Tray carrying was more than merely a test of strength. It was an art.
As a camper, I had watched, awestruck, as the dining room staff carried out the famed, "Chicken Trays," on friday night. This was an occasion of much pomp and circumstance. Josh Waletsky, Boiberik's music man, or some equally adept pianist was summoned by the head busboy to play the Yiddish equivalent of, "Hail to the Chief." Peshkies and guest-side waiters would grab loose trays and line up in front of the bandstand, forming a processional archway of tin through which the "Chicken Train" would march. The campers, ravenous as always, waited expectantly.
Amidst this fanfare, the kitchen doors swung open, and the busboys would appear, in various degrees of distress, as they struggled to deliver the hefty and sometimes poorly balanced chicken trays to their designated tables. Dropping the works would undoubtedly cast an ill-omen on the upcoming Shabbes. The camp might applaud, but that would do little to mitigate the disaster.
My most vivid memory of this tradition involves a busboy named Jimmy Delphin. He claimed to play cornerback for the Harvard varsity, and his wiry frame and athletic finess made such a claim plausible. (Most incongruous about Jim was his lallation; that is, he mispronounced "r's" as "l's".)
Despite his strength and coordination -- as revealed in other sports -- he always appeared to be on the verge of loosing his load before reaching our table. Typically, as I recall, the muslces and veins of his carrying arm and neck would bulge like a weightlifter's, a look of panic would cross his eyes, and his tray would sway precariously close to disaster before he finally settled it on the edge of our table. Then, he would pressure us to, "Hully up, Hully up!" in removing the platters from his tray so that he might finish his appointed rounds.
I noticed that other busboys, less well-built than Jimmy, managed to deliver this most fearsome of trays without a much apparent effort. That was when I realized there was some trick to tray-carrying; it was probably also the time that I decided, at some unconscious level, to become a waiter rather than a counselor.
The soup and borsht tray I carried out of the kitchen that afternoon relatively weightless, burdened, as it was, with no more than five pounds of food, crockery, and glass. I held it high above my right shoulder as I sauntered my way over towards table six. I even managed a smooth (and totally unnecessary) one-hundred-and-eighty-degree swivel of the tray as I deposited it on the server. Daits met me there, and began placing each soup order into a monkey dish to maintain proper serving etiquette. I did the same.
"Sterngass was pretty clutch last night, eh Bocci?" he asked.
We had avoided discussing the game during breakfast. Enough had been said the previous night in the canteen, during the postgame wrap-up. Feelings had been hurt.
I knew, from personal experience, that it was difficult to be a referee; and I realized in retrospect that I had been too harsh on both Daits and Eric the Nem. (Eric the Nem was a counselor, who earned this peculiar nickname by mimicking all of Jeff Nemeth's -- the real Nem's -- unique colloquialisms.)
I had told Diats, half in earnest, that Stevie Wonder could have made more accurate calls using sonar. Even the winning team admitted that the whistles, on the rare occasions that they were blown, had little relation to what was transpiring on the court. We reviewed every delayed, egregious error in excruciating detail. Daits defended himself with much blustery bravado. Eric grew sullen.
Later, I lay in bed and replayed the game's most dramatic moments. There was Jeff Sawyer, suddenly and quite maliciously hurling the ball at head of some CIT (because she doing her job as timekeeper, and had let the first half slip away unannounced). I realized that Roger and I, as league commissioners, would have a tough time finding people to volunteer to referee and to keep time in the future. I resolved to make amends.
I had not yet apologized to Daits, as I inevitably would have to in order to clear my conscience, recement our friendship, and maintain our harmonious working relationship. "Yeah, pretty clutch shooting." I answered blandly, agreeing with his assessment of Jon's two game-wininng foul shots.
"That boy's got ice-water flowin' in his veins," he added in his best imitation of a Southern drawl. "Listen, Billy," I began, and paused to clear my throat to give me time to decide how best to phrase an apology. He handed me two bowls of pea soup and pointed towards the Greenbergs.
I turned to deliver them. Mrs. Greenberg was explaining the political machinations of her Hadassah chapter to Mr. Fisher and Squeaky. Her arms flailed about in an animated manner. I insinuated myself between the Greenbergs and began to place their soup in front of them.
"By the way, Bocci," Daits called from behind me, "You definitely were not pushed from behind on that last play of the game."
I spun my head about to see if he was joking, which I assumed and hoped that he was. Just then, Mrs. Greenberg's beefy forearm shot upward to knock her bowl of soup onto her husband. His shoulder scalded, Mr. Greenberg reacted by leaping up abruptly, bouncing the bowl with its last split pea remnants directly into his wife's lap.
She also jumped away from the table (albeit with less spring than her husband). I was confronted with two burned patrons, hopping from one foot to another, screaming, "Hot Soup, Hot Soup."
For a moment, my mind went blank. I looked at the rest of table six. Mr. Friedman grumbled, "Clumsy bastard." Squeaky turned to Mr. Fisher and implored him to call a doctor. Fisher, detached as always, inspected the mayhem and then redirected his gaze out the window, towards a more idyllic scene. The Abrahams froze on a breadstick.
Billy whisked the table cloth off table seven, like a magician, and began dabbing at their pea soup soaked clothing. Kenny Siegel appeared out of nowhere, miraculously equipped with a bowl full of ice, which he applied to the burned areas.
I called over to table thirteen, where Dr. Wolfson sat. He came over to inspect the ailing Greenbergs, who were already in the process of recovering from the accident.
He examined Mr. Greenberg's injury at the tableside, by undoing his bowtie, unbuttoning his shirt and peering inside at the affected shoulder. "First degree, nothing to worry about," was his assessment. "Stop by the infirmary after lunch," he added.
Irwin Mervis, the guest side director, appeared behind the good doctor, his brow furrowed in anguished concern (and fear, I supposed, of a possible lawsuit).
"Doesn't look like anything serious, Irwin," Doc Wolfson said casually. Next he turned his attention to Mrs. Greenberg and asked, "And where are you hurt, madam?"
She inspected her lap, then the doctor, then her lap again. Then she deferred an examination, rather than allowing him to peer down her tent of a housedress.
"I'm fine, really," she said. "It was just the sudden shock of it all."
"Then I suggest, madam, that you enjoy the rest of your lunch," he advised, and he headed back to his own meal in progress.
Mervis planted himself in a distant corner of the dining room in order to conduct the official inquest. He leaned against the bandstand railing. Roger was summoned away from the routine business of taking entree orders to participate. Daits was there as an eye-witness, and Kenny joined the group of his own volition, like an outfield team captain at an infield conference on the pitcher's mound.
"Well, Mike, would you mind telling me what the hell happened?" he asked.
I liked Irwin. He was balding, with a Mitch Miller goatie and tired, friendly eyes. I don't think he realized the dire financial condition that Boiberik was in when he agreed to the take the helm. He seemed overburdened, like a captain assigned command of the Titanic ten minutes after it struck ice. Irwin managed to carry on bravely, if somewhat ineffectually.
Where should I begin? I wondered. Tell him what a lousy ref Daits was? How he cost us the game by missing an overt foul at the buzzer? No, I decided, that would take too long, and he would never understand, anyway.
"I went to put this lady's soup down, and she was flailing her arms about, and she knocked the cup over onto her husband."
"Is that it?" he asked.
"Were you hoping for more?" I responded.
Irwin turned to Roger. "Are you satisfied?"
"Yes Irwin, I am. Bocci's a good waiter. It was an accident; these things happen all the time. Let us get back to work." In this instance, I appreciated Roger's impatience.
"All right, let's forget about the whole thing," Irwin decreed, and walked into the kitchen, possibly to check up on why we were serving tepid soup.
Once Irwin was through the kitchen door, Daits accepted the blame, in his own indirect style. He said, "Sorry Bocci, but you weren't fouled, I saw the whole play."
"You motherfucker, Daits," I said, not unkindly, rekindling our rapor expressed as usual through feigned mutual disrepect.
We walked back to our station together, stifling our laughter as we compared impressions of the scalded Greenbergs. To me, they looked like marionettes. Daits recalled a scene from Fantasia. The remainder of the soup and borsht was distributed uneventfully.
On to Table 8. I stood behind the Blanks to get a close-up view of Mina Bern sampling Ben's schav. She took a dainty sip and smacked her lips together in an exaggereated taste test, as if the cameras were poised to catch every nuance and gesture. Then she grimaced. I raced to her side.
"Oh my goodness, darling," she gasped, "Take it back, TAKE IT BACK. I'll have the soup instead." "Why?" I asked, lifting the glass from the table, holding it at I level as I pretended to inspect the contents, then tossing it into a nearby busbox. "What was wrong with it?"
"Listen, Boichek," she began, throwing an arm about my waist as I stood by her side. (Theater people are forward like that.) She winked to the men at the table before proceeding. "You tell your chef, Manfred-"
"Stanley," I corrected, knowing full well that it was Ben, and not Stanley, who had made the phelgm-like concoction.
"Yes, yes, that's right, Stanley, the bigtshvatsa," she continued. "You tell him, that to make a good glass of schav, you have to add a dollop of chalumpka and a spoonful of pilkiss." (Paraphrasing, out of ignorance, here. Yiddish speakers in the know can supply their own appropriate adjectives.)
With this, Jacob emitted an explosive burst of laughter that nearly knocked him over backwards. He elbowed his wife, Deena, to make sure that she got the punchline. She obliged by chuckling a bit. Ben, Mina's husband, enjoyed a hearty guffaw. Ziggleman burped and poured himself a glass of water.
Mina released me, gave me a smack on the butt, then pushed me back towards the kitchen.
Chapter IX: Leon
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