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Linda Greenlaw Works Harder than You.

Linda Greenlaw has worked on commercial fishing boats for nearly 20 years. She has written about her experience leading a sword fishing boat to New Foundland in the new book "The Hungry Ocean." (Hyperion) Curiously, After completing the book, she says of writing "I'd rather be fishing." Boston magazine named Greenlaw as one of the most intriguing women of 1997. She lives on Isle au Haut, Maine.


Other segments from the episode on June 21, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 21, 1999: Interview with Linda Greenlaw; Interview with Chris Fehlinger; Commentary on epigraphy.


Date: JUNE 21, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062101np.217
Head: A Sea Captain's Experiences
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

I don't care what you do for a living, Linda Greenlaw works harder than you do. She's a commercial fisherman. For a decade, she captained swordfishing boats working the waters east of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland from May to October, and fishing in the Caribbean in the mid-Atlantic in the winter months.

It's rare for a woman to work on a fishing boat and virtually unheard of for a woman to captain one. Despite that, Greenlaw has a reputation as one of the best captains on the East Coast.

In her new book, "The Hungry Ocean," she tells the story of a month-long fishing trip aboard the Hannah Boden, a hundred foot steel hulled boat that Greenlaw skippered for seven years. On this particular trip she and her crew worked 10 21-hour days in a row; faced some savage weather; at times encountered too few fish and too many sharks.

She also writes about fishing superstitions, what to do with a dead crewmember and near misses with other boats. Since the captain and the crew's paycheck depends on the haul I asked Linda Greenlaw how much fish she has to catch just to breakeven.

LINDA GREENLAW, SEA CAPTAIN; AUTHOR, "THE HUNGRY OCEAN": An average Grand Banks swordfishing trip is 30 days dock to dock, and it's about $40,000 that the owner would have invested just to get the boat away from the dock. And to pay the expenses you've got to catch, you know, generally speaking, at four dollars a pound obviously you'd have to catch 10,000 pounds to cover the expenses.

BOGAEV: Have you ever not caught enough to break even?

GREENLAW: Absolutely, I have. And I think that the best example of that was a trip I made halibut fishing to the Grand Banks one winter. We hadn't been doing that well swordfishing and thought we'd just nail them halibut fishing. We thought we'd kind of bail ourselves out.

My boss had done very well halibut fishing in the past, so I was very anxious to go, anxious to try it, had never done it before. It was probably the worst fishing I can remember in my life. We couldn't catch anything.

We fish all the way around the tail of the bank, up around this thing called the plummish cap (ph). Went everywhere that we could into bottom that we could legally cover, and just couldn't come up with any fish at any point. I mean, we'd get a little sign here and there, well, maybe we'll be able to bail ourselves out; this is it, we're on them. And then nothing; empty hooks, empty hooks, empty hooks.

And that trip lingered in to 40-odd days. It was a long disastrous trip. And when we reached shore a couple of my guys actually kissed the ground when they jumped ashore and never went fishing again.

BOGAEV: How do you hold a crew together under circumstances like that?

GREENLAW: Well, it's tough during the extreme circumstances like that. I stay very optimistic. The crew will follow the captain's lead. If I, you know, think there's fish around the next corner then, you know, you can usually convince the crew that there's a chance.

Unfortunately, on that trip, you know, we just sort of ran out of corners.

BOGAEV: You write about something called the fishing mentality. Why don't you tell us about it?

GREENLAW: OK. When things are going very well fishermen start getting very suspicious about their good fortune and wonder when the tide is going to turn. Absolutely, there's no way this good fortune, it's just a matter of when. When is our luck going to turn to being very bad?

And on the other hand, when things are going very bad you sort of almost feel like you're due some good luck, and, you know, if we stay out here long enough things have got to turn around. Our luck just can't stay bad forever.

BOGAEV: Where would you put yourself on the fishing mentality scale? Are you on the high-end of superstition?

GREENLAW: In superstition, I'll tell you what, I'm kind of weird when it comes to the fishing superstitions. I obviously don't believe that women are bad luck on boats. That's the one that I absolutely won't believe at all, because I've proven that one to be wrong. People are sometimes surprised that I'm still fishing and actually returned from every trip. I'd have been lost at sea long ago if I'd been bad luck.

The other superstitions though, I'm not like a real believer in them, but they're sort of like the horoscope. You know, if a get a horoscope and I like it I think, cool, today's going to be a great day. And if I read my horoscope and I don't like it I think who believes that stuff anyway?

BOGAEV: Speaking of bad luck on boats, what are some of the cardinal superstitions in fishing lore?

GREENLAW: Number one superstition in a fisherman's life, you're not allowed to say the word "pig" on a boat, aboard a boat, anytime anywhere. A couple of different reasons that I've heard for that, I mean, I grew up with this superstition so I definitely would never say it on a boat.

A couple of different reasons for a pig being bad luck on a boat that I've heard that they seem a little ridiculous, but one is that pigs can't swim and they rollover onto their backs and drown. And the other one is that, oh, yeah, pigs do swim but they do the dog paddle and they cut their hooves and bleed to death.

So, that's the foremost fishing superstitions. There are others, I mean, you never turn a hatch cover upside-down. Bananas are forbidden on a boat. The color blue is an unlucky hull color. There are many, but those are the main ones.

BOGAEV: What's with the banana?

GREENLAW: I don't know. I never heard any reason they don't allow bananas on any boat that I'm aboard.

BOGAEV: Also no whistling, right?

GREENLAW: Yeah, no whistling. Whistling is said to whistle up the wind.

BOGAEV: That's a bad thing.


GREENLAW: That would be a bad thing, yeah.

BOGAEV: How well do you sleep when you're at sea?

GREENLAW: Well, I like to think that I sleep while aboard a boat, but it's sort of sleeping with your ears open. You definitely get very accustomed to the sound of a boat and the sound that the engine makes and the sound of the generator running. I know that when I'm sleeping aboard the Hannah Boden I can hear when a pump kicks in. You know, it changes the sound of the generator.

I can hear the guys opening the engine room door, for instance, if they're taking a watch they're supposed to be checking the engine room every 30 minutes. And I hear the door opening and closing. I know who's checking the engine room and who is not.

I have an ear open for the radio. I like to listen to what's going on, you know, on the VHF or the single side band radio; as far as traffic in the area, other boats, and maybe other fishermen chit-chatting. I like to keep an ear on that too.

BOGAEV: It sounds like you don't sleep at all.

GREENLAW: Well, I know it sounds that way but maybe it's more or less just resting because fishing is very physical. And when you do get a chance to lie down it's just -- giving your body a rest is just as important as giving your mind a rest.

BOGAEV: I imagine since there's always a man on watch, that it must be your nightmare as captain that he fall asleep. Has that happened to you?

GREENLAW: That is the Cardinal sin.

BOGAEV: Uh-huh.

GREENLAW: Yes, it has. Yes, it has. A bad experience. I was actually in my bunk and had a man on watch. I heard somebody on the VHF radio calling the boat three miles from them; and then a little later two miles; and then a little later one mile; a little later a half a mile.

And I thought, you know, this voice on the radio is starting to sound kind of panicky. So I thought I'd -- maybe I'd get up and listen to the rest of the conversation and just see, you know, someone's going to be in trouble. Two books are getting way to close to each other at sea.

When I heard the voice on the radio saying a quarter of a mile I jumped out of my bunk and looked out the wheel house windows. And all I could see was white light. The voice on the radio was calling my boat. My man who was on watch was sound asleep, never heard of thing. It looked to me like we were about to have a collision.

I turned the helm hard to starboard and we just missed this other thing. All I could see was lights, we were so close to it. And of course I was sort of woken by this. Just missed -- very near miss collision. Got away from it far enough to see on radar that there were actually two targets.

It was a tugboat pulling a barge behind it. So we were either going to go between the two, which would've been disastrous, or smashed into one or the other which also would've been disastrous.

This man slept through the whole thing and I was so upset, you know, all I could imagine was, you know, here we are, we're on our way in with a good trip and we could have all died if I hadn't jumped up. You know, it was a very good chance we all would have been in the water.

I actually slapped the guy across the face and of course he woke up, "oh, what's going on?" kind of thing. And, well, that was the last trip he made with us.

BOGAEV: He was fired on the spot?

GREENLAW: Yeah, he was. And he didn't even have to ask why.

BOGAEV: I'm speaking with sea captain Linda Greenlaw. She's worked as a commercial fisherman for two decades, and she's earned the reputation as one of the best swordfish captains on the East Coast. She is, as well, one of the only women to have captained a swordfish boat. Her new book about her experiences at sea is "The Hungry Ocean." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is fisherman Linda Greenlaw. She has written about her experiences as the captain of a swordfish boat in her new book, "The Hungry Ocean."

You tell a story about arriving on ship first, on the day you're going to head out on a trip. And, you notice a body in the water. Why don't you tell us what that was all about.

GREENLAW: OK. I actually climbed aboard the boat. We were doing some work aboard the boat at the top. I was the first one there in the morning. I went down and did my engine room chores, and decided it was going to be a while before the crew showed up so maybe I'd go up the street for a cup of coffee.

While I was climbing off of the boat I noticed a body in the water below me, between the boat and the dock. All that was breaking the surface of the water was the crown of this man's head. I figured he was dead, and this was in the middle of the winter, very cold. There's no way this guy should have been alive.

I reached over the rail; all I could reach was the top of his head. I pulled his hair and pulled his head out of the water. And I almost died myself. because he started talking to me. He was a live. I managed to get him aboard the boat, and he was very intoxicated.

About the time that I got him on the boat I thought he was dead again. He just sort of laid on the deck like a dead fish.

And two of my crewmembers showed up, I'm referred to this guy that I had on the deck as Uncle Paddy (ph). So, to make a long story short, my first mate had hired this man to go as cook the following trip, unbeknownst to me. So, my first introduction to my cook was pulling him out of the icy ocean.

BOGAEV: His name was Uncle Paddy, right? What happened to him?

GREENLAW: Yes. Well, Uncle Paddy went fishing with us and unfortunately he really must have been a lot deeper into the alcohol than any of us knew. We reached the fishing grounds and were just getting ready to set the first hooks. And I sent the cook down below to wake the guys up.

You know, hey, we're here finally after five or six days of steaming. Go get everybody up and, you know, get ready we're going to set the gear out for the first set. We were halibut fishing. The cook came back into the wheel house and said, I think Uncle Paddy's dead." And I said -- you know, I've heard some pretty good excuses for not wanting to get up in the morning, but really, you know, go get him up.

And, you know, he disappeared and came back and said, "no, really, Linda you need to come down and check. I really think he's dead." And I said, "oh, my God, all right." Well, I went down, and sure enough Paddy had died in his bunk.

BOGAEV: I assume that's the end of that fishing trip, is that right? What did you do?

GREENLAW: That was the end of that fishing trip. I really didn't know what to do. At that point, obviously, I never encountered this kind of problem. I got a corpse on the boat.

The first thing I did was I called the Canadian Coast Guard, we were fishing off the coast of Newfoundland. And told them, you know, I had a man that passed away and could they come get him. And they said know, "no, absolutely not. We don't come get dead bodies."

So, I tried the U.S. Coast Guard and got the same response. You know, we don't come get dead bodies. You'll have to bring him in yourself. So I did. We turned around, without putting one hook in the water, turned around and steamed all the way back to Portland.

In the meantime, we had to decide what to do with the body, and that was either -- choices are few. It's either burial at sea, which means throw him overboard or put him in a bait freezer. His nephew was on the boat, that's why we called him Uncle Paddy, and we decided that we would have to go in, we would have to have the body with us. So we put him in the bait freezer, which we did.

It was a long trip home, you know. We encountered a very severe ocean storm on the way home, kind of slowed our progress. It was like seven days with, you know, Uncle Paddy in the freezer. A long trip home.

BOGAEV: My guest is Linda Greenlaw. Her new book about her experiences as a fisherman off the Newfoundland coast fishing for swordfish is called, "The Hungry Ocean."

In the fall of 1991 a storm devastated your sister ship called the Andrea Gail. Sebastian Junger told the story of the shipwreck in "The Perfect Storm," his novel. And you were also at sea in the storm, you're mentioned in the book.

What was your experience during the gale?

GREENLAW: People are generally a little disappointed after they read "The Perfect Storm," and then ask me about my personal experience during that storm. I was 600 miles east of where the Andrea Gail is suspected to have gone down. Of course, we'll never know exactly where because nothing was ever really found. It pretty much disappeared without a trace.

Probably two really bad parts of the storm for me were, one, listening to the guys west of me who were struggling with the weather. And these are men who I fished around and talked to on the radio every day for years.

They weren't saying, "oh, you know, we're scared," but you could tell from their voices and the types of things that they were saying that they were having a very hard time. And a couple of them said that it was the worst weather they'd ever seen. And I know what kind of weather these guys are used to.

Knowing that weather moves from west to east, I knew that weather was coming -- that that bad storm was coming towards me. So what they had I was going to get. So, obviously I was scared. My crew was very busy preparing the boat for the weather. There's a whole list of things that you do to make a boat as sea worthy as you can make it.

Fortunately, by the time the storm reached my position it had diminished somewhat. We had 70 knots of wind for a couple of days. It was miserable. It was by no means life threatening for us aboard the Hannah Boden, fortunately. We were just in a better place, you know, at the time.

The other really bad thing other than listening to the guys west of me, the other bad part about that whole episode for me was returning to Gloucester. The day that I returned to Gloucester, was the day that the Coast Guard cancelled the search for the Andrea Gail. So at that point there really - there was no reason to hope or wonder -- wonder if they were going to show up.

So, that was a very sad time for me. Usually, homecoming is a very joyous occasion. You know, you're glad to be coming in, but during this homecoming, you know, many of the family members and friends of the guys who were lost aboard Andrea Gail were coming around the dock and asking questions. They understood that I was, you know, the person to have the last conversation with Billy Tyne (ph), the captain of the Andrea Gail.

And they wanted to know exactly what he said, and they wanted to know if I knew anything that the Coast Guard had not relayed to them. And I really didn't have any answers for them. It was very sad.

BOGAEV: In that last conversation that you had with the captain of the boat did you get the sense that he knew how bad their situation was?

GREENLAW: No, the last conversation I had with Billy Tyne was a very typical conversation. Billy Tyne had been steaming towards Gloucester for three days, he was on his way home with a trip of swordfish. And it's very common for the guy to the west to call the other fishermen and let them know what the weather is doing. It's your best predictor of what the weather is going to do, the guy west of you.

So he pretty much called me up that evening and warned me that his weather had gotten, you know, he had like 50 knots of wind. It had gone from about flat calm to 50 very quickly. And he was warning me, you know, that maybe I would want to consider not fishing that night because the weather was moving towards me.

And I had already received some faxes, weather maps, and had decided to not fish. And I appreciated him calling me and giving me that advice and information. That was pretty much the end of the conversation. It was a very typical conversation between fishermen. Conversations always include weather information, and the sharing of weather information. So, it was not out of the ordinary in any way.

BOGAEV: My guest is commercial fisherman Linda Greenlaw. She has a new book about her experiences at sea fishing for swordfish on other trips, it's called "The Hungry Ocean."

What kind of trouble did you run into because of your gender on the boat? Either as a crewmember or as a captain, which I imagine brought different challenges to job.

GREENLAW: Well, to be honest with you I've been fishing for 18 years, and I've never really thought of -- thought about being female that much until recently. Because obviously I am asked that type of question a lot. So, I've had to think of it -- had to think about it. And I can honestly say that I can't think of anytime that I thought that being female was an obstacle to any success that I've achieved.

And by the same token I really can't use being female as an excuse for any failures that I've accumulated because I've surely accumulated a few of those also. But gender just hasn't been a factor.

The obstacles that challenge fishermen are bad weather, crew problems and mechanical breakdowns. And they're certainly ignorant of gender. They haven't been any tougher for me than they have been for the men in the same business.

BOGAEV: Do you find that you have to go through any kind of hazing procedure with every new crewmember? That you have to be tough on them at the beginning so they know they're not just messing around with some woman?

GREENLAW: No, I've never felt that way. I think that's due to a couple of different things. One is which I hire my own crew. So any guy who doesn't like the idea of working for a woman definitely is not going to ask me for a job. The other is just the title of Captain brings with it, you know, obviously the ultimate authority aboard the boat and some respect.

I mean, even the lowliest captains, the dirt-baggy captains that I know, when the crew climbs aboard in the morning they say, "hello, captain."

BOGAEV: Are there any basic, every day tasks that you find a little difficult or uncomfortable because you're a woman. I'm thinking about going to the head or any kind of issues that involve modesty.

GREENLAW: Yeah, you want to get into that, that's fine. This is the one thing that I did mention in my book. I've always been very careful to go on boats where I have privacy. Even working on deck, I only went as crewmember aboard a boat where I would have my own state room, you know, I didn't have to share a room with any guys.

As captain, I've always had my own stateroom and my own head, my own shower. It's very important, because, you know, being the only female on the boat I have to have some privacy. I will say the one thing, you know, if you're going to push me on this about, there's got to be something about being more difficult for a female, it probably is using the head.

You know, in rough weather it's kind of difficult. You have to brace yourself and try and stay on the head, and sometimes it can be very difficult in bad weather.

BOGAEV: Is there a moratorium on swordfishing now? I think environmentalists are concerned that swordfish are over fished. What's your take on that?

GREENLAW: No, there's no moratorium. There's a moratorium on permits. So, somebody who wants to get in the swordfishing business, it's impossible to get a permit to go.

But the boats who already have permits are allowed to go. There are all kinds of management plans and regulations in place to ensure that the swordfish stock remain healthy. U.S. fishermen, not just swordfishermen, all U.S. fishermen are among the most regulated fishermen in the world.

I would like to add that regulations are a good thing. Fishermen of today are conservationists. I like to know there's going to be a future in fishing. I'm happy to abide by all laws. Sometimes the laws seem a little extreme. And I guess the one thing -- the one gripe that I have is when sort of radical conservationists, who maybe don't know that much about the fish stocks, when they come up with a reason to boycott swordfish; such as the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign, without knowing all the facts.

You know, I find it hard to believe that chefs from restaurants in New York City would know enough about swordfishing to make a really good decision about boycotting it.

BOGAEV: Linda Greenlaw, thanks so much for talking with me today.

GREENLAW: Thank you.

BOGAEV: Linda Greenlaw is now a lobstermen living on Isle au Haut in Maine where she grew up. Her book is called "The Hungry Ocean."

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Linda Greenlaw
High: Linda Greenlaw has worked on commercial fishing boats for over a decade. She has written about her experience leading a swordfishing boat to New Foundland in the new book "The Hungry Ocean." Curiously, after completing the book, she says of writing "I'd rather be fishing." Boston magazine named Greenlaw as one of the most intriguing women of 1997. She lives on Isle au Haut, Maine.
Spec: Women, Lifestyle; Culture; Linda Greenlaw

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: A Sea Captain's Experiences

Date: JUNE 21, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062102NP.217
Head: A Waiter's Secrets
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

When you open the menu in a fine restaurant, you think you're in charge of your dining experience. But Chris Fehlinger knows better. Fehlinger is a waiter who has worked in some of New York's trendiest restaurants.

Being a waiter in that setting is a lot more than simply ferrying food from kitchen to table. The best waiters not only know all of the ingredients in every dish but hold passionate opinions about cuisine. They also know how to sell food, like beef cheek ravioli and headcheese, using some crafty persuasion techniques that most of us would never suspect.

Fehlinger no longer takes orders. Now he writes about food and wine for the magazine "Wine X." He's also the co-founder of "Pheast," a new online magazine about food. And is launching an online gossip sheet about New York restaurant culture at

In restaurants, I always hesitate to ask the waiter to talk about the food. But Chris Fehlinger says he likes to.

CHRIS FEHLINGER, CO-FOUNDER ONLINE FOOD MAGAZINE, "PHEAST": It makes my life interesting, and once I got to my most recent job at Bob-O (ph), and when I really decided that I was a bitter waitress, it made it a lot easier. A lot of restaurants these days really kind of focus on using vague terminology in describing food.

And their idea of then is to engender dialogue between the guest and the waiter so that the person is sort of forced into having good service because they don't understand the menu. And because the menu items are vague and in talking to them you also gain a great amount of control over their experience, and can kind of lead them down whatever road you want to.

And if you're in a great mood and you want to have fun you can make it very interesting for them, serving them things like an all organ meat tasting menu. Or one of things I used to try to serve was the "put the pig back together menu" through all the different courses.

Or you can just make it a very quick experience by just saying, "no, no, no. Yeah, that's really good tonight." And people love it when you say no.

BOGAEV: Why do they love it?

FEHLINGER: Well, because that means that you're not following some party line. You're not going to say, oh, everything's good. And when you say something is not good -- or if it's not good I'd say it's not good. If it's not something I like I'd say it's not something I like.

And I would get in a lot of trouble for that, but people would trust you immensely because you're willing to say no. You know, you're looking out for them.

Because they're spending a lot of money, I mean, for most of the places I've worked, you know, you're going to spend $25 on an entree, you want it to be good. I mean, even people who can afford to dine out like that, that's still a lot of money to spend. I mean, you don't want it to be spent on something you're not going to enjoy.

And of course, then once they trust you, you sell them an expensive wine.

BOGAEV: That's always the first thing?

FEHLINGER: Kind of, yeah. It doesn't have to be -- it's not -- you would never sell them an expensive bad wine, but you do kind of play on their trust for your own benefit. It is a business transaction here, let's remember that.

BOGAEV: Is it really just a business transaction? Isn't it implied in your profession as a waiter that there's an element of service that is -- extends beyond business?

FEHLINGER: I think that there is, but I think that diners and waiters will both enhance their experiences greatly if they realize that is fundamentally business transaction, which is to say, you know, it's sales too.

You know, when somebody sells a car they get a commission. When they sell, you know, expensive clothing, for the most part they get a commission. And we get a commission, and what we really are doing is we are getting a commission on our knowledge of the food and the wine that we sell you and bring to the table.

Because that knowledge is fundamental to the enjoyment of your experience. And you're paying for that knowledge. Maybe it's not so much a standard business transaction than you can think of tipping more as a consulting fee. I think a lot of people would be happier if you did.

BOGAEV: What other strategies do you use to get people to do your bidding, to order what you'd like them to get?

FEHLINGER: Well, I think you have take into consideration the nature of each particular guest or the dynamic that's going at the table. You know, if you've got the young couple out on a date and he's trying to impress her, generally you would kind of play things to him. And he'd sort of be on the spot to make the decisions you want him to make and to tip you well and to spend more so that she's impressed.

And sometimes you are around older couples that don't speak anymore, so that you just are very, very basic. You give them what they need. You don't try to engage them in conversation. You really have to become a little bit of a psychologist in being able to read people on whom you're waiting.

BOGAEV: I know that one technique that you've used is to make everything on the menu sound so elaborate that people just can't figure out what it is and can't make a decision.


BOGAEV: Can you give us an example of that, say, make something like -- I don't know -- pork chops -- sound elaborate?

FEHLINGER: Well, it's not that they were pork chops, it's that they were really kind of bizarre ingredients. Pork chops in Italian, which is where I did this technique was in an Italian restaurant, would be called something like "costeleto de maye (ph)."

And then you could say that these are special pork chops cut in the fashion of an Italian butcher and then they're slightly aged, which you normally don't do with pork chops in America. And then they're seasoned with kosher salt, pepper, grilled. They're done on a bed of grilled chorviso (ph). Chorviso is one of the three kinds of regigio (ph). And then they're finished with, you know, some sort of bizarre thing that you have on the menu that you elaborate.

Generally, I elaborated on what was on the menu. And made it seem even more elaborate. My favorite thing to elaborate on was headcheese. So, if you had a restaurant and we were serving headcheese, which is really just the most basic, desperate poverty food you can imagine. And I always would sell it by saying, it's a very succulent uncured pork sausage in which the sweetness of the meat is also offset by the savoriness of toasted mustard seeds and pickled shallots.


And by that point people are just like, "order for me. This is so complicated. It all sounds so good." That's the technique I would use I was just not -- when I just wanted to make it a quick experience but still make them feel coddled.

BOGAEV: In the kinds of restaurants that you've worked in in New York people have gone too extreme lengths to get reservations to get in the door. The food is very expensive. You must have huge expectations that they're not willing to have disappointed.

FEHLINGER: Well, I think you're very right. The part about people's expectations are very, very unreasonable. Restaurants sometimes to their own devices, and sometimes through devices of the media, have just huge hype about them. And of course that's great for business, but people come with really, really shocking expectations. The fact is, it's just dinner.

You know, nobody is going to be given new life and nobody is going to die because of what happens here tonight. And it's not rocket science, and you're not splitting an atom. You're just coming here to have dinner. And there's only so much you can reasonably expect.

I remember a friend of mine was a waitress at Union Square CafÈ, and she was telling me how one night this woman was crying because she didn't think that the waitress spent enough time with her. Now, granted, all the food got their own time, the food was exactly what they wanted, they loved it. But she just wanted more time. Well, you know, we're not nurses. We're not psychologists. We just serve food and wine.

BOGAEV: Chris Fehlinger is my guest. He's a former waiter in New York City and the co-founder of "Pheast," the new online magazine about food and dining. We'll be back with more after the break.

This is FRESH AIR.


BOGAEV: Back with Chris Fehlinger. He's waited tables all over New York City. He is the co-founder of an online magazine called "Pheast." "P"-"H"-"E"-"A"-"S"-"T." It's all about food.

Since you've worked in New York for a long time you must have had a lot of experience with celebrity clients. Did people at other tables ask you what the celebrity was ordering when they saw them sit down at a table so that they could get it too?

FEHLINGER: Without a doubt. More so if the celebrity were somebody who had something to do with food like Julia Child or Martha Stewart than if it were just some celebrity. If it were some movie celebrity the other guests would be particularly concerned about what kind of wine they were drinking, but maybe not so much about what they were eating.

And of course they were always very concerned about who they were with.

BOGAEV: You actually had Julia Child come into a restaurant where you were waiting tables?

FEHLINGER: I did. It was one of the best waiting experiences I've ever had. She's just an amazing, charming woman and just fascinating to be around. And it's also great to just see how everybody sucks up to her and just frustrates prostrates themselves before her; because she's just a goddess. And she's just humble and wonderful and loves food.

BOGAEV: Did she order all sorts of, kind of, slimy French organ meat?

FEHLINGER: She ordered raw oysters. She ordered -- well, it wasn't a French restaurant at the time, it was Union Square Cafe, which is an American restaurant with a little Italian influence. And she ordered raw oysters and really garlicky delicious veal sausages, which was at lunchtime.

And of course everyone of the ladies who lunched there, which is pretty much a high-powered publishing crowd, had to just have the same thing Julia did. I'm like, "OK. Sure."

BOGAEV: Do you as a waiter routinely eavesdrop on people's conversations?

FEHLINGER: It depends. For about the first three years I was waiting tables I would. And then once again when I decided to come up with my Web site, the gossip Web site I'm putting together right now called "bitter waitress," I would listen pretty intently.

And then there was a point for about a year when I just didn't even really care what they were saying, but I would love it when somebody said something that really, really caught my eye, or caught my ear I should say. You know, when you'd hear a couple start to fight or, you know, when a husband admit to his wife that he'd been having an affair.

Or, you know, somebody would tell their parents they're gay at the dinner table. Just all those great things, you're just like, "OK. Got to pay attention now, this is getting good." Then of course you'd run and tell everybody else and they'd walk by.

BOGAEV: And is there a way that a waiter eavesdrops that doesn't betray what they're doing?

FEHLINGER: Waiters, you can always assume, are eavesdropping on you at every given moment. I could eavesdrop just by filling your water glass and so here I am basically survielling you, and you think you're getting good service.

BOGAEV: What kind of people do you like to wait on?

FEHLINGER: Anybody who is just really into the experience. Anybody who's just really genuine and is really into the idea of having good food and good wine and having a good time. I've had a lot of really great, great customers.

One table that I'll always remember I waited on, they came in to Union Square Cafe, which isn't very pretentious but it's a very expensive restaurant. And if you don't know that it's really pretty laid back you could get kind of put off by it.

And this couple came in and they were somewhere, you know, from deep in Brooklyn. And they seemed a little bit, you know, nervous and kind of rough around the edges. And I really kind of sympathize with them because I've been in places that I shouldn't be in too, or didn't feel like I should be in.

But they were very sweet. They got really into the whole experience. They couldn't decide on what they wanted. So, whenever I goaded them into a decision, for free I would just send them out the other stuff that they'd been thinking about. And I turned the menu, which is a la carte, into a tasty menu for them which is something that that restaurant didn't offer.

And then for dessert I sent them an extra course of desserts, and I sent them two dessert wines to match each course. And just because they were really nice, and then they told me that this was the first time that they'd been out of the house for any kind of real event in ten months because they'd had a baby who was sick for nine months of his life. And the mother had been in the hospital the month prior to that.

And that was just so touching, you know, that they had put such expectations into that experience without actually coming to me and saying, "oh, this is the first time we've been out," which is something so many people do. And it's just so tired and so old.

You know, I don't care. I mean, make me care. And for these people, I really did care. I couldn't do anything else at that point. I had to pack up dessert for the babysitter at that point.

BOGAEV: Oh, they just won the lottery with you.

FEHLINGER: Well, you know, you have the means to do that for people. And if people are even just half-heartedly genuine and nice and upbeat you will.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Chris Fehlinger, he's waited tables for years in trendy New York restaurants. He writes a column for "Wine X" magazine, and is the co-founder of a magazine called "Pheast," all about food and gourmet eating.

Did you grow up eating gourmet food?

FEHLINGER: I think the most gourmet thing that I grew up eating was something that actually didn't come frozen.


So, no.

BOGAEV: So, when did you start?

FEHLINGER: When I started I was 15 and I started as a bus boy at this restaurant called the Villa Roma (ph), which was this little restaurant in a little town on a little lake in Pennsylvania. And it was the kind of strange sort of Twin Peaks place where everybody was really backward and had a lot of money at the same time.

So, there was just this restaurant that served this amazing -- amazing food that was completely new to me. And cooking was just the passion of one of the owners who was a self-taught chef, and she was excellent. And that's when I kind of started.

I guess I was around 15 or 16.

BOGAEV: Did you enjoy the waiting tables so much, or was it this experience with the food?

FEHLINGER: Well, you know, I began in the kitchen. I was the bus boy, then I was a kitchen manager. Then I did a couple of years cooking. And then I started waiting tables. And I -- cooking in a restaurant is a career choice, and I didn't really want to do that anymore.

But I did want to keep learning about food. So that's what I did with waiting tables.

And the more I waited tables I wanted to work in consistently better restaurants with more interesting food and more interesting wine. Because it's just a passion of mine, food is just fascinating. And, you know, I've only in the past couple of years learned that there's a whole world of things that you can eat that you never thought you could, or you never encountered.

BOGAEV: In general, where are waiters in the restaurant hierarchy? Are they just pretty much down there considered eminently disposable?

FEHLINGER: It depends on the restaurant. In a four-star restaurant, which is the apache of dining in New York City, they' re an essential part of the restaurant and they're indispensable. In a two-star or a one-star restaurant they're considered dispensable; and they know it, so it's fine.

It's in the three-star restaurants, which is a growing category. In these great economic times great restaurants can abound. And waiters in that category get a lot of grief because everyone who opens a three-star restaurant wants to be a four-star restaurant so they can become a legend. So they can become immortal. So they can make a lot of money.

And you need a better staff to do that than you can get in a three-star restaurant. But at the same time, you also need a minimum, and that's not the kind of waiters who would work in, you know, the basic neighborhood restaurants. They're not going to cut it in the Gotham Bar and Grill and the Union Square Cafe. And it's actually got to the point right now where, you know, there's sort of a restaurant crisis in terms of finding good waiters.

Yeah, waiters are disposable. I think, you know, right now every waiter who hates their job should just spend two months learning Microsoft Excel and you can make more money temping.

BOGAEV: You can make a lot of money, though, in a restaurant -- in these three-star restaurants you're talking about.

FEHLINGER: You can't, no. I think that's a myth. What a lot of people don't realize is that waiters do get taxed now. And their taxes aren't based on what they actually make. When you work in a restaurant you pay taxes based on a percentage, and the usual percentage in a good restaurant in New York is 17.8 percent of the restaurant's sales. So, if you actually end up making 15 percent, you're paying tax on money that you didn't make. That's why we get so cranky about tips.

You can make good money. I mean, I know when I was working -- my best restaurant job in the city I made about $220 a night. Which seems good and then you take the 35 percent off, and, you know, you're making about $21 an hour which is what a bus driver makes in New York City. So you're not making that much. You're making a lot of cash, which enhances the perception that there's a lot of money. But it's not actual, you know, real generous income.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with former waiter and food writer Chris Fehlinger.

Who are good tippers? And does it breakdown by industry or profession?

FEHLINGER: Well, generally, anybody in the film industry tips really well, especially the movie executives. The best tipper in the world is Mike Nichols, and a great guy. People in television tend to tip very well. Stage people tip well, but they're bitter because they're not making as much as their counterparts on the screen.

The people in the music industry are probably the worst. Madonna was a horrible tipper, and this is consistent throughout a lot of restaurants. Natalie Merchant, who sings about poor people and injustice, is a terrible tipper. So, I'm shocked by that -- a lot.

As far as other professions besides celebrity professions, generally anybody in a big money profession like Wall Street tips well but really more out of ostentation. Doctors and dentists are pretty bad tippers for the most part.

The worst in terms of just non-celebrity professions are academics. I mean, they confuse tenure with privilege and privilege with somehow the fact that a waiter is a servant and they're just nightmarish.

BOGAEV: We've been talking a lot about New York restaurants, but obviously you have some experience in other parts of the world. Is a three-star or four-star or a fancy restaurant in New York a kind of place unto itself, or is there a certain standard in a certain culture that is similar across the country?

FEHLINGER: I think that, you know, New York and San Francisco and New Orleans are really the three culinary capitals of the United States. The people in San Francisco hate this, but probably New Orleans more than San Francisco. Because those are the places where there is either a lot of influence coming into the food, or a passion for it.

You know, New Orleans it's a pretty -- pretty straightforward cuisine, but it's just impassioned. And it's broad. And it's all encompassing. And in San Francisco you get the wonderful influences of all of the, you know, the different Asian cultures and Central American cultures and Latin cultures that come to San Francisco.

And then in New York you have both. You have that diversity and you have the passion for food. And you have the biggest wealthiest market of diners. But I think other than those three cities, you know, you can go to Chicago and Los Angeles and there are some excellent restaurants on par with any three or four-star restaurant in New York. But there are fewer of them.

BOGAEV: Chris Fehlinger, it's been interesting talking with you. Thanks a lot.

FEHLINGER: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

BOGAEV: Chris Fehlinger is the co-founder of the new online magazine about food at That's,

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Chris Fehlinger
High: Chris Fehlinger is the co-founder of the online food magazine "Pheast" and is a contributing writer for the print magazine "Wine X." Recently he was the subject of the column "Table Talk" in The New Yorker 4/5/99. In that article, he confesses that he suggests bizarre food dishes, i.e. goat's head, on unsuspecting diners, just for the sport of it. In our interview, he gives us an insider's view of the restaurant business: how maitre d's get better tips, and how to get customers to order what you want them too.
Spec: Food; Business; Lifestyle; Culture; Chris Fehlinger

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: A Waiter's Secrets

Date: JUNE 21, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062103NP.217
Head: Epigraphy
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:50

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: Last week, the House of Representatives passed its version of the crime bill, which included an amendment that allows states to post the Ten Commandments in public places, including schools. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg was struck by the historical resonance he found in the House proposal.

GEOFFREY NUNBERG, LINGUIST: It's interesting that the House crime bill proposes to post the Ten Commandments on the walls of schools rather than handing them out to students as flyers. It's an impressive indication of the faith we can still invest from time to time in the power of epigraphy, that is writing on walls and other public places.

And it's all the more striking when you think what a low esteem we have for this kind of writing in other situations. If there's a single architectural imperative that characterizes the modern age it would be post no bills. We restrict billboards and deplore graffiti, and when we can't forbid signage out right we pass ordinances to ensure that it's as unobtrusive as possible.

It's gotten to the point where we think of public writing as almost shameful. A couple of weeks ago I picked up a lavish picture book about Los Angeles published by the Chamber of Commerce and was astonished to find that it didn't contain a single picture of a billboard or electric sign.

As far as the Chamber of Commerce was concerned the lively clash of public messages on Pico Boulevard (ph) was no more fit for reproducing than the city's Red Light district. I was struck by this attitude when I was reading a recent book by the Berkeley historian David Henken (ph) called, "City Reading."

It's an account of how people's experience of antebellum New York was shaped by the use of public writings: signs, billboards, posters and banners. It's a subject that historians don't talk about very much, maybe because they share the modern idea that the important work of culture is done by the kind of writing we find in the private space between the pages of a book.

But this is a relatively recent notion. In classical Rome, most of the important writing was found in public spaces. The only part of this writing that survives today of course is the inscriptions on monuments and public buildings.

But visitors to any city in the Roman Empire in the first century B.C. would have seen writing wherever they looked: carved into wooden tablets hung from doorways, traced on white squares, scrolled or scratched onto the surfaces of walls, columns and streets.

The tradition of public writing pretty much vanished in the Middle Ages along with the conception of public life itself, but it reemerged in the neoclassical facades of the Renaissance. And when the printed book first appeared, printers naturally took those forms of writing as their models.

They mimicked the monumental typefaces and included frontist pieces that inscribed the titles of the books on engravings of classical structures, as if the book itself were a miniature public monument.

By the 18th-century though, the culture of the book had already triumphed, and as time went on this kind of public writing became progressively less central in cultural life.

By the mid-19th-century period that Henken writes about epigraphy in all its forms had been consigned to largely commercial or functional roles: shop signs, official announcements or penny journalism. And since then it's been increasingly disdained, though it occasionally erupts into cultural consciousness in the aesthetic experiments of artists like Jenny Holtzer (ph), the political graffiti of the Berlin wall or the archaic symbolism of the House crime bill.

But the prominence of the book in our present day written culture can lead us astray when it comes to thinking about new technologies. However people feel about the computer they seem compelled to talk about it and the Web as the successors to the book as a means of cultural expression.

That's what leads to those endless discussions about what you want to be holding in your lap when you go to bed at night. The fact is though that the book is a pretty poor model for what goes on on the screen.

We talk about Web pages for example, but really the things that come up in your Web browser aren't like pages at all. And when people try to make Web documents look like books you have the sense of looking at a volume in a glass case.

On the other hand, computers are a terrific medium for making models of buildings. You can zoom in and out. You can wander effortlessly from room to room or faÁade to facade. And all of this with the added advantage of being able to send the whole Oedipus out over a wire.

It makes you wonder what a Renaissance architect like Michelangelo or Piro Legoria (ph) could've done with wall writing if only he'd had a graphics card on his PC. Then too Web sites have much more of the feel of public places than books. That's probably why we call them "sites" in the first place, and why we talk about "going to" them or "visiting" them. There's a sense of this in the way people talk about building Web portals to capture the public eye.

The chief difference is that on the Web the common point is the one you start off at rather than where you wind up. I guess a good model for the portal companies would be all roads lead from Rome.

Maybe we do better to think of writing on the computer as the successor to the public lettering of Roman antiquity of the Renaissance rather than as a deficient replacement for the book.

True, it may take a while to relinquish our bibliocentric picture of things, but the writing is on the wall.

BOGAEV: Geoff Nunberg is linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Boagaev, Washinton, D.C.
Guest: Geoffrey Nunberg
High: Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg comments on the diminished stature of epigraphy. This refers to the ancient art of putting writing on walls. This includes signs, posters, banners and graffiti.
Spec: Language; Lifestyle; Culture; Geoffrey Nunberg

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Epigraphy
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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