I was a Teenage Vampire Zombie Waitress

Still thinking a lot lately about the years when I worked as a waitress. Or the year and a half I worked as a waitress. I'm not sure how long I did it, exactly. I started at the bottom--as a hostess in TGIFriday's. I'd just graduated college and was working in a children's theater group part time, and maybe I started the hostessing gig on my summers off. I can't recall. But when you're a hostess, you have to dress up for every shift and you end up envying the waiters and waitresses, because they seem to be so much more sophisticated and involved with the business, whereas we, the hostesses, just stood at the front door and said hello and tried not to seat too many people in the same section, lest the wait staff hate us forever. Being double or triple sat, as they say, is a terrible thing to do to a waiter; unless he happens to be exceptional at the job. And many of them were, or at least, that was my impression. There were people who left work with giant wads of cash, which is another reason I found the job to be slightly glamorous. The host staff is hourly; the wait staff make a shitty $2 an hour wage plus tips. I worked with a really silly girl named Shannon and she would do things like open the door for people and say, Good night, hope you get laid! And people would be so distracted that they just smiled and said, You too! not quite hearing her or believing that they must have misheard what she said.

And then one night, they needed a bus person because someone called out sick, and I volunteered to do the job--finally! I got to wear the red and white striped polo! The bus people are the ones who run around picking up dirty plates and running food from the kitchen and restocking glass ware---one full rung below the wait staff and they don't directly get tips--they get tipped by the waiters/waitress so you better do a good job of helping them out or you may not get much at the end of the night. Anyway, after that night, since I was such a natural sycophant, they offered to train me as a waitress. I had arrived. I would have to start finding funny buttons to wear to show my flair. There is a whole vocabulary and culture that goes along with corporate restaurants (how much flare to wear, how many napkins you should have on your belt, what color and kind of shoes to buy). I found some buttons--can't recall what any of them said except for one that read "Oh, mother, is it worth it?" My flare has always been for the sardonic.

I was an average to below average waitress. I could be organized, and I avoid conflict at all costs, but I didn't immediately understand the rhythm of the job--the order of how to best do things, and I didn't respond well to sudden requests (a side of mayo, a change in the order, a demand for mozzarella sticks), and so, when it was busy, I was always frazzled and overwhelmed and things would fall apart from there.

Here's the thing about waiting tables---you have to deal with assholes during every single shift; people who are unhappy with their lives or their boyfriends or the menu and want to take it out on you because you have to be nice to them. I guess that's the case in any service job, but it's particularly poignant in waiting tables or bartending, because you depend on their tips. And they know it. And the assholes never tip well. Never.  They treat you badly for 90 minutes and then they leave a big final "screw you" with a bad tip. And you have to smile the whole time and apologize for their unhappiness. Well, you don't have to--but it's what you're supposed to do and what you do in case they maybe are going to leave you twenty percent at the end. Which they're not. At the end of the shift, you still have to tip the bartender and the bus boy and the food runner. And your feet hurt.

After TGIFriday's, I got a job at Planet Hollywood in Chicago. That's a whole other type of hell--this faux celebrity centered place where Midwestern tourists line up outside so that they can come in and see cheesy movie memorabilia from bad blockbuster movies. The shirts were better though, and they fed us rice before every shift, so those were two improvements.

My point is that every single person who plans on eating out at a restaurant should be required to work at one for a length of time. I guarantee it would put their expectations into perspective. I don't care if your waitress forgot your food order, dropped a hot fudge sundae down your back, and served you a cold, pink steak. Tip her twenty percent any way.


Lena said…
I LOVED waitressing, which I did from age 19 to 35 or so. I was the uber-efficient, un-frazzleable type (they called me Lena the Machina), and I would take the tables the weeping, overwhelmed girls couldn't quite get to. Boy do I miss the feeling of being really, truly done with a work day. Not so in the real world of office-y work where things undone pile up and up and up. Not to mention the free food. I agree that everyone who ever plans to eat in one should work in a restaurant. Two sure-fire signs of a lousy tip is coming: when they ask you what your name is and then use it frequently, or if they actually use a phrase such as "I'm a good tipper." That's a 10 to 12 percenter for sure. Also known in the biz as "the kiss of death."