Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Announcing the Barbara Bush Humanitarian of the Week award

Atrios has his "wanker of the day," Andrew Sullivan has a variety of awards named after people - why shouldn't Rogue Planet have its own little award?

The very first Barbara Bush Humanitarian of the Week award goes to Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of a Manhattan restaurant called Prune. This is the article that earned Ms. Hamilton the award.

I hardly ever read the New York Times Sunday magazine, so it's a happy coincidence for award-winner Hamilton that I happened to have a copy of this past weekend's edition. Ms. Hamilton wrote an article called "Line of Sight," about her seeking to hire a line cook for her restaurant a couple of years ago. I had just finished reading the New Yorker's food issue (yeah, I'm a couple of weeks behind on my New Yorker reading) and had been fascinated by an article about short order egg cooks in Las Vegas, so I happily started to read Ms. Hamilton's article about her search for a line cook.

Hamilton placed an ad, received a promising resume, called the guy who sent it, and liked him. So she set up an interview.

Then this brought me up short:

The first thing I noticed when he arrived was that he was blind. His eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby.

That second line is remarkably mean, but what really struck me about it was its sheer awfulness and weirdness. It would be great in a parody of a pulp fiction short story, but was wildly out of place in this context. And what dreadful writing. I think what makes the badness of it "pop," as they say in the food world, are the two adjectives: "tropical" and "cheap." Tropical fish, mind you - not freshwater ones. That must be an important detail. And "cheap." The man's eyes didn't wander like fish in an aquarium in the Plaza, they wandered like fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby. I wondered why Hamilton specified "cheap." And "hotel lobby," for that matter. Why not an aquarium in a pet shop window? I've never seen an aquarium in a hotel lobby. Maybe it's a New York thing. Or, specifically, a cheap-New-York-hotel thing. Or maybe, many New York hotel lobbies feature aquariums but the fish in the cheap hotel lobbies wander in a different way than the ones in upscale hotels and Hamilton is acquainted with these different wandering patterns. And the man's eyes wandered like the cheap hotel lobby fish, not the upscale hotel lobby ones.

Or maybe Hamilton just threw the "cheap" in there because she thought it looked good.

I actually paused in my reading and dwelled for a few moments on that horrible sentence. Then I shook it off and moved on.

That was the only truly Leonard Pinthgarnel-worthy sentence in that article, but it didn't get better. In fact, but it got worse in other ways. During the interview with this poor guy, Hamilton observes that he's extremely nearsighted, though she doesn't use the word "nearsighted" - perhaps it's too prosaic for her. She gives him a menu from her restaurant and

He held it up to his face as if to breathe in its written contents, to discover by inhaling what it said in plain print.

Of course you and I know he was just holding up to his face so he could see the writing on it, but Hamilton's apparently never been around anyone with vision problems before.

Despite his apparent visual impairment, the prospective line cook does have restaurant experience and he knows restaurant lingo. Hamilton has serious misgivings about his ability to cope in a busy kitchen full of sharp knives, vats of scalding grease, and so forth, but for some reason, she decides to give him a trial run at her restaurant. She's not clear on why she decides to do this, although she talks cutely about how "I thought I was making some despicable assumptions about the 'sight impaired' and needed to get my politics up to date."

So the next day, the poor guy shows up for his trial run, called a "trail" in the restaurant trade for reasons Hamilton doesn't bother to explain. It's a disaster, according to her. In all the ways you would expect (I would have said "foreseen," but the article is strewn with godawful sight puns and cracks about the man's visual impairment). The guy seasons the counter instead of the meat and empties a basket of hot fries onto the floor. So Hamilton pulls him off the line.

I asked him, kindly, to step back to the wall and just watch a bit, explaining that the pace was about to pick up and I wanted to keep the line moving. This is - even when you have all your wits - the most humiliating part of a trail: when the chef takes you off of the line in the middle of your task.

"Even when you have all your wits?" The guy's visually impaired, not mentally impaired. Of course, I shudder to imagine the cruel article Ms. Hamilton would write if someone with Down Syndrome ever applied for a dishwashing job at her place.

Hamilton goes on:

To this point, I had somehow been willing to participate in whatever strange exercise this guy was putting himself through.

"Willing to participate?" That seems to be understating her role, given that she offered him the trial run, knowing he could barely see.

I was suspending disbelief, as we are all asked to do every time we go to a play or a movie. I know that this isn't real, but I agree to believe that it is for these two hours without intermission.

Thanks for explaining the concept of suspension of disbelief to us. However, it doesn't seem exactly apropos here. How about, "I have serious reservations about your ability to function in my busy restaurant kitchen but I can't be bothered to check your references, so why don't I invite you to cook for me anyway and then pretend that I'm just a passive observer in what can only be your conceptual art project."

Having pulled him off the line, Hamilton proceeds to vent her hostility on her prospective employee:

But something about the realization of the danger he was flirting with in service of his project, whatever his project was, suddenly made me furious. I took over the station and started slamming food onto the plates, narrating my actions to him in barely suppressed snide tones. "This," I practically hissed, "is the pickup on the prawns. Three in a stack, napped with anchovy butter. Wanna write that down?"

I exhausted myself with passive-aggressive vitriol. "On the rack of lamb, you want an internal temp of 125. Just read the thermometer, O.K?"

What a king-hell bee-yotch! I thought, reading this. Finally, Hamilton's sous chef, perhaps accustomed to her bizarre acting-out, takes pity on the guy and removes him to the "cold station," away from her "passive-aggressive vitriol."


The guy spent the rest of his trail with his back up against the wall in all the stations, eyes rolling around in his head, pretending to apprehend how each station worked. I spent the remainder of his trail wrestling meat and unattractive feelings triggered by this insane predicament in which we had found ourselves.

"Eyes rolling around in his head." Nice touch. Literary license is one thing, but Hamilton's talking about a real person, someone who never did a god-damned thing to her. At this point in my reading, I'm starting to think that Hamilton is some kind of clinical sociopath. The "predicament in which we had found ourselves" is telling; Hamilton never acknowledges how her own acts and omissions contributed to this unfortunate predicament.

The next day, Hamilton calls the guy and tells him she was "looking for someone with a little more power, a bit more of a heavy hitter," but she would keep him mind if "a position more aligned with his skills became available."

Final sentence:

This, remarkably, he seemed to see coming.

Just like we saw that final sight pun coming.

Overall a truly nasty piece of work. Outstanding. I'd encourage my readers in the NYC area to go by Ms. Hamilton's restaurant, Prune, and pelt the exterior with eggs, but it's probably illegal to solicit the egging of real property in Manhattan. So I won't encourage that. Instead, just go by there and congratulate Ms. Hamilton on being the first Barbara Bush Humanitarian of the Week.

Update: More from the blog at the American Foundation for the Blind (thanks to Adrianna in comments); and also here.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?