The catering classes

The column The waiting game is never easy, as Howard Jacobson knows to his cost. But kissing the customers isn't as bad as pouring wine with one hand behind your back; There was nothing to drink except sweet white urine of Tartary mountain yak (and I happen to have an aversion to it sweet)

They don't warn you that this is going to happen to you when you become middle-aged, so I'll warn you. You start to blubber more. Not over yourself. The tragedy of yourself remains about the same. But over others. Over the universal sadness of things. That's good, isn't it? After a lifetime of unmitigated selfishness you wake up one morning and you're a humanitarian. Wrinkled, arthritic, lame, palsied and incontinent - but at least compassionate.

The latest example of broken humanity to upset me was a waiter at a training restaurant I'd decided to patronise on account of its cheap lunches. Soup of the day for the price of a box of matches; chicken a l'Indochine with house rice for the price of a cappuccino - how could I say no? OK, so the service was going to be a bit on the gauche side. And there'd be a tutor hovering near, muttering, "Not like that, like this", while my tongue hung out, but so what? It would be nice not to be looked down on by a waiter for a change.

What I hadn't realised was how gauche gauche can get. The poor bastard's hands shook more than mine did. He tripped over his own leg. He didn't know where to put anything, the knives, the spoons, himself. He had a long, fashionably lugubrious face (fashionable on someone who knew how to stay upright), an ear-ring which didn't become him, and he was past the age of learning. That was the tragic bit. He'd never get there. It was too late. Whatever it was costing him to be trained in the arts of hospitality was money down the drain.

I knew better than to ask for wine. Wine would have been too cruel. But I made the mistake of saying yes to iced water. And how did he pour it? With his non-pouring hand behind his back! Five hundred smackers to be taught what they do in the world's 1,000 least sophisticated restaurants.

The last time anyone poured me a drink with his non-pouring hand behind his back was in a once, but no longer, grand cafe in Kaunas, in Lithuania. The waiter wore stained livery, which was meant to compensate for the fact of there being nothing on the menu except the menu itself schnitzeled, and nothing to drink except sweet white urine of Tartary mountain yak (and I happen to have an aversion to it sweet). Not that it mattered. I'd only gone in to use the lavatory. Before me in the queue was one of those over-ornamented communist-bloc floozies who wear daggers of rouge on their cheeks even when they're hurdling for their country. When she came out there was what I took to be a coquettish smile on her face. My mistake. What I saw was sick pride, and maybe xenophobia. I won't describe what she had left for me. Suffice it to say that no flushing system east of Berlin could ever hope to dispose of it on its own. Bombing it out of the water would have been my suggestion.

I fled back inside the restaurant and ordered two carafes of anything. And that was when the liveried waiter, disregardful of the fact that I didn't have a glass, inclined elegantly from the waist and poured, one hand behind his back the way the Tsars had always liked it.

I don't mind admitting I have a certain fellow feeling for waiters, having been one myself once. Only in a restaurant run by my wife, it's true. But that can be the most terrifying experience of all. When you wait in a restaurant run by your wife, who also happens to be the chef, you don't look for any of the usual mercies. It's you or her. This is not the place to air old grievances, but that I lasted only one night was due entirely to her refusal to cook a steak longer than 30 seconds on each side. My customer wanted it well-done. The house style was tonsillitis red. Three times the customer sent it back. Three times I returned from the kitchen with the steak if anything redder than it had been before. In the end, it was my nerve that snapped. I tore off my apron and stormed out.

Have I said that this was our opening night? And that I was the only waiter? Later, I learned that the diners were so disgusted by my unsupportiveness that they all mucked in, served one another, cleaned away the tables, helped with the washing up and kept the tips for themselves. We were in a small seaside village so I ran into most of them the next day. They hissed at me from across the street. As if I was the villain.

Later, I was allowed back into the restaurant, but not in a waiting capacity. Entertainment - that was my brief. "You just go out there and be a convivial presence," I was told. But I only lasted one night doing that as well. Too convivial. Apparently, you are not meant to kiss the customers. In truth, all I was doing was giving a newly wed academic couple from the Open University in Milton Keynes the honeymoon of their lives. He was into masochism in a big way. "Boy, am I feeling de trop here!" he luxuriated, as I sucked the ink off each of her fingers in turn. He was in seventh heaven. She was in seventh heaven because he was in seventh heaven. And I was in seventh heaven because they were in seventh heaven. Wouldn't you have thought the management would have been in seventh heaven too? Just shows how wrong you can be.

Maybe I was in need of a hospitality college education myself. It could be that kissing customers is only OK so long as you remember to put the hand you're not pawing with behind your back

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