Illinois College gave me a fine education but as I grow older I keep discovering things the hilltop curriculum left out. When you play piano on a riverboat you find yourself working a series of odd jobs. Very few positions are specifically assigned and it’s a comfortable arrangement. If the cooks need help serving pie you jump right in, and if there’s a passenger at the bar needing a drink then it may be the guitar player or the storyteller who runs over and mixes the cocktail. As a result I’ve had to pick up a number of life skills that were previously foreign to me.
I’m still the most inept bartender on the boat since I don’t know a Tom Collins from a Jim Beam, and this has made me everyone’s favorite drink mixer. I simply hold the booze over the glass and say, “Tell me when to stop.” I doubt that the boat owner would be pleased to learn of my free-flowing method, but he can easily solve that by working the bar himself.
Most of my spare time is spent seeing to the various needs of our guests, and this is truly the best part of the job. Folks climb aboard The Spirit of Peoria in a good mood. After all, they’re on vacation, not stopping by for a root canal. As a result, most of our ship’s passengers are truly grateful for any little courtesy shown them and I’m happy to make them happy.
When we have an especially large crowd onboard our dining room on the first deck can’t quite accommodate all the eaters so folks take their prime rib and brisket out into other parts of the boat. Since our hired wait staff has its hands full handling their own dining room the entertainment crew jumps in to bus tables on the other two decks. I’ve always admired waiters who can stack ten plates on one palm then trip off happily to the kitchen. So far I only have the tripping part down. The boat uses heavy chinaware and cutlery, and a half-eaten baked potato can ruin the symmetry required to stack a pile of plates in my left hand. Salad dressing provides an especially slick surface for platter stacking and I find myself yearning for someone to leave a pile of mashed potatoes onto which I can squish three more plates.
But the real problem with my bussing tables has nothing to do with plate stacking; it’s trying to convince the guests that the guy who’s been entertaining them all morning will now pick up their plates. Some folks simply will not hear of such a thing. I explain to them that I’m not Billy Joel, I’m just a guy from Arenzville and that since I come from the home of Burgoo it’s no demeaning feat to carry a plate to the kitchen. Older ladies are especially hesitant to let anyone bus their table. Even though they’ve paid for the trip they insist on cleaning up their own area and in some cases there’s simply no stopping them. When they lay down the law and inform me that they have always cleaned up their own mess and don’t plan to stop now, I offer them a rag and tell them that there is a row of tables behind them that have yet to be cleaned. I’m joking, but some actually want to take up my offer. God love the grandmothers of the world.
On the first day of the cruise we offer complimentary wine and cheese mid-afternoon and my idiocy reaches its climax when it comes to knowing anything about wine. My two fellow entertainers usually (and wisely) jump in when it comes time to advise guests about the various attributes of the Bordeaux and the Burgundy. I should add in my defense that when it comes to pouring a Sprite, however, I’m a real whiz, and I’ll challenge any bartender in Vegas in a contest of drawing the best Mountain Dew.
But I’ve always lived with the motto that there’s something to be learned in even the most ridiculous situations. For example I now know that “D. Pep” on the drink nozzle means Dr. Pepper and not Diet Pepsi, that Germans tend to take their soda without ice, Italian dressing runs right down your arm when you pick up a load of plates, when the elderly little lady from Chicago says she only wants three ice cubes in her orange juice she means it and she’ll count them, when the Bud Light on tap is almost empty it can let out a dying blast that can travel over twenty feet in the air and land unceremoniously on the back of the neck of a very nice couple from Canada, and that when a guest asks for a glass of water and you mistakenly push the button marked “soda water,” you’ll be treated to a customer’s face that would be welcome at any Halloween party.
I’ll be sending this new curriculum to Illinois College this winter.