Sunday, November 20, 2011

The First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving 1976. My son had just been born, we were living in Altadena and I was working in Pasadena at a restaurant known as The Chronicle. I had been working there a few months as a server. Dressed in a uniform (essentially a tuxedo outfit without the jacket, and was allowed to keep my hair and mustache). The main clientele, it seemed at the time, were wealthy and very conservative types. “Business and social elite”, I think it has been described as. The restaurant was mere miles from a John Birch Society office.Moderate conservatives were considered liberal in that neighborhood.

I remember working the restaurant the night Jimmy Carter was elected. We had just gone through the Bicentennial year, and Jerry Ford, who had stepped into office when Nixon was forced to resign, was running against Carter. But early on, with polling stations already closed on the East Coast, and this being dinnertime in California, we could already sense there was a change coming. The clientele were pretty upset by it and I could feel their anger and their fear. But I was young, had a new baby days away from being born and didn’t feel as wary about the future as the older establishment folks did. They had more to lose than me, I guess. I was glad for the change, always felt Jerry Ford had been thrust into a position that he really didn’t relish.

A few weeks later I was called to serve the Thanksgiving meal at The Chronicle. The restaurant was good for its day. Continental style, with California flourishes. A great wine cellar, lots of French and classic California. That’s where I first found out about Ridge. It was quite the place.

But the reason I chose to reflect about this place and that time. On with it. I was a young hopeful lad, with a young family and a life all uphill. And while I didn’t want to leave my family on our first holiday, Thanksgiving, I was compelled to work. And so I did.

What I saw that day spoiled it for me ever going out on Thanksgiving. While I was away from my new family, I was serving other families. Fixed menu – turkey with all the trimmings. Usually a turkey per table with tables being parties of four or more.

One private room I was serving in must have been a party of 6-8. Very wealthy family. Mother was an alcoholic. She was sucking down martinis like they were spritzers. She was thinish, but frail and very stern. Her husband was slightly overweight, very full of all manner of importance. The children, college aged and younger, were dressed formally, in suits, ties, and formal dress wear. I was 25, so maybe a few years older than the eldest child. But there were worlds of difference between us. They wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Not that I didn’t know my place – in the service industry it's all about that- service – and I never crossed the line in that restaurant. The unsympathetic Greek floor manager would make sure of that.

I remember serving a bottle of Ridge. It was a Zinfandel, I think a Lytton Springs. Wonderful choice, an American wine with an American dish on a so very American holiday. It was all so perfect. But why weren’t the diners enjoying themselves? Were they still upset that Jimmy Carter had won? I remember hearing a man at the bar saying something to the effect that “the country would soon be done with that peanut farmer.” I recognized the man as a regular. Bad tipper. Bad hairpiece. He also would never look me in the eye, always mumbling to me, “son get me a pack of Winstons,” as he gulped his Old Fashioned’s in anticipation of a woman (wife? mistress?) who always kept him waiting at least 45 minutes.

I did my job, listened to them gripe about Governor Jerry Brown, heard them wax nostalgic about Ronald Reagan and how much they missed him in the Governor’s mansion. I heard it all. I saw the powerful of my little city as they bit into their white breast turkey meat and dipped into the mashed potatoes with gravy. We were invisible to them, the wealthy, the powerful and for so many of them, the miserable. It bummed me out, I have to say, because the whole point of holidays, for me, was to spend it with your family. Even if you didn’t get along with all of them or see eye to eye with one another.

I remember my dad would make a big deal out my young wife and I  being vegetarians. So I would eat a piece of turkey just to quiet him down, and then he’d become Archie Bunker, “See isn’t that great? America is a great place. You don’t have to starve yourself with vegetables like some poor person in Russia.” I couldn’t believe his audacity, but then I realized, years later, he had been thwarted in his life’s ambitions and that was the way the pressure escaped. Sad.

All this to say this year I will spend the holiday with the family that wants to spend it with me. My wife Liz's family, who died in 2001, we will spend the day before Thanksgiving at her sister's house with her son's, my nephews. It is a tradition. I love them. And the actual day? We will go out to my other family, Kim’s dad and her family in the country. My son will probably be a no show, but if he does show that will be nice. I hope. But I have learned not to let hope string me out. See, I am older than I was in 1976, and while I am not bitter or stern or pissed off like those folks I served on Thanksgiving in 1976, I am realistic. I wasn’t home for my son’s first Thanksgiving. I was a no show. Maybe this is payback. Maybe it’s just another day.

I hope not.

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