Monday, December 27, 2010

Groundhog Day

"These hash browns are terrible! Every time I come here I get terrible hash browns!"

"Why do you order them if you don't like them?"

"Because I like hash browns!"

"But you don't like our hash browns."

"No, I don't! Take them back! I want new ones!"

"They'll be the same as the others."

"I know that! This restaurant has always had terrible hash browns!"

Old Friends

In the last week, I got back in touch with a couple of old friends from my waiter days. I wrote about one of them here last night, Jo, and then deleted the post this morning, deciding it was a little too personal (not about me - about her) but I still want to acknowledge our friendship. We worked together during a time when so many of our friends were getting sick and dying with the AIDS virus - she as a cook and I as a waiter. There are so few people left from that time to remember it. At least two of the guys we went out the first night we met for drinks after work are gone now, and probably more, but I didn't stay in touch with all of them. It's so reassuring to have Jo to talk with today, like a found a missing piece of myself.

We've stayed in touch off and on, sometimes going two or three years between phone calls, and through living in a combined seven different states, and over 23 years. Neither one of us is in the food and beverage business any more, and our friendship never did need that as an anchor. It's fun to have the memories of working together, but that was really just the way we met, and today it encompasses such a brief part of our history. I used to work with a gal that would say when she got off break, "Back to the battlefield!" and there's some truth to that. It's good to have friends who've been through that experience with you, but even better to know you would have been friends no matter where or when you met.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Room at the Inn

When I tended bar in a hotel, I always had to work on Christmas. Hotels, of course, do not close on the holidays. They become large boxes of lonely people with no place to go except the hotel bar, hotel restaurant, or their own room. Every place else is closed on Christmas; sooner or later, they usually all wind up in the bar.

There is something sadistic about filling a hotel bar with Christmas decorations - reminding the customers of their isolation - by fate or design - from their families. It's like showing pictures of food to hungry children. Then you add alcohol to their misery and everything gets so much better. I think the decorations are nice enough in the two or three weeks preceding, but they might just as well be toned down a little out of respect on the Big Day.

One hotel I worked at tried to make me wear an elf hat on Christmas. I said, "I did not spend this much time doing my hair just to have it flattened out with a children's costume. No thank-you."

Friday, December 24, 2010

Elves Have Feelings, Too

"Nobody's perfect. The only one that ever was was crucified."

- Loretta Lynn


I'm still here. I'm not dead. I'm just not here here.

My computer was dying, so I had to send it in to the manufacturer for repairs (it was under warranty) and in a stroke of genius I managed to lose all of the notes I made for my blog by either not copying them onto a disc, leaving the disc in the PC when I sent it in, or just losing the disc after I made it. Anyway, that leaves me wondering what stories I have left to tell, and which ones I've told already - knowing I'm gonna have to make notes from what I've already posted unless I wanna be like someone's granny, telling the same story over and over. Also, I just found the part of blogger that shows comments "waiting to be approved" so I was late getting a couple of them up. I was touched to hear from Fuck My Table - it's nice to be missed. There was a comment I didn't post, and it actually got me to go back and edit an entry so someone couldn't be identified. I don't want this blog to hurt anyone, so I'll work harder at disguising the guilty parties!

It's Christmas eve, and I just got back from candlelight service. I'm back to singing with the choir - hoping I'm not singing badly. Sometimes I do still miss waiting tables, but I know there were many years when I couldn't go to candlelight services because I was working, and I sure wouldn't have been able to commit to singing with any group regularly. One year, not only did I have to work parties on Christmas eve, but at the last moment - just when I thought I was going home - the hotel I worked for told me that one of the regulars from Saturday Night Live was in town for a show and NBC would like to throw a party for him and his guests in a suite upstairs, so I would need to stay. Midnight on Christmas eve, and about 3 hours' notice.

I stayed (it was either that or lose my job) and set up the hors-d'oeuvre and host bar, and the "star" showed up for less than a minute - treated me like a bad smell coming from the neighbor's house - and virtually ignored all of the people who had shown up to meet him. Good news is the party died early, but it sucked to be regarded as so inconsequential. Maybe NBC hadn't checked with their "star" and he was feeling just as manipulated as I was, but at least I stayed and did my job. I didn't need anyone to be nice to me; just don't be rude, waste my time, and dump your guests on me.

Most of my Christmas memories of waiting tables are from banquets when I worked 105-115 hour weeks with only snatches of time between shifts. There were always a lot of splits crammed into about eighteen days of pure bedlam. My legs would cramp, my knee would give out and I'd have to wrap it, and I'd eat the same holiday buffet food for several days running. I still gag just thinking of leftover well done prime rib. Once it has sat under the carving lamp for two hours and another two hours in the warmer, it's not so appealing, but it was better than the chopped weenies and hair in the employee cafeteria.

We had several groups that came back year after year for their Christmas parties. Some of those folks were as dear as family to me, and I miss them. I kept in touch for a while after I left Colorado and I have remembrances like a crocheted book mark, a coffee cup with my name on it, and a statue about 18 inches tall of a waiter with a tray that one of my groups carved the words, 'To Guy. Best Waiter in Denver" in the base of. They'd have extra cash for me for waiting on them all year and it was fun to see them having a meeting that was more of a party than business.

On the other side of it, there were some groups, both familiar and not, where the parties were sponsored by employers who intimidated their subordinates into attending. Nobody would drink until the boss drank, everybody drank exactly the same thing that the boss drank, and everyone was afraid to leave until the boss left. One older couple with several restaurants would "spontaneously" entertain their "guests" (prisoner employees) with a hokey song and comedy routine till after Midnight. Every year someone would be assigned to talk them into singing, and then they wouldn't stop. If they did stop, it was someone else's "job" to talk them into singing more. On and on it would go. It was painful. We'd see people arriving for the party with all the enthusiasm of children waiting to be inoculated for German measles.

Not that the hotel's own Holiday Party was much better, but at least there were always a few people in food and beverage who didn't care if they got fired for drinking too much and since the chef was making food for people he was gonna see every day - including his boss - it was pretty good. I still had to help set up the party, but usually they got management to wait on us. Sometimes, we'd work it and they paid us extra. One year we hired temps. We never did that again.

I always worked especially hard at Christmas, and under particularly trying circumstances. When I was a banquet captain, the sales staff would book more parties than we had silverware and china to accommodate, and when I was a bartender, there were a greater number of emotional basket cases dousing the flames of their own personal Hell with booze to keep watch over and know just when to help them to the broken crackers and sweating cheese on the buffet table. Among the staff, we didn't hold anything back and there were plenty of awful words exchanged under pressure, but out on the floor we made "Christmas" happen for the strangers paying for the experience. Those memories are bittersweet.

I'm reading a book right now called "The Managed Heart" that discusses the disconnect that happens/has to happen when people are paid to exhibit feelings they don't actually feel. Waiters have to look like they enjoy their jobs, are happy, eager, thankful, excited, concerned, remorseful .... anything but genuine in most cases. The customers sometimes even know that the face on the outside doesn't match the person inside, and may even challenge how well you've performed this ruse. They don't care that you are irritated with them, but they certainly care whether it shows. "Never let 'em see you sweat" is what is expected of you as a waiter, but it's probably the worst thing you can do in personal relationships. I don't miss being all the people I needed to be in order to be a waiter. I'm still working at discovering the person I really am underneath all those years of pretending.

I hope I start writing again, and that there's someone left reading. Thanks to all of you who have been so encouraging. Now that I've figured out where the comments are going, I'll be better about getting them posted. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On/Off

When I was a banquet captain, most of the on-call people I hired were waiters and waitresses I knew from working in other hotels and restaurants. Monica was one of these. We met in our early 20s working in a pancake house. I waited on her and her mother when she came in to fill out an application, and we are still friends almost 30 years later. By the time Monica was filling in for me on the banquet staff, she had a full-time office job, so we didn't work together much. She was a great waitress, though she's actually a little shy. That quiet nature made what was likely one of the most embarrassing moments of her waitress years even more hilarious the night we were clearing tables during a wedding reception at the point of transition from "Dinner" to "Dance" and Monica unplugged the DJ. She thought she was unplugging the hot plates that we used for coffee service. There were people on the dance floor, music, and flashing colored lights when suddenly everything went dark and quiet. We heard, "Oh my gosh!" and in about 10 seconds the lights came back on again, with Monica, beet red, and huddled next to the electrical outlet. We loved to tease her afterwards about "that time you unplugged those people's wedding."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wedding Gaiety

I've cut some pretty fantastic cakes in my years of working banquets. The quinceaneras were probably the most elaborate ones, with fountains and trellises, and often 15 separate layers. Wedding cakes were usually four tiers with a groom's cake on the side. I never worked for a hotel that offered formal cakes, so they were always set up by third parties, with varying results. Sometimes, it would strike terror in your heart just to walk past the cake table, when it was visibly tilting or rocking with the slightest movement. There were other issues to contend with as well, like under-baked cakes that began to slide or sink as they thawed, or cakes delivered by people who didn't know how to set them up.

Until I started cutting cakes, I never realized how many different ways there are to construct one. I've seen forms made from plywood and bolts and huge ceramic bases, to Styrofoam and plastic. Very large cakes also usually have several wooden dowels in them that (hopefully) the guests never know about. As unnerving as it could be to even approach some of the towers of cake at these events - let alone take them apart and cut them - it was one of my favorite parts of the job. The cutting of the cake is one of the most important ceremonies and I liked having that responsibility. I wish now I'd taken pictures of some of them.

The worst cake story I know of isn't (thank God) my own. I knew a waiter who knocked the top of a wedding cake onto the bride's lap. I never worked an event where the cake was set up at the head table, but I know that, depending on the bride, the bride's mother and the caterer, a cake is liable to be set up just about anyplace if the banquet manager or banquet captain aren't around to guide things. I did work for another captain at an event where the cake fell, and the hotel ended up paying for it (which meant we gave up part of our gratuity with it). When I became captain, I didn't take any chances. I stuffed wedges of cardboard under layers, and propped up sagging frosting with floral arrangements ... whatever I could do to make that cake live till the cutting.

I enjoyed the responsibility, but it's ironic that I spent so much of my life making everything just right for straight couples at their wedding receptions, considering it's not even legal for me to get married. I wonder if any of the couples think about that double standard when they're meeting with their dress designer, florist, hair stylist, wedding planner, baker, photographer, caterer or waiters, when likely several of those professionals are gay? A while back, I wrote a little piece about "The Gays" and their usefulness. I posted it to Facebook a few months later, and I'm reviving it again, here. I hope you like it.
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There are so many ways that having a gay friend can validate your straight life-style, not to mention support it. How many times in my day do I perform simple little gay things that nobody is even aware of? There must be millions of them . . .

The Gays contribute so much more than just that lively piece of window dressing that you can take to the bathroom with you because he's "just one of the girls." And If The Gays didn't get to do all of the things that they are so good at, it would be the end of weddings for straight people (At least weddings that anyone wanted to go to.) Think about it: wedding planner, cake, flowers, dress, hair and makeup, decorations, catered food, wait staff, and best man (who is just a little too close to the groom for the bride's comfort) would all go out the window. A justice of the peace and a quick pass by a Wendy's drive-thru would be about all you'd get.

And it's not just weddings. The Gays practically invented Bette Midler and she is the Number One Choice for recorded music at funerals. Think about it: "The Rose?" Nope. "Wind Beneath My Wings?" Probably not. The original Gary Morris version doesn't have any of those "fly, fly fly" things at the end. Funerals would be over in 10 minutes leaving the bereaved alone in a room full of tuna noodle casserole and bundt cake wondering why the Irish Tenor didn't show up for the wake.

So what if you have a gay friend? What do you do now? Is he going to make you all gay-like and expect you to talk gay-talk? Will he make fun of your shoes? Will he go shopping with you and help you decide if that episode of Law and Order that has a gay person in it is just as The Gays see it, live it and breathe it every day? Is he gay enough? Too gay? Can you take him anywhere and "no one would ever know?"

Well, there isn't just one brand, girlfriend. You've got to pick The Gay that is right for you. And make sure he's not planning on running off to Massachusetts or anything political. Remember that this is about what The Gays contribute to mainstream society... not the other way around. They are the minority. One of the beautiful things about a democracy is that 90% of the population can vote to dictate the rights, social mores, intimate expressions and living arrangements of the other 10% of the population and there's not a damned thing they can do about it.

Or is there?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Satan, Party of 30

This morning, as I was getting ready for church, I remembered when one of those huge stadium churches started up in Denver and the effect it had on both the clientele and the staff. The church was pretty close to the pancake house I was working in at the time, so we started getting a lot of waitresses who worshiped there. It was one of those Charismatic churches with radio and TV ministries, and the new girls were full of "Praise Jesus!" for everything, from their sales incentive points for selling desserts and side orders, to any tips they received. They were a close-knit group, and mostly they were nice, if a little self-righteous. The tough part was when the church members would come in for supper after evening service. There would be about 30 of them - sometimes more - and I don't remember them calling ahead. Usually we only had one person to wait on them with separate checks and the tips were horrible. Some of the customers left tracts in place of tips that said things like, "I gave to the Lord today in your name" or "Thank-you for your service - I'll share your tip with the Lord." It was really frustrating.

I've been glad to notice that, when I've gone out to brunch with members of my own church, they are very healthy tippers. A dream to wait on. I just don't think I could be a member of any organization that treated waiters like the folks did from that place back in Denver. (I was gonna say the name of it, but there's no point in hurting anyone's feelings.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Right (way) To Marry

It's more appealing to be presented with a full bottle of any restaurant condiment than it is to get one that looks used. Of course, restaurants don't throw away the condiments if the bottle isn't empty. They do what is called "marrying," pouring from the emptiest bottle into the fullest bottle so nothing but a full bottle ever goes out to the table. Granted, sometimes this is done with a huge bag of ketchup mounted on the wall in the service area and not from bottle to bottle, but the point is, it's likely some of the ketchup or other condiment has been around for a pretty long time, just getting topped off over and over again until it starts to bubble and then, one fateful day, a customer lifts the cap and rotten ketchup erupts like projectile vomit. (Sometimes, it's a waiter that gets hit, but in most cases I've observed it's the customer.) That's when you know it's time to throw that bottle away.

The worst condiment to marry is mustard. It's thick and especially difficult to get to drain, (though I actually did work in one restaurant where the manager made us marry those tiny bottles of Tabasco. We had to use toothpicks just to make it drain and we usually ended up hiding the half full bottles in the bottom of the trash instead of marrying them. It's not like we had four hours to do our sidework.) With ketchups, you can set them upside down in the service area and most of the sauce will eventually drain to the head of the bottle, but mustard usually requires a little more force. The way I learned to pack the mustard to the end of the bottle was to do a kind of wind up, using centrifugal force with the cap end pointed forward, swinging my arm in full rotation four or five times.

I was working in a small cafe one night, finishing up my sidework, when I attempted this wind up move on one of the tall skinny Heinz mustard bottles with the metal cap. The kind of metal cap that doesn't secure very well. I spent two hours trying to scrub the perfectly straight yellow line I created running up one painted white wall, across the ceiling and down the wall behind me and never did get the stain out of the paint. After that, I made sure I held my finger over the cap. Or sometimes, I just threw the bottle away.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bass-ackwards

I was reading an old news article online and saw that a philanthropist and his husband were buying one of the Denver's historic mansions. It had been owned by Denver University for the last few years and had been used in various capacities, one of which was for catered parties. I worked one of those parties - just one - and here's how that came to be:

I was out to brunch with my boyfriend and another couple at a popular gay restaurant in the Cheesman Park neighborhood. Our waitress was very chatty and she mentioned that she was also in charge of the catering staff at _____ Mansion. I told her I was a banquet captain and she asked if I'd like to work with her because she was short staffed. I gave her my number and she called and booked me for a wedding the next week. When I arrived, she was in a tizzy because she hadn't managed to completely staff the event and asked if I knew anyone who might be willing to work. I called my friend Monica whom I had waited tables with off and on for about ten years, and she arrived within a half hour. I think it was the meanest thing I ever did to her.

It didn't take long to realize what a disorganized mess this "banquet" was going to be. Aside from staff who were only half in uniform, I remember a bartender who was using a champagne ice bucket stand to keep a two litre bottle of 7-up chilled (no bucket ... just the stand), and setting up the buffet on top of antique billiard tables that had been covered with sheets. Monica and I had been working about an hour on the setup, which included moving tables and chairs (not waiter work in my book ... I always used housemen for that kind of heavy lifting) and we had time for a break before guests were to arrive. We went outside to smoke and the first thing she said to me was, "Let's just leave now." Believe me, I was tempted. The woman running the thing was nuttier than a pecan log at Stuckey's.

When the wedding part of the event was over, we needed to flip the room from theater style seating into rounds (for the plated reception dinner) while the guests were enjoying the hors-d'ouevres around the sheet-covered billiard tables. Rather than placing the rounds first and then putting the chairs around them, the staff was setting up one round at a time with chairs, running out of room in various areas and shifting all of the tables and chairs - one table at a time - till the whole thing looked like a Keystone cops movie. Finally, I just took charge. I told the staff, "We're going to place the rounds first for the whole room, and when we know where we want the tables, we'll put the chairs around them." When they said they'd never done it like that before I told them they'd been working too hard.

At the end of the night, the manager was very impressed with our work and wanted Monica and me to come back. I told her I was a waiter and I didn't move furniture so, "Thanks, but no thanks." She said, "I move furniture and I broke my back last year!" Like I'm supposed to think that's smart? Of course Monica was just polite. She said, "That's really nice of you. I'll have to see if I can since I'm so busy." I don't know if the gal called her - I can't remember - but I know she never went back there. I was apologizing for years for getting her into that one.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

State of Mind

Three or four evenings a month, I used to wait on a group of four elderly women at the pancake house for dinner. They dressed to the nines in jewels and furs, were always a little tipsy, and they'd tell me they had just come from a "cocktail party." I'd been waiting on them for months before I realized they were just getting drunk at each other's houses and then going out to eat. It made me like them even more.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Perk

I'm sick, so I don't know if I'm gonna get much in here for the next few days. Once I got out of the habit, it was hard to find my voice again, and now I just feel like crap. I hope the people who have been reading will stick around. At least I don't have a shift to cover.


When I moved back to Denver from St. Petersburg, Florida, I didn't want to lose my tan, so I got a job working in a tanning salon. I used to lie in those beds after hours for an hour at a time, and I look at pictures of me now and wonder why nobody told me I looked radioactive. The tanning salon was next door to a little restaurant that was looking for a waiter, so I applied and got the job. I'd been hired on the spot at places before, but this was the first time I was told to come back that evening to work, given the keys to the building, and told where to drop the cash in the vault because I would be the last person to leave. They didn't even know me! They had a strange setup, in that we carried our own banks, seated and bussed our own tables and made our own drinks. There were no stations, so the waiters were always bumping into each other 'cos we had to work tables like patchwork all over the restaurant. The bar thing was just silly, since I was the only one who actually knew how to mix drinks. I wondered how they could possibly have come up with such a disorganized way of operating, and then I met the owner.

I was hired by the chef, and I'd been working for a couple of weeks before the owner showed up. She was a middle-aged Asian woman with a very strong accent, difficult to understand and prone to emotional outbursts. She followed all of the waiters around, asking if we'd taken care of such and such table, where was so and so's food and stuff like that. It made it even worse since she had no idea who was waiting on which customer. She kept up a shrill banter through most of the lunch shift until I finally had enough. She'd been trying to get me to wait on some people who had already had cocktails, eaten, ordered dessert, had their dishes cleared and paid their bill. She thought they'd just walked in and was frantic about my getting them menus. I told her, "I don't think this is going to work out." I could tell this must have happened plenty of times before, 'cos she started backpedaling. She asked me to reconsider and said, "I'm not here very often" but I told her I thought once would be enough.

There are plenty of things that suck about waiting tables: Having to work when you're sick, putting up with sexual harassment, shifts that never end because someone didn't show up, being made to do cleaning and janitorial work for two bucks an hour, no 401k, no insurance, and knowing that your job security depends on whatever some jerk says about you, not whether it's true. The really nice thing about the job is that it can be really easy to leave. As simple as cashing out your tickets and walking out the door.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Drunken, Dangerous Liasons

I've been busy with the LGBTQ film festival in Austin, aGLIFF23, so I haven't had much time for blogging. So far, everything we've shown has been well received. It's important to me because I was part of the programming team this year. The theater we've been showing them at is called Alamo Drafthouse. They started here in Austin and have a handful of other locations but they have completely spoiled me for seeing movies anywhere else. They have chefs and very good food, with beer, wine, soda, coffee service (and even hard liquor at the one downtown) and very comfortable seats. Imagine waiting tables in a movie theater? Wow.

So, my mind's been on movies and I remembered when my friend Jill and I used to work the breakfast shift together at a downtown hotel, grab a cab, stop by the liquor store and go to the movies with a bottle of Southern Comfort hidden in Jill's backpack. Jill was usually supposed to work in the cocktail lounge at night (she pulled a lot of splits) but she'd inevitably call in sick. We'd get huge cokes at the movie and split a bottle between us, so we were smashed by the time the movie was over, and she was in no condition to be working.

Two times stand out for me in particular from our drunken matinees. One was the time we set an empty bottle on the floor and it rolled all the way down the theater under the seats on the sloping cement ... faster and faster ... man, that was loud! The other time was at the same theater (our favorite). The Cooper was built in 1962 for Cinerama and had smoking lounges on the sides so you could have a cigarette and watch the movie at the same time.


(It has since been torn down to make way for a Border's or Barnes and Noble -I can't remember- such a shame.) Anyway, Jill and I both smoked. Especially when we drank. So we were sitting on the side bench watching "Dangerous Liasons" at 2 in the afternoon, guzzling Big Gulps of Southern Comfort and Coke and puffing away, when I got up to put the empty bottle in the trash can nearby. I'd been sitting in the middle of the bench and Jill was on the end so as soon as I stood the bench flipped and dumped her on the floor. I immediately joined her there, because my knees won't hold me when I'm laughing that hard. There were only about ten people in the movie at that hour, but apparently, "Dangerous Liasons" is not the kind of film most people find funny, so we never did have the nerve to go back to the main part of the theater. We set the bench back upright, finished our drinks, and left before anyone could kick us out.


Monday, September 6, 2010

When a Stranger Calls

"Johnny's Pizza!"

"Didn't I just talk to you on the room service phone at the hotel?"

"Which hotel?"

"Oh, never mind."

Whew! Almost busted again.

I worked for a hotel chain in Florida that had two separate phone lines that both connected to room service. One of them was advertised in the rooms as "Johnny's Pizza," trying to pass itself off as a local pizza restaurant that offered a special service to the hotel, supposedly delivering the pizzas for the room service waiter to bring to their rooms "as a convenience". They didn't exactly come out and say this much, but they put the fear of God in the waiters to never tell the truth about "Johnny" and used some pretty slick advertising. It wouldn't have been quite so bad if the pizza hadn't really sucked. It was just frozen institutional stuff that the waiters baked themselves and I wouldn't be surprised if the box cost the hotel more than the pizza did. Taking a complaint from someone over the phone and pretending not to be the person they just saw five minutes ago is a challenge.

I worked as a room service waiter long before Caller ID or any kind of electronic ordering systems. In the mornings, we relied on something called door hangers that customers filled out some time during the night and hung outside their rooms with their breakfast orders. I remember the nightmare of arriving at the hotel at 5:30 in the morning and taking the elevator to the top floor to begin picking up the hangers to organize the breakfast deliveries. I think the hotel was 17 stories. If I was gonna be in trouble, I usually found out about the time I hit the 12th floor and already had 25 rooms that wanted breakfast delivered at 7:00 a.m. Conventions were notorious for this. Since I was the only waiter (and I still had 10 more floors of orders to pick up) I would start to run, snatching the cards off the doorknobs as I flew by. Like that was gonna save me. Two room service carts will hold breakfast for five or six rooms, tops, depending on how much hot food is in the box and how well you stack the tables, so there might be 12 rooms who aren't totally pissed about when they got their breakfast. Those mornings were like Dead Man Walking. It's one thing to get in the weeds when you're on the floor, but to see it all coming an hour before it even starts is to die a thousand times.

Also, one of the worst things anyone can do to a room service waiter during the morning rush is to return something. From time to time, at the hotel in Florida, salt water would back up into our water lines, and the phone would start ringing with customers who said the coffee tasted "horrible" (it did). We couldn't do anything about the lines - the coffee was just bad - but I'd have to bring up juice or milk to replace it and there'd be all kinds of yelling and complaining. Orders would have to be comped, and that meant no gratuity on top of making two trips to the room. I also had to call all the other rooms that were expecting coffee to find out what they'd like instead. And we all know, there is no substitute for coffee in the morning. Not a legal one, anyway.

The busiest time for room service (breakfast) also coincides with the busiest time for housekeeping. The two departments shared the same service elevator, except housekeeping didn't share. They had a key to lock the elevator on the floor that they were delivering towels or bedding to, so that, after five minutes of frantically waiting for the car to arrive, I'd have to wheel my trays through the restaurant, bar and lobby to the guest elevators, knowing that by this time the food would be so cold that the best I could hope for was that the guest was too angry to eat. For about a month, I did manage to get some use out of the service elevator, but only because the housekeeping staff was afraid to ride in it after getting trapped between floors a few too many times. I had reached the point in waiter hell where plummeting 15 floors in a runaway car couldn't be all that much worse than the wrath I was almost certain to face from my third attempt at delivery of "HOT tea!" I was willing to take my chances if for no other reason than to be put out of my misery.

Even with whatever improvements have been made to room service by virtue of electronic orders (so everyone doesn't wind up ordering breakfast at the same time) there are still some pointers I can offer the potential breakfast room service customer. Don't order anything you're not willing to eat a little on the cool side, and stay away from things like waffles or sunny side up eggs that just don't lend themselves to sitting in a warmer for five or ten minutes. Scrambled eggs and omelets are best for eggs, muffins, biscuits or English muffins hold up better than toast, and you can hardly ever go wrong with yogurt, cereal or grapefruit. Coffee is served in a thermal pot, but often times hot water for tea is served in an identical pot (which makes it taste a little like coffee). It shouldn't be that way, but, "Wish in one hand ..." Although there is a service charge added to the room service bill, it doesn't all go to the waiter, so don't be thinking he's getting rich off traveling all over Hell and half of Georgia with your order of two scones and a pot of decaf. A little extra tip for the mileage on those puny orders doesn't hurt. Finally, if you are going to let your towel "slip" when you answer your hotel room door, please be sure you don't have the kind of body that inspires a lifetime of nightmares.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Working With Professionals

A couple of weeks before the new "gentleman's club" (in this instance, a strip club ... not the kind of gentleman's club I worked in that I've already written about) opened around the corner from our hotel, a meeting was called for all of the front-house food and beverage employees. It was explained to us that "the girls" who worked in the club, as well as the managers and bouncers, would be staying at the hotel and that we should make every effort to assure they felt comfortable and respected. This was apparently a huge chunk of revenue for the hotel they didn't want to lose, so they were taking no chances. As soon as "the girls" began arriving, I could see the reason for the extra caution.

Most of the contact I had with the women who worked in the new club was to nod a brief, "Hello" to them as they left or arrived, except for the ones who were leaving and arriving several times within the late evening, and then I just pretended not to see them. They were always escorted by a beefy male member of the club (bouncers, I'm guessing) and they would usually be gone for 60 to 90 minutes, two or three times a night. Sometimes they sat with the cops - and there were suddenly a lot more of them than the two who usually worked our area. They'd talk for a while at a table, or every once in a while they'd come in with one or two of the boys in blue who had taken them for "a ride in the squad car". It wasn't uncommon to have a customer ask,

"Are they arresting those prostitutes?"

"No, sir. The ladies are guests of the hotel."

"Wow. They sure look like prostitutes."

There was a definite shift in attitude on the part of hotel security, and of course, all of us working in the bar. Time was, we would keep a keen watch for anyone doing business in the lobby. Suddenly it became difficult to tell if the suspected entrepreneur was one of our neighbor's employees, or the freelance variety we used to discourage.

I don't remember the end of the hotel's association with the club. I think it was just a one or two month contract deal until the employees of the new business had time to re-locate. I never went inside the place, but I heard it was pretty swanky and even served decent steaks. The fact that it was next door did cut into some of the money I used to make for calling cabs to take guests to one of the other strip clubs, or making arrangements with another club's limousine service, and it's never great for bar business to have the cops popping in and out all night long.

What I recall most from that time was the feeling of subterfuge. Even though I'd been making arrangements for guys to head off to strip clubs for years (I had all of their phone numbers and addresses memorized), and I'd seen plenty of 'just-walk-on-by-wait-on-the-corner' assignations, this situation had money, power and methodology behind it. It seemed like my job had taken on the aspect of pretending to be a bartender in a hotel, while I was really operating a front for another kind of business entirely. Truth be told, that is probably what I'd been doing all along, but it's a different game when your eyes are open to it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cluck

Just like clothing fashions, there are foods that are wildly popular in restaurants for a brief span of time and then virtually forgotten in a couple of years. Blackened redfish became such a trend in the 1980s that the redfish was in danger of becoming extinct. Sale of redfish is banned in most states in the U.S. even today. Except for making an entire species disappear, I don't see any harm in people getting excited about trying something different. I admit, it could suck if I happened to be working in a restaurant that hadn't caught the new wave of interest quite yet, and it's amazing how nasty some customers can become over even simple things like not finding focaccia bread on the menu in a pancake house, or herbal tea in a bar.

The trends that I remember best were the salad dressings, and I think of them almost as eras in my life as in, "The Catalina Era" or "The Honey Mustard Era". There were also honey-lime, balsamic vinaigrette, creamy peppercorn and caesar and probably a few others I've blocked out. If the restaurant I was working in didn't have one of these during its reign of popularity, everything was "
just ruined" for some diners, and no amount of fresh baked rolls or assorted crackers could console them. Thank God I was too young to wait tables when ranch first came on the scene - the heroin of all salad dressings. I would hate to ever have to tell someone, "We don't serve ranch dressing." Can you imagine the tears?

I mentioned that the trends didn't bug me when I was waiting tables, but as a banquet waiter, I suffered dearly. When one kind of food makes it to superstardom, it becomes the main course of at least half of all banquets being served. That means there is easily a 50% chance that it will become the employee meal of banquet waiters working that season - every freaking day of the season. It's hard enough to deal with all the chicken (it's usually the cheapest thing on the banquet menu so it gets ordered a lot) but when you're eating chicken prepared the exact same way day in and day out, it becomes like prison food. Herb Chicken with Summer Squash Vegetable Medley and Roasted Baby New Potatoes had a run rivaling The Sound of Music on Broadway. I got to where I could barely serve it, let alone eat it. During the Herb Chicken Years, I even nearly ended a relationship before it had a chance to begin because my date made "this new recipe for herb chicken" as a surprise for me the first time I went over to his house. Looking back, I can see why his feelings might have been hurt when I said, "You KNOW I work in banquets! How could you DO this to me?" Chicken is an entirely different food to people with office jobs.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Only Boy

When I switched to working days at the pancake house, I was almost always the only waiter among four to nine waitresses on a shift (we had two dining rooms). Though I was still pretty young, I was growing up fast around these women, fetching birth control pills and tampons out of their purses, helping them pull up their pantyhose, and being the brotherly shoulder to cry on in the women's employee restroom plenty of times. Once, I even re-set a waitresses knee that popped out of its socket. I still can't believe she asked me to do it and that I was stupid enough to try. Thank goodness it popped back in and that I didn't break it.

The gals played plenty of pranks on me, but it was all in fun. Once, Debbie sent me out to one of her tables on the pretense she was too busy to ask a customer, "Are you ready for you Baby Apple?" A smaller version of the German Apple Pancake, usually ordered for dessert, had gotten the nickname "Baby Apple" among some regulars and the staff, but it didn't occur to me just how stupid that sounded until I mentioned it to someone who hadn't even ordered one and didn't have a clue such a thing existed. When I got back to the kitchen Debbie was in a fit of giggles. "Did you see the look on his face? Did you see? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!" That same waitress used to steal a piece of bacon off my side orders sometimes just to get the cooks to yell at me when I said I was short a slice. I knew damn well she had bacon in her pocket, but I didn't tell on her. I liked working with her and she had a fun, off-beat sense of humor. We worked a graveyard shift together once when she gave me five bucks to walk around the dining room with a kids toy wind-up radio on my shoulder, singing along while it played "When You Wish Upon a Star." It was easy money. Woulda taken me at least two tables in that place to make as much.

There was another waitress, Becky, from Alabama. She was really sweet and didn't mean any disrespect at all when she told me that I was the first gay person she'd ever met. Though it made me a little uncomfortable when she'd introduce me to her tables as "My gay friend, Guy," she was a good sport about the pranks I pulled on her. I knew Becky wore half slips, so from time to time, when she had the juice machines as part of her sidework, I'd wait until she climbed up on a milk crate to pour the juice concentrate from a huge carton into the top of the dispenser and I'd run by and yank her half slip down to her knees. The crate was too tall for her to jump down so she'd wail until someone would take the carton out of her hands so she could pull up her slip and climb down. My other favorite was to linger behind a couple or three waitresses when they were gathered together talking and tie their apron strings to each other or to one of the legs of the counter. It was rare to get three at once, but funny as all heck when one or all would start to walk away from the group. They got to where they were so panicked about it that they'd flinch if they saw me walking away and reach back to make sure they weren't attached to anything or each other.

Sometimes we fought like barnyard cats, and those women could swear better than anything I've ever heard at the movies. The fights rarely carried over to the next day because we couldn't afford to let them what with all the grumpy morning customers. The only way to make money on that shift is volume and we had to be able to count on each other. I'm sure I'd have a stroke if I tried to work that hard now, and it's probably just as true now as then that the men in those places really prefer a waitress instead of a waiter with their morning coffee, but I do miss being the token boy in that pink collar world.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fun With Cops

I'm a little stressed right now. I've got a traffic ticket I'm fighting tomorrow in court - no lawyer, just me - for supposedly "following too closely." It's the cop's word against mine, but that doesn't mean I'll win. I'd just feel even worse if I didn't at least stand up for myself. I know that, because I've been on the side of just being a victim with the cops.

Several years ago in Denver, I was working at a downtown restaurant, driving two other waiters home after our shift ended, when I needed to detour around one of the big festivals that was in the process of being set up on the streets. Unfamiliar with the area, I inadvertently turned the wrong way down a one way street. It turned out to be a one way street for one block only, but that block was smack dab in front of the police station. A few seconds later, I saw flashing lights behind me and pulled over. The officer had me and one of my passengers get out of the car while he and his partner frisked us. In my case, the officer put both of his hands in the front pockets of my uniform pants at the same time and groped me, and then grabbed my cash tips for the night and asked, "What is this?" The other waiter said he was also groped. It was a disgusting and humiliating experience, but there was no way to prove it. Still, I've been angry about that for years and I always wish I'd at least stood up for myself in court instead of just paying the fine. I might lose my case tomorrow, but at least I won't be a wimp.

The Body Slammer

It was 28 years ago that I met The Body Slammer. We worked together at a pancake house; she was on the day shift and I worked nights. Every once in a while our shifts would overlap and those were some of the best times I had at that restaurant. I loved to hear her laugh - she's got kind of a husky voice and she can really cut up. She knew I loved Tammy Wynette, and she would strike a pose at the end of the service station and sing just the one line, "Staaaand by your maaaan!" and then crack up. She used to tell me stories about the older day waitresses that would have me in stitches, too, like when one of them was walking out of the service area and didn't see the buscart that was blocking the entrance. The cart was about waist high, and stopped the waitress, but it didn't stop the tray of cheeseburgers she was carrying and it went sailing out into the dining room - packed for lunch hour - like a flying saucer. Another time, one waitress we both liked was waiting on the founder of the restaurant with the board of directors. He'd ordered the fried chicken special for lunch and told her, "Carol, this chicken is cold." She said, "Just like a picnic!" and the board spent 20 minutes trying to decide if she was a great waitress because she had a quick and cheerful comeback, or if she was a smart-alec and needed to be written up.

The Body Slammer is a year older than I, but we did go out drinking a little before I was actually supposed to. When I turned 21, she went with me to The London House, a popular nightclub at the time that had three different sections: A disco, a big band dance floor (with an actual live big band), and a lounge. We got drunk as skunks, and stumbled our way back up Colorado Boulevard to our apartments when the bar closed, laughing all the way. Back then, we used to drink pretty often but not always together because of our different shifts. When I could, I'd join her at La Plaza for two-for-one happy hour, and if she worked a graveyard shift, she might come out with the rest of the wait staff to open the bar at Coco's. They could start serving liquor at 7:00 a.m. (maybe it was 8:00) and one Sunday (still Saturday night for us) I had way too many Manhattans there. There's just nothing quite like being drunk when the church crowd starts coming in. I had to work that night - Lord, I was hungover - and the cooks all knew it. When I'd go back in the service area to pick up an order, they'd ring their bell, bang on pans and wrap their arms around each other's shoulders singing, "Staaaand by your Manhattan!"


I just got in touch with The Body Slammer again through Facebook. It's been a long time since we've seen each other, and I'm glad we're going to be able to catch up. She moved back to North Dakota, married, raised kids and divorced, and I moved to Texas (and didn't do much of anything except get old). We haven't talked on the phone yet - different schedules and all - but we're fixing to. Her friendship meant so much to me when I was just getting on my feet in that big city, and yet I never did find out how she got that nickname.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Deliah

Deliah was a drama student at the University of Colorado who worked as a waitress to pay her living expenses while she was in school. She was a terrible waitress, but a nice young woman, prone to extremely dramatic moments, usually when talking to one of her tables while completely oblivious to the other five tables in her station. She'd get so wound up in her stories, her arms would fly all around her expressively and more than once knock something off another waiter's tray or hit someone in the head. Her customers were always asking the other waiters about their food, or even if they could order. Deliah couldn't be distracted from her performances.

The cooks at the restaurant where we worked insisted on black ink on all the tickets, and one night when Deliah and I were at the hostess stand picking up charge slips with our ticket folders, I noticed the pen had been switched out of my folder and replaced with one with blue ink. I always carried two or three pens, but I noticed Deliah had my pen so I said, "Is this your little pen with the blue ink, 'cos I think you've got one of my Bics." In one of the loudest stage voices I've heard, Deliah said, "I HAVE A BIG BLACK BIC!" and when I started laughing, she slapped me. It was worth it to hear people at their tables giggling - I guess we all had dirty minds - and the slap didn't really hurt.

Slime Dog

I worked a little in food service before I was a waiter; Taco Bell and a ball park concession stand every summer for five years and my first "real" restaurant job as a dishwasher at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour in Eugene, Oregon. Farrell's is getting popular again, at least in some areas (I don't think the one I worked at is there any more) and in the 1970s it was a really big deal. They have a full food menu, but their specialty is gay 90s era ice cream soda fountain creations served in real silver dishes and heavy beveled glass. The whole staff dressed in black and whites with "straw" hats (they were really Styrofoam) that had red, white and blue bands on them. The overall effect was sorta like an indoor political rally for William McKinley (or William Jennings Bryan, if you were a Democrat like my ancestors).

To make the atmosphere especially festive, there were constant pranks played on the customers: A large ice cream sundae called "The Trough" was served in a silver boat resting in a wooden caddy made to look like a pig's trough, and the dishwasher, bussers and cooks were enlisted to grunt and snort in the microphone whenever one was served. Also, announcements would be made over the P.A. telling folks there was "a blue car in the parking lot" to get people up, thinking they'd left their lights on. The best known of all the antics was the serving of what was called, "The Zoo." It was a huge silver bowl with several scoops of various flavors of ice cream and sherbet, covered with bananas, cherries, whipped cream, nuts, and little plastic animals (until, I understand, someone choked on a giraffe and they had to stop doing that). The Zoo served 8 people and was presented by two runners carrying it (running with it, literally) all over the restaurant on a gurney while someone played a bass drum and sirens wailed. I was often one of the runners.

The silly stuff about the job was fun. I was only 16, and I hadn't gotten bitter yet. The job itself was really hard, though. The real silver dishes held on to their heat from the dish machine, and they were painful to handle. The dishwashers were called "Slime Dog" because our aprons were always covered in slime from the food and ice cream (we took these off when we ran food), and the job was lonely. Only one dishwasher worked each shift and they worked constantly, so there wasn't much human contact beyond, "Slime Dog, we need more soda spoons!" Also, the only black shoes I owned were platform heels and my feet would ache like crazy after a shift.

I didn't work at Farrell's for very long. I got a job in an office and I thought I'd never work in restaurants again. Silly me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Embracing Change

"A little integrity is better than any career."
-Ralph Waldo Emmerson


I was a banquet captain for several years, and it was probably the best suited I was to any of the work I've done. I enjoyed being the contact point between clients, waiters, management, sales, kitchen and housemen. I was a "working" captain, too, so I was part of the wait and bar staff and I think that made the connection we had as a team even stronger. Until Russell came along.


Russell was always complaining about something. If it meant being asked to French serve rolls or not liking a more complicated napkin fold, he'd bitch and get the rest of the staff wound up, blaming me for making too much work. Didn't matter that we had the time and the cost of the meal demanded something extra; he resented me being the one who suggested it. He spent a lot of time sucking up to the new banquet manager, gossiping and telling jokes and she was completely enamored of him. I knew what he said behind her back, and that he was just brown-nosing, and I heard from my staff that he liked to find fault with the schedules I made or how a room was diagrammed, but I didn't know until later that he wanted my job.

To this day, I'm not certain if it was Russell's suggestion, or the banquet manager thought of it herself, but one afternoon she told me that the hotel would like to "promote" me to Banquet Supervisor on a salary because they were phasing out my position. It would have meant a substantial cut in pay and I would no longer be part of the wait and bar staff. I said I didn't want the job and resigned, so Russell stepped up to the plate. At least I had the satisfaction of hearing about how miserably he failed - and how hard he worked (that was the best part!) He'd always thought it was so easy to hold it all together with the different departments, but he turned out to be a much better critic than a performer. He lasted about four months.

It sucked to leave the job on a sour note but the important thing was leaving. I was in a no-win situation, and it was time to get out. No use holding on to how good the job had been. We accept the things we can't change and change what we can (if it needs changing). I've dealt with a couple of Russell-types in my life, but my answer is always to just walk away. The truth comes out eventually, and there's some redemption in that. In the meantime, there's no sense flogging a dead horse.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Balloons

I've blown up a lot of balloons in my years of working banquets (thank goodness for those helium tanks, or I'd have never made it) and while not appropriate for every occasion, they do a nice job of filling out a room and adding color to New Year's Eve parties and birthdays. It's funny that, even though balloons are relatively cheap, at the end of the night there's almost always someone who wants to "save" them. More power to them, but I wonder how they ever drive with a car full of 'em (more on that later) and, well, what they get out of having balloons in their house. I guess I just don't have a balloon-type apartment.

One night after a huge party when we had dozens of balloons left over, the banquet staff decided it would be cool to let them all go at once from the loading dock of the hotel. About six of us gathered together all the balloons we could each fit down the hallway, wrapped around our wrists, and on the count of three let them all go into the sky. As we watched them sail over the nearby buildings, Alice said, "You know, it kills the birds, honey. They choke on 'em." I didn't know about the bird thing, but from that moment, I've have never, ever intentionally let go of another balloon outside. Which led me to my own experience of trying to drive with a car full of balloons.

I decided that it would be nice to give a bunch of balloons to the kids at Children's Hospital (which was pretty close to the hotel I was working at) that we had left over from a function. They were all brightly colored and I seem to remember a lot of purple ones, and lots of kids like purple, it would be a great surprise for them in the morning ....I had build the idea up pretty well by the time I started my drive in my little hatchback to the hospital ten blocks away. The balloons wouldn't fit in the car, so I held them outside the window.

I know.

Or, at least I know now. My God those things nearly beat me to death after the first two blocks. I just never imagined that kind of wind force. I wound up parking the car and - determined more now than ever - decided to walk the rest of the way to the hospital. It was about Midnight, but I was so focused on my mission, I didn't think what kind of a spectacle I might make walking through the streets of uptown Denver in a tuxedo with a huge bunch of balloons. In the block just before I reached my destination, I was met by a group of young women who wanted to know where I was dancing.

"Dancing?"

They thought I was a birthday stripper.

(Oh, and it turns out Children's can't let kids have balloons in the rooms, but they do give them out when they go home with parental permission, so it wasn't a total bust, but I didn't try it again.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Human Touch

"Honey, we've been at this so long, Margie and I waited on The Last Supper."
-Phyllis


I don't have a lot of experience using computers to wait tables. I know it's been pretty common for the last 20 years or so, but I managed to dodge around their introduction into the service industry by switching over to banquets, working in mom and pops or doing off-site catering. I was around for the early years of them (it was a mess!) and I did get back into waiting after they had become standard at the end of my career.

The first terminals I worked with were pretty simple, but it wasn't long before the entire operation of the restaurant was controlled by the computer. If it went down - everything stopped. The cash register wouldn't open, orders couldn't be rung, waiters couldn't clock in or out. And nobody had the sense God gave a pig to have a backup plan for any of it. Our managers were so intimidated by the corporate office that they wouldn't let us just write a ticket or call an order, and in those early years, the computers went down all the time.

One of the saddest casualties of the computer invasion was my very favorite cook at the pancake house, Beau. We used a ticket that had a box on it for every item, and a little bit of space to write special order abbreviations in standard waiter slang. There were about 130 items on that ticket and Beau had memorized where every one of them was, because he couldn't read. I don't think a lot of people knew it, but he confessed it to me when they were first talking about getting rid of the tickets. We didn't stay in touch after he left, and I don't know if he ever did learn to read or what he wound up doing, but he was a really great cook and I loved working with him.

I know the point of sale (POS) system is supposed to help out with inventory and, for a certain style of bartender or cook, it is probably easier to deal with than actually talking to a waiter, but I miss the old days of calling stuff "on the fly" when I needed it quick and the rhythm of working with people instead of just working in the same building as they did. I know some people wrote a lousy ticket, and I know some cooks and bartenders could be jerks and ignore or "not hear" some orders, but for me, it beat the heck out of searching through screen after screen for "modifiers" and I could sure write:

G/T
J/C
MAN X
Dew/ spl

faster than I could find the keys for GIN add TONIC, BOURBON, JACKDANIELS, add COKE, MANHATTAN/ ON THE ROCKS and DEWARS, add SPLASH OF WATER. And I could write it while they ordered or on the way to the bar. I didn't need to find a terminal. By the time I'd typed in my order I could have served two tables. When I was cocktailing, I mostly just called the drinks when I put up the ticket and the bartender didn't even read it - he'd just red-line it.

The other thing I don't like about using a computer in a bar or restaurant to place orders is that order changes or sometimes coupons or discounts need to be handled by a manager, and managers were the least dependable of all the people I worked with in almost any place I worked. If they weren't locked up in their office, they were outside smoking or wandering around someplace where nobody could seem to find them. The longer I had to wait for manager, the angrier my customers would be and the less money I'd make. Two circumstances like that would sandbag my whole night: Say, one table had a birthday coupon for 50% off and I needed the Rib-eye taken off someone's ticket because the kitchen didn't let us know it was 86'd. Could be ten minutes lost right there when it used to be just as simple as crossing something off the ticket, and while I understand management's fear that people might take advantage of the system, that system worked just fine for at least a century before.

There's a win and lose to both, but one method plays the hand from the assumption that waiters steal, inventory control takes priority over service, and automated communication is more efficient than face to face contact. I could pace my tables and communicate better with the kitchen in person. When you put a machine in between the waiter and their cook, or their customer, you've lost something that can't be immediately quantified, but eventually amounts to less camaraderie among the employees, more red tape and a less intimate dining experience for customers.There might not be specific column for those on an accountant's spread sheet, but that doesn't mean they don't show up in the bottom line.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ice-breaker

When I was 21 years old, I moved back to my home town and got a job working at what was - for my home town - a kinda fancy restaurant. It was listed in the local "Gourmet Restaurant Coupon Book" and they had Surf and Turf on the menu, so if you didn't look too close, and you didn't know they made the base for the lobster bisque by boiling the caps of the old ketchup bottles, you might think it wasn't half bad. The first night I showed up for work, I was the only employee in the front of the house. All the waiters and bussers had chosen that time to quit, so there was no training ... nothing but a really frantic owner calling people on the phone and trying to find out why they weren't at work. I wound up just winging it - reading the menu right along with the customers.

The cooks were really nice to me, though one of them was also especially flirty. I wasn't exactly sure if I was gay or not -- pretty sure, but not really out, and not dating. The flirty cook was the sous chef, Rodney, and he was probably about the age I am now, late 40s, when I worked with him. He loved to make suggestive comments about menu items - double entendre kind of stuff - and goose me or surprise me in the walk-in cooler. He wasn't threatening and he was so good-humored, I didn't mind, even if I did blush from head to toe sometimes.

The best prank he ever played on me was on a night I was opening the restaurant for dinner. We were closed for a couple of hours after lunch, but I'd come in a half hour before re-opening to set up the salad bar - a huge red curtained pagoda in the middle of the room - and make sure the tables were all in order. All the various salads were stored in the walk-in, so I wheeled a rolling table in to gather them up to set out in the crushed ice around the perimeter of the pagoda. (Rodney always filled up the ice ahead to support whatever ice sculpture he had carved for the evening's centerpiece.) This particular night, I had brought the salads out to the dining room, and pulled back the curtain to reveal an enormous phallus. Made completely from ice ( and with remarkable detail) it must have been over two feet tall. Rodney couldn't have hoped for a better reaction when I dropped the curtain and let out a shriek. He was hiding around the corner in the bus station, laughing so hard he'd rolled himself up in a ball. When he recovered, I think he turned the sculpture into a dolphin, but I was always a little apprehensive after that about what I'd find behind the curtain.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cheap Labor

Some restaurants take advantage of the fact that waiters only make 2 bucks an hour by piling on all kinds of extra sidework. Depending on how close it was to time to pay rent or how tight the job market was, I might put up with it for a while, but I usually wound up refusing, or just quitting. A lot of what determined if what was being asked of me was excessive depended on how much money I was making, the size of the business and how well they treated me.

I worked for a hotel that had, of course, a full housekeeping staff that regularly cleaned the community areas of the hotel, bar and restaurant until management decided they needed to cut back on labor costs. They cut the hours of the housekeeping department and made the waiters do the work at the end of our shift. Not only did the waiters not like cleaning for 2 bucks an hour, we didn't want to take hours away from our friends in housekeeping, so we made sure we did a really crappy job of it. The vacuum cleaner was always mysteriously breaking and we were forever losing the brass polish . . . Once, my friend Jill and I got busted for just leaving the vacuum cleaner running in the middle of the restaurant while we went to the break room to have a cigarette. The manager's office was in a little broom closet around the corner, and we figured so long as she heard the vacuum running, she'd never check to see if the floor was clean. I still think it would have worked, but we didn't count on her needing to use the restroom.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"It's not a gun, it's a wine opener"

Quinceaneras are coming out balls for Latinas, held on their 15th birthday. They were some of the most elaborate parties I ever worked: 15 tiers of cake usually stair-stepped with seven tiers on each side leading up to a beautiful cake top and sometimes incorporating fountains or other props, 15 "bridesmaids" with 15 different colors of dresses, and the quince girl dressed in a white gown - just like a wedding gown - with a tiara. There would be a mariachi band and a rock 'n' roll dance band that alternated, with the mariachis roving around the room. And all the time, the Mexican Mafia in their black suits standing guard. Or at least we knew them as that, but also by another name I can't remember right now. I don't know if they were the Mexican Mafia. They were more like very solemn escorts that we knew carried guns, but not so they were showing. They stood at all the entrances to the room from the outside, the hallways and the kitchen and never ate, drank, talked or smiled. In a way, it was a comfort to have them there, but in the back of my mind I was always afraid I'd drop something or move wrong and wind up getting shot.

I wonder now at the expense that went into these parties, the wealth in those families, and all the kind of underworld stuff that was going on that we just ignored. The hotel where this took place was a kind of front for other properties and there were questionable details about who actually owned what. Sometimes there would be so much merchandise from another new property that had been acquired stored in our hallways and kitchen that we could barely move, and other times we'd be scrambling to find a teaspoon because all the equipment was needed "at another property." We were paid in cash, and we didn't ask questions. Even now, I'd be uncomfortable revealing too much about who, where and what was involved.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Televised Sports

"Hi ladies. Would you like to watch "National Tractor Pull" or "World Wide Wrestling" tonight?"

I worked in a hotel bar when big screen TVs first came on the market. At first, my boss rented movies and showed them over and over, but we got so many complaints from regular customers about the same films always showing or from people who didn't like coming in on the middle of a movie that he decided the TV was exclusively for sports. Didn't matter if the Academy Awards was on. Probably wouldn't matter if martians had attacked Kentucky. It had to be sports - or we'd be fired. Really, he was that much of a jerk.

Come late night hours on a Wednesday or Thursday, there's not usually much to choose from and the patrons of that bar - closer to the theater and business district - were decidedly un-sports-like, older and usually international. This was before all of the cable and satellite stuff so mostly, the volume was off on the TV and people just pretended like it wasn't there.

Years later, I worked one of the oddest cocktail receptions of my career in the suite of another hotel while folks gathered around the television watching the O.J. Simpson low-speed chase through L.A. Talk about a subdued crowd.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Got Milk?

I'm really good at putting my foot in my mouth now, but it didn't used to happen that often. I don't think it was that I didn't notice it ... I really think I was smarter, or more sensitive, or just more articulate. Mostly. Because there was one morning, halfway into a double shift at House of Pies, I remember embarrassing myself so badly that I felt like my hair would melt off.

I was waiting on a table of three young mothers with three very young children, ranging in age from about one to two and half years old. They were sitting at a booth and I had already served food to them when I went back to refill coffee. One of the kids, a darling little blonde girl, was seated next to her mom at my left side as I went around with the pot of coffee. She was smearing chocolate cream pie all over her face and I laughed and said, "Looks like a good time to me!" Except by the time the end of that sentence had gotten out of my mouth, I was looking into the eyes of the woman on the right side of booth who was at that moment breast-feeding her child. Of course, I don't have any issues about breast feeding and she was being very discrete. So discrete that I hadn't even noticed until I made a jackass out of myself by appearing to indicate her baby was having the kind of "good time" that I would like to enjoy myself. My face was hot as I tried to explain that I was talking about the girl on the other side of the table, but the more I stuttered, the more I just made myself look like it was the first time I'd even seen a woman feeding her child.

Not to tempt fate, but these days when I'm goofy, I can always look back on that "good time" and be thankful that at least now, people don't usually think I'm hitting on lactating women.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Last Impressions

Did you read about the Jet Blue flight attendant who got fed up with his job (last straw, a passenger wouldn't stay seated, cussed at him and hit him on the head) so he said some dirty words on the microphone, grabbed a couple of beers and his carry-on luggage, activated the automatic slide and exited the plane? I don't think I'd ever have the nerve to do it, but I can sure understand the desire.

I worked with a cocktail waitress who said her fantasy was to win the Lottery and then go around applying for jobs in cocktail lounges. She said she'd work until one of the customers was rude to her and then she'd pour a large glass of tomato juice on their head. She wanted to have enough money that she could move to several different cities and do this over and over again.

The best way I ever quit a job was when the restaurant I worked at scheduled me for days they had already given me off for my second job. It was around Christmas, so I left a message with my answering service that, if my employer called to give them this message: "'Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la. I quit."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

It's Supposed To Taste Bad

Our new food and beverage manager, Carol, was eager to make some changes. It didn't matter to her or the brilliant general manager who promoted her from the front desk that she had never worked in any capacity of food and beverage in her life - not even as a cashier at Dairy Queen - she was gonna straighten things out, particularly in the banquet department.

One of Carol's first moves was to get rid of the coffee that all of our customers loved and replace it with Starbucks. At the time, Starbucks was what all the yuppies were lusting after - the status symbol of coffee drinkers who didn't really like coffee in the first place, but sure liked holding that Starbucks cup so everyone could see how "hip" they were. Starbucks' banquet/institutional coffee service demands that only Starbucks' equipment is used, coffee is never to sit on any kind of warmer, and that it be served using Starbucks' own thermal pots, so we had to practically re-design the whole banquet kitchen to accommodate the switch. An early clue as to how successful this change was going to be could be found in the training Starbucks provides to waiters to convince customers that their coffee is actually "higher quality" than the coffee that the customer prefers. It's essentially a convoluted way of telling them they don't know their butt from a bulldog.

You know the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Well, Carol didn't. Half of the comments we got from clients were complaints about the coffee. It wasn't just because Starbucks coffee is bitter (it is), it was that it didn't stay warm in the pots they provided (that we were required by contract to use) and the pots were unwieldy (probably 20 inches tall) so they made it nearly impossible to serve at a round top without pulling the cup and saucer completely away from the table (dangerous in banquet service) and the pots leaked. (We learned the hard way: Pouring from a pot that tall put the bottom of the pot in the face of the patron to the right, sometimes clipping them on the chin, and caused the pot to drip on their plate.) Bitter, lukewarm coffee poured from a leaking pot is really hard to sell as "higher quality" to anyone, let alone groups that had been meeting regularly at our hotel for years and were perfectly happy (even pleased) with the coffee we had been serving all along until the status queen showed up.

There are some very basic first rules to a successful banquet: Good coffee, good bread, and a full water glass. If you've got all those things going for you, you can screw up a lot and still manage to please most of your customers. By the time Carol went on maternity leave (to give birth to her designer baby, no doubt), she had all but destroyed the client base we had by getting rid of the homemade bread rolls in favor of some brand name earth grain crap that had to be warmed and was frequently found to be molding upon delivery, and imposing her Starbucks fetish on the department. The waiters were so busy dealing with complaints about the bread and coffee, they barely had time to pay attention to anything else. Even stranger is that the new bread and coffee were so much more expensive than what we had been serving, but the new stuff had brand names Carol thought were more "in line with the clientele we would like to attract."

Carol exemplified the shift in those yuppie years from integrity to pretentious phoniness that still prevails, and not just in food and beverage. One of the last full time jobs I had was in sales, and I was under pressure to perform to a strict quota. I explained to my manager that I was looking for features in the product that I could sincerely identify as valuable to my clients. He said, "Oh I can help you with that. I have some sales pitches that sound really sincere." You know, that boy will probably never understand the difference.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bend Me, Shape Me

I hate it when people start re-arranging the furniture in a bar where I'm working. Especially the people who push round tables together to make a larger table. Jesus wept, I barely made it through geometry the second time and I know better than to do that. Inevitably, you'll wind up with a situation where a bunch of drunks are trapped in a conglomeration of tables that looks something like a diagram of a complex protein chain. The waiter can only reach 5 or 6 people out of a group of 16 and everyone at the table is too self-absorbed, oblivious or drunk to make any effort to pass drinks down to the folks they've blocked in. Stuff gets spilled, other people can't get past the mega-table, and the waiter loses seating for half the bar because eight tables that could have sat four each have now become one table that seats 16. People wind up sitting farther away from each other than if they'd sat at the original tables, so they're not really "together" anyway, and the new arrangement makes it hell to wait on them or anyone else.

On the upside, one year when I was working as a cocktailer, I won a limbo contest because it was part of my job on a daily basis to literally bend over backwards for people.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Fool

I had a crush on a guy I had briefly dated, but never seemed to get over. We both contributed to the twisted un-relationship we had, him telling me, "It's not that I want to go out with you. I just don't want you to go out with anyone else." And me saying, "I just want you to ask me out so I can tell you no." Looks bizarre from a distance, but it was True Love while I was in it. Anyway, I said that to say this: The guy I liked had a roommate who was the most annoying, whiney and helpless thing I'd ever met. We'd all be out at the bars together and inevitably, the roommate had to go home because he felt dizzy, or didn't want to use the restrooms in the bar or spilled something on his shirt, etc. Of course, he couldn't drive himself home, so I'd wind up alone.

One night, we were all gonna have coffee after hours, and whiney-boy had too much beer (probably two of 'em) and was complaining that he couldn't walk. I didn't want to miss out on spending time with my crush, so I said, "Here, I'll carry you." I picked him up (he outweighed me by about 40 pounds) and took a few steps on the wet pavement and slipped. I went down - him on top of me - landing on my knee, turned sideways. I didn't know I'd fractured it at the time. I was too busy trying to calm him down, first because his neck hurt, then his back hurt, then his head hurt. Brother. We all went to coffee. I was limping a little, but I thought it would pass. I went home that night about 3:30 and woke up at 6:00 with my knee about twice normal size and every shade of purple imaginable. Right away, I called the hotel and told them I didn't think I'd be able to make it to work that night. (I had to use a bar stool for a walker to get around my apartment since I didn't own crutches. I think of that every time I hear Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if ..." ) Turns out, I was in a full cast, non-weight-bearing for four months. Even after I got the cast off, I wound up working PBX for a couple of months because I couldn't put much weight on the knee. Twenty years later, I still have trouble with it.

One of the first gigs I got sidelining outside of the hotel after I was back on my feet was at Coors, working for ARA, a huge concessions conglomerate that handles convention centers and the like. I was told the job involved some "light cooking" and I said I thought I could handle that. 30 minutes into the shift, I called the food and beverage director of ARA and told her, "I will never, ever, ever and forever work for you again. Barbecued chicken for 300 people is NOT 'light cooking'! I don't even know how to make this for ONE person, let alone 300!" She asked me if I was walking out and I said I didn't do that. I'd finish the job I contracted for, but she was a liar, and she should be ashamed of herself. And she needed to tell me how to cook the damn chicken. In addition to preparing the chicken, I baked cookies and put together tossed salad and filled bowls with potato salad, set up the buffet (including the tables), bussed, broke everything down and washed the dishes (pans and serving stuff, since it was all paper plates). I was working with one other "waiter" who told me about some place he worked once where they had people who "didn't do nothin' but wash dishes all day." I don't think he got out much.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

An Unfamiliar Face

Most customers don't know what you look like.

Sure, there are the occasional few who leave greeting cards on the windshield of your car or look up your number out of the phone book, but I always think of those as stalkers who just happened to have eaten at one of my tables. The real customers wouldn't know me from Adam. Or Eve.

To prove this point, one night Suzy, a waitress I worked with at the pancake house, smeared fudge sauce all over her face, sprayed on some whipped cream eyebrows and stuck a cherry on the end of her nose (I think she had sprinkles on her cheeks, too) and brought a fresh pot of coffee out to her new table.

"Hi folks, how are you tonight? May I start you off with some coffee?"

Barely a nod and a grunt. They kinda motioned at their cups (I guess that was to make sure she didn't pour it in her shoes) but they never even looked up at her. When she walked back to the service area, we were all practically falling down from laughter. Suzy just wiped her face off and walked back out on the floor to take their order.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Would You Like To Hear Me Drink?

I worked a wedding reception at a country club where the bride's family were members. I think the family sent champagne back to the kitchen employees because the dishwashers had gotten drunk toward the last half of the event. About every 30 minutes they would stand at the entrance to the kitchen and sing "Happy Birthday" in thick Spanish accents. Nobody sent them home, because nobody wanted to wash dishes.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Shiny Happy Syrups

Have you ever been in one of those restaurants that had the flavored syrups on the table? Apricot, strawberry, blackberry and blueberry were the flavors at the restaurant where I worked. (In theory, anyway, because when you've been working all day and you've got to fill those damn things up as part of your sidework, it is really easy not to give a rat's ass whether the blueberry winds up getting mixed in with the blackberry or vice versa. Most people just taste by color anyway.) It's probably more accurate to say that that's what the labels on the dispensers read.

Syrups were supposed to be poured into buckets every week, the clear glass syrup dispensers run through the dishwasher and dried and then refilled and set out on the table. Never mind there were four of them on every table and each waiter had about 12 or 13 tables, and there were 12 or 13 sugar caddies to be filled and wiped down with the black dots on the edge of the sugar packets all facing the same way (who even knew there were black dots on those packets?) and exactly ten Sweet'n'Lows lined up on the edge of them, salt and peppers to replenish and an ungodly amount of cleaning, refilling and prepping to do in the back (Oh, God, please don't let me have salad station again!) The dispensers were filled from plastic buckets that were filled from industrial sized cans of syrup that were kept in the store room - half way to Kansas. In spite of the obviously over-the-edge, split-nerve Magic Marker scrawl on each syrup bucket notifying us which one was the BLACKBERRY!!! or BLUEBERRY ONLY PLEASE!!!! those two were always getting confused, and about every three weeks a manager or an over-achieving new waitress would 'discover' that the syrups were mixed and ALL of the blackberry and blueberry syrups on the tables had to be dumped and refilled.

That thing about pouring out, cleaning, drying and refilling was the 'procedure' but here's what usually happened: One waitress would keep a lookout for the manager or stall them in the office over some personal problem. During this brief window of opportunity, food service would come to a halt while the rest of the wait staff would grab the syrups, caddy and all, off of their tables, load them on flat racks and send them all through the dishwasher with the syrup still in them. They came out looking really clean. Then we'd fill the ones that needed filling, put them back on the tables and save ourselves and the company about 30 minutes each on the clock. (Hey, at $2.01 an hour, that can add up!) The downfall to this system was that eventually the syrups, after having been exposed to 180 degree heat, would begin to ferment. Sometimes, this would be apparent in the tiny bubbles that started to gather at the top of the dispenser or they might foam over a little - particularly the ones at the tables by the windows that had already done a little ripening on their own. I remember one Sunday in particular when one of our regular customers, a mentally challenged young adult woman, yelled across the dining room at our manager, "HEY JANE! THESE SYRUPS TASTE JUST LIKE BEER!" Apricot, strawberry and blue-blackberry beer.

Sooooo, everyone had to gather all their syrups off their tables, pour them down the sink, and refill them. Inevitably, some of the blackberry pitchers would be filled with blueberry, and some of the blueberry with blackberry and some with a combination of both that had already been mixed when the buckets had been refilled. And then the whole thing would start all over again.

Just a word to the wise: It's a good idea to stay away from any condiment that remains on a table through bar rush. If you've got to use one of them, at least unscrew the lid and look inside first, 'cos there's no telling what some drunk might have done to it.