(original post-date: February 17, 2010)
Life puts us where we’re supposed to be, and when I decided – after four years in the Ivy League – to get a job as a waitress, life put me at a burger-slinging place in the Fashion District of Manhattan.
The burger-slinging place, in turn, handed me a “trainer:” Don.
One of the funniest, warmest individuals I had met and will meet, Don remains a friend today. (He also still happens to wait on tables in New York.)
We worked together at that burger-slinging place for probably less than a year. Then, we moved on. To different restaurants.
About two years (and more than a few restaurants) later, I was working at a glorified coffee shop on the Upper East Side. It was classic. Most of my fellow waitresses were older women who brought to mind the characters from the movie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. These waitresses didn’t wear hairnets, but they might have. They had painted-on eyebrows and tri-state accents. They were the real deal.
As were our costumes: our black polyester v-neck jumpers were knee-length. We wore them over cotton shirts in various pastel hues. White neckties completed the ensemble.
Besides age, the primary difference between the other waitri and me was our choice in leg- and footwear. My older colleagues wore support hose and equally supportive shoes. I flaunted bare legs (which were always tanned, thanks to my weekend excursions to Jones Beach), and the black Minnie Mouse shoes that I found at the Eastern import shop were, if I recall, a Chinese size 45.
I was definitely the babe in the mix, but in that place, my status bore no benefits.
It was grueling work, delivering the goods to the tables. And it was particularly grueling on weekends, when customers would order fresh-squeezed orange juice. Sure, it was cool that they could order it, but the squeezing process took a great deal of time, and the waitresses most often had to do that work. If one table ordered four large OJs, I’d be on a ten-minute delay from that point forward. I knew I could kiss all tips good-bye.
There was also the issue of the owner, a man named Irving. He was undoubtedly very wealthy, and he spent barely a moment in his restaurant, but when he did, oh my God, those older waitri would get quite nervous. And they would parlay that nervousness into snippy remarks.
“Irving’s here checking out his precious orange juice machine,” Ingrid said one day, her painted eyebrows rising above the top frame of her glasses as she did the math on a guest check, a half-cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
Ingrid was the most Diane Ladd of the older waitress group, and on the day of Irving’s visit, she had been assigned a somewhat extended shift so as to catch some of the post-lunch spillover. The rest of the gals had left. Only she and I were “on the floor.”
Those who have worked in restaurants and have done the shifts-in-between know that it can get pretty dicey. You’ve got an entire restaurant that will probably remain fairly empty. On the other hand, it could fill up, and it could do so all at once. You don’t want that to happen.
It was relatively quiet when Don walked in. My dear friend. The witty man who had “trained” me as a waitress…
He took one of the deuces close to the soda fountain and we chatted for a bit. Then, he ordered his iced tea and chef’s salad and I proceeded to fill his order. I gave the check with my chef’s salad scribblings to Bill, who was accessible through the half window between the restaurant and the kitchen area. Then, I made the iced tea, delivered it to Don, and approached a couple who had just taken a table in the other section of the restaurant.
At the time, Ingrid was wrapping up her remaining tables. Anyone who entered the restaurant from this point on would be my responsibility. And – as fate would have it – more people showed up. Of course they did! Of course they showed up on the one afternoon when I actually had a friend there. When I would have gladly spent that time shooting the breeze with Don.
Within five minutes, I was running around like a crazy woman. Taking orders. Delivering beverages. Delivering Don’s chef’s salad. Delivering more beverages. More food orders.
Moving as quickly as possible in my Minnie Mouse shoes, I was surprised by Don’s insistent “come here” finger gesture. He kept trying to wave me over to his table, and I kept delaying my response to him as I attended to all the other customers. Don’s persistence surprised and confused me. Surely he saw (and could relate to) what I was going through! I had a restaurant full of customers, and I was the only waitress!
Finally, there was a moment to breathe. So I approached Don and his chef’s salad.
He let me exhale, and then he looked up at me with a mock scolding expression on his face.
“Miss!” he said, in a tone that reminded me of Charles Nelson Reilly. He pointed into the glass bowl I had delivered five or ten minutes ago. “There’s a frog in my salad.”
When I saw the frog – the plastic, one-inch-by-two-inch frog that Don had brought with him and placed in his salad – I doubled over laughing. And, because I was relatively caught up in that moment, I needed to share the comic relief.
“Oh my!” I said, scooping up the bowl. “This is unacceptable!”
As I headed back to the window where Bill, the afternoon cook, was keeping up as best he could, I passed Ingrid. She saw the frog in passing (and from a slight distance), and she blurted out (rather loudly), “Oh my God!”
I proceeded to the window, where I placed the bowl on the pass-through shelf.
“Bill,” I said, in a tone that was obviously facetious. “Look at what showed up in this man’s salad! You gotta pay better attention!”
Bill, who needed to double over laughing as desperately as I had, proceeded to do just that.
So it was all fun and games so far, but when I turned around, still holding the large glass bowl with the frog in it, I confronted something not so funny.
It was Irving. (Still there. Still monitoring his precious fresh orange juice squeezer.)
It was Irving, upset.
He had heard Ingrid’s outburst, and he was challenging her.
“Who said ‘Oh my God!’” he asked, in a low, but very firm, tone of voice. “Did you say “Oh my God!’?”
“I didn’t say ‘Oh my God!’.” Ingrid lied, speaking quietly.
En route to Don’s table, I had no choice but to pass closely to the Irving/Ingrid confrontation, so I quickly hid the frog-infested salad behind my polyester jumper.
Irving continued obsessively. “I heard someone say ‘Oh my God!’,” he repeated, using a stage whisper. “I heard it! And that’s not right. Our customers should not hear that! Our customers should not hear anyone saying “Oh my God!’”
“I didn’t say anything,” Ingrid lied again.
…I couldn’t take the futile battle anymore.
“But look at this man’s salad!” I squealed, moving the bowl from its hiding place and extending it in Irving’s direction.
“JESUS CHRIST!” Irving responded (loud enough for everyone to hear).