One summer at the dawn of my twenties, I got a job waitressing on the deck of a posh restaurant and catering hall. Inside the crystal-strewn dining room, creamy napkins adorned sweeping burgundy tablecloths. The most capable servers whispered around corners and past murmuring diners, uncorking aging bottles of wine with the careful, practiced movements born of privilege and ritual. Muted forks touched embellished dishes between soft laughter and polite conversation. Only the best worked inside, so they said, and only by invitation.
The deck was the casual, “post-golf outing” version of the walled interior. Weather-worn planks covered by sheets of corrugated tin opened into the sparkling expanse of the Delaware Bay. On clear days planes roared overhead, bound for the airport on the opposite bank. Barges wallowed back and forth, wakeless. The tiny kitchen on the deck was filled with tattooed ex-cons, who kept the profanity to a minimum when the bosses came outside but sang curses from open to close otherwise. Sneakered waitresses rushed back and forth between oilclothed tables, chomping gum and slamming down buckets of beer. It wasn’t quite a crab shack, but it was as close as a swanky restaurant could get.
It was only open for five months of the year, and most weekends were full up with traveling sightseers or rumbling crowds of bikers or amped-up sports fans, desperate to enjoy the weather and catch the game. We snuck a lot of food and drank a lot of drink on the sly. It was as close to a rough job as most of us could get if we still wanted to visit our mothers without shame. When the shift was over, we often retired to a bar down the street, named after rodents, where Bruce Willis reportedly up every once in a while if you were lucky. I never saw him, but that didn’t mean much. I only worked there one summer and I usually went straight home.
The one tradition on the deck began long before I started. I, like every other employee, was taught to revere it from Day One. Each afternoon, right before the dinner rush, when shadows started to lengthen, and the place really started to hop, and barges began to clear from the river, we would watch. Cooks would comment from the other side of the counter as we rushed by, “only a few more minutes.” The manager (a Head Server inside, during the winter months) would stand on the edge of the deck, arms folded, facing the darkening water. We’d make sure everyone’s drinks were full. We’d find a good stopping place. We would all slow down; and we would wait. Just for a few seconds, maybe a minute or two at most, shading our eyes as we looked across the water, into the sky.The heartbeat of the little deck would crawl. Breaths were held.
As the bottom of the massive orange sun touched another state’s horizon, someone would press “play” on a CD player (volume turned way above normal) somewhere in the back. A rush of classical strings would stream out of the speakers, instantly quelling the many conversations, descending and descending furiously, until they reached the lowest note. After a brief pause, a massive choir, then orchestra, would swell into a majestic roar. Every face turned to watch the sun as it quickly sank. Someone in the distant past had timed the progression of notes to match the pace of the setting sun perfectly. As the last amber piece slivered into the face of the river, the horns blared for the last time and the booming music lapsed into silence. The whole deck would sit for a moment, in growing darkness and sudden quiet.
And then, always, came the cheers.