Is anything alright?
Summer has arrived, and as one of those lucky people who works in a school, I am on vacation. I feel extra fortunate because while many of my coworkers have gone on to find summer employment, I have not.
Their alarm clocks still go off in the morning, and they must shower, dress, and head out to teach summer school, tutor, coach, paint, clean and waitress.
I am doing none of those things. Instead, I am counting my pennies carefully and whiling away these long, sunny days at beaches and playgrounds, where admission is cheap and my daughter is entertained.
Part of me feels I’ve earned it. I worked 25 summers before I had my daughter. Jobs included babysitter, camp counselor, grocery store clerk, waitress and reporter. I cleared tables, bagged groceries, led hikes, shoveled manure, mixed drinks, made friendship bracelets, took photographs, made phone calls, gave baths, and played countless games of Candyland. I’ll leave it to the imagination to decide which task went with which career.
Now in the midst of my ninth summer off, when I look back on my checkered past, I think waitressing had to be one of the toughest jobs I ever had. I’ll be honest. I wasn’t a great waitress. But I was pleasant and cheerful and tried hard, so most people gave me a pass. A few even requested me. That, I’ll never understand.
Sadly, I can say I was the type of waitress who would promise, “Sure, I’ll be right back with your ketchup!” But the moment I left the table, I would get sidetracked. I’d grab the coffee pot and give refills to half the room, then clear a few tables, cash out a customer or two, and then stop dead in my tracks as I saw my condiment-seeking customer asking a busboy to please pass the Heinz.
Extra coffee creamers, a lemon wedge, malt vinegar, hot sauce, Sweet ‘n Low...these special requests were the bane of my existence. Rarely would I remember to follow through. Lucky for me, people are patient and apparently could sense I meant well. I just was in the wrong line of work.
At night I would toss and turn in my bed, dreaming about customers who needed menus, checks I had forgotten to deliver, and lobsters that got cold waiting for me in the kitchen, all the while wearing a pager that never stopped beeping. It was psychological torture.
It took years for the nightmares to stop completely. And now that I’m writing this, I fear I may trigger a relapse.
But it wasn’t all bad. I met wonderful people, made a lot of money, laughed until I cried with my fellow waitstaff, and had experiences I’ll never forget.
Like the time I was serving lobster to a lovely couple on the waterfront deck, with seagulls, fishing boats, lapping waves and salt air all around, and they waved toward the horizon.
“Dear, do you know what lake this is?” they asked me.
I almost dropped my tray.
“It’s the Atlantic Ocean,” I said with a smile.
“Ohhhhh…” they said, nodding reverently.
Almost weekly someone would ask if our open-air deck was air conditioned. We bit our tongues until they bled.
Once a woman breezily snapped her menu shut and decisively announced she would have the seafood quickie.
“Very good,” I said, pencil poised over my notebook. “Wait, what?”
“The seafood quickie,” she repeated confidently.
“Um, can you show it to me?” I asked, my mind racing to recall the evening’s specials. This wasn’t ringing a bell at all.
She opened her menu and pointed.
“Ah, yes,” I said, scribbling “seafood quiche” onto my notepad. “Great choice.”
I mean, who am I to judge? I was a college kid. It’s not like I had all the answers either.
My friends would be quick to point out the time a blind man came into the restaurant with three friends. I approached the table with four menus, quickly discerned his disability, yet still proceeded to distribute four menus: placing one in front of each guest.
When I got back to the server’s station, my coworkers were in hysterics.
“Did you just give a menu to a blind man?” they gasped.
Yes, I had.
“Couldn’t you tell he was blind?” they sneered.
Yes, of course I had noticed the cane and sunglasses.
“So WHY did you do it?” they snickered.
I thought a minute. Why HAD I done it?
“I didn’t want him to feel bad,” I said with a shrug.
“And how do you think he feels now that he’s trying to read his menu and it isn’t in Braille?!” they demanded.
“Bad,” I replied. “And like I’m an idiot.”
And I was.
I recall waiting on couples that would sit in complete silence for the duration of their meal. It was so awkward. And depressing. I’d go to the table, and there they would be, sitting in silence, staring into their coffee cups or martini glasses like they were ready to go to couples therapy or file for divorce or enter a suicide pact.
I’d show up mid-meal and chirp, “Is everything alright?” and they would nod and keep chewing, still silent. What I really wanted to say was, “Is ANYTHING alright? C’mon, people, for the love of God, say something!”
But I didn’t. I smiled and scurried away, back to the server’s station where I’d vow with my 20-something friends that I would never, ever end up like those people.
Except then you do.
Many’s the time, now that I’m over the hill, that my husband and I have pulled into a restaurant, weary from a long road trip, and just wanted a good meal and an hour’s rest. We were all talked out from our ride, and didn’t really feel the need to chat. We savored our wine or our coffee, sitting in comfortable silence, together but alone with our own thoughts. Content, though not outwardly happy.
One such time I noticed I was getting a strange vibe from our young waitress. She seemed to be eying us suspiciously. Then it hit me. She was me. And I was the sad person staring into the abyss of her coffee cup.
I learned many things from waitressing. Like not to stay up all night, then take NoDoz and try to serve coffee during the breakfast shift. My hands shook so badly I almost scalded the customers, myself and the owner of the restaurant.
Also, I learned not to judge people. Sometimes sad-looking people are really happy, but just tired. Or maybe they have a reason to be sad. Maybe they aren’t on vacation, as so many summer visitors are. Perhaps they have just come from visiting a sick relative in a hospital, or attended a funeral.
There were times when customers I thought were cranky and unhappy with my service went out of their way to thank me at the end of the night.
“We had the worst day today and came in here in a lousy mood, and you made our whole night,” they would say. In that moment, it wouldn’t matter that I had been on my feet for 10 hours or had lobster in my hair or that my apron reeked of melted butter. I had changed a life.
“Now could you please, please bring my Sweet ‘n Low?” they’d add.
And the beat goes on.