Some things don’t change. In 2005, I wrote a feature story for the City Paper about the food and beverage industry in Charleston, its raucous and rowdy after-hours night life and its abuses and excesses and occasional tragedies.
Like Paul Bowers’ excellent story on the subject, which ran in the April 11 issue of City Paper, my story (“Night Shift,” July 25, 2005) opened with a traffic fatality. A 22-year-old woman was killed when an off-duty cook who had been drinking after work ran a red light and slammed into her car at the intersection of Vanderhorst and Coming streets.
I quoted Anthony Bourdain’s modern classic, Kitchen Confidential, in which he described the restaurant people he worked with as “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths.”
I brought some personal knowledge to the subject. I had spent a decade in the F&B industry during the 1970s and ’80s, and for all the wrong reasons. It was a way to avoid adult responsibilities like getting married and buying real estate — responsibilities I’ve still avoided to this day. But then it was more than avoidance. It was a moral mission. You see, I was a great American writer, and when I wasn’t getting drunk and making a fool of myself after hours with my F&B colleagues, I was writing the great American novel. I wrote a couple of them, as a matter of fact. It’s a shame nobody wanted to publish them.
But that didn’t stop me from having a good time, and there were many good times to be had back in the day. In the early ’70s, cocaine was just beginning to creep into the restaurant biz in a big way. By the time I left in the early ’80s to go into the world of journalism, coke was everywhere. It was as much a part of the upscale restaurant scene as Hobart mixers and Bunn coffeemakers.
At one point I found myself waiting tables in a nice little Italian seafood restaurant in the New Orleans French Quarter. It was owned by a couple of dumbass brothers who did not seem to know anything or care about food. They were far more interested in entertaining their paisanos at a table in the back corner where they drank vast amounts of complimentary wine and appeared to be working on their Vito Corleone impersonations.
It did not take long to figure out that the place was a front for drug distribution and god knows what else. I left as soon as I could find another gig. I enjoyed recreational drugs and I loved seafood, but I wasn’t about to sleep with the fishes.
Between 1999 and 2002, I lived in Myrtle Beach, taking notes for a book, Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach. I dedicated a chapter to the F&B life: “Drugs were epidemic in bars and clubs along the Grand Strand. Marijuana and cocaine reached the Strand from South Florida; LSD and designer drugs — Ecstasy and GBH — from the Northeast … For many male bartenders, club managers, and bouncers, drugs were as much a part of their lifestyle as their gold chains and Ford Explorers … they were often a year or two shy of a degree in business administration or accounting … They would go back to school next year, they said, or get a real estate license and make a killing in condominiums. Of course, that requires getting out of bed in the morning and having a plan — and most of them just weren’t there yet.”
I am not as close to the F&B scene as I was. From what I see and hear from my lonely writer’s garret, it seems to have rehabilitated itself somewhat since its more decadent years. There are good reasons why it should, not the least of which are the public relations and legal liabilities the F&B industry exposes itself to when out-of-control employees are unleashed on an unsuspecting public every night.
Still, the temptation is there, and I understand it perfectly. The relatively easy money in waiting tables and tending bar is hard to beat. So is the freedom of having the town to yourself after hours and being able to sleep the morning away while everyone around you is slapping the alarm clock, crawling out of bed and contemplating the bumper-to-bumper commute.
Something else that is still there is the sense of denial. When I wrote my story seven years ago, I got a blast of angry letters to the editor from the F&B crowd, essentially accusing me of fabricating the whole thing. When Paul Bowers’ story ran two weeks ago, he got his own angry blast.
Like I said, some things don’t change.