The Bite of Bozeman

Every year, Bozeman, Montana holds the 'Taste of Bozeman' Festival. Restaurants serve meals all down the High Street. For cafes, like ours, it's the 'Bite of Bozeman' where we can offer snacks to people passing by to the other events that make this festival a highlight of the summer.

Before my ex and I were slung out of Montana by the US Embassy (God bless it), we had entered for the Bite of Bozeman. Now, back there alone, I had to try and handle it myself. The miracle in this story was the kindness of my friends...

The Bite of Bozeman
copyright Maggy Whitehouse 2000

God, do I wish that I had never entered us in the Bite of Bozeman. The ‘bite’ for us is the continued rejection of the visa and the closing date for applications was when I still had some hope that Jonathon was coming out.

Call it an affirmation of faith if you like - because I knew perfectly well that I couldn’t handle it myself.

And guess what? I have to handle it myself.

There are two mandatory meetings that restaurant and cafe owners have to go to as part of the entry procedure. To my intense irritation, at the first one we are given glossy sleeve-envelopes and sheets of paper that need to be folded into them so we do all the organisers’ finicky work for them while we listen to Emily’s instructions for the day.

I am feeling irritated. Not only because I am a fish out of water here but that I stick out like a sore thumb if I open my mouth. At least this keeps me quiet. And I don’t understand any of it, really. Health restrictions: what you can do; how you can do it; the health inspection before we start...all this floats in one ear and out the other as I try to quell the deep inner prompting to say ‘I quit’ and walk out.

The actual event is ‘The Taste of Bozeman’. An evening where all the restaurants put tables and chairs out on the street and serve set menus to the crowd of people who have pre-booked. The ‘Bite’ is for cafes who serve food to passers-by who have come for the street musicians and for the general atmosphere. We will be doing wraps, organic juices, brownies and pretzels.

Except that I’ve never made a wrap in my life and we don’t have a juicer for the organic juices since quitting the Juice Bar at Montana Harvest. Life has such jolly surprises in store for us when we plan ahead. ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,’ says the Jewish proverb.

The wraps seemed like a good idea in the days when Jasmine actually worked for a living instead of doing the absolute minimum and slagging the cafe off whenever she could. Ah, the joys of staff! I’m sure I did exactly the same at her age, but it doesn’t help me appreciate her any the more.

And Charles is away that week. The right-hand-man is not going to be here with the comforting back-up. Aaaaaagh!

As the day of the Taste of Bozeman draws ever nearer I find myself quailing. What should be helpful - an assessment from lovely cuddly Al from Unity Church that I’ll probably sell a thousand wraps on the night - only adds to the panic. I can’t make a thousand wraps! I can’t make one.

But I make 250. We are so under-staffed now that it really is down to me. Robin has promised to come and help on the night (and her bruises are down enough to be covered with make-up so she won’t frighten the horses). Victoria, Al’s estranged wife, who’s worked in the cafe business has also offered to help. Sara, the unpredictable, is meant to be looking after the cafe end of things as we stand outside; clearing up and doing more baking of brownies and pretzels if necessary. That’s if her blood sugar can make it.

On the day, TJ is an angel, preparing everything I could possibly need and putting it out so that as long as one person steams the wraps I have the minimum work to do in filling them. In between serving customers and making soup, he shows me the quickest and most efficient way of wrapping the chicken salad mixture and the humus and vegetable mixture, and I consider nominating him for a sainthood.

Robin steams the wraps, keeping her barely-healed and heavily made-up face carefully to one side so she doesn't hurt her tender skin, and I fill them. We get a good rhythm going and talk confidently of the pleasure we will get in selling every one.

‘You know, TJ,’ I say meditatively. ‘Charles and I were talking about you last week and one of us thinks that you’re incredibly cute.’

TJ stops and thinks with his bristly bear’s head on one side.

‘Which one?’ he says suspiciously.

‘Yes, it’s tough’ I say. ‘Because I’m not going to tell you. So it’s either the guy who is close-ish to your age but who dresses up in frocks for his amusement or the woman who’s seriously old enough to be your mother. Be afraid, TJ. Be very afraid.’

TJ wanders off, shaking his head perplexed and slightly worried. It is a difficult choice for a 19-year-old.

So, the wraps are nearly done; but the preparation of the table outside is not and there’s a list of health department regulations as long as my arm which don’t even appear to be written in English.

‘Something will turn up,’ I mutter to myself with gritted teeth. And it does - in the person of Al. He’s not meant to be here but he arrives with Victoria, picks up the regulation sheets and simply gets on with the job. It is like a visitation from an angel and I shed a couple of tears of sheer gratitude. The miracle of the loaves and fishes must have been a bit like this.

Al: Have you got more than one ice box?

Me: No

Al: I’ll find something.

And he does.

Al: Have you got containers for all the wraps?

Me: No.

Al: I’ll find something.

And he does.

Al: Have you got enough containers for all the drinks?

Me: No.

Al: I’ll find something.

And he does.

He works so hard and does it all so well that the health inspector when she comes has nothing to say but ‘well done.’ Then she goes and stands in the walk-in fridge for 15 minutes. Ostensibly this is to check that the temperature in there is correct - but it can’t be. There is a thermometer in the fridge that shows the temperature. All health inspectors are mad.

I go in to fetch something and she is just standing there deep in thought. Maybe she is meditating? I apologise because opening the door will make the temperature go up and she sighs a little and says it just means another couple of minutes.

I mean to check at the end of the evening whether she is still there...but I forget.

So, everything is ready. There are ten minutes to go. The rain clouds that have been gathering steadily are obviously an illusion; it never has rained for the Bite of Bozeman and it never will.

And then the skies open. Floods - and I mean floods - of water descend. Al races out to cover the table and all the prepared goods with polythene (where did he find that? I certainly don’t have any). The water starts running down the road in rivulets, and then it has covered the street entirely so that you can’t even see the curb.

In the midst of the huge disappointment and irritation I go out to see what is happening to the restaurants who were planning to serve food in the street. It is chaos. Barbecue fires are out and smoking; tables and chairs are being washed away by the water; people are cowering under show awnings or simply running away.

It takes the organiser 20 minutes to get down this end of Main Street to tell us that the event is cancelled. Yes, we had noticed.

I wonder whether to tell the Health Inspector that she can come out of the fridge, but decide not.

But, as we have mentioned before, Robin is a Scorpio. The words ‘let’s give up and go home’ do not exist in her vocabulary.

‘Open the cafe!’ she shouts and, sure enough as we open the doors and float the portable sign outside, twelve soaking wet and disreputable people stagger in.

‘Brew tea’, says Al.

‘Not coffee?’ I ask, perplexed.

‘No, tea. Tea doesn’t spoil the appetite,’ says Al wisely. He welcomes all the people, takes down the chairs which had been stacked on the tables when we closed and we serve them tea and brownies. And then wraps and pretzels as they are joined by 20 other refugees from the cold.

Frank Sinatra warbles happily through the speakers, the customers begin to steam and to giggle and Al and Victoria carry all the food and drinks from outside back into the cafe.

The rain stops.

‘Can you cope?’ Robin asks Victoria and Al. They haven’t a clue how any of the cafe equipment works.

‘Yes of course,’ they say.

I look puzzled.

‘Come on,’ says Robin. ‘We’re going to take a table down into the centre of town and sell wraps.’

‘Who to?’ I ask.

‘People will come now,’ says Robin. ‘And all the restaurants are shut.’

So, we hurry down the pavement and watch the water subsiding slowly as we pick an over-turned table out of the gutter and set it up two blocks into town. Then we take it in turns to carry the food and drinks down the road and, within seconds, we are selling.

I can’t believe it but, of course, Montanans are used to far worse weather than this. In the distance great streaks of lightning slash the sky and there are still drops falling here and there but the people of Bozeman are reappearing in waterproofs. And they are hungry!

We sell, and sell and sell. Both of us are frozen solid because we were dressed only in flimsy tee-shirts (the temperature was 85 degrees until the rain fell. Now it is perhaps 50 degrees). Robin is anxious that some of her make-up has run to reveal the Yogi Bear circle of pink around her mouth. Actually it has a bit but I can’t spare her. ‘You look fine’ I say. ‘Don’t worry.’

But she does. After all, she is an actress and what she calls the moment of utmost humiliation arrives. Someone important who saw her in the play at the Blue Lamp and whom she wanted to impress. He comes up and buys a pretzel and looks at her curiously.

‘Weren’t you Maggie in ‘Hearts of Glass?’ he asks and she has to admit she was. Poor Robin. Her hair is bedraggled and wet; her face in the gloaming is somewhat strange with different colours showing through; her whole upper torso is mottled with cold and goose-bumps.

But she does not run away; she faces it with laughter and tells the truth. That she has had jaw surgery and followed it up with a face lift; that she’s bloody cold but that I am her friend and helped her and now she is only too delighted to help me. I can see in the man’s face that although he doesn’t admire her features any more, he does admire her strength and spirit - and I tell her so when he has gone.

Nevertheless, she needs to go and make some repairs back at the cafe and, for half an hour it is just me on the sodden streets, selling wraps and pretzels and brownies. It’s fun and I dance to keep warm and shout like a fish-wife street-seller: ‘The last chocolate on Main street! Don’t let me eat it all myself!’

After two hours the rush is over. We are not sold out but we have done very well and earned more in the evening than the cafe did all day. Sara is back in the cafe and clearing up, having telephoned Victoria twice to say that she is not coming in. I don’t know what Victoria said to her, but here she is. And she is not in a bad mood.

We help her for a while and then she says to go home; she is much happier clearing up on her own, so we can leave.Didi is ecstatic, having been left for far too long and she needs a walk. The rain has started again and it is still incredibly damp. In the distance I can hear the sound of the street musicians still playing and I have a strange contentment. We did the impossible tonight and although I could not do it, I had found friends who could - and you can’t really ask for more than that.


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