I lied to get my first waitress job. I claimed experience. I was 14 but had 16-year-old breasts.
“You‘re hired,” Skinny Skip said, eyes half-cast. “You’re attractive enough.”
He handed me a red micro-miniskirt and a peasant blouse that cinched up the front. When I bent forward, the customers saw teenage cleavage. From the back? The ruffled red panties that Skip made sure I wore every day, patting my rear (“Just checking”). Milly was about 60 and had worked at Bob‘s Family Restaurant for 25 years, and so was allowed to wear midthigh bloomers — still ruffled.
Burgers. Pancakes. Meatloaf specials. A counter of unhappy husbands and traveling salesmen. Red-and-gold plaid wallpaper. Illegal bussers negotiating for green cards. High-school-dropout fry cooks. If you let them cop a feel, you’d get your orders faster.
In the walk-in, I read depressing existential Eastern European novels and occasionally did cocaine. “What can I get you?” sounded more perky on cocaine. One morning, when the manager was sick, all of us got stoned and made Mr. Potato Head dolls with the produce. I made out with Miguel, one of the bussers, until somebody started screaming about a fire. a
At 19 I was a topless waitress on the French Riviera. I spoke little French. I knew nothing about French food. But I made lots of money. I worked with Marie Claire — who called herself Eclair — and who was often found blowing the owner in the back alley. She kept her pen tucked under her right breast. It seemed a good place, but I thought that if you could store anything there, it was probably time to throw it in.
Taking home real live money in my pocket after a dinner shift made it difficult to imagine working other jobs. In college, I waited at a place called Charlie Brown‘s. The house dessert was two scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with pink whipped cream and red cherries. One night I brought one of these to a table of guys, and one said, “I wish these were yours,” and then sucked up a cherry. I left the table and made him a special dessert. Two scoops of ice cream with a banana in the middle, chocolate sprinkles around the top. I brought it to the table. I took a steak knife and sliced the banana. Slice. Slice. Slice. First they laughed. I didn’t.
I said, “I wish this was yours.”
Then they shut up.
I switched to working at a Chinese restaurant: no ice cream at all. One long, boring night, I figured out there were at least 45,000 fortunes in a 10-pound bag. Finally, a lady came in with her son. I took their order and turned back toward the kitchen. Then I heard the lady‘s voice: “Don’t put the snake on the table, honey. It sheds.”
I left the Chinese place to work the night shift at a garishly lit Sambo‘s coffee shop, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. I figured it was a good use of my time. I could study, go to parties and still hold a job. I gave up sleeping.
At Sambo’s, a picture of an African boy in harem pants was stamped on the curtains, the place mats, and our orange-and-peacock plaid aprons. During my Sambo‘s stint, I had an affair with a married mathematician. He had a mind for numbers. He saved me time. He could add up my checks by glancing at them. We’d mess around in his Volvo during my break. When we broke up, he told me exactly how many orgasms we‘d each had.
I worked with a woman who was so big she had to walk sideways behind the counter. She had a beautiful name: Arianne. Her teenage twins had run away from home, and she started working nights because she thought they might come in. She worked there until Sambo’s closed, after being boycotted for racism, but the boys never showed.
At most places, I really liked who I worked with. Schlepping food together creates a lovely sense of respect, a kind of us-vs.-them-in-the-trenches camaraderie. At an expensive dinner restaurant in New Zealand, I worked with a cocktail waitress named Baby. Her what-can-I-get-for-you banter never stopped. She was always cheerful. A guy came to repossess her car, and she invited him in for cocktails.
I liked Billie-Jo, whom I worked with briefly at a yuppie burger place in Berkeley, a union job where it was hard to get fired. In the summer, Billie-Jo wore flip-flops to wait tables. She painted her nails peach. It was almost Christmas when the boss finally told her to buy shoes: regulation white, nurse style. “And support hose,” he told her.
“My kids need presents,” she snapped. “You think I‘m gonna buy shoes?”
Every time a good-looking man came in, Billie-Jo said, “As soon as I get rid of this last pimple on my ass, I’m gonna march over there and ask him out.”
Like all folks in the food-service family, I‘ve had my share of waitress nightmares. In most, the kitchen is very far away. Down the street, in my ex’s bedroom, or up 18 flights of stairs. In one, the kitchen was in another country and I had to check my pad, tips and pens before I could get on the plane.
“I have to get my order out,” I screamed, but the stoic security guard didn‘t blink.
In dreams, I’ve served naked and bleeding. The customers never noticed. I‘ve dreamed of an ashram full of food servers chanting, “86 the clams. 86 linguine. 86. 86. 86. Order up.”
I hate those wallet-size tip calculators. What can you do? Give the decafs caf and wave them cheerfully goodbye.
Over the years, I learned the techniques for getting sympathy, or a bigger tip. “I’m just filling in.” Or “It‘s my first night.” Shameless flirtation. There’s always the option to blame the cook, the bussers, anybody else. The perfect explanation for why there is a delay in the kitchen? Tell them the line cook is pregnant, about to deliver, is leaving for the hospital. This always works.
But here‘s the best waitress story: Once, while working at this trendy breakfast cafe, we had “cowboy dress-up day.” It was hot and the place was mobbed. Deb’s station had just completely changed over. She was cranky. A kid bawled. Deb pulled an unregistered .38 on the screaming kid. She was carrying the gun as a prop. “Shut up or I‘ll give you something to cry about,” she threatened, as she pulled the gun, unloaded, from her red-leather apron.
“The tears rolled right back up into that kid’s eyes,” she told us at the wait station.
I‘ve felt that way, but luckily I’ve never carried a gun.
Later the kid started in again, and the mom said, “Stop that or the waitress might shoot.”#