Monday, September 27, 2010

The Right (way) To Marry

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

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

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

Saturday, September 25, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 19, 2010

State of Mind

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Perk

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 10, 2010

Drunken, Dangerous Liasons

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 6, 2010

When a Stranger Calls

"Johnny's Pizza!"

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

"Which hotel?"

"Oh, never mind."

Whew! Almost busted again.

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

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

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

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

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