I recently finished the engaging Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip—Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, the book that grew out of this anonymous blog dedicated to the hard-working, sometimes back-stabbing servers at an unnamed bistro in New York. The author, Steve Dublanica, has since outed himself in a New York Post interview, and New York magazine has since revealed that the anonymous restaurant is actually Lanterna Tuscan Bistro in Nyack, NY.
Among those who understand writing, the book generally gets lumped into the “creative nonfiction” category, but after reading Waiter Rant, cover to cover, I never once came across a passage that acknowledged Dublanica was making up scenes to underscore a point. And yet, time and again, I came across scenes that sent my bullshit detector into the red zone. Like this one:
“I’d like the steak,” the balsamic connoisseur says, “but I’m worried about mad cow disease.”
“Our steaks are excellent,” I reply. “But if you’re really worried, I’d suggest you eat something else.”
“But I’m in the mood for a steak,” the man says, smiling slyly at his companions. This guy’s putting me on for his amusement. Okay, pal, let’s play.
“The steak’s very good here, sir,” I say.
“But how can you guarantee there’ll be no mad cow disease in my steak?”
“No one can guarantee anything one hundred percent, sir.”
“So it could have mad cow?”
“That’s a very remote possibility.”
“You sound so sure,” the man says, smirking. “How can you be so sure?”
“I can explain it. I’m just not sure if you’d want me to.”
The man stares at me. “By all means,” he says. “Go ahead.”
Okay. You asked for it.
“Well,” I say, assuming a professional air, “mad cow disease affects the spinal cord and neurological tissue of cows. When they butcher a cow in Europe, they sometimes process the whole carcass. When they remove the cow’s brain, the nearby meat can get contaminated with the organisms that cause mad cow disease. Sometimes it’s transferred from the brain into the meat by using contaminated knives.”
My customer turns a lovely shade of green.
“In the United States,” I rattle on, “we don’t have that problem because we usually lop off the cow’s head almost as soon as we kill it.”
“Oh,” the man says.
“So the odds that brain and spinal matter will get into your steak are small. And quality control would probably present a sick cow from being processed into food anyway.”
“You didn’t need to tell me all that,” the man says.
“I warned you.”
The newly minted vegetarian glares at me. “There was no need to get graphic.”
“It’s a graphic thing.”
“I’ll have the fettuccine Alfredo, Mr. Wizard,” the customer says.
“Very good, sir,” I say, keeping the grin off my face.
I’m sorry, but I’m not buying this. It sounds fabricated after the fact, with a generous assist from Google. What do you think? Truth, fabrication, or something in between? And do you care if it’s not verbatim? Does it affect your enjoyment to think that it’s just creative writing masquerading as nonfiction?
Personally, I think the scene reads as a fantasy wish-fulfillment—-the kind of story you used to tell your friends at the bar, four beers in, to make yourself sound brilliant and witty and urbane. There’s nothing wrong with that—until you start to sell it to the public as truth.