Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Take a chance, Columbus did

When I was 20 years old, I rode a Greyhound bus to Denver with two suitcases, a sleeping bag and 300 bucks. I wasn't going on vacation; I was moving. I chose Denver because my car had broken down there the year before and it turned out to be a pretty easy place to find a job, my Mom had a friend that lived there (so I knew I could stay at least 2 or 3 nights with her), and there wasn't any work back home in Oregon. I found out right away that I didn't have enough money for an apartment. Even 30 years ago, 300 bucks wouldn't cover rent and deposit, and I didn't have any more money coming in. Luckily, I'd given the number of my Mom's friend to a gal that said she "might" be moving to Denver, and the day after I arrived she gave me a call and we found a place we could rent together. But I still needed a job.

I wasn't particular about what I would do to make money, but I didn't have much in the way of experience to offer anyone. I had done some office work, telephone soliciting, and fast food. I'd even been a hasher in a sorority. A hasher is the "boy" who serves "the girls" their meals, and listens for them to ring the little bell next to their place setting when they want anything - even more water from the pitcher that is sitting right in front of them. A hasher job basically paid in a free meal each night I worked and (I think) 15 dollars a week for five 2-hour shifts.

Anyway, back to my job hunt. The day we got our keys to the apartment, I walked up the street and started filling out applications: McDonald's first, then a movie theater, and then I walked into a family style restaurant and applied for: Waiter, Busboy, Host, or Dishwasher (I was pretty sure I couldn't be a cook). Years later, the woman who hired me said she could tell I didn't have any experience, but she'd never seen anyone so desperate for a job in her life. She hired me as a waiter. That was how I identified myself for most of my adult life.

I must have had just enough money to buy the uniform - all brown polyester - and I remember practicing how to walk. I'd always had a wiggle when I walked, and I was sure that I'd be ridiculed for it. Funny how that comes back now, but I know the walking part was a big source of stress for me. At that time, I didn't even know I was gay, but I'd been called gay enough (and a lot of that had to do with the way I walked) that I didn't wanna risk getting in trouble. Even after I came out, there was a long time before I stopped worrying about being called "faggot" or being mistreated because I was gay.

Besides butching up my walk, I also had to learn how to carry shoulder trays. The hardest part was picking them up correctly. I practiced expediting the other waiters' (actually they were all waitresses except one other guy) food until I felt pretty safe, though I still had a couple of accidents. I followed waitresses, learned how to write and hang orders (no computers yet), and bussed tables for five days. Finally, one of the waitresses I'd made friends with said, "They're not gonna keep you unless you start picking up some of your own tables." I was terrified. I didn't know how I was ever going to get up the courage to speak to people. So far, I felt lucky just not to be called names or be laughed at.

It turned out to be a real baptism by fire when my second customer ordered a chopped beef steak that (I would later find out) was just about a sure-fire guarantee to piss people off. I think it was mule meat. I delivered the steak to my customer - table four, I remember - and came back to check on him a couple of minutes later. Boy howdy. Red in the face and half standing in his booth, he had stabbed the meat with his fork and was waving it at me screaming, "Taste this! Taste this!" I'd never seen a middle-aged man have a tantrum in public before, and I wasn't all that comfortable even speaking to him, let alone handling that kind of outburst. Somehow, I got through it and days turned to weeks, to months and to years of learning to console, respond to, or avoid similar circumstances. In that time, I eventually became pretty outgoing, or at least I learned to fake it pretty well.

This is my first post on my first blog. I haven't waited tables in a number of years, but I wanna use this as a place to look back on those years in food and beverage - over 20 of them - and perhaps also share a little of my life after waiting. I decided to write this after reading some of the blogs of others who are still waiting, and hopefully I'll have links to those later on. It's interesting to read the passion in their posts and to recall how overwhelming some shifts could be. I responded to a few of them, but I realized, we're coming at this from different angles. Those folks are still in there doing battle every day, and my stories are all old, and the wounds have mostly healed. I am from their tribe but - for now - I am off the floor.

1 comment:

  1. Aw, I'm at the end of your blog. I found it through Passive Aggressive Notes and clicked because you're from Austin and I grew up there. I moved away two years ago and miss it like crazy. Even though I've never been a waitress, I've eaten at lots and lots of restaurants!

    My worst story is about one of the first times I went out just myself and a friend. I was treating her, but I was flustered about paying and tipping the correct amount and I got mixed up and gave the waiter $25 when the bill was $35. He was so gentle and subtle about pointing it out. I will always be grateful for his tact, and hopeful it was a small enough incident in his mind that he doesn't remember!