Monday, October 27, 2008

Call Me Waiter. Joseph Torra.

( Joe Torra--Right)

Call Me Waiter. Joseph Torra. (Pressed Wafer 9 Columbus Sq. Boston, MA $10)

Joe Torra, poet, writer, and publisher, has lived down the block from me in Somerville, Mass. for many years. For the longest time I have heard about his literary accomplishments, be it his critically-acclaimed novel “Gas Station,” his literary journal “lift,” his numerous poetry collections, etc… When I asked him what he was doing for a living he always told me that he was a waiter. Recently though Torra, a man in his 50’s, is now teaching at U/Mass Boston.

Now Torra and I have a few things in common. We are contemporaries, and like him I have always been involved in the writing life in one shape or form. Like Torra, I had many jobs that afforded me the time to write. I was never a waiter, but I worked as a dishwasher at the long-defunct Ken’s Deli in Copley Square, Boston in the 70’s, and I was a short order cook at the “Fatted Calf” in Boston, where I flipped burgers, and appointed little balls of cheese on the bloody pucks of meat. So I know what it is like to work in the food industry and it ain’t easy.

Torra, has written a memoir “Call Me Waiter,” that recalls his many years as a server and his struggle to establish himself as a writer. The waiter jobs he had were transient, grueling, often well-paid, and most importantly provided him with the flexibility to write. Torra writes of his slow ascent as a writer, and his vocation as a means to an end:

“My poetry was bringing a modicum of success and that is where I would put my energy. Poems were being accepted by various little magazines. After reading at the Word of Mouth, I also gave readings around the city. Friendships developed with writers I came in contact with. If it took working shifts in a restaurant at night to support this life, so be it.”

Torra goes into detail not only about his working life, but also about the subculture of restaurants: the gay waiters, the alcoholic managers, the sociopath cooks, the parade of grad students, artists, musicians, supporting their lifestyle, and pocketing tips. In this passage Torra describes the typical reaction when he tells people at work that he is a writer:

“I’m always bemused at the way they react when they find out I am a writer. It shouldn’t come as any surprise. There are probably more artists in the restaurant business, pound for pound, than any other industry, I’ve worked with jazz, rock, folk and classical musicians, sculptures, dancers, female impersonators, actor, singers, photographers, poets and novelists—I even worked with a guy who painted with spoons. Why else, they must wonder, would someone my age be doing this…?

I tell them . They look puzzled. If I publish novels what am I doing here? I attempt an abridged account of the publishing industry. They’re bewildered. Then a friendly grin, perhaps they figured it out—I can’t be much of a writer if I publish books and tend bar for a living.”

At the end of the memoir Torra realizes that he is at the end of the line with being a waiter, and cuts himself loose. Although frightened, he enjoyed a sense of freedom:

“I have no idea where I am headed, what the future holds. Images of working all night as a shelf stocker, a cab driver or variety store clerk cross my mind. I know I must remain out of the business no matter what it takes. Something is out there for me. Standing on bike pedals to stretch my legs, I feel like I am floating.”

“Call Me Waiter” is one of the better books I have read about the writing life. Torra has a workman-like style, that lays out the consuming need to write, and the need to support it anyway you can—no matter what, in a straight, no chaser fashion. Torra, born to a blue collar family in Medford, Mass brings a work ethic to his life and art that is a refreshing change from all the Left Bank, Iowa Writers Workshop stuff that lines the bookshelves.

Highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment