FROM OUR ARCHIVES
MANDELBROT'S CHICKEN, or, THE ORIGINS OF SCIENCE
A BRIEF HISTORY
MANNA OF THE DAY
Cornelia Street is a tiny one-block street in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City. It was laid out in 1794 on the farm of Robert Herring, who named it for his granddaughter, Cornelia. It has had an interesting history.
In the nineteenth century it housed the stables of the rich. During Prohibition it sheltered one of New York's most famous Speakeasies. In the early forties W.H. Auden moved in at Number 7; in the late forties Anatole Broyard opened a bookstore at Number 20; for eleven years into the early fifties James Agee had a writing studio at Number 33; in the late fifties Joe Cino opened his café at No. 31. But by the early seventies all of this was merely history.
In the Spring of 1977, three of us, one Irish-American actor (Charles McKenna), one Italian-Argentinean-Canadian visual artist (Raphaela Pivetta) and one Anglo-German-Jewish academic/writer/ director/performer (me) stumbled across a tiny storefront on Cornelia Street and thought it the perfect place to open a café. Why a café? Perhaps it was, as I later characterized it, a lunatic whim. Certainly it did not come replete with a business plan. Our collective experience was limited, our capital was virtually non-existent, our credentials were hardly calculated to inspire banks to lend us money, purveyors to extend us credit, or landlords to take us on in the first place. Charles, in a venerable New York tradition, eked out his meager existence on the stage by waiting tables, currently at a restaurant on West 13th Street. Raphaela was an artist who worked occasionally as a hostess at an Italian café on the Upper West Side. My résumé was even slimmer: I had had only one experience in a restaurant, and that was in another country thirteen years before, at the absolute bottom of the economic and social ladder. I certainly did not know then—and I would have a very hard time persuading anyone now--that it was probably as fine a preparation for this unlikely life as anything else I could have done.
In 1964, after leaving Oxford, I hitchhiked around Europe for several months, staying in youth hostels and student lodgings and occasionally homes of people I knew or whom I had met on my travels. When I ran out of money, I took odd jobs. In Israel, on various kibbutzim, I shoveled manure. In Hamburg, all night long, I stacked and folded newspapers. In Stockholm, for an extended period, I washed dishes.
There was a highly overqualified subculture in Stockholm in the early sixties, all foreigners who had run out of money and who found themselves now in the same predicament as I. Sweden embodied the triumph of a kind of bourgeois socialism, so that those of us passing through from more benighted countries found ourselves broke almost from the moment we arrived. Everybody already had everything, so the fact that everything was incredibly expensive didn’t matter—except to us. For similar reasons it was the worst country in Europe to hitchhike in—everybody already had a car, so what were you doing walking for miles on some deserted road in the pouring rain with a rucksack on your back and your thumb stuck out, peering round at all those Saabs and Volvos with an imbecilic grin on your face? The same seemed to be true of public toilets--everybody already had a toilet, why should they build another one for you? Needless to say, after the privations of the road, desperate to pee, and almost instantly broke, we indigent foreigners were extraordinarily grateful to find work.
In New York, the restaurant business is kept alive by illegal immigrants, mostly Hispanic, but also at various times, Bangladeshi, Chinese, West Indian, and a multitude of other nationalities, almost invariably third world, who porter and wash dishes, sometimes for years in the same restaurant, abiding in the shadows of the acknowledged world, living together in apartments in Queens, sending money home to support their families, returning over the border to Mexico for a brief visit and then trying to slip back in unnoticed, in the trunk of a car or through the desert or over the Rio Grande. Some are educated, some not, but partly because of race and partly because of longevity they form an almost invisible but potent, permanent, and economically indispensable underclass—hardworking, conscientious, reliable, cheap. They do the menial work that Americans (all immigrants themselves at one remove or another) decline to do.
In Stockholm the restaurants were kept alive in a similar way. There was the same catch—you couldn’t work without a permit, and you couldn’t get a permit if you didn’t have a job. And there was the same underground grapevine: it was absolutely uncanny, but somehow within minutes of arrival, just as you were about to spend your last kroner, someone told you that, while you couldn’t find legitimate work, you could always wash dishes. Perhaps in the hostels, dosshouses, bus depots, railway stations of Stockholm, junior or retired members of the Swedish Civil Service were deployed to whisper such news into the ears of indigent foreigners in order to keep the triumph of bourgeois socialism alive. Certainly, just as in New York, where, with the exception of one tap dancer and one drug addict, I have never had an American dishwasher, so in Sweden I never met a Swedish one. However, there was one interesting difference: the gene pool of the imported underclass was of a uniformly stellar quality. In contrast to New York, my fellow dishwashers in Stockholm were the cream of Europe—filmmakers, psychologists, violinists. I was in awe of most of them.
Actually I never graduated to being a dishwasher. I was, with the exception of one day where my senior colleague, the dishwasher, walked out, and I had to take over his duties as well, a dish dryer. The grapevine had somehow led me to the back door of an extremely expensive Italian restaurant, which had seventy people working at any one time. Of these the lowest were those who occupied the dishwashing station. This was a spacious sunken room with an entrance on one side and an exit on the other. The centerpiece of this conversation pit was a large gleaming dishwashing unit, through which passed several times in the course of a night every piece of metal or china used in the preparation, serving or consumption of quite complicated and, for the Swedes, exotic Italian food. However, it was only a dishwasher. It did not dry. Hence the need for my services. I, having graduated from Oxford, was now, to the profound horror of my parents and the blessed ignorance of my tutors, a dish dryer. I had access to an endless supply of towels and my job was to dry every dish, every fork, every tureen, every sheet pan that came dripping clean out of the washer.
Two empires co-existed uneasily backstage, one the province of the chef, the other the province of the maitre d’. There was a constant jostling for position both between and within these two camps, but there was no doubt in either camp as to who occupied the bottommost rung. Even the dishwasher had someone below him to kick, and that was me. It was my great good fortune, however, that my immediate superiors (the serial guardians of our enormous machine) tended to be gentlemen. We would form a silent bond in the face of mounting abuse from all those who needed our services and needed them now. After the insanity of the major rush, when things quieted down and first the junior cooks and finally the waiters stopped screaming at us, the tongues of my senior colleagues would loosen, and, grateful for my recent education, they would unburden themselves of their passionate and closely argued animadversions on music, film, or the theories of Freud. In the matter of language I was also blessed. Just as the language of kitchens in New York tends to be Spanish, so the language of dishwashers in Stockholm was invariably English.
We had one day off a week, and, as restaurant workers everywhere, we would socialize together, the grapevine alerting other members of the fraternity to some communal activity and meeting-place. And so it was that one Monday, we congregated, a dozen of Stockholm’s finest dishwashers, outside the movie theater in which A Hard Day's Night was about to open. Crowds, many of them wildly excited teenage girls—well, wildly excited for Sweden--began to assemble well in advance of the first showing. We dishwashers formed one such crowd, speaking, joking, cavorting in our lingua franca, liberated from the tyrannies of our various kitchens, conscious of our foreignness, insufferably full of ourselves, and not at all unhappy at the opportunity finally to épater these particular bourgeois. What happened next was so sudden that it took some reconstructing later to figure it out. Some rumor must have spread that one or more of the Beatles might appear for the premiere. Some critical mass of teenage girls, putting this together with the high spirits and low antics of a dozen foreigners, jabbering away in English, must then have become convinced that said Beatle was in our midst. Anyhow, suffice it to say, given my age, height, authentic English, and the length of my hair, suddenly I was it. I found myself literally swept off my feet and carried into the theater on a sea of ululating, flaxen-haired adolescent Brunnhildes. The screaming built to a stupefying climax when the lights went down and the first images came on the screen. At that precise moment they dropped me.
I cannot imagine that any of this would have happened if the language of dishwashers had been anything but English. We all spoke it. Even the giant Finnish seaman who was one of my regular colleagues, managed an English passable enough to confide in me that he was hiding out in the underground of Stockholm, having jumped ship after killing a fellow sailor in a port brawl in Copenhagen. Self defense, of course. Though who would have had the temerity to attack him, except perhaps a gaggle of Swedish Beatles fans, I couldn’t imagine.
My friendship with Finn, as I called him, stood me in good stead, and never more so than the night the dishwasher flooded. The whole sunken dishwashing area, through which the waiters had to pass to collect dishes on their way to the cold station, was filled with almost a foot of water, in which Finn and I stood calf-deep (well, maybe ankle-deep for him). We had set out a runway of inverted buckets, the equivalent of lily pads, for the waiters, who were now required to hop with their dishes from one end of the area to the other, an admittedly difficult task, especially for the women, who tended to be in heels and whose mounting frustration incited an oratorio of screams and curses, at the magnificent crescendo of which, Finn, driven to a fury, and finding himself in possession of an unlimited arsenal of saucepans, frying pans, sizzle platters and other projectiles, let fly like some huge medieval assault weapon. Because of our friendship I was protected. But the waitstaff flailed and ducked in the waters and the cooks quaked behind their ovens. After the last saucepan, Finn, spent but unrepentant, knew that his time was up. With the waiters and cooks cowering on our two thresholds, he took off his whites, picked up his bag and a convenient cleaver, and walked slowly out of the restaurant. For the remainder of the night I had a de facto promotion. The next day Herman the violinist came in. We never saw Finn again.
I learned some important things from my weeks in the kitchens of Stockholm. One was how intense and concentrated life can be. How passionate, how crazy, how dangerous. The other, not unrelated, was how closely restaurant life resembled my real passion, the theatre. There was a backstage, which we, the rude mechanicals, occupied. There were actors—busboys, waiters, the maitre d’--who sallied forth from these wings onto the stage itself, the waiters plumping themselves up just before their entrance. And there was the audience they entertained, who dressed up for the occasion and who, in their finery and their indifference, were the object of both our veneration and our contempt. As far as the chef, who was the playwright, and the maitre d’, who was both the director and the leading man, were concerned, the audience consisted mainly of ignorant boors, who lacked discernment and who were far too easily distracted from a true appreciation of their culinary art by incidentals—conversation, a pretty face, a passing acquaintance, a good cigar. Once in while, a special customer--a politician or a luminary from the theatre or, even more magically, the movies--would be granted a dispensation, and the backstage attitude towards the floor would change dramatically. A sudden groveling servility would set in, distinguishable from the quotidian groveling servility by the fact that it was genuine. But even from my distant vantage point, the floor felt subtly different every night, just as, in the theatre, each house has its own idiosyncratic character, which the actors gossip about backstage as the performance progresses. It’s a good/bad/full/empty/smart/stupid house tonight—in a restaurant you can substitute the word floor for house. When, two years later, I became a professional actor in England, I had an eerie sense of déjà vu, something akin to what in that equally crazy profession is called sense memory. There is a similar sense of anticipation before the doors open, a similar sense of stage fright and competition during the show, and a similar sense of camaraderie and triumph after the curtain comes down and the last customer is swept out. The rhythm of the night is similar, the sense of occasion is similar, the wild conviction that somehow against all odds we will pull this mad venture off is identical.
All this was indelibly borne in on me during one tiny moment on a busy night when I was picking up dry towels from the linen station, which abutted the waiters’ entrance to the main dining-room. I stopped for a moment, paralyzed, as Emilio, the maitre d’, swept in, fuming, through the red velvet curtain and upbraided a waiter standing next to me for overlooking a fork which a prominent customer had dropped on the floor. Emilio seized a tray, threw a crisp white napkin over it, and sailed out through the curtain into the dining-room. With a great flourish he picked the offending fork off the floor, placed it on the tray, made eye-contact with the customer in question, and sailed back out. I was still standing, frozen in place, when he came off, for all the world like leading actors I would later know, who would rant or primp or crack a joke with a stagehand before turning round and re-entering as Othello or Hedda Gabler or the pantomime dame. Emilio glowered at me, seized one of my towels, which he draped over his arm, and a silver salver which he put on top of it. Then he transferred the napkin with the miscreant fork from the tray to the salver, waited a beat, glanced back at his trembling staff, glanced out through the curtain at the floor, and having held it a moment longer than you thought possible, plunged back on stage bearing the selfsame gleaming fork. With another great flourish, he placed it by the customer’s plate and was rewarded with the satisfied half-smile of the contented bourgeois, who is after all half socialist, and who therefore only half suspects, in the plush and candlelight of a foreign restaurant, where everything is satisfyingly overpriced, that he has been duped.
And so, at a tender age, fresh out of Oxford, I began my education in the real world. I was a dryer of dishes, and from my humble post I gazed in awe at the dazzle, the passion, the charade, the full-blooded theatre that swirled around me, entranced by the sheer multifariousness of a life that reinvented itself every night, and that later, when the three of us started our own little enterprise, I came to know, love, fear, despise, cherish and rail at as the restaurant business.