Most of us aim to be polite, and those who do not probably should. But rudeness is also an art, and sometimes a hard one to master. Knowing when to kick somebody out, when to tell him to shut up, or that you don’t care — that’s tricky, too, and it’s a necessary life skill. One person who has it down to a science is Annette, the brooch-wearing bouncer of the organic and superior Berkeley dining hall.
For those of you who do not line up at 4:40 every evening to partake in roasted parsnips and free-range chicken with creamy leeks, allow me to acquaint you with the procedure. The first 10 people in line are admitted without fail, and after that, though the rules say you need a Berkeley student to “host” you, it’s really anybody’s game. Your fate lies in the extravagantly manicured hands of Annette. Annette swipes the cards. If she doesn’t want you in, you’ve got to find another place to eat.
Annette is tough. When she’s in a bad mood, No. 11 in line just won’t cut it. More often, though, her power game involves making you beg and follow her directions. Once, a friend and I were turned away and then reappeared with one kind-hearted Berkeley kid who had agreed to host us. “Only one guest per host,” Annette chided, waiting for a response. We begged. She turned to our new Berkeley friend and scoffed, “What are their names?” Things were getting hopeless. At last, lo and behold, even as she repeated her “only one” mantra, Annette ushered us both into the dining hall.
She is unpredictable. Once I went to “BK,” as we sometimes call it, with my sister. We were probably about 40th in line, and scores of our peers were turned away before we made it to Annette’s desk, where she skeptically examined our ID cards (no Berkeley sticker, of course), laughed at us, and then swiped us in with an exuberant “JE in the house!”
I think that it’s the loyalty of us resolute fans of wholesome food that gets us through the golden gates even when the rules would have us trudge back across the common room in search of inferior grub. Annette recognizes us persistent ones, and though she’s loath to make it clear, I think she likes us. We’re either her subjects or her audience — that probably depends on your side of the desk — but either way she lets us in when she doesn’t have to.
I read an article in The New York Times this summer by a former nightclub hostess who explained her theories about what it takes to be a bouncer at a popular spot. When people hadn’t made reservations at the swanky bar, or when they weren’t famous enough, Coco — that was the hostess’ name — would watch them resort to begging and flattery, and out of sheer boredom she usually let them in.
I think it’s much the same with Annette, who plays favorites as well as any jaded nightclub hostess. Some of those who dine at what Annette has called “The Berkeley” — BK students, guests of the master, fellows of the college — have to get in. With these proud few, Annette is of course charming and obliging. Once she encouraged an impromptu birthday serenade for Berkeley Dean Levesque’s gurgling baby; another time, she let the entire Berkeley College Council cut the line to enter at 5:00 on the dot. But it is with us transfers that Annette’s real skill becomes apparent. She humbles those who swagger in at 5:30 — when you absolutely must have a Berkeley student on your arm — but when she recognizes you, you have a pretty good chance.
Annette is proof that sometimes knowing how to be rude is the only way to have really good manners. Her job is to keep people out, to exclude, to tell people they don’t belong. Yet she’s never mean or nasty. If you don’t get in, she reminds you that she’s just following the rules; if you do get in, you’re on top of the world. I’m exaggerating of course but the point is that Annette embraces the unfairness implicit in a system that cannot function without elitism, and she doesn’t let you get away with whining about it.
She’s so perfectly rude that she’s almost entirely polite. When we have to be rude or exclusive, we ought to take a lesson from her.
Helen Vera is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.