Waitress Week: The Drill

May 7, 2009

Even though I remained forever skittish about checking ID’s as a waitress, I did eventually become a good server and even to grew to love the job.  Houston’s was my work life, social life, love life, and a way to stay so busy during the evening when I worked and so exhausted during the day that I didn’t have any time or energy to think about my abandoned life and dreams in New York.

There was just something so satisfying about arranging plates of food on my arms – one, two, three – just so; and setting them down on the table with a pleasing ker-thunk, entree placed center stage in front of the customer, side-items playing back-up.

The whole shift moved like a choreographed dance.  We started with line-up, when all the servers would, uh, line up so that our manager could inspect our uniforms and check for sharks.  A shark is someone not scheduled for work but who shows up anyway hoping someone wants to give up their shift.  Someone always wanted to give up their shift, but if a server showed up out of uniform, or drunk, or high, that was the first person to get “sharked.”  Chomp.  After line-up, we all took big swigs of the frappucinos we hid among the condiments and then swooshed out onto the floor, making wide circles through the restaurant.  You  must never stand still, or God forbid, lean on something, during your shift, so until the rush came we circled like gulls, looking for the odd ramekin to clear, a water glass that needed refreshing, clean silverware that needed to be rolled into stiff white napkins.  I loved rolling silverware – I found the rhythmic repetition soothing (fork and knife centered on the crease, make two triangles, then tightly roll, stacking them into giant silverware skyscrapers), plus you could surreptitiously lean as you rolled and gossip to whoever else had snagged a prime rolling spot.

When the dinner rush came, the rolling station was abandoned.  We no longer circled the floor like lazy gulls; more like a swarm of bees.  What would you like to drink?  How is everything?  Another spinach dip?  How would you like your steak cooked?  More ketchup?  Another glass of wine?  Right behind you!  In the weeds!  I’m under!  Help!

We moved through the waitstation in one direction, always entering on the right and exiting on the left.  That way you couldn’t just dart back and forth from your tables to the waitstation- you HAD to circle the floor, checking for first rounds, for credit cards, for plates that needed clearing.  Then when you dumped those dirty plates in Hobart, you were NOT to come back into the waitstation empty-handed; you should always return with clean plates, or a rack of glasses, or a bucket of ice.

In the waitstation, we swirled around each other, constantly fielding demands from the manager to run food out to the floor.  If that weren’t enough, you also had the cries of your peers begging for “a hand,” which meant literally, I need you to take this drink in your hand and deliver it to table 12 so that I can ring in my other table’s order.  We bobbed and weaved, ducked and crashed into each other, sometimes stealing away to the condiment shelf for a sip of not-so-frozen frappucino or a stolen apple cobbler.  I did often see servers eating french fries from dirty plates.  I was tempted myself, but resisted.  Sometimes we’d ring in a dessert order for one of our tables, only to have the customer “change their minds,” in which case the manager would remove the dessert from the bill and the dessert itself would magically disappear (devoured within seconds as we crouched down behind boxes of toilet paper).

When the pace finally slowed, we’d start goofing off, taking great joy in displaying the honey bears in X-rated positions.  Finally, some servers would get cut and start cleaning their tables and doing their assigned sidework, which were fun rotating chores like cleaning the espresso machine, emptying the chip drawers, or wiping off the coagulated gook on every single jar of A1 steak sauce.

After you finished, one server was assigned to check your work.  If he wanted to sleep with you, he would let you go without even a glance, and if you were sleeping with someone she would like to sleep with herself, you would likely find yourself underneath your table until well past midnight, picking at petrified gum with a steak knife.

Finally, finally, we’d untie our aprons and wad them up into smelly greasy balls while we greedily counted up our haul for the night.  One night I had a customer leave three 50 dollar bills folded up neatly in his napkin on his chair.  Another night I greeted my table and the man immediately asked me, “So, are you a 10, 20, or 30?”  I panicked for a millisecond while I wondered whether he was asking me my age or trying to rate my level of hotness, and then figured it out and confidently answered, “30, of course!”  He gave me 40%.  Those were good nights.

After promising our beloved security guard John Dee we’d be safe, we staggered out the door and across the way to the nearby bar.  Actually, I didn’t often make it to the bar, but I went enough to expand my liquor knowledge far beyond wine spritzers.  On the nights I didn’t go to the bar, I could often be found canoodling in the elevator with my latest make-out buddy.  Oddly, restaurants are always charged with sexual tension, despite the grease and kitchen muck.  And on the nights I wasn’t canoodling or drinking, I’d head straight home for bed and a book, still just about my two favorite things in the world (and now there’s someone cozy next to me every night). 

Sometimes, I kinda miss being a waitress.  And not for the make-out buddies, or the secret Sunday margaritas in the liquor closet, or the stolen cobblers (although those were nice).  I miss it more for the feeling of apron ties wrapped twice around my hips and my order book tucked into the back of my jeans.  The pens lined up in my apron pocket, the feeling that I’ve really earned the right to sleep in the next morning.  I miss all those abbreviations – C-Spin, Chk Sal, Shimi – and the secret code that accompanied them.  POT-E no S/S = Baked potato with butter, cheese, bacon and scallions, but please leave off the sour cream and put it on the side instead.  But most of all, I think I miss the sense of hard work done well, and of course, the cold hard cash in my back pocket.


3 Responses to “Waitress Week: The Drill”

  1. pam b Says:

    fwiw – you DO work hard every day .. you just dont get paid for it 😉

  2. Katie Burke Says:

    This is awesome! I laughed out loud and totally related. Even though I’ve never been in food service, there’s something so universal in your story.

    I love the bedroom politics of shift inspection. It seems wherever we go, there’s a casting couch of some kind!

    These waitress stories are fantastic.

  3. from the wings Says:

    If you do ever miss it, I will make out in the elevator with you

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