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A literary wait staff

Posted by Jan Gardner  August 8, 2007 11:00 AM

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The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, founded in 1926. boasts an impressive roster of teachers -- Willa Cather, Robert Frost -- and students -- Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty. Yet the wait staff itself is a literary powerhouse, as I learned from a recent e-mail exchange with Dr. Paul Austin, an emergency room doctor from North Carolina who is returning to the conference next week for the fifth time. It's his summer as a waiter that he'll always remember:

"The whole wait-staff thing is fascinating. There are people who could give a better rendering of the history of the tradition, but the overall consensus seems to be that the waiters, who are on total scholarships, are the bright young talents with stellar futures as writers. They are not as far along the writing path as fellows, or faculty, but a lot of waiters have gone on to literary success. They also throw the best parties, and just seem to be the coolest people at Bread Loaf.

I went four times as a contributor: Just a guy trying to learn to write. Last year I got a wait-staff scholarship. I was the oldest guy waiting tables. I'm 52, so was 51 last year. A little gray-haired lady (I can say that because my moustache is more white than blond, and my wife is totally gray) patted me on the shoulder one night at dinner, and said, "I'm glad to see one of us waiting tables!" "Gray power," I responded, then asked if she'd rather have the beef or the vegetarian entree.

My roomate, also a waiter, taught at Oxford. Another of the waiters was finishing up a pHD in creative writing at Harvard. Another waiter was the editor of one of the literary magazines that had published one of my essays. "No way," she said, "Yes, way," I replied, as we figured out who we were. Basically, the wait staff is a talented, motivated, group. I had to take a lot of naps and motrin, but I kept up with them pretty well.

I enjoyed being the old coot in the crowd, also enjoyed the novelty of being a doc waiting tables. It really wasn't all that different than being at work in the ER: It's not at all uncommon for a patient to tell me, "You were the one who waited on me the last time I was here."

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