Excerpt from Joe the Waiter
This story comes from Yiddish writer Y. Y. Zevin’s (1872–1926) popular series of vignettes starring the eponymous Joe the Waiter. Depicting life on the Lower East Side and other locales in Jewish New York, the episodes were serialized in various Yiddish newspapers. They were collected and published as a single volume by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1909.
You failed to come here for the past few days, and in that time there has been a lot of news. And what news! Listen to me and write it down word for word, and please, don’t add any of your own wit like you have done to me before. I want that it should all stay in my own style because the style is the man, and the style of a writer is not the style of a waiter.
Now write: This happened on Monday. The sun was hidden behind the clouds as though it had gone on vacation. It was cloudy, damp, and slippery from the mud, but in the restaurant it was cheerful, lively, and busy. It was just at the start of the midday hour. All of the tables were taken. Customers were sitting and eating, and I was running around and chasing about as though I were being carried by the wind.
In the midst of all this two young people came in and called me over in the voice of a self-important person, and one of them said to me, “We are a walking delegation. Let us see your union card.” I gave it to them. “Let me see your button.” I gave them my button.
They kept my union card and my button and said, “Now, brother Joe, we have come to inform you that you have been suspended from the union. You must take off your apron, and you may not attend to your customers until the union investigates a grave complaint against you.”
“What is the complaint?” I asked them.
“Come to the union and they will read the complaint to you,” one of the walking delegation responded, and he took his friend with him and left. As soon as they left, I took off my apron and explained to my customers, “Ladies and gentlemen! I have to explain to you that I am very sorry that I cannot serve you today. My union has put me in suspenders.”
Among my customers there was a great commotion. “S’taytsh? What is the meaning of this? How is that possible?” To suspend a waiter in the middle of service! And here everybody is hungry and, on top of that, in a hurry just as usual. The customer who eats dairy noodles yelled, “Gevalt! My noodles, give them to me!” The customer who eats soft-boiled eggs begged for his, and the other men and women customers did not keep silent either because one was waiting for herring, the other for soup, and another had not gotten his compote, others their tea and cake.
In short, it was a pretty wedding.
“Ladies and gentlemen customers, I cannot help it,” I said. “A union is a union, and a constitution is a constitution, and a bylaw is a bylaw, and when one receives a suspension he must bear it. The capitalists have their crazy rules; shouldn’t we, the workers, also be a little foolish?”
In that moment I felt so proud, because there sat so many people at the table and I was ignoring all of them, because behind me stood the union, and in unity lies power. And because Joe the Waiter was suspended from the union, people had to eat what was already on their plate: challah, pumpernickel, pickles, radishes, horseradish, salt, and toothpicks. However, from the kitchen no one would bring them anything because it is written that should the boss himself, or his missus, God forbid, bring you a piece of strudel or a glass of water, then they are transgressing bylaw number 737, which is found in paragraph 436 in the 744th part of the constitution of our union, and that would lead to a sympathy strike by the kitchen along with the Polish girl who washes the silverware.
So as I was holding my fiery speech in my mind, a union man came in and said to me, “I am Shmerl; the union sent me to take your place.”
I took the boy by the hand and introduced him to my customers with these words: “Brother workers and customers! I, your old acquaintance, Joe the Waiter, have the honor to present to you your new acquaintance, Shmerl the Waiter.”
And no sooner had I gotten the words out of my mouth when all the customers began to cry out, “Joe the Waiter is dead; long live Shmerl the Waiter!”
My colleague Shmerl began now to serve the customers, and I sat down at a table to see how many of my tips would end up going into his pockets. Shmerl had explained that according to bylaw 517, which is in paragraph 91 from the 44th part of the constitution of the Waiters Union of New York and Brownsville, if I were not allowed to end my shift, he could only serve customers from the beginning, from the first course on, from the herring. Five customers had already gotten up and left; the rest yielded to the strict union rules.
After Shmerl had had the time to serve all of the customers with herring, another union man came in and walked over to me and said, “I am Berl. The union sent me to take Shmerl’s place. It was a mistake that he was sent here. It is not Shmerl’s turn; it’s mine.”
I took the new waiter by the hand and introduced him to the customers: “Gentlemen and ladies! I have the great pleasure and honor to introduce you to our new waiter, Berl. It is not Shmerl’s turn.”
And immediately the customers cried out, “Shmerl the Waiter is dead; long live Berl the Waiter!” Berl had to do the same thing Shmerl did. That is to say, he had to follow bylaw number 517, which prohibits a union waiter from finishing the service of a suspended member. So Berl was also required to begin service from the first course, the herring.
For four days I was without a job and without tips, a suspended waiter. I hardly survived until Thursday evening, when the special meeting was called to handle the case against me. The meeting took place at 1 a.m.—just after midnight, the usual time when waiters can hold a meeting. The secretary who held the hearing asked me questions as though he were a prosecutor:
“What is your name?”
“Joe the Waiter.”
“You are also a writer?”
“No, I talk. A writer who is one of my customers writes down everything I say, word for word.”
“Are you married?”
“I only wish; meantime, not yet.”
“How old are you?”
“I should know? Who got it into their head to count the years!”
“Are you a citizen?”
“I’ll bet your sweet life.”
“How long have you been a citizen?”
“Fifteen years. Three weeks after I arrived in America a politician made me a citizen.”
“Who do you vote for?”
“Should I know? Like before! It goes to the one who gives the biggest tip.”
The secretary wrote down all of my answers in a book. Then he wrote down something just for himself. After that he read the following official complaint against me: “New York, the 21st of February in the current year, Joe the Waiter, who wrote in theDaily Paper—that is to say, he spoke and a writer wrote it down word for word—a single man, of unknown age, a citizen and a lumpen proletariat, was summoned to the special meeting of the Independent Waiters Union, Local Number 77 for New York and Brownsville, on the above named date, of the above named local number, and was charged with having broken a strict rule of the union, namely: this accused brother, Joe the Waiter, as it has been rightly and truly confirmed through reliable testimony, did on the day of Tuesday last week strike a match and help light for one of his customers a cigarette that was advertised in a newspaper that is being boycotted by the barbers’ union.
“Therefore it is decided by our union, and in the name of all members who are here present, that our brother Joe the Waiter, who is already suspended through our walking delegation, shall be punished by giving all of the tips that he will collect during the next five weeks to the union.”
I got back my union card, and I am now back to work, but the tips belong to the union this week, and for four more weeks after that.
Dan Setzer is a Maryland-based translator of Yiddish and Italian. He is currently translating the memoirs of a German soldier who served in World War II.