Saturday, July 31, 2010


I worked at a few different Village Inn Pancake House restaurants in Denver, where the chain is based. (One night I worked at three of them, starting at 5 in the afternoon and ending at 7 in the morning.) There were so many in town that were corporate owned, so I was still working for the same company and there was no need to reapply. It was just agreed that whichever chain "borrowed" you after you went over 40 hours would pay the overtime.

After about six months of working at my first Village Inn, I transferred to another that was, at the time, the busiest one in the nation. I was scheduled either swing or graveyard shift, and there was a host there that I thought was dreamy. Only just beginning to wonder if I was gay, I didn't completely understand the crush I had on Wayne, but ... oh, my. He was Latino, kinda little (but he had the biggest hair that was feathered back and he wore huge platform shoes, so that made us about the same height) and I loved his crushed velvet jackets and pencil thin mustache. He was also about five years older than me, so he seemed very mature. I was only 20 at the time.

One night, Wayne and I went out drinking at a couple of the popular discos. After we had gotten a little drunk, he wanted to go to a strip bar on Broadway called Nathan's. I'd never been in one. Technically, I wasn't old enough to be in any bar in Denver unless it was a beer joint, 'cos 18 was only drinking age for 3.2 beer at the time and for liquor you had to be 21, but I looked old for my age. I didn't own a car, so we took Wayne's, an early 70s Monte Carlo (or maybe a Cutlass) with a couple of the windows busted out in back that Wayne had covered with clear heavy plastic and duct tape. The car had character.

Nathan's was a real dive with expensive watered down drinks, and the strippers danced completely nude. These were middle-aged women, mostly, and I remember them being a little on the chunky side. They would get quarters from the customers to put in the juke box and walk around on a couple of the pool tables to songs like "Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay" or "There is a Tavern in the Town" with about the most bored expression on their face possible. Wayne was really into it. He kept buying drinks for the women, and before I knew it we had two or three of them sitting at or on our table. When the bar closed, we decided to go for breakfast at a popular cafe I would end up working at myself a few years later, but on the way there the cops pulled us over. I'd never been stopped by the police, so it was pretty scary for me. They had us get out of the car, they frisked us, and they started searching under the seats and in the seat cushions. That's when they asked me for my driver's license.

"Why do you want my driver's license? I wasn't driving?"

"Yeah, but you're the one with the knife!"

I was shocked to see the knife in their hand, mostly because I knew it was stolen.

"Wayne! What are you doing with a Village Inn steak knife?!"

Turns out, Wayne had used the knife to cut out the windows for his car and had stashed it under the front passenger seat. It would barely cut hamburger, but it was over five inches long, so the cops were calling this a concealed weapon. I started laughing when I heard Wayne's explanation, they figured out I wasn't dangerous, and we got away with just a warning. Times were different, and today I'm sure it would have been a DUI for him and some kind of ticket for me for being a minor and intoxicated in public. Maybe even a charge of terrorism for the knife.

That was the only time I went out with Wayne. I was still a long ways from discovering I liked men, and I think Wayne was straight anyway, but he sure could wear the heck out of those platform shoes.

Friday, July 30, 2010

My First Survey: Dining Alone

It had never occurred to me until I read another waiter blog tonight complaining about people who eat alone that anyone thought there was anything wrong with a single diner - a one top. I waited tables and tended bar for over twenty years and I don't recall ever resenting a customer for being by themselves. Sometimes, I sensed the customer's discomfort, but I always thought it was because they didn't like hearing being identified as being alone, as in, "Table for one?". Could I have been overlooking a fear of being rebuffed by their server all this time?
When I recall my favorite customers, they were almost always singles, and there are two of them who became personal friends (one, I rented a room from, and another loaned me the money to buy a car) that I am still in touch with today - 25 years after we met.
I did a little searching and it turns out there are some waiters who hate waiting on singles, and even some restaurants that don't seat parties of one during dinner rush! I never knew this. I go out to eat, to plays and to movies alone probably 90% of the time. It had never crossed my mind to think I was in anyone's way. I feel like I've been wearing my pants backwards for 48 years and am only now discovering my freakishness.
I might not have enough waiters or former waiters following me to get any comments from them from the serving standpoint, but civilian comments are welcome also. What are your feelings about the one-top stigma? Do you feel guilty taking up a table? Do you feel resented or dismissed?

Worst Part of the Job

I've had some odd job reviews. One restaurant/bar manager was particularly obsessed with my hair. One year he wrote: "Guy has been late to work on a couple of occasions, but his hair is always perfect." Another year he said, "Guy's hair color has been a problem in the past." (It wasn't anything like pink or blue ... men were just not allowed to have "two-tone" hair, and mine was hi-lighted.) Another manager complained in my yearly review that I was not good at telling her how to manage me.

Once, a manager asked me to quit, explaining that he didn't have any reason to fire me, but he just didn't like me. He'd been messing with my shifts for a month, trying to force me into leaving, and I didn't like him either, so I agreed to go, but I told him I could think of at least a dozen reasons for firing him (and did have the satisfaction of hearing he was let go a few months later).

If only the customers were all we had to worry about.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Jimmy was a six foot four, two hundred eighty pound, wildly flamboyant some-time drag queen waiter I met at House of Pies when we were hired within the same week. It'll be 25 years ago this November since we worked our first shift together. We eventually shared a couple of apartments and I was also friends with his Mom and brother for many years.

Jimmy was always kinda high-strung, and though he covered his tables well in a rush, he could be a hoot to watch because he was so dramatic when he was busy. I loved playing pranks on him and one of my favorites was to get him to proposition the dishwasher in Spanish. I knew just enough dirty slang to get him in trouble, and he would fall for the same joke over and over. We'd be slammed and he'd ask me, "How do I say, 'I need water glasses in the back station?'" Two minutes later, Jimmy would be running away from the dish area screaming, "What did I say? What did I say?" with two or three guys from the back of the house cat-calling him. The dishwashers and bussers were in on my joke - they were the ones that taught me those phrases. After a while, I think Jimmy was doing it more for our entertainment than out of his own naivete.

Likely the worst fun I ever had at Jimmy's expense was the night he farted in the middle of his station. We were really busy, and he was mortified that someone might have heard him. I found him in the back service area trying to rip a hole in his pants so he'd have an excuse for what he said was a fart "so loud it sounded like a Buick backfiring." I told him that I doubted if anyone even noticed, convinced him to stop ripping his pants and we went back out on the floor. My station was right next to his, so as soon as we got to our tables, I said (real loud), "PHEWWW! What's that SMELL?!" Jimmy turned 13 shades of purple.

I may have been the better prankster at work, but Jimmy got even at home - even if he didn't always mean to. The first apartment we lived in together was a shotgun. There was a window over the door in the kitchen that led to a small pantry, and if that window had been left open, when you opened the front door, the window would slam shut and sound every bit like someone going out (or in?) the back door. I didn't know that yet the night I came home about 7:00 to Jimmy's car in his parking space, but no lights on in the apartment. When I walked in and heard the slamming sound, I called out for Jimmy. There was no answer - I was scared - and I picked up the first thing I could reach inside the door (it was probably something stupid like a magazine) and started doing my best Sabrina Duncan moves through the apartment. We didn't have an overhead light in the front room, so the first light switch I reached was the bathroom, and when I flipped it on I saw blood all over the mirror. It looked like Jimmy had tried to write a message, but I couldn't read it and I was dreading finding his body ... he must have been in pretty bad shape to actually write with his own blood.

I searched the rest of the apartment and there was no sign of Jimmy, but I was really puzzled about why his car would be there and he wasn't. Had he been kidnapped? I finally drove up to the restaurant where he worked and darned if he wasn't waiting tables! I was so mad and so relieved at the same time, I almost cried. When I told Jimmy the story about the "blood" he said, "Oh, I just wrote myself a note with lip gloss on the mirror so I'd be sure to see it. It must have melted." I asked, "What about your car?" and I found out he'd gotten a ride with another waiter. And to think I came within inches of beating someone to death with a magazine.

Jimmy and I had a few more adventures - and they usually involved me teasing him, and him scaring me - until we parted company about two years later and he moved in with his boyfriend. He died as the result of a fall about ten years ago, and I stayed in touch with his Mom for three or four years after, but we'd always wind up talking about Jimmy. After a while we just stopped calling each other.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pretty, Dangerous

Denver is home to at least a couple of "Gentleman's Clubs" that date back to the 19th century. These aren't strip clubs; they are essentially societies - places for networking, gaming, lectures, parties - and I applied at one of them, The University Club, established 1891. I'd heard from another waiter friend that private clubs were a good place to work because waiters had steady work (not so seasonal) and some club members were very generous with tips on top of a higher hourly wage than what was paid in restaurants.

When the University Club called me about my application, I was expecting, at the very least, an interview. Instead, they asked me if I could be there in 45 minutes to work lunch. I hightailed it down to the huge red brick castle of a building on Sherman Street and before my hair had dried I was fitted with a white dinner jacket that did NOT fit and began schlepping shoulder trays of double-plated entrees with real silver plate covers up five flights of stairs (I think it was two basement levels and three above ground) to "The Library." The building was very old, and the staircases were very tiny and steep with a turn at each half flight and a set of double swinging doors at each full landing. My God were those trays heavy by the time I got to the top floor. Of course, when lunch was over, we brought everything down the same way.

Most of the wait staff were black men around 60 years old who had been working at the club since before I was born. They were very formal, and excellent waiters, but there was a distinct feeling of distance between these professionals and any of the young waiters (that's me ... I was young then). The china, silver and crystal was beautiful and the rooms very elegant, but I was told that only the Ladies Dining Room and one other room were open to women. The rest of the building was exclusively for men, and I never did see any female employees.

When lunch had been served and the tables cleared, the wait staff clocked out and was permitted to enjoy an excellent meal. I can't remember now what it was, but it was some of the best food I'd ever tasted and we ate in the Ladies Dining Room. Then we hung up our jackets and were told to come back in three hours to set for dinner. I never returned. Never collected my pay ... nothing. I just knew it was only a matter of time before I went ass over teakettle down those stairs and it wasn't worth the risk. Still, it was interesting to be inside (and especially in the back of the house) of such a distinguished club, and I did get a really good meal out of it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Rex (another waiter on swing shift) and I were working the front two stations of a coffee shop one night, filling sugars when one of Rex's customers got up from the table with his pants and underwear around his ankles, shuffling toward the front door. He left the woman he was sitting with alone at the table - I don't know if it was a dare or he was just trying to embarrass her, but Rex started calling after the guy, "Sir! Sir! Sir!" He was really flustered, but of course nobody, Rex included, was gonna stop him from walking out 'cos we didn't want to touch a naked customer. I told Rex that we could all see the 'Sir' part, and he turned back around and said, indignantly, "I was trying to be polite!"

Rex was funny; kinda fastidious and I think he was from a small town and not really used to as much variety as we sometimes got at that restaurant. The funniest story he told on himself was when he bought a cock ring to wear under his jeans when he went out to the bars. He'd never owned one before, and he said the first time he had it on, he had just walked in the door of a bar and the ring - too large for him - slid off, and fell out the leg of his pants clattering on the floor behind him. Rex said, "I just kept on walking."

Monday, July 26, 2010


(From the days before POS and chits, when everything was handwritten)

I trained a waitress who couldn't remember table numbers to save her soul. I didn't realize she'd been having so much trouble until I was expediting orders for her tables "Preg" and "Bald."
She said, "Oh, I was going to cross that off the ticket before I gave it to them."

Call Me

Much of my banquet work was on-call. I would anchor at one or two places and work my way up the list to establish myself as regular staff, and then fill in my remaining time with shifts at hotels that didn't pay as well or do convention work. One year I had 18 W-2s. Tax time was messy.

I captained at some of the larger venues because I could make more money, but sometimes that meant leading an entire staff of employees from temporary agencies who didn't have a clue about banquet service.
At an awards event with 1300 members of the U.S. Marine Corps in attendance, we were just about to open the doors to the banquet hall when I noticed that all 15 waiters in my section (I was one of four captains for the event) were standing at attention with their backs to the front door. I'm not sure why they thought the guests were going to enter through the kitchen, but I had about 30 seconds to get them to turn around. I was motioning with my hand, making circles with my finger and the faster I did it, the faster they turned. It's a wonder they weren't dizzy by the time they realized the rest of the room was facing the other way.

Some of the regular staff at the hotels could be just as odd. I worked with a waiter who bit trays whenever he got nervous and managed to put teeth marks in nearly all of them by the time he quit. One waitress would remind everyone after the functions that she could telepathically change the traffic lights on Broadway Avenue so "Anybody going south, just follow me." (The signals were timed for the speed limit, but we just let her think she was special.) There was another woman who had fingernails that were so long she couldn't button the top button of her blouse without stabbing herself in the neck, so she was always needing someone to "do me up" and help her put on her bow tie.

I worked with some quirky people and I worked with some that were so amazing they could run circles around me. Keeping myself "on the circuit" opened me up to a lot of different styles of service and it helped me through off-season. Sometimes I'd wait on the same people at two different hotels in the same week, and it was funny to see it dawn on them why I looked so familiar. When I busted my leg and was out of commission for four months, it was the contacts I made through my on-call work that got me back to earning enough money to pay my bills.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Beyond the Tipping Point

Dealing with the same silly questions or the same comments day after day can wear anyone down. When I worked for Sears, I remember hearing one of the gals from the catalog sales department say over and over again, "What is your telephone number so I can look up your order. . . Yes, your telephone number. . . . Because if all the customers were listed under the same telephone number you'd be waiting all day." She was a woman on the verge.

I have my own pet peeves. I get awfully tired of the people who, when they find out my name is Guy, say, "Like Guy Smiley!" or "Hi Guy! hahahaha" and when I was waiting tables, it bugged me to have people ask, "So what's your real job?" Some things I found ways to work around, like the Super Salad issue. "Would you like soup or salad?" became "Would you like salad or soup?" but I admit I lost my cool over some other stuff. At the pancake house, we served coffee in thermal pots and one night when the eleventy-millionth customer of the night asked me "Do you have restrooms?" I said, "No. That's why we put the pots on the table." Kinda smart-ass, but I smiled, so I got away with it.

The most dramatic thing I ever did, though - my biggest tantrum - happened at one of those turn and burn chain restaurants. I was swamped and tearing through the restaurant with a shoulder tray of hot food when one of the customers in a booth reached out and grabbed me. "We are ready to order NOW!" I pulled my arm away and used it to completely wipe all of the condiments and place settings off the empty table next to them and set down the tray of hot food in its place, and then turned to them and said in the sweetest voice, "Sure. What can I get you?" They were shocked and asked me if I didn't need to serve that other food first. I said, "Oh, you're right! I'll be right back" and I picked up the tray, served the food, and acted like nothing had happened. I felt insane, but I think they were scared not to be nice to me after that.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Curb Service

For many years there was a place on the corner of 1st and Broadway in Denver called Mary and Lou's Cafe. Homemade pie, biscuits and red-eye gravy and other down home food. In the early 90s, it was remodeled and renamed The Hornet. About a week after the new place opened up, someone drove their car into the corner of the building. They repaired the building, re-opened, and a couple of weeks after that someone else did the same thing. When they repaired it the next time, they put a big sign on the corner window that said, "Drive-Thru Now Closed."

Beep Beep

I used to supplement my income from waiting tables with office work so I wasn't on my feet all day and night. One of my first "second jobs" was setting up appointments for pager salesman. (This was when beepers were first becoming popular and way before cell phones.) I made the calls cold from a publication that listed the company with the president, vice-president, office manager, etc in descending order of rank. My instructions were to "start at the top." The funniest call I had went like this:

"May I please speak with David Brown?"
"Mr. Brown passed away two years ago."
"I'm so sorry. Is Dan Jones available?"
"Mr. Jones died last October."
"Oh dear. Well, I've got one other individual recommended as a contact for your company. May I speak with Charles Smith?"
"Mr. Smith is out sick today."
I didn't know how to respond. Then we both started to laugh and I said,
"I'll bet he's worried."

Speaking of beepers. One of the restaurants I worked at decided to replace the lighted sign that let a waiter know when their order was up (I haven't seen these in years, but they used to be common) with pagers. Instead of looking for our number to light up (and/or checking the kitchen) we were supposed to stay on the floor and wait to be paged. The pagers were checked out at the hostess stand every day, so you had to have them coordinated with your waiter ID. They were supposed to have a volume button on them, but one unit might be turned all the way up and could barely be heard, while another was loud enough to rouse a team of huskies in a neighboring state.

The experiment didn't last very long. For one thing, every time a waiter's beeper went off, 8 or 10 people got up from their table and reached for their pocket or purse. It annoyed the crap out of the customers to have beepers sounding every time someone's food was ready. When the restaurant was busy, it sounded like a video arcade. Another problem was the cooks who just liked having the power to call waiters back to the kitchen like puppets on a string, whether their order was up or not. It was just one more of those ideas that probably seemed great in a corporate boardroom, but hadn't been thought out to what it would sound like in a restaurant with 12 waiters with over 100 tables between them.

I think about it now and wonder why they didn't just try pagers that vibrated, or if they made such a thing back then, or if maybe they did try it and they just didn't pan out. At any rate, I was awfully glad not to have one more thing to clip on to me. We went back to using the lights and everything worked out fine just like it had for years.

Erase, erase erase

I've got a filter for most icky people. If I don't like someone, I usually forget their face, their name, and everything about them. I've written about some of them on this blog that, for whatever reason, stayed with me, but not by their real names ... I couldn't recall those for love or money.

When I waited tables or tended bar, I could remember what someone ate or drank even years after they ordered it if I liked them. If I didn't like them, I could forget I had a ticket hanging, I was that eager to make them disappear. My rose-colored glasses kept me from hanging on to bad energy, but they also kept me from recognizing some of the same bozos who came in more than once to stir up the same trouble. "EVERY time I come here the food is LOUSY!" was one I should have braced myself for, but I would only realize I had heard the same words from these people after they ordered, ate all their food, and tried to get out of paying for the third or fourth time.

Some of the people I really liked weren't necessarily good tippers, and some of the ones I despised might tip me fairly well. The money didn't have that much to do with my feelings, even though it was hard not to take it personally when I'd done everything but crochet their napkins for them and I made a lousy two bucks on a four-top. I had some customers that were just a pleasure to see; I liked knowing they were on the same planet. There was a beautiful elderly woman who attended meetings with a couple of different groups that I remembered the second time I saw her. I said, "You look familiar to me" and she smiled and said, "Oh, but I am." and then she winked. I think I blushed all the way to my toes, but it was the sweetest moment, and I'll probably always remember her. There was another guy I ran into in a supermarket years after I'd worked at a restaurant where I was his waiter. He said, "Hi" and I instantly thought, "Corned beef hash and eggs over hard. Rye toast." 25 years later and I still remember.

If I had a bad shift, and I wanted to forget the whole thing, I would spend my tips before I got home at another restaurant, a bar, the grocery ... it didn't matter, so long as that tainted money didn't come into the house with me. I think that's what helped me start fresh the next day. It didn't protect me from being hurt again, 'cos I don't think I've ever been very good at separating some people's need to lash out at strangers and my own reaction to being attacked. I worked in the dining room of a hotel that hosted assertiveness training classes where attendees were instructed to practice their assertiveness skills on their waiter during the lunch break. I blew a lot of cash on days I waited on them. Somebody wasn't doing a very good job of explaining the difference between "assertive" and just plain "ass." Maybe my being available to be their punching bag kept them from beating their wife or kicking their dog. I like to think some good came out of it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cow Patti

When the health craze was making one of its rounds of being in vogue in the early 80s, the restaurant I worked for came up with a recipe for pancakes with bits of granola stirred into the batter. They were going to call them "Trail Cakes" until a few of us already familiar with that term recommended they reconsider.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sales vs. Banquets

As a banquet captain, I had my share of run-ins with the women of the sales and catering staff. I'd be hard pressed to pick my least favorite of the two I dealt with most. One of them, Debbie, was a little pixie with a passive-aggressive streak a mile wide. For instance, one night as I put the finishing touches on an Italian-themed buffet, she peeked in the door and commented, "Neat centerpieces! Where did you steal that idea from?" If my staff had gotten rave reviews about their service from a client, she'd be sure to say something like, "It's too bad we can't get that kind of response all the time!"

The other woman, Kristen ... padded shoulders, a little bit of a trampy soccer mom look with the most insincere, snarky demeanor imaginable. She was always in the way, completely clueless and just plain evil. After a hellish weekend when Kristen and I got into an argument because she was bossing around my wait staff, she wrote me up. The waitresses were outraged and wrote a letter supporting me, to no avail, but they managed to get even with her one morning about a week later.

Kristen came click-click-clicking in her high heels and tight business suit into the banquet kitchen for her morning coffee and as she was filling her cup my lead waitress, Alice, a woman of about 60, asked her,
"Honey, is that a maternity outfit?" Kristen sputtered for a moment and said, "No, why?" and Alice just smiled, "Well, you know there's a lot of that going on around here. I just thought it looked like it might be. It is a little snug." She said it so sweetly, there was no way Kristen could fault her for it, but as soon as she was out the door, the rest of the wait staff was howling with laughter. Alice looked at me and said, "Don't FUCK with an old lady .... or any of her friends!"

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Familiar Face

It was usually a good thing to have "Regulars" and it was touching when they would wait for my station to open up. Sometimes, they'd tell me that they had come to the restaurant on another night but decided to go someplace else when they found out I wasn't working. Also, there were the regulars that never wavered from the same order, so I could see them walking in the door and have their food in front of them before they were halfway through a cup of coffee, and we only talked if they felt like talking. It was nice for both of us.

But sometimes .... oy! Sometimes I felt like I would explode if I had to wait on a particular "Regular" for one more meal. Always the same complaints, the same criticisms, the same stories ... they'd been telling me the same thing for a couple of years, two or three times a week, and I just couldn't take it. Funny enough, I know they liked me. They would ask for me, but every once in a while, I'd have to get away for my own sanity and I would pay one of the other waiters to take care of them with the excuse that I was "just going on break." I didn't do it too often because it usually meant I'd have to hear for the next two or three weeks about "how awful that girl was."

One of my regulars I remember in kind of a bittersweet way was at the pancake house I worked at when I was just starting out. He was an old man who'd come in about 9 at night maybe twice a week and sit at table 4, a little deuce against the wall. He would order a side of dry toast and a side of bacon with coffee, and then a side of dry toast and a side of bacon 'to go' when he was about halfway through his meal. It was always the same, so I'd drop the toast and call the bacon automatically, but I still went over to the table so he could order it each time. You get a feel after a while for people that like to be anticipated, and the ones that get pleasure or feel empowered by getting to place the order, and he just seemed like he enjoyed making that second order. One night I mentioned his 'one to stay, one to go' to another waitress I worked with and she said, "I'll bet that second order is for his dog." After that, I'd just about cry every time I waited on him. Maybe I knew subconsciously that one day I'd be an old man with a little dog waiting for me at home.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New patches

At some of the hotels where I worked, they changed general managers almost as often as I changed hair colors. At one of them, the first thing the new manager did was to direct that the underground parking lot walls be painted a different color. Four different managers at that hotel, and four different color schemes for the garage just in the six years I worked there. There were so many things wrong with the building - serious things like faulty electrical wiring, closed off rooms in need of repair, and holes in the carpeting - but they went untouched. Got to be, whenever there was a change in the guards we'd say to one another, "I wonder what color they'll paint the parking garage?"

At another hotel, where it seemed like our food and beverage managers hung around just long enough to send out a couple of memos misspelling their own name and commit a half-dozen acts of sexual harassment (some of them worked quick and could do this in one week), the plan was to change the uniforms for the restaurant and bar staff. We changed uniforms about eight times over the years. One combination I remember was black pants, rainbow suspenders and a white short-sleeved polo shirt with simulated paint spatters that one of the bartenders dubbed, "Gloria Vanderbilt on mescaline." Suspenders are not meant for everyone. The guys didn't have a real problem with them (except some of them that didn't like having them snapped by pranksters) but we had some pretty big chested waitresses that were forever having to adjust them because they either made a wide bow around their chest that pushed their boobs in or a tight line down the middle that shoved them to the sides. Another uniform was pink tux pants, tux shirt, cummerbund, bow tie and suspenders. Not only was this second one an impractical color for schlepping food, but it made all of us look like Easter bunnies. (The effect was even worse when several of the waiters stood together.) The pants had a button inside the fly, one inside the waist band, the zipper to the fly and the clasp for the pants, as well as the clasp for the cummerbund, the clips for the suspenders, buttons and studs for the tux shirt and the clasp for the bow tie to deal with. The first time I put it on, I said, "If there's ever a fire in this thing, I'll never get out of it."

Whether is was the parking garage or the uniforms that the boss changed, it really came down to a dog marking his territory and wanting to smell his own scent about the place. Waiters make their living judging character, and we had a good idea of which one of the new managers was gonna last (that being a relative term for managers) but even when it came to good managers, the paint in the garage and the seat of my uniform pants always lasted longer.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Feeling needed

I used to work all of the holidays because I didn't have any family in town and I wanted to give the other waiters and waitresses a chance to spend as much time with theirs as they could on those days. One Thanksgiving, I had stayed all the way through the day shift and halfway into swing when I finally was cut, and I decided to take myself out to dinner at a buffet and have my own celebration. I arrived at the restaurant about a half hour before closing, but I didn't feel too guilty since it was a buffet and I wasn't gonna be camping. What I hadn't taken into account was that most of the food was gone! I would have been so much better off going home alone than trying to convince myself that I was actually celebrating anything. The meager scraps of pressed turkey and crusty bits of dressing made me lonelier than ever for my family.

After that experience, I had a new motive for working on the holidays. I was determined that each person I waited on on Christmas and Thanksgiving (not all the time ... I wasn't a fanatic!) felt valued and noticed. I still covered the shifts, but I wasn't just doing it for my co-workers anymore. I've always liked to feel necessary, and there were so many customers who were eating alone on those days. Now I knew what it felt like to be invisible in a crowd of people on Thanksgiving.

Eventually, there was a diner I worked at exclusively on Thanksgiving and Christmas, whether I pulled any other shifts for them or not. For about seven years, I committed to serving holiday meals there and got to know people over time and establish my regulars. It was almost like visiting family. I've got some great memories of those shifts. Heart-wrenching, in some ways. There were some customers who were so frail, I wondered if they would make it the next year and serving them what might be their last holiday dinner was a real honor. I think about some of them still .... an elderly woman who dressed to the Nines, so polite and soft-spoken, who loved the cherries in the Waldorf salad, so I always made sure she had extra .... a couple, one of whom had wasting syndrome and could barely swallow who held hands while they ate ... I'm glad I got to be the one to be certain that they got the best we had to give.

It made me feel good when people told me it was their "best ever" or how much my service meant to them, and I didn't feel the pressure on those days to work for tips. It's too bad I didn't have that attitude every day, and I don't really know why I didn't. So much of my feelings about waiting were affected by how I chose to look at the situation. I'm thankful I had at least two days out of the year when I chose to feel glad to be a waiter.

Custer's Last Stand

One convention I dreaded every year at the hotel where I was a cocktail waiter was hosted by the Native American Housing Authority. This is a lobbyist organization that would meet in Denver to discuss their grievances with the United States, which usually boiled down to grievances against white people. There's some history behind all of that. Oddly, the event coincided with the Annual Stock Show and Trade Fair. The same dates.

In spite of the fact that our particular hotel was filled almost entirely with Native Americans, in one of the grandest gestures of insensitivity, the hotel management insisted that we all dress like cowboys ... "for Stock Show." My favorite bartender used to describe this week as "Custer's Last Stand."

The last year I worked at that hotel, I cocktailed $1300 worth of drinks (at about $1.50 to $4.00 each) on the first night of the convention and made a total of five dollars in tips. That's about 450 drinks. I ran my butt off and I was yelled at, catcalled, pinched, grabbed and insulted all night, but I didn't have any support from the hotel because the room revenue was where they were making their money. Also, in spite of the alcohol classes the hotel had started requiring the f&b staff to take to lower their insurance premiums, they insisted that we continue to serve people who were clearly drunk "because they were staying in the hotel and weren't driving." (Never mind that bartenders and waiters are still responsible for the patron's safety if they fall down and hit their head or OD on booze.)

On the last night, after most of the conventioneers had gone home and only a dozen or so remained in the hotel, I was tending bar when a woman from their group walked in just before last call. The woman seemed relatively sober, and she sat at the bar in front of the taps and ordered a draft. These taps had the kegs sitting right underneath them, so at that area of the bar there was an extra 18 inches or so between me and the customer. I set the beer in front of her, she took one sip, put it down and started to go over backwards dead drunk.

Now, this woman was NOT small. I reached out quickly and grabbed ahold of her arms, but she must have outweighed me by 100 pounds (at that time .... only by about 40 pounds today). I held on as best as I could and started screaming for Chuck, the security guard, but she was pulling me over to her side a little bit more every second. By the time Chuck arrived, I had the toes of my boots hooked against the drain board of the beer taps and I was hanging by my waist off the edge of the bar. I was about to let her fall 'cos her head was only a couple of feet from the carpet by then and I didn't wanna go sailing over head first myself. Chuck got a good grip on her and let her down easy and she never did come to until we splashed her face with some water.

I learned later that there is a genetic mutation that aids in the metabolizing of alcohol that Native Americans do not have, so they are much more prone to its effects. I don't know if that would have made a huge difference in my feelings about waiting on that group, 'cos it's awfully frustrating to do that much work for so little money and to be abused that way. Mostly, it makes me angry that the hotel fueled that situation by threatening me with my job if I didn't keep serving them booze. (I'm pretty sure the cowboy getup didn't help matters either.) Thank God I'm not working there any more.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dollus Interuptus

"Wow. You made these yourself?" was all I could think to say when the bride's aunt delivered the enormous bride and groom dolls. Each about two feet tall, designed to look like toddlers in a tux and an antebellum gown, they might have been mistaken for "children from a previous marriage" if they hadn't been so quiet and (for the most part) well-behaved. The aunt insisted the dolls were to be placed on the cake table as a surprise gift for the happy couple. More likely a shock, but family trumps good taste. The cake topper was the traditional bride and groom (represented as adult figures) and the giant dolls stood sentry on either either side of the cake, like mutant offspring, easily 8 times the size of their "folks."

About halfway through the cocktail reception before dinner, our banquet captain, Paul, made some last-minute adjustments to the flowers arranged around the cake, and accidentally knocked over the giant girl doll. Apparently, the dolls were set up using some kind of spring mechanism located inside that had sprung when she fell. Obviously flustered, Paul had turned the girl doll upside down and had his hand up her dress almost halfway to his elbow when one of the waitresses let out a shriek, "Paul! What are you DOING?!"

The whole room froze. Paul's face was beet red - he did look guilty - and yet I don't think the scene would have been nearly as disturbing if the dolls hadn't been so close to the size of actual children. The rest of the wait staff helped him by doubling over with convulsive laughter. For the rest of the event, we kept after him, saying things like, "What was she wearing under that dress?" and "You know she's not real, don't you?" and "Really, Paul. Couldn't you have waited till you got home?"


I was used to people just pointing at their coffee cup when I asked them if they'd like coffee, so when the old man kinda waved his arm toward his side in front of him, I figured he was one of those kind that just didn't feel like answering me. Oh Christ, another weird one. The restaurant was packed - both dining rooms. It was a Sunday about 1:30; a pancake house on Colorado Boulevard, way too close to too many churches (and the lunch rush that followed services) for my sanity. I had the front station - just barely inside the door with a big round as the main table. I was working three 4-tops, two or three 3-tops and about 5 deuces along with the round where the old man was sitting with five other members of his family. I poured coffee for him, told the folks at the table I'd give them a moment to look at the menu and I'd be back to take their order. In the time it took me to turn around and get to the service entrance, the gentleman had flipped over the back of his chair and bitten off his tongue. I didn't see a thing (unless you count the arm spasm, which I found out later was actually a heart attack ... he may not have wanted coffee after all).

I was picking up an order and my manager came rushing up to me and said, "DID YOU SERVE ANY FOOD TO TABLE 20?!! DID YOU SERVE ANYTHING TO TABLE 20?!! ANYTHING?!! It kinda freaked me out that she was being so crazy but we were really slammed and it just wasn't registering with me that table 20 was my new 6 top. I went back around the corner with a ham and cheese omelet, hash browns and toast for table 3, saw the old man lying on the floor on his back with blood all over his face and someone starting to give him mouth to mouth, but there was nobody at table 3! The first thing I wondered was how that man had gotten so bloody, but almost immediately I panicked because I thought he was my customer from table 3 (hardly anyone is recognizable after they've bitten off their tongue) and I was sure the cooks were gonna kill me if I wasted that order. I went back to the kitchen with the plates, put the omelet in the window and said, This man is dead, but I think you can save the hash browns." I was right. They were pissed.

Just about that time, (maybe 30 seconds or a minute after it had happened) I just forgot everything that I was about to ring up, which orders were about to come down ... just all of it. I went back out to my station, and my customers who saw the whole bloody mess were walking out, whether they'd eaten, paid, still had to order or had already placed their orders. They were totally grossed out. I had one table that was around the corner though, table 18, that couldn't see what was going on. They screamed from across the dining room, "Where the hell is our food!" I had to step over the man's legs to get to them, but when I reached their table, I said, "I'm sorry" (in my nicest voice) but one of my customers has died and I wasn't expecting it. Let me check with the kitchen." It was so surreal. They weren't even shocked. Just hungry and mad and indignant.

I walked back through my station, stepped back over the man's legs and around the corner to check on table 18's order. I don't remember if it was ready, if I served them, or they walked. By this time - maybe 2 minutes into it - I was coming unraveled. People were moving into my station from the other tables to watch the resuscitation efforts, but since the customers that were supposed to be at those tables were gone I couldn't make hide nor hair of any of it. About this time I remember the son (or son-in-law) from the round table saying, "I can't believe this. This is just so embarrassing. I can't believe this is happening." There were three kids with them, all under the age of ten, and (I guess) his wife ... the kids' mom, anyway. I was trying to comfort her 'cos she started getting a little hysterical, and just about then the EMTs arrived. They injected the man with a huge needle - I mean HUGE - and zapped him with those paddles as they were getting him on the stretcher.

I know during some of this, people were asking for more coffee and wanting me to tell their waitress that they had changed tables. I kept stepping over the man's feet (and eventually, the man's feet and a bunch of equipment) to get through my station and my boss was still asking me if the guy had eaten anything. It was only then that I realized she was worried that those people were gonna sue the restaurant, like she thought he might have cut himself on the food. In the meantime, the man was dead and I was so wigged I couldn't have told you my name. I asked if I could have a minute to calm down and smoke a cigarette, but my boss said I needed to clean the blood off the floor because we still had people waiting to be seated. It was a spot about as big as two dinner plates. Who knows why I didn't walk. It was just a really crazy moment.

I did work through the rest of the afternoon and we found out the next day that the EMTs were able to bring the old man back to life. I never did thank my customer at table 3 (who was probably most responsible for saving him). I didn't even ask him if he'd like another omelet. It was all so sudden and, I think because it happened in the middle of such a huge rush, everything kind of exploded in my head. I guess you can tell by the choppy way I remember everything - kinda like 30 snapshots or really short pieces of film strung together with gaps in between - that I was in shock. For a while after that, I was really freaked out if anyone even coughed or moved suddenly. I wanted to take their pulse before I took their order. "How are you today?" had a ring of sincerity to it that had never before been a part of my delivery. Unfortunately, this wasn't the only one of my customers to die in my station, but I'll save the other one for another blog post. Just remember: If a customer doesn't answer you when you ask them for a beverage order, it doesn't necessarily mean they are ignoring you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Good accoustics

I walked into the men's room of the bar I work at one night a couple of years ago and there was a woman standing next to a man who was using the trough-style urinal. I must have looked surprised because she said, "Oh it's okay, he's my brother. We were just talking."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Born A Waiter

And if you're born a waiter
you're born to be hurt
You're born to be stepped on,
lied to, cheated on and treated like dirt

-Sung to the tune of "Born a Woman"

Occasionally, I hear someone talking about an "easy" job like bartending or waiting tables, or maybe I'll read about "all those tips" waiters make, and I know that anyone who hasn't done the job just couldn't possibly understand the tremendous pressure, risk and vulnerability a waiter experiences. Granted, some never have to put in any time at a rough cocktail lounge, diner or 24-hour restaurant, so they might be spared some of the more vulgar incidents, but it's never "easy."

I have worked in some rough places, and in my time, I've had my clothes ripped, been cussed at and called names, made fun of, threatened with death, pushed, tripped, grabbed, flashed, groped, accused of ejaculating in someone's eggs Benedict, and even hit in the face with a plate of two over-easy ("Is there something wrong with your eggs, ma'am?" was my response). I've had to clean up blood, vomit, pick up used condoms, dirty disposable diapers, hypodermic needles, cups of tobacco spittle, snotty tissues, and even someone's partial plate (as in, dentures) - all in the course of waiting tables. And that's not counting the tantrums thrown by the cooks - many of them on jail release from halfway houses or suffering from PTSD which isn't exactly conducive to a high stress environment.

One hotel bar I worked at was down the street from a tavern where the bartender had been shot and killed by someone who came in for a drink after last call. Two other restaurants I worked at were held up. The first one, the assistant manager was the only one at work, but the second one happened while the restaurant was packed with people lined up out the door (I was one of the customers in line - I'd come in on my day off). At another restaurant (one which deserves its own blog entry) the cops refused to come "unless a weapon had been used." It wasn't enough for someone to just produce one - that's how common of an occurrence it was.

I'm proud of surviving all of that. I never went to college, and I've never been wealthy, but I can measure my success in my endurance - my resilience. There are plenty of people who couldn't handle such an "easy" job.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Disaster Planning

Working in the banquet department of a hotel can be like booking passage on the Titanic, knowing full well before you sail that the ship is going to sink. You even know why it's going to sink.

In banquets, you're provided with an outline of the menu, program, seating arrangements, number of guests ... all the details any reasonable person (sales and catering staff are obviously excluded from this description) would need to predict impending doom. The banquet department is where the sales staff gets to realize their creativity without actually having to do any of the work. If they dreamed of pink fluffy clouds, leprechauns and seating for 400 in a broom closet, it was up to the banquet staff to "take care of the details."

I remember one ongoing fiasco - a collaborative effort of the entire sales and catering staff, most of whom barely spoke to one another - of which I was the primary "detail" person. For an entire Summer, I acted as the poolside bartender for a complimentary cocktail and hors-d'oeuvre party the hotel hosted to drum up new business. These events were co-sponsored by liquor distributors and often featured gimmicky new cocktails such as the "Lynchburg Lemonade." Sometimes, we couldn't even get people to drink the stuff for free. A series of colorful flavored rum schnapps was still sitting on the shelf of the lobby bar 5 years after their debut at a Pool Party. Every once in a while, someone would ask, "What's that?" but nobody wanted to drink them.

There were a couple of things right off the bat that really sucked about these parties. One was the weather. The pool was an outdoor one, located on the 6th floor of a downtown hotel and open to the air. Standing rules were that the party was to proceed, regardless of rain, hail, lightening ... the hotel had invited people and we had an "obligation" to come through. Even if it wasn't particularly stormy, the winds can really kick up in Denver from time to time, so trying to run a buffet and serve drinks often meant dealing with billowing table cloths and skirting, napkins and promotional materials blown into the pool, Sterno flames blowing from underneath chafing dishes like flame throwers. One afternoon, I was nearly knocked unconscious by a 10 foot hard plastic Spuds McKenzie (Bud Light's bulldog mascot of the 80s) the distributors had attached to the railing surrounding the pool deck. The wind knocked the sign loose and Spuds' foot landed on my head, knocking me to the ground. I remember the catering director being especially concerned about the dog. "It didn't break, did it?"

Another problem with the parties was knowing how many people were actually going to show up. The rule was we had to keep the food going for two hours and, in theory, each person was supplied with two free drink tickets with their "invitation." The invitations were passed out randomly on the mall downtown; just a flier that entitled the bearer to two free drinks and free hors-d'oeuvre at the hotel on Wednesday, starting at 5:00p.m. The event was supposed to end at 7:00, but the sales staff was so eager to please that these parties frequently went on for several hours. The kitchen would estimate how many people were going to attend, based on how much free food the Chef was willing to give away. That usually meant we had half of what we needed just to get through the scheduled part, and anything more required the patience of Job and finagling that would have been daunting to an Enron executive. The sales staff demanded, the kitchen refused, and I was stuck between them, facing a patio full of people who had been promised something that was not being delivered.

One afternoon, I had the party set to go, was dressed in whatever promotional t-shirt I was required to wear for the day (shivering in the wind because it was not the kind of day anyone would choose to wear shorts and a t-shirt unless they were doing it to keep their job) when people started showing up with blank pieces of pink paper. No details about the party ... no "2 free drinks" mentioned, and nothing about how long the event was supposed to last. One of the sales execs had taken it upon himself to pass out the "flyers" on the mall that afternoon without bothering look at them first. Instead of grabbing the stack that the printers had delivered, he just handed out these blank sheets of paper and told people to show up on the 6th floor of our hotel at 5 o'clock for free food and drinks. And they did! It's hard enough to limit people to two drinks at a host event anyway, but when they don't know about any limitations, it's pandemonium. As usual, it was my job to land on my feet as best I could and balance the demands of the guests with the resistance of the kitchen and the spinelessness of the sales staff to create a "party."

From my Summer of bartending on Wednesdays at the pool, I accumulated almost no money. I wasn't allowed to have a tip jar and the grat was only based on the food that was supposed to be served, not what actually went out; my bartender fee was split with the sales department and my wages were negligible. About the only perk to the event was the free t-shirt I got each shift as my uniform, and most of those were stained by the time the shift was over. I look back on that time and so many like it and I wonder why I stayed. It must have been something like Stockholm Syndrome. Or maybe I was just waiting to get even with Spuds.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Making Excuses

One of the waitresses at a hotel I worked at called in sick for her shift the next morning, telling me that her husband had shot and killed himself that night and she "had a lot of blood and stuff to clean off the walls."

(So, technically, she still could work. She just didn't feel like it.)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Being Unmanageable

There have been a couple of times that I've been suckered into "cross-training" for assistant manager positions. It wasn't that I ever intended to be an assistant manager ... I was just trying to get some hours while we were slow. One hotel made it a policy for a while to cross-train the entire wait staff. There wasn't much to the training - just minor closing paperwork stuff - but I do remember one manager who took this training very seriously. He had devised a series of trick questions that he would run by his trainee randomly throughout the night. The only point to the questions seemed to be to get the person to answer incorrectly. For instance, he would paint a scenario like "A customer comes up to the register to pay their check. What do you do?" As you went through the steps of asking the customer about their dining experience, processing the method of payment, etc, he would hold up his hand, eyes twinkling with excitement, and say, "Wait! Trick Question!! The customer doesn't bring their check to the register! The waiter is supposed to do that!" It was his big ol' "Gotcha" moment and he just lived for it. Consequently, even when we knew were being set up for one of these little traps, we just humored him. He had so few pleasures. It was especially fun when got him to "trick" us 2 or 3 times over the same thing. Shucks. When would we ever learn?

One of the hotels I worked for participated in a program with a University that facilitated placement of individuals attending their Hotel and Restaurant Management School in exchange for tax credits. These students were going in debt so they could work twice as many hours as the people they would "manage" for a fraction of their earnings. You've just got to admire that kind or dogmatism.
I like to think we did our best to save them, but there were some who probably still slipped through our fingers who were just beyond help.

The students hadn't been taught anything about how to wait tables, but the course appeared to be heavy on methods of discipline and these kids could hardly wait
to jump in and kick some waiter ass. I remember one of the gals who worked for a semester with us would run white glove inspections of the service areas after closing, often resulting in ridiculous directives, like the time she told another waiter and me to throw away ten pounds of coffee that had been prepped in filters for the morning restaurant, banquet and room service rush. She insisted we were not going home until that coffee had been "removed." Well, you can't put it back in the bags, even if you did drag them out of the trash, so I turned to the other closing waiter, pointed my finger at the stack of filled coffee filters and commanded, "CURTIS! EAT. THOSE. GROUNDS!" and then we both laughed ourselves silly.

Another management candidate was fascinatingly unpleasant in both appearance and demeanor. Very pale skinned, at least six feet tall, quite heavy set with an unruly mop of curly red hair that she kept tied in a nylon stocking (as in pantyhose - I'm not kidding) she would thunder through the dining room and scream at whichever server had been seated, "FOUR!!!" or "TWO!!" regardless of whether you were already in the process of taking your table's drink order or introducing the specials. She had been trained to let servers know how many people she had seated in their station, but she was unable to bypass this "training" when it was no longer needed. Precisely because she was such an imposing physical presence (with a voice like a litter of cats in a wringer washer) she did more than just startle the crap out of the customers, she frightened them. If she's working in the food and beverage industry today, it would almost have to be someplace like a cafeteria in a reformatory school.

I've worked with almost every variety of managers: Compulsive liars, coke heads, control freaks, sadists, drunks, corporate puppets, thieves, sexual predators, and the occasional reasonably sane individual. Restaurant and hotel managers were mostly people to work around, rather than any kind of asset to the bar and wait staff. I wasn't the kind to leave just because business was slow or tips sucked, but if I had to work with an unmanageable manager, well, "I was looking for a job when I found this one."

The Big Chill

When I was a young waiter, from time to time I'd have customers (mostly women, but a few men) who liked to flirt with me pretty aggressively. I was so naive, and I embarrassed easily, so I can see why it was fun for them, but it wasn't usually so much fun for me.

There were two gals in particular who did their level best to shock me. They dressed in short skirts and bustiers with fishnet stockings and high heels. Kinda like drag queens (if I had known what a drag queen looked like at that age - I wasn't out yet). One night they came in to the restaurant, asked for my station, and ordered dessert. Lots of lip licking and playing with their straws and other suggestive movements, and then, "I want a banana nut crepe ... with a REALLY BIG banana!" The other gal ordered her dessert, probably just as tauntingly, but it's the crepe I remember.


I called the order for the crepe (the only part of the order the cook handled) and when it came up, I made the dessert ... 3 little balls of vanilla ice cream rolled in the crepe, covered with hot fudge, sliced bananas over the top, whipped cream and chopped nuts, all on a dessert plate. Then I braced myself for the inevitable finger in the whipped cream or the "Nice nuts" comment; I just wanted to get it over with.

I set the dessert in front of the woman - very buxom in her bustier - and those little balls of ice cream, warmed by the hot crepe, shot out the end of it straight into her cleavage. I was laughing so hard I fell down. I really couldn't have aimed any better if I'd been trying. It's still one of my favorite moments from waiting tables, but after that I did learn to serve the crepes flat side forward.

Friday, July 9, 2010

That Familar Smell

When I moved to Texas, it was with an office job. The mutual funds company I worked for closed their office here during the dotcom bust and there was very little opportunity in that industry, so I wound up with a few odd jobs before I decided to go back to waiting tables for a while. One of those jobs was in "Guest Services" (customer service/returns) at a Super Target store.

One night, I was working the counter with a young female employee. She had just finished exchanging something for a customer and she came over to me so upset she was almost crying. I asked her what was wrong and she said, "I just can't believe that woman spoke to me like that! She asked me if I thought she smelled like cock!"

Granted, that was pretty weird. I said, "Tell me all of what she said. Maybe you misunderstood?"

"No, I know that's what she said. She told me she'd been on her knees all day and said she probably smelled like cock!"

I asked her what the woman was returning.

It was a tube of caulk.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Corporate Idiocy

Corporate restaurant executives and their suck-up store managers are notorious for not knowing their ass from page five. I don't think it's only because they've never waited tables themselves. I truly believe that they are either selected for their capacity to be completely delusional, or those kinds of jobs just naturally draw the reality-impaired.

The worst corporate restaurant experience I had was working at a Marie Callender's. It was also my last restaurant job. What a bass-ackwards mess they could make of the simplest tasks. For instance, when you key in your order, the terminal spits out a copy of the chit for the cooks and one for the waiter. The waiter is required to hang their copy above the server side of the window. When the food comes down, the cook throws away the kitchen copy of the chit, so the wait staff has to be on constant watch for their orders 'cos there's no ticket with the plates. Furthermore, they've gotta scan the other chits hanging up on the window to make sure they're not getting another waiter's food. When I asked why the kitchen didn't just drop the ticket with the food, the manager said, "That is not the Marie Callender's way of doing things."

Also among the Not-Marie-Callender-Ways are:

Closing the bus stations next to the open stations and leaving the bus stations in the back of the restaurant open so waiters had to walk the full length of the restaurant to make Cokes or iced tea.

Mixing all of the six-slice and five-slice pie servers into the same bus tubs so that every time you reach for a slicer to cut the pies, you've got to make sure you've got the right size (pies to go are cut one way, served pies are cut another .... there are about 70 of the six-cut slicers and maybe 10 of the 5-cut). You need a new slicer for each pie, the pies are at the front of the restaurant which is a really long haul for the back stations, all the slicers look the same when you're in the weeds, and if you cut a pie wrong, you've ruined it for serving. A separate place to keep the 5-cut slicers? "Too much trouble."

Not allowing the huge, overflowing salad bowls to be served with dinner plate underliners. "They have to ask for a plate if they want one" (Which they always do.) A large salad order automatically means two trips from the kitchen.

Not fixing the keys on the order terminals, so "Breakfast #1" actually ordered "Breakfast #3" in the kitchen, and "Breakfast #3" ordered something else entirely.

It was like waiting tables in a Far Side cartoon.

The day I left Marie Callender's, I was working a brunch. I told the manager before the restaurant opened that we only had 3 bottles of Tabasco sauce total for all three dining rooms. I offered to run to the store and buy some. (Brunch in Texas without Tabasco can get ugly.) He declined, so I spent my entire shift swapping out one bottle from table to table ("Excuse me? May I borrow that for the table next to you?") and shooting myself in the foot for tips. After I'd been on the floor with a full station for 7 hours without a break, I told my manager that my station was covered and I wanted to step outside for a cigarette. He said, "Now, Guy, I told you that not everyone smokes, so when you want a cigarette, you need to say, 'I would like to have a break now.'" Was I pissed? I told him, "For God's sakes, I'm over 40 years old. I'm not gonna play "Mother May I?" with you. I'm going to smoke. When I come back, I'll cash out my tickets. I won't work here anymore."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


I used to work at a very popular diner on Colorado Blvd in Denver called "House of Pies." Breakfast served all day with 80 kinds of pie baked on premises. The restaurant was typical California diner-style with huge plate glass windows running down the side facing the parking lot and a little strip of shrubs and landscaping in between the parking lot and the windows. Uniforms for the guys were khaki pants and and a white shirt, but the women had to wear a white blouse with a kind of wrap-around brown polyester jumper skirt that buttoned on the side and tied in back in a big bow.

One night, we were packed with people lined up to the door, and one of our waitresses was being dropped off for work by her boyfriend. When she got out of the car, she shut the bow of her uniform in the car door. Her boyfriend drove off and she twirled right out of that wraparound skirt/jumper and started screaming for him to stop. Really, she was lucky that there was so little holding that uniform to her, or I guess she might have been pulled with the car. It sure happened fast. It looked like one of those tablecloth tricks.

She ran for the shrubbery alongside the windows to take cover from the cars on the street only to realize that she was now the floor show for the entire restaurant, crouching next to the huge windows in a blouse and pantyhose. Her boyfriend finally heard her and stopped the car. Then she had to get dressed and walk past all the customers on the waiting list, knowing that these were the people she would be waiting on in a few minutes.

Goodbye, Friend

I read today that a favorite waitress friend of mine passed away. It happened quite some time ago, and I only found out because I saw an article about the place where we used to work. The restaurant had been operating for over 40 years by the time some land developers came in and decided to tear it down. Edith had worked there for over 20 years. I knew her best as one of her regular customers; I'd come in when I got off work at the bar where I cocktailed. I worked with her when the diner needed extra help, like on Thanksgiving and Christmas, for several years, and then eventually I worked there full time. The article said she died the day after the restaurant was razed.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Blue Ribbon Texas Nibblin' Double Dribblin' Oink Oink Plate

I never liked working on the 4th, but it wasn't because I had any particular burning desire to watch fireworks or barbecue or mark the holiday in any way. It's just the forced merriment of holidays in general, combined with the question that is always hovering in the air, "So, are you doing anything special for the 4th?" If they were asking me, the answer was, "Working." If I was foolish or insensitive enough to ask them, the answer was usually, "Just this." Oh, man. You really do have a crappy life if this is special.

Regarding "Specials: The 4th of July specials almost always had some "Blue Ribbon" or county fair kind of theme to them and it really sucked when they advertised the heck out of these specials all week and then ran out halfway through the shift. It's just mean to run out of anything "special" when your holiday crowd is made up of so many people who don't have families in town or didn't get invited to neighborhood barbecues. That's the one time you've gotta come through. It's especially mean when the restaurant has named the special (now 86'd) something rhyming or stupid that nobody wants to say in the first place. First you make a 40 year-old man say words that sound like they came out of a Dr. Seuss book and then you tell him he did it for nothing? They would be so much happier if you just said, "Same old shit today ... don't get your hopes up." Or even better, don't open the restaurant on the 4th of July. There are some of us who would rather go to a bar and drink about our independence than work on that day. We could take advantage of their 4th of July beer specials, 'cos Lord knows they never have to deal with depressed people on the holidays.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


I can't seem to motivate myself, and I think it's because there isn't anything that I have to do. I spent so many years working under a time crunch, that when I don't have one I just stop. If you've ever worked a lot of splits or banquets or in the kind of restaurants that were so seasonally affected that half the staff disappeared in the off-months, you probably know what I'm going through. During the off times, you wait and re-charge. But what if there's nothing to re-charge for? (Sorry, for which to re-charge?)

Banquets were probably where the habit of resting between duties was ground into me most. There's no other way I could have made it through those 115 hour weeks during Christmas season if I hadn't figured out how to shut down when I had the chance. The problem for me now is that I don't work. I'm disabled, and I have one part-time job (5 hours a week) and a couple of volunteer things I do, and I usher at church once a month, so otherwise I'm "resting." I treat my time like I am just waiting until I'm on the schedule again, but otherwise I'm not moving. I don't clean house unless someone is coming over, and I don't even bother to wash my hair unless I'm leaving the apartment. Sometimes I don't even shave.

Granted, some of the resting is necessary, but I think it goes deeper than that. For instance, I learned early on that if I had to work a long night shift, I wasn't gonna do too much in the day. I probably wasn't even going to get up until a couple of hours before I went to work. I always tried to be as fresh and energized as I could be for my shift. I had to be, because work took every last ounce of physical and mental energy out of me. I measured it out through the shift, like you would balance the last drag off a cigarette with that last slug of coffee, and when the shift was over, I'd given all I had to give. I think I still hold back as if I had something to do later in the day - not wanting to use myself up before I have to - and then when the day is over and I haven't done anything, I just feel empty. I haven't acclimated myself to being off the schedule.

I miss the adrenaline rush of waiting tables, even as I know that I couldn't possibly handle the demands of the job any more. When breakfast, lunch, movie or bar rush hit, when a party broke and we had to turn a room in half an hour, when we were snowed in with the airport closed and a hotel filled to capacity, a skeleton crew to cover all the shifts and positions ... when I didn't have time to think about what to do with my time.

Sometimes I resent beating up my body the way I did, with my left hip higher than my right and my right shoulder shorter than my left from carrying trays, my varicose veins and swollen ankles, and the fact that I was always too tired from work to actually exercise. I can get to feeling bad about all the social activities I missed and the concerts and lunch dates, 'cos I was always working when all the "normal" people weren't. If someone was getting married, unless I was working the party, I probably wasn't gonna be there. On the other hand, I obviously miss the work, or I wouldn't be walking through "Guy's House of Memories" in this blog, recalling my glory years.

The point I hope I'm making today is that, while you're waiting, you may be thinking that the job is just something you're going to do until your real life starts, but it is your real life. There are some things about being a waiter that never leave you. You'll eventually get over checking for daylight in the salt shakers, facing the sweet and lows and straightening cutlery on empty tables, but you don't ever forget that there were moments when the whole future of the world rested on your shoulders and on whether or not table 16 got their damned extra side of ranch dressing for their fries before they walked. There were times when you were needed.

Please Like Me

I never felt like I had the technical skills of a really great waiter: Organizing, prioritizing and multi-tasking were things I learned by trial and error. Some people are naturally gifted in those areas, but I wasn't one of them. I relied heavily on my people skills and my natural drive for acceptance. I was born with a need to be liked. I was usually extremely popular with about 90% of my customers and loathed by the other 10%. Not much in between.

Sometimes I really deserved the 10%. Here are some situations where I'm probably lucky I didn't get my ass kicked:

(On a night when half of the restaurant was filled with a meeting of the Clown Convention who had shown up without reservations.)"Hi Folks. 7 tonight? Did you want to sit on this side of the dining room or over there with the rest of the clowns?"

(To a woman standing at her table with an empty coffee pot held straight out in front of her.) "I almost didn't notice you. I thought you were the Statue of Liberty! Is there anything I can bring for you?"

Customer: "Do you have restrooms?"
Me: "No. That's why we put those little (coffee) pots on the tables."

(And to the Titanic Society as I'm spilling 8 glasses of ice water on their table): "Lifeboats!"

**The last one did get me a big tip, though everyone was soaked. I was carrying all eight stemless glasses without a tray. I learned not to show off after that.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sleeping with the customers

I just received my first blog comment and, oddly enough, it mentioned the very thing I came here to write about today: Waiter nightmares. I'm sure most waiters have experienced them, and even former waiters like me still have them from time to time. I used to work with a waitress who would sleepwalk while she dreamed about still being on the floor. Her roommate found her in the kitchen once at about four in the morning with the refrigerator door open muttering, "Table 18 needs mustard." Another waitress friend of mine told me she dreamed she had taken jobs at two restaurants about 6 blocks away from each other and was scheduled to work the same shift at both of them. She said she was running down Colorado Boulevard with trays full of food 'cos she had accidentally hung tickets for the wrong restaurant on the other one's wheel.

One of my most vivid nightmares was of the classic "I'm the only one working and there are way too many customers" variety. A little background to this one: In the days before brewed decaf coffee (I can still hear that shrewish screech, "Do you have BREEEEWWWED decaf?" when it finally did come available) we used to serve instant Sanka packets with small thermal pots of hot water. They were the same ones we used for hot tea and no matter how many times we ran them through the dishwasher, the plastic always held onto a sort of mixed tea/Sanka odor. The pots held about a cup and half of water that they didn't really keep hot and were likely to leak all over the table and the customer when they tried to pour from them. There were also only about 8 Sanka pots for a restaurant with seating for 400. "I'll have Sanka" was enough to make me feel like I was having a stroke.

In my nightmare, I'm in the service area and I can hear a low rumbling that is building to a frightening volume. When I walk out into the dining room, it has become an endless sea of toothless women with white curly permanents, banging little plastic pots on the table and chanting, "SANKA! SANKA! SANKA!" (except it sounds like "RWANKA! RWANKA! RWANKA!") A mob in polyester pant suits. They are angry, and I'm the only one working. That's all there is to it, but every time I dreamed it, I would wake up trembling.

Another one I had pretty frequently was where my station kept expanding. Working in a pancake house, you already have an ungodly number of tables, and if you're on a graveyard weekday shift, you will probably have the entire restaurant to yourself at some point. In this dream, there are construction workers building booths and knocking out the walls of the restaurant. I'm taking orders as fast as I can, but every time I come out with plates, the building has gotten longer until I can't even see the end of my station. I don't even think of quitting, but I know it's just a matter of time before the customers turn on me and pick my bones.

The one I still have from time to time is just about pure humiliation. I am working in a restaurant where I have no idea what is on the menu - sometimes when I look at the menus they're blank - and nobody will tell me. Customers are demanding their food, but I don't have any clue what they ordered, and every time I try to deliver food, the people are missing. The customers become more and more hostile and somehow I think the whole thing is my fault, even though I've never even seen this restaurant before and I have no idea why I'm working in it.

Even as bad as the dreams could be, the reality was usually worse, but I've never been more proud of the work I did than when I waited tables. Many times, I wasn't proud of the restaurant I worked at, but I knew that it took a lot to be a good waiter and the work was far more demanding than most people believed. It felt good to know I had earned every penny of what I made.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"I'll just have . . . "

The first job I had was at a pancake house. It was also the 4th, 7th and 11th, or something like that, because I kept quitting and then coming back. I must have been a little bit of a masochist.

I started out working the night shift at a corporate store located next to a bowling alley ... with 80 lanes. Our location was the only one with two dining rooms because it was actually made over from an Italian restaurant and discotheque that was popular and then not-so-popular in the 70s. Someone had been shot and killed in the disco after hours and the rumor was the place was haunted. I believed those rumors every time both wheels were wrapped and I had been waiting 45 minutes for a short stack and a side of bacon. I could just feel the evil spirits hovering over my station. The place was far too big for the kind of turn and burn service we specialized in (it was 35 steps from the wheel to the closest table) but it was a great place to learn how to move fast - or die trying.

"Nights" were considered the inferior staff at the pancake house. The lowest on the totem pole, we often weren't even given bussers and sometimes split the whole restaurant between two waiters, closing the back dining room. It could be really slow at night, and that's why nobody wanted that shift. I remember an especially slow period of about 3 weeks that only ended when we discovered that the bowling alley next door was turning off our sign along with their lights when they closed. Ever since then, if we had a lull in business, someone would say, "Is the sign on?"

Admittedly, there were times when we didn't mind being slow. We'd sometimes play a game where we bet how long it would take for someone to walk out without being waited on, or we'd send one of the regular customers to the liquor store and use the strawberries and fountain glasses from the dessert bar to make strawberry daiquiris. However, getting too "relaxed" could really bite you in the butt if one of those big parties showed up like Amway or the "UFOs" (people that actually believed in UFOs ) or palm readers. Sometimes it would be an entire bowling league. Those groups never let you know when they were coming and they were really weird people. Completely out of step with how to behave in public. When you asked the first arrivals, "How many in your party?" they'd say, "Oh, I don't know ... 60 or 70 I think" and all Hell would break loose in the kitchen (the cooks always blamed the wait staff for their arrival), and whoever had seniority would be "On for one" with the whole front dining room. The other waiter would have to open up the back room.

These groups were always "Separate checks" and they were always in a hurry for their food. They expected to be served before they started their meeting and that usually meant you had less than 30 minutes to take their orders, ring them, hang them, serve their food and drop the check. We were not allowed to add a gratuity. The orders would run the gamut, from full dinners to, "Oh, I'll just have a chocolate shake." Never mind that I had to make that shake myself from ice cream that was frozen so hard I couldn't get it out of the 5 gallon tub with a blowtorch. There were a lot of menu items the waiters made ... desserts, salads, toast and english muffins, soft boiled eggs (cracking them) and grapefruit (sectioning) were some of them. Shakes were probably the worst. After you dug out the ice cream, you had to babysit the shake machine 'cos they were notorious for losing their grip and throwing your shake (and any others that were on the machine) across the service galley. There's a little clip on the shake canisters that is supposed to make them stick, but it was no guarantee -- even if you could find one of the canisters that had the clips.

The best way to work these parties was to diagram the room. I'd just number off customers and write their order on a sheet of notebook paper. When I got to the back, I'd re-write a copy for the cooks with all the stuff they had to make on one ticket (this was pre-computer days) and drop toast - loads of toast - and get to work on the drinks. Technically, our corporate office allowed us six minutes for the first customer and one minute for each additional, but these groups didn't see it that way. "All I asked for was a spinach salad, and english muffin and hot tea with lemon" was the usual attitude. Never mind that the only part of that order that I didn't make myself was the hot bacon dressing that came from the cooks who had enough to do cooking everyone else's order and could care less if they ever gave it to me.

That was another problem: The cooks. I worked with some pretty rough guys. Some of them on jail release. The waitresses had it easier, 'cos a lot of them were dating cooks or at least flirted with them enough to make that seem like a possibility, but a 20-year-old who "looks like a faggot" has a tough row to hoe. Once in a while, there'd be one who showed mercy, and after a time of proving myself I had a great team going with some of the guys. In the interim, though, I had food thrown at me, I was threatened, strangled, and called every name in the book. Being on the bad side of a cook could make your life miserable.

I have distinct memories of those harrowing rushes with the unexpected parties: Visions of plate after plate of curled toast sitting under the heat lamp (either because I'd over-estimated how many orders I needed or it was dead before the food came up and I had to toast more), the smell of maple syrup burning in the bottom of the warmer because nobody had time to put water in it, the feel of my skin burning after being hot-plated by a particularly nasty cook or the sound of a ham and cheese omelet as it hit the carpet face-down after falling off the back of my tray. Some things I'll never forget.

I'm really not sure why I kept coming back to that restaurant. It was some of the hardest work I'd ever done and the pay really sucked. It wasn't uncommon to get a tip of 35 or 50 cents, and though that might have been 10%, ordering the cheapest thing on the menu didn't make it any easier on me. Maybe I came back because I already knew the taste of that poison, and there was no risk. By the time I finally walked (the 4th and final time I was employed there) I had so many regulars that it felt like that movie "Groundhog Day" every time I went to work. By then, I was on days. I would see people in the grocery store and think, "There goes Crisp Bacon, Two Over Hard, Cottage Cheese, Rye Toast Dry, Butter On The Side." Of course, I would avoid all eye contact.