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Apathy Girl and Other Tales

Musings of the Overly Naive Cynic

“No! I don’t care if they are the ones that fucked the order. I need it NOW! Your lead is on twenty- one, and I need that reggae new-o to sell.”

A pan, a plate, and a very frightened tilapia (I am sure it would have been if it had been alive) slammed down, accompanied by the roar of “You’ll get it when it is fucking ready!”

I was busy selling a plate, wiping the edges, listening to three different servers, and reading my rack, but I still projected my voice above the din of the kitchen: “Heard!”

An all purpose phrase in the kitchen, at once easily ignorable and a magic ‘get it done.’ One of dozens of different barely intelligible pieces of short hand. ‘Heard’ can mean the obvious ‘I heard what you said’, or ‘I understand’ or ‘I agree’ or less obvious ‘fuck off, you ain’t got shit on what is going on back here’, It depends on tone, inflection, the atmosphere, and who and why it is being said. “I need a side of ho-mo” has nothing to do with the sexual preference of the item one is asking for, it is simply a side of honey mustard. Reggae is not the music various food items jam to, but it just means they are regular, like it says in the spec book, no modifications. 86 means without. If we dropped your food, don’t worry, it isn’t on the floor (unless it is, whoops!), it has just began to be cooked. The top is how many are seated at the table, one top, two top, three top, four. A hundred different words, pieces of shorthand, anomaly’s that make up a restaurants linguistic base, and you have to know the language, if you want to navigate yourself through working in a restaurant.

The first issue is the obvious one: customers. It may be true that people are unique, your mother may have told you you are special, and that may be true. But I attest to you, as a customer sitting in a restaurant, you are no snowflake. Not only are there obvious story archetypes, but your server, if they are of any level of experience, can read you like a book. A few common stories are Church People, Kids, and Rednecks. Church People are not just people that go to church, lots of people go to church, ain’t nothin’ wrong with getting a lil’ Jesus. But Church People, they seem to eat, sleep, breathe, live in and possibly work for their church. And that leads to one of two things; they either A) are impossibly rude or 2) impossibly nice and tip you with a hand-written prayer, which oddly enough, is not an accepted as a form of payment by Capital One Auto. The last Sunday I served at the restaurant I work for, I had a particularly pleasant table. There were four couples ranging from late twenties to mid-forties, a good age range for a table. They had ran up a large tab with appetizers, special non-alcoholic drinks, big entrees. They sat for almost three hours, eating, laughing, talking about how God had touched their lives. After they had laughed themselves out of the door, I ran back to the table to pick up the check. Instead of twenty percent (fifteen after I pay the house its five) there was a slash through the gratuity line, and an arrow pointing to the back of the check. The reverse held my tip, a long note about what a lovely young woman I was, how God obviously had a plan for me, and how they could not wait to come back next week and be served by such a blessed young person. This did not warm my soul, but gave me more of a cold shoulder.

Kids are obviously kids, and at various stages of their development they seem to present various problems. As newborns, they are usually fine, they sit in their car seats, and cry infrequently. As they move into infancy things become more difficult. They throw food on the floor, grab at your pens, draw on the tables, scream, and are generally a little greasy and a lot to clean up. As a matter of fact, it seems to be a general consensus of servers I’ve asked that children from a certain age of infancy through the toddler years actually cost more to wait on than their understandably cash strapped parents tip. When you factor in what a server pays their support staff, they can end up making minimum wage or actually paying the house for a time intensive table that requires a lot of clean up. As toddlers become kids, they learn to (sort of) keep their mess to themselves, but they also seem to float to two extremes, the kids who talk through their parents, and the kids who are impossibly demanding. These kids become either neutral customers, or part of large soccer/basketball/baseball/dance teams that flood your restaurant, pay separately, and don’t tip at all because they are kids and don’t understand, or don’t want to understand what that means. One exception that I have always looked back on as the exception that proves the rule is Michael. He began coming to the restaurant when he was about four years old. He always ordered for himself, clearly, politely. He asked for his own drink refills: “Miss, may I have another soda, please?” He is about seven or eight years old now, and comes in less frequently, but is still polite, clean, and pleasant.

Rednecks are perhaps the best of the worst customers, because they can encompass all of the above. Their characteristics are not set, not stable and they are often not even identifiable until you are too far in. They are simply their own anecdote with less than ten percent. One of the worst examples I was witness to was the burden of another server. The men were both wearing t-shirts with the sleeves cut off and dirty jeans, their muddy boots left distinguished prints on the carpet. The woman was loudly trying to wrangle her three children who were all toting their McDonald’s Happy Meals and toys and GameBoys. The adults ordered margaritas, changing the flavor each time they got a refill, they had large expensive dishes, steak and ribs, steak well done, extra sauce for the ribs. They had their waitress literally at a continual run, but not just for their own food, but fetching ketchup, mustards, extra french fries, napkins, water, for their children whose meals came from a different establishment. They complained to the manager that their steaks, brown all the way through, ordered well done, were at once over cooked and tough. They made a large mess, talked loud enough to clear their section of the restaurant, haggled on the bill, and then left their server less than two dollars on a check that was close to eighty. In this case the rednecks were obvious, and you try to pawn them off on younger, less knowledgeable servers, but sometimes they are not obvious, making them unavoidable.

Customers are of course your income, and therefor one of the most important things in the restaurant, but they are only thing you have to deal with. Your co-workers can be equally rewarding and frustrating. People who work at a restaurant seem to have the ability to bond closely with each other, rather quickly. I theorize that it is because we have to work long hours to make our livings, and those hours coincide with the social time of our outside friends and family, so we default to social situations with one another. If you get off of work early, around nine or ten, you are too tired to do anything but sit at the tables around the bar, drink generously poured drinks, eat food that hours ago looked disgusting due to repetition. If you get off work later, around midnight or one, there is no one awake, no place open, so you converge at someone’s house, drink cheap booze, dance, and talk of little else but work. This is all not so bad, you have an automatic friendship base when you work in a restaurant. But you also lack lines of definition, and that makes it difficult to decide what is work, and what is your private life. And when certain people also have trouble with the line between employee and manager, it can become dangerous. There is then the question of who to trust, who can you talk to, who is safe. The obvious answer is to just not be friends with the people you work with, but that can make some things not as pleasant, because you would quickly become ostracized, or retaliated against, or simply lonely or without allies. Here the restaurant may mirror the real world.

The customers, the employees they would not be there if not for the food. I recall the first day I worked at the restaurant, I can recall how good it smelled, the bacon cooking, the barbeque sauce, the french fries, fresh coffee, all of it. Then the smell started to nauseate me. Now I only actually smell the food if it is burning, or if we got something radically new and different, and neither of those happen very often. That doesn’t mean that those who work at the restaurant don’t have a unique appreciation for and relationship with food. If you work in the FOH (front-of-house) you probably snag french fries, look at finished plates and get very hungry time and time again, and wait for food to ‘die’ so that you can eat. If you are a BOH (back-of-house) person, then you have to have some level of pride, or over-involvement with the food. You can look at a plate and say “that looks beautiful” and mean it, there is art in plate presentation, in the perfect line of pink in the middle of a medium steak, in the steam wafting up from a bowl of soup. You also resent the food, it is hot, and greasy, and it takes your time and your patience and your sanity. If you get backed up, you are just as likely to curse the food as the servers or the customers. However, in a moment of calm, you will look down at something simple, a pasta with a sprig of parsley popping against the marinara, you can smile. Because food is the reason we are all there, the food makes the customers come in, which means they need a server to take their order, which makes a cook have to prepare that order, and expo have to prep the plate and ensure it gets delivered to the right table, and a manager to make sure all of this ends with a happy customer.


You may spend forty-five minutes a week in a restaurant, you may never go out at all, you may not know how to cook, the way you view a restaurant is going to be very different from the way the next person does. But to a waitress, a cook, any one inside those walls who uses the restaurant as their livelihood, the restaurant is its own nation. You speak the language, you follow the hierarchy, you are part of the social system, you interact with the food. You love the restaurant. And you hate it. You want to leave, but it is so difficult to. Stockholm syndrome? Maybe, perhaps we are delusional about the reality of our little country. In ten years, after most of us have taken on another line of work, maybe we won’t even remember it. Or maybe the restaurant, the attitude of service, of juxtaposing manners and rudeness, the work ethic, the interpersonal relationships it builds, that will be what we take away with us, and hold on to. Heard?

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