Peon of Praise

Christina Stead
Christina Stead

I had lunch one day last year in a café-restaurant in midtown Manhattan. I was used to being stared at by security cameras, but this place — one large room painted white — had sixteen of the things, all focussed on me, it seemed. Ugh!

Did they really need that many, I wondered; and did they need to hire sixteen people to monitor them? And what exactly were they looking for? Was I going to be tempted to steal — not an ashtray, they don’t have ashtrays any more — a knife or fork, perhaps?

A pepper-grinder would be a useful souvenir: good ones are expensive. I have one at home with steel grinding gears made by Peugeot, the French motor-car manufacturer. I use it every day: it is thirty years old, a bit rusty, but as good as new.

Of course restaurant pepper-grinders are not like the domestic article: they are deliberately gigantic, to discourage such thoughts, and if you tried to sneak out with one of those in your trousers pocket you’d be as conspicuous as Sir Les Patterson on a nudist beach.

I also noticed, not for the first time, that the staff were divided into two very distinct classes. There were the waiters — all men — who were young, Anglo-Saxon more or less, and talkatively polite. Then there were the bus-boys, so called: also all men, but slightly older, slightly shorter, slightly less thin, with black hair — rather more Hispanic in appearance, in fact — and completely silent, who simply cleared away the debris from the tables. I wondered what proportion of the compulsory 20% tips in the tip jar made it to the bus-boys. Australian egalitarianism and freedom from compulsory tipping had never seemed so admirable.

It seems that the Hispanics of New York City have added another string to their bow. In “Letter from New York” in «The [Melbourne] Age» one Saturday last year, a writer mentions author Jonathan Franzen’s “peon of praise to Christina Stead’s long-neglected masterpiece, «The Man Who Loved Children».”

I had a mental image of a peon — a Spanish-American day labourer or unskilled farm worker — hired by an unusually generous Jonathan Franzen, walking up and down Fifth Avenue wearing a billboard advertising Christina Stead’s book. Like a GorillaGram, or a StripperGram, only with a peon: HispanoGram, perhaps.

I hope the idea catches on with US publishers; we need more variety and more literature on the streets of Manhattan.

One Reply to “Peon of Praise”

  1. John, lovely to discover this haven, to which I’ve just now linked!


    To be left in a daze

    By a peon of praise

    Nor afforded relief from surveillance —

    It’s all too true, we fear —


    Of this kind

    May not at first endear —

    But do keep in mind

    We’ve pepper to grind

    And protecting our grinders is serious business.

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