"We need a refill on salt shakers at table two, a fresh ketchup bottle on tables three, four, and six, and for god's sake, see if we've got a spare pacifier for the kid at table five." Marcheline's lawyer-like voice rattles off instructions faster than anyone can understand them. Taking over her shift is like diving headfirst into an ocean current traveling at a million miles an hour.
I nod after every ten or so words; after sounding off eight commands in under a breath, Marcheline gasps, "Thank god you always show up for your shift on time." Then she flings off her waiter belt like it was on fire and throws it on the rung. I watch her dash out of the back room like she's being chased.
Poor Marcheline doesn't always do well with the evening rush hours, when anything can happen.
Already in my uniform, I make sure of three final things before I step out into the fray that is Elliot's Diner at 6 PM: 1) my nametag is straight and my name tag, because once I grabbed Pedro's nametag and got some strange looks from guests; 2) my waiter belt is full of straws, breathmints, and spare napkins; 3) my shoes are tied, because tripping during rush hour can be fatal.
Check, check, and check. Pulling my hair back into a ponytail, I glance at myself in the dingy mirror in the room. Brown hair relatively shiny. No stray eyelashes on face. No food stuck in teeth. I am ready to go.
There are some things about waitressing that you kind of learn as you go along: first, people are shallow. I've heard people debate a tip because they're arguing whether the waitress's cup size affects how good her serving was. So even though I'm not exactly blessed in the cup department, I make up for it with a pretty smile. My smile is the one thing that's never failed me, even though I'm awkwardly tall and my hair has a knack for frizzing until it looks like a brown dust bunny.
Second: Tips favor the prepared. Always be ready with a recommendation, a straw, a napkin, or a couple Tylenol pills if need be. If you can cure someone of a headache, you're guaranteed at least a 20% tip, maybe even 25% if you smile brightly enough.
Third: Never wait. I know the word 'wait' is in the word 'waitress', but honestly, the golden rule of service is to never sit still. Always be moving, always be covering tables, filling drinks, removing plates, asking people how they are and if the food's okay. In the service industry, there is no such thing as a pause button.
I whirl around on my heels and head out of the back room and into the diner. All but two tables are filled with chattering people, and the sounds of clinking glass, silverware scraping against plates, Motown music in the background, and food being shoveled into mouths fill the diner like music. Rush hour is in full swing, running at a quick tempo.
Once you figure out that tempo and start moving to the beat, waiting tables really isn't as impossible as it seems. Before ten minutes are up, I refill table two's salt shakers, mop up a pink lemonade spill at table four, earn a ten buck tip from table six, and am asked for my number from table five. The customers come and go, and I pick up small tidbits of gossip: Anna Epperly, the mayor's daughter, was caught with the pool boy last Monday. Mr. and Mrs. Carmichael are expecting their eighth child. Andrea Marcos found out her boyfriend was a she.
My best friend Johnny told me once that setting up a waitress spy-ring would give the CIA a tactical advantage.
"Hey, Jane," someone calls from table nine. Larry Birdstrom, a regular. Orders New York Strip Steak every Friday night, grilled medium-rare. Two diet cokes. In love with his secretary.
I navigate my way around the tables to him and say, "Hey there, Larry. The usual tonight? If you're feeling adventurous, how about trying the new tomato bisque soup Shawnelle's testing out?" Shawnelle may not be our head cook, but she's the main creative force in the kitchen. She comes from a hellish background, yet every dish she makes tastes like heaven.
"Sure," replies Larry Birdstrom with his signature too-white grin. "Anything Shawnelle makes is bound to be delicious." Larry Birdstrom is one of those unhappy corporate successes who finds pleasure in the smaller things, like our little diner on the corner of Seventh and Carter Street. Before I'm about to head off to the next customerthe glasses at table six look like they need replenishingLarry stops me and asks, "So how are things, Jane?"
I pause. Making polite, casual conversations with customers is generally a good move. However, it can slow you down.
"I'm doing fine," I say. Generic replies keep you moving, I've found over the years. People subconsciously decide that you're not interesting enough to press further questions.
"Any boys in your life?" Larry asks, and inwardly, I roll my eyes. That's the problem with being a seventeen-year-old girl and having many middle-aged regular customers. They always want to know about your love life. Or, in my case, lack of one.
"No sir, life's too busy," I reply. He grins.
"Your time will come," he tells me, a wistful look on his face. I know he's thinking of Maureen O'Leary, his pug-nosed, bushy-haired ginger of a secretary. Maureen isn't much to look at, but she's sweeter than the banana cream pie Larry orders for her every time they stop by for lunch.
I grin in reply, knowing my smile would net me at least an extra buck in tips. Then I hurry over to table three, who look like they're ready to order. Classic Cheeseburger and fries for Pa, Turkey Sandwich for Ma, Kids Mac N Cheese for Junior. Refill of sodas all around.
You know, you can tell an awful lot about people from what they order and how they order it. I can write a whole essay on a person's personality just by watching them ask for fried chicken and a colossal milkshake with a guilty color to their cheeks, or a fat-free salad and water with a hungry gleam in their eyes. Food service teaches human nature just as it teaches speediness, preparation, and flexibility.
Food itself can speak without words and reveals everything from personality to personal turmoil. A man who normally asks for a burger and chocolate shake but instead requests a lean turkey sandwich is reeling from an epiphany. A woman who passes up her usual fat-free salad for a thick, rich slice of Shawnelle's trippple chocolate cake also needs a box of tissues, a reassuring hug, and someone to agree with her that all men are scumbags.
I speed around the diner like a ping-pong ball, getting that adrenaline rush that takes over waiters' brains when they finally find themselves at the same tempo as rush hour. I am, as Johnny puts it, in stealth mode.
At table three, I bring extra napkins because Little Mimi Littleton can't aim for her mouth and her face is covered with more spaghetti sauce than I swear Moe, the head chef, put on that plate.
At table one, a date goes sour. A complementary chocolate for the woman gives me an extra five dollars in tips. I see her here every Friday or Monday, each time with a different guy, and someday I'm going to work up the courage to tell her that dating a man in a suit does not mean you are dating a nice person. Money can't buy class.
At table six, some three-year old knocks over the peppershaker and draws a smiley face in the mess. I come by with extra napkins and tissues, because the entire family erupts into a chorus of sneezes.
At table four, a thirty-percent tip. Told you Tylenol for curing headaches comes in handy.
At table seven
I stop short. No. Not here. Not now.
The reason I like waitressing so much is that the rush of the customers and food takes my mind off things. Like school. And the people who go there.
I groan inwardly as the five people I least want to see right now settle into the booth, flipping open their menus. Their leader, Tina Kimball--'Tink' to her cronies--makes a face while reading.
Tina Kimball throws her blond hair over her shoulder. Her cronies do the same two seconds later.
Tina Kimball launches into a story where 'like' is inserted every eleven words. Her cronies listen in like it's the most fascinating news they've heard all year.
Tina Kimball sighs dramatically, prompting her cronies to respond with looks of "I know, right?" and equally dramatic sighs.
I swear to god, they're all robots. Every last one of them.
Suppressing a groan, I step over to their table and try to pretend that I've never seen any of them in my entire life, even though Tina Kimball once hid my clothes during gym and I had to spend the rest of the school day in my sweaty P.E. uniform because Johnny and I never found them. Tina Kimball maintains that if she and her cronies are at a Level 10 on the social scale, then Johnny and I are at a negative one.
"Good evening," I say politely, smiling. I am imagining pouring ice water over her head, and the mental image pulls my grin wider. "Are you all ready to order drinks?"
"Look who it is," Tina Kimball replies, pursing her lips. Some girls think that doing this makes them sexy or something, but they look like overly manicured ducks to me. "What's up, Plain Jane?"
Plain Jane was my nickname from middle school that people still think is the most original thing in the world.
"Right now, the dinner shift," I reply quickly. "What'll it be to drink?" Come on, let me take your order so you can leave me alone
"Water," Tina Kimball sighs. "I'm on a detox diet now. Gotta watch the sugar content." As if Tina Kimball needs to diet. She's the head cheerleader, for crying out loud. When people watch the squad perform at halftime, it's not the cheers they pay attention to.
"How about you all?" I ask the other girls, already knowing the answer.
"Water," says Blonde #1.
"Water," says Blonde #2.
"Water," says Brunette #1.
"Water," says Brunette #2.
Yep, total robots. Fem-bots, as Johnny calls them.
I am about to ask them if they all are on the same detox diet Tina is, but think better of it. I walk away and hear some of them gossiping behind my back.
"Remind me why we're eating here again?" asks Blond #1.
"Daddy thinks I should get to know regular people better," Tina replies, sneering regular as if the word puts a bitter taste in her mouth.
"Like Plain Jane the Waitress?" asks Brunette #1. They snicker.
I make the rounds at the other tables, knowing at one point that I'll have to come back and actually take their dinner order, and dreading the moment when I do. They talk about the things you'd imagine cheerleaders and daddy's little girls talk about. How many guys they hooked up with at Kim Allen's party Saturday night. Whether Jenna Hale really slept with Whatshisface. If flirting with Coach Masterson will really raise their grade in P.E.
I wouldn't mind the cheerleaders so much if they didn't reinforce every single stereotype against them.
What had started out as a decent Friday night rush hour quickly spirals downward once I try to take table seven's orders. I have to ask them three times if they're ready, since they've been here twenty minutes and haven't ordered anything. Tina Kimball looks through me like she has forgotten I am I here (what else is new?), then mumbles something about a fat-free salad. The other cronies mumble the same thing, and as I walk away from them, gritting my teeth.
I start to lose concentration and find myself falling out of the rush hour tempo. Why do I let these things get to my head so easily? Johnny says that what the cheerleaders say doesn't matter, but somehow their words find a way to worm into my mind.
I know something is wrong when I accidentally trip over my own two feet and nearly douse the lady at table twenty with Shawnelle's tomato bisque soup. Apologizing breathlessly, I still hear Tina and her cronies giggle in the background. They may be chuckling about some inside joke or escapade, but in my head, I am sure they are laughing at me.
While passing by the open window that offers a view into the kitchen, I hear Moe call out, "Everything fine, Jane?" His thick caterpillar eyebrows are furrowed with concern. I yell that I'm okay so he doesn't worry. Moe makes it his personal mission to be a second fatheror even a firstto all employees here.
Around fifteen 'til eight, Moe and Shawnelle finally have table seven's orders ready and I am burdened with the task of facing Tina Kimball and her cronies again. My smile already feels strained from grinning at each ordering customer. The other two waitresses who work my shift, Tanya and Andie, glance at me with concern. Tanya and I share tables because of an agreement we worked outTanya's new to the job and really not a good waitress, so I try to help when I can. Andie takes care of the last few tables at the twenty-table dinermost waitresses typically care for five, but Andie is more of a waitressing machine than I am and I've seen her go through thirty parties on a good night.
"Need a break, Dalton?" Andie calls as I slowly make my way to table seven. Andie is one of those dyed-hair and multiple-piercing tomboys who calls everyone by their last name. Johnny has had the biggest crush on her since I started working at the diner. Too bad she's twenty-four.
"I can handle myself," I yell back, over the din of the restaurant. Generally, it's a bad idea for the wait staff to do anything that would distract the customers from their meals or conversation, but Andie can tell I'm not myself tonight. She glances over at table seven, sees Tina and the Tinettes, and frowns. She was in high school once, she knows the type. In the back of my mind, I am picturing Andie confronting Tina Kimball and giving Tina a piece of her mind. Andie's afraid of nothing and no one.
I carefully set the entrees on the table, avoiding Tina Kimball's gaze. The other girls regard me as though I am invisible. I make my way back to the kitchen and try to continue the rest of my shift without fainting. Or vomiting.
Table six leaves me a measly tip that I can't help but feel I deserved.
Table five orders seven entrees despite only having three people. And foreign countries wonder why Americans are so fat.
And then, Blonde #1 from table seven waves me over. Feeling like a mouse approaching a cat, I hesitantly pause before their table. I must look like a criminal about to receive their sentencing after a trial.
"There are chicken strips in my salad, Plain Jane," she says acidly. The other girls, especially Tina, are frowning.
"I'm sorry, would you like me to get you a new dish?" I ask quietly, amazed that my voice doesn't shake.
"Um, no, we have somewhere to be after this," she says snidely.
"Sorry," I say. My mind is blanking. What am I supposed to do? The customer doesn't like their dish, but doesn't want a new one. There's some sort of protocol to deal with his, but I can't bring it to mind.
"Chicken has fat in it," Blonde #1 says irately. "Didn't you know we are all on detox diets?"
I guessed that, yes.
"Is there anything you need me to do?" I mumble.
"No," replies Blonde #1. The look on her face tells me that it is my cue to leave. I slink off, back to the sea of tables. Andie shoots Blonde #1 a dirty look.
"What was that about, Brittany?" one of the other girls asks.
"The waitress doesn't know how to take my order," Blonde #1, Brittany, replies petulantly. I wish there was a way I could dump her entrée on her head that didn't result in my being fired. Should I have spat in her food? Andie did that once to a customer who was giving Tanya a hard time. And the best part is, Andie had mono that day. (I know, I knowyou shouldn't be working if you're sick. But if you had racked up over $40,000 in debt from student loans and had the option of earning money versus lying at home wearily, you can see why Andie still came to work.)
"I can slip a fly into her drink if you'd like," Andie says as she passes me. I manage a tiny smile.
At last, it is finally time for table seven to pay and leave. Tina and her friends leave cash for me to pick up, saying that they each are paying for their own meal. I don't say anything as I take their money and they get up and saunter out the door. They've only left me a ten percent tip.
Pedro, the busboy, comes up behind me and starts clearing their plates. He's deaf, and he's working here so that his sister, who is also deaf, can go to the special school he never had a chance at. He offers me a shy smile. Grinning with relief, I make the sign for 'dinosaur'. It's the only thing I know in sign language, besides 'Hello'. Pedro chuckles breathily.
Then I notice a dark red designer bag sitting in the booth of table seven. One of the Tinettes has left her purse. I know I should do the right thing and chase them down, but for a moment, I am wondering if it'd really be that tragic for the owner to lose one designer bag. It's not like they don't have hundreds more at home.
The door opens and in steps Tina Kimball herself, on her own. Her angular, heart-shaped face seems softer now that it isn't drawn into a sneer, and there's less malice in her overly made up eyes. She glances around, spots the purse, and heads over to table seven. It is not until she is about to leave again that she notices me. I am frozen.
"Hey, Jane," she says quietly. For once, I am not invisible to her. I am just another person. "Sorry about me and girls being so rude," she adds. "Brittany just broke up with her boyfriend after three years when she caught him cheating on her for the sixth time, so we've been trying to cheer her up." She pauses, then reaches into the dark red purse and pulls out a crisp twenty, leaving it on the table and giving me a tentative smile. "There you go, that's the kind of tip you need. And Jane
you should smile more often. I mean really smile, not that fake smile you have to give customers." With a slight nod, she finally turns and heads for the door. I can hear her cronies calling for her outside.
I see her rearrange her features back into that snobby mask she puts on for the others as she exits, and the moment is over.
For five seconds, I just stand there, wondering what just happened. What was it she said about normal people? That her daddy wants her to be around them? In that moment, she seems as normal to me as any other teenager. Absently, I wonder if I stereotype her as much as she stereotypes me.
I remember what she had ordered: fat-free salad and water. People who order that kind of thing tend to be very self-conscious about what they look like. No rational person orders something fat-free unless her self-esteem is as low as the calorie count. Fat-free food tastes as empty as the person feels.
Suddenly, I almost pity Tina Kimball.
But then I turn around on my heel and head back into the fray that is Elliot's Diner at rush hour, because you are not allowed to wait around when you are a waitress. Every second you waste dwelling on a single moment is a second that could be used to refill someone's drink or take someone's order. With a sigh, I finally drop back into the rushed tempo of the dinner hour, when anything can happen.