Robrt Pela Used to Have a Secret
Danny Neumann

Robrt Pela Used to Have a Secret

This week we've asked some of our favorite writers to share tales of some of their favorite — and least-favorite — food workplace memories. Let's call the series "Forked." Today we end with a story from Robrt Pela that we promise you'll never forget.

Sometimes, just to be polite, people will ask what I’m writing about these days. When the subject came up at a dinner party last month, I should have lied. I should have said, “Oh, you know, another theater review,” or “an essay about how much I hate poutine.” Instead, I told the truth.

“I’m writing about the first time I had sex,” I admitted.

“Oh, how marvelous!” one of the guests exclaimed. “I lost my virginity in Venice, on a gondola ride!”

“The first time I did it was with a member of The Dave Clark 5,” our hostess confessed, “in a seedy hotel room on Sunset Boulevard.”

Another guest had popped her cherry on the empty stage of the Metropolitan Opera at 3 in the morning. Her husband confessed he’d first had sex with a third cousin in his parents’ bed while his sister’s bat mitzvah reception was happening in the next room.

“I lost my virtue on a staircase in a restaurant,” I announced to the dinner guests, although no one had asked. After the briefest pause, our hostess sighed. “My!” she said. “It certainly has been warm for February!”

Looking back, I suppose I should be horrified. I was only barely legal; he was older than me — an old man of 24! — and one of the managers of the restaurant where I worked as the maitre d’. But at the time, 18 seemed a little long in the tooth not to have ever had sex, and I was pleased to change that. I grew up in the suburbs; I knew a lot of slutty teenagers.

It was my first job. I was a senior in high school that year, and trying to juggle an exhausting AP program with positions on both the school newspaper and the yearbook staff. I’d also begun attending classes at a local community college. I took textbooks with me to work and, when seatings slowed down late in the evening, crammed for tests at my station, a little podium in the restaurant’s foyer.

After work on weekend nights, I’d join the waitstaff at after-hours discos. I’d sneak into the men’s room and change out of my three-piece suit and into a pair of Jordache jeans and ankle boots with Cuban heels — this was the late 1970s; if you couldn’t do the Hustle while wearing a shirt made of spun petroleum, you were a loser.

Changing costumes in the restaurant bathrooms was against the rules, so I wasn’t surprised to be pulled aside by the incredibly humpy beverage manager one afternoon. “I notice you’ve been using the men’s toilet as your private dressing room,” he said. “Please come see me in my office after your shift tonight.”

I didn’t expect to be fired. I figured I’d receive a reprimand and be sent back to my podium out front. That is not at all what happened. I’ll leave it at that, except to mention that I was surprised to learn how a staircase can be used for something other than getting up to or down from the second floor of a place. It can be used in this way two or three times a week, in fact.

Maybe the best thing about our completely inappropriate relationship (truly too strong a word for the occasional tryst in his office or occasionally the back seat of my coworker’s car) was how secret it was. Telling anyone would have gotten my new friend into terrible trouble, and anyway, who was I going to tell about my same-sex fling with one of my bosses at work? Let’s just say my high school classmates wouldn’t have approved. The secrecy of our rendezvous made them all the more naughty and fun.

Later, when I grew up and knew enough to be embarrassed about these teenaged dalliances, I still enjoyed the part about keeping the thing a secret. My story seemed so much less trashy, I decided, because only I knew about it. My friend, like so many gay men in the 1980s, had long ago succumbed to the plague.

And then, a few years ago, I ran into Joe, who’d been a waiter at the supper club when I worked there. Joe had met his wife, Maria, while both were waiting tables there, and I had attended their wedding a lifetime ago. Joe had read some of my newspaper articles, he said, and I told him I’d heard he and Maria were now grandparents. Before talk could turn to even more mundane subjects, Joe smirked at me.

“Do you ever hear from your old boyfriend?” he asked, beaming and pronouncing the name of my long-ago pal.

“Not since I left the restaurant in 1980,” I replied. “He’s dead. And he wasn’t my boyfriend.”

Joe was sorry to hear our former colleague had died, but his sorrow wasn’t going to keep him from dishing some decades-old dirt. “Everyone knew about you two,” he gushed. “The other waiters and I used to go up to the banquettes on the second floor and take naps, because no one could see us back there. And you two would come tromping up those stairs! It was quite scandalous!”

I made an off-color remark, shook Joe’s hand, and excused myself. He’d stunned me, not only with his knowledge of my once-wicked little secret, but also by how many details he seemed to have. That had been my story, my secret. And some guy I hadn’t seen in decades had just run off with it.

I didn’t care that a bunch of people I didn’t know anymore, and had only known for about a year when I was practically a boy, knew something about me that now seemed frankly unimportant. I suppose it was the glee with which Joe, whom I’d once thought of fondly, had reported my secret, turning it into something tasteless and icky.

I still had that staircase, though. I knew things about a staircase that nobody else knew. No one but me.

About the artist: A self-annointed "action figure anthropologist," Danny Neumann has assigned himself the task of photographing parvusplasticus populus [little plastic people] in their natural environments. Employing subtle variations in pose and juxtaposition, he tries hard to blur the lines between reality and fiction, hoping to bring action figures to life, recreating the magical way toys are seen through the eyes of a child. Catch up with him at cantinadan.com.

About the toys: Between 1974 and 1977, Playskool produced a charming series of "Familiar Places" playsets. Not to be confused with Fisher Price "Little People," these 2-inch figures were square and nicknamed "Blockheads." The playsets enabled them to visit a McDonald's restaurant, a Holiday Inn, a Texaco gas station, a national park — and now, this Chow Bella series.

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