5 Lessons I Could've Learned While Waitressing (and 2 I Did)
By Cory Nicastro on February 08, 2013
Every eleven seconds in the United States of America, someone joins the ranks of the service industry, specifically restaurant wait staffs.
The preceding statistic is 100% false (I assume), but only insofar as facts go: it is 100% true in my hort. For you see, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 2 million
chumps people support themselves in this way.
Although most waitresses aren’t named Mildred Pierce, and they don’t have daughters they hide the existence of said occupation from but eventually realize what nasty little bitches the girls are and wash their hands of that particular brand of crazy at the end of HBO miniseries version (again, I assume—oh, and sorry about the spoiler!), many probably don’t take as much as they could from the job because, well, it can fucking suck. In fact, if you’ve never worked as a server, I urge you to do one of two things immediately: become a server or (mostly if you are a douchebag) nicen up.
We live in the developed world, so of course there are far worse jobs than slinging food. That said, on those really bad days serving can make you question your will to live. On the good days, one can take pride in earning an honest living even though it’s not as heroic as, say, rehabbing crack-addicted babies or finding loving homes for three-legged puppies, or whatever it is heroic people do. But on the mostest special days—if you are able to recognize them as such—a waitress can earn tips in the form of life education.
Sadly, I did not recognize those special days until much later (presumably because some worthless jackass was distracting me with a minutes-long diatribe about the mayonnaise I “forgot” to bring because he never asked for it). But that’s okay because I have learned them…and if I ever momentarily forget, at least I’ll have this blog post to remind me, right…?
Whatever. Here they are:
1. Go with your gut. According to a “Psychology Today” article by Carlin Flora, “intuition can be described as ‘almost immediate situation understanding’ as opposed to ‘immediate knowledge’”. I wouldn’t have put it like that myself because it doesn’t sound cool, but I do agree: during the spring of 2003, I dutifully scanned the newspaper classified ads everyday (yes, an actual newspaper) because I really needed a job. For weeks (maybe even months) on end, I saw the same exact ad for ******* Diner and thought Clearly, something is fucked at that place. I better avoid it.
Roughly two months later, I was working there.
“What. The. Fuck?!” you correctly ask. I didn’t trust my gut, that’s what. That was not the first nor the last time I didn’t trust it either. Honestly, it’s only been within this last year or so that I’ve finally admitted the power of intuition and started sharpening mine like a stake so that I can use it to preemptively smite all those who would do me harm.
Too much? Well, prepare thyself for a mighty smiting, then!
2. To thine own self and whatnot. Although I mastered this professionally while waitressing, personal mastery came much later.
******* Diner was run by a woman named Sue who was quite rigid (she styled her hair the same daily and openly admitted to vacuuming her linen closet for “fun”). Luckily, I didn’t work the day shift with her. In the evenings, everyone was mostly fun-loving, including the kitchen staff run by Johnny, who loved to have a good laugh. The problem was that he was also an obnoxious, cocky slob aka a misogynist on a power trip. Nonetheless, Johnny got along very well with all of the waitresses—except me, natch. I knew exactly why: they tolerated Johnny’s innuendo and blatant grossness (he would often romantically serenade us gals with a touching rendition of Missy Elliot’s “One Minute Man”). The other “gals” may have giggled because it was easier than turning their backs. Perhaps they took it all as a compliment and felt validated as sexually desirable women. He never touched anyone (to my knowledge), so perhaps that made it easy to “flirt” back. I’ll never know for sure, but Iwouldn’t—couldn’t—flirt back. I couldn’t even pretend, although I did try at first.
A few months after I turned fourteen, I got my first job as a “phone girl” (yes, that was the official title) at a pizza place. For some time in the United States, sexual harassment had been a popular topic. The Anita Hill controversy had brought the issue front and center about six years earlier and it stayed on the national radar for a long time. During some of my most formative years, I heard numerous women describe their experiences of sexual harassment (mostly in the workplace), and in my tweenage naïveté I often thought Why would anyone ever let that happen? And why wouldn’t you speak up about it?! Then it started happening to me.
There were numerous occurrences that varied in severity (once I was wearing shorts and a “man” ran his hand very high up my thigh while he was kneeling in front of a low refrigerator, the open door of which had blocked him from my view; another time I was returning empty dough pans to the back, which was usually semi-lit in the evenings, when suddenly a pair of arms pulled me against a male body; etc. ad infinitum), but I never told anyone while I worked there. None of it—the harassment or my keeping the secret—made me feel very good about myself. Clearly, I’ve never fully “gotten over it”.
Johnny never put his hands on anyone and none of his garbage was nearly as despicable as what I’d encountered from ages fourteen to sixteen, but I simply couldn’t figure out any way to handle it other than a blank stare (speaking up, again, did not occur to me); reciprocating? No thanks. I paid dearly for not going along with the game: I was often told point-blank that I was a worthless troublemaker (which was odd since I got along with every single other employee and was generally well-liked by customers), and was also non-sexually harassed because of it: on one occasion I was forced to redeliver a hamburger that had mysteriously transmogrified to tar to the customer who’d complained it was initially undercooked—the customer apologized to me and never returned. Eventually, at my wit’s end, I walked out in the middle of a shift. Was that the most mature way to exit a job? Nope, but I’ve never once hated myself for not letting a nasty man pull me down to his level to “keep the peace”.
If only I’d been able to apply that concept to romantic relationships with men…
3. Don’t make ASSumptions. When I was in elementary school, my mother told me “when you assume, you make an ass outta you and me.” David Brin is quoted as saying “the worst mistake of first contact, made throughout history by individuals on both sides of every encounter, has been the unfortunate habit of making assumptions. It often proved fatal.” Obviously, I’m not dead (right?!?!), but making assumptions has made me want to die on more than a few occasions.
Although I never would have guessed it while working as a phone girl (at age 14 I was 5’10” of slippery fingers and stumble-prone legs with poor organizational skills—don’t worry, not much has changed on either front), I took to waitressing just like…a good waitress: tray handling wasn’t as difficult as I’d feared and, for the most part, if you were kind to customers (and efficient) they were kind and generous to you.
My idea of a kind and friendly greeting was “Hello folks!” for mixed groups, “Hello ladies!” for the bitches, and “Hi fellas!” for the mens. I have no idea why; it just felt right—usually. One night, I approached a table: farthest from me was a man wearing a trucker’s hat (not in the Ashton Kutcher way, but in the trucker way), and closest was a bald man. Once I was standing to the left of the bald man, I let loose a congenial “Hi fellas! How are we tonight?” and waited for the love to return.
Then the trucker spoke. “That’s not a fella. That’s my wife, and she’s going through chemo!”
The only other thing I can recall about that interaction is the last bit: somehow I managed to recover (I think I was just honest about how embarrassed I was and apologized profusely; being near tears probably didn’t hurt either), and they left me an excellent tip. Wait—I’m lying (don’t worry, I’ll explain why that’s okay later): the other other thing I remember is that the trucker’s wife, aka the bald man, was never upset or offended by any of it herself.
That’s the funny thing about cancer, I guess. *rimshot*
4. Unless they’re paying you to do so, don’t correct another person’s child. In addition to my illustrious blogging cuhrrer (I’m being hopeful that by the time I actually publish this post, this is a true statement*), I am a part-time nanny; however, even without such professional expertise, I would feel very comfortable sharing a certain truth with you: kids fucking suck. Look, I wholeheartedly believe that children are precious and deserve all the nurturing love and healthy social guidance they can get, but facts are facts: kids fucking suck dick (figuratively, troll). They’re not all this kid, thankfully, but they are by nature: selfish, impulsive, hyper-curious about the world, and world-class jerks (yes, even the “best” kids—being a kid means being a menace, which is fine since that’s their job. Hint: it’s the parent’s job to teach them how not to suck. Oh, you already knew that? Eggscellent.)
One evening, a youngish couple came in with a very small person whom I will estimate as 3-4 years old. She perpetually climbed onto the table (who needs booster chairs?!), turned dishes of food over, and even spilled her dad’s soda onto his Salmon Oscar (which did him a favor as that was the nastiest thing on the menu). I never saw either parent correct the girl in any way, and I probably didn’t see them actually acknowledge her as human being at all either, but this post is already too long. Anyway, I was puzzled by the whole scene, but not really bothered since the parents cleaned up the messes themselves. However, Ibecame bothered when on my way to the kitchen I noticed the girl was licking the top of the salt shaker. Then I felt even more bothered when she was still doing it when I walked past again a few minutes later. The next time I stopped at their table to check in, I calmly stared at the toddler performing fellatio on a diner salt shaker and waited for someone, anyone to do anything. They didn’t, so I reached over and pried it out of the girl’s hand. No one said anything.
As I’m writing about this now, I’m thinking to myself “um, I really think people are going to wonder why I felt so outraged by a little saltjob.” If you are wondering, I can only say that I was outraged because it seemed outrageous to me—I can’t even do the kind of math (multiplication—SHUT UP) that could determine how many fingers might have touched that salt shaker that day alone. The same fingers that don’t wash their hands after using the john. The same fingers on the same hand that was just holding a remote. The same hands that sometimes get sneezed on while they’re holding the top of a ketchup bottle (no, that’s not the salt shaker BUT IT MIGHT AS MOTHERFUCKING WELL BE). I don’t know how often those salt shakers were washed, but it sure wasn’t every day. On top of that, I don’t even want to imagine what might have already been on the girl’s tongue if she was generally okay with licking things that are not traditionally licked. Honestly though, what outraged me the most was simply the fact that it was happening and her parents seemed to think that was regular.
They also apparently thought not tipping was regular. That or they just didn’t like it that I took away their daughter’s beloved toy.
* * *
So, now that your eyes are officially bleeding, I’ll tell you about the two lessons I didlearn.
1. Contrary to everything everyone probably told you, honesty is decidedly notalways the best policy. “Honesty is the best policy” is a well-known idiom in the English language. Relatively recently, news outlets around the world reported on a study (studies? None of them link to the alleged study) that purports lying less can reduce overall stress and even improve physical health. I’m gonna go ahead and call bullshit.
Okay, do I think that lying, in general, is a great lifestyle choice? Of course not. Do I think that the human race, in general, could benefit from living more authentically, which would in turn reduce the need to lie about ourselves and our feelings? Absolutely. Do I also think that, given the reality of our world, little white lies are valuable social currency? That’s a big 10-4. And do I also think that sometimes you need to CYA? Hell yes. Sometimes lying is the best policy and as long as someone else doesn’t end up taking the fall for you, I say: go for it—woot! Let me give you an example: remember Johnny the shithead? Well, he was the kitchen manager, but at night when Sue was off, he was the manager. ******* Diner forbid its wait staff from leaving the building while working (I guess because they assumed no one would come back to finish their shift and also because they were not generally concerned with these crazy little things called laws). Many of us were smokers—in fact, probably all of us but two—and the “official policy” was that we smoke in the public bathroom.
We usually congregated together in the handicapped stall just because. For the first month that I worked there, that toilet was on the fritz. Rather than spending $.01 to print up a sign that said “Out of Order” and locking the door, ******* Diner management felt placing the top of the toilet tank across the toilet seat was sufficient. One odd day, I was alone in the bathroom with my stink stick. Servers spend most of their time on their feet, and since I was still newish to the job, I needed a rest and thus squoze 1/37th of a buttcheek onto what remained of the seat. Everything went swimmingly until apparently my asscheek moved and knocked the top of the toilet tank onto the floor. I saw nothing, but heard it crack in half. I don’t recall making a conscious decision to get the FUCK out of dodge instantly or, ultimately, to lie about my involvement, but that’s exactly what I did. A few minutes later, I stood in my section frantically trying to decide what to do/look like I didn’t just break the top of the toilet tank when a fellow smoker invited me along. She was a friend and more senior than me, so I said yes and hoped she could guide me.
As soon as she saw the murdered piece of porcelain, she flipped. “Oh my fucking GAWD!”
I ran over to “see what was the matter”. “Oh no!”
Then she solved my potential dilemma. “Will you come with me when I tell Johnny? He won’t believe just me that I didn’t do it, but he will if I have a witness.”
“Is it really that big a deal?”
She looked at me in the same way I might look at two year-old who’s ecstatic because she just realized what her eyes do. “Last month Gina was fired for breaking a shitty old coffee pot.”
And that was that: I had already lied to my friend by omission, and later I lied like an OGwhen Johnny asked me to my face if I knew who did it: “Nope”.
2. If you’re going to quit your job in semi-dramatic fashion, don’t get robbed by a coworker on the same night. The night I finally quit was rather slow: I’d only made about id="mce_marker"1 in tips as of three hours into my shift—a fraction of the norm. Picking up my fourth order of the night, I found only a pile of deli turkey where a sandwich should have been.
Before I could ask the question, Johnny answered: “You didn’t write what kinda bread.”
I responded without emotion. “If nothing is written, white bread is used. This has never been an issue before.”
I don’t remember Fat Pig’s exact response, but the following feels safe to assume. “Wah wah wah why won’t you flirt with me? Why don’t you think all eleven of my chins are sexy?!?!?!?!?!”
I cheered myself on as I imagined yelling “Fuck off and burn in hell BITCH!” while I pushed his sickening face into the deep fryer; in reality, I simply removed my apron, placing it and the order slips on the kitchen counter.
“Okay then, I quit,” was my only quiet response. I grabbed my purse from the official/unofficial “purse cabinet” and left.
I was free.
Several hours later, after I’d vented in person to my mom and play aunt, I went home to think more rationally about what had happened. At some point, I ventured into my purse and realized, in horror, that my wallet was not there. I called my mom—not there. I searched my car—although it was not empty of junk, it was empty of wallet. That’s when I sucked it up and went back to my erstwhile job to investigate in the parking lot, restroom, and purse cabinet: nothing, nathan, nada. I reported the missing item to “management”, then slunk home to cancel my credit cards and lament the loss of my pretty wallet (STFU).
The very first card I called alerted me to an actual crime (up to that point, I’d assumed I had simply the lost the wallet: I wasn’t particularly organized, and I’d clearly been distracted that evening).
“I’ll be happy to help you, Ma’am. For account security, can you please verify the amount of the last purchase you made with your card?”
“I haven’t actually used the card in months because I’m paying it down. It’s been at least three months.”
She was quiet for a few seconds. “So, Ma’am, you didn’t make a Western Union purchase in the amount of $500 at 3:47pm this afternoon?”
That’s when reality struck: unrelated to my Norma Rae moment, some douchebag who worked on day shift had unzipped my purse, removed my wallet, rezipped my purse, replaced it exactly, and then went down the street to Shoprite to rip me off.
“Um, no, I got to work at 2pm and didn’t leave until…well, not until well after 4pm.” The CSR from Capital One didn’t need to know everything, dammit.
I had very strong suspicions as to the thief’s identity (as did Sue who called me the next morning because she “was concerned”—notably, she made no mention of my quitting), but I never had any proof: the video footage of the Western Union transaction was “not available”. I filed a police report, got all new credit cards and banking paraphernalia, provided the 47 points of ID necessary for a new license, and…about a week later my pretty little wallet was delivered to me at home by a police officer from another town (I was flabbergasted since I’m not actually a white person—I just talk that way, apparently): everything but the financial items was still in it.
Moral of the story? Don’t get robbed on the same day you impulsively quit your job. Cheers!
Follow BlogHer on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/BlogHer-28615