnoxiously insular. The same local bands played the same shows at the same venues every few months. Gallery spaces shuffled exhibitions from the same members of the same artist collective. At these shows and gallery openings, everyone knew everyone, and if you didn’t know everyone, everyone knew on sight.

The city’s sceniness allowed for a sense of belonging that was easy to come by. It was a place where artistically-inclined white people could survive on minimum wage, thrive on more than that, and utilize their free time to “advance their practice.” Still, pulling into a parking spot on a deserted street in Downtown or bobbing my head at an empty indie show at the Ready Room for a band that had sold out the California leg of their tour, I’d be reminded that the city’s small-town feel was not a choice. We may have all been lonely together, but shared loneliness is still loneliness.

I’d started to suspect that St. Louis as an idea, as our idea, had stumbled — or had been tripped — and had fallen short. We drank and danced and slept and went to work and came home to work on our other work (the work for which we hoped we’d be remembered) and then we drank again, haunted by the fear that none of us would be great if we stayed. We channeled our resentment at neighbors like Kansas City and Nashville, which topped lists of the most desirable cities to move to as their populations climbed by 100 people a day. Meanwhile, we gushed over our little corner of the Midwest, or else we shat on it mercilessly — that is, until an outsider agreed.

I felt similarly protective of my restaurant job. “I love serving,” I told my mom on the phone when she asked how “waitressing” was going, a glint in her voice. I could see a world in which I never had a “real job” and instead just wrote a lot (or a little, whichever) and became a career server and got “waiter rich,” a term I had never heard in St. Louis but which I read in Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I knew in an abstract way that I’d sought out serving because I was running from something, rejecting it, or both. But that was fine, I reasoned. It was something I’d never asked for anyway.

*

In my first weeks at Nixta, I was dazzled by it all in a way I never was at Sushi Ai. Gone were the cloudy blue soda cups of yore, the pockmarked plastic pitchers. The bathrooms glowed a romantic amber. The menu changed monthly and sometimes even weekly, as the supply of seasonal ingredients was depleted and items “eighty-sixed.” Even the paper napkins struck me as elegant — subtly textured to look like linen, and far better at their jobs than the faded black cloths we had pleated into tight bundles at the sushi restaurant, which rejected all liquids and instead arranged soy sauce into expressionist art on the tables. The cleaners had always returned many of the napkins still marred with a stubborn ooze of old spicy mayo or a rusty detergent smear, which John and Ivy sent back for a refund of twenty-five cents each.

Unlike the veteran servers at Sushi Ai — like Loretta, the sixty-something-year-old ex-addict from Boston, who dressed up in Dollar Store accessories for every holiday — the servers at Nixta were all attractive and around my age. Most were just stopping by between degrees. All except two were white. They arrived on time and kept lint-rollers in their lockers. The restaurant had just gotten a new label maker, which the crew all used to designate their chosen lockers (and to craft vulgar notes to each other using Spanish slang I didn’t recognize, which Patrick guffawed at before dropping his smile abruptly as a plate, insisting, “No, seriously. Not cool. Take that down.”). There was Lidia, or MOTHER OF DRAGONS, christened for her sheet of white-blonde hair and general resemblance to the queen from Game of Thrones; there was LITERALLY Olivia from the Upper East Side, who had a raucous cloud of corkscrew curls and told me on my second day that she was “literally basically Jewish.” Kristyn was PLANT MOM; Chrissy was LIL RED, Cimeron from back-of-house was THE COOL ONE, Bartender Matt was both CAT DADDY and EL GORDO (or “The Fat One”), and Daniel-from-Mexico was FLACO, meaning “skinny,” though when Patrick called for him, he yelled “HANDSOME!” After my third shift, in a snatched moment of solitude, I chose LAVA GIRL for my fuchsia hair.

They all acted like they’d been there forever. I was mesmerized by the grace with which they inhabited the space, how they seemed to wax and wane, shrinking to fit the broom-closet-sized back-of-house station where we loitered between circuits through the dining room. There was no assigned side work; instead, the servers all just sort of did things, Lidia told me, before hefting the box of votive candles in the crook of her elbow and turning to pace the dining room, lifting goblet after goblet, checking for empties.

Nixta’s patrons, too, seemed at home in the restaurant. They were intentional, generally respectful, and often well-dressed. They had money, whether they had it just for that weekend or all the time. Everyone ordered at least two rounds of specialty cocktails, and the really high rollers made a big show of asking me questions neither of us understood about the mezcal list, finally announcing with a theatrical wave, “You pick!”

Patrick always reminded us that we were selling an experience. At our staff meetings before each shift, he’d stand hands-on-hips and give us pep talks, as if we were lacrosse players: “This is a nice place, but keep it casual, you know? Get to know them. None of that Hi I’m Handsome and I’ll be your server today bullshit none of that. They’re your friends. Don’t be weird. And then get that fucking MONEY, BABY!” He finished with a slow golf clap while we all hooted, gleeful.

Sometimes I felt like a traitor to Sushi Ai, to the bags under Ivy’s eyes and the rotation chart scrawled each day by hand and the grease-slick on the tile. The quiet lack of pretension, the restaurant’s innards on display like the mealy rounds of ground tuna glowing neon on the menu. But when I started mentioning my new gig out and about at sceney scenes, after the conversation inevitably turned to where we were all at right now, I realized that I was proud to work at a place like Nixta, that I had something to envy. I liked the flash of easy recognition on people’s faces. I liked that we had a reputation for good cocktails. I liked that strangers would often ask me Is Matt still bartending? and I could say, with a blasé smile, Yes.

*

On a slow Wednesday during an indefinite winter, I took over Lidia’s last tables while she polished silverware in the back. By nine or so, the restaurant was empty save for two scruffy middle-aged guys seated at a booth in the front, engaging Matt in lively conversation across the bar. They seemed familiar with one another, but Matt acted that way with everyone and knew almost everyone anyway, since he lived in the Venn diagram sliver where beer guy, cocktail guy, punk guy, sound tech guy, and tattoo guy overlapped.

I floated to and fro waiting for the men’s last bites of octopus to disappear. After what felt like an eternity, they tinkled out the front door with an airy wave in Matt’s direction. Lidia strolled up to the bar for her demure post-shift glass of Pinot while Matt logged her slips. “How much did he tip this time?” she asked, staring at her phone.

Matt opened the slim silver case and whistled. “Three hundred.” I choked on my spicy marg.

Lidia barely looked up. “Not as much as that one time,” she said.

They explained to me that the man in jeans and a khaki work shirt was a well-known lawyer who liked to come to Nixta with a friend or two, spend a moderate amount on dinner, then tip in the triple digits. His heftiest to date was almost five hundred bucks. Since Nixta pooled tips, his affection for the restaurant benefited all of us, especially the closer.

I turned the experience over in my mind for days afterward. It was rare to come into contact with that kind of wealth in St. Louis, or at least in my St. Louis. I felt a lot of things at once: grateful for the extra cash, of course; lucky, then embarrassed for feeling lucky, since it was clear from Lidia and Matt’s indifference that in Nixta’s universe, I could learn to expect similar windfalls. Then, after a bit, I felt dismayed. I didn’t like that I was surprised by generosity. I also didn’t like that Lidia wasn’t. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to feel as though the lawyer’s huge tip had to have come from something beyond magnanimity. The handoff had been so casual, so discreet, that it felt disingenuous. It was a gift with conditions — in other words, an investment.

I began to notice a transactional aftertaste lingering behind every gift, every act of munificence. Patrick, for one, doled out freebies like Oprah. Leaning one hand on the back of someone’s chair and gesturing wildly with the other, he’d holler at me from across the dining room to get a ceviche to his buddies pronto, and later I’d catch sight of a wasteland of empty shot glasses littering the table. More than anything, Patrick loved to get people trashed. (He knew all the “beverage guys” in the city, and they often “cut him a deal” on a case of something or other.) Lidia’s brother would sit at the bar for hours drinking with Matt and Patrick, both of them taking turns pouring toffee-hued extra-añejo from bottles I knew lounged at the bottom of the tequila list, where the prices edged into triple digits for a single shot. I remember cocking my head as one of Patrick’s friends tried to explain to me that he hadn’t intended to get so drunk, but then Patrick, Patrick; the words latched in his throat and all he could do was shake his head and laugh and repeat Patrick’s name.

Sometimes Patrick made all the front-of-house staff participate in auctions and competitions, for which he’d set the stakes during our pre-shift huddles: whoever answered a pop quiz about the menu won a box of the wine he wanted to eighty-six; whoever sold four shots of Casamigos neat won a fifth for themselves; et cetera. Occasionally he bestowed prizes on us for no reason, and I’d head home with a bottle of Pét-Nat wedged in the pocket of my down coat. It was hard to predict when Patrick would experience a tide of goodwill, but these gifts conveniently appeared most often after slow weekend dinners, when the restaurant should have been full.

I realized as time went on that Patrick kept everyone in his circle loosely beholden to him. These gifts and favors and unwritten debts constituted their own underground market in the industry, one premised not just on an exchange of food and money, but a Godfather-esque currency of performative respect, extravagant generosity, and booze-fueled promises. Patrick and his cronies traded power and knowledge and — because many of them were self-taught, self-managed or self-employed — pieces of themselves. Like any informal economy, this flow of goods and services emerged from a lack: of wealth, of opportunity, of adequate demand above the table. These conditions must have been equally true for Sushi Ai, but John and Ivy had a family to support; they paid the Mateos’ rent. They didn’t need social capital, at least not the kind bartered for by people like Patrick. They needed cash.

I was still the new kid, but after a month or two at Nixta I’d begun to feel bolder. I started telling people at sceney scenes to come hang out, I’ll hook you up. Once, standing in line for coffee at my neighborhood spot, I met a girl who worked at Taste — a cocktail bar belonging to a different eminent St. Louis restaurant bloodline — and we traded promises to visit each other. I actually did see her at Taste a month or so later, and we shared shy but familiar conversation while I sipped the sage-and-gin concoction she’d suggested. She waved her hand when I took out my wallet. I knew by then to leave the cost of the drink in ones under the stem of the coupe glass when I left.

*

Nixta’s culture of magnanimity didn’t mean that the restaurant was doing well, financially speaking. By March, the weather still hadn’t turned, and our weeknight crowds were threadbare at best. On weekends, we prayed for heart-pumping marathons and got erratic sprints. Two years earlier, in 2017, Nixta had been voted one of Bon Appétit Magazine’s Best New Restaurants (the same year I dined at Nixta as a paying customer for the first and only time). Then the acclaimed executive chef left to start a catering business, and the reviews started to slip. Two weeks after my first shift, the most recent chef quit in a rage, complaining of Patrick’s verbal abuse and mistrust. The remainder of my time at Nixta was characterized by a quietly frenetic shuffling of line cooks between the Bengelina Group’s restaurants and frequent visits from the owner that set everyone on edge. I could tell the food’s complexity and finesse had lapsed, but more than that, I sensed a bewilderment clouding the idea of Nixta, a kind of dislocation, like dozing off in the passenger seat and waking to black night beyond the glass.

It wasn’t until I finally left St. Louis, almost six months on the nose after I first met Patrick for my interview, that I could begin to parse all the ways in which the restaurant industry functioned as a microcosm of the city it carried on its back. One hundred years ago, the present state of St. Louis — the vacant factories, the empty row houses across the street from my apartment collaged with yellow eviction notices — had probably been unthinkable, just as the shadow of Nixta’s decline was unthinkable. I saw in Patrick’s increasingly obscene pep talks and anxious posturing the same shame of being hollowed out, of falling short.

In college, I’d studied the way neoliberal economics and globalization and outsourcing had fucked over midwestern manufacturing hubs. I was a Marxist in the same way that all humanities majors are Marxists at one point or another. I thought I knew that capitalism plundered and dispossessed and displaced. After Nixta, I realized that only told part of the story. Yes, there had been a hollowing-out, a falling-short, of local industry and tourism and entire neighborhoods and the heft of our paychecks. But with a kind of Lacanian ingenuity, we’d constructed our own language, economy, value system, and ways of relating to one another from the ashes. Membership in “the industry” meant more than just cash in our hands; it meant that we were granted a passport into a network of clout, a world behind the world. These new webs of exchange were symbolic of the type of people we wanted to be and the type of city we wanted to live in: a place where we could know and be known, where celebrity was the opposite of anonymity. If we couldn’t be rich, or even stable, at least we could be seen.

Of course, access wasn’t universal. Power flowed through these channels the same way it always did: from those who already had it to their friends and allies.

Once, on a slow night, Patrick loitered with Lidia and me around the server station, chewing a toothpick and talking shit. “Thank god I got rid of those old hires,” he said through his grin. “After I came in, our team started looking a whole lot different.”

Lidia snorted, examining her manicure. “What do you mean?” I asked.

Patrick looked at me pointedly. “Look around. Customers just like it better when their server is, y’know. Nice to look at.”

I knew exactly what he meant, though I’m not sure he did.

It took me a long time to write about the two years I spent working in restaurants because, in a way, I felt as though I’d stolen them. Or at least I’d stumbled into them. I could tell you that I needed those serving jobs, and that would be true. I could tell you that I didn’t really need those serving jobs, and that would be true, too. I was white in a deeply racialized, racist city. I had side hustles; I had a college degree. Which was probably the reason I got hired in the first place. Choosing that life — for those of us for whom it was a choice — allowed us to sculpt our own belonging, to negotiate our class identities in a city where struggle was routine.

We treated Nixta as a kind of class fairyland, an equalizer on either side of the curtain, wherein we fell into two discrete, homogeneous groups: the servers and the served. Patrick manned that curtain, our very own Wizard of Oz, tasked with refereeing the power negotiation while preserving the fantasy. We could leave our miseries at the door, don our Nixta T-shirts, and play the part of the career server. In the back — in the world behind the world — we were only failures if we failed at working hard. Where else could we try, succeed, and still have almost nothing to lose? We had signed no contracts; we still had lives behind our lives. As a result, even stasis felt like liminality. Less heavy, less permanent.

Still, from the first conversation Patrick and I shared, when he told me about chucking his law school diploma, I knew implicitly that he was still terrified he’d made the wrong choice. Every day, Patrick stared down the barrel of precarity, of the consequences of having refused inherited wealth, or at least inherited opportunity. Patrick flexed what privilege he could as an industry insider for the same reason we all embraced serving as an identity, rather than just a job — to defy a system that kept us all unsure of our meaningfulness. We decided our worth so that it wouldn’t matter if no one else knew.

*

Technically, I left St. Louis because I’d gotten into grad school, but I really left because I was always going to. I wasn’t from there. I was only from there in the way you are from all the places where you become someone new. I projected all my anxiety about leaving the city, this place to which I’d fused, onto quitting Nixta. But when I finally told Patrick, he was fine about it. Even jovial. He said Paige from the Benevolent King was looking for extra shifts, and he was planning on training Chrissy anyway.

On my last night, we all arranged to meet at Parlor, the notoriously industry-heavy arcade bar a few blocks away in the Grove, where Matt drank like all the time dude and knew all the bartenders (the same ones that skated with my ex’s friend and only charged me one dollar for three beers when I pre-gamed there with Katy and her Pi Pizza crew). Patrick let me off early and Kristyn fed me almost an entire bottle of the new white wine I liked, the one we described as zippy, while I waited for the others to wrap up their side work. Matt was tight with Parlor’s DJ and had him play “Gucci Gucci” right when I got there, like a walk-up song in baseball. Patrick bought us all shots of something, I bought us all shots of something else, Cimeron bought us a gin bucket shaped like a giant baroque flower vase that we dubbed “The Chalice,” and Matt kept popping up in different rooms of the bar like a prairie dog to greet new arrivals. The lights pulsed pink and blue; Kristyn and I signed our names on a guy’s back in Sharpie since his chest was already full, right above the words “RIP FRANK <3.” Patrick and Matt left for a cocktail tasting at the new invite-only ramen place up the block and came back and Patrick grabbed me around the shoulders and yelled Can’t wait to read all the shit you write about us and guffawed. Someone — Cimeron? — distributed tiny Mexican flags wrapped around the end of toothpicks, and we wore them tucked into the hair behind our ears for as long as they could withstand our group hugs and pogo-stick jouncing. We forgot the slow Saturday night, the quiet street outside; we danced in a carnival whirl of pinballs and people. We ricocheted like wasted comets; the walls caught us and sent us careening back in.

Lena Crown

Lena Crown is a writer from Oakland, California. You can find her work online in The Millions, JMWW, The Offing, Entropy, and Hobart, among others. She is currently stationed outside Washington, D.C., pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction.

@which_is_to_say

@lena.crown

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Featured image: Artwork by Girl With Red Hat on Unsplash.

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