By Carey Checca
JANUARY 25, 1999: Nights at Charlie Vergos Rendezvous start slow during the winter months. The loudest noises in the restaurant are clinking beer and soda glasses as busboys take their time stocking them behind the bar. Back in the main kitchen, chefs in white jackets stand in front of the charcoal-fired pits moving thawed ribs from the smoky topmost rack to the bottom rack closer to the coals. Since 4 oclock the front wrought-iron gate has been open, yet at 4:30 p.m. few customers have ventured down the stairs to the basement restaurant on this Tuesday evening.
Laughter erupts from a back room. Percy, who has worked at the Rendezvous for 28 years, stands, napkin in hand, telling a joke about a truck driver on his way to Nashville. Jack and Albert whom everyone calls Red howl between bites of the salads theyve brought to work and plates of barbecue theyve taken from the kitchen. Over at another table, Big Robert quietly chuckles as he folds white cloth napkins.
From a chair near the back stairs, Tim Norris, at 30 the youngest waiter at the Rendezvous, listens in on the gathering of old waiters. Neither the jokes nor the joke-tellers have changed much in the 12 years Tims been here.
But slowly the Rendezvous has become like family. Like wise uncles, the older waiters have doled out advice, from the basics, like opening a checking account and buying a car, to advanced investing in mutual funds, to the personal how to be a good husband and father. The lessons the old waiters teach dont come in long lectures. They come as the everyday stories of their own mistakes and in bits of conversation that evolve over the evenings.
As a 17-year-old busboy, Tim learned the workings of the restaurant and some of the world at the heels of Jack, the most senior of the Rendezvous waiters, and Percy, the uncle who got Tim his first job there. By example, the two older men showed Tim how to turn tables fast seat people, serve them quickly, leave the check, and seat another group as the first one leaves. And how to cultivate regulars by going out of the way to give them the extras.
When it came time for Tim to ask a girl to a dance, Jack was the first there with advice and a few dollars to help out.
When Tim was a college freshman and itching to buy a car, questions were directed to Percy. Take your time, Percy advised, as he loaned Tim half the down payment. The younger man bought the first car he came across, a Datsun B-210, a piece of junk that cost him $700. Percys only remark: Tim could have gotten a better car had they looked around.
Close to 5 oclock, Percy clears his supper from the table and with the other veteran waiters wanders to the front of the restaurant to hustle the few incoming customers to their sections.
I think were gonna suck tonight, Tim says to Little Robert, another young waiter.
Yeah, Little Robert replies.
As he buttons the collar of his white short-sleeved Oxford, Tim walks slowly to his station for the evening. Standing against a backdrop of tables, under a red-and-gold sleigh hanging from the ceiling, and framed by cases of Hummel porcelain figurines, rifles, and revolvers the kind of junk and antiques that line most of the walls of Vergos restaurant the youngest Rendezvous waiter leans against the bar, waiting for customers.
A tall, handsome man who wears his dark hair and mustache closely cropped, Tim had dreams of becoming a movie star or a writer, perhaps of screenplays. He spent a few semesters in college, and tried a couple of other jobs, but he married young, had a child, and always drifted back to the Rendezvous.
At the restaurant, Tim moved ribs like lightning with his long legs on a 6-foot frame. After a two-year stint cooking and a bit of time behind the bar, Tim was promoted to waiter.
But during his time working his way through the ranks there, Tim hasnt given up his dream of being discovered.
I think that if itll happen, itll happen in the old Hollywood style, he explains as his brown eyes sparkle. Waiting on a director who hears my voice, and there I am in a Wendys commercial saying, Fries in two. May I help you please?
Tim has quit a couple of times and worked at other places, but he came back after a potential employer told Tim he was crazy for leaving such a good job. Waiters at the Rendezvous arent millionaires, nor are they pulling in six-figure salaries as local myth sometimes has it. But they make damn good money. Do the math: If the average bill runs about $12, a 15 percent tip is $1.80. Each waiter serves about 800 people each week. Multiply that by 51 weeks (the restaurant closes for a week at the beginning of each January) and it adds up to 70 or so grand a year. Good work if you can find it.
At a quarter to six, the ribs and red beans and rice being moved from the kitchens to the tables fills the air with the smell of grilled meat, barbecue sauce, and the vinegar the meat marinates in.
When three people walk around the corner from the hostess stand, Tim stands up straight.
Three? he asks.
The customers nod and Tim points them to a table in his section.
As the group looks at the menus tucked between a clear piece of plastic and the red-checked tablecloth, Tim gets their drink order and is off to pick up two sodas and a beer from the bar.
On his way to the bar, he stops at the jukebox, feeds it 75 cents, and punches in the numbers of the same songs he plays just about every night: I Think Im Going Out of My Head by Sinatra, the Doobie Brothers Jesus Is Just All Right With Me, and a couple more by Curtis Mayfield.
Singing along to his songs, Tim moves drinks from bar to table, gets the groups order, and takes off to the bar again at a pace faster than some people jog. Ten minutes later he brings out two plates of chopped pork shoulder, a pork loin/rib combo, and a red plastic basket of Wonder Bread rolls. At the Rendezvous, the food comes out fast. The waiters talk smack even faster.
Cal-vin! Tim hollers as he gets close to the bar waiters yell out their orders before they arrive at the bar another Miller Lite. To himself he mutters, Got to tell Mary Pat Im ready. Tims starting to catch a buzz from the beginning of the dinner dash. His running-shoe-clad feet move faster. His eyes light up. It feels something like rush hour on Union Avenue. The Rendezvous staff often describe it as controlled chaos.
Beer in hand, Tim goes down the serving aisle along the bar where waiters pick up drinks and drop off tickets and the occasional novice Rendezvous customer walks into their path. Around to the front of the restaurant Tim says to Mary Pat, who surveys incoming customers from her high perch behind the tall wooden hostess stand, Give me some love, baby.
Although few women work in the dining room of the Rendezvous Mary Pat is the only one tonight women are one of the waiters favorite topics of conversation. The regular, rough-guy badgering about how well dates went, how beautiful she was, and how many women a waiter is dating at once is a staple. But when so much of the waiters lives is spent in the basement like the time Tims two girlfriends met face-to-face when they both unexpectedly showed up at the restaurant the guys eventually get down to what matters.
When he was 21, Tim was getting ready to marry a woman he thought was the love of his life. Percy warned Tim that she wasnt a people-person like Tim. She didnt go out much. Tim married her anyway. After the wedding, a waiter nicknamed Hooch (who has since left the restaurant) told Tim, The worst thing you could do was get rid of that pickup truck and marry that goddamned woman.
His marriage began visibly falling apart after eight years. Tim was always at work, or going back to school, or quitting school again. The two had a daughter, whom Tim dotes on, they shared a bed, but they were growing apart. They divorced.
The guys at the Rendezvous talked behind Tims back about the divorce. They railed against his ex-wife. To his face the old waiters said, Now you know. And the subject was dropped.
Looking back, Tim realizes he forced a lot of things on his wife. He wanted her to look good and stand behind him to be Mrs. Tim Norris, without regard to what she wanted. These days the waiters dole out serious advice to Tim on how to deal with an ex-wife and how to be a good father. And they pass around a lot of the old bullshitting about Tims girlfriends.
Holding two bowls of red beans and rice in his left hand, Tim dances to the Bonnie Raitt song playing on the jukebox on his way back from the exhibition kitchen to his section.
How many do you have? he asks the group coming around the corner.
Six, comes the reply.
Tim raises six fingers to confirm and says, Long table over there.
In the space of a few minutes, Tims entire section is full. The group of six is followed by a four and then a deuce. This is part of the showmanship of waiting tables, since customers are impressed when the waiter can give everyone good service all at once.
Were ready to order, says the businessmen at the two-top.
Talk to me, Tim says with a smile.
On a Tuesday night like this one, the seats are full of people doing business. The men have their ties loosened and tucked into their Oxfords or flung over their shoulders to keep barbecue sauce off them.
And there are always the tourists. The foreign tourists come to try the most famous dry ribs in Memphis. The recipe dates back to the late 1940s when Vergos was basically running a ham-and-cheese-sandwich shop. Trying to expand his menu, he bought a few slabs of ribs, marinated them in vinegar, sprinkled them with oregano and garlic salt, and grilled them. One of the first guys who ordered a half-slab asked, what the hell was this? Vergos tried to explain the concept of dry ribs, but ended up going back to the kitchen to revamp his recipe. He added paprika to the mix. People really took to the red coating that turns crusty as the ribs cooked. It wasnt a damn thing, the white-haired Vergos explains. Put that paprika in. Its got no taste. And thats how dry ribs got started.
Rendezvous first-timers inevitably ask for fries with their dinner or a glass of unsweet tea. Soda, beer, and sweet tea are all theyll get at the Rendezvous, and every plate comes with baked beans and slaw. No fries.
After taking the order, Tim turns and heads back to the bar. (Its a never-ending cycle from the tables to the bar to the kitchen and back again.) He yells to a busboy, Hey, tell one of your brothers to come up here and help me. He mutters to himself, I dont know why busboys dont like working up here.
As Tim yells for a few beers, Red walks out of the aisle and through a crowd of guys gathered at the end of the bar, Wes working, wes working, wes working, he says in a voice as deep as his stomach is big.
By the time Tim gets back to his station, a rib runner has some of the food for the six-top.
Take that food back and have them send all of it to me at once, Tim orders. The food ribs, chopped shoulder, rolls and all goes back to the kitchen and into the garbage. Food isnt sent out to another table once it comes back. It goes into the trash and becomes a meal for one of the many homeless people who pick through the dumpster.
Hey, pitcher of beer, my friend, Tim bellows to a bartender.
Over by the soda and ice machine, Tim, glass in hand, talks with Little Robert. Im having fun, Little Robert. How about you? Tim lets Little Robert go first, digging his glass into the ice.
Little Robert, who isnt talkative, mumbles.
In his usual loud voice Tim asks, You busy, straight up?
Better than last week, Little Robert says.
You made a killing last week.
With that, Tim is off and singing to himself. Whoa-whoa. Oh yeah. Gimme that, baby.
At the table, his voice changes from falsetto to a deep gentlemanly voice. Here you go, good girl, he says as he drops off a soda. You need more cheese? More cheese for a Rendezvous special a plate of cheddar cheese and crackers, pickles, peppers, and sausage coated in the Rendezvous special seasoning.
At his station, Tim runs into Kevin, a regular since he tended bar in 1990.
Where are you sitting? Tim asks.
Where are you? Kevin responds.
Tim adds a chair to a table for two for Kevins group of three. How are you doing, man? Be a long time. Nice to see you.
Ive been so busy, explains Kevin.
Thats a good thing, isnt it? Tim says before turning away.
Like the older waiters who have spent years cultivating regulars, Tim is building a base of customers who will insist on being waited on by him every time they come in to eat. A few waiters, like Jack who has been here since 1965, have waited on three generations of the same family.
As quickly as the restaurant filled up, it slows down. By 9:30, only the busboys are working fast, quickly wiping down the tables, filling barbecue bottles, and mopping the floor in an effort to get out of the restaurant as early as they can.
The night ends much like it began: The younger guys make plans to get a drink after work, the older waiters hang out near the back of the restaurant waiting on the few customers that trickle in until the front gate is locked at midnight.
Back in his section with his bow tie loosened, Tim sits quietly at a table organizing his checks and counting his tips. Tired as he is, he starts making plans for going out with the young guys later tonight. But in the back of his mind, hes working on bigger plans. Hes still got the dream of being discovered, of being a writer, or maybe trying his hand at something else.
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