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.