My daughter’s best friend is entering the world of waitressing. I admire her for two reasons: 1. She’s bright and ambitious. This job will enable her to reach a long standing dream to travel. 2. Being a waitress is life-changing.
What? Yes. I mean it. I’ve been a waitress several times in my life—right after high school and into college, and when I was a single-mom trying to make finances reach the end of the month. I learned a lot about people, their expectations, and how humbling it is to be considered an object. While I suspect any public service job offers similar lessons, I can only speak from my own experiences.
There were good moments. I remember the manager calling me into her office for a chat. Fearing this was about the extra butter I was prone to giving those who asked, I was delighted to learn the restaurant had received a letter expounding on what great service I had given a group of customers as they passed through town. Wow. Cool. On another occasion I served the Governor of our state and his family. I was eighteen and clueless, but the jitters of the other waitresses made me wonder if I should be bowing and kissing rings. The Governor was very nice and was obviously trying to blend in with out a fuss. These occasions taught me about being myself, and how that was more than okay.
But there were other moments that left a bad taste. Men had a jarring way of making me feel like I was part of the menu. They leered, pulled me into their laps boldly suggested things that just weren’t appropriate, and displayed an attitude implying it was within their rights to treat me that way. I was, after all, just a waitress. I often found the wives and girlfriends of these guys interesting as well. Instead of calling their guys on the behavior, they’d get mad at me! Note to those wives and girlfriends: it was my job to take your food orders. I sincerely had no interest in your men. Why would I want to encourage creepy jerks? In fact, I did my best to discourage them and was usually stiffed on the tip as a result. I learned that relationships are complicated and that women in service roles are not given much respect. Would these men treat their daughters or mothers that way? (Maybe, because they sure weren’t showing their wives any respect!)
The other aspect of waitressing is the lack of control. If the kitchen was slow or had messed up an order the customers took it out on me, the waitress. When I’d tell the chef, he’d also get mad at me for interrupting his work with petty complaints. I can only think of one or two times the chef went directly to the table and discussed the issue with the customers. It was resolved, but I was still stiffed on the tip. I learned that I can only control my actions and be responsible for my attitude.
Older customers as a rule were very frugal. They’d study the menu for a long time before ordering, and I came to understand this was about living on a fixed income in many cases. I liked to pretend they were friends of my grandmothers and lavished them with extra smiles. When they’d leave I’d find quarters besides their plates. Once I remember an older woman saying, “Well, if we each leave a dollar (10% of their bill) she’ll get five dollars. That is way too much.” I was a single mom struggling to take care of my children and understood the reality of making money stretch. I learned that sometimes waitressing is more than working for tips; it’s about seeing a bigger picture and understanding different views and circumstances in life.
As my daughter’s friend learns the nuances of waitressing I wish her happy, kind, customers who’ll treat her respectfully. She’s working long hours on her feet, carrying heavy trays of food, and running to keep up…all to reach a dream. Bless her.