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The waiting thereof

By Catherine Foster / August 30, 1982

I would like to pay tribute to a much maligned and misunderstood profession - waiting tables. Popular mainly with college kids and actors who appreciate its flexible hours and instant money, it certainly isn't a profession that gets one ''ahead'' in the traditional sense of the word. It's grueling, demanding work, and one's clothes always end up smelling like house dressing and cigarette smoke.

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Why then, after gratefully leaving the restaurant world after four years, do I look back upon my time there with such unwarranted affection? For one thing, I'm finding that the skills I learned from waiting tables have transferred surprisingly well to my new office job. After nights of guiding thirty people through five stages of a dinner in time for them to make the curtain, no pressure now is too great. The diplomacy required when informing a hungry patron that the kitchen has run out of yet his third selection (and would he perhaps like to try the steak tartare?) must qualify me for a position with the United Nations. I've also found that years of devising systems to remember who ordered what without asking them has sharpened my memory for details. This served me in good stead recently when I was complimented on my ability to carry on a conversation while stuffing envelopes, stopping to answer the phone, and then resuming the conversation without missing a beat. This didn't seem out of the ordinary to me, but the ability to juggle several things at once is a leftover from my restaurant days which I've found the business world appreciates.

Sometimes, however, I forget that I'm not still slinging hash, and when my new boss interrupts a task I'm concentrating on, I find myself braying, ''Hold your horses, buddy, I'll be right there,'' in my best Brooklyn waitress voice. Ah, you can take the girl out of the spinach salad but you can't take . . . .

As absurd as it seems, I miss shouldering a tray loaded with six dinners through the puddles in the kitchen, kicking open a heavy swinging door with one (high-heeled, yet) foot, and then whisking the tray in one deft motion to the tray stand I've opened with one hand. No one ever applauded, but an occasional look of grudging admiration from my burly and more traditionally minded counterparts gave me a heady sense of accomplishment.

One posh place I worked was truly an equal-opportunity employer. My team consisted of a Chinese partner, a busboy from India, and a black captain. The four of us learned quite a bit about international politics from working together. I couldn't figure out why there was so much distrust between my partner and the busboy; both seemed equally delightful to me, though each frequently pulled me aside to warn about the other's dishonesty. I soon learned that the animosity was not really between them but between India and China, and had been going on for centuries. Not a hint of their ancestral friction showed, however, while we worked - both of them were passionately dedicated to excellent service, and we proudly bore the reputation for being a reliable team.