I Sat on a Wet Toilet Seat and Caught Poetry at Peter McManus Cafe

It’s generally not the big things that get you, but the petty slights, tiny indignities, and minor crap that will eventually grind you to a halt.

Maybe it was the rain, or the monotony of a Monday, or just settling in for what was sure to be a long, slow waitressing shift, but for whatever reason, the blues had ahold of me but good, and sitting on a wet toilet seat was the absolute last straw. It broke me and I just sat there and bawled. I couldn’t even blame Marge, whose pee I was sitting in. I wasn’t sure what her deal was, but every day before we opened, Marge would slip in the side door to use the can. I suspected she lived in the subway, but still and all — was weirdly fastidious and didn’t sit on a toilet seat for fear of catching something. (We all have our quirks.) It wasn’t in the job description or anything, but just as filling the ketchups was one of my opening tasks at McManus, so too was wiping up after Marge. (It’s not all glamour, folks.) But that rainy Monday, sunk in my misery, I nodded hello to Marge, carried on with the ketchups and completely forgot. Until I was sitting in her pee, ruminating on my poor life choices.

I wasn’t supposed to still be a waitress, but my money making schemes were starting to fizzle. It turns out that no one really wanted to wear “Before and After the Weight Loss” laminated earrings. “A Touch of Gas,” my designer whoopee cushion business was deflating — even sales of my bestsellers, The Winds of War, Gone With The Wind, This Too Shall Pass, and The Summer Wind were dwindling—and I was starting to get an inkling that my long term life plan of becoming a star might not actually work out either. Struggling for perspective as I stood up and scrubbed my butt with wet paper towels and soap, I reflected that clearly Marge’s life plan hadn’t worked out, either. The cook rang the bell signaling a customer, so I took a deep breath, hastily pulled myself together, put on some lipstick and returned to the dining room.

He was in his mid-thirties, sitting in one of the green corner booths, glancing down at his watch and looking around expectantly. (He probably worked in finance; he wore a nice suit and had that air of impatience and entitlement that servers in New York City are all too familiar with.) Terrific. I grabbed a menu and setup and headed over, forcing a smile. “Hello! How are you? Sorry about the wait,” I said, putting the placemat down on the table in front of him, along with silverware and a napkin. I took a deep breath, “We have a few specials today…” My voice sounded weirdly high-pitched. “Corned beef and cabbage,” I began, and suddenly a tear slid down my cheek and I frantically realized I hadn’t quite pulled myself completely together after all. “Excuse me,” I coughed, turning away and trying to cover. I turned back just as another tear made its way down my horrified face. I carried on “Um…and we have Fish & Chips,” I stammered, “and the soup is…is…” — I gulped — “Cream of Broccoli.” (Good Lord, what was WRONG with me, I needed to get a grip!) “And ah… um, Chicken Parmesan with fries or tots — your choice,” I choked out around the lump in my throat, “…and Fresh Ham Plate with green beans and mash!“ I barked out defiantly, staring at him as tears streamed down my face. (I’d left out the knockwurst, but it was not so special anyway, and this nightmare had to end.)

“Is the food that bad?” he joked, worriedly watching my contorting face. “No, not at all —it’s really good! I’m sorry!” I said, laughing, and furiously wiping away the tears. “It’s just, I just…” I glanced at the bathroom door, but decided against full disclosure. “I just…I’m just feeling low, kind of in the depths of despair, today.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said kindly, handing me back the menu. I noticed then that he had really nice eyes, and my snap impression of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street started to fade. “I’ll have the fish.”

After the lunch rush, I brought him his check and apologized again. When I came back to bus the table, he was gone. As I cleared the dishes and pocketed the tip, I noticed writing on the placemat:

Do Not Despair, or question your own strength

Know you are strong and beautiful and deserve to love and be loved in return.

I can see so much in your face it scares me -

Passion, grief, rage, kindness — despair is just one more feeling,

Revel in it, but not so it cuts off all your other capacities

And your body so tall and powerful — the sex — your stride like a Warrior Queen’s

You are not meant to serve, so consider a career change — one that puts you

more in charge. I’d better stop.

Be Beautiful.

I turned the placemat over, but that was it. No phone number, no name, he wasn’t hitting on me — he just wrote me a love poem on a placemat and left. I never saw him again.

That summer, I started shaking down everyone who came into the bar for a poem, and oddly enough, it didn’t take much coaxing. The cops, firemen, and phone company workers, the salespeople from Barney’s, and Con Ed technicians — they all seemed to have something to say, and nowhere to put it, and so an anonymous placemat worked just fine. The carpenters and ironworkers were tougher nuts to crack, but the promise of a free draft beer usually unleashed their creativity. Here are just a few.

Joe, machinist:

Beer is my love

Beer is my life

Beer is the reason

I don’t have a wife.

Drew, English tourist:

New York City,

A manic mixture of dirty and pretty

The weather is hot in this melting pot,

Central Park is a Lark, but not after dark!

In the gloom of my budget room,

Where the TV and air conditioning don’t work –

I plan my move on where next to groove

In this beautiful, horrible manic city.

Paul, Cop:

Eileen my Darling

Eileen my duck

Come to my garden

And I’ll give you a flower.

Eric, weird guy

I am but a meaningless mite, marooned on a weed,

Fettered to nothingness. An aphid approaches –

(Nay I am not even hungry)

Yet hunger suffuses me.

3 billion years of greasy evolution — obtunded by your shadow.

Brian, actor

In many taverns have I been

And sometimes met a lover

But now with Herpes, AIDS and Sin

Celibacy, I discover.

Roberta, retired

I know a wonderful guy and Anthony is his name

And since I’ve met him, I’ve never been the same.

Our life together has been a wonderful ride…

And as everyone knows, he’s never left my side.

We have gone on trips too many to list

And for 20 years it’s been complete bliss

From Puerto Rico to Spain,

We have never cancelled because of rain…

If I could live my life over, I never would, you see

Because he is good to all his children, and he is great to me.

To sum it all up, I’ll say it once and for all –

I’m the luckiest girl and my life has been one big happy ball!

Gary, Filmmaker/Writer

“Kill the Bastard,” Mother said,

“Break his fingers,

Crush his head

Torture him ’til he is dead

“Because I love him,” Mother said.

Meg, Student

(For Dad)

You hit me a little too hard when I took Joseph to the park

I cried a little too hard when you chipped my tooth with a tetherball

And sometimes you told me you loved me too often when you were drunk

And now I wish I told you I love you more often when I’m drunk.

New York City, 1992 was the summer of Love Poems on Placemats, or as I will always remember it — Rhapsody in Brew.



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