The waiting thereof

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.

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.

It was here that I learned to appreciate the herculean backstage efforts needed to run a large restaurant. Once in the middle of a Saturday night rush, an enthusiastic smoke detector in the kitchen mistook the sparks and smoke of a searing lamb chop for a real fire and burst into screams, dumping pounds of white powder on all the ranges. Everything came to a sudden halt. The activation of the smoke detector automatically shut off the fans, which caused the kitchen to fill with the existing smoke. Firemen in full regalia appeared, standing resolutely in the doorway, surrounded by thick sausage-like coils of hose, and waited for orders to put out a fire that didn't exist. The normally boisterous chefs were silent, intently dumping out gallons of ruined hollandaise sauce and racks of lamb and steaks, now crusted with white powder. That finished, they proceeded to scour the entire kitchen and start cooking from scratch. An emergency order had gone out for a new supply of meat, which had to be retrieved from storage rooms in the basement - altogether a two hundred fourteen-floor trip.

Meanwhile the maitre d' delayed seating new customers, encouraging them to admire the view. The lights of Manhattan cooperated by shining with particular fervor that night. The waiters and waitresses also rose to the occasion. When customers asked questions about the delay, we spoke sympathetically and confidentially to each of them about a mix-up in the kitchen. (It was tacitly understood by all employees that any mention of the words ''smoke'' or ''fire'' in a building associated with the blazing destruction of King Kong and Towering Inferno might create a bit of a panic.)

Instead we dashed countless times into the battlefield of the kitchen, tripping over the firemen's hoses, skidding on the powder, emerging, eyes streaming, laden with trays of extra bread, salad, and oysters, to a serene and cool restaurant. The two opposite worlds were only twenty feet apart, separated by two sets of heavy doors. When the food finally did start coming out, it did so all at once; we flew through the double doors so fast they never had time to close.

At the end of the evening, the management, grateful for the extra effort by the crew, ordered a special supper prepared for us. We left worn out but proud of accomplishing the impossible.

So there's more to this line of work than appears on the surface. In what other profession can one serve, with straight face, concoctions like buffalo stew or fried rattlesnake? Or see one's boss barking out orders, wearing Bermuda shorts and roller skates? Sure there was more work than it seemed possible to do , but the fringe benefits were high drama, and the satisfaction of occasionally hearing your last customer boom out (as one did on the famous smoky night while handing us an astonishingly generous tip), ''Well, it took long enough, but it was sure worth it!''

It's given me a new perspective on waiting tables. Far from being demeaning - it's a crucible of speed, economy of motion, and clarity of thought. It certainly tests the resiliency of one's kindness. I call that a pretty good definition of getting ''ahead.''

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