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"?
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.
Some situations I've become accustomed to: If a couple are on a date, they want me to be invisible, clearing things fast so they can hold hands. Large parties often need a tiebreaker for heated debates: "Quentin Tarantino did too write 'The Lion King'! Ask the waitress!" Parents with young kids want you to set the hot pizza by them, not their two-year-old. And yes, there are still men of all ages and economic classes who ask me what time I get off.
But many customers - men and women - feel that I've signed on as their personal servant. They summon me to announce that there's no toilet paper in the women's bathroom. I'm suddenly responsible for the noise level of the table next to theirs, the temperature of the dining area, and would I please remove the anchovies from their Caesar Salad? (I've stopped trying to explain that's why it's a Caesar Salad.)
To a certain extent, I can't blame difficult customers. No dieter likes to be brought "The Chocolate Volcano" when he or she ordered a child's portion of cottage cheese, pineapple on the side. People want to be indulged, listened to, when they go out to eat, not ignored or snapped at. As a waitress, the most important tool I have is my "automatic smile." Anyone who's ever been on a tedious blind date ("And you know what my parrot said then? Guess!") should know what I'm talking about.
"Is there pasta in the lasagna?" one woman asked me.
A Harvard student nearly burst into tears because there was a pickle on the plate next to his hamburger.
"They're touching!" he cried, holding his napkin over his nose. "Break them up!"
I've seen people rub mayonnaise into their hands and hair, and one woman swears by minced garlic in her cocoa.
I READ somewhere that waiting tables is a high-stress job, up there with brain surgery and flying jumbo jets. I don't know if it's true, but I can assure you we don't take turns napping under the heat lamp in the kitchen. And who would want to? I'd be missing all the good stuff.
I've played matchmaker for single people eating alone, and provided an audience for a law student's mock trial defense. Last week, the owner of a local Baskin-Robbins brought by a pint of my favorite ice cream.
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 from people's eating habits than I did in Psych 101. And more about myself than I ever did working in an office.
"So when are you getting a real job?" one of my friends demanded over lunch the other day, in between descriptions of the deluxe copier her office had just bought.
"You know," I told her. "I have a lot of responsibility. People depend on me. Not everyone could do my job." My friend stopped frantically motioning for our waitress and looked at me in disbelief.
"Oh, come off it," she rolled her eyes. "You're a waitress. "
My point exactly.