On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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There’s more to waiting tables than you might think. It takes courage, for one thing. You walk up to a table, and everyone turns to look at you, as if you’re about to deliver the opening line of a play. You have to look happy all the time too. You have to look happy but concerned, bending forward while they talk, listening carefully, asking, “Ranch or Thousand Island?” You have to act as if you know what you’re doing and everything is going according to a plan. You can’t think of all the things happening in the kitchen. You have to remember: Gin and tonic to table 8; man at 12 is late for a meeting; nut allergy on 5. You have to remember it all and not get overwhelmed.
Each table is a clean slate and a chance for things to go right. You can’t think of what you’ve done wrong, what you might do wrong, what you might forget, all the mistakes you’ve made or could make. You need a clear mind.
You have to bring the food quickly, so that no one has to wait too long, but not so quickly that they feel rushed. You have to get the right food to the right people, and you can’t spill anything or drop any plates, and you have to remember to bring coffee and ketchup and Tabasco and all the things they forgot to ask for the first time, when you were writing it down.
You have to keep busy, but you can’t point out that you’re busy, that you only have two hands, that they are not the only customers in the restaurant. And you have to do it all with a smile.
They all want to be special. They all want something different: They’re in a hurry, or they’re taking their time. They want you to joke with them, or they want you to leave them alone. They want you to care, but you must not worry. If they see you worry, they’ll think you’re spineless, and there’s nothing they hate more than a spineless waitress. They’ll jump on you every time and then not tip. And maybe you’ll do everything right, but they’ll jump on you anyway: because the table was dirty; because the food didn’t come or, when it did, it smelled bad or tasted funny; because the fish was still frozen in the middle and hadn’t you told them it was fresh?
They want to special-order, when the menu clearly says, NO SUBSTITUTIONS. They want a tuna-salad sandwich when we’ve already moved on to the dinner menu. They don’t think of the waitress in her little tennis shoes getting varicose veins. They think of the sign outside that seemed to promise something better. They sit in their booths and remember the Chinese place they drove past down the street, and they think up ways to punish you for their own bad judgment.
They have allergies to gluten or shellfish. They’re vegetarians but they can eat chicken, or they can eat fish but no chicken, fish but no bottom fish, salmon but no hatchery salmon, oil but no butter, butter but no oil. Some can eat neither fish nor chicken, but they can have milk and eggs. Others can have milk, but no eggs, or vice versa, and some can have no chicken, no fish, no eggs, no milk, and no cheese.
You never saw such delicate people in your life. They can’t have alcohol, poor things. They have systemic yeast and can have no wine, soy sauce, bread, or mushrooms. Some can have no sugar, others no salt. They don’t eat fat, and everything has to be steamed. They drink only nonfluoridated water. They want margarine, or they are against margarine on principle. They have opinions about everything.
You can’t tell them to shut up. You can’t tell them to be grateful. You’ve got to look concerned and interested. You have to smile and pretend you don’t think they are a bunch of spoiled babies.
One day I got a bag lady. She sat at table 3, near the kitchen, and all she ordered was hot water for her tea. She was my age. She had all her bags spread out on the floor around her. She had long, matted hair and no front teeth. It was summer on the Oregon coast, and the restaurant was full of people on vacation.
I asked if she’d like a sandwich, and she said, “I don’t eat meat.”
I brought her a vegetarian sandwich and soup, on the house. Everyone who worked in that restaurant knew about hard times. The cooks filled a bag with food for her: cheese and vegetables and German bread. The bread was our specialty; the recipe was the owner’s grandmother’s.
She ate the sandwich and the soup, and then she dug into the bag and ate all that, too, even though it was for later.
“How is it?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I prefer soy cheese.” And then she shook her bread at me. “And I don’t usually eat debris,” she said.
Debris? That means “rubbish,” doesn’t it?
“Debris,” she said, and she waved her bread at me. Mrs. Reinke’s recipe, all the way from Germany.
“Usually I just eat raw food,” said the homeless woman at table 3.
My whole section was full, and people were waiting to sit down. It was the busy season, when we try to make up for how little we earn the rest of the year. If the kids are going to the dentist, if anyone is getting a new coat, if we’re going to get gravel for the drive or new tires for the truck, it’s going to happen in the summer.
If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, it might not occur to you that each table is money to the waitress. You want big spenders, and you want to get them in and out. That’s the ugly side to waitressing. There is something inherently corrupting about getting your money from tips, but there you have it.
I had eight tables, and one of them was the bag lady. I stood at her table. “Raw food?”
“For the enzymes,” she said. “My usual diet is raw juice.”
“Like orange juice?”
“Juice!” she exclaimed. “From fresh, raw berries.” She motioned to her bags spread out on the floor. “I carry my juicer with me.” Then she added, “It’s good for the digestion.”
French people always ordered the best items on the menu. They ordered appetizers first, and then they ordered salads and soups, and then they ordered their meal, and then they had dessert. They didn’t ask me about salt or fat. They weren’t allergic to anything.
They always came in late, and by the time they finished their meal, we were waiting to go home. We had cashed everyone else out and swept the floors. We had cleaned the bathroom, refilled the sugar baskets and the salt and pepper shakers, and set all the tables for breakfast. The dishwashers sat at a table in the corner. They were Mexican, and they were patient. The French people smoked and talked, and then, just when you thought they might leave, they all wanted espresso.
I wanted to sit down at their table. I wanted to be French like them and go home with a French husband and have French children and go on vacations and not sulk. Americans always sulked. I wanted to go to restaurants and eat everything I wanted and not gain weight.
© Mary Cornelius
I never understood why the French didn’t tip. Maybe they hadn’t read a guidebook before coming here. Some of my co-workers said they were only pretending not to know about our tipping custom, but I thought that was a cynical viewpoint. It was a big debate at the restaurant, and it came up every time we got French people. They always looked good when they sat down — well-dressed, sophisticated, ready to have a good time — but then they’d open their mouths, and the waitress’s heart would sink. “They’re French!” she would report mournfully to the other waitresses back in the kitchen.
There is a momentum to waitressing: everything is moving forward. Once you trip up, it’s hard to get it back. You need the customers to work with you, and sometimes they don’t.
The more things speed up, it seems, the slower the customers talk. They’ve had all the time in the world to think about what they want. All their choices are right there in writing, but they’ve been too busy talking to each other, or they didn’t feel like reading the menu; they’d rather you tell them what it says.
And no one ever reads the salad dressings. They’re all listed: blue cheese, poppy seed, ranch, Thousand Island, or vinaigrette. But no one ever reads the list. Not only do they not read it, but they don’t listen when you recite it to their dinner companion, either.
You stand at the table with your pencil ready. Behind you people are calling out, “Miss!” (They always call you “Miss.”) Everyone wants something. The cook is ringing the little bell in the kitchen. It feels like an emergency room, but no one is hurt or dying. Everything will be all right, if only these people would tell you what they want. Inside a voice is crying, “Spit it out!” but you look serene. You lean forward, smiling. They open their mouths, and the sound that comes out is slow, each word partitioned off from the next one.
You can’t look mad when you’re a waitress. You can’t seem even mildly irritated. Everything is just fine. Aren’t we having fun? It’s Saturday night, and your husband is at a party, but you have to work, and you’re lucky too: everybody wants the Saturday-night shift.
And then some parents decide that a busy Saturday night is the perfect time for their four-year-old to learn how to order: “Go on, honey. Tell the lady what you want.”
A co-worker once told me she always imagined her customers having sex. Quite frankly, it never occurred to me to imagine my customers having sex, but sometimes I did imagine being one of them, being on vacation, sitting at the table instead of waiting on it.
I thought that if it were me on vacation, I’d be better at it than they were. None of them ever looked very happy on their vacations, and I figured vacations were wasted on these people.
Me, I’d know what to do on a vacation. My husband and I would order the halibut, or crab, if they had it. We’d have oysters first. We’d drink a whole bottle of wine, and we’d look out the window. We wouldn’t worry about calories, and we wouldn’t count our pennies. We wouldn’t stare straight ahead as if we were waiting to be executed. We wouldn’t roll our eyes and act as if we hated each other. We’d talk. He’d tell me a joke. We’d eat dessert and not tell the waitress how fat we were getting. We’d tell her thank you. We wouldn’t act as if she were invisible. We wouldn’t wave our hands at her or shout to her from across the room. We’d eat all our food and all our dessert, and then we’d order another drink and then coffee, and we’d leave a big tip.
Some waitresses can remember every order. They can stand in the kitchen with their eyes closed and tell you what the customers at each table look like and exactly who ordered what. Diners think nothing of the fact that their waitress has thirty customers and each one has ordered something different, and yet the plates she sets in front of them contain exactly what they wanted.
I was not this kind of waitress. I forgot orders as soon as I walked away from the table. The information left my short-term memory and went straight to another part of my mind. Years later, I’d see a former customer on the street or at a party, and I would think: Grilled oysters, salad, Tyee pinot gris, table 2.
One night the INS showed up in the middle of the dinner rush. They came through the front door and ran straight to the kitchen, where Alejandro and Esteban were washing dishes. Before any of us understood what was happening, the agents had put handcuffs on the two men, pushed them past the tables where tourists sat eating fish and drinking wine, and shouldered them into waiting cars.
The restaurant was full, and people were standing in the doorway, waiting to get in. They didn’t give us a break because of the dishwashers. They just wanted their food. They saw the guys who washed their dishes get hauled off by the INS with their hands cuffed, but they were thinking of supper. Should they get the halibut or salmon?
Alejandro and Esteban were good-natured, hardworking men. They had pictures of their wives and babies in their wallets.
For the rest of the night, I didn’t ask anybody how their meal was. I didn’t mention the appetizers we were supposed to push. I didn’t tell them the salmon was fresh off the boat that morning. I just gave them menus and took their orders and brought their food.
In the kitchen, the dishes were stacked high, and we ran out of forks and had to wash them ourselves. Tenedores, forks.
Sometimes perfectly nice people undergo a personality change when they enter a restaurant. It’s a sad thing to see. They sit at their tables and shout, wave their hands, snap their fingers. They want to talk to the management. They always assume there is management. Hey, if there were management, maybe someone would be managing things. They don’t notice that the restaurant is full and every table is having an emergency. If they looked around, they might see that the couple at table 5 is headed for a divorce. That the little boy on 8 is being tortured by his father. That the fishermen on 3 have had too much to drink and are about to get in a fight.
All people know is they’ve had to wait too long. They are ready to order. If they stopped for a moment, they might notice that they are sitting at the best table in the restaurant, and if they look up they can see the ocean. They can see its blue waves and maybe, if they are lucky, a whale. They might notice the flowers that Susan put on every table before we opened: purple lupine, orange calendula, columbine, irises, and delphinium. She grew these flowers in her garden and then made this beautiful bouquet and set it on the table and turned it back and forth, saying, “Every bouquet has a front and a back,” and she turned it until she was happy with the way it looked, and they could be happy with it too, if they’d look at it, which they won’t.
If they weren’t so busy noticing that no one has taken their order yet, they might see that they have menus and water; they have comfortable chairs to sit in, and a candle lit in front of them, and a bathroom if they need it. In other parts of the world people are starving to death, but here the kitchen is full of food for them. Cooks have been working all afternoon, cutting vegetables, filleting fish, making bouillabaisse. Last night, while they slept, someone was here baking pies.
Everything has been chosen and designed for their pleasure. Amelia has given them bread. She should be in New York City dancing, but instead she is here. It’s Saturday night, and she is here to give them bread, to take away their dirty plates, to clean up their mess when they leave. But they don’t notice any of this. “Miss!” they shout from across the room. “We’re ready to order!”
Our favorite customers were a couple who came in about once a month and ordered an appetizer, the special, and a bottle of Clos du Bois. The husband hardly took his eyes off his wife the whole time. Once, as I stood at their table, he said to me, “I love to watch her eat.”
We repeated that line to each other at the waitress station for weeks. Oh, we all wanted a man like that.
Parts of this essay previously appeared in Upper Left Edge.
Alison Clement’s “They Always Call You ‘Miss’ ” was a kvetch piece of inordinate proportions. I don’t know what circumstances brought Clement to waiting tables, but I hope she has some alternatives. She doesn’t belong in a service job.
I have worked as a waiter myself and know it’s hard work, but having such negative views of patrons only serves to make the work harder. I never looked down on the people I served, and I never looked down on myself for being in the position of serving others.
I have been a restaurant patron far longer than I was a waiter, and I could write a similar essay about waitpersons who are unprofessional in their approach, even rude or thoughtless, perhaps because they feel looked-down-upon by their customers. Respect is a two-way street.
In her essay “They Always Call You ‘Miss’ ” [March 2005] Alison Clement perfectly describes the trials and tribulations of the waitressing experience — only they don’t always call you “miss.” I wish they were so nice. Sometimes it’s “girlie” or “hey, you” or “babe” or even “foxy.” (Is that a compliment?) Sometimes they don’t call you anything; they just wave or snap their fingers.
There is something primal about food; it brings out the best and the worst in people. I know the satisfaction of giving people what they want even when they don’t know what it is, and the rejection — not to mention the meager tip — when you get it wrong.
It’s called humor, for crying out loud.