By Amber Robbin
At five minutes past five, I’d race in through the revolving door and shuffle my way across the floor, shooting a smile over to the corner where the server staff sat half-listening to a dozen suit-jacketed managers, then down the line past the wall of Spanish whispers, and into the kitchen. Only a few minutes later, we’d be waist-deep in hundreds of dinner reservations, hosts rushing up and down the faux-marble staircase with flushed faces and tight fists holding short skirts close to tired thighs. Food runners balanced steaming plates of pasta high above the oblivious crowds, servers worked the floor with their tableside flirtations, and I ran with the bussers, a host not quite in line with the rest, popping up tabletops left and right and hoisting chairs above my head en route from one side of the room to the other.
This is how the dance would begin each and every night amid the small plates and large egos, between the tiled walls and wooden floorboards of that packed two-story. There was music: the rhythmic rattle of a cocktail shaker, the low bass of lounge floating from the speakers. You could lose yourself in the cacophony of voices and converging bachelorette parties that waited around every corner. The dance itself was a steamy tango that morphed into a sly hustle at the drop of a plate, sometimes even settling on a sultry bachata that could carry you through the rest of the night on held gazes and the anticipation of a few brushes past a certain someone’s hip or shoulder.
From time to time, we might steal an olive or two from the bar trays or a handful of gummy bears from behind the host podium, but we were constantly stealing affections from each other, hungry for something more than our humdrum jobs that were, at best, unfulfilling. It wasn’t something the customers could see. It was something just for us, to make it through those long, sweaty nights filled with endless flights to climb and faces to greet. It was to distract ourselves from the stark reality that all those quick steps and sudden saves were for nothing. The dance made it all seem worthwhile.
At some point, however, the dance would have to end, sometimes with a slow walk to the El, but often, far more memorably. There was live music and drunken debauchery till the wee hours of the morning, nights spent cavorting with the dregs of Chicago society otherwise known as us – the restaurant people. On one occasion, a server, a host, and a bathroom attendant climbed the side of a building, then broke into a high-rise pool and swam until daybreak. There were trips to amusement parks and lazy Monday concerts in the grass, Halloween house parties and raucous karaoke battles. There was running in the rain on State St. and calm nights spent cozied up to the bar, savoring simple moments with straight spirits.
And then, there were twilight walks back to my apartment, staring up at the summer sky, struggling to understand a new, bewildering adult world, completely alone and afraid.
Amber Robbin is the creator of Tumbleweed Diaries. She is passionate about languages, world travel, and currently working on a book about her adventures in Italy.