Sunday, December 14, 2014

No bennies, big problems

The other day I was stumbling into the house with a few bags in my hands. I was wearing shoes with a significant heel on them, and I stepped wrong. I felt my ankle roll and crunch and a sharp pain shot through my entire foot. Turned out, I didn't hurt it that bad. It didn't swell. I could walk fine. No harm, no foul. But it did scare the crap out of me. ...

My mind instantly went to my new job. You know what happens when you can't walk in the service industry? You no longer work in the service industry, that's what happens. When you run around in circles for a living, healthy feet are a must. I wondered what I would have done if I had broken my ankle. How would I pay my mortgage? How would I pay any of my bills at all?

If there's one thing I took for granted in my white-collar career, it was the benefits. Having three weeks of paid vacation days, paid sick days, and health insurance was pretty great. When I needed new glasses, I didn't pay a dime. When I needed my teeth cleaned, my insurance covered every penny. I complained a lot about the health coverage because it was expensive, and I still had a $40 copay. But having the coverage got me through many sinus infections, a broken foot, and of course routine checkups and exams.

As of Aug. 1 this year, I've been gambling on my health. There is NO WAY I can afford health insurance, and part-time jobs like mine obviously don't offer benefits. Depending on the (crappy) plan I would choose on the MnSure website, I would pay $191-$200 per month. I can't imagine having that amount of extra money, especially when you just don't know if you're going to use it. And with the deductible I would need to have for that price, the insurance would only pay for MAJOR health issues, like surgery or other in-patient treatments.

It sure is scary, though, not having it. For several years in college and right after college I didn't have health insurance, either. One time I went to the emergency room with a terrible sinus infection. It was day seven of utter tortuous pain. I could feel my heartbeat in my nasal passages. So I went to the ER in Mankato and I waited 90 minutes in the waiting area before going into a room where I was seen for two minutes by an ER doctor. He tapped on my sinuses, asked me my symptoms, and said he was writing me a prescription for antibiotics. About three weeks later I learned what those two minutes cost me: $275. Out of pocket. I had to make payments on a two-minute service.

That's when I started going to Open Door Health Center. They were amazingly kind and welcoming. The doctor was fantastic. And their sliding-fee scale meant that I could actually afford to go to the hospital when I needed to. During these last six months or so in the service industry, that's where I will be going if I get sick. I hope all of the uninsured folks out there know about that place. I can't imagine how many people there must be who just suffer at home, too scared that a trip to the hospital will clean out their checking account. No one should have to choose between food and health care, or rent and health care. And from personal experience, I can tell you that there are a whole lot of us out there who fall into that income bracket where Obamacare isn't helping us.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thankful for not working this Thanksgiving

It was a Wednesday night in the late 1990s. I was in a building at the intersection of Highway 15 and
I-90, also known as Perkin's Family Restaurant and Bakery in Fairmont. The location of this particular restaurant is important here. One wouldn't imagine that the Perkin's in Fairmont would draw in many folks beyond a 20-mile radius of town. But the glowing green, red, and white sign shone quite bright to traffic on the interstate, meaning the days surrounding major holidays (or any time, really) were quite unpredictable. (As an aside, we would get the occasional celebrity who would see the Perkin's sign and pull their tour bus over for a meal. After Rochester, there just aren't that many places along the interstate to eat. One night, in walked Keith Urban -- the pre-Nicole Kidman and "American Idol" Keith Urban, that is -- and the hostess had no idea who he was and sat him in one of those sad little tables for two out in the middle of everything. He was as gracious as he could be, happily accepting this tiny table in the middle of an empty restaurant. He ordered pot roast, and one of the servers took his dirty fork home as a souvenir.)

Anyway ... back to this particular Wednesday night in the 1990s. It was the night before Thanksgiving, and the second the sun went down, we got absolutely rocked. The lobby was completely full for hours upon hours. It was impossible to get caught up. We only had five or six servers for the whole restaurant, and to make matters worse, we didn't have a dishwasher that night (I forget why). I volunteered to go back and wash dishes, having no idea that I'd be back there for three hours, up to my armpits in other people's leftover mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Feeling the sticky, disgusting remnants of strangers' discarded food for several hours couldn't have been a more horrifying way to kick off my holiday. But it was better than having to work the next day on Thanksgiving. Sure, barely anyone comes in, but an open restaurant still needs staffing, so empty or not, working on holidays is simply a part of life in the service industry. 

This week, I've been thinking back on both of my longtime jobs. As a server in high school, working on holidays was pretty much guaranteed. (The busiest among them: Mother's Day and Easter, in case you're curious.) As a journalist for 12 years, you were guaranteed to work one holiday per year through a lottery system. (The news never sleeps!) I just happened to be the unlucky one to draw Thanksgiving and Christmas twice each during my 12-year tenure. I, of course, am not alone in spending so many of my holidays at work. It seems this particular aspect of the working world does cross white collar/blue collar boundaries.

Police, doctors, EMTs, nurses, airport staff, factory workers, hotel and hospitality staff, journalists, service-industry staff and management, and now, thanks to money-grubbing Big Box owners, retailers on "Brown Thursday" or whatever they're calling the precursor to Black Friday -- all of these folks and more will be working on Thanksgiving. And many of them DO NOT receive extra pay for doing so. (I didn't as a journalist.) Many people who work office jobs might think that the world shuts down on holidays, but according to USA Today, about 1/4 of Americans will work this Thanksgiving.

This makes me feel particularly lucky this year. I work at a restaurant that is actually closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas and asks for two volunteers to work early shifts on Christmas Eve. So when I get gas, go to the movies, or pick up last-minute grocery store items for the big meal, I'm going to be extra nice to the folks who provide me service. I hope you will, too.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Smoking and the Restaurant Biz: Simpatico

For the purpose of imparting the power of cigarette smoke to calm the brain and soothe the nerves to lifetime non-smokers, I take you back to a Sunday morning at Perkin's in Fairmont, Minn., circa 1998.

I'm assigned to the back of the garden room, which is annoying for various reasons. It's hot in there, for one. Like a green house -- an extension of the main building surrounded by windows. The walkway between the tables is super narrow, too, which makes carrying large trays of heavy bread-bowl salads above one's head a perilous act. The memory of dumping a full cup of crimson French dressing all over a sophisticated woman's white jacket is still fresh. And every time I need to run to the kitchen, the waity assigned to the front of the garden room is always standing right in the middle of the walkway taking orders. We're constantly trying to shove around each other, causing my tush to get pushed far too close to guests' faces and meals.

Being a Sunday morning in the heartland, the rush is predictable -- approximately four minutes after church lets out -- but every week it still somehow catches you off-guard. There's no way to fully prepare for 40 hungry people staring directly at you with all the patience of a 5-year-old holding an assembly-required Christmas toy. Plus, nobody wants to sit in the garden room until there are no other options. So while the non-Christian crowd filled up about half of the rest of the restaurant during the earlier hours of the morn', the garden room sat quietly waiting for 9:34, when the hosts would march in table after table, whispering, "Sorry I sat you six times in a row; there was nowhere else to put them!"

Believe it or not, 40 people without food or drink is just the initial spike in stress. Over the next hour ...

* About 20 percent of those 40 will need constant refills; you won't be able to fill their water or pop as fast as they can drink them down. When the glass sits empty, these are generally the kind of people who take that lapse in service very personally.

* Because of the onslaught of tickets, the kitchen will get very pissed at you for double- or triple-ticketing them, which means to put in orders one after another. (They don't care that you were quadruple sat. They just don't.)

* The kitchen will make the pancakes too soon and the rest of the meal way too many minutes later for at least 25 percent of the orders, meaning the cakes will look and taste less than fluffy -- one might venture to say rubbery. Some will be cold. Toast will definitely be cold. (This is why you end up touching a lot of your customers' food with your bare fingers and microwaving these items, rendering them hot once again, but super not fresh.) All of this takes too long for most of your customers, and about 25 percent will give you those pleading looks to just get them their breakfast already every time you walk by.

* When you finally do get them their breakfast already, you just hope that the need for food outweighs the desire for fluffy cakes. For about 5 percent, it does not. They will send back their food items with perfectly acceptable complaints, such as, "My toast is piping hot, but my omelette is cold in the middle," or, "These cakes are hard on top."

* Half of your customers will wolf down their meals, and the other half will take their time and need your continued service. So while you're rushing to get checks printed for the ones who want to leave, the others are sitting there wondering why their fifth Diet Coke has yet to arrive.

On a Sunday morning, this goes on from about 9:30 to 1:30 p.m. (You didn't think Fairmont had just one church with just one church service, did you?) For all that time, you're running. Your brain is spinning. You are under extreme stress and pressure over things that most people would consider quite trivial -- retrieving extra butter, pouring water into a glass, pushing buttons on a computer screen. Combined, needing to do about 25 of those trivial tasks in a five-minute period, this makes for a feeling of absolute helplessness. The PRESSURE ... it's only made worth it by A) shoving your right hand into your apron and feeling the mound of cash tips that have yet to be sorted, and B) knowing that the second you get a three-minute window when your customers might not need you, you can sneak back to the break room and SMOKE.

I tried my first cigarette at age 14 to impress a boy. It was a Marlboro Red and it burned my throat, and it made me so nauseated, I was sure I would puke on my shoes. I didn't. But that desire to fit in was quite strong as a teen, and these were the days before those awful anti-smoking commercials featuring teens pulling skin off their face to pay for a pack of smokes. (Jesus. Effective.) I smoked throughout high school, as did many other kids who worked at Perkin's. The break room, which was about a 4-by-8 space, featured three greasy chairs with overflowing ashtrays in front of each one. (I cannot imagine being a non-smoker and having to eat in that break room.) But when it's crazy busy, you can't just take a three-minute break without somebody walking by and saying, "Get back up there! Help run food! Bus a table!" So during crazy rushes at work, the women's bathroom was my refuge. I sat on the stool, I lit up a cig, and I flicked my ashes into the sink. (Such a lovely image, isn't it?)

I've thought so many times about how to explain what a cigarette does for a smoker in desperate need of lighting up. It's one of the hardest experiences to put to words. The only way I've found to describe it is to say that, for those five minutes, everything in the entire world is OK. The soothing, calming effects of a Marlboro allowed me to handle more Sunday mornings and more Friday and Saturday bar-rush shifts than I care to remember.

I quit smoking many years ago, maybe age 21 or 22. But one night, at age 25, I was at a bar and everyone was smoking, so I decided to have one. Just one. No big deal. I took two puffs and my throat was on fire. It made me so nauseated, I was sure I would puke on my shoes. I didn't. But that awful feeling in my stomach was the absolute best thing that could have happened to me. It turned me off from ever trying a cigarette again.

I've thought about that horrible last experience smoking many a shift at my new restaurant. While smoking has become far less socially acceptable, it is alive and well in the restaurant industry. When I come to work I often pass by kitchen staff and managers out by the dumpsters, soothing their nerves with every puff. Sometimes I wonder, if that last cigarette at age 25 went down more smoothly, if I wouldn't be tempted to join them on occasion, when I've messed up an order or when an elongated rush causes my stress level to spike.

But, with smoking not an option, I'll have to find a new way to cope. Shoving my hand into my apron to feel those tips sure doesn't hurt.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Oh, to never be a teenager again

So we've sufficiently covered some of the down sides of being almost 34 and waiting tables, i.e. feeling as if I have to explain my current position in life. But besides just money, there's a major upside here that I have neglected to mentioned as of yet: the patience that comes with age. I've noticed it more and more as I've settled into my new job.

When I was a teenage waitress, I could be a real pill. I think with some young women -- approximately 15 to 22 years old -- a rather sizable chip resides squarely on their shoulders. Everything is happening TO them. Everything and everyone is SUCH a burden. This sour attitude was nowhere more magnified than when I was 17 and serving people food and drink in exchange for $3 or $4. If someone wanted a third or, heaven forbid, fourth refill: eye roll as I walked away and maybe a snide comment. "Another one? Really? Does it look like you're my only customer?" If someone complained about their meal: "Seriously? It's one burger in the grand scheme of your entire life. You're really willing to be this much of an ass over one burger?" I won't even talk about the people who dared to order hot tea or handmade hard-pack ice cream shakes ... oh, how many hours I wasted blackening my own mood by cursing those people for making me spend an extra few seconds preparing their beverages. "How could they!?"

When I started at this restaurant, those feelings all still seemed fresh. I wondered if I could handle that level of stress again every time I went to work. But it didn't take long to realize that attitude is everything. The only person I was hurting with my sour attitude at age 17 was me. The customer got his fourth refill, and I got a tension headache, so what good did it do to get so pissed all the time about the small stuff?

Maybe it comes with age, I don't know. But this time around, when a high-maintenance customer keeps me running, I don't take it personally. It's not about me, and letting it ruin my night isn't going to change the outcome for me or for the customer. He's going to get what he wants either way because that's what restaurants are for, to cater to people's wants.

Now, there are some people who ARE difficult to wait on, and sometimes I can't help but get frustrated. But the eye-rolling, the muttering under my breath -- I'm thinking those days have passed. (For the most part.) I see those sizable chips, though, squarely in place on other waities' shoulders, and I just want to pull them aside and say, "It's not that bad! Everything is fine! You'll be OK! The only person you're hurting right now is yourself!" But then I realize that the only person to whom most 15- to 22-year-old girls listen is herself. So, it's best to just half smile, mosey on by, and hum a little Bob Marley.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Your server is watching you

Sounds creepy, doesn't it? It really isn't. It's actually one of the best parts of the job, and it works to your benefit.

Backing up here for just a minute, it's kind of the chicken and the egg question when thinking about whether waitressing or journalism has resulted in one of my very favorite abilities: reading people. I did waitress for five years in high school, which provided thousands of encounters with people from all walks of life who ran the gamut of personality types. But journalists are required to focus in on human interaction, to read the nuances in conversation and body language.

By far the best part of being a reporter is having the opportunity to study people every single day, and that study is taken to a new level when you have to put what you see to words. For five years I taught a feature-writing class at the university in town, and I drilled into my students the importance of descriptive detail -- when you paint a picture with words of a person or scene that is so concrete, your readers can see them in their minds. Readers love those types of stories, and that's because we all, as people, share a fascination with the human condition.

So how does this all play out in a restaurant?

The other day there was a guy sitting in my section alone with two menus. I asked him if he wanted a drink, and he paused and said, "Yes (chuckle, rubs hands together), but I better wait." He was nervous about something. I brought him water. When a woman finally arrived and sat down it became immediately clear what the nerves were about. They didn't know each other. This might have been a blind date, or maybe just a first date. The conversation was insanely polite, and so forced at first. (How many siblings do you have? What do your parents do? Where did you go to college?) But, God bless him, he was trying so hard, and she was being really sweet about it. She was clearly the least nervous of the two, and after every silly little thing he said, she threw him a smile and a courtesy laugh. When they were ready to go, she did all the heavy lifting so he wouldn't have to muster up the courage to ask for a second date. She said, "This was so fun. Do you want to go to a movie or something next week? I'm free Friday night." (Um, yeah, he wanted to go to that movie. BAD.)

You might ask my role in all of this. Being an observant waitress really helps me to tailor my service to each table. When it's a business meeting, I know to back off a little and let the table talk shop for as long as they need. When a table with a bunch of kids comes in, I know to "GET THEM FOOD. JUST GET THOSE KIDS FED." (Or at least that's what a lot of mothers' eyes are screaming.) And, when a first date is unfolding in a quiet booth somewhere, I know to walk by frequently so that they can ask for what they might need, but not insinuate myself too much. I know to suggest a sharable dessert and offer to bring two forks. I know to create as much intimacy as I can in a crowded restaurant.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Class warfare: Your server isn't who you think she is

Guest: Didn't you folks change the menu a few months ago?

Me: Yes, it changes every few months to keep it fresh and introduce new dishes to our guests. I've only been here a few weeks, but if there's something you used to order that isn't on the menu now, we will gladly make it for you if we still have all the ingredients. 

Guest: Oh, great! A few weeks, huh? So where did you work before you came here? 

Me: I was a journalist for 12 years.

Guest: (Looks up from menu, surprised) Ohhh, wow. (pause, half smile) What, ah, what brought you here?

At first this was an awkward conversation. It actually has played out several times in my three months at the restaurant, which is interesting. I think it's pretty nice that guests show an interest in their servers. I like those people! But what I found to be so interesting is that there's an assumption that something "must have happened" to result in this "step down." It's entirely possible that what I'm reading between the lines isn't there at all, that maybe the guests aren't surprised at all that a journalist in her mid-30s would now be working as a waitress. But the instant reaction to look up and examine me, as well as the pauses in conversation as they try to discern what questions would be appropriate and not insulting, tell me that there's a certain level of intrigue there. What would cause this perceived fall from grace?

My old standby answer is "school." People instantly understand that. They think, "Oh, that makes sense. Graduate school is expensive, and so this is just a way to get by until she finishes her degree." And that's true. My foray into the restaurant industry is a way to pay the bills while I pursue my master's degree. But there's a lot more to the truth that wouldn't be appropriate to divulge. Like ...

Actually, print journalism doesn't pay well at all. I make a lot more here in about 20 hours per week than I ever did as a journalist. Sometimes I wonder if I knew what a crazy amount of money I would be making if I wouldn't have left a lot sooner, school or not. 

In America, it's rude to talk about money, right? Yet, it's certainly a major factor in sizing up someone's worth and value. That's what I find so interesting about the white collar vs. blue collar discussion. I make way more as a waitress, which is considered blue-collar work. My step-dad works in a factory, and he makes great money. Electricians, plumbers, contractors -- I have gotten to know very well over the past 7 years of home-owning that those folks make a very good living. So what is it, then, about an office job that still makes it seem superior in people's minds? Why does the kind of work you are doing to make your money trump the actually sum? Why -- when I wait on people who don't work but who have family money, or those who are entry-level with massive student-loan debt, for examples -- are they superior to me because my money is made while wearing a uniform?

With most curious customers, I don't mind at all, and I certainly don't take it personally when I get those "class-questioning" kind of looks. But I admit that waiting on people I know -- especially high-roller acquaintances I used to interview as a reporter -- can be brutal. In lieu of the curious eye contact I get from strangers, there is a decided LACK of eye contact with these folks. Many who know I left the newspaper business to go to school bring that fact up immediately (Oh, Amanda ... you're in school, right?) in order to mediate the awkward recognition that our relationship has markedly changed. You used to take me to task, and now you are serving me French fries.

All I know is that beginning my work life at Perkin's at age 16 was absolutely invaluable. Among the numerous life lessons learned was the fact that your server is so much more than his or her job title. The best kinds of customers are those who understand that
and demonstrate it with kindness.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A 33-year-old formerly white-collar career-gal turned waitress

Print journalism. In 2001, it seemed like a damn good idea. A cool job that meant I wouldn't be stuck behind a desk for eight hours a day. And, you know what? I was absolutely right! For more than a decade I had a job that allowed me to meet new people every single day. I learned about new things every single day. I got to be creative, tell people's stories. I interviewed celebrities, movers and shakers in my community, policy-makers, elected officials. I had benefits and health insurance and paid vacation days.

You know what else I had? A paycheck that meant I couldn't make ends meet. When a girl enters her 30s, it just isn't cute anymore to be poor. I had to reassess. And after applying for job after job in the field of public relations (and not getting a single interview), I decided a bachelor's degree today is the high school diploma of yesterday. It was time to go back to school.

So that brings us here, folks: an almost 34-year-old who is back in school, pursuing a master's. And as if that's not enough of a Ghosts of Christmas Past kind of moment, I also had to find a way to pay the mortgage while I'm doing that. So I'm waiting tables again, folks. WAITING TABLES. When I was 16 and living in Fairmont, a small berg on the Iowa border surrounded by corn, waiting tables at Perkin's Family Restaurant was THE job to have. It meant a lot of cash in your pocket, and it meant you weren't bagging groceries or bean-walking like the other kids.

But waiting tables when you're 34 in a small community? The same small community where you very recently held a high-profile, white-collar career? The same community where you've come to know a great many of the important folks that run said community? The same community where you'll inevitably be serving those important folks burgers and fries? That's another story entirely -- a story I hope you'll find to be quite interesting.

So, folks, welcome to my blog: Blue Collar Confessions. After a 12-year white collar career, I've gained quite an interesting perspective to bring to my waitressing job. In just two months on the job, I've already gathered quite a collection of stories to tell about the people I wait on and the people I work with.

Stay tuned.