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.


  1. Sounds like excellent fodder for lots of good Waiter Nightmares. I'm sure you still have them occasionally, even if you've been out of "The Biz" for a while. Keep writing, I enjoyed this.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. "...but a 20-year-old who "looks like a faggot" has a tough row to hoe."

    Wow, I'm both laughing and cringing at the same time. This is really enjoyable and very perceptive. If you get enough material, you should try to get published!