Silhouettes From the Dining Experience of Yore

“Are you sure this isn’t, like, too weird? I know it’s ‘normal’ weird for the times, but is it maybe too weird when people just want to feel like everything is the same as before?” This was the question asked by Winston, one of only two waiters with a shift that Saturday evening, what had once historically been the busiest night of any restaurant’s week.

Gianpietro, who had only recently leased the space on Montgomery Street in North Beach, was not sure. Of anything. But he definitely knew what was weirder than dining amid a sea of mannequins strategically placed at each table was to dine alone in complete emptiness. After all, these were not royals or celebrities looking for privacy, these were common people who wanted the small thrill of going out, of being among others. Even if those others were not exactly, well, real. The idea had struck Gianpietro as he was walking near South of Market and had seen a horde of denuded mannequins in the window, looking as though they were crying out to him to aid them in achieving a more dignified existence. What could be more dignified for a mannequin than serving as a table prop? As the manifested phantom limb of fellow diners around the scant few real ones adhering to a new era of restaurant dining in the Age of Social Distancing. 

As much as Gianpietro despised the idea of capitulating to the governor’s orders about limiting the number of customers into a space based on its size, he knew that the alternative, yet another outbreak, was worse, for it would send them all back inside again, close his restaurant, called La Farfalla, down once more–and then he would most assuredly have to declare bankruptcy after defecting on his business loan payments. He was starting to wonder why he had been one of the only Italians after the second major diaspora to bother with coming to the United States. Of course, he knew the answer had been because the thought of staying in his small town of Cannavina in Calabria was far more unbearable. Sure, it was close enough to the beach and a hotel he could get a job at, but there was nothing aspirational in that. In the end, that was the inexplicable pull America still held for people: the false notion that elevating one’s “station” was possible. Clearly, however, that was not really the case. And the situation with this plague had forced everyone to realize it. 

Shaken from his reverie by the sound of Winston knocking the arms off one of the lady mannequins as he tried to arrange her as “naturally” as possible, Gianpietro waved his employee away. “Just let me do it. Why don’t you…” Gianpietro couldn’t think of anything to say after because there was literally nothing else for Winston to do to occupy his time until their 8 p.m. reservation showed up. It was sobering to fathom just how “non-essential” his workers were. That he could pretty much operate this business himself were it not for the need to make a show of normalcy with a young, attractive waiter who looked like he was just trying to support himself through college, though Gianpietro knew full well that Winston had dropped out of high school in San Luis Obispo to move to San Francisco and become a writer in the spirit of Jack Kerouac. In this way, he sometimes cursed the fact that Vesuvio Cafe and City Lights Bookstore were still open to encourage this naive dream. Rather wished that all of these aspirants would be murdered in Jack Kerouac Alley (though that would entail the city being as ratchet as it was in Kerouac’s time).

He shook these negative feelings from his head, for Winston’s desires and dreams were really no different in their artlessness than his own. Both of them were essentially hoping for a miracle by going through the motions of being in a specific geographical location. But now that geography no longer really mattered, as every city and town on earth had been pretty much rendered into total shit, how could any of them go on pretending that “having a dream” (usually so specific to location) was of any consequence?

“Sir?” Winston prompted, as Gianpietro remembered he had wandered off into a daze in his attempt to think of something for Winston to do. 

“Just take a break, okay? Grab a coffee somewhere… on me,” he stupidly added. But he had to get rid of Winston, no matter the cost (and goddamn was coffee expensive in San Francisco). His presence was stressing him out. Becoming ironically more of a hindrance than a help. He needed to think, to process–and, most paramountly, arrange these goddamn mannequins in a way that was more comforting than creepy to his impending patrons. Who would include, first up, the likes of a Mr. and Mrs. Fontana. 

As his expectations confirmed, they were a middle-aged couple, likely who lived in Russian Hill and just wanted a night out of the house without relying on Mrs. Fontana’s cooking. They strolled in with their surgical masks on, initially jarred by the presence of what they at first thought were real people populating the close together tables. When Winston’s co-worker on hand, Dylan, explained that the “patrons” were merely mannequins designed to re-create the effect of the Dining Experience of Yore, they tittered awkwardly. Gianpietro watched the entire scene unfold with nerve-racked embarrassment. Maybe he had been a fool to bother trying with this “ambience.” Yet something in him knew it just had to be better than sitting alone in an empty room with your significant other. The whole point of going out was to be among people, even if they were phantoms. And the more the evening wore on, the more his scant few patrons, shuffled in each new hour and after a ten minute grace period for cleaning and sanitizing, seemed to get on board with his logic. Some of the younger patrons, always in search of “novelty appeal” for their social media, went so far as to take selfies at the various tables with the different “fellow diners.” 

Although Gianpietro had believed his idea might initially spell disaster, it didn’t take long for the precedent he had established to become a trend. In the weeks that followed, the shortage of mannequins became as pervasive as the one for personal protective equipment at the outset of the pandemic. With the demand high, Gianpietro couldn’t have anticipated that there would be a break-in at the restaurant, at which time, tellingly, only his mannequins were stolen. Bereft of his props–his emblems of honoring the past, and the way it used to be when one went out–Gianpietro felt as exposed as the mannequins were when he first saw them in the window, as they surely were now, for the thieves must have the good sense to at least change their clothes so as to throw the police off the scent. The police who laughed in his face when he tried to report the “crime.”

“Listen pal, I’m real sorry your ‘ambience’ has been compromised, but we here at the SFPD got bigger freakshows to fry.” 

Finding the situation hopeless–the wait for a new shipment of mannequins from China would be up to three months–Gianpietro took a different tack. He was going to start letting more real people dine with one another. Separating each table as far as it could get from the next, Gianpietro called in more of his former staff to test out the experiment in “old school” dining. Falsely assuming that this would give him a new leg-up on other restaurants who still weren’t bold enough to try out the analog dining simulation, Gianpietro grew weary to learn that rather than being a selling point, people were actually offput by the presence of others. Had grown used to the blissful silence and non-contamination of the inanimate figures that were merely “suggestions” of humans, without any of the annoying attributes that came with the real variety. 

Seeing that he had effectively brought about his own demise–had eradicated the entire reason he set out to open a restaurant: bringing people together–Gianpietro decided to throw in the towel. To abandon his former dreams of American life and return to Calabria where, no matter how much time passed, or how extinct his own kind became in the face of ignoring social distancing mandates, the tradition of dining insieme, in massa could not be annihilated. 

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