FRESH YARN presents:

The World's Worst Waiter... Ever
By Jeff Kahn

If I was ever your waiter, you had precious little time to witness my complete ineptitude, unmistakable frustration and ill-mannered contempt before I was inevitably fired. Because I was the world's worst waiter... Ever. I was living in Chicago and became a waiter to support my addiction. Sad, but true, at the time I was addicted to a terrible narcotic known as "ACTING." Acting, and wanting to act, makes you do crazy things to support your habit. And I was into one of the most addictive forms of acting... Theater. Since theater pays next to nothing, it forces the acting user to do just about anything in order to pay for his acting fix. Yet, after graduating college with a BA in history with an emphasis on Peasant Anarchist Movements in Pre-Civil War Spain, I entered the real world qualified to do two things: Be unemployed or wait tables.

My first waiting job was at the River Club, a member's only restaurant that catered to Chicago's downtown business community in and around the Mercantile Exchange. The restaurant boasted dramatic views of the Chicago River. Out the floor to ceiling windows you could witness the majesty of Chicago's two climatic seasons: Arctic and too fucking hot. I worked the lunch shift, which gave me plenty of time to concentrate on my first Chicago theatrical acting fix, the Sam Shepard play entitled, Geography Of a Horse Dreamer. I was cast as "Bell Boy." I had no lines. I made my sole entrance at the very end of the play and, for reasons known only to the playwright, or perhaps Jessica Lange, I walked on stage, ignored four dead bodies, switched on a Zydeco record and stood there silently as the lights dimmed. Makes no sense, I know, but I was a junkie and those brief wordless minutes of stage-time got me through a whole week's worth of waiting tables at the River Club.

To be a good waiter at the River Club you had to be efficient, friendly in a business-like manner and confident in your presentation and service. We served in the French style -- which means something about taking from the left and serving from the right -- I didn't know then or now. Rules like where to place the plates and remove forks didn't really register because I was way too busy thinking about acting in my next play... The Memorandum, written by Czech activist, playwright and one-day president, Vacel Havel. I must have been daydreaming about it when I accidentally dropped a loaded tray crowded with entrees of pork tenderloin and pasta Alfredo. As the plates of food fell to the floor and broke, spilling in a tidal wave of cream sauces and hog meat, I racked my mind to come up with the most efficient, confident, friendly yet business-like way to react to the situation in front of the patrons… yet all I could come up with was to scream, "FUCK ME" at the top of my lungs. I was fired on the spot.

Luckily, I had The Memorandum... I was cast as "Office Spy," a character who spends the entire play unseen behind an office wall. As with any addiction the more one uses, the more one needs to get off, and my doing these inconspicuous plays was just not doing the trick. I needed ever-increasing quantities of acting and a new waiting job to pay for it. The job came in the form of The Halstead Street Fish Market. The upscale restaurant served over 20 varieties of fish. From oily mackerel to flaky white, the regal tuna to the humble cod. While I pretend to give a shit about fish, I spent my off-hours searching back alleys and side streets for more acting. I found it at the Victory Gardens theater adaptation of Samuel Becket's play, Catastrophe, where I was cast as "Man on a box wearing a shroud." During the entire play, I… stood on a box wearing a shroud. I had no lines. After the show, people in the audience would ask what I was thinking about up there on that box wearing a shroud, and I told them, "I was thinking about why I keep getting these shitting acting parts." One night, in a desperate need of protein, I was caught by the owner of The Halstead Street Fish Market in the men's room scarfing down a customer's half-finished "catch of the night," trout almandine, and was sacked yet again.

Desperate, unemployed and on a powerful acting jones, I decided to hit up my famous friend, John Cusack. John, not wanting to be outdone by his fellow tall, limo-left-wing movie star friend, Tim Robbins, who had an acting company in LA, decided to start his own company in Chicago. The play he chose to direct, Alakazam, a forerunner to HBO's, Carnivale, was about a traveling carnival freak show in the 1940s. John cast me as a "half-man, half-chicken freak." Finally, I had lines, albeit in between a lot of squawking and clucking. Of course, I was paid nothing, so I had to go and get yet another waiting job. This time it was on the top floor of the windowless Water Tower Shopping Mall, in a Jewish deli "theme" restaurant called DB Kaplan's. There are over two hundred sandwiches we were required to memorize at DB Kaplan's, but all I can remember is: "The Jim McMahon," "The Oprah" and "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow." We also had to keep and make our own change. So at the end of the night, when we cashed out, whatever money we had over the gross amount of the totaled checks, we kept as tips. Besides being inefficient and easily flustered as a waiter, I also completely sucked at math. Night after night, the money I had in pocket was less than the totaled checks. I was, in effect, losing money by working. In order to keep acting, pay rent and subsidize my DB Kaplan's job, I took a second part-time job catering parties. This allowed me the unique opportunity to get fired from several prominent Chicago catering companies.

One day, during a particularly frantic lunch at DB Kaplan's, I scalded my hand ladling a bowl of cheddar cheese soup. One of the chefs, and by chefs I mean a Mexican guy who makes sandwiches and calls waiters regardless of their sex, "she," "her" and "you little girl," sadistically laughed at me as I held my cheese-scorched hand under cold water... "Did she get burned? Did the poor little girl burn her little girl hand?" I lost it... I took a knife and pointed it at him. "And so what if she did?" I said. "So, what if she did?" Holding any knife at a large Mexican guy, in this case a plastic take-out knife, is not a smart thing to do. He immediately grabbed his much bigger, much sharper kitchen knife and started screaming threats at me in Spanish. He doesn't back off until the manager agreed to fire me... Which he did. Interestingly, at the same, short time I was at DB Kaplan's, Andy Dick was also working there. There were rumors afloat that Andy was actually a worse waiter than I. There was his tendency to give away free food to friends in front of paying customers, hit on under-aged tourists and one time he told the night manager that he was "an ugly cock face." Who was a worse waiter is a debate for the ages...

My character in the play, Alakazam, Lenny Roostman, the half man, half chicken, wore a chicken suit made out of a pair of long underwear covered with real chicken feathers. In the stifling heat of summertime Chicago, my sweat turned the chicken suit into a hardened shell of stale, dried perspiration that grew stiffer and more malodorous as the play went on. "What kind of life is this?" I asked myself as I put the chicken suit on for another evening of acting in the theater. The truth was, it wasn't waiting tables that was turning me into a freak, it was acting.

Thankfully, that was all a long time ago and I'm happy to report I've been "acting free" for years. Of course I do these funny characters I make up for my six-year-old son, but only long enough to make him laugh or scream, "Stop it daddy, you're bothering me!" And every once in awhile a friend calls and offers me a part in an HBO show. I've been on The Larry Sander's Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage. But, c'mon, if I don't have to audition for it, it's not really like I'm still acting. I mean it's not like I need to act. I just do it for the kicks. You know, to be sociable. It's no big deal, okay? I can stop at anytime, all right? It's not like I want some big TV producer reading this on FRESH YARN to say, "Hey, that Kahn guy could be right for that great part on my show." Or some hot casting director to make a mental note to herself to call me in the next time she's looking for someone who's an odd mix between Roger Daltrey and Gene Wilder…

Okay, fine, so I'm still addicted. Lay off will you? Acting is harder to quit than heroin. Fortunately, I no longer have to wait tables to support my habit. I'm a writer. It's a lot more precarious than waiting on tables, but the benefits are better and I have yet to burn my hand on a computer keypad.



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