Our adventurer serves up incompetence at local cafe



By Corey Levitan

      If this writing thing doesn't pan out, I used to think, waiting tables is an option. Writer and waiter are just one letter apart. And what's so hard about taking orders? I've taken enough of them from girlfriends.

      Billy's Restaurant -- which switched names in August from the Cimarron Cafe -- is patronized by characters from a novel. One regular orders "liver, rare." Another grabs all his food from the server's hands, then arranges it in a precise order in front of him. One woman leaves a tip of anywhere from 63 cents to 95 cents, never a whole dollar.

      Nancy Misensol, a waitress for 25 years, has managed the 56-year-old Torrance landmark since 1999. As both the boss and the subversive spirit of Billy's, she's a combination plate of Mel and Flo from the old TV show "Alice."

       The Flo part of Misensol thought it would be fun to spring me on the retired workers of the North American Rockwell 101 Tooling Group, 15 guys who meet here twice a month over breakfast and typically good service.

      "You kids today, you don't have it as hard as we had it," 75-year-old Dumont Wing of Culver City tells me.

      There's no harder crowd for a waiter to work than seniors. I once watched my grandparents in Florida send Chinese food back to the kitchen three times during one dinner -- and still tip less than 10 percent.

      The breakfast of doom starts with coffee, 13 cups. When forced to occupy the same serving tray, two teeter over the edge at an angle. Despite how hilarious a scalding hot java flow over innocent bystanders would be, I serve them one at a time.

      Two guys didn't want coffee, but I forget which two, so I pour two more and hope for a cue that never comes.

      "You're new here," says 75-year-old Torrance resident Bob Gatto, who introduces himself as the boss of the meeting and boasts of his resemblance to actor George Peppard. (Actually, I'm thinking former House Speaker Tip O'Neill.)

      "Let me tell you how it works," Gatto barks. "When you take the orders, you start with me! And no one gets served before me!"

      Most of the guys order from the breakfast special menus standing on the table. It's my job to ask how they want their eggs; if they want bacon or sausage; home fries, hash browns or fruit; and what kind of toast they want -- white, wheat, sour dough, rye or English muffin -- as long as they're not ordering French toast, pancakes or waffles. (These don't come with toast.)

      "It's pretty self-explanatory," Misensol told me earlier.

      That's exactly what my trigonometry teacher said about cosines.

      Here's what happens: I write down whatever I'm told, without remembering to ask questions. It's the best I can do, considering how inundated I am with special orders Misensol didn't prep me for. One guy wants his bacon "real crisp." Another wants his syrup hot. Another wants a half a glass of milk for his coffee.

      "I don't like cream," he says. "The other waitress always brings me half a glass of milk."

      Another man doesn't want a breakfast special. He requests a menu. (I neglected to hand them out.)

      The computer isn't letting me place my orders. It wants to know my server and table numbers. I have no idea what it's talking about. But first impenetrable problem's first. I can't even read my own writing. My very first order says "V-OM," I think.

      When I signed up for this adventure, my only preconception was yelling, "Adam and Eve on a raft, and wreck 'em!" to a cook. (That's two eggs on toast, scrambled.) The over-the-grill yell was integral to the diner experience in my head. But waiter-cook dialog vanished 10 years ago, when the former Cimarron followed the lead of most diners and computerized its order-taking. Waiters now punch food items into a keypad. As at McDonald's, the orders pop up on a screen over the grill.

      If Flo wanted to tell Mel to kiss her grits in 2004, she would need a button saying exactly that on her keypad.

      Nely Aguilar, a 19-year-old waitress from East L.A., stops by the computer like a vehicle slowing down to view a freeway pileup.

      "Oh, that's over-medium," she says when I show her my mystery "V-OM." But that doesn't explain the V. Why the V?

      Viscous over-medium eggs? Voluptuous?

      I am no stranger to this problem. I have to rush right home from stories I report only with my notepad, while I can still remember what some of the squiggles represent. Even then, there's only an 80 percent recovery rate. My handwriting alone could have gotten me into med school.

      Aguilar enters the order as over-medium and I move onto the second. But I can't read that, either.

      "It says sausage," says Aguilar. Amazingly, she is correct. But there are dozens of keypad buttons, none of which says sausage. This will not do. After 9 minutes, I have only placed one order, which I'm fairly certain is incorrect.

      Misensol steps in and pushes all the right buttons in an impressive blaze as I read her the orders off my notepad. I have failed my first test as a waiter.

      And it was a big mistake not to ask what kind of eggs, meat, and toast everyone wanted, because those are the things Misensol's asking me right now.

      Rather than admit my transgression, I decide on scrambled as the default egg, sausage as the default meat and white as the default toast. These guys look like "Hungry Man" dinner types. No Eggs Benedict or wheat toast for them. Besides, I don't really work here.

      Then it hits me. "V-OM" is veggie omelet. But the cooks have already started preparing my voluptuous over-medium eggs. They must be aborted.

      At the 20-minute mark, I realize that I never brought that one guy his menu.

      "Sorry!" I say, after abandoning my toast-buttering to dash over.

      I have not refilled the coffees, either. But a waitress named Diane has stepped in to cover. The guys are happy to see her, and shift all questions about their food her way, ignoring me.

      "Where's Maria?" Diane reports being asked after I return to my toast.

      "The other girl you usually have is better."

      The food was ordered all at once, and that's how it comes out. One after another, plates of look-alike breakfast matter emerge. I walk them over -- starting with Emperor Gatto's, of course. By order number 3, they're entirely wrong.

      "I get bacon with my pancakes and eggs," says the third guy. "There's no bacon."

      Damning protocol, I approach the cooks and demand bacon that doesn't require computer-programming skills. They comply, smiling at my frazzled state. But when I bring it back, the customer's baconless plate has vanished.

      "I gave it to the guy who only had three pancakes and two eggs," Misensol explains, as she juggles more plates in an attempt at damage control.

      I think I know where the misalignment began. A couple of the guys ordered while standing; they were too far around the table from some old friends to chat with them.

      My useless notepad gives way to a new serving technology: approaching the middle of the table with each new plate and yelling, "Who ordered this?"

      No one is answering my call for an over-easy with bacon. I repeat my question louder, in case everyone's hearing isn't perfect.

      "I'll take it," says one man, obviously fearing that the plate may be the closest thing to his order to emerge from the kitchen this morning.

      Oops, one pancake order lacks the requisite scoop of butter. And the coffees need refilling again. I search for a stray pot with a brown top, signifying regular. (Orange is decaf.)

      "Where's that milk?" the cream-hater asks. My instinctive response produces an insight: When waiters say, "It's coming," they mean, "Sh**, I forgot!"

      I also forgot about the menu guy. Not until half an hour after he enters the restaurant is his order finally taken. (Later, I find out why he didn't complain: He lives in Tennessee, where service is supposed to be deplorable.)

      The stress is beginning to get to me. And I notice a strange substance gathering on my face. The next time my smelly hands brush my forehead in frustration, a nauseating realization hits. I am slicked with bacon grease, which has seeped into my pores and possibly voided my vegetarianism. A mere shower will not do. After this adventure, I will need to walk through a car wash.

      The individual checks arrive and, naturally, I have no idea which goes where.

      "Hey, this isn't mine," says one man.

      "Just trade with someone who owes less money," I reply.

      The quip gets no laughs -- except from Misensol, who repeats it to the cooks. (Why can't my real-life bosses have such a good sense of humor when I screw up?)

      "I have the right check!" declares another man, surprised.

      Gatto takes out a wad of cash and places it at his setting. I go to collect it.

      "Don't touch my money!" he snaps. "We leave tips on the table and we pay at the cash register ourselves!"

      Before the guys exit, I reveal that I'm really a writer, not a waiter.

      "Good, then you're not gonna get a tip," Gatto says, motioning to take his back.

      He's kidding. Everyone leaves a tip. Yet the total is $12 from 15 people. You figure it out.

      As far as being a waiter if this writing thing doesn't pan out, um, it had better pan out.


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