In 1972, I took my first job in the real world: waiting tables at Ruths Hickory Mountain Restaurant in Siler City, North Carolina. Id moved to North Carolina to live on a farm with my boyfriend, grow organic vegetables, raise dairy goats and revel in a backwoods squalor that stupefied my parents. I needed an income, though, so for my job I donned a spongy white nurses uniform and white orthopedic shoes (the two items cost more than my first weeks pay), a yellow apron, pantyhose and a hair net. Ruths was a family-style restaurant, a family coffee shop. I learned the regional particulars: A burger all the way, for example, meant mustard, slaw, chili and onions. Everything came with French fries and hushpuppies. Barbecue meant a mash of chopped pork, usually served with coleslaw on a hamburger bun.
I was shown how to marry the ketchup bottles, refill salt and pepper and sugar shakers, work the coffee machines, and brew the local beverage of choice: a highly sugared iced tea. I was taught how to abbreviate and arrange my orders on a ticket. But there were no instructions for interacting with customers -- the English language was deemed sufficient. On my first day, I spilled a 20-ounce glass of iced tea on a mentally retarded man who, in turn, broke into noisy weeping. Otherwise, I managed to take orders and serve food. Within a week, Id served enough country ham biscuits, pork barbecue, fried fish, banana pudding and iced tea to wreck the cardiovascular health of any small city.
I was young (18!) and had not expected full-time work to be so life-consuming and exhausting -- or to so closely resemble a Flannery OConnor short story. Miz Ruth, the owner of the restaurant, was blind (although she did have the uncanny ability to count money, including bills, by touch). Al, her husband, had no arms -- hed lost them by grabbing a live wire when building the restaurant. As a pair, they coped; shed hook her fingers into his waistband and hed lead her around. He had a prosthetic arm, but he wore it only to drive and sign our checks. I actually never saw the thing. Next to the register sat a stack of free color post cards of the restaurant. Printed on the back of the cards, right where youd want to write a message, were a few words scrawled by Ruth: Come have a meal with the handicap [sic]. Its good eatin.
The shifts were nine hours with breaks. Often, I cried all the way home, partly from exhaustion and partly because life, as lived at Ruths Hickory Mountain Restaurant, seemed so difficult and bleak and poorly paid. Still, I did well and was given more hours and more responsibility, neither of which I remotely desired. Soon, I was awarded the badge of trust: I was asked to feed Al. (Eating was one of the few tasks that he and Miz Ruth couldnt manage -- she couldnt see where his mouth was.) Al and I would sit in a booth among the customers and, avoiding each others eyes, I would cut up food and fork it over to him. He took each mouthful like a snapping turtle.
Within a year, I gratefully went back to college, where I took part-time waitress positions in small cafes for spending money.
In graduate school at the University of Iowa, I applied for a job at the Hawkeye Truck Stop in nearby Coralville. The owner of the truck stop, Dick Meyers, was smart and quick, a recovering alcoholic and a big advocate of transcendental meditation; hed pay for his employees to receive instruction in the technique. Impatient of manner and always on the run, Dick nevertheless knew everything that was going on at his truck stop, from the restaurant to the fuel pumps, the gift shop to the mechanics pit. He read my application and offered me a job. He said, I have only one piece of advice -- and that is, no matter what else youre doing, when a customer comes through the door, you get him a cup of coffee before his ass hits the seat. If you give him that coffee, and a cheerful greeting, and keep his cup filled, it wont matter if the kitchen is slow or the food is bad.
Dicks coffee-first rule, I discovered, was brilliant. That instant cuppa and initial blast of good will gratified even the grouchiest trucker -- and it also prioritized a my tasks, structured each encounter with a customer and bought me a few moments to get organized. I used the coffee-first rule in all my subsequent jobs, amending it when necessary: cocktails first for banquet-goers; iced tea first for golfers.
I sent myself through grad school working at that truck stop. I didnt cry nearly as often as I had at Ruths Hickory Mountain Restaurant, but there were plenty of annoying moments. We wore navy-blue tunics with our names embroidered on them over the left breast. I dont know how many men peered at my name, then said, Michelle . . . and what is the other one named? Men also constantly asked me to sit on their laps. Come on, darlin, said a trucker. Come sit on my lap. He asked again. And again. Every time I filled his coffee cup, another invitation to his lap. So finally, I sat. I sat down on him as if he were a chair. He couldnt have been more surprised. Everyone at his table was very uncomfortable. Nobody laughed. After a while, I got up and went back to work.
Once a very ill-tempered truck driver complained about me to my boss. Dick listened, then said, Ive heard what you have to say, and now please listen to me. I think youre the ugliest human being Ive ever seen, and I want you to get in your truck, get out of here, and never come back.
After grad school, I moved back to California, where, to support my writing, I took a job at the Salt Shaker in South Pasadena. The corporate management there seemed cruelly impersonal after Dick Meyers reliable benevolence. I remember how, every time the menu prices were raised, those Salt Shaker customers on fixed incomes (and the Salt Shaker had a whole army of such geriatric regulars) always protested the hikes by eating elsewhere for a few days. Management blamed us, the service staff. Like clockwork, a week after every new menu, an employee meeting would be called, and wed be told our nails were too long, our jewelry too gaudy, our skirts too short, our aprons too stained, and now the restaurant was going under because of us and our bad habits. Wed hear the managers out and go back on the floor, and proceed as ever, same nails and necklaces, and after a few days, the regular customers would come trickling back and management would feel as if theyd solved a problem.
In the early 80s, I moved up to the Sierra foothills -- this time to grow organic vegetables, have a horse and write -- and took a job as a banquet waitress at a country club. It was the most physically brutal job Id ever had. We waitresses hauled tables and chairs and arranged the dining room for 50 to 500 guests. We set up the dance floor. We trayed dinners -- up to 12 at a time -- into the dining room, and carried trays and tubs of dishes back to the kitchen. We cocktailed, we served salads, dinners, desserts, we did all our own clearing, and then, once everyone left, we took down the dance floor, and the banquet tables, and stacked the folding chairs and rearranged the dining room and left it all looking as if nothing had happened, as if 50 to 500 people hadnt arrived, eaten, danced, gotten drunk, given speeches. After my first night on the job, my entire body was sore to the touch. Six months later, a friend told me hed never seen a woman with such a well-muscled back.
Nine months into the job, I was fired. Id been sassy to a good client and was overheard by the general manager. The client laughed, but the G.M. was not amused. He had my immediate boss, the banquet manager, fire me. I was shocked -- it seemed so out of the blue, I made an appointment to talk to the G.M. A funny remark, I thought, was no reason to terminate someones livelihood.
Indeed, the G.M. said that the remark was simply a last straw. Hed been watching me for a while, and didnt feel that I fit in at the club. For one, I never wore my uniform. (This was true. I was becoming constitutionally incapable of such conformity.) And for another thing, I simply worked too hard. I carried in too many dishes and carried out too many dishes. I moved too fast, and there were times, he said, when my trays were stacked so full, the whole dining room would stop and hold its collective breath to see if I could make it to the kitchen without spilling anything. I, personally, was proud of my abilities, and Id amused myself by challenging myself to greater feats of strength, balance and speed. But this was a country club, and the G.M. wanted the service to seem effortless and in the background and certainly not an Olympic event.
I asked for a second chance. Im teachable, I said. Working less appealed to me, in fact. And so I was reinstated, and I changed my style, classed up, and even occasionally wore my uniform. I worked there for another four years, the last two as a manager.
It was at the country club that I finally learned something about professional-level service. This was a private country club, a wealthy oil mans hobby, and not particularly profitable. Every now and then, some effort would be made to turn the place around. Once, the owner brought in a professional food-and-beverage man to upgrade the operation.
Mr. Goslin was from Boston, and at first we waitresses -- a daunting, ingrown clique of dining-room athletes -- didnt take to his suggestions. We did, however, get a big kick out of his accent. Hed say, How many in the party tonight?, which came out as How many in the potty tonight? Hed look mystified as we collapsed into laughter.
Goslin knew his field, though, and one thing he said changed the way I looked at service forever -- not only my own work, but all the service I would henceforth receive. As a server, he said, you get to determine what kind of an experience the customer will have -- and not just if its good or bad, but if its calm or lively, fun or magical, swift or drawn out, romantic or businesslike. The food can be terrible, but a terrific server can still make the evening wonderful. On the other hand, the best food in the world cant overcome awful service.
Until Mr. Goslin delivered this speech, it had never occurred to me that waiting tables could actually be a creative activity. I began paying attention to each table, looking for clues as to how customers wanted to be treated. I learned to distinguish those who wanted to talk from those who wanted privacy; I learned to anticipate needs. And I had a ball doing it. The gratification that comes from making someones evening perfect is one of the great uncelebrated pleasures of the working world.
Less than a year after I quit my last restaurant gig, I wrote my first restaurant review. Being on the other end of the service exchange made me realize what good teachers Id had.
Recently, at a good, midprice restaurant, as a busser cleared our table, all conversation stopped. We stopped talking at the moment the bussers plate stacking turned into a balancing act. It had been a good conversation, too, but we couldnt help ourselves. The four of us watched, holding our breath, as his arms filled up.
I have to admit it. That G.M. who fired me for working too hard? He -- damn him -- had a point.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.