Monday, March 5, 2012

Life in the Service Industry

One of my first jobs was waiting tables.  Actually, my first job included chasing after cows and attempting not to run a tractor in to the mailbox (I succeeded in this task *almost* every time…) but my first place of employment besides a farm was waiting tables.  I waited tables through high school, then decided to do it throughout college for two reasons:  1.  They were flexible with my class schedule.  2.  It was more than perfectly acceptable to show up for your Wednesday night dinner shift with a massive hangover incurred from “Tequila Tuesdays.”  After graduating and moving back to start working in an office (with suits that wouldn’t get splattered with grenadine!  And actual paychecks!  And high HEELS!) I realized that I missed restaurants.  I missed the high-paced chaos of Friday night, I missed the raucous after-shift parties, and I really, really missed the huge chunk of cash in my pocket after a long night.  Like, REALLY missed that cash.  As I somehow always seem to do, I picked up yet another waitressing gig, this time after my 9-to-5 one.  Eventually that restaurant closed and, looking on to new career paths, I decided to put my restaurant career on an ice floe out to sea.  Regardless, I’ve got a lot of experience with restaurants, dive bars, watering holes, pizza joints - you name it - and you come to realize it teaches you a few things (okay, a LOT of things, but only a few I’m willing to admit to the entire Internet.  I’ll just leave you to what are probably-true assumptions.)  And so I write, “Life Lessons from a Restaurant: A Narrative.” 
1.  People can just be plain dicks.  I’ve heard people make fun of my answers to their questions while I was STILL AT THEIR TABLE.  I’ve been mocked for my accent.  I’ve been left pennies (and on at least one occasion, thrown the pennies back at the “tipper.”) Of course, I always had my regulars, no matter where I was working.  I had friends leave me fun notes, along with my tips, in high school.  I had a couple who would come in every week for all-you-can-eat wing night and leave me $20, no matter how much attention I didn’t have time to pay to their table.  And then I had the couple who thought I was “cute” and “wanted to take me home with them.”  But I digress – being a server taught me a valuable lesson.  And that lesson?  Most people suck, so don’t be surprised when you bend over backwards to get change for their $100 bill and they don’t leave any of that hard-sought change for your tip.  Just remember their face and then talk about how ugly their children were when you are drinking that first beer after your shift.  
2.  Never judge someone on appearances.   I like to think of this as the “don’t judge a table by their labels” rule of restaurants.   I’ve often found the richer-looking the table, the lower the tip.  Sometimes I think it’s because they think they’re better than the server (hence the “get a real job” picture floating around the Internet.)  Sometimes I think it’s just sheer ignorance (see also: foreign diners who actually pay their servers more than $2.15 an hour in their home country) and sometimes I think it’s because they’ve spent so much money on their asinine outfit and the what I’m guessing is “compensating for something” car that they genuinely have nothing left to give to their server.  Whatever the reason, I learned to never judge a customer by their appearance.  Because that crazy lady that just walked in looking a bit…um…insane?  That was Alison Krauss (and yes, she’s a good tipper.) 
3.  Be nice to everyone.  Because everyone can screw you royally.  This little platitude doesn’t exist just for the customers.  It applies to everyone from the busboy to the poor guy stuck in the dish pit.  Here’s the thing:  if you forget to put in a very important appetizer for a very important table and you tell your very important cook to “put a rush on it” after you refused his request of running some quickly-dying-in-the-window food?  It’s not going to happen.  Being nice to everyone yields certain things, and in a restaurant these things can mean a bussed table so the hostess can seat you again.  It can mean a free meal when the cooks are feeling generous, and it can mean that you will be able to go home feeling better about yourself than the prick who just left you $4 on that $82 ticket.  Same thing goes in life – just be nice to people. 
4.  Restaurants are like tiny, alcoholic, dysfunctional families.  The problem with working in restaurants comes when you realize that you can only hang out with other restaurant employees due to the fact that you’re the only ones working when everyone else is out having fun.  Getting off work at 4am while still (somewhat) sober limits you to your choice of hangout buddies.  Plus, why go out to try to find some place to get a drink when you’re looking at a bar right in front of you?  Here’s what happens:  everyone gets off work, except for the poor sap stuck closing.  Everyone starts drinking, including the poor sap stuck closing.  The music gets turned up to cover the sound of the vacuum, and then the stories begin…the “Was that his daughter or a hooker?” and the “The guy actually handed me a business card that said ‘Everyday Hero!’  Here it is!!” conversations.  Slowly everyone gets more and more buzzed, you start playing the Would You Rather? game, the poor sap stuck closing finally gets off, and general rowdiness ensues.  Said rowdiness may involve increasingly-risqué answers to the “Would You Rather?” game, it may involve taking questionable pictures with the cell phone someone left on the patio, and sometimes it just involves someone passing out on the salad line.  Regardless, I would say that I’m better friends with the folks I worked with in college than my actual classmates and I’m okay with that, because…
5.  Some of the smartest, most creative, and most interesting people work in the service industry.  It’s a field that attracts a myriad of people for a myriad of reasons but they will a) probably curse like sailors (myself included,) b) find infinite pleasure in a good dirty joke,  and c) know how to make a mean cocktail.  They may yell at you for not ringing in a side of bleu cheese, but will stop an ambulance carrying a fight-wounded customer of yours to get him to sign your credit card receipt (true story.)  They will get belligerently drunk with you, help you expand that running list of “Movie Titles You Turned into Porn Titles” someone hung over the ovens, and possibly convince you to do increasingly-disgusting dares for a little cash.  And you’ll love it.  And you’ll remember it.  And someday?  You might just write a blog about it.   

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