Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sunday Night at the Red Lobster

One of the best novels I've ever read about "real" working people, in a "real" no-collar job, was Stewart O'Nan's Last Night at the Lobster. If you haven't read O'Nan - my idea of THE Great American Novelist of our era - and you admire excellence in fiction, you can't go wrong picking up anything (make that everything) he's ever written. (Don't forget his non-fiction, either. He wrote a terrific book about the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire. And he co-authored (with Stephen King) a book about the magical Red Sox season of ought-four.)

What O'Nan captured so brilliantly was not just the bleak and depressing elements of working at a Red Lobster - any Red Lobster, let alone one that's about to go out of business. (On top of everything else, on that last night, there's a blizzard. And, oh, yeah, I may not have this right, but I think it's just before Christmas, too.) What he also gets spot on is the humor, the sexiness, the fun of working in a place like that. Plus the dignity that a good and hard working person like manager Manny DeLeon can bring to a job that so many of us would consider a "death trap...a suicide rap."*

I especially like Lobster because I could identify with it. Before I launched my brilliant professional career, I was a waitress. No, it was never going to be my life's pursuit - that I still haven't figured out yet - but I did spend three summers during college, and a year+ after that waiting tables. Two of those summers were at Big Boy's, a low-end chain. Kind of like a Red Lobster, only without the booze. 

In actuality, I've never eaten in one. But based on my time at Big Boy's, and the other joints I worked, I know the look, the feel, the smell. I know that it can be fun to flirt with the cooks and kid around with the busboys. To get the bartender to make you a Kahlua Sour. (That was at Dugin Park and the Union Oyster House. No alcohol at Big Boy's!) To bitch about the customers. To enjoy yacking with the customers. To sneak a bite or two off of a plate that's just sitting there under the heat lamp waiting to be picked up. To count the tips at the end of the night. To go home bone tired, with barely enough energy to wash out your stinking uniform so you can get up the next day and do it all over again.

So I'm sympathetic to folks who work at the Lobster, or any other restaurant, especially the chains. It's hard, unglamorous work. But someone's got to do it so that the rest of us can go out to eat. And I thank you.

Anyway, last Saturday must have been an exhilerating one for Red Lobster workers. Because that was the day Beyoncé, on the eve of her super-star turn at the Super Bowl halftime show, released a new song in which she talks about taking her boo to eat at a Red Lobster.

As a result of that big ol' shout out from Bey,
Red Lobster Chief Executive Officer Kim Lopdrup said sales jumped 33 percent on Sunday and increased "well into the double digits" on Monday after pop star Beyoncé mentioned the seafood chain in her new song, "Formation."
The song, which was released over the weekend, sent customers streaming into Red Lobster on Super Bowl Sunday, which is typically a slow day for the company, Lopdrup said in an interview. He declined to give a specific figure for the double-digit increase on Monday, which compares with the year-earlier day.(Source: Bloomberg)
This could be a big deal for the chain, which has not been faring all that well, and is plagued with the patronage of an undesirable, aging demographic. 

I'm fortunate that, when I want a red lobster, or any other seafood, I don't have to go to a Red Lobster. I live in New England where you just have to reach your arm into the Atlantic and pull one out. Well, not quite. But lobster is pretty easy to come by, in either of my preferred manifestations: boiled with drawn butter or in a lobster salad sandwich. 

But I hope that the turn in fortune for Red Lobster continues, and that Beyoncé's mention boosts their business for a good long while. Not to make the owners - a private equity firm - richer. But to put a few more bucks in the pockets of the waiters and bartenders. To put a smile on the face of all the Manny DeLeons - the hero of Last Night at the Lobster - and to keep a few more of them from having to go through the pain and sorrow of a last night.

*And, yes, I'm quoting poet-rock-eate Bruce Springsteen here. I saw The River Concert at The Gah-den last week. Springsteen is the singer-songwriter equivalent of Stewart O'Nan, other than the fact I suspect that more people have heard of (and heard) Bruce Springsteen than have heard of (and read) Stewart O'Nan. 


Ellen said...

I loved this book too. So real.

Frederick Wright said...

I've got to get my hands on that book, it sounds terrific! I've long been a big fan of our own Patrick Maguire's service industry blog: "I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant", partially because it describes a world only one side of which I've ever seen, but also because he manages to be passionate without being strident.

And in all honesty, despite my foodie pretensions, I really do love Red Lobster and always have. Less than thrilled with how they treat their employees, and how vigorously the fight against any increase in the tipped min wage, but that criticism can be leveled against any and all restaurant chains.

Rick T. said...

Perfect time for my "Last Night at the Lobster" story. I read it and loved it, and picked it for my turn to host my book club. Since it is very short, not much more than a novella, by the unwritten rules of the club I was allowed to add a second item, provided it was also very short. I picked what is viewed by many as the greatest short story ever written, at least in English, "The Dead" by James Joyce. I wasn't entirely sure how they connected with each other, but I felt they did.

A week before the book club meeting, my wife and I were eating at a now deservedly defunct pizza joint in Brookline. There was a long table set up next to us, and a group of mostly student age people came in, and the last one in was a middle aged guy with a Pittsburgh sports team (forget which) baseball cap on, who sat at the end next to me. Kathleen (sister to Pink Slip blogger) whispered over the table to me that I was sitting next to Stewart O'Nan. She recognized him from his picture on the dust jacket, in which he may have been wearing the same cap. I normally ignore celebrities in public, but we were about to leave, so after checking whether he really was O'Nan, I told him about my combining his book with "The Dead".

He said something like "Yes, yes, yes. Perfect combo. The snow, the lost love. That is exactly right."

With so many better read people in the family, I have always felt inferior in my literary knowledge, so this was one of my proudest moments ever.

BTW, if one wants to read a short essay on "The Dead" to see why it is such an amazing story, I recommend this from the brilliant Sheila O'Malley:

Maureen Rogers said...

Special O'Nan recommendations:

"Wish You Were Here" (written the same year all the literary praise was - quite ridiculously, IMHO - being heaped on Jonathan Franzen for The Corrections") and "Emily Alone". Lovely works, with the same main character, an elderly woman. O'Nan also has a new book coming out in April. Can't wait.

In the meantime, I've just pulled "Dubliners" off the shelf, and will be rereading "The Dead."