That Time I Set Bill Clinton’s Table On Fire

One afternoon in 2005, I was browsing for freelance gigs on Craigslist when one caught my attention.”$18-$20 PER HOUR-EXPERIENCED CATER WAITERS AND EVENT STAFF WANTED. MUST BE OVER 21 AND OWN FULL TUXEDO.”

Well I certainly wasn’t experienced and had no tuxedo, but I WAS 21. At that time, the thought of making $18-$20 per hour made me want to pee my pants and pass out with excitement. I quickly started to make mental lists of all the things I could afford to buy with that kind of money. Non generic brand groceries, prescriptions, OPI nail polish….it was all very exciting. So, I hauled ass uptown, and into the catering office with my highly embellished server resume. The receptionist at the desk greeted me and asked me to sit in the waiting area and fill out multiple pages of application forms. There were several others waiting as well who all looked like super serious waiters. We were finally called into a room as a group where large TV was wheeled in with a VCR attatched. They told us that before we were interviewed we would need to watch a ten minute video about what the job entailed and procedure. The video was very serious, and people even had things like crumbers in their back pocket in it. I was sweating and thinking “I am totally gonna get found out”. We went around in a circle and did a quick group interview. Before I left they asked me to confirm that I owned a full tuxedo. I said yes, of course I owned a full tuxedo–I mean what experienced cater waiter wouldn’t!? So with that, I walked out the door with a job as NYC’s newest cater waiter.

I got an email the next day that they were adding me to the schedule immediately for my first training shift. I totally panicked. I had one day to track down a full tuxedo and searched all over town. I also needed to bring my own crumber & corkscrew. About 7 hours later, I was done shopping and had successfully obtained all the items, but I was flat broke from it. I was now the proud owner of a Polyester tuxedo that was the most hideous thing I had ever seen. I just hoped it would be a good investment.

Though I had high hopes for myself, my first day of training was a total disaster. I had just turned 21, and had never even uncorked a bottle of wine before. (I was one of those rare teenagers who didn’t ever have a drink until I was of age.) So I kept trying to open the wine bottles and failing. With my stress building, I then knocked over a pitcher of water on of the nicely set tables, ruining everything. My face turned beet red and I wanted to cry. I was a total failure at this waiter thing. I also couldn’t seem to get down the correct pre determined sides to serve wine, entrees, and dessert on (which I blame on my undiagnosed dyslexia.) With all that combined with my total lack of coordination, I was turning out to be the worst cater waiter trainee ever. I left work that day feeling like an idiot. I waited for a call that I was fired but it never came.

Though it was a struggle, I miraculously passed the required training days and ended up serving at many celebrity events. For most of them I was required to sign a contract saying I wouldn’t call the paparazzi, take photos or sell stories about what went down at the events. So, I can’t tell you the gossip from the times I served wine to Barbra Walters & Joan Rivers, hor d’ourves to future “President” Donald Trump, dinner to Bruce Willis, and dessert to Larry King. But one event I can tell you about took place a few months later.

On this occasion, I was hired to serve at a dinner and huge fundraising gala put on by the Kennedy family at the NYC Piers.Bill Clinton, Oprah, Al Gore, Yoko Ono, and more were attending. Bono, Elton John, Paul McCartney were performing. I was super psyched that I was going to get to see all of them play for free. When I arrived, the Secret Service was already stationed in all corners of the venue.

There were nearly 50 round tables, and a long ornate Presidential Table at the front of the room. It was sprawling and beautiful inside, meticulously decorated and slightly intimidating.

Our first task was to set each of the tables with plates, programs, place cards, silverware, and napkins. Our team leader/catering nazi came over and barked some orders at us to get started. With the help of a few other cater waiters, I finished setting the tables. The only thing I had left to do before guests started being let in and dinner service began, was light the tea light candles at each place setting. I was told matches and a lighter would take too long, so I was handed a long taper candle to use to light the smaller ones. I lit about half of the table’s tea lights as quickly as I could, but time was closing in. I could hear the press’s camera shutters outside as they took photos of celebrities on the red carpet. The catering captain/nazi then shouted “FIVE MINUTES TILL OPEN!!” so I started to rush faster.

I remember the rest of what happened next in slow motion……I walked toward the last unlit tea light candles at the Presidential table…..As I tipped my candle down, a flaming chunk of wick & wax fell onto the table cloth below. The tablecloth quickly caught on fire, followed by the place cards, and event programs surrounding it. With sheer panic, I looked around for a glass of water to throw on the fire, but the catering nazi got to it before I did. The once ornately set Presidential table was now flooded and crispy.

Floating in the wreckage remained the soggy, charred programs, and a charred place card that now just said “Efferson Clinton”, and chunks of the burnt white linen tablecloth. I stood there frozen & mortified-still in shock while holding my long candle and waiting to get tackled by secret service. The catering nazi screamed orders at the rest of the staff who frantically ran around to replacing everything on the table before the guests came in. I heard one of them say “What the hell happened?” The catering nazi responded by pointing at me with a stare of death and said: “THAT GIRL SET BILL CLINTONS TABLE ON FIRE!!!”

When I could finally muster up the words to ask if I could do anything to help, the catering nazi told me I could help by going home. The celebrity guests had to be held at the door for eight extra minutes until the room was ready again. I left the event space and walked across three avenues to the subway with tears streaming down my face.

I held on to my full tuxedo for awhile after that, but never got called back for another caiter-waiter job.