Herbie Pischler stands at the counter, motionless, his back to the thinning crowd. His pencil rests idly on his order pad.
Is he adding a check? Figuring his tips? No. The noonday rush has been wearing on Herbie. He is taking a nap.
Give him a moment. Soon his head will jerk upward and he will resume his slow shuffling among the tables at Costello's Restaurant in effortless affirmation of the title his fans have voted him: the World's Worst Waiter.
Those who dispute the title point out Herbie's occasional displays of dining room efficiency.
Should a customer ask for another roll, for example, Herbie often reaches in his pocket where he keeps a supply, saving all those steps to the kitchen. When one customer asked what the creamy stuff was on his sandwich, Herbie scooped up some on his finger and licked it. "Butter," he said, and shuffled on.
The restaurant was founded in 1928 by Tim and Joe Costello, Irish immigrants of happy memory, who discovered shortly after stepping off the boat that running a speak-easy was more profitable than driving a truck.
From the beginning the genial Irishmen attracted an assortment of New Yorkers who appreciated a stalwart drink, an uncomplicated menu and good cheer.
Costello's walls are decorated with original works by America's most noted cartoonists, beginning with James Thurber, and its roster of regulars over the years included Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, A.J. Liebling, Charles Addams, Walt Kelly and legions of uncelebrated working folk, always a most tolerant clientele.
Last Name Not Known
Herbie found a home there. That was 22 years ago, the longest he has ever held a job. In all that time, few have learned his last name. He is just Herbie.
He won the title of World's Worst Waiter back in 1974, by popular acclaim of awed customers who observed him at work and also learned something of his past.
No official document certifies the title, but in 15 years no challenger has come forward, and so the folks at Costello's figure that it is Herbie's by default. A clipping on the wall from a British publication is documentation enough that the title is truly international.
You will hear no criticism of Herbie at Costello's. Instead, a pastime among a group at the end of the bar is to make side bets on whether Herbie gets the right order to the right customer, without accident.
"Herbie's completion rate," says Tim Costello, the proprietor and son of the founder, "is about 75%."
"I'm not as young as I used to be," Herbie replies. "At my age you're bound to make a few mistakes."
Similar to Zeppelin
Herbie will be 83 on July 31. He was born in Ludwigshafen, Germany, where the zeppelin made its appearance at about the same time. In fact, Herbie and the zeppelin are of similar design, sort of egg-shaped. Herbie, asleep or awake, stands 5-foot-6, a wizened gnome with thin gray hair and hazel eyes.
At 16, he took a job as cabin boy on a German merchant ship and made his way to Argentina. In time he became second steward on the presidential yacht docked in Buenos Aires, where his true greatness was first noticed.
Is the report accurate, he was asked, that he spilled a bowl of soup on the Prince of Wales who had come aboard for a state dinner?
"No," says Herbie, "It is not true. I spilled the soup on the colonel sitting next to him. Only a little got on the prince.
"It was not my fault," Herbie hastens to add. "The carpet tripped me."
Worked as Army Cook
Jobless, Herbie wandered around Europe and in 1929 came to America. Not a good year to find a job. Herbie joined the Army and became a mess cook, as they are called, in Herbie's case perhaps aptly.
When the Depression wound down, Herbie left the Army and resumed the career that led to his deserved acclaim.
He began as a dishwasher in New York and worked his way to the bottom, building an impressive resume.
"I worked at the old Plaza Hotel, the Ambassador, the English Grill, the Astor. Then I went to Florida and worked in the fancy places at Miami Beach.
"I went to Chicago and worked at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. I worked in West Virginia, at the Greenbrier. You know the Greenbrier?"
'One of the Best'
Were you a good waiter, Herbie?
"One of the best. You couldn't work at those places unless you were one of the best."
Were you ever fired?
Why did you move around so much?
"When you are young, you must move. You must . . . adventure!"
Did you ever have any noteworthy adventures at any of those places?
"Are you asking did I spill a pot of coffee on that columnist guy, Walter Winchell? Yes, I spilled the coffee."
The carpet's fault?
"The carpet's fault."
A few more stains on the linoleum--happily, Costello's has no carpet--or on Herbie's pants and shirt sleeves for that matter, are viewed here merely as badges of honest, if at times maladroit, labor.
Indeed, Tim Costello and his partner, Pete Tully, consider Herbie and his WWW title as an asset.
Loss of Traditions
It is a rare attitude in this bottom-line town, where family-owned restaurants with individual traditions and values have become almost extinct.
Since Prohibition's repeal in 1933, Costello's has had to move three times to stay alive, but never farther than half a block. It has been at its present spot at 225 East 44th since 1974. With each move, its most cherished movable treasures went with it--the bar, the back bar, the Thurber drawings, Herbie.
The bar is of cigarette-scarred oak rubbed to a warm patina by three generations of elbows.
Three generations of mementos decorate the back bar. Above an array of bottles rises a clutter of photographs and testimonials, and above these hang an assortment of gifts from grateful customers.
They include a cavalry saber from the Spanish Civil War; a "TC" branding iron from Stanley Walker, New York editor turned Texas rancher, and the remains of a blackthorn walking stick that Hemingway broke over the head of John O'Hara in 1944, not in anger but on a bet.
The story, from an eyewitness, is that O'Hara claimed that blackthorn was the only wood that couldn't be broken over an Irishman's head. Hemingway bet he could break that very stick over the head of that very Irishman.
He padded O'Hara's head with napkins, laid the stick on the napkins and took hold of each end. "Brace yourself, John," he said, and pulled down until the stick cracked.
At Costello's, legends abound.
Herbie, the World's Worst Waiter, is already one of them.