Alexander Chee | Longreads | April 2018 | 16 minutes (3,921 words)
Some years into the writing of my first novel, I was 32, living in Brooklyn and waiting tables in a midtown Manhattan steakhouse a few shifts a week. I worked there instead of some trendier or more downtown place for the exact reasons that made it seem odd to the people I knew: it was a world apart from the one I wanted to live in. The commute was long, 45 minutes on the subway each way from my Park Slope Apartment, but I used the time to read and write, often writing on legal pads as I came and went. My income from three or four nights a week, 5 hours a night, was just 15 percent of what the people who ate there spent on dinners out each year — after taxes, I lived comfortably on this. To my relief, I never saw anyone I knew there, except for a single classmate who worked at Vanity Fair and was good at not condescending to me. Celebrities came so regularly, it was a little like working inside the pages of a gossip magazine. I remember the day O. J. Simpson reserved a private dining room under his lawyer’s wife’s name, but then came out onto the main floor, joking around with the diners. The New York Post cover the next day had a photo of our steak knife, bearing an uncanny likeness to the presumed weapon in his wife’s murder.
The best celebrity sighting for me, however, was Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
The hostess seated her in my section for lunch, at an unassuming but generous table by herself. “I love her,” the hostess said, as she walked by me. We had what I thought of as the ordinary interactions between waiter and guest, and I left, put her order in, and returned to my work. Sometime after her food had been served, she called me over as I passed her table. I stopped and leaned in.
“You’re not a waiter, are you?” She said this with a conspiratorial affection, like she knew me.
“Is something wrong with your service?” I asked, alarmed.
“No,” she said, smiling. “Everything is wonderful. But you’re not a waiter, are you? You’re a writer.”
The lunchtime clamor receded a little around the last word. I felt found out, if in the nicest possible way
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am.” I then asked her why she had asked me that.
“You can just tell,” she said, her smile gone cryptic.
I thanked her, then went back to serving lunch. I tried to think of what it was that had caused her to descend into my station like an oracle and make this pronouncement, the sort of unrealistic deus ex machina moment of the kind I eventually made the topic of my eventual second novel. I was surrounded by coincidences then, a forest of messages from the universe. But this couldn’t have been a coincidence. Surely this was something else, a more divine and direct kind of message. The voice from the burning bush, but instead of a bush, the message was coming from that marvelous smile, the familiar, kind eyes, the perfect hair — and that twinkle.
Here I was again in an old story, one that had begun with people always telling me to be a writer, starting at the age of 14. My interaction with Dr. Ruth that afternoon, though, mattered in an entirely new way. By that time, I had finally decided to be a writer. I just wasn’t sure I could do it. But I was trying. I was halfway through the novel, though I didn’t know that then. The difference Dr. Ruth made, however, was this: she wasn’t telling me to go and become a writer. She was telling me I was one. And that it was finally something visible, even legible, no matter what else I was doing.