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Serves You Right

Photo by Christopher Gardner

As a customer, you may think you're always right. But your waitress will be the judge of that.

By Ami Chen Mills

"Well, it may be the devil, or it might be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody"
Bob Dylan

As a former waitress, I've suffered my share of indignities. After an illustrious food service career that began at McDonald's when I was 14 and spanned more than a decade, I recently quit my waitressing job. I'll probably never be a waitress again.

I actually liked my last job. I'd been dishing it out at a popular, romantic Italian-style restaurant for the last two years, scooping up tips, making jokes for the customers, smiling at them no matter how many times they ask for bread. It's not like I didn't have a real job. I did. I even swore when I was 23 that I'd never work in the food service industry again. Then I walked into the cafe.

The boss at the cafe provides health insurance and maintains a healthy respect for the minds of his staff, which is more than I can say for many restaurant owners. As another waitress at the cafe observes, "I don't know if I could work for anyone else now that I work here." At the cafe, if it was slow, a waitress could joke around for a while before thinking of something productive to do. At the cafe, the boss might take her side against a customer's. He could get mad too. But if it's her word against a customer's, well, he knows her better.

For a restaurant boss, this is aberrant behavior. I have worked at restaurants where you must stay on your toes because the assistant manager is watching you and if you are not running from here to there with a determined look, you are not earning your $2.50 or $4.50 or whatever an hour, no benefits. Generally, a waitress makes a base salary of minimum wage. In some states, she may make less. Rarely does a waitress get vacation pay, sick days, or medical and dental insurance. And forget about a 401(k) plan.

There's an army of us out there, former and current waiters and waitresses, many of whom now claim professional respect. But no matter what job we currently hold, we are united by a shared experience: humility.

Waitresses bear witness to man's inhumanity to man. Every one of us has a horror story to tell, often more than one. As Stella, a 35-year-old Santa Cruz waitress who has worked in the biz for a total of 10 years, says, "I've witnessed abuse. I've suffered abuse." Amen.

One waitress tells me she was constantly chased around tables by the horny owner of a popular local restaurant. Another waitress at an upscale eatery recalls how her boss (a "Nazi bastard") was fanatical about placing coffee cups at the "4 o'clock" position, "He would scream, '4 o'clock! 4 o'clock!' all the time." She was screamed at so much she developed a tic in one eye. Then both. Years later, she says, "I'm still recovering."

I once worked in a restaurant that weighed so heavily on my spirit that I once faked a vomiting episode in the bathroom, just so I could go home. I never went back. Mary, 22, says she once left a garbage bag she was supposed to dump on the floor and "my boss got a Polaroid camera, and in front of the customers and everybody, took a picture of what 'Mary forgot to do.'"

Stella agrees that restaurant bosses are often "disrespectful and insulting. I've been called 'You stupid broad'--the most demeaning and sexist things. They run around after you getting their aggressions out. And most restaurants are like that. It's like someone, somewhere told them it was okay to behave this way. I'm curious: Who made that rule?"

Take a Tip

But waitresses continue to be waitresses because restaurant hours are flexible, and, as Mary says, "It's a nice way to make extra money in a short amount of time"--short of taking off your clothes. Because waitresses get paid minimum wage or less, ultimately, a waitress works for tips. And the money can be great. At a busy, upscale restaurant, a waitress can make $90 to $170 a night.

Hector, a waiter for nine years at a popular chain he calls "the seafood Denny's," paid for his futon and college tuition in cash. "I didn't ever need a credit card," he says. But waiting tables is often seasonal work, and cash flow depends on the shifts and the restaurant. A waitress can make less than $50 on a slow night, and in a tourist town like Santa Cruz, winters can be frugal.

Because waitresses work for tips, the job is often more about customer relations than food service. I can think of no other profession where a worker becomes as involved with customers for tips. For this reason, a waitress aims to please. And yet, there is a point at which a waitress cannot be bought.

Word to the Wise: How to get the best service in town.

Also, meet the Patron Saint of Waitresses.

"On a good night, all my customers feel taken care of. I always want to be attentive, like if they drop a fork, I'm right there picking it up. But I've been pushed to the point where I want to spill something on someone--I'm prepared to let the tip go. I'm there to make a living, but I'm not there to be abused," says Stella, who notes that bad customers, like bad bosses, can ruin a girl's night. "A customer has a huge part to play in how their service is going to be," says Stella.

"Dining is a skill," notes Theo, who, at 39--and with 18 years of waiting experience--qualifies as a professional food server. "A lot of people have the dough, but they don't have the know."

To Be a Waitress

The best way for the dining public to learn how to treat a waitress is to learn what it's like to be a waitress. As a survivor of the food service industry, I'm always nice to waitresses. I know it's not easy.

At dining hours, a restaurant becomes a place of frenzied movement. Not for diners, who enter with the hope of being seated and staying seated, but for the staff, which spends its evening running like rats in worn circuits: refilling creamers, fetching extra dressing, red pepper flakes, ramekins of grated cheese or honey, wooden pepper grinders, lost forks, a cup for the baby, an extra plate, more coffee, more water, more bread, another bottle of wine, "the cork, please. Some ice, please. The check, please," and so on.

Restaurant workers are conveyer belts built like roller coasters. A hundred times a night, a restaurant worker will nearly miss a calamitous collision, waitress with busperson, busperson with dishwasher, dishwasher with cook, hands and arms full of plates and glasses and hot pans and boiling cauldrons and boxes of almonds and flatware and cooked food. They swoop up on each other, feint right, dodge left, continue on--often without a word.

The customers, on the other hand, sit down as the restaurant swirls and dances around them. Food, wine, waitresses, buspeople flow rapidly around the differently carved customers, like a river streaming around complacent, immobile boulders, oblivious to the dance. "What a customer should know," says Stella, "is that it's a bigger situation than just them going out to dinner. They don't have a lot of responsibility, except to open their eyes and see that there's one human being taking care of 15 or 20 human beings."

A Waitress Might Cry

Sometimes, the waiting dance is fun and graceful and everything clicks. Being busy is always better than being slow. But as tables fill, a waitress's list of chores multiplies until she begins to forget items at the top. As Theo explains, "time is a precious resource. As time diminishes, I have to work more quickly." Someone wants more bread on table three; table one didn't get water; table ten has two peppers, no salt; table five ordered a mocha (an espresso drink is a wrench in the machine); food's up for table seven; table 12 is looking at you funny and you're stuck at table nine with a chatterer. Now the phone's ringing.

"You never know what you're going to face when you walk into work," says Stella. "It's so random. It has to do with timing, how people come in, and how they're seated, who you're working with, and how the chef feels that day." If it's busy and the crowd is unforgiving, a waitress can have a terrible night. A waitress might even cry. A waitress will definitely curse you and your paltry 10 percent tip after you had her running for extra this and extra that all night. She'll call you cheap and think up all kinds of things she wishes she could say to you, and hope you never come back.

But a waitress will also leave your table smiling because you've been kind, or eccentric or charming. A waitress will think you're interesting. A waitress will find you handsome, or beautiful. A waitress will develop a crush. A waitress will be touched. A waitress will hope you come back.

For a waitress, working the floor is like having an overlong conversation with someone suffering from multiple-personality disorder. There's a unique atmospheric karma at every table. She might have an older couple, still madly in love, who are pleased as punch to be seated and have all the patience of Job. At the next table, she might have a churlish debutante wearing some kind of fumigant for whom nothing is going, or, the waitress suspects with foreboding, will go right.

"What bothers me is arrogance," concludes Delia, 25, a waitress and recent anthropology graduate, "that air of being above the server. I used to ignore it, but it gets demeaning. Now, I'll say something to let them know they shouldn't talk that way." Delia tells me a certain couple would come into her restaurant on a weekly basis, and spend their time complaining. "They would say things like, 'How's the bread today, is it stale?' or, 'I'd like my dressing without garlic--if you don't mess it up this time.' It got to the point where I wouldn't take their table anymore. But one day I had to, and the guy waved his hand at me rudely, like 'Come here.' So I went over and he said, 'This salad is really soggy' and I said, 'Man, you just keep coming back, don't you?'"

The man turned beet red and the woman harumphed. They left without leaving a tip and complained to the owner, who--luckily for Delia--was kind. For a while they didn't return, but eventually they came back. And now, Delia says, "They don't complain to me anymore." Mary has another theory about cranky diners: "When people are hungry, they're evil. Sometimes they're in their worst state. People don't have manners. They say, 'Gimme this' or 'Gimme that.' When someone says 'Please,' to me, it goes a long way."

Because of the current job market, many waiters and waitresses today are also dancers and artists and therapists and graduate students and even engineers. "The new requirement to be a waitress is that you have a B.A," Delia jokes. Of course, there are also waitresses who may just be waitresses. Regardless of a waitress's background, "there are people who make this distinction that they're one kind of people and you're another kind of people. I just don't know how to serve in that feeling. It makes me wonder how long I can be in the food service industry," Stella muses.

What's a waitress's biggest beef? "There's nothing worse than when you go to a table and people won't even acknowledge you. They make you stand there," Stella fumes. Theo seconds that emotion. "I gauge when I interrupt the customers by gauging when they have best opportunity to speak to me. I need their attention so that we and they can get on with what we're doing." Yeah, says 35-year-old Max: "You can pause to tell the waiter, 'Give us a minute.' But the waiter might be concerned about time. By the time they're ready to order, he may have two other tables to take orders at and then the first table doesn't get good service. The waiter is the one who gets blamed, either way."

Stella is careful to add that "a lot of it is intuition" on the part of a waitress. And Max insists, "I don't run over every five minutes and ask, 'Is everything all right?'" However, "some people won't even move when you're trying to clear a plate or pour coffee," Delia complains. "I think it's a power trip."

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Spitting Mad

When a waitress dislikes a customer, she'll generally make herself scarce, and then go talk about them in the bus station. "I try to back out and not simmer and seethe," Stella says. "I don't want to take on the agony of their being served." As Theo says, "You don't have to like them, but you do have to bring them their dinner."

In extreme cases, a waiter or waitress might plot revenge. I have never done this--and most of the servers I query have not. But Hector admits that when a diner made him mad, rather than sulk or confront, he resorted to "insipid" methods of recourse. He would delay food, or sabotage food. How so? "Well, by rubbing food products on your body," he explains. "You can spit into food. If it's in salad dressing or soup, they can't see it. Or you can put chocolate Ex-Lax in desserts. You know what works good? Visine. If you drink Visine it makes you shit for days." I'm stunned. "The funny thing is when you spit in their coffee and they ask for a refill." Hector laughs, then pauses and adds, "Look, I only did this once in a blue moon, and just if they deserved it."

What waitresses would like for customers to know is that it takes two to tango. "If people would relate to you as a human being, they could still express their disappointment and we could accommodate. It's as simple as common courtesy," says Stella.

In short, a customer has power over a waitress. A customer can make her night sparkle, sputter or implode. A customer can even determine the quality of service at other tables. If you upset your waitress, she'll be more likely to fumble and forget things--or resort to other horrifying courses of action. If you laugh and make your waitress smile, she'll relax. If your food is late, she'll be more inclined to offer a free dessert.

Oh, and that's another thing. If the food is late it's often a problem of the kitchen. "I wish they could know--and I wish the kitchen could know--that I'm somewhere in the middle of the process," says Stella, "Sometimes there's not much I can do to influence what's going on." Sometimes a waitress can only run interference. If a customer complains about the food, a waitress must then take the complaint to the kitchen, where she faces a myriad of possible responses. If a chef is cranky or swamped, she then must go out and face the customer empty-handed. "Somehow the waitress always gets penalized, from either the chef or the patron," sighs Stella.

Feeding Frenzy

Surly customers--coupled with uptight management--can make a restaurant job the worst job in the world. I have worked where the management was suspicious and greedy and always took the customer's side, even if the customer sent the same dish back four times with a sour face because the steak was improperly charred, or slightly rare, or too cold or just one extra thing that had not gone right for him that day. And I had done my best, I had smiled an ingratiating smile, and finally, my God-given sense of human decency was worn too thin by impolite demands and I was done smiling at this customer for the evening, for to do so would be to fly in the face of natural law. The boss at the cafe knows there is a time for smiling and a time for letting that table pay and get out.

Like the time with Lester and Vivian. These are not their real names. I protect their identities, because--granted--Vivian was a little crazy. Perhaps I should have been more patient with her. She and her son Lester--who was also a few cards short of a full deck--would come in on busy nights, both of them talking at each other, neither listening to the other, just gabbing away into the space around them.

They would ask for a table, look around for the boss, who had befriended them in an amused way, and settle in, gabbing and gabbing the whole time, to order two cups of coffee with cream. Sometimes Vivian would order a glass of wine. Occasionally, she would order an entree. But they would always order the two cups of coffee with cream. Then they would spend the rest of their time in the cafe opening sugar packets and scattering them across the table and on the floor and talking so loud it made the tables next to them nervous.

If you were their waitress, you spent the evening refilling coffee--one regular and one decaf--and bringing pitcher after pitcher of cream to the table, most of which was spilled by Lester as a result of some erratic gesture. All this on a busy night, too, when the last thing you have time for is endlessly refilling coffee and cream. Normally I wouldn't mind. I knew, as a waitress, that some people are just weird, or--like you--they don't have money to spend. You forgive these people.

But you don't forgive the people who do these things and are rude to you at the same time, the way Vivian was. She was one of those dining queens-for-a-night who assumed that because she was spending money she had hired you out as her slave.

There were no please's or thank you's going on for Vivian. You could forgive Lester, because, as I say, he was missing a few plates from the ol' china cabinet, and he was actually kind of sweet. But Vivian ordered you around and gave you a mean look, saving all her fawning looks for the boss, with whom she had fallen in love.

Vivian was a loony version of people we often serve at the restaurant, people who assume superiority because you are a waitress and they are not. Thankfully, these people usually feel too superior not to tip.

Vivian, however, did not. Vivian never tipped. We waitresses heard that she did not believe in tipping. Somebody told us she was sitting on a big inheritance which she spent in dribbles on a glass of wine and two cups of coffee. That took the cake. It's one thing to be poor, it's another thing to be cheap. From then on, most waitresses refused to wait on her. Which was unfair, because if you did not wait on her, someone else obviously would have to. It wasn't like Lester and Vivian were going to up and go away.

So I would wait on Lester and Vivian if they sat in my section, but the time had come for something to give. And on one particular night, after more than a dozen refills of coffee that had Lester nearly spitting and talking so fast that his words became like a background buzz, I dropped a check for $17.57 at table four-and-a-half, picked up a 20 and took my time with the change. Vivian finally got up out of her seat and came to me at the cash register with oogly eyes and too much makeup, standing too close, and said,

"I want my change." To which I said,

"No tip?"--which wasn't a radical thing to say, but in the restaurant business, crossing the thin line between servitude and some form of equal footing is rarely done. After all, we're working for tips. But not in this case. I'd had my fill.

Still, I wasn't prepared for the caffeine-fueled tirade that met me. I can't remember much, but I recall it as a bunch of yabba-da-yabba-da about not "feeling welcome" and telling the boss about this and so forth, which finally ended with a self-righteous pronouncement:

"I don't believe in tipping."

I looked at her dully. "I know," I said. "The whole staff knows that." Well, that was it for her. She stomped off looking for the boss, who, luckily for everyone else in the restaurant, was outside in the patio moving a plant or something. I heard her high-pitched, treacly voice shooting off at him for some time. Then she came stomping back into the crowded dining room, grabbed her coat and her son (who was confused, but still smiling at me) and headed for the door. When she got there, she had thought of a parting shot. She turned and said in the loudest voice possible,

"Goodbye, Jap!"

And she huffed out. I didn't have a chance to tell her that I was not Japanese, but Chinese and half-Chinese at that.

I was stunned. It's scary to wonder, How many people think like that?

Our boss came waltzing in with a smirk on his face.

"You finally did it. Lester and Vivian are gone. For good." This with one eyebrow raised, totally amused.

"What did she say?" I asked.

"Oh, lots of things. You should have been there. She had a fire in her belly. Did you do that to her?"

"What did you say?" I was nervous. I had tables waiting.

"I said she was no longer welcome in my restaurant."

"She called me a Jap," I said, testily.

"Well, she's a little confused."

"Thanks, boss." I was sincere. That was the thing about this boss. He's was decent. Which, again, is more than I can say for some restaurant owners. Because of that, I could be happy at the cafe.

For the happy customer, dining out is something special. For once, they don't have to cook or clean or worry. As a waitress, you want those customers to be happy, to have the nice table, to get their bread warm. You'll bring them extra Parmesan, unasked, and crack a joke or two, maybe let them taste a few wines so they feel special.

For the haggard new parents who have not been out of the house in weeks, you are happy to bring out an ample taste of the soup. For the young man who could not pronounce the wine, but saved all his money to take his new girl out, you are happy to offer an appetizer when the food is slow. Because it is the single father's daughter's birthday, you are happy to douse the chocolate torte with extra whipped cream and garnish it with flowers and get everybody to sing. Then your customers are happy and somehow they know that the place, like the torte, is a slice of something densely happy.

Because I was treated with respect at the cafe, I was allowed to take pride in my service, and in the restaurant itself. Because what I did at the restaurant was both voluntary and a true expression of my concern, I could be both a waitress and a human being.

I am proud to say that the cafe continues to serve organic coffee, that its ingredients are fresh and often imported, and that the chef shops every Wednesday afternoon at the farmers' market.

I know that sometimes the bread comes out cold. The wine can go bad. The service can be slow. But more often than not, the service is sincere and warm, the coffee is hot, and the portobello mushrooms are tender and tasty. And if the customers are nice, the waitresses will be, too.

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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