A tangental post about my own experiences as a waitress and customer abroad and at home inspired by the advice of Gustavo Arellanos.
“Evelyn, Ms Debbie is back. Can you take table 4, please?” It was less of a question and more understood as take this table or I will commit a real, justified murder in our establishment. “Of course,” I said. Her mouth submitted to her gratitude, making an expression not unlike a sleeping pug, then jolted back up into a not-so-relaxed-Barbie smile as she spun to speed walk back to the front of the restaurant.
In a small town small business, you know your customers. If you come to my restaurant more than a couple times, I may not know your name, but I’ll promise you this: I know you. You are recognized. I probably could guess what you’d order, if you do so with any consistency. To tell you the truth, most of the time, I can almost guess what you’ll order just based upon visual stereotypes. Before anyone gets up in arms about prejudices and whatnot, know that this was rarely intentional: whatever twitches of the pen tempted me to write down chicken caesar wrap – lite –
tomato for an indecisive sorority girl were purely instinctual, existing from experiences of Amandas and Brittanys from tables long before. I can’t say that there are “four kinds of customers” or something as reductive, but I know I speak for at least myself when I say that, as a waitress, (I think) I know your type.
Ms Debbie was a member of the group we liked to call TOTC (“too old to care”), a sweeping category that included many like her: snowy white hair, a big tote, blingy/tacky clothing, and a gaze that oozes in my day, we knew better, didn’t slouch, worked harder, AND we did it in a skirt, young lady over her cat eye glasses. Ms Debbie was a critic, was not polite, and gave a quarter as a tip. Despite all these things, I loved the woman madly. Any time she came in (alone, with family, or with friends), I was delegated to the table.
“Excuse me, Miss Marie,” she chirped at me from her table. I used to get embarrassed when people called me that, but now, it rings nostalgic in my ears. Marie is my middle name, and Miss Marie, Sissy Rie, Sister Marie, and Little Rie were the common sweet-things older generations called me in youth. “Evelyn” was reserved for serious matters; Miss Marie, even when uttered by Ms Debbie, gave me hopes of delicious secrets or pleasant stories.
Unfortunately, that’s not what I got. “Could you please turn down the thermostat exactly one degree? It’s just a bit too warm here for my old bones. You wouldn’t understand. Could you do that for me, sweetie?”
“Of course,” No, but I’ll tell you I will, and you’ll think that I did, just like always. “I’ll get on it right away!”
“Such a dear. Now come back after, and I’ll order for you.”
I secretly loved characters like Ms Debbie. Every time I went back to the kitchen, we’d chatter about her latest requests. We’d bond over giggles, complaints, and requests (both ours and those of our customers). People often forget that there’s a human being behind the black pocketed apron and the clunky, comfy black shoes that wear out every few months. They see the object of the waiter or hostess as only the role they’re playing, as if we’re actors and they’re choosing to suspend their own disbelief. Even I’m guilty of it. When’s the last time you wondered how long your server had been on their feet? Was your hostess wearing an engagement ring? That busboy: think he’s laughing at his own thoughts, or at something your table said that reminded him of his own friends? Did you even consider that he has friends outside of that rag?
Most of the time, the player-audience effect manifests as a kind of hyper-politeness in Americans. Even Ms Debbie fell into this, calling me sweetie and and always saying please. This is a good thing. It makes waitressing smooth, communication clear, and interactions civil.
Sometimes, especially as a young woman, politeness is abandoned for invasive curiosity. “Do you like working here? What do they pay you? So what’s the deal with (insert a coworker’s name here)?” The worst, “So, are you seeing anyone?”, was a weekly occurrence. You don’t know me, I’d think. You know the forced smile, super friendly, dressed nicely, put-together me.
I don’t mean to say that the person waiting on your every need, and every other person in their quarter of the restaurant, is being in-genuine. Hate to break it to you, but the person waiting on you is probably not being genuine. It’s part of the job. We deal with bad days, chaos, and Ms Debbies for six-hour Hell shifts that last for eight hours instead. We become people’s computers (press a button on my order pad and your food will appear! Tada!), their sexual objects (if you touch my leg, my butt, or my hips while I walk by, I can guarantee at least two things: 1) Your food will be late and cold, and 2) You’ll get the biggest male server on staff for every other visit), and the reason they’re so hangry (I promise, as soon as it comes out, I’ll get it–just don’t make me ask the frustrated, stressed-out, sleepy chef back there to deliver for the twentieth time).
That being said, working in and around food allows you to meet some of the best people in the world. Work means pain. My knees can now pop on command from days of walking and standing; my shoulders, neck, and forehead throbbed incessantly; I spent what felt like hours massaging my face back into a resting position. It becomes worth it for the joy you bring people. In a small town, people don’t eat out as much as in the city. It’s a half hour drive, no matter where your coming from, to get into town. People go out to eat to celebrate, to reconnect, to enjoy food. This is the best part of being a waitress: being part of a community that literally sells joy and connectedness.
Coworkers are the truest loves.
The hostess and her loyal waitress
Moreover, I will always be thankful for the family that the food industry provides in small businesses. Your coworkers are your greatest allies in the world of people-pleasing, because as the Lord himself knows, you can’t do it alone. When I go to restaurants now, I find myself judging them less on the quality of food and more on the relationships I see in the establishments. In most of the establishments I have visited so far in the scope of Taco Literacy, the ownership and labor is done through real familias. This lends itself to not only a more genuine atmosphere and service (one in which I imagine each person is held far more accountable for their work and actions), but more genuine dining and food. Just as I felt like I was inviting my customers to my table years ago as a server, they now invite me to theirs to experience their language, culture, and comfort. I wonder how they size me up, how they chat about the customers, and about what nicknames they have for each other. I recognize the micro aggression of letting a plate drop onto the table versus the gentle kindness of topping off an already-mostly-filled glass of water when they anticipate how unused to spiciness I might be. It is impossible for me to separate ideas of sleepy hours, sweat, and behind-the-scenes pain stretches from my experiences at the small eateries, knowing that from the other side, appreciation from the customer can make all the difference.