Wednesday, July 28, 2010

At Your Service

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?”

Sure enough.

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.)


Sherry said...

You tell a great story, Katie. So just to wrap it up I'll say...we were also in a restaurant some years ago and the waitress said, "Hi my name is Katie, I'll be your waitress and I'm having a great day." To which my boyfriend, now husband replied, " and what is your name if you are not having a great day?" She looked perplexed, walked away and another waitress showed up to takecare of us.

I'm glad the myriad of places I've waitressed didn't catch on to the name trend!


Heather Johnson said...

Hi Katie,
I found you through SITS. So glad I did. I am your newest follower. I am still laughing about the IKEA line. Hilarious.

BECKY said...

Katie, I love this post. You are so "worldly" to my Midwest naivete! :D
I was a waitress ONCE....for about 6 a Walgreens! I was one of the world's worst and I write about it in the first chapter of my book!

Bee and Rose said...

Katie:) Stopped by via are too funny! I loved the whole Jan / Ikea line! Very, very witty!

Ms. Understood said...

LOL at Yon the waiter by day, Ikea desk by night. And that poor customer must have thought you were stalking him. You should add the evil genius maniacal laugh at the end of the " . . . rest of your life" intro, lol.

Cheryl said...

7 years? 7 years? I'd have lost my damn mind.

This story was sheer brilliance.

Martha said...

I love your waitressing stories...

Joann Mannix said...

Hi Katie,

I have to profusely apologize to you. I've been having some trouble with my Blogger comment alerts, (go figure) and I was recently combing through a post from last week in search of something and I stumbled upon a lovely, lovely comment you left me. I make it a point to reply to everyone's comments and I think I might have overlooked yours. Please forgive me. And if I did respond and my frail memory is failing me, forgive me that, too! So, thank you for your kind words about my query.

Now this? Is a fabulous story! I'm never quick witted enough for those kind of situations, but yeah, you could have mined gold out of that one. You tell a great story.

criticalcrass said...

twenty-three restaurants in twenty-four months! that's nutso!

Deb Shucka said...

What a great story! I could read lots more of these - if you were telling them.

Anonymous said...

I was sure I had left a comment here earlier - apologies if it turns up twice now! I have never been a waitress though feel like one with my large family at times, and have to admire your capacity to cram in so many shifts. I loved the Ikea reference, I am with you there. Can just imagine your face when the couple actually recognise you :-)