Lunch and dinner at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference are the sort of hybrid cafeteria/table-service arrangements that I’ve become familiar with mostly from movies about military school: People sit at long tables that seat six or eight, like in a cafeteria, but they’re served their food by waiters, like at a restaurant. Lunch today was so painless we started talking about a streak we’d ride till the end of the conference, but then dinner was impossible—we served ice cream Sunday that took forever to scoop and melted before we left the kitchen—so the streak talk died off. There are always a little more than 200 people in the dining hall, but when you’re working as a waiter here, sometimes it feels packed, and sometimes it feels empty. Lunch felt empty.
Breakfast is served cafeteria-style (like lunch in high school), so only a third of the waiters have to get up early to dish out eggs and refill coffee for the faculty and conference participants; my breakfast shift doesn’t start till the end of the week, so the first meal I worked today was lunch.
There are 25 writers attending Bread Loaf on waiterships—work-study scholarships awarded to promising writers—and, in the piddly life of emerging writers, this prize is a big deal; there’s an underlying current of elation that, despite the exhaustion and garden-variety attempts to play it cool, surfaces all the time, mainly in the form of jokes. We arrived at the conference one night ahead of the 150 or so general participants—called “contributors” here—for training on Wednesday, but I feel like I’ve known a lot of the waiters for months. Most of us are in MFA programs—two- or three-year graduate writing programs—or have just graduated from them; most are in our 20s or 30s; more than a few are married; and some are mothers or fathers. We’re spending nearly all our free time together, which is often at night. We talk about writing the way you’d expect: constantly, sometimes too earnestly, sometimes in ways that feel just right. It’s like anywhere else—everyone doesn’t love everyone—but the odds seem a bit higher here.
Bread Loaf is organized around a series of small workshops, which meet every other day, and there are so many readings and lectures and additional classes, and you get so tired, that you can’t go to them all. Some of them have been fantastic (Kevin McIlvoy read a story the first night that was funny and sad and perfect, the kind of story you, if you’re the kind of person who’d consider spending two weeks at Bread Loaf, wish you’d written yourself), but the meat and potatoes of my experience here revolves around the 25 people in aprons.
In the dinning hall, we work different jobs in shifts, and I’ve been working as a floater for the last few days, so I spent lunch running around helping out the people assigned to wait tables. Waiters are responsible for two tables each, so most have to worry about drinks and entrees and dessert for 16 people. Each waiter has a station, an oversized luggage rest that holds a large aluminum tray. They run the tray into the kitchen and fill it up with entrees, which is a lot of hurry up and wait because there’s always a line of waiters waiting for food to be plated. When they get back to the table, they put their trays on their stations and dole out the food all around. Because the tables are so big, it always takes waiters at least two trips to the kitchen to serve everyone at their tables. The killer, though, is the drinks: There’s a choice of iced tea or water, which have to be endlessly refilled. It’s the kind of job that’s stressful and funny at the same time, and when everything works well, like it did today at lunch, it’s fun.
Tomorrow, lunch is picnic-style, which means the kitchen staff (the cooks and people in the back, the professionals who do all the real work) takes care of everything, and we have the afternoon off. At night, there’s the first of two waiter readings; squeeze 25 people into two nights of readings, and you get a three-minute time limit, which leaves me almost enough time to read two long sentences from one of my stories. We’re all more excited about this reading than we should be; we all can’t wait to hear each other’s work. After, there’s going to be a party—a bonfire, actually, another Bread Loaf tradition.
It’s so beautiful here it’s ridiculous; this part of Vermont’s just short of take-your-breath-away, the kind of trees-and-lake beauty you want to get out of your car to look at, not frame and put on the wall. There are stars at night here like you wouldn’t believe.