Before I started making money modeling, I worked as a hostess at an expensive Mexican restaurant called “The Spanish Kitchen.” This was confusing to many, as its title was a misnomer: With the exception of a singular paella dish, no other item on the menu was Spanish in origin at all. A more appropriate title might have been “The Mexican Kitchen,” but somehow that just didn’t have a pricey ring to it.
The owner was an intense and friendly man. My modeling agent at the time got me an interview after I complained that I wasn’t making any money modeling. Instead of pushing me harder to clients or sending me overseas to work on my portfolio, she got me a job wiping down menus and seating people at wooden tables. Naturally. In the last year, the only job I had was a gig modeling the Daisy Fuentes Collection for Kohl’s during a live feed across various Middle America morning news programs. It was like being on the HSN, maybe worse.
I booked the job, my two semesters at NYU making me overqualified to walk people to their tables and wear an eight-hour-shift smile.
There were two shifts: the day shift, when the restaurant was closed, and the night shift, when we were open for dinner. The day shift was easy. I parked in the gravel driveway on the side of the fake adobe building and entered through the door facing the alleyway. Passing the kitchen on my way to the front of the house, I’d say hi to the sous-chef in the kitchen or the manager if he were there that early. The rest of the day was spent in peaceful seclusion until 4 PM, when servers started trickling in, doing their pre-shift duties of folding napkins and lighting candles.
The room stayed dark all day. I liked this. The only light permitted to enter was from the north-facing wall of glass doors looking over an enclosed patio. The room was still, silence interrupted only by the sound of phones ringing and an automatic air freshener that I would eventually learn how to turn off because it gave off a chemical scent I was sure caused cancer.
One of the few manual tasks I was employed to do was wipe down the outside and inside of the burgundy, plasticized leather menus. Inevitably, there would be gobs of guacamole, smooshed and spread nine-times its original size, clouding the names of dishes like Enchiladas Squiza and S.K. Tacos. This was my least favorite job. The laminated pages were always sticky and smeared with the greasy-chip-fingerprints from the night previous.
After that, I would saddle up next to the telephone – my legs propped up on the desk and supporting the textbook in my lap – and read. On the occasion that the phone would ring, I would take down a name, a phone number, the number of people in their party. I would read back the information in a pleasant, singsong voice not my own to confirm. Then I would say, “Thank you and have a nice day,” hang up, and resume my scholastic activities.
I was still weaning myself off of the Valley Life when I started working at the SK. After dropping out and moving back from New York, I reinstated residence in my mother’s home. Her requests for respect and curfews seemed ridiculous and served only to frustrate me endlessly; if I could only tell her how many Long Island Iced Teas I had consumed into the wee hours of the morning the last nine months, then she would understand the futility of her request. Being nineteen at the time, that sort of rational protest was out of the question.
Before this year, I had only ventured into Los Angeles on a few occasions. Despite the fact I had grown up but steps away from Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, the iron fist of my mother terrified me into local disobedient subservience: keg stands in the backyards of parents on vacation and pot brownies on summer-hot patios. As a result of my relative naiveté, I never knew how “Hollywood” Hollywood actually was.
That changed when I started my yearlong apprenticeship in the Los Angeles restaurant scene. The restaurant itself was slightly theatrical in its own right. In keeping with the “Spanish” theme, the girls wore a costume consisting of a long, cotton crepe floor-length skirt, a fake plastic rose tucked above their ear, and a red blouse that dipped towards a typically hefty bosom. The boys, Rick and Juan, looked like formidable tray-wielding matadors in their snug maroon suits.
All of the waiters were cast according to the gringo’s definition of “Latin.” They weren’t necessarily Latin by decent or even appearance; they just had to be brunette and nice to look at. That was enough. It summed up LA in a nutshell, really. I think I was the only semi-blonde person in the brigade with the exception of a manager who was in the process of losing his hair anyway.
No one there wanted to be a waiter. All of them wanted to be something else, namely, actors. They were bubbly and friendly the way someone has to be to try to make it in this town. Eternally effervescent just in the off case someone who is in the position to make you a star likes your vibe enough to pull you into a meeting that gets you a manager or an agent and then a role in a film and then gets you the covers of magazines and the house on the beach you always dreamed about. In every interaction, the semi-delusional potential for this exists. That’s why Los Angeles sucks. There’s an ocean of acidic self-doubt just under the meniscus of indomitable happiness.
But I saw the cracks. They were little pieces of real lives, the lives just below the surface. The moments were brief and fleeting. Rae sobbing in frustration at the beginning of a shift, wiping her tears away with a pale hand and smiling through the ten-minute breakdown. Geenie storming past the hostess desk, small and powerful, making an inflamed comment about a director and preparation for a role, eventually dying her brown hair blond.
The ones who weren’t pandering to the fickle entertainment industry seemed to fair the best psychologically. One of the female bartenders, hard as nails and no-nonsense, was a personal trainer. She had strong biceps and a hard butt. The bartenders were lucky on account of circumstance and function: they didn’t have to wear skirts, but black pants. She could give a shit about any of it – the industry, her customers, the manager. Behind her bar, she ruled supreme. She had control, not just at work, but in life. Most everyone else, myself included, did not.
I loved everyone that worked there. In fact, even though I was making shit money, I loved working there, even more than I loved modeling. The people were real. The problems were real problems in an unreal world not based on merit or hard work, but luck and circumstance. There was something comforting about being a part of that insecure and volatile environment of foolhardy hope and relentless dreaming, knowing that we all followed a steady stream of people trying to do the same thing decades before us and knowing that another flood of people would come in behind…whether or not any of us made it, which none of us did.