...featuring Bunny, Timmy, Marsha, Megan, Shannon, Wayne, Summer, Naomi and many others too numerous to mention.
Working in a restaurant is one of life’s most ignominious and overlooked endeavors: whether you are cooking, sweeping, bussing or waiting on tables it becomes a family affair. This is the closest respectable people ever come to a life of crime – isn’t there something disreputable about taking tips and calling it pay? It is here you will also meet many people on the way (midway actually) toward their careers in the wider world, or slowly developing as alcoholics (you will never meet more drunks than in a restaurant); you will also never laugh harder nor work harder anywhere indoors. When you are in the food biz human nature becomes your subject for study no matter where you are ultimately headed. I doubt I ever learned more anywhere.
“86 shrimp cocktail!” Translation: you are out of this for the evening. “Need a set-up – thank you set-up.” Translation: I need it fast and then it is handed off by a line cook. “Marsha is seeing colors at table ten.” Translation: someone is losing their grip on reality. Every movement in a restaurant is coded so a server can get out onto the floor and play a complicated performance of give and receive. Serving is theater: there is always a backstage (the waiters area and kitchen) and there is always onstage (the floor). Will I ever be able to tally how many large trays delicately arranged with heaping plates I negotiated between these two arenas? I certainly remember that slight tingle of energy to the skin as one prepares to go “on”. A starched shirt and a knotted tie (along with your sunniest smile) and you push yourself out there amongst the “English” (as Kelly McGillis’ Amish father called the big city slickers in the movie Witness). This is showtime.
There are many different styles of waiting on a table and your style depends on your type. People wait tables for many different reasons but they are all in need of cash. There are your druggies and alchies – they are working for more. There are your students – they work summers and on breaks for tuition or snacks during the semester (depending on household income). There are your lifers – people pushing 40 and beyond who have settled into the lifestyle. Then there are the flunkies. The flunkie was my group: homos, partiers, weirdos, depressives, abuse victims, writers, poets, artists, dropouts, bums. You never met a wittier, better read, or funnier group of outcasts. We were all there in our 20s and 30s when the muscles and stamina are still good and you have the youthful glow of delayed adolescence. When we weren’t running the streets we were fiercely running our sections and laughing all the way. Waiting is not like high school; it is the reverse. The flunkies ruled. They lived to riff on every average soul that wandered into the killing fields. Everyone was fair game: recent divorcees, the just out of high school, the single mom, anyone trying to make an honest living was put under a microscope and toyed with. With our group cruelty wasn’t the goal; we were sponges for all the variety that life had to offer. Initiation was usually a week or two and mostly painless for the newbie. We really just wanted to take them in and see if we could peg their story. With the usual problems and heart aches you would always come across some surprises, because life is surprising; you would meet wonderful souls on a similar journey and soon they were flunkies too. If not they spiced up the small time they worked with you and provided gossip.
And oh the gossip – everyone was either sleeping with everyone else or close. If they weren’t doing it they wanted to. There is a painful coming-of-ageness in a restaurant; if you aren’t ready to pop out of your prospective closet you are in for an ordeal. For some reason it just pushes you to the edge and sexuality is usually where it lands. It happened to me at 22, flirting with girls and sleeping with boys and ending up in a whole world of trouble which I do not regret. I think these events led to my first adult moments, if being an adult means taking responsibility for your actions because your actions mean something to you. It meant being called names, lied about, railroaded, snubbed and sat down for a talk about mental rehabilitation for me. And in that moment (with you GP, one of the owners of a seafood house) I stood up for myself. I didn’t see myself as mentally ill. In fact, I saw myself as completely sane for once. After our charming chat I politely put on my apron and went back out there to make a few more dollars.
For you, those kind patrons who never came of age in the food industry, now is the time for some myth busting. Yes, waiters do interfere with your food if they hate you; I have seen food stepped on and served. I have seen bar mat cocktails (whatever is left from previous drinks is drained into a new one), stale bread, crusty bottom of the urn soup revived with hot water, cold food reheated and served, bugs, glass, plastic and you-name-it discovered in the dish du jour. And no, not one of us really cared for long. We were busy having fun and making cash for the drinks later on at the disco. I have also seen how childish most people are in public, how demanding and ruthless, rude and picky patrons are. Dinner is not a pretty light to sit in. It is usually the place where in most normal people choose to act out. All the small tragedies in a restaurant usually add up to no more than a natural justice system; it always seemed to me that the worst customers had the mishap. The good news is that for the most part the food was hot and fresh and your waiter was trying to keep his section in order so that he did not go crazy. I think your odds are at 95% for having a delightful time if the place is busy and the food is known to be good.
Perhaps the next time you go in and the lights are down and the joint is bustling you will take a look around you. Who are the flunkies? Who is really running the place? If the performance is studied and the specials come out with a stutter you are not working with quality. If your waiter is a little brusque, however, not so approachable and with a poised and sardonic look, then ask him or her what you should skip. They will steer you in the right direction. Never fear. You are dealing with class.