This winter, the arrival of the holiday tourist crowd in Steamboat coincided perfectly with the first few significant snowstorms in the Yampa Valley. For several weeks previous, the intense dry cold of early winter had set in its heels, and we hadn’t seen the tiniest flake of snow in what felt like an eternity (read a little ditty on this, “The Great Wait”, here). It seemed like a switch flipped sometime over the last few days leading up to Christmas – and as the number of cars on Main Street swelled, so too did the snowbanks that lined the road. I slammed the door of my Toyota shut yesterday afternoon and forged one of these snowbanks on foot, late for work at a restaurant downtown on the banks of the Yampa River. It promised to be a big one - the Christmas Eve shift.
My first time waiting tables was in the middle of high school, in a diner back in Michigan where we sold things like deep-fried cauliflower and corn dogs. Fast forward to 20 years later, and I’m somehow still waiting tables. It’s like my past self and my present self are two ends in a long row of books, with a stack of volumes in between that tell stories of all the twists and turns it took me to get here. Sometimes waiting tables for a living again feels like a regression, and other times I think I’m happy to be back in this place. There have been other diners, and college bars, and fine dining establishments along the way, but the restaurant where I currently work has kept me around on and off for several years, which breaks all sorts of restaurant job commitment records that I’ve held thus far. The river runs outside past our patio, where a stone fireplace burns on the deck (even in a blizzard, that fireplace is turned on) and guests gather to watch the fireworks that are launched at Howelsen Hill across the way during Winter Carnival.
Working Christmas Eve is always a mixed bag, and last night was no different. Holiday shifts in general are tough – the swell of the crowd and the promise of bigger paychecks is exciting, but you’re working on a night where all you want to do is bury your face in a giant glass of eggnog and either blast Christmas music or get together with your friends and bitch about how much you hate Christmas music. At any rate, the eggnog did appear for me – on a tray carried by a former coworker wearing a Santa hat, as I brushed off snow and hung my coat to dry inside the restaurant. I high-fived another server who had started polishing wine stems on the tables freshly set for dinner.
“We gonna crush it tonight, or what?!" I asked. There were 200 covers on the books (a very big night) and the recent snowfall had everyone in good spirits.
“Yeah, that or we’ll crash and burn. But either way we’re gonna have fun doing it!” he replied, to which we both burst out laughing. (His usage of the word “burn” at this pre-shift moment now haunts me somewhat, if anyone’s into foreshadowing.)
The guy I high-fived over this moment of amusement has also been at the restaurant on and off since it opened its doors several years ago. There has been much staff turnover since then (as it is for most restaurants in a relatively transient community), but a core group of people are still around from time to time as our lives ebb and flow in and out of town or walks of life and as we build up our cash reserves for the next big adventure.
Last night, our manager held an over-caffeinated pre-shift meeting in the back of the restaurant as the sunset cast alpenglow over the ski resort. It was cursory and business-oriented, and his somewhat fried nerve-endings were palpable going into the evening. We got into a flow as the first seating occurred, and for the most part my tables were full of incredibly good-natured and jovial guests. At one of my tables, a gentleman and I had struck up a conversation about how we were born in towns about 15 minutes apart back in Michigan. His family had the kind of faces that seem familiar – it may just be the warmth in their eyes. One of my absolute favorite things about this job is meeting people who can connect like this, people who visit a fine dining restaurant and make friends with its staff on Christmas Eve. Their table is usually echoing with laughter, ruby-red glasses full of cabernet clinking again and again. Dessert menu? Yes, please.
Somewhere past 10 P.M., the snow had started to fall again outside, and the night took an abrupt turn. I saw flames in the kitchen (bigger than the usual flare of a well-charred ribeye on the grill) and smoke wafted out into the bus station. While I refilled someone’s glass at the large front-window table, the stream of wine jerked sideways as the fire alarms blared. Kids were plugging their ears as the fire trucks pulled up, likely having a busy night themselves. Christmas and Thanksgiving rival each other in how many ways one can accidentally set fire in the kitchen while making a family feast. The fire last night was minor but requiring a solid dose of extinguisher chemicals, which meant also extinguishing our dinner service for the evening. It wasn’t the fireworks show our guests typically enjoy, but I do recall some cheering from tables (when the fire alarms finally stopped).
Later, when all the guests had left, I sat at the back table staring outside in an exhausted stupor. The snowfall had picked up volume and velocity.
“Is this that ‘champagne powder’ everyone is talking about?” asked my manager, who moved to town this fall with a truck full of belongings. We replied that it indeed was. I raised my shift drink, a glass of prosecco, and held the bubbles up in front of the fireplace glow outside to see them shine. Not quite champagne, but close. After the last pieces of silver had been polished (or we gave up), the staff started trickling out of the restaurant towards home, a few towards neighboring bars. The snow still came down in a thick white veil that circled the glow of streetlamps. I looked at my watch. Midnight. Christmas.
The snow in front of my boots is so cold and light that when I kick big piles of it there is no impact, just fluff. Yampa Street is nearly silent, the snow is coming down, and winter is settling in at long last. My stomach grumbles. I realize I haven’t eaten tonight. But there are snowflakes dusting my cheeks, and it’s enough for now, for Christmas.