Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hot Pasta

     His menu is down. He looks relaxed, chatting with his friend. He has done this many times before and does not feel the need to rush. Every course and step is allowed to unfold naturally, every moment relished. For this is not a McDonald's– No tray of paper-wrapped mystery meat will be shoved under his face by some careless teenager. He is paying good money for artfully prepared food to be served in a thoughtful manner, to dine.

     He makes eye contact, as I approach. My body language is soft, shoulders back, head cocked to the side, my hello gentle. I ask how they are doing, but don't really care about the response, as that is not the aim of my question. I am acknowledging your presence immediately so that I gain your trust for the course of the evening.

     He nods in return. Thank you. Your friendly presence has put me at ease. I'm looking forward to a good meal.

     "May I start you with a cocktail?" It's been a long day hasn't it? Let me fix that.

     "Yes, I'll take a vodka martini with," pauses, "an olive and an onion." Yes it has been a long day, I shouldn't have to compromise with my beverage.

     The experienced diner. We speak the same language, he and I; He knows how to ask for what he wants, and I in turn can serve him flawlessly. Drinks, wine service, setting, clearing, resetting, it all becomes a seemingly effortless dance. I am allowed to feel, for short time, the frustrations of my job ebb away.

     But we in the service industry are not always charged with the care of so skilled a guest. I get all kinds, and they all want the same thing from me: a stiff drink and a hot plate of pasta. But the inexperienced guest is often flustered, anxious about how things will proceed. I do my best to weave my spell, to make them feel safe and satisfied.

     I approach my lost-looking fellow, calmly smiling. "How are–"

     "We're not ready yet!" He and his companion look frayed, pouring over the menu like they are deciphering an ancient manuscript.

     "I was just wondering if I could start you off with a couple beverages?" Now, now there.. (cooing noises) It's going to be all better once you have a little drinky-poo.

     "Do you have any house wine?" HELP I am scared of spending too much money here.

     I guide him to the wines by the glass list. "I don't recognize any of these names.. Ugh, that's fine I guess," he points to the cheapest glass.

     He begins asking questions about every other word of the menu, clearly unfamiliar with the terminology. I am terrified of ordering something I don't like. I don't understand any of this crap! Why does the menu have to be so complicated!

     I patiently explain the unfamiliar words, try to make the dishes seem appetizing. Trust me, our dishes are very popular, you will like them. Try something different.

     Mid-explanation he interrupts: "That's not what the menu says! What are you, NEW?" If I don't get something to eat soon I'm going to lose my shit.

     I take a deep, deep, long breath. The spell is dangerously close to being undone. "No." I firmly point to the menu and finish my description.

     I leave the table and look around wistfully. Some nights my section is full of these braying, incompetent diners. Where is he, my confident guest?  I'll wonder. Please come and save me from these fools...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tales from the Diner- Part One

Ahh, the worst job ever...
I generally try not to think about "the bad old days," and from the relative safety of my fine-dining enclave it's easy to forget. But lately I've been reading a lot of other blogs, and I think I would be remiss in not sharing some of my own old war stories. This series is about my stint in a 24-hour diner in a college town. Though humbling to relate, this experience, of all the weird crap I've lived through in a restaurant, was by far the wildest and funniest. Enjoy.

     It took me three different times to work up the courage to go in. Every time I stood outside the front of the restaurantthe tacky orange vinyl booths visible from the street, and colorful, cheap-looking paint on the windows advertising the special of the month, "two-for-one chicken fried steak!" or some other monstrosity, equally glaring‒ I'd feel this sense of foreboding, the voice in my head whispering urgently for me to stay away. I have to imagine that visitors to some Bates Motel-type location would feel similarly, having an inkling of their own impending doom.

     But I had bills to pay. Rent was late, again. I'd applied everywhere, absolutely everywhere, in the small college town, but all the semi-decent to good gigs were unattainable. The buff, young male manager would look at me‒ plain, shy, pale, brunette like I was dogshit, and add my resume to the existing 2-inch stack. "It's a tough market," they'd tell me with a certain amount of genuine pity.

     I'd worked for one month at a cheesy Italian restaurant but it hadn't worked out. We had to wear the most demeaning outfits: a frumpy Italian peasant girl costume, complete with tights, short red skirt, and a "snood." I was the breakfast server, starting at 5 am, which meant I didn't sleep a wink before work. Twice I ran the coffee without a pot underneath, getting coffee everywhere, and then, while cutting green onions, I almost sliced the tip of my thumb clean off. My worst offence was that I had, in my panic, went to the general hospital next to my house instead of going to their insurance-approved clinic, so they had to pay out of pocket for the ER trip to reattach my thumb. I was fired a week later. It was ok; the servers were bitches and the manager, the spoiled son of the owners, was a coke head who was banging all the servers.

     I had, had to have tipped job. I had no help from my parents to go to school, not a single, lousy penny. It was May and I wasn't starting school until the fall, so I didn't have any financial aid to float me along. So I had very few options: move away (with what money??), be a stripper at the club north of town (me? lol), or drop my head in shame and walk through the doors of that restaurant, the worst restaurant in town.

     Why was Sam's* the worst? It was open 24/7, centrally located, and was a favorite spot after the bars closed down, in a town infamous for its partying. The decor was so worn, so plastic, it would make your average Denny's look bright and modern. The staff: even more worn. Fortunately the tweaker element was not there the day servers weren't on drugs, for the most part, and were just haggard middle-aged women. The first person to greet me was the manager, a diminutive Mexican woman whose mouth was full of gold fillings. She smiled a lot but barely spoke. I was hired instantly: fresh meat for the graveyard shift.

     At first I trained during the daytime, when things were depressing but at least somewhat sane. A fat momma server, ugly as hell but just as funny, trained me. As I followed her around on her coffee-pouring rounds, she gave me the straight scoop on everything. Basically everyone that worked there was a rat: so watch your back. The day servers were possessive of their shifts, and saw every fresh face as a potential threat. There was always the chance that some young thing might actually make it past their first three months (which didn't happen often) and end up bumping an older server from one of their "coveted" shifts. No one, no one except one server, Dani, willingly worked the graveyard shift.

     No ladies, I'm not here to take your jobs. I'm here for a few months, tops! I just need to get on my feet again. It was a weird sense of hostility, those first few days with the day crew. I'd be cleaning behind the counter, wiping off plastic ketchup bottles or some stupid task, feeling a palpable sense of dislike from both the staff and the patrons sitting at the counter. I'm an average looking chic, but I was practically a beauty queen by comparison with that crowd, and a genius to boot. I didn't fit in. I don't want to be here either, you fuckers.

     Would I make it past three months at the worst job ever? To be continued...
*Names have obviously been changed to protect the innocent