Against Waitressing

While I'm sitting in my sweltering apartment roasting like a game bird, summer does not speak to me of pyrotechnics, barbecues or vacationing in Mexico. Summer speaks to me of temporary employment. The temporality of the season dictates rapid metamorphosis. Thus, we emerge from various institutions with stuffed craniums and calligraphied diplomas in search of a new life. By July, if we're lucky, we find ourselves employed as waiters and waitresses in our favorite restaurants; if not so lucky, dishwashers, sous chefs or busboys. The Philosopher stands holding a bean-covered ladle that needs washing and he asks himself, "Is this a ladle, and if so, how do I know it is a ladle?" If you're thinking about a summer job, I advise you to think twice before you go around with your stack of resumes and drop them off like WANTED posters in the restaurants where you dine. I worked at a restaurant for two years, and every time I sit down in a vinyl booth and am handed a laminated menu by a 50-year-old waitress, I wonder how they do it.The first day on the job I was to learn that for the next two years, coffee grounds would be my nemesis. I was working the breakfast shift, which is twice the work for half the money. I dropped a filter full of wet coffee grounds on the greasy linoleum floor two seconds before I was about to take an order of eight over-easy eggs to the cab driver that ordered them. I kid you not, eight over-easy eggs. The man asked for extra butter with his eggs (he didn't order toast, and I was pretty sure he wasn't going to put the butter in his coffee), and when I returned with the "Continental Chips," as they're called, he looked at me and said, "Hey sweetheart, gimme two more eggs, will ya?"It was then that I realized people have disgusting eating habits. This is something I was never able to get over. I became fascinated with mastication and often found myself fixated on someone folding a tortilla into his mouth, or drinking the soup from the bottom of her bowl. There is nothing more disgusting than watching a person ask you for an extra order of toast as the chewed eggs fall out of his or her mouth onto the hashbrowns. Talking to a waitress with your mouth full is reprehensible behavior -- and people do it all the time. After every shift, no matter how many times I washed my hands, I would return home and scrape out the moist, greasy, drool-covered food from the corners of my fingernails with a dental pick.While watching a customer eat, I would sometimes forget what I was doing, only to be reminded by the snapping fingers of a table full of teen-agers. Teen-agers love to sit in restaurants, for hours. They don't order food. They drink coffee and they are addicted to sugar. Eight of them will crowd around a table that seats four, and five of them will order either coffee or soda, with extra straws. They do not leave tips and on more than one occasion my little friends did not have enough money to pay their bill. They don't tip, until you scream at them one afternoon and ask them if they really think $4 is worth the 6 pounds of coffee they drank.Teen-agers are not the only ones that can't figure out 15 percent. Surgeons, nuns, bankers, your grandmother -- they are all confused by the 15-percent concept. Say you sell $10 worth of food. Ten percent of $10 is $1, half that is the 5 percent, 50 cents. Fifteen percent of $10 is $1.50. Not the 50 cents left on the table. You won't always deserve a great tip, but even if you spit on a customer they should leave at least 15 percent.Now, I have made my mistakes. I once told a small child her French toast looked like it was dipped it cobwebs (she refused to eat it). I once mentioned to a rather attractive girl that she had the mandibular structure of a grasshopper. I accidentally took a drink out of someone's pint of beer before I handed it to them. These customers all tipped at least 20 percent. Why? Because they had relatives that worked in the food service industry.Waiting tables is grueling, disgusting, thankless drudgery and it is not worth the corns, the varicose veins or having a person tell you you're being too slow when you're 10 minutes away from the end of your eight-hour shift.There is always something to do when you're waitressing. There are usually eight or nine things to do at one time when you're waitressing: take seven glasses of water, two no ice, to Table 3; get a side of mayonnaise for the woman at 3; more napkins for the child who spilled her milk on 12; don't forget to coffee 1; make more decaf; the man at the bar wants to order food; the couple on 10 needs their check; take that hamburger to the guy at the pool table, and don't forget mustard and ketchup. It is inevitable that something disastrous will happen in the midst of all this confusion. The coffee machine might start to leak, or one of the cooks might cut his palm open while chopping parsley. I was once so busy that I had to cut my own underwear off with a serrated knife in the back room -- it's a long story.You have to understand that when you wait tables, everything comes down to seconds. You have to move very quickly if you're going to be an efficient worker. It should take no longer than two seconds to put a ketchup bottle in the pocket of your apron. It takes maybe 12 seconds to fill a pint of beer, to the lip of the glass, no head. It takes seven seconds to get from a table back to the waitress station to grab a bottle of Tabasco sauce and then back to the table again. So if it's taking you longer to put dressing on a salad than it takes to count the impatient expressions of the people waiting at Table 8, you are probably doing something else (for instance, watching the cooks throw the toilet plunger against the refrigerator door to see if it sticks to the stainless steel).Customers can be picky sons-of-bitches. Let's take toast, for example. Bread that has been toasted. Do you know how many complaints can be brought against toast? "My toast is burned." "My toast is not toasty enough." "I cut my gums on the crust." "There is too much butter on this toast." "There is not enough butter on this toast." "Is this rye? It doesn't taste much like rye -- Russian rye? I thought it was going to be deli rye."These are the people who make you question your existence. You will stare into their hungry eyes and ask yourself, "Why do I have a master's degree in 14th-century Chinese literature?" You might speak four languages and find that the most interesting thing you say all day is, "Whole wheat, rye or sourdough?" The customer could care less if you notice they happen to be reading Lolita and you mention that you enjoyed Invitation to a Beheading just as much. They do not ask you if you might have read Pnin; they look up from the pages of their book and they say, "Can I get some more cream?" It is then that you scowl at them and say, "No. It's half & half," and walk away.As a waitperson you will find yourself going to ridiculously great lengths to please people. I once picked the sesame seeds off a hamburger bun with a red plastic sword for a woman, before I realized what I was doing. I almost cut my finger off reslicing a slice of cucumber for another woman because she said it was too thick. I have made mosaics out of vegetable platters just to get a customer to smile.As a waitperson, you will be expected to smile until your jaw cramps. Try to smile after you have tap-danced for a 12-top, and you are left with a $6 tip on an $80 tab. Practice, because you are faced with situations like this every single day. In fact, I think the military should employ prisoners of war in restaurants if they want to break their spirits and get them to reveal enemy secrets.Anyway, wet coffee grounds are almost impossible to clean off of a linoleum floor -- they don't really sweep, they smear. You can't just wipe them up with a towel, either. You have to sort of scoop and toss them into the dustpan until there are a few hundred or so left, then you have to wipe them with a wet towel, then with a dry towel and sweep the rest into a corner until they dry, and criminy, it takes about five minutes; think of all the work you could have done in those five minutes. I strongly advise you to remember this before you tie on one of those crusty aprons that hang on a rusty nail, below the sign in a restaurant's back room that reads, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."One more thing. You know what will really piss you off? When people put lakes of ketchup onto napkins in order to dip their french fries, it will make you want to slap them. You'll see.

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