Thursday, December 7, 2006

Out of context

Everyone has probably had the experience of making eye contact with an acquaintance, only to have that person quickly avert his or her gaze to avoid having to make social contact. Then both tacitly adopt the conceit that we did not really see each other.

Waitresses are people too. We do not evaporate up the fry hood after each shift. We shop for groceries, we walk our dogs, we stop in for coffee, we go to plays and concerts, we meet friends, we enjoy our hobbies.

Maybe I am particularly sensitive to this avoidance gesture, but I find it degrading, perhaps because it is weighted with presumptions of the (lack of) esteem in which service persons are held.

Once, while shopping for household items, I encountered a regular customer who previously had chatted me up virtually every evening for weeks after he was relocated to this town. Our eyes locked for a second as we pushed our carts. I smiled with an upbeat hello. He effected the avoidance move. He was with his wife (who had just moved here).

I expected him to, at a minimum, do the head bob of recognition. Optimal would be to introduce me to his wife. Instead, he pretended he did not see me.

Me, somewhat loudly: "Are you pretending you don't know me?" I was miffed. More than miffed.

I extended my hand and introduced myself to his wife, who was gracious.

At the cafe, this man had shared every manner of detail about his life: his bariatric surgery, his years of truck driving, his service as a volunteer firefighter, the series of events leading to his ownership of a lakeside vacation home, infinitestimal details of his new job at an oil company dispatch yard. Very friendly.

The man liked to talk. Definitely did not like to listen, ignoring me when I had the temerity to even offer a small comment here and there on the subject of his life. Outside the confines of cafe, when I could not function as the receptacle of his verbal outflow, apparently he did not feel any need to acknowledge me.

Of course, it's a reflection on him, not on me. But I'm still annoyed.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The thin veneer

The cafe staff is composed almost exclusively people recovering from substance abuse. A rehab halfway house in our city furnished a steady stream of good workers. When one waitress came to the end of her stint at the rehab house, the boss asked her spread the word that a successor was needed. These folks were reliable, hard-working, and intelligent. Their stories of a tough life contrasted with my relatively sheltered life.

I found their resilience and resourcefulness humbling. It was a lesson in humility. I felt guilty about ever complaining about my lot in life.

Despite the fact that waiting tables has traditionally been the employment bastion of the uneducated, make no mistake, a good waitress possesses the skill set to be a corporate vice president. Given advantages early on in life, the career trajectory is limitless for a person with the interpersonal skills, multitasking abilities, and sheer physical rigor to wait tables, assuming they start from a position of strength.

A lot of unfulfilled potential. A lot. Sadly. These are people I respected.

Life, as with chemistry, where one ends up depends so much on where one starts, to paraphrase Barbara Ehrenreich, an experiential journalist (and cell biologist) who wrote about trying to get by on low-wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Making it in America.

For my food service friends, life is a struggle: with finances, with the demons that beset them, with their families, against society's perception.

Years before, I visited with a homeless young man at the beach in San Diego. He had owned a successful business cleaning boat hulls in San Diego Harbor. Through a series of mishaps and beset by a drinking problem, he lost his business, tumbled through the tiers of desperation, until he found himself at the lowest rung of society: homeless, penniless, and out of options. How tenuous is our grasp on affluence and normalcy! The veneer is frighteningly thin.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A tale of two citizens

Until recently, the wealthiest man in town dropped in for lunch every day. He ordered the identical lunch every day. His regular employee companion ordered that same lunch. Every day. Once a different (perhaps unindoctrinated) minion ordered something different. We never saw that employee again. Coincidence? Who knows?

The businessman was a gentleman. Always left a big tip, treated the waitstaff with courtesy, forgave of the foibles and gaffes of a new waitress. Sometimes he brought family in the evenings. Whatever his reputation in business dealings, he was consistently kind to us.

Once, two months after I had moved back into a professional career, I encountered him and that same employee companion on a commuter flight. I greeted them both with a wink and a good morning, calling them by name. The businessman's greeting was genuinely charming and even effusive. His employee companion, whom I had served an equal number of times, asked, "Who is she?" The boss explained.

As one of the cooks noted, "He takes notice of the people around him."

Class act.

In contrast, a member of the board of regents of a huge state university system occasionally dined with two college-age nephews.

It was apparent that the three felt as if they were to the manor born. Never did they make eye contact; their manner was inconsiderate and brutish. I once served the young relatives their iced teas first, and before I could even place the second glass on the table, the man barked, "Where's my beer?"

Then he proceeded to entertain the young men (by design), another customer across the room and me (by accident of being within earshot) about how a woman, whom he named, "was a mess," and once "groped him under the table" at a formal banquet. Then he segued to regaling us in graphic detail and with heavy use of the vernacular of the configuration of a college football player's genitals, which he had apparently viewed in the team's locker room after a game.

Apparently this man gives his own spin to an F. Scott Fitzgerald observation, "The very rich are different from you and me." And apparently are bound by a very different set of rules.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hon: The Waitress Prerogative

The unique nature of waitress:customer relationship allows—requires, even—the waitress to, well, take a certain liberty when addressing customers.

Not honey.

Despite the apparent disparity of our stations in life, waitresses have an assumed familiarity with customers.

So I found myself asking the former president of a large, well known university and his distinguished-looking guest: "Care for some more coffee, hon?"

Taking all kinds of liberties. It's expected.

Pepsi v. Coke: and the winner is...Dr Pepper

Here's an exchange I've had several dozen times.

Me: "What would you like to drink?"
Customer: "Coke."
Me: "Pepsi okay?"
Customer: "Dr Pepper."

I don't get it!

Okay, I'll admit I grew up in a different part of the country (north of the Mason-Dixon line), and the difference between Pepsi and Coke is negligible to me. Sure, in a side-by-side test, I can taste the sweeter Coke (but prefer Pepsi). But to have such loyalty to a soda? They are almost indistinguishable. Dr Pepper is the outlier.

Now, I can understand loyalty to a regional soda, such as Nehi or Royal Crown or even the old cream sodas, but Pepsi and Coke are international megabrands. An entire movie set in the Kalahari Desert, The Gods Must be Crazy, was built around an old-fashioned Coke bottle. Coca-Cola delivery trucks rumble through the deepest jungles of central America. Siberians know what Coke is. I've seen the logo in Hindi and Arabic.

Brand loyalty is a testament to the marketing skills of these two giants. Taking it one step lower: how is it that perfectly intelligent adults are willing—desperate even in some cases—to go to great inconvenience to pay outrageous prices for water with corn syrup, flavoring, and carbonation? And to claim slavish loyalty to "their" beverage?

Again, I don't get it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Multitasking and working cooperatively with others

From the job postings at the local university, it became apparent to me that the school valued staff members with the "ability to multi-task and work cooperatively with others."

If that boilerplate is true, the human resources department should consider passing out applications at all the coffee shops in town. Never have I multitasked nor worked as cooperatively with others—under such pressure—as while waiting tables during a busy lunch.

Waiting tables is a heck of a lot more skilled than unskilled labor, contrary to popular belief. Of my former office-working brethren, I'd reckon that a mere 10% could successfully wait tables through a rush.

Every table is in a different phase of the meal: drinks, salad, entree, check back, refills, dessert, check, change. To the clientele I present a facade that is variously friendly, wise-cracking, flirtatious, unflappable, indulgent, efficient, witty, respectful...but always attentive. The ability to continually juggle the various stages of the meal for several tables, while greeting people, dealing with cooks, punching in orders on the touchscreen, carrying heavy plates, appearing cheerful and's not for the timid. On top of that, we are expected to remember the nuances of every regular customer's order: no cucumbers on the salad, French dressing, dry hamburger, no ice in the drink.

To make things even more complicated, entrees are placed in the window with no documentation as to which waitress, or even table, they go to. We just sort it out.

And we make it look easy.

It's not.

And then there is the interface with the cooks, who turn out a prodigious quantity of good food quickly, working—as former waitress and memoirist Debra Ginsberg wrote in her fine book, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress — "literally in the fire," but who can't help but vent at the nearest thing: animate or inanimate.

But I like it: the fast pace, the friendly customers, the jokes of the other waitresses, the satisfaction afterward.

Things have changed in 25 years since I last hoisted a tray. Touchscreen is way now. And no keyboard. Through this one touchscreen orders are logged, clock-ins and -outs entered, employee meals ordered, checks printed, cash transactions accounted for, credit cards swiped. It's the brains of the operation.

If the touchscreen goes out of calibration, the operation grinds to a halt.

Once more or less getting the hang of things and understanding the rhythm of waiting tables, the waitress can view her job as a sociological study.

Why do they call it "waiting" if I'm always moving?

Life sometimes leads one along a path more circuitous and rangy than that planned during one's salad days: the road not taken having made all the difference.

But I'm a planner, I did everything right—got a B.S., worked hard at my career, continued my education, served in my professional organization, maintained my professional network—still I ended up on this alternative path. But it's been fun and even enlightening.

Life, of course, is a journey, not a destination.

I lost my regular job in a series of follies precipitated by a change in management and my inability to keep quiet in the face of unethical dealings, unfairness, and a toxic office situation that tore my self-esteem to shreds. I became self-employed, actually a lifelong dream, but needed first to supplement my income and also to break up the isolation of a one-person consultancy with out-of-town clients.

And, yes, I'm a former Mensa member. Which means not so much that I'm smart, but that I "outsmart" standardized tests.

A neighborhood cafe posted a help wanted sign, so I created a resume listing my experience 25 years ago waiting tables during my undergraduate years at a national park concession restaurant and then at a Holiday Inn, took a deep breath, and applied. They hired me on the spot.

Let the fun begin!