New York’s world of night owls is dark and habitually drunken. From Battery Park to Harlem, from Bed-Stuy to Hell’s Kitchen, those who dock their togs after two a.m. or later don’t have bed on the mind, at least not immediately. It’s not our fault that the B train stops running at nine o’clock, and if that’s how the MTA’s going to be, well, why not just stop for a nightcap on the way home?
If midtown Manhattan is one of the world’s power centers, the Time Warner Center is surely one of its most commanding foci. Yes, it’s a mall. Get over it already. Betwixt Hugo Boss and Barnes & Noble live three of the best restaurants in the world. Southampton Sarah mans the line at one of them.
On a night when we both clock out reasonably early, just after midnight, I meet her at a bar in upper midtown. She’s already enjoying her second Stella with an international posse of equally battle-battered colleagues, who are busy vehemently drinking their own pints. The restaurant staff where Sarah works is probably as global as its business clientele—the line hears snatches of French, German, British, Hebrew and that funny Swiss accent, at once clipped and barbaric; the plongeurs mostly speak Spanish. The waiters, as they are all over New York, are from small towns in Ohio, military towns in Virginia, farm towns in east Washington State—places where having moved to New York means having made it, no matter what you end up doing there.
Sarah was actually born in Yorkshire, but spent most of her life in Southampton, Salisbury, Titchfield, Winchester, and “two and a half years getting completely wasted in London.” This understates her undertakings in all of those other places; until fairly recently, wherever Sarah went, she usually spent her time completely wasted. Her dad died when she was thirteen, and she dropped out at sixteen to work at a burger joint in Salisbury. Counting forward, she reckons she was “in a haze” for about ten years. “Hey, it made me the person I am today. And most of my jobs let me get away with it.” Even if showing up an hour late at the Whykam arms in Winchester wasn't a huge issue, Sarah's modus operandi didn’t always fly. At the Kingsway Hall Hotel, a five-star in London, Sarah “didn’t get on” with the chef. “He bawled me out after I did seven straight days for him, in front of all the staff.” She puts on a vulgar yawp: “I never want to see your fucking face again!” At the Cheshire Cheese on Fleet St., she also “fell out with” the manager. “I probably won’t tell you why.”
“Your brain’s gonna fall out when you’re forty,” I tell her, jokingly. “It already has!” she laughs, endearingly irrepressible and ebullient. “I’m completely fruit looped."
Drugs are funny. “Funny” is a word a conscientious writer might avoid using to describe drugs—personally, I prefer “fun”—but I say that because my life has never devolved into serious teetering on any actual brink. Something about Sarah’s melancholy grip on the bottle, though, makes me think of a Believer story that recently moved me to tears on the subway, about this fucked-up guy recounting his fucked-up childhood. “It was just like Warhol’s factory in New York,” he said of a crackhouse he used to live in, “except it was on the North Side of Chicago, the drugs were cheaper, and nobody was ever going to be famous.” Drugs, in the long term, are only really fun if you end up Andy Warhol—or get over them.
After Fleet Street, Sarah went to Dubai, to work as chef de partie at the Royal Meridien. Why not? It was there, and different. But she was the only girl in the kitchen, "and it wasn’t very nice. The other cooks would hide my equipment—they didn’t think women were supposed to be in the kitchen. It's competitive in there.” There's a reason it's called a brigade; kitchens like that are regimented as armies. With help from the “odd little bit” of Gray Goose in the mornings, though, Sarah made it through. “I will never work there again.”
When the big-bosomed, world-weary, sandpaper-voiced woman tending our bar wipes the taps with a final wet swish, we graduate to another, seedier bar down the street. “You left a tip, right?” Sarah asks as we leave. She needn’t have. There’s an understanding among those in hospitality that leaving less than 20% is criminal, bad karma, not done. That chefs don’t share the tip pool has always struck me as unfair—they work far longer hours for far less pay. Not that it matters—show me one chef who’s ever switched to the other side, and I’ll call you a liar. Roles rarely reverse, especially not in that direction. Chefs and servers, possessors of opposing psyches, inhabit completely different worlds. Except when they fuck each other, which happens a lot.
En route to the seedier bar Sarah picks up a slice of congealing pizza from Bread Factory, the crust brittle as shale. That she works at one of the world’s top restaurants doesn’t stop me from suspecting that most of her calorific intake is similarly shitty. The whole haute cuisine jag works for now, but eventually she hopes to open a little sandwich shop that maybe turns into a bar at night. “In my trade, I need to decide whether I’m going to be working nights or days. I need to decide whether I want kids or a husband. And I need to decide by the time I’m thirty.”
At this moment, a small eruption at the door turns our heads—two chefs we both know stumbling into the saloon, grizzly bears shaking snow off their shoulders. One heads for the jukebox, one for the bar. Another round! Effectively, this ends my discussion with Sarah, who gives me one last literary gem of a story before my handwriting goes completely underwater.
“I was going home with a friend, and realized at my doorstep that my
keys were lost. ‘The good news is,’ I told her, ‘I’ve got a pocketful
of change. The bad news: we’re locked out.’ So we went to the bar
down the block and ordered a couple of tequilas. It was karaoke night,
so we went up and requested help: ‘Does anyone have a bloody ladder?’
Some guys in the front said ‘yes, yes!’”
“Did they have one?” I asked.
“No,” said Sarah, on the verge of hysterics. “They were crack dealers!”
Our laughter, nearly maniacal, pierces the fraught, stale air of the bar. Dave, who cuts fish for a living, tells us a story about being in an airport with Richard Simmons, asking to take a picture of him to show his mother, Richard Simmons acquiescing, and suddenly, shockingly, shaving Dave’s head. A stale baseball match plays itself out on six TVs. Everyone else at the bar is alone, hunched over, nursing with both hands what they’re probably telling themselves is the last one of the night.
Outside, New York’s underworld is stirring: the bums, the garbagemen, the bodega owners. They’re guarded, hooded, a little hellish; the night at this time has a particular pall. A deathly calm pervades. Everything’s glazed with the day’s dust, and now the night’s.