Empathy and Condiments
Why everyone should wait tables… at least for a while
When you work in a chain restaurant the whole world smells like ketchup. You spend your day tending to sticky pools of the stuff left on plates and tables and in the cracks in the booths, or serving the burgers and omelettes which act as ketchup delivery systems, or in the kitchen, “marrying” the ketchup bottles. Have you ever wondered why the jug of Heinz on your table always looks new when you’re in a Denny’s, or Friendly’s, or Perkins? It’s because some poor jerk in the back room stacked all the bottles end to end so that they would combine, and then wiped the whole mess down with a hot rag.
When I was a waiter I was haunted by ketchup. I would find it on my shoes, in my pockets, in my car, and in matted clumps of my hair. I would find it all over the crumpled stacks of singles and fives that I took to the bank once a week, and I would find it in my dreams.
I worked the swing shift at Perkins in Denver: clocking in at nine and leaving somewhere around dawn. My crew handled the post-bar rush, which often meant yelling, fighting, or customers walking out with flatware or jars of ketchup stuffed down their pants. One particularly epic brawl (I wasn't there that night) saw patrons running into the kitchen to find steak knives, all the better to stab one another with.
That wasn't typical. Most of the clientele were just hungry and tipsy, the kind that orders a lot and tips reasonably well. We also had a regular batch of anecdote-producing insomniacs and oddballs. I once served a plate of spaghetti and meatballs around four in the morning. When I asked the customer afterward if everything had been to his satisfaction, he replied in an Eastern European accent: “Food was too hot, and portion was too large.” We laughed about that in the kitchen… I guess he liked his morning pasta cold and paltry?
I will admit that I was not the best server in the house. I worked hard, but my personality runs a tad phlegmatic for the kind of cheery service that people are used to in the Western states. My nickname among the staff was Droopy Dog, which I hope was at least partially affectionate. I did what I could though, and unlike everyone else there after midnight, I never got high in the walk-in freezer. I don’t mean that to sound judgy: I worked with a lot of weedy geniuses who could keep twenty tables happy after a full complement of bong rips. I just knew that if I tried that it would be a mess.
It was a nasty, servile job, but it had its advantages. There’s a battlefield camaraderie on a swing-shift staff, and when we clocked out in the morning we would have parties that were a lot of fun. There is also a lot of restaurant and bar staff eating at that hour, and of course they make the best customers.
There’s also strange phenomenon known only to servers in lousy restaurants: customers like to flirt with us. No matter how unattractive I felt in my uniform: a ketchup-smeared green-and-white-striped button down and a name tag that read “Hi! My name is BRYAN” (it isn't) there were occasional phone numbers left behind with the tip, which tends to brighten up a long shift.
Best of all, we had the ideal manager: Peter, the franchise owner’s son and, rumor among the staff had it, a Saudi prince on parental orders to learn how to run a business. He was debonair with the clientele and tolerant to a fault with the staff. With other managers, we had to be subtle about stealing the bakery products. With Peter the Prince we would just say, “Hey, I’m gonna take this birthday cake home, okay?”
“Yes, of course, take it,” he would reply from behind a newspaper.
Eventually I got tired of the swing shift, mostly because the vampiric lifestyle makes it difficult to interact with daywalkers. So I switched to mornings, where the ketchup in my hair was mixed with maple syrup.
Restaurant chains are mostly about breakfast, and the morning crew is like the special forces version of a wait staff. The bleary nighttime customers were replaced by alert and hungry members of the Greatest Generation, many of whom seem to think of arguing over a $24 bill as a bit of extra pleasure in lieu of dessert. One particular table of four stands out in my mind: two couples in tennis clothes.
A woman raises a single manicured nail to get my attention.
“Watch her deal with this guy,” her husband says to the other couple, as if I’m hard of hearing, or a piece of furniture. “She’s amazing at this.”
We go through the bill line by line, and I obsequiously explain each of the charges.
Yes, a patty melt is $8.95. I’m not sure how long we have charged that much for it. No, there was no extra charge for the fries, and yes, I realize that you didn't order them specifically. No, we didn't charge you for the second glass of iced tea. That line is tax.
I had no financial or emotional stake in these negotiations, so I would usually wipe some small charge from the bill and get on with my day. I suppose that’s why this tactic usually works, unless the waiter is feeling particularly shat upon that day and is looking for a scrap.
And please pardon these gross generalizations about the elderly. I’m sure that a lot of my customers had gone through the Depression, or the Blitz, or the Irish Potato Famine or something, and were pining for the days when a taco salad cost a nickel, and kids like me knew what was what. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I do know this: having been a waiter will prevent me from ever arguing over any check that is not heinously in error, And even then, I will tip 20 percent.
I was regularly stiffed on tips, or, arrrrgh, tipped with piles of loose change, as if I were playing saxophone on a subway platform. One morning a church group came in unannounced: eighteen adults and at least a dozen kids, all in their Sunday best and in a raucous mood. We put them in a large conference room, where they each ordered a single soft drink. They paid their paltry check, tipped 12%, and bailed, leaving me to clean all the soda off the walls. I admit that I may have voiced some un-Christian sentiments that morning, after they had gone.
I would deal with stress the way everyone in the customer service industry does: by making fun of the customers in the break room, which usually made everything better. Except for the one time that it didn't.
It was a Sunday brunch shift, the Super Bowl of waiting tables, and I had a nervous event (breakdown?) that I really can’t imagine any of my more recent desk jobs causing. One of my co-workers was absent for some reason, so I was holding down the smoking section and half of non-smoking as well: somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty tables, all full of hungry patrons. I was what airline pilots call “fully engaged,” wired on stress with my brain and arms just barely able to deal with all of the pancakes and coffees and sides of bacon that were going in and out of the kitchen. I was also wearing a big button on my uniform that read “Free juice if I don’t offer you any!”
And that’s when a party of eight came in and crowded around our last big table. I took their order and was about to sprint off when one of them grinned, wagged a finger at me and said “Ah ha. You didn't offer us any juice.”
To this day, twenty-odd years later, I am passionately furious at that man, and hopefully my professional demeanor hid the fact that I wanted to smash his face into his short stack. I took the eight juice orders and went back to the pantry, where I slowly poured out tomato, tomato, cranberry, orange orange orange orange orange. My hands were just beginning to tremble as I delivered them, and when I dashed back to the pantry, getting desperate waves and calls of “Sir… sir!” from the tables and responding only with apologetic gestures and tremulous smiles, I started to feel like a pinball machine on tilt.
Back in the kitchen the unfulfilled orders were backing up, and the cooks were getting pissed as their omelettes congealed. I’m still not exactly sure what happened, but for just one moment I kind of went to the zoo. My skin went cold and my knees wobbled. My vision blurred, my ears rang, and a co-worker stopped to tell me that my face had gone white. My thoughts came unhinged, and I stood there trembling and holding myself up against the prep station until the manager asked what was going on. I said that I had no idea. She told me to take a moment, so I went to the break room and collapsed face down on a banquette, my face against the cool Naugahyde. I woke up twenty minutes later, and the morning rush was over. They had somehow made it through without me, and the manager sent me home, where I sat in a daze on the couch for the rest of the day, wondering what the hell had happened to me.
I’m still not sure why eight free juice orders melted my brain. I’d been deep in the weeds before quite regularly, but I’d never lost it as I did on The Fateful Morning of The Eight Free Juices. I had never flipped anyone off, or spoken harshly to an unruly child, or spat in food or a beverage… although I could have. I could have done that so easily. You have no idea how easy it would be to do something like that, especially to some son of a bitch with a gleam in his eye who suddenly demands fulfillment of some stupid promise on his waiter’s uniform flair, unmoved by or blind to the chaos all around him, and indifferent about costing his waiter several essential minutes of his already-ruined morning.
Maybe that juice enthusiast is reading these words right now? If so… honestly sir, I didn't spit in your juice. But you should know that there’s almost certainly some server out there who has. If I were you, I would bring my own juice to restaurants.
I eventually quit. After my final shift I went straight to a friend’s house party, still wearing my uniform. Everyone was dancing, and it was the early nineties, so the song playing was almost certainly “Groove Is In The Heart.” I walked in, reached into the deep pockets of my smock and produced two handfuls from my haul of tips for the night, which I tossed joyfully over the crowd, probably saying something along the lines of “WOOOOOOO.”
Later my friends helped me collect all of those bills, because I was newly unemployed and desperately needed them, as well as the pieces of my discarded uniform, which I was expected to clean and return within seven days.
I would never want to wait tables again, but I still think of my time slinging mediocre food and singing happy birthday to strangers as a formative experience: one that made me more empathetic, and a more generally useful member of society. No matter what I’m doing for a living, there will always be a part of me that is wearing polyester and shouldering a tray of club sandwiches and ice cream sundaes.
Hospitality workers see people at their most entitled, and at greatest remove from the social contract that keeps us all from clubbing one another to death. It can make you misanthropic, briefly, but you end up a better person when you don’t have to do it anymore. Retired waiters don’t take part in those conversations in which one person recalls a zinger unleashed on an incompetent bank teller, and then the rest of the table chips in with tales of disinterested cashiers or insufficiently American tech support reps. When I’m at a restaurant now and someone hassles the staff over something silly, my waiter’s blood absolutely boils.
Is the fish fresh? How fresh. Really? Would you mind running in the back and asking the chef? Thaaaaanks.
Once you have waded in the river of ketchup, abuse of service-industry people looks like evidence of a rotten soul. Everyone should work customer service at some point in life. It’s a shortcut to becoming something other than a garden variety jerk.