by JACKIE KRUSZEWSKI
Waiting tables has never paid my bills, a fact which I prefer to hide from my colleagues with deep sighs about the price of just about everything. But through the managerially-induced eye rolls, the horrific tippers, the empty-table boredom, and the mild injustices of everyday service industry work lies my dirty secret: I could quit any time I want. I went to pick up my last paycheck from the French restaurant and ended up with two shifts a week. My name is Jackie and I am addicted to waitressing.
I tried to quit a few months ago. I got a raise at my non-profit, a sizable one, and I wanted my weekends back desperately because it was almost Christmas. My weekend shifts were a welcome excuse to stay in New York for Thanksgiving and not spend $200 on trains to avoid my father’s girlfriend at whatever trashy buffet joint his family had reserved for us for the occasion. But I couldn’t miss Christmas with my mother and sisters for the third time in a row, and my friends were coming to New York for New Year’s Eve. So I gave my notice.
The second weekend in January I came back for my last check. “So you, you want to take a few shifts again, yes?” Bruno, the diminutive French owner, asked. Turns out, he hadn’t rehired, just reshuffled, and I suddenly felt a surge of usefulness that I’d never felt at my day job.
I first waited tables in the summer of 2004 after my first year at college. It was also my first summer driving (overprotective mother), and I planned my route to the restaurant to avoid stopping on steep hills in my stick-shift 1988 Astro van (RIP Vanna).
La Siesta was a family-owned Mexican place in suburban Richmond. The Zajur Family patriarch had had the prescience to open Chesterfield County, Virginia's first Mexican joint in the 70s when it was just concrete hick sprawl south of Richmond. His sons and daughter spoke of the La Siesta heyday of their youth — before the competition for $8 burritos and enormous margaritas had shown up. Rue the day!
La Siesta employees included: two white career waitresses from neighborhoods nearby, a few Mexican guys my age who had learned English well enough to wait tables, an older Mexican man who had been an architect in Mexico and was now a host, and of course the more recently-immigrated kitchen staff who labored over vats of ground beef in the back and were probably supporting vast families back home with remittances.
The two other women waitresses were in their mid-30s and both named Rena. They had been there long enough that they’d arranged to work just on tips (ie: IRS-free). They thought I was cute and virginal (f*ing dimples) and by the end of summer, they were inviting me to their bacchanal cookouts where we smoked weed in the shag-carpeted living room while their toddlers and teenagers of different fathers ran around the double-wide trailers outside until the wee hours of the night. They introduced me to frozen margarita mix and tequila and lectured me on the importance of birth control.
The kitchen staff was mostly confused by me: why was this white girl in college waiting tables and driving an Astro van? I had spent the year between high school and college in Argentina so my fluent Argentinian Spanish was doubly confusing. The Zajurs explained that Argentine Castellano has a snooty, European slant to it — a faux-aristocratic lilt that made them laugh every time I opened my mouth. I was the kitchen staff’s mascot.
The Zajurs barely noticed me. The family practically ran the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and were profiled by the city newspaper in rhapsodic prose, congratulating them for being successful business owners and model immigrants. The focus on their heritage was mildly absurd considering the 30-/40-something-year-old Zajur children had never lived a day in Mexico, but they all had well-dressed kids and were both deeply religious and politically conservative — the kind of Mexicans Virginia could get behind! Just don’t ask questions about the immigration status of the guys in the kitchen.
Of course, the Zajur Family politics didn’t jibe very well with my new liberal arts curriculum and recently-discovered sense of self-righteousness. I was quietly disdainful of the Zajur children, their inherited business, their assimilated values, their subpar flan. But this was also my very first job — I was ingratiatingly eager to please them all, as this was the Real World with Bosses and Colleagues. I was part of a Team — the Renas believed in me — and there were people to be fed!
La Siesta, however, didn’t exactly attract sophisticated clientele. I refilled many a chip-and-salsa basket for families trying to fill up on freebies so that the second half of their burrito plate could be tomorrow’s lunch. I had more than one person argue with me about the ounce-age of their margarita. The ridiculously cheap lunch specials brought in white and blue-collared workers alike, all demanding faster service and three Coke refills for less of a tip.
These were the days of smoking and non-smoking sections in Tobacco Country. Women in scrunchies would perch their infants precariously on their knees to light up and tip me 5% because I’d “put down the hot plate too close to their baby’s hand.” Men would stumble out to their pick-ups after five coronas before I could meekly offer to call them a cab. (The blond, 90-lb. Rena, on the other hand, once shoved a lumbering hick onto the pavement in order to snatch back his keys.)
Then again, I wasn’t the brightest waitress back in those days. I once poured the secret XXXrta-spicy-habanero sauce all over the steaming fajita plate at a customer’s behest. The entire restaurant had to be evacuated when people’s eyes caught fire. I made an army of children cry all at once.
Nevertheless, I worked my ass off that summer and brought in enough cash to fund my extracurriculars for the next three years of college. When I was home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring break, I was happily roped into shifts. Once in DC after college I signed up for a second job waiting tables at a bland but high-traffic “neighborhood bistro” on DuPont Circle a few times a week. And again here in Brooklyn, a kitschy French bistro called Moutarde.
Restaurant work keeps neurons firing in my brain that might die otherwise. The sheer physicality and pressures of it are somehow comforting - it feels like running a race, the kind where you cross the finish line with sore feet and $200. How many shifts you do and how hard you work is directly proportional to how much you make — a simple capitalist truism that is not always reflected in non-profits.
There I watch people get doughy and become masters of delegation. I watch people procreate and suddenly think they are entitled to leave work at four. I watch people suddenly be too good for certain tasks after a salary hike. I watch thousands of donor dollars being spent to coddle those same donors so they’ll give us more to spend on them. I exaggerate, of course; non-profits are full of talented people doing valuable work but there are thick layers of inefficiency in an office environment that would be excised by a thrifty restaurant owner in seconds. The contrast between the two worlds can put things in perspective.
Bartenders, busboys, wait staff, line cooks — the people you meet in restaurants are far more interesting than most. Many have creative pursuits, ill-advised tattoos, recreational drug habits, sordid tales from their past, and fascinating sex lives. And they’ll tell you everything. You'll learn more in 10 minutes than you’ll ever know about the colleagues you see five days a week.
Rampant sarcasm, sass, gossip, petty disputes, strong personalities, hook ups — these are the sine qua non of restaurant culture. Waiting tables exacerbates any judgemental, nasty and racist qualities you already have, but it also makes you better at hiding them strategically. Never doubt for a second that your server hasn’t pegged you for a good tipper or a bad tipper right off the bat, or that they don’t already know that you’re going to complain about your food after you ask for myriad substitutions that she has to plead with the chef for. Now, whether that means she puts in minimal effort and risks the self-fulfilling tip prophesy, or whether she vies desperately for your affection in order to disprove her own snap judgment, that’s another question.
I am the latter, boring into your soul from my perch above your table. Do you like the silent, stealthy waiter who anticipates your needs and keeps the table minimalist? The deadpan, witty type who gives it to you straight about the quality of the salmon? Do you want me to flirt with you? Because I will, oh I will. I will compliment your wife’s purse and flash dimples while I’m pouring your wine and make up stories about the awful mess the kids who sat here before you made so that you feel sophisticated and unencumbered. “Remember, wifey, when the kids used to be such terrors at restaurants? So nice to have some peace at our age. Bring on the crème brûlée! What a nice little waitress.”
Restaurants are a goldmine for twitter feeds and writing material - a human petri dish of social interactions and intimacies. I have seen dour-faced couples spend their meal on their respective smart phones. I’ve seen the adorable parents trying awkwardly to sweep up their kids’ mess, as well as the nasty ones who, I swear to god, must be encouraging their toddler to throw French fries on our floor.
I have watched blind dates, breakups, morning-after brunches. I’ve had crotchety 70-year-olds tip me 10 percent — only to have their mortified children come up to me after and press bills into my palm. I’ve watched poorly-endowed men impress their dates by ordering the most expensive bottle, only to have no idea what they’re tasting for. (Hint, you’re tasting to make sure the cork wasn’t compromised, not because we expect you to comment that it’s “tannic” or “oaky.”)
Waiting tables is not (surprise!) intellectually demanding. You just have to be efficient, organized and mildly articulate. And you need patience, serenity and stamina (read: cocaine, for some). The reason so many creative, scenester types work in restaurants — besides the flexible schedules and the decent haul — is that it doesn’t suck out your mental energy and soul like office jobs can.
I can come home from a Sunday brunch shift around four, my arms exhausted, my feet aching. But my mind would be alive — circuitry engaged by the physical demands of serving, like that runner’s high people speak of, or what yoga does to some. A bottle of wine and six hours later, I’d have several poems written, a few essays outlined, be in bed by 10 and ready for my day job bright and early the next morning.
My day jobs, god bless them, have noble pursuits (the environment, science education) but I am, and likely always to be, a mere cog in the machine, churning out memos and carefully crafted databases that are utterly crucial and utterly banal. I come home, my body flaccid and my brain withered away by ostensibly productive but uncreative pursuits, and all I can muster the energy to do is watch Law & Order and resew a button on my Ann Taylor cuff.
I could make more money if I quit my day job and waited tables full time. Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. But most of the other servers my age are saving up their money to go back to school and pursue their creative ventures full time. They have the courage and confidence in their talents enough to risk the career insecurity of an MFA (a Masters in Financial Anxiety, as my father would say) or the like. I like health care, and happy hours, and blazers with rolled sleeves so I can pretend I’m working up a sweat at my desk. And, if I were to give into my waitressing addiction, the Renas would be very disappointed in me, wherever they are now.
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