ANYBODY who’s read this column has registered the fact that I love to complain.
What columnist doesn’t? Oh, I suppose there are “power of positive thinking” columnists who don’t, but you never read them, do you? Personally, if I craved a preposterous, transparent, lightweight pick-me-up, I’d choose cocaine.
I’d much rather be buoyed by over-the-top complainers. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer, of course – the dour, dreary mothers on the TV sitcom Mike & Molly, for instance, take almost all the wind out of co-star Melissa McCarthy’s considerable comic sails. But as long as you’re working on your post-graduate degree in the Whine Arts, you’ll find a keen audience in me.
After all, the most captivating comedy comes from the kvetchers – the perennially grumbling George Costanzas, human beings whose brains function as a non-stop production line of dissatisfaction. There has to be a hefty chunk of humour, though, a glimmer of humanity that listeners recognize and respect.
Thus, I feel warmly about the disgusted fellow who apparently sent Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson a griping letter in 2009, complete with photographic illustrations, about the food he’d been served on a Virgin Atlantic flight from Mumbai to Heathrow. And I quote (the grammatical and spelling errors are his):
“You don’t get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it’s next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That’s got to be the clue hasn’t it. No sane person would serve a desert with a tomato would they. Well answer me this Richard, what sort of animal would serve a desert with peas in: [see image 2, above].
“I know it looks like a baaji but it’s in custard Richard, custard. It must be the pudding. Well you’ll be fascinated to hear that it wasn't custard. It was a sour gel with a clear oil on top.”
The letter writer proceeds to compare his reaction to the sight of his entrée, once he peeled back the foil wrapper, to that of a small boy who excitedly opens his last gift on Christmas morning expecting it to be the stereo he requested and finds instead his dead hamster. I don’t know about you, but I consider outrage on that scale to be worthy of framing.
I wouldn’t say the same about the book Waiter Rant (HarperCollins), which I bought in search of sardonic, Kitchen Confidential-style insights into the wacky world of restaurant service. Sadly, author/waiter Steve Dublanica is no Anthony Bourdain, and waiting tables does not appear to be the outrageous cesspool that Bourdain suggests is restaurant kitchen work.
Yet Dublanica, who wrote himself an instant New York Times bestseller, still knows how to plumb a deliciously deep well of sarcasm as he describes his customers in terms of type. He’s especially wary of the Verbal Tippers, those who are “heavy on praise but cheap on cash,” the Ingratiators, rich folk whose bourgeois guilt makes them “want to demonstrate to themselves and everybody else that they’re ‘down with the workingman,’” and Sugar Daddies, “out-of-shape, wealthy Lotharios who try securing sexual favors from waitresses by giving them embarrassingly large tips.” If you are chortling in a vaguely ashamed way right now, perhaps this is a book for you.
Sometimes a complaint arrives tricked out as a fear. That’s the rule in the work of Roz Chast, the incomparable New Yorker cartoonist whose disheveled, worried protagonists have been striking chords with readers since 1978. Her latest collection looks like a kids’ picture book but you wouldn’t want to give it to any but the weirdest child of your acquaintance.
What I Hate From A to Z (Bloomsbury) was supposedly spawned by Chast’s habit of putting herself to sleep by coming up with an alphabetical list of things in a category she selects at random. One night she decided to choose the general topic of “concerns,” as her anxious father used to call them. She had no trouble completing the list – A was for alien abduction, Z represented the finality of endings – plus runners-up. The runners-up of things Chast hates include amnesia, ceiling fans and hammerhead sharks.
She also loathes elevators, describing them as “The perfect storm of claustrophobia, acrophobia, and agoraphobia.” She reviles quicksand, and asks of the Ouija board’s minuscule chance of accuracy, “Why tempt fate?”
In her world, even balloons provoke tremors. “Many terrible things begin with B: bears, blindness, boilers, bats, bridges, and brain tumors. But no one brings any of those things to a party to up the fun quotient,” she writes. “When I look at a balloon, all I see is an imminent explosion. Where’s the fun in that?”
Indeed, Roz Chast, when you come right down to it, where’s the fun in anything? I’ll file my complaint about that shortly.