The other night, I ate at JoJo, on 64th Street. It’s a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, but one of those on the less fancy, more affordable side of his 14-restaurant empire. It’s small and quiet, too, and so it was that much more noticeable when, about halfway through our meal, a man in a powder-blue fleece pullover walked into the dining room talking loudly into the earphone attachment thing of his cell-phone and — without ending his conversation — told the hostess who’d led him to his table, right next to ours, to bring him “the most expensive bottle of wine” she had. She looked embarrassed and opened the menu and showed him what that would be. “No, no, no,” he said, “You know what you do? You tell Stephen” — Steven? — “to find something three times that much and order that, and I’ll come buy it.” The hostess giggled nervously. The guy said, “All right, bring me two bottles then. I hope you’re thirsty. Because I’m not going to drink them all by myself. Bring two glasses, one of them’s for you.”
I exchanged glances with my wife with which we agreed that neither of us would be paying attention to anything the other said for the rest of the evening. We’ve been married for a long time. The scene unfolding a foot-and-a-half to my right was obviously going to be much more interesting.
The guy ended his phone conversation, loudly announcing, “All right, I love you,” twice before hanging up. The two bottles of wine arrived, and two glasses. The hostess opened a bottle and poured only one glass but stayed standing at his table with an uncomfortable smile fixed on her face. The guy took a sip and looked up at her unctuously and asked, “So what’s going on?”
Not much, she told him. Her shift has actually ended an hour ago. The restaurant was busy, though, and the staff needed more hands, so she’d stayed on to help.
“I haven’t seen you in a while. What’ve you been up to?”
Not much, she told him again. Busy with work. Then, in what seemed like a defensive measure, “I’ve been hanging out with a new boy.”
The guy was not happy to hear to hear this. His tone changed and his face reddened. Apparently, there had been a previous conversation, on the phone, during which, to hear the guy complain about it, the hostess had misrepresented herself. “So for that whole time, while we were talking for twenty minutes, you let me think you were the general manager.” (Did he mean Trisha?)
It got very tense. The hostess’s fixed smile looked even more uncomfortable. The guy had an ugly sneer. “And you said yes when I invited you down to Panama. When I was going to fly you down on the private jet.”
It was confusing. (And a little difficult to hear. My wife and I would sporadically say something, in a half-hearted attempt to disguise our eavesdropping. But not really. One time when I said, “The decor is nice in here,” my wife said, “Shhh!”) But from what we could understand, the guy had thought the hostess, who’d he’d had a twenty minute conversation, was another person who worked at the restaurant, a general manager. Apparently, yes, there was also someone named Stephen; at least, the guy knew Stephen well, and threatened to have the hostess fired. “No, no, it’s fine,” he said, upon her apologizing for her part in the confusion. “When I talk to Stephen, when he asks me how my meal was, I’ll just tell him you pretended to be someone you weren’t. And you tricked me into thinking you’d accepted my invitation to come to Panama with me on my private jet.” That was one thing that we could be very sure about: He had definitely invited this woman, who he didn’t even know well enough to know who he was talking to, to fly down to Panama on his private jet. He repeated that part a lot.
Another woman came over to his table. This new woman, who was tall and red-headed, smiled at the guy the same way the first woman had — familiarly, it seemed that he was a regular customer, but also sort of forcedly. He was blatantly unpleasant, and no one in his presence for more than a couple minutes would be smiling without effort.
“You know ____?” the man asked this other woman, about the first woman, and she smiled and said yes. “I got nothing nice to say about her,” he said.
The second woman did her best to agree with him, replacing her frozen smile with an expression of concerned sympathy on her face, while also offering diplomatic defense of her colleague. She noted that everybody had been working hard.
She also stood with him for most of the next hour. As the man ordered his dinner and drank not very much of his wine and ate alone (finishing only half of each of two entrees), there was never not a member of the restaurant’s staff standing at his table. She would step aside when a waitperson brought food, and when the guy was finished with something, he’d beckon a busboy by saying, “Hey, boss, take this.” He was chummy and glib and trashed the first woman to each of the staff, telling the story of how she “lied” to him again and again. He also talked a lot about the big business his company was doing with the government of one of the Carolinas, and offered people investment tips. For example: if you’re thinking of buying real estate, find a place with a low tax base. You know it’s going to go up in the future and you’ll make lots of money or something.
At one point, he swirled the wine in his glass and looked up at this second woman and said, “So what’s going on? Tell me something.”
Not much, she said. She was tired, she’d been working hard, that kind of thing.
“No, no, no,” he said, wiping his mouth with his napkin. “See, that’s the wrong attitude. You got all this going for you — you’re tall, you got red hair. But that’s the wrong attitude. No one wants to hear that you’re tired!”