It happens more often than I’d like to admit: I’m at work, tray precariously balanced on my palm and laden with dishes when I realize a party of twenty has just walked in during the dinner rush (thanks for calling ahead, guys), and is being given to me. My section seems to stretch for miles, and every face I see is desperately attempting to get my attention as I try to remember where I put table 61’s credit card. Shit. I’m in the weeds, irreparably screwed, when the tray clatters to the floor as I’m rounding a corner and collide with an unsuspecting coworker. It’s an inevitable repercussion of waiting tables: the dreaded waiting nightmare. I wake suddenly, relieved it was only a dream, but still unsettled. Did I ever even take a side of ranch to that guy at 96 earlier tonight?
I remember my initiation into the service industry clearly. At fourteen, I entered the world of waiting through the wrong door–that is, the front one: the one for customers, not the dime-a-dozen (or rather, $2.13 an hour) wait staff. That first mistake became one of many, and one mistake at a time, I became the incomparable (and heartwarmingly modest) waitress I am today. Truth is, I was groomed for the job. I come from a long line of warriors in waiting, going all the way back to Waitstaff Royalty.
My paternal grandmother had her signature “Stevens Stare” that could make a flirtatious patron swallow his spoon in shame and slink away–but not before leaving a generous tip. My mother’s mother killed them with kindness and took you at your word–so learned the country club member who ordered scalding hot coffee. My father, mother, great-aunts, and cousins come from the same tradition. This lineage dates back to ancient Rome, The Last Supper, and the first Thanksgiving, and still extends forward to my brother, learning the ropes for the first time at thirty-three working at a five-star restaurant; and my sister, starting out in New York, pursuing her dream of professional acting through the traditional route, just as the greats before her did.
And so it follows: ten years after that first serving job, waitressing remains a habit I can’t seem to kick. Like the occasional cigarette, alcohol, and Grey’s Anatomy reruns, I know I should stop. I should get a “real” job: one less exhausting, dehumanizing, and misanthropic. But each new day, the bad memories from previous shifts fade, and all I remember are the challenges-and the possibilities-of that night. On those really magical days, the start of a shift feels like opening night–before the curtain rises, with the entire cast and crew rehearsed and costumed, the stage set for a grand performance.
When I put my apron on, I transform into a photographer, nutrition expert, mixologist, weatherman, psychiatrist, mind reader, grateful servant, diplomat, and just about anything else a table expects me to be. From the first interaction, I read the table to provide the service preferred and expected, and do my best to predict the needs that aren’t verbalized-which are often the most important ones. In part, it’s about assessing how the table views me, my profession, and their relation to it. But it’s mostly about assessing how the person views himself. It’s the difference between responding with “good” or “well” when asked how I am, with timing leisurely or fast service, being professional or casual, ingratiating or sarcastic, and getting the service right, not just the food. I can anticipate need before you recognize it in yourself, find you the perfect entrée or cocktail, and quietly direct the meal rather than stiffly control it. And while my behavior may change for each table, the quality of my service does not. The food is the easy part: it’s not about the food. Waiting tables is a cinch, but a server who does it well–and does it completely–is a finely-tuned instrument in a well-rehearsed orchestra.
Of course, I do not always use my powers for good. I can make a “thank you” sound like a slap in the face, or a pause while you consider dressing options (that I’ve already repeated twice–plus you’re going to choose ranch anyway) feel like eternity. I can bring a wine snob to bitter tears and shame you into tipping me what I deserve in front of all your girlfriends. I can set the tone for your entire evening–ruin your date or add polish to your rehearsal dinner. And I will talk to you in the same cutting, belittling tone you used to bring the hostess to furious tears. This particular treatment is reserved for special customers, and used in moderation, always as a tool for teaching what should have been learned at a very young age: treat others how you want to be treated. (Also, don’t fuck with people who handle your food.) And let me be clear: terrible customers and terrible tips do not always go hand in hand, just as fantastic patrons and fantastic tips don’t. I’d like to think that these little lessons peppered throughout the meal do, in fact, make these people better patrons, hopefully better tippers, and overall better fellow human beings. Pay attention to how people treat their waiters and you’ll learn a lot about them.
People are often at their most vulnerable when they eat, and waiting tables for the better part of a decade taught me to attune myself to their vulnerabilities, and absorb everything I can from those small, unguarded moments. True, serving has given me lifelong contempt for lemons in water, the innate duty of tipping 20% minimum no matter what, and several killer burn marks that are going nowhere fast. But my time as a waitress has ingrained several invaluable lessons over the years that translate into life beyond the restaurant.
- Leave it at the door. No matter what happened last shift, in class, or with the table five minutes ago, no good can come from festering. That rotten mood infects your coworkers, your subconscious, and your tables–and grumpy people do not tip well.
- Don’t be judgmental: what goes around comes around. It’s incredibly frustrating to be given a table of eight middle-schoolers to wait on, who will inevitably suck down sodas at the speed of light, stay for hours, and tip in change, if anything at all. The only way I get through it is to consider waiting on them karmic penance for all of the terrible tips I left waitresses as a teenager. (I shamefully remember one smiley face made of pennies and nickels I left after camping out in a booth for hours.) And that being said, don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Even teenagers can surprise you. Give everyone the same service, no matter what. If you treat someone like you don’t expect a good tip and give service accordingly, guess what will happen? These stereotypes within the industry are self-fulfilling prophesies, and more than a little bit bigoted.
- Learn to thrive under pressure. Never let your tables know you have ten thousand things to do, and their questions about MSG in the mayonnaise or what the English translation of “taco” is (that one was just last Friday) are at the bottom of the list. Be patient, smile, and go the extra mile. Even if no one notices. Despite the ten thousand things on that to do list, always be a team player.
- Lead by example. This one deserves being said again. Lead by example. Complaining gets you no where, but proactivity and hard work do.
- Understand how to make great small talk. You’d be surprised how much benificial networking can result from, “Boy, the rain sure is coming down, huh?” And while we’re on the subject, learn people’s names. In restaurants this means bussers, dishwashers and (of course) cooks. Don’t expect “hey you” to do you any favors when you’re slammed. Plus it’s basic human courtesy. Come on, you work with these people all the time.
- Invest in good footwear. This one may not translate directly from the world of serving, but my guess is most of us can’t remember the last time our most worn shoes were replaced. Your poor feet do more work and get less love than the rest of you after a long shift. Take care of them: try getting a stupid pedicure instead of getting a fancy drink at the bar after work. Actually, get the drink too. You probably deserve one.
By far, the most important lesson I learned over the years is about service as a whole. The act of serving, of contributing, is (on the good days) equally exchanged between patron and employee and a mindset more than a job. Somehow, we often forget how to treat each other decently, to enjoy the action of the present, and to engage in every moment and every opportunity for learning. I am constantly reminding myself that no matter the job, there are things you can learn and things you can teach. (TRANSITION)
Waiting tables is, for some, a career that has been honed and crafted for decades. For others, it’s a dream job: no work to take home, no menial day after menial day, and plenty of cardio. For me, it’s more than a means to an end but still less than the ideal. And on those rare occasions when my sleep is disrupted by angry patrons in a never-ending shift, or when a shift itself feels like a waking nightmare, I have to remind myself of those quiet moments of vulnerability, connection, and insight and of the lineage of service that I represent and communicate.