A Few Tips From a Waitress
I don't want to wait tables forever, but I don't regret my decision to do it now. I've learned more about human nature than I did in Psych 101.
AS a child, my idea of waitressing was gleaned from TV. Daisy Duke carried armloads of cold drinks to Bo and Luke on "The Dukes of Hazzard." Sabrina, Jill, and Kelly apprehended more than one bad guy by discreetly gripping revolvers under their tip trays on "Charlie's Angels." And who could forget gum-chewing, high-haired Flo's line - "Kiss my grits!" - on "Alice"?Skip to next paragraph
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Waitressing held an exotic charm: an opportunity to call strangers "honey" and, later, take money from them; to scribble cryptic lingo on my very own pad ("One special bird, pink, hold the green!").
After college, instead of searching for a "real" job where I would learn to walk in heels, I wanted something that would give me time to pursue a writing career. Hey, I was friendly, I thought. How hard could waiting tables be? Most of the time, Alice and Vera were sitting down anyway.
I landed a job at a neighborhood restaurant where some of the waitresses have worked since before I was born. I came in for training with a Plen-T-Pack of cinnamon gum and my hair up in what my first customer called a "doohickey."
"This is the hardest job you'll ever have," warned Connie, the veteran waitress who trained me. She stood at the door of the kitchen mouthing "Go away" to her tables. "Fourteen hours of childbirth are nothing compared with what I go through every day."
I laughed, and she patted my shoulder.
"That's good, honey. Keep your sense of humor. Trust me, you'll need it."
It's been eight months now, and that's still the best tip I've gotten.
Waiting tables, I've discovered, can be a cross between baby-sitting and guerrilla warfare. At any given minute, I'm taking orders, refilling salt shakers, balancing hot plates of spaghetti on my forearms, searching for fresh creamers and the last full ketchup bottle, rearranging a table for four so it will somehow fit a party of nine, and explaining to table No. 20 that I'm not their waitress, but I'll give them directions to Cheers anyway.
Yes, my ideas of waitressing - and waitresses - have been served an enormous helping of reality. Forget being the center of attention, smiling and waving to customers as I float through the restaurant with a tray of hamburger specials. Most people don't realize - I didn't - that the standard salary for waitresses is far less than minimum wage: $2.55 an hour, before taxes. My income depends on tips. If I don't do a good job - from the customer's point of view - I might not make my rent money.
"OK," a woman I work with says at the beginning of every evening. "Let's do it for the cable bill."
I am not, I regret, instructing customers to kiss my grits. I can't afford to. I'm not just selling food, I'm selling myself. I have a limited time to figure out what each customer expects: Am I going by the table too often? Should I interrupt a mother who's in the midst of a birds-and-bees lecture or wait until she's finished? When the guy says "Knock, knock," should I say "Who's there?" or pretend I didn't hear? Choosing incorrectly means I'll walk home instead of taking a cab.