All emergency staff meetings at the tony French Laundromat bistro require mandatory attendance, but the latest meeting announcement was a picture of existential urgency. The first hint was that the meeting was called by the owner, Monsieur Bandit, instead of by head chef Monsieur Maȋtre Queux. Whatever fomented this latest crisis clearly did not concern the timbre of the crackle of duck skin or the lopsided shape of a crème caramel, shaped into a pear, complete with stem, for the holiday menu, but must be about something else entirely. The staff, wearing identical white linen uniforms so heavily starched it was difficult for them to sit down normally (designed to discourage sloth), filed silently into the windowless, soundproof staff room at the back of the bistro and perched on high stools. A blow-up of the seasonal menu was tacked to one wall next to a complicated reservation flow chart and what appeared to be a loyalty oath, complete with space for a notary’s seal below the signature line.
Monsieur Bandit (furiously tossing his custom, medium-sheen midnight navy silk suit jacket onto a chair and tugging at the collar of his shirt, cursed under his breath as a platinum cufflink disengaged and flew across the room, landing on the floor with a dull clunk).
“Mon dieu! I wake up this morning to what? The governor and the San Francisco mayor both splashed all over Page One of the news dailies. For what? For having the good taste to choose the Laundromat for their celebratory dinners! Forget the revolution, Bernie’s (metaphorically) dead and gone and the U.S. thankfully has no barricades in its future (quickly looks heavenward and crosses himself). We depend on the kindness and lucre largesse of the rich and politically powerful for our daily bread and beurre. (Turning an alarming shade of purple in sudden escalating rage) We love our one percenters and promise to protect their carefully cultivated working-class public images, which above all include shielding them from cheap shots from envious journalists whose credit cards would max out on a single mini bowl of our signature consommé. We ARE the French Laundromat! (pulls a muguet-scented pressed handkerchief from his back pocket and carefully dabs at a widening line of sweat at his hairline).
Monsieur Maȋtre Queux: (tut-tuts in disgust): “And never forget that if we encourage every unwashed, social-climbing Tom, Dick, and Henri to dine here we’ll be left with nothing but declined credit cards and bounced checks – can chicken nuggets be far behind? (shudders dramatically).
Monsieur Bandit (struggling and failing to appear encouraging, turns toward the hang-dog employees perched uncomfortably along the wall, knife-edge linen creases intact):
“Your orientations explained very clearly in the American Culture section that the rich have to appear poor and sympathetic to losers like the ones who line up at our disguised back door every night begging for scraps. We thankfully don’t have much to give since our entrées average a tasteful one-to-three ounces, but the shiftless American hoi polloi just keep on coming. If the Good Lord wanted these worthless parasites to eat like kings and queens He would have given them crowns – and much-needed eau de lavande! (dramatically sniffs in olfactory distaste).
(A diminutive female employee raises her hand, creasing the ‘Thérèse Hélène’ embroidered above her breast pocket)
(Monsieur Bandit turns toward her)”Yes, Kimberly?”
(Kimberly, aka Thérèse Hélène, raises her eyes from the floor to Monsieur Bandit) “How can we tell if someone is a journalist?”
(Monsieur Bandit, reverting to the pompous lecture style he adopts when explaining something obvious to the dimwitted hired help). “It’s getting trickier since, more and more, they look like the shabby beggars they claim to love so much. Like most American men, journalists wear baggy khakis, frayed at the cuffs. Their worn button-down shirts are rarely pressed and they almost always wear neon-colored athletic shoes (involuntarily shudders). The women are harder to spot but generally dress like the gypsies you see camped outside the Paris city limits. In the winter both sexes wear the adolescent “puffer” jackets they think make them look hip and “one of the people.” Their cell phones - usually beat up from subjects who ripped them from their hands and threw them to the ground – never otherwise leave their hands, and both the men and women quickly look around furtively in hopes of spotting someone famous.”
(Thérèse Hélène looks dubious as a male server with the embroidered name Jacques Pierre raises his hand).
“Yes, Jake,” Monsieur Bandit said dismissively (underscoring his oft-repeated disgust with the uniquely American trait of turning every name into a childish nickname).
Jacques Pierre (aka Jake): “But that’s also how rich tech-types dress. How can we be sure they’re not journalists?”
Monsieur Bandit: (pivoting to the wall and gesturing to what looks like a revised reservation form)
“Aside from the poor quality of their haircuts and shoes, our new Laundromat reservation process should help with that. There is now a box to check in the upper right-hand corner that shows whether a reservation was made six months in advance, as required of the non-famous rich, or at the last minute, which is what the truly rich and powerful do. Always double check against our master list of the rich and famous, which has current photos. There is unfortunately no master list of journalists since slave wages have thinned their ranks. Hopefully they will soon disappear altogether. Pay particular attention to politicians since they decide whether we remain open during la peste. The hostess must be informed immediately so she can head off any suspicious-looking inquisitive types lurking outside and immediately seat the VIPs, facing away from the door, of course. If a man or woman who looks like a possible journalist pulls out a phone to take a photo at any point, walk quickly in front of him or her to block the shot.
(The staff looks dubious but appears to accept the new procedure’s logic)
Monsieur Bandit: “One more thing before I turn this over to Monsieur Maȋtre Queux. We are all family, here, but like all families we must have rules. As a valued member of the French Laundromat family, you must sign the new confidentiality agreement (gestures to the blow-up of the form tacked to the wall). This is purely pro forma and simply formalizes what you already know – to never to disclose anything you witness on French Laundromat premises. The clause about felony charges and jail time don’t really mean anything, it’s just boiler-plate verbiage our advocates threw in. A notary will verify your signature and fingerprints on your way out. Monsieur Maȋtre Queux?”
Monsieur Maȋtre Queux: (walking over to the seasonal menu tacked to the wall before turning to the employees perched against the opposite wall) “You need to pay more attention to the daily wine recommendations.Today, for example, we received several dozen bottles of a cut-rate pinot that did not place in this year’s top rankings. If a guest suggests that only white wine should be paired with fish, inform him or her – politely and with all due deference, of course – that the white wine/fish pairing is old school and never followed in France. Tell them that top-rated chefs worldwide recommend California’s pinots for fish. You will receive a small bonus for each bottle you sell at the standard price of $615.00 a bottle. Double the bonus for every bottle sold of 1996 Dom Perignon Rose Gold Methusaleh (list price $11,900 USD, “coppery light pink, amber and gold tones, fruit in the most perfect state of ripeness, with wild strawberry and apricot, complemented.”) One final thing: Do not under any circumstances ignite the crȇpes suzette near anyone with a frizzy perm. A neighboring bistro just settled a nasty lawsuit after a guest’s perm caught fire.” (The staff gasps and their faces turn as white as their starched culinary coats.)
(The meeting wraps up and staffers stand stiffly in their starched white coats and line up at a desk piled with “pro forma” loyalty oaths to be signed and notarized. Outside a U-Haul filled with bottles of pinot is being unloaded and carried down narrow stone steps to the wine cellar. The blow-ups of the new forms are taken down from the walls and marked for shredding. The first of the dinner crowd is just five hours away.)