Reading Habits of the Service Industries, Part One

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Nick Delany turned up at a reading I gave at the Brooklyn Museum in November of 2010. He remarked, during the question and answer portion of the event, that he had mostly been reading just one book for the last ten years. By coincidence, this book turned out to be the very work I was reading on the day in question, namely Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. For those who are not yet initiated, Powell’s magnum opus consists of twelve free-standing volumes about England from the 1920s through WWII, and is well over two thousand pages long. It is therefore not outrageous to presume that reading Powell would require great reserves of time and effort. That said, I am always curious about people with obsessive literary interests, especially obsessive literary interests that coexist with strangely routine day jobs. So I decided to put a few questions to Delany by e-mail. He was happy to comply, and suggests that others who have questions for him about the food services industry and/or Anthony Powell should feel free to contact him at nickdelany AT yahoo.com.

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The Rumpus: Can you talk about getting into restaurant management?

Nick Delany: I’d been working as a waiter in Manhattan restaurants for a few years, and as a waiter you’d see these managers swanning about in their suits (and, ergo, not having to wear an accursed uniform), ordering their dinners off the menu, and ordering you (the waiter) around. . . so I thought I’d like to break into that occupation. I doctored my résumé a bit, and obtained a (short) interview with the current owner of the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street.  I guess he was adequately impressed, because I was hired as a maitre d’. This happened in the early-fall of 2009.

Rumpus: Russian Tea Room! I guess you saw a lot of editors in chief at lunch time.

Delany: The only literary type I saw there was Richard Price, and he was having dinner, not a business lunch.  It’s strictly a tourist-trap now. However, Rufus Wainwright (after a Carnegie Hall performance) did show up at the Russian Tea Room one night last year around closing time (and so I quite willingly held the restaurant open a bit later for him) with his entourage of six or seven, ordered a lot of caviar.

Rumpus: What were your specific duties? And how long did you last there?

Delany: Well, as a maitre d’ I was mostly a greeter, a seater, a shmoozer, and sometimes a seller of souvenirs (the Russian Tea Room did quite a lot of souvenir business, the place was full of glass cases displaying tchotchkes for sale).  I lasted about three months, I think. I ran afoul of the hot-tempered Albanian owner over the matter of the restaurant’s closing time.

Rumpus: Your next professional destination?

Delany: The Oyster Bar, where I started working in March of this year (2010). I had been a waiter at the Oyster Bar for a few weeks during 2007.  I’d found working conditions there to be very trying, and in fact I quit. Indeed, I quit in the middle of a shift, during a busy lunch-time. So, when I went back to the Oyster Bar in March for an interview (for the manager job), I was quite worried that I’d be recognized from my previous time there as a waiter, and that my quitting would disqualify me.  As it happened, I wasn’t recognized at my March interview, and so I was hired. Still, I somewhat dreaded work there, as I knew it to be place with rather harsh working conditions (not to mention that it’s underground, no windows, no sunlight).

Rumpus: And during all this professional maneuvering there has never been even one week in which you have not dipped into Dance to the Music of Time, the masterpiece of Anthony Powell, correct? For ten years?

Delany: Yes, I’ve reread the series over and over during the past dozen years, every week picking up one or another of the volumes in the series.  The world depicted in the novels is one that I like to escape into.

Rumpus: What is it about that world that attracts you?

Delany: I like the settings: England, Eton, Oxford, London literary scene, etc. — concerning all of which the reader can have confidence that Powell knows whereof he speaks. And most of the volumes have at least a few good laughs in them. And probably most enticing, the characters — just consider the first volume, A Question of Upbringing, where we get superb ones such as Stringham, Templer, Le Bas, Uncle Giles, Sillery (although I’ve never been able to much enjoy the section of “Upbringing” that takes place at the French cramming-school, perhaps I should try harder to re-read that section).

Rumpus: How did you first come upon Powell? And are you similarly afflicted with other British writers of the same period?

Anthony Powell

Delany: I first came upon Powell via one my other writer-afflictions.  I was reading an essay by Evelyn Waugh (in a volume called U and Non-U, a compendium of essays on the subject of class markers and divisions in England), and therein he referred, praisingly, to Powell — whom I’d never heard of before. So, that got me started.  As I recall, Waugh made some point to the effect that the “Angry Young Men” devotees of the 1950s/1960s would be baffled by the rich stylings of Tony Powell.

Rumpus: How many times have you read the whole of Dance to the Music of Time now?

Delany: It might add up to five or six times. It’s hard to estimate, because I no longer read it in sequence.  I’ll just pick up any volume that lies to hand and open it to a random page, then start reading.

Rumpus: I estimate you have devoted somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 pages of reading time to Powell. Favorite section or sections?

Delany: Well, in Volume III (The Acceptance World), the one that you are reading, the Old Boy Dinner at the Ritz — with Widmerpool rising after dinner to talk economic gobbledy-gook –  is a fine passage; and in the same book I really like the dinner at Foppa’s restaurant where Nick and Jean encounter Dicky Umfraville.  The Umfraville character is very endearing throughout the books. The early pages of Volume X (Books Do Furnish a Room) has an amusing passage where Nick makes a post-war visit to his Oxford college and revisits Sillery’s rooms, where the two men plus another former student (“Short,” now a civil servant) discuss Widmerpool’s current fortunes in the political world.

Rumpus: How does all this consumption of Powell and his work, for ten years now, relate to your professional life, if at all?

Delany: In a way my heavy consumption of Powell has quite possibly contributed to my not taking the restaurant business (where I’ve worked as both waiter and manager) very seriously. That is to say, when you read A Dance to the Music of Time, many kinds of occupations are depicted therein — you have politicians, soldiers, artists of all kinds (painters, ballet-dancers, actors, composers), writers and journalists, civil servants, museum and gallery personnel, et cetera. But nobody in the Dance world works in the food industry.  And not only that, food is not even given much attention in Dance. I mean not a great deal is said about the food eaten by the characters. There is some comment, a little, but not much.  Perhaps this has to do with the proverbial insipidity of English food.  But I think it has more to do with, what is probably the case, that in the middle and upper classes of England during the period 1920 – 1970, food and cuisine and the “catering trade” just weren’t taken very seriously, merely as a prosaic necessity of life.  So as I say, absorbing this viewpoint from “Dance” may have been a corrective during the time I’ve worked in the restaurant biz here in New York.  Because when you’re in the restaurant biz in New York during the last decade or so, you’re exposed to a lot of hype meant to persuade you that Chef So-and-So is a great world-historical artist and genius who is revolutionizing modern civilization and culture.

Rumpus: Do you write yourself, or have ambitions in the literary direction? Or are you an actor? Or do want to direct?

Delany:: In the past I had ambitions to write (perhaps those ambitions haven’t left me entirely). Back when I still lived in my hometown of Vancouver, BC, in the mid-1990s, I wrote a rather long (400 pages, tightly spaced) manuscript. As for acting, I can only say that when one is moldering is restaurant work, one thinks about the cliché (I mean it’s a good cliché, really… a good ‘trope’) of spending one’s non-working hours in going on auditions, attempting to escape restaurant-work for the better world of the stage.  And one thinks that if actors resort to restaurant work, why can’t a restaurant worker resort to acting?


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a recently released collection of essays, ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. Moody's band, The Wingdale Community Singers, just released their third album, NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH, on Blue Chopsticks Recordings. It's available at iTunes and Amazon.com. More from this author →