Sore Feet, Latin Honors, Coffee Stains and Martinis
My Memoir as a Waitress and the Invaluable Wisdom of the Working Class
I watched the lady with the short curly red hair stand up on her tip toes to reach the microphone at the podium to give the opening statement of the lecture. Her hair wasn’t naturally red; it was the fake faded fire-truck red that trendy older women dyed their hair to cover the grays. I sat in the seventh row of the auditorium and rolled my eyes as she introduced herself and gave a quaint introduction to the speaker I had come to this prestigious university to see. I rolled my eyes because I knew this woman. I had seen her many times before. Apparently, she was the Director of Something-Guest-Speakers-Something-Entertainment at this college and wooed the audience with her warm smile and quirky puns. I always knew she held some prestigious status among the affluent elites in our town; however I never actually had a conversation with her to find out. Our exchange was always “Can I get you something to drink?” or “how is your dinner tonight?" - the typical one-liner dialogue of exchange between a waitress (me) and their extremely uptight, unappeasable customer. Though I had just been accepted into this esteemed university on a full scholarship, after five years of working full time in the restaurant industry to support myself through my undergraduate career, I still felt a tinge of inadequacy being so close to this woman again. The same woman that made me, a double major, Latin honors college graduate, feel like nothing more than a menial servant, no better than the scraps leftover on her plate.During these years as a waitress, above any of the social skills I’ve developed, acting would be the most important. I always said waitressing is just a form of light-prostitution, as you’re really just whoring yourself out to people for a 20% tip. Despite your boyfriend just broke up with you, or that your mother was diagnosed with cancer or that your family dog of 15 years just died, when you put on that apron you are nothing more than a smiling idiot who caters to the wants and needs of hungry, and often enough, grumpy Americans. You need to slap on a smile and act friendly to anyone and everyone who walks in the door, despite how inconsiderate and disrespectful they might be.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against working in the food service industry. I don’t look down on people who do it and I don’t think anyone is above such a task. It has enabled me as a young woman to successfully put myself through college and live a relatively comfortable life on my own. Additionally, it has given me valuable experience that my $120,000 college degree couldn’t teach me: and that is the value of hard work and fundamentally, working for what you have. Through my experience, I like to think I’m ahead of most of my affluent class mates as I have gained a very strong work ethic that will carry me through my graduate career.
However, it is an extremely stressful, soul-obliterating occupation at times. I say “soul-obliterating” as it literally feels as if your personal sense of self is sucked out of you by the nastiness of complete strangers who torture you for their own sadistic enjoyment. Most of the time, the indecency doesn’t come so blatantly in your face. Often, it is the lack of respect customers exhibit for you just because you are serving their pancakes and pouring their coffee. They don’t see you as a person: they see you as their own personal servant. And they will treat you as such from the moment they walk in the door. Most of them don’t look you in the eye and even if you do everything perfectly, like time their breakfast or dinner to come out at just the right time, refill every drink right away and secure your lips firmly to their ass, they still leave you less than 15% gratuity on their bill. In an effort to understand why your tip was so low, as the tip is supposed to reflect the quality of the service, you begin to doubt not only your waitressing abilities, but yourself as well. In this whole cycle, you have confused YOUR sense of self with your position as a waitress, thinking you’re not good enough based on their bad tip, and in turn internalize their indecencies as your own personal flaws.
Does that sound a little extreme? Maybe, however anyone who has ever held a serving position before will probably relate to this. One time, on a very busy and stressful night, where the kitchen was backed up and the bar was crowded and when everything that could go wrong went wrong, I had a very obnoxious and (excuse me for using this term) bitchy lady rip me apart based on the quality of her food. Grant it, her fish came out undercooked, though her dissatisfaction was through no fault of my own. Rather than ask for it to be sent back to be cooked through, she gave me a verbal black eye like I have never experienced before. While her group of yuppie comrades sat idly by and listened to her rip me a new one, I had to swallow the insults and repeatedly apologize for her dissatisfaction, though once again, it clearly wasn’t my fault. By that point, I couldn’t handle it anymore and had to excuse myself from the restaurant floor for ten minutes while I hysterically bawled in the dish room. I like to think of myself as a strong person, but sometimes on a bad night, it only takes that one horrible person to strike a nerve. It was the first and last time I ever let a customer make me cry.
I always said you never really know someone until you see how they treat their waiter/waitress. Ironically, whenever I’m out to eat with my boyfriend or family, I always make sure they say “thank you” after anything they order. Though it’s common decency, you’d be surprised at how many people don’t realize how indecent they are actually being. That’s why I have a hard time respecting people like this lady when I see her outside of the restaurants I’ve worked in, simply for the fact that they don’t respect me. Does she know I’m now a student at her school? Or that I graduated with a 3.5 GPA? No, she doesn’t. However, that shouldn’t keep her from respecting me as so.
Let me explain: for these five years I’ve waitressed, I’ve worked in five different restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Starfish Brasserie, Blue Sky Café and 1741 on the Terrace), three of them in the same town. Through my time there, I’ve always treated every customer with a basic level of respect, no matter their skin color, dress, age or attitude. These restaurants ranged from the highest frou-frou fine dining to the most basic breakfast diner settings with clientele from spoiled college kids to inner city minorities to wealthy business men and prominent professors. Though it was a requirement of the trade to smile and be friendly to everyone, I can honestly say, had it not been a requirement, I probably would have still been nice anyway. Simply for the fact, that until this customer gives me a reason to dislike them, I have no reason to NOT treat them with respect! Even if a customer blatantly insults me, firing back an insult to note on how they shouldn’t be eating those biscuits and home fries smothered in gravy in the first place will just make me look like bad. Why not let them be rude and then take pride in myself later that at least I took the high road, even if I knew their pea-sized brains would be incapable of doing this in the first place.
After five years of enduring all kinds of customer complaints, heat lamp burns, 12% tips and personal degradation, I have to say that my mental solidity has paid off. Yes there were times I cursed out certain guests, excuse me, CUSTOMERS, in the kitchen and then returned to the floor smiling just seconds later. (A former restaurant manager told me to refer to them as “guests” as we were to treat them as if they were a guest in our own home). Did I punch things? Yes. Did I throw things? Yes. (I became known at the Olive Garden for this bad habit). Did I sit in my car after an endless night of “All-You-Can-Eat-Shrimp at Red Lobster and cry out of mere exhaustion? Yes. I am not proud of these weak moments and I can safely say I don’t physically express my frustrations anymore. However, most importantly, I think it was the simple fact that while I was interacting with customers, I maintained a calm, friendly demeanor. The misery has been well worth it.
Why is it important to treat people with basic respect? Mostly because you will never know who you will meet, or even who that person is you’re serving. Just as this frizzy fake red headed woman in front of me didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt of being a college educated young woman, I did not want, or simply couldn’t be that naturally rude in return. (Being a young woman with no college degree shouldn't matter either). In turn for my unwavering warmth and kindness, I’ve met some interesting people who would eventually come back into my life in other regards that made me glad I was nice to them in the first place. I’ve had job offers thrown at me for my elegant service. I’ve met local artists and musicians as well as writers, actors and poets. I’ve met people from Los Angeles, Texas, Australia and Spain. Most recently I met a Harvard PhD graduate who I later found out was applying for a position at the department of the college I was looking at for graduate school and who ended up dropping in a good word for me. I’ve been left my fair share of phone numbers and been asked out for drinks on numerous occasions.
Most importantly, and most ironically, I have probably met and served almost every professor in the political science department at the graduate school I’m attending, without necessarily knowing it. The secretary of the department remembers me as “the waitress with blue hair” (yes I dyed my hair blue for a month: a once and done deal). The chair of the department and his wife were regular customers at all three Bethlehem restaurants I worked in and for years I served their martinis (Bombay-Sapphire straight up with olives and the “Post-Modern”) and wine without realizing that one day he would be reading the writing sample of my graduate school application. As they were always polite and nice to me, I always welcomed them and made sure to guarantee them good service.
What I’m trying to say is, after reflecting whole-heartedly on the last five years as a waitress, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without it. As much as I loathe the job and sometimes find it demeaning and tiring, I’ve made valuable connections and gained invaluable experiences. After all this rambling and musing about the ins and outs of the profession, I will say these two things:
To Customers: Your waitress or waiter is a person too. The simple act of referring to them by their first name, saying ‘please’ and giving compliments go a long way. Please don’t snap your fingers or whistle at them. Treat them as if they were your mother serving you Thanksgiving dinner. Some of them have children to support, others have college tuition to pay for. Please leave no less than 18% if their service was at least adequate. Who knows? If it wasn’t, they could just be having a bad night, and everyone has bad nights. They aren’t lower than you just because they serve your food. Somebody has to, right? Just like somebody has to collect your garbage or fix your car. Your one act of kindness can make the difference.
To Fellow Waitresses and Waiters: Just because you serve bacon and eggs or pour wine or coffee doesn’t mean you are any less of a person than the customer you’re serving it to. Every action has a reaction and even though it might be hard to hold back the well-deserved insults or hurtful truths, better to have taken the high road than succumb to the same level of indecency and misery. Hard work will pay off in the end and even though most of those customers have never worked in the restaurant industry and gone through the same pain as you, take pride in knowing that if they tried they probably couldn’t handle it. Through work comes experience and through experience comes knowledge and ultimately, experience and knowledge equate to wisdom. Only your wisdom is something that cannot be bought from prestigious liberal arts college.
It is this strong work ethic and fundamental ability to value what you have because you earned it that makes the working class admirable. We build bridges and pick vegetables and pave roads and dry clean your clothes and cook your food and deliver your mail and drive your bus. We clean your bathrooms and pick up your garbage and watch your kids at day care. We are the backbone of society and without us, you might just have to get your hands dirty. Though I hope my graduate degree will take me to a better profession than where I am now, (when I say better I don’t mean money wise, I mean a profession where I can help people) I will always cherish and associate myself with the working class because we are exactly that: we keep society working and functioning.