It’s been two months since I quit the corporate world. A few weeks ago, some friends who own a restaurant in Cloverdale suddenly lost one of their waitresses, so I offered to pick up a couple of shifts a week while they look for help. As soon as I offered, I began having second thoughts, but I guaranteed myself, it’s only a couple of days a week, and it won’t interfere with the creative life and work I’m doing.
Once assured, I started picking up shifts. It’s been twenty years since I waited tables. A whole lifetime ago. Some of it comes back quick, and some I’m remembering the hard way.
I was fifteen when I took my first waitressing gig at Oscar’s on the Waterfront in Valdez, Alaska. I wasn’t allowed to serve beer. If anyone ordered alcohol, I had to have the cook deliver it to the table. But I worked the after-school shift until closing, then in summers I worked the evening shift to midnight, then rollerbladed home to sleep for a few hours before rushing off to open Klondike Coffee for the morning shift as a barista, then rollerblading to the swimming pool to lifeguard for the midday swimmers.
It was only hairy like that four days a week, then I had three days a week of summer. And summers in Alaska are what it’s all about.
Anywhoo, I was one of those strange creatures who actually enjoyed food service. I loved slinging coffee, and talking to my regulars every day. I loved waiting on tables of travelers who came to Alaska for vacations and explorations. One evening a table of Germans came in on their bikes, and couldn’t read the menu. It was slow, so I sat at the table and drew pictures of the menu items. Between the pictures, some broken English, and secondhand high school German, they managed to get me their order, and then we spend the rest of my shift trying to communicate and tell stories. I rollerbladed home that night on a high, and couldn’t wait to visit Germany. When I was fifteen, waiting tables was the only way I could see the world.
Valdez is very isolated, and I took every opportunity to talk to strangers that wandered in. Ski bums, slimers (summer cannery workers), travelers, Alyeska Pipeline rotating crew, and so on. I also adored my seining patrons. Though I was only a kid, they came in on shifts from long fishing trips and would talk my ear off at the bar about the whales they’d seen, the nooks and cranny islands they saw, and the glaciers. It was because of those stories that I later joined the Stan Stephens Crew so I could visit the glaciers every day. Then the grizzled fishermen would sell me a five-gallon bucket of fresh shrimp or snow crab for 5$ in tips. One regular even tipped me with halibut. Those were the days. Nothing like rollerblading home from a midnight shift with a couple pounds of fresh halibut for the freezer.
I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but I see it now, contact with strangers for an hour at a time while I’m serving them is my way of story surfing. Living through their adventures, connecting to countries, lives, expectations…humanity.
Food service is inglorious work. It’s sweaty, laborious, muscle-aching, and exhausting. It’s very rarely rewarded with praise, or positive feedback even if you’re doing a good job. You will always get negative feedback, even when you’re doing well, so the trick to food service is finding another reason to pass the shift… for me, it’s people watching.
I get some of my best character ideas, traits, and motivations from people watching, and food service is a perfect opportunity. Perfect opportunity because very few patrons will look past the veneer of “waitress” to see me, but I can see them. Their mood swings, hunger lows, sugar highs, relationship arguments, footsies under the table, bickering over the check, negotiations about what food to order and share. I get to see them in and out of context within an hour. Some volunteer information, others engage with me out of loneliness or boredom. They are individuals, and yet, they come from blueprints of archetypes, stereotypes, and paradigms. They treat me well or poorly depending on their expectations, and backgrounds.
The family of five gave me a twenty-three dollar tip for a forty-dollar meal, and said I was the best waitress they’d had in their travels on the west coast. I was flattered, since it was my fourth day on the floor after a twenty-year hiatus. Then a couple not an hour later tipped me a nickel (as in .05) for a thirty dollar check, and the same level of service. They were sure to tell me how unhappy they were that the coffee was weak and they waited too long for their food during the lunch rush. I wasn’t offended, the coffee is weak. It’s diner coffee, and they were the eighth table in the lunch crush. It happens. Nothing to take personal.
The point is, expectation and perception will always dictate the experience from their side. Serving means doing the best you can with the time and energy you have, then knowing, you’ll probably never see them again anyway. Food service is a blip in time.
Perhaps it helps now that I’m older to know, I’m only filling in for a friend’s business. It helps me connect with people better knowing my daily financial needs and personal validation are not defined by their perception of the experience. It gives me breathing room to enjoy the shift for what it is. Take the stories and interaction data home to do what I really love to do; write.
I’ve only been covering a couple days a week for a few weeks, and already I have more stories in the queue than I know what to do with. I’m sure I’ll post a few of them as I go.
I know it’s strange, but the thing I’m loving the most is that no one who comes in knows who I am. I’m just a waitress, someone who’s there to facilitate their food and beverage needs. I get a great deal of personal enjoyment from the comments they make about my function. The judgements about whether I’m good or bad at serving, because they had no other way to define me or the kismet of the time space of our paths crossing.
“You’re pretty aware for a waitress,” one fellow said as I filled his coffee again. We’d been talking between my rounds about politics, (a risky business to talk politics in a Cloverdale diner where most of the trucks have Trump bumper stickers). He’d been mansplaining healthcare to me, and why we need a better system.
Pretty aware for a waitress.
While I couldn’t agree more that we need a better system, I didn’t want to burst his bubble that I was already way ahead of the conversation by launching my publishing label and model with the world’s first healthcare plan for artists. But I didn’t mention BlissQuest Publishing to him. I also didn’t tell him my name.
Because I’m pretty aware for a waitress.
I just filled his coffee, nodded, said thank you and handed him a bill. It’s all good information. I go home beat, sweaty and sticky. I find syrup on my jeans, and dried egg yolk on my shirts. I drop tips in my publishing fund, then sit down with a bourbon and my latest manuscript. Small details surface from the day that I weave into my chapters; sensory information, facial expressions, errant phrases. The quirks of dealing with a humanity and their vulnerable moments around meal times.
I don’t know how long I’ll keep at it. While I do enjoy having access to travelers and regulars again, and it gives me a reason to leave my house a couple days a week, I can only keep it up so long at is doesn’t interfere with my real work. The point of leaving the working world was to carve out a creative enterprise.
But for now, it’s just a good source of story surfing.