One of the best things about waitressing was all the flirting.  Not with my tables, so much – I mean sure I giggled a lot, but getting too flirty with a customer, when you’re also trying to get them to give you a big ol’ tip, always felt kinda ooky.

No, I loved flirting with my fellow servers.  In fact, a shift could be made or broken depending on who I was working with – a bunch of chicks and married dudes?  BORING.  A gaggle of single horndogs, and I’m the prettiest one on the shift?  YES.

I flirted, I kissed, I dated, I even had a few relationships – but I must state I was not the restaurant slut (ahem Karen!).  I just liked boys so very much.

When I transferred to my hometown Houston’s, I noticed Jason Stevens right away.  He was simply gorgeous.  Tall, thin, close-cut hair, incredible green eyes.  Much better looking than me, honestly, and I usually preferred to flirt with those hovering around the same point on the beauty scale as me, but Jason had this way of touching my lower back whenever he maneuvered around me in the waitstation, and I…just….ooooh.

So we kissed quite a bit, here and there, off and on, after nights out, after parties, in the parking garage.  Jason wanted to be a politician.  Jason  wore one of those silly puka shell necklaces.  Jason was a good kisser.

It didn’t go anywhere.  I knew Jason was a player, and I didn’t want to be just another checkmark.  Luckily, Jason was a gentleman player and seemed to sense my limits, so he never ever pressed me to go home with him.  Eventually I started dating someone else and Jason started working part-time for the local GOP office, so I didn’t see him very often.

Then one night a couple months later, big group of us went out dancing at “Chill,” the cool club of the moment.  I was wearing a very short skirt, and the other girls were wearing very low-cut tops, and we got in right away. 

As usually happens when I’m in dance club situations, the girls found a spot to drink and look sexy, and I tried to stay put with them but eventually could not resist the lure of the dance floor and found myself shaking my booty.  A few minutes later, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and there was Jason Stevens.  I shrieked and fell into his arms, and we spent the rest of the night on the dance floor, kissing and dancing.  (And probably really annoying/grossing out the people around us.  Sorry about that, a decade late.)

At 1 a.m., the lights in the club came on and we surfaced for air.  With all the alcohol and hours of dance floor kissyface, Jason’s gentlemanly airs disappeared and he asked me to come home with him.

I really wanted to do just that.  But I had a rule about going home with self-proclaimed players – which was, simply, Nope.

So I declined, and he asked again, and I declined again, and he asked again, and (oooh it was SO hard) I declined again.  And he asked me, as his hands roamed far and yonder and my skirt threatened to mutiny against my self-control: “Why not?  Why?”

And I said, “Because – you’re going to sleep with hundreds of girls, and sooner or later they’ll all blend together and you won’t remember them, but you will always remember that one girl from Houston’s who said no.”

For someone who is often tongue-tied, this was a gold-star moment for me, made even better by Jason’s rather tortured response, literally falling to his knees and moaning, “Oh shit, you’re so right.”  (He was rather drunk.)

We kissed, we clung, we said goodbye, and I never saw him again.

Sometimes I wonder why I wanted this supposedly vaunted position in his memory as the-girl-he’ll-always-remember as opposed to potentially having really great sex that night.  I mean, there’s the STD factor.  Jason seemed like a big germ risk.  But I think it had more to do with the fact that I’m just not wired that way.  I was never able to do just-sex.  And I think it had even more to do with my love of drama.  I may have been able to resist Jason Stevens’ kiss and his roaming hands, but I could not resist the chance for such a perfect Melrose Place moment.  I like to think Amanda Woodward would be proud.  (I mean, if she wasn’t such a big ol’ slut.)

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On one busy Saturday night, I lucked out and received the best station – the one with the 8-top, the biggest table in the restaurant.  In the middle of the rush, my table opened up and suddenly a hostess appeared trailed by a seemingly never-ending parade of men in expensive suits – 10 in all.  I simultaneously panicked and rejoiced – they looked like drinkers! but oh crap, how was I going to handle so many of them?

They demanded martinis, and more martinis, and then four of our most expensive bottles of wine.  They all ordered either filet mignon, the NY strip steak, or barbecue ribs.  They were loud and rude and so far they liked me because I giggled when they called me “sweetheart.”

Then I walked up during the punchline of a dirty joke.  They looked at me aghast when they realized I’d just heard the part about the giant, uh, sausage-shaped organ.

“Why are you sneaking up on us!” one of them grumbled.

“I’m a waitress – it’s my job to sneak,” I replied.  And remembering the giant size of their bill, I smiled really big.  I may have even batted my eyes a little.

“Aw, see, she’s cool,” said another.  “Know any jokes, sweetie?”

Shoot.  I am terrible at remembering jokes.

“Give me one second,” I said, and dashed away.  I knew exactly where to go – the kitchen.  Those guys have filthy, filthy minds.

I went straight to Toby, the grillman.  He didn’t even blink at my request for a dirty joke and promptly rattled one off that I don’t remember.  I ran back to my table and repeated it, hardly knowing what I was saying.  They roared.

We traded jokes for the next few minutes, me rushing back and forth to the kitchen, hitting up all the linemen for their best filth, until finally I remembered that I had other tables and left my Man Table to wait on them for a bit.

When I came back, they were ready for dessert.  They ordered eight – four sundaes, four apple cobblers.  I rang them into the computer with a song in my heart, eyeing that whopping bill.  The desserts should have reached the table lickety split, and when five minutes went by with no desserts for my men, I ran up to the bartender/dessert-maker.

“Where are my cobblers and sundaes?”

“Sorry,” he mumbled.  “I’m out of ice cream.”

Rolling my eyes, I darted back to the walk-in freezer in the kitchen to get the stupid lazy bartender more ice cream.  Except – no ice cream. 

From the kitchen, I screamed at our manager Sean on the line.  “WHERE’S THE ICE CREAM?”

“Ask the K.M.!” he yelled back.

So I tracked down Dave the kitchen manager, who looked at me blankly.  “We’re out,” he said.  “I told Sean that two hours ago.”

GRRRRRRRRRR.

I had a table of 10 rich, drunk men, with a bill hovering around $700.  I was not going to walk up to them and whimper some tired excuse about running out of ice cream.  They would be most displeased.

So I ran up and leaned over on the table, jutting one hip out and explaining that there was just a teensy tiny delay in their desserts.  They bitched and complained, but I wasn’t too worried.  Then I asked another waiter to keep an eye on them, and ran up to Stupid Idiot Sean the manager.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.  “I’m going to Cold Stone.”

“Whaaa?” he started, but I was already dashing out of the restaurant. 

Cold Stone Creamery was at the other end of the shopping plaza, and I sprinted there as fast as I could.  I burst through the doors and pushed my way to the front of the line. 

“I need three gallons of vanilla,” I gasped.  “It’s an emergency.”

I don’t know if the employees and all of the waiting customers thought I was crazy – what is an ice cream emergency, anyway?  All I could think about was my men, getting more sober and more annoyed with every slow scoop of that ice cream spade.  When he finally finished scooping, I shoved some of my own cash at him and ran back to the restaurant, throwing the ice cream at the stupid idiot bartender and screaming, “I need those desserts NOW!” before I flew up the stairs back to my table.

At the sight of me, the men growled.  “Where are our desserts?  What the hell is taking so long?”

I could tell I was about to lose them, could feel my tip dwindling down, down, down.

“I’m so sorry,” I panted.  “Just a small issue with the ice cream.  They’re on their way.”

They practically booed.  “But where the hell have you been?” they asked.  “Maybe we should just get the check.”

“If you could just wait one, ONE more second,” I pleaded.

They conferred.  “Maybe if you can tell us one more joke, a really good one, we’ll forgive you.”

Gulp.  I promised I’d try, and went straight to the only untapped dirty-joke source left in the kitchen – Crazy Kevin.  Kevin had been the Houston’s prep cook for about 30 years, and could always be found wandering around in the back chopping this, chopping that, and talking to himself about what a bunch of morons we all were.  Rumor had it he graduated from Le Cordon Bleu but got into some trouble with the law afterwards.  We servers usually kept our distance from Kevin, but somehow he had a soft spot for me, and when I turned 25 he cooked me an absolutely incredible dinner that I ate in stolen bites during the dinner rush – Kevin kept it hidden from the other servers (“Morons!”) every time I had to check on my tables.

So lucky for me, Kevin didn’t swipe at me with a knife or call me a moron when I approached with my dirty joke request.  Without even looking up from prepping tortilla chips, he said two short lines that I repeated over and over in my head as I ran back to my table.  I didn’t even think about what I was saying when I parroted it back to my Man Table.  To this day, it’s the only joke I’ve ever been able to remember:

“What did one lesbian vampire say to the other lesbian vampire?”

…….

“See you next month!”

And as my men laughed and jeered and whooped, their desserts finally arrived.

Best. Tip. Ever.

Waitress Week: Shaq

May 8, 2009

Basketball players love Houston’s.  I think it’s the barbeque ribs, because that’s what they always ordered.  Ribs and Courvoisier.  I’ve never liked ribs – there doesn’t seem to be any way for me to eat them without ending up covered in sauce and humiliated.  And so much work for such a little strip of meat!  Cheeseburger, please.

One  night, Shaq visisted Houston’s.  He and three basketball friends squeezed into a six-t0p table, and even then all their limbs spilled out into the aisle, and guests and servers alike had to climb over their legs to reach their tables.

Shaq’s table wasn’t my assigned table, and I was relieved.  I got very nervous dealing with famous types – once I had to wait on David Spade, who had a hissy-fit because his Evian was too chilled, and then proceeded to repeatedly stand up and pretend to look for someone so that everyone in the restaurant would recognize him.

I was much happier toiling for the non-famous diners, but when our manager demanded runners for Shaq’s table, I couldn’t think of an excuse quickly enough and found myself balancing three platters of ribs.  I staggered up to Shaq’s table and tried to find a place to put the plates down amongst the giant arms and snifters of Cognac.  As I thunked the heavy plates down on the table, Shaq spoke.

“How are you tonight?”

Whoa.  Somebody crazy-famous was speaking to me, acknowledging that I, too, am a human being existing in time and space.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I answered demurely.

“What’s your name?”

“Mama,” I smiled as his buddies tore into the ribs.

“Mama, can you get me some more sauce?” he asked.

Whew.  I was a waitress again.  For a second there, I was in uncharted territory.  I ran down the stairs into the waitstation, shouting “Shaq request!” when the manager called for food-runners.  Sauce procured, I trotted back up to Shaq’s table and plopped the little bowl in front of him.

“Thanks, Mama,” he said.

“Anything else I can get for you?” I asked.

“Well, you can get me your phone number,” said Shaq.

My mouth fell open.  “My – what?”

“You asked if there something you could get me, and I’d really like it if you gave me your phone number so I could call you sometime,” said Shaquille O’Neal to ME.

And I answered:

“HA HA HA HA HA!”

…and then ran away like a frightened kitten.

I mean, I could never date a man who likes ribs so much.  Right?

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.

I started working at Houston’s Restaurant during my stint in LA in 1997.  With no experience but in possession of an eagerness to please even the rudest of customers (ahem “guests,” excuse me), they hired me as a hostess.

I enjoyed being a hostess, even though it meant working with hosts like Derek, who took great pride in telling each and every customer to fuck off as they left the restaurant, with the guests none the wiser.

It went like this: 

Derek:  “Have a good night!  Fuckyouforcoming!”

Guests:  “Mm, uh-huh, thanks!”

Me:  CRINGING

After proving my worth as a hostess, I was invited to train as a server, escaping Derek and his invitations to “underwear parties.”  (“The underwear doesn’t usually stay on long,” leered Derek.)

Waitressing scared the hell out of me.  Houston’s was an uber-corporate machine, so there was always an EXACT RIGHT WAY to do everything.  Before doing anything, we were trained to always internally check the Five Priorities:  Guest Request (“I need more ketchup!”), First Round (“What would you like to drink?”), Run (food to tables), Bus (dirty plates from tables), Roll (silverware in napkins).  You’ll notice that “take guests’ food order and enter it into computer” isn’t anywhere on that list.  Houston’s is a strange, rather fascist environment. 

After rigorous training and corporate brainwashing, I was ready to begin but terrified.  I was especially afraid of taking drink orders, since I’m not exactly a font of liquorly knowledge.  At that point in my life, I didn’t venture far beyond wine spritzers, so even though I spent hours pouring over all the brands of liquor we served, I still wasn’t sure I’d be able to answer if someone asked me what kinds of vodka we offered.   To top if off, they sat me down in front of an 80’s-era video (viewing required by law) which described the horrors of alcohol-imbibement and the terror that would rain down upon me if I should serve alcohol to someone underage or already drunk.  

My first night, I was such a nervous wreck that they started me with just one table.   I managed to make 50 bucks, pretty decent for only one table, and I didn’t break anything or embarass myself.  The next night they gave me one more, and finally on my third day I had three tables and felt a little more confident.

Just as the dinner rush was starting, I swooped by a seven-top that had just been seated.   It wasn’t my table, but as Houston’s doctrine dictates, I couldn’t just pass it by to tend to my own table, lest I face flogging after the shift ended.  These people needed drinks dammit! and it was my corporate duty as a sworn member of the Republic of Houston’s to quench their thirst.

So I walked up and greeted them, asking what they’d like to drink.

They were kind of an odd group – five young guys with overly-moussed hair, one big fat man, and a corporate-looking dude in a suit.  I went around the table, carefully writing down their drink orders – mostly sodas for the younger guys, scotch and soda for the fat man (thank God he didn’t ask me what kinds of scotch we carried), beer for the suit.  Then I got to the last guy, a blond baby-faced kid.  He ordered Coke and grenadine.

I froze.  What the hell was grenadine?  Some kind of rum?  It really sounded like some sort of alcohol, and the kid looked even younger than me.  So I asked to see his ID.

The entire table burst into laughter.  Mean laughter.

I didn’t know what to do, so I smiled stupidly and laughed along.  But – but – the VIDEO!  What was grenadine?  Was I supposed to KNOWINGLY serve an underage kid alcohol?  Was this some sort of Houston’s set-up – a test to see if I’d really stick to the rules, or fold under pressure?  Was I being hazed?  Does this kid have some sort of aging disorder and he’s actually 52?

The fat man spoke up.  “You don’t need to see his ID, sweetheart.  You can go now.”

I slunk back to the waitstation and rang in the drink order to the bartender.  Bruce walked up and asked why his table was cackling at me.

“Bruce – what’s coke and grenadine?” I whispered.

“It’s Coke with cherry-flavored syrup,” he said. 

I prompty turned the color of  a maraschino cherry. 

“What did you do?”

I confessed and Bruce slapped his forehead as our manager screamed for food runners.

“First round!” I dutifully called back.

“Dealing with an idiot!”  Bruce called.  That was not one of the Houston’s approved excuses for not running food, but when the manager saw that Bruce was talking to me, he nodded in sympathy.

Bruce rushed off to deliver drinks and try to win back his table while I very carefully avoided that area of the restaurant for the next hour.  After they left, I approached Bruce.

“Everything go okay with your 7-top?” I asked meekly.

“Yeah, they were fine,” Bruce said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

Whew.  No flogging, thank God.

“They were some kind of band or something,” Bruce continued.

“Really?  Who?” I asked.

“I don’t know – ‘In Style?’  Something like that.”

I nodded and went about my business, and after many months of faithful service, I finally lived down the Grenadine Incident and was accepted as a loyal, contributing member of the Houston’s Republic.  I could name our top-shelf liquors with ease (Grey Goose, Sapphire, Chivas, Patron), and sometimes I could even suggest a cocktail – perhaps a Salty Dog, sir? 

About a year later, ‘N Sync hit the big time, and as I scraped dirty plates into the trash one night while the dishwasher hummed “Bye Bye Bye,” I finally, suddenly realized that on that fateful night during my first week as a waitress at Houston’s, Justin Timberlake had asked me for a cherry Coke, and I had asked for his ID.

Dear Justin: 

I know you’ve probably moved on to $10,000 bottles of champagne, but in case you’re feeling nostalgic one day – please, please Justin – just say “cherry Coke.”  Thanks.

Love,

Mama