If you were to ask me to sum up what it was like to work on Bourbon Street in 1975, I would think back to a batch of silverware and how a decision I made concerning that silverware might have saved my life.
In fall that year, I was working in New Orleans as a busboy at Houlihan’s Restaurant while waiting with the impatience of youth for my ship to come in. For a kid not many years removed from his childhood in Lubbock, the chance to work on Bourbon Street was heady stuff, even if my ticket came as a lowly busboy.
But I proved myself to be no ordinary busboy. Within a matter of weeks, my boss informed me that I was now the “head busboy.” This meant that I was still a busboy in name and deed but would now be able to work “oyster hour” as a waiter and keep my tips. There was one other thing: As head busboy, I had the responsibility of settling disputes between the other busboys.
In other words, I wasn’t being promoted. I was simply being told to take control of a workplace issue the boss couldn’t handle. An intense and often highly vocal animosity had developed between two of our busboys. They probably should have been fired because their flare-ups had disrupted the restaurant’s dining tranquility more than a few times. But I don’t think my boss had the stomach for that, either.
My suggestion was to let the two antagonists work it out between themselves and let busboys be busboys, but the boss didn’t ask for my opinion and paid no attention to it. “You Texans think you’re so macho. You’re not afraid of them, are you?”
I said that Texans are smart, too, and, yes, I was a little leery of mixing it up with those guys. He appointed me anyway.
That meant it was up to me to intervene when, not many nights later, a loud and profane argument between the two busboys erupted. We will call them Charles and Donald and hope those weren’t their real names. The object of their dispute on this night was a tub of clean silverware. Each busboy had servers waiting for that silverware. Because the waiters and waitresses tipped the busboys based on their own tips, both Charles and Donald were in a hurry to get more tables set up for the waitresses in their respective stations. That tub of silverware was worth at least a dollar to either one of those guys.
It took me a minute to make my way to the scene of the disturbance, burdened as I was by a tray of dirty dishes I was lugging back to the kitchen. On the way, we all learned what Charles and Donald thought of each other’s mothers and which body part would soon be missing from one or the other.
My boss was glaring at me. Fix this! You’re the head busboy!
I arrived to find Charles and Donald engaged in a tug of war for the silverware. I said something brilliant like, “Hey, guys. Cool it.”
Charles and Donald each turned their attention to me. Who was I, they wanted to know, to be telling them what to do?
“I’m the head busboy!”
Neither was suitably impressed by my new title, but by then another tub of clean silverware was coming down the line, so I made a decision. “Charles, you take that silverware. Donald, you get the one that’s coming down now.”
This made Charles very happy, but it made Donald so upset that he began to insult my family, whom he didn’t even know. In the end, everybody except me had a tub of fresh silverware, and I had shown myself to be a capable and decisive head busboy.
I might not have remembered the incident or my bold decision concerning the silverware if not for another incident a few nights later. As I walked home to my place on Magazine Street, flush with a night’s worth of tips after working the late shift, I heard the sound of footsteps, many footsteps, behind me. I walked faster. The footsteps moved faster. I slowed down, and so did the footsteps.
Finally, realizing I wasn’t going to make it home without some kind of confrontation, I turned around to see what I viewed as a street gang. At this point in my young and naïve life, I might have thought a street gang was simply a literary device. But this one was real.
The gang leader stepped forward and peered at me as I stood, trembling I’m sure, in the glare of a streetlight. He looked familiar, and then he called me by my name. “Biscuit Nose!” (Why he called me Biscuit Nose is a whole ’nother story.)
Charles informed his troops that not only was I was all right, that I also could walk the turf; I was cool. On my way home, I thought some heavy thoughts centering on what might have become of me had I given that silverware to Donald instead of Charles.
Was my decision guided by God? A guardian angel? Was it just a happy coincidence? Beats me. But Charles and his gang didn’t, and I like stories with happy endings.
Happily, my career as a busboy ran its course. And after a few twists and turns in the long and winding road to my dreams, I came home to Texas.
Clay Coppedge, a member of Bartlett EC, lives near Walburg.