Several years ago, I was having dinner with a friend at the Louise’s here in Los Feliz. The waiter approached our table, and as servers now do, de rigueur, he introduced himself.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Jan [pronounced YON], and I will be your server tonight.”
My first thought was to share with him, Oh-my-god, that’s the name of the workstation I just bought at Ikea! But I held back. Instead, I smiled and politely said, “And I’m Katie. And I’ll be your customer!”
And so we went on from there. A lovely night, complete with fresh ground pepper and shaved parmesan until we said “when.”
… Such a different world from my waitressing years in Manhattan. Back in the 80’s, nobody knew your name. I spent seven years waitressing in NYC, and in those years, I worked at 24 restaurants. The last five of those years I spent at ONE restaurant. Do the math.
Yeah. So there were some years of hopping around, looking for the place where I could hang my apron for a while.
At one point during the drifting phase, I was working a lunch shift in the Wall Street area, and my friend and neighbor, who had a non-stop station at a family-owned Hungarian restaurant in our Upper West Side neighborhood, had persuaded that establishment’s owner and owneress to allow me to fill in for her on Wednesday nights. (I would later take over her full shift, after she was fired, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Okay, so I’m working Wall Street lunches, Monday through Friday, and on Wednesday nights, I’m at the Hungarian place in my own ‘hood. Money’s good enough, but I’m always looking for a new venue. For this reason, I’ve consistently combed the environs, dropping off -- to restaurant owners and managers all along the west side of Manhattan -- my home-made, so-very-low-tech, 3x5 index cards. The cards indicate my availability as a waitress. They also provide contact information.
By about the fourth or fifth Wednesday at the Hungarian place, I’m getting a sense of the drill. My station comprises nine “deuces” (that’s restaurant lingo for a table for two) and three “rounds” (which can seat up to eight per table). And if that sounds like a lot of station, your sense of empathy is commendable. Add to that sheer person capacity an acute absence of trays. The acrobatics I learned at that restaurant are a subject for another essay, and so we’ll come back to that at another time.
Regardless, on the Wednesday evening in question, I’m running around like usual. I’m wearing one of my mix ‘n match waitress outfits (“Restaurant Garanimals,” as it were). In this case, the combo started with a straight-lined beige skirt that falls just below knee-length but has sassy side pleats. Topping it off, above my tie-in-the-back, two-pocketed, standard issue waitress apron is a raw linen, short-sleeved, tailored plaid top whose primary color is red.
With harried energy, I approach a young couple sitting in one of the deuces. I smile as I ask if they’re ready. They are. And after they place their order, I move on. Within two or three minutes, I return to deliver their drinks. Thereafter, in sequence, I deliver their appetizers, their main courses, their desserts, and their coffees.
Just as I do for the other 20 or so couples I wait on during a four-hour shift that night.
Just as I do for the parties of six or more that take up the larger tables in my constantly turning-over station.
By the following Saturday, I’m ready for a weekend off, but I also know that my index cards are out there. Anything can happen.
Sure enough, late Saturday evening, I get a call from a local restaurant owner named Augie. His Sunday brunch waitress has phoned in sick. He’s wondering if I can fill in. I accept the offer.
I awake that Sunday morning just before eight. Shower and put on my beige skirt and red plaid top. Head down to the local eatery. (Augie’s is just west and south of my apartment; about the same walking distance as the Hungarian restaurant, which is east and north.)
When I get to Augie’s in time for the nine o’clock set-up (no one is expected before ten – this is New York, after all), I wrap the apron around my waist and introduce myself to the bartender.
The bartender is relaxed and kind. He shows me where I can find everything for set-up (creamer pitchers, all the sidestand stuff, coffee makings). He reviews the menu with me. He introduces me to the kitchen staff. He makes it clear that I can call on him if I get in a jam. (Oh, and yeah, he shows me the jam…)
Customers filter in, and while it gets a little busy at times, it never feels out of control. (After the Hungarian place, I can handle anything.) The bartender even comments on my cool at one point. He is clearly impressed by my capacities as a “guest-waitress.”
I am in the rhythm of Augie’s when I approach a couple in the corner.
“Ready to order?” I ask, smiling, my pad held in front of me, my pen primed to record their needs.
There’s a pause. The man in the pair stares up at me and adapts a dumb-founded look.
“Hey!” he says, “Didn’t you wait on us at the Hungarian place on Wednesday?”
That same couple.
And me, in the same outfit.
Were it fifteen years later, my approach might have gone something like this:
“Hello, my name is Katie, and I will be your server for the rest of your life!”
* * *
Dear Readers, Follower, and Passers-By: I’m happy to direct you to “Always with a Book,” where book blogger Kristin has just posted our Q&A. (You’ll also find on that site her July 23rd review of my novel, The Somebody Who, excerpts from which I have been posting on Saturdays.)