Monday, February 14, 2011

Well done, good and faithful servant

I don't think I was ever really cut out to be a waiter, even though that's what I spent most of my life doing. There are some things about me that were a decent fit: I am intuitive, fairly quick-witted, and I motivate well with short term goals and the regular affirmation that being tipped affords. However, I really suck at multi-tasking (unless it's big picture, planning-ahead stuff) and my feelings get hurt way too easily.

I didn't ever know how to take advantage of being a waiter like using the job to network, sucking up to the cooks for free food (or stealing food), moving around from restaurant to restaurant (or city to city, working the circuit) or knowing how to sweet-talk customers into bigger tips. Instead, I was the kind of waiter that wanted to please people and was flattered or hurt by the size of my tip. I also didn't have the sense God gave a pig to know that eating a side of toast that was never served and was going to be thrown away wasn't a kind of "stealing" that would hurt my employer. I was going hungry, trying to make a generic loaf of white bread last for three days of meals, but I'd throw the toast away at work because I hadn't paid for it. My conscience got in the way of common sense.

When I worked at the Pancake House, every waiter was supposed to "dip butters," meaning, we each scooped small balls of whipped butter into portion cups on large baking pans that were stored on racks in the refrigerator and used for pancakes and waffles. There were times I would realize after I had walked over a mile from the restaurant back to my apartment that I hadn't dipped my butters and I would walk all the way back just to take care of it. Didn't matter if it was snowing and I was dog tired and cold. I was also the kind of waiter who would keep working if someone from the next shift didn't show, even though I knew my loyalty wouldn't even be noticed.

I behaved on my job as if I worked in an office and could expect a promotion some day for my dedication, when I should have stayed on the move, always looking for the money. That is, if being a waiter had ever been about the money for me. Instead, I think waiting tables was a matter of honor. I knew it was a hard job, and I wanted to be good at it. Of course, wish in one hand; I'm not sure that I ever succeeded. There are times when I'd like to have just one more run at it to prove to myself, but I'm pretty sure I'd just be chasing after that proverbial carrot. Still, I don't think of my career as a waiter as misguided: Skills or not, I did want to be a waiter. To paraphrase Florence Foster Jenkins, "They may say I couldn't wait tables, but they can never say I didn't wait tables."

Saturday, February 5, 2011


A friend of mine just posted on Facebook that he's in a noodle restaurant and he that he loves being "the only Caucasian in the place." That reminded me (your time's comin' you'll see ... when you get older, everything "reminds" you of something) of the groups of Asian tourists and businessmen that stayed at one of the hotels where I was a banquet waiter. At least at that time, in the 1980s, that thing about Asian tourists taking a lot of pictures was completely true. Our hotel was the first place in the United States these folks would see after arriving at the airport, so whoever happened to be working when they arrived usually wound up posing for a lot of photos.

One evening, I did give a group of Chinese businessmen plenty to laugh (or be alarmed) at. I had decided to bleach my hair blonde that afternoon, but the processing took longer than I expected and I didn't have time to put a toner on it. I had also spent a little too long in the sun the day before, so my skin was rather pink. It looked especially pink next to my very yellow hair. For those of you who have never bleached your hair, it's a two-part process. When you take the color out, your hair is pretty brassy, so you need to add a color back in to soften it to a more natural looking shade of blonde. What I had was the color of a hi-lite marker.

I didn't know ahead of time who I was gonna be waiting on that night or consider, even after I knew the group was Chinese, just how conspicuous I would feel being so much more brightly colored (and at least five inches taller) than all of my guests. Every time I walked in the room, flashbulbs would go off - way more than usual - and every eye was on me. And, of course, they were laughing.

I fixed my hair the next day, and the sunburn gradually eased into a tan, but my moment of shame lives on in the rolls of 40 men's rolls of vacation film, someplace in China. No doubt some of their children are now traveling to the United States, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of our pink and yellow giants. I've seen the colors kids are putting in their hair these days; I'm glad they won't be disappointed.

Friday, February 4, 2011

If You Let Them Treat You Badly (They Will)

Snow in Texas?
Yes, it's true. And I was okay with it, since I didn't have to work, but it reminded me of the many times being snowed in in Denver meant working 'round the clock. You wouldn't know it by how often I visit my own blog, but there was a time when I was a very dedicated - really, to the point of being obsessive - worker. I would actually come in to work when I wasn't scheduled when there was a blizzard, knowing there would be several who wouldn't risk the drive. Because so much of my f & b years were spent in hotels or 24 hour restaurants, my work ethic was a perfect match for their needs.

Did they appreciate my dedication?
Almost never.

I remember one night in particular when the blizzard had started while I was at work serving an evening banquet. The storm was predicted to close the airport, strand our hotel guests, and make the roads impassable, so the general manager told me he'd arrange for a room for me at the hotel if I'd open the restaurant in the morning. When the banquet ended and we'd cleared and cleaned up the kitchen, the rest of the staff went home to their families while there was still a chance of getting home, and I went downstairs to get my key. It's pretty common for a hotel to put up staff in extra rooms when they're needed for quick turnaround shifts, long hours or emergencies like blizzards, so I wasn't anticipating any trouble, but the front desk told me they had not been "authorized" to give me the room. It was about 1 in the morning so they weren't gonna call the GM to verify my claims, but since I'd promised to open the restaurant at 6, I didn't think it was likely I'd get home and be able to get back.

If I had it to do over today, I would have left. However, I was duty-bound to keep my promise to management and not inconvenience the guests of the hotel, so I went back up to the banquet kitchen and made myself a bed on the floor out of the soiled linens from the party I had just worked. I didn't even let myself have clean tablecloths! I didn't even try to get Housekeeping to give me a blanket! "Oh no. Just a spot on the cold linoleum wrapped in dirty wadded up laundry is good enough .... I can only sleep for 4 hours anyway."