“Bring us into your world. What is something about your work (past or present) that outsiders typically don’t understand? It can be something required by the job, something that happens on the job, something you feel about the job—but whatever it is, do not exceed 800 words.”
This is a confession. I make it on behalf of the entire wait staff of a popular chain restaurant in the mid-nineties—a restaurant where we, your servers, wore red-and-white-striped shirts and plenty of flair. Not 37 pieces, perhaps, but plenty. We flirted and made you feel special as you chose between a Tuesday burger and Jack Daniels chicken. We refilled your drinks quickly and gave you all the condiments you desired. We laughed at your jokes, or we left you alone. Whatever you seemed to need, we complied.
We took care of you the best we could. It was our job. You were our source of income. And because of that, you mattered. But you didn’t matter enough to keep us from doing what I’m about to tell you we did. I say we, although not all of us took part. I say we because every single one of us—guilty or not of the flair-and-smile-disguised debauchery—was an accomplice, allowing these behaviors to continue.
By day, we were teachers, single parents, Old Navy clerks, artists, dog walkers, students, massage therapists, and addicts. By night, over-priced food peddlers.
The job could be fun, but mostly, it was hard. So we checked our ethics at the door, doing whatever we had to do to get by.
We stole your money by altering the tip line on your credit card slip if you didn’t tip. Sometimes we did this even if you tipped well—to supplement the stiffers. After all, we had children to feed. And drug habits.
We begged not to have to wait on bad tippers, some paying the host to seat known offenders in other sections. If you had dark skin, we fought over who had to serve you because, the battle-scarred long-timers assured us, dark-skinned people left 10 percent tips max regardless of service. It didn’t matter if we had dark skin, too. We knew the law of averages, and we didn’t want to bust our butts for 10 percent or less.
We laughed at you when your orders fit our stereotypes. We gave your children crayons and balloons to shut them up. Their happiness wasn’t our concern; the pleasant dining experience of other guests was.
If we liked you, we’d give you free stuff—soft drinks, appetizers, salads, chips. We liked you, yes. But we also wanted your tip money.
We had power. Upper management entrusted each server with the ability to comp your food for any reason. And we did, sometimes after you’d paid your bill in cash and left, reaping the benefits all the way to the bank. That cash bought us flair. And Pampers. And top shelf Long Islands after a long shift.
If you treated us with disrespect, you could bet that something about your dining experience would not be what you’d bargained for. We spit in your drinks. We licked your silverware. It’s true.
Cooks really did pick food up off the floor and serve it, laughing about the five-second rule.
And all the while, those of us who had ethics were forced into quiet submission if we wanted to keep our jobs.
Sexual harassment was the norm. David, a dishwasher, followed girl after girl into the pantry, rubbed up against her, and grabbed her chest, groped her crotch. When a group of girls reported him, he received a slap on the wrist (and perhaps a wink and a nod), but kept his job. For how many people want to scrub dishes all day? Retribution? You bet. David made a point of staying after work every day for weeks, sitting at the bar, glaring at the girls, letting them know he knew, making them fear for their safety. For their lives. Fear was their shadow. Damned if they stayed. Damned if they quit.
I was one of those girls. And I did quit. I decided my safety and my son having a self-respecting mom who could hold her head high was more important than the rare $120 night.
These horrible things I’ve mentioned? I didn’t partake, except for the flirting and free soft drinks bit. But I watched them happen. I let them happen. And each day, I felt my sense of self floating away with the years, faster and faster every day. So I left and went back to school to complete my English degree. People often asked: “What will you do with an English degree?” This essay is my answer. Writing is my answer. Self-respect and ethics intact, even on bad days when researching and writing about anal fissures, I’m happy. I’m doing what I love. And who could ask for anything more?
P.S. The best tip I ever received—$110 on a $220 bill—came from a dark-skinned man someone else had refused to wait on.