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August 7, 2008 / Maleesha Kovnesky

Jobs – The Formative Years

First Job

It was the summer of my thirteenth year.  It was a Sunday morning and there wasn’t much to do besides fight with my little brother or watch reruns.  The phone rang.  My mom was on the other end of the line, calling from work: a busy local restaurant.  Their busboy had walked out on them on the busiest shift of the week.  Apparently they had exhausted all other replacement options, because now they were calling me. 

“Can you come down and help?” she asked…no, pleaded.

I hopped on my bike and pedaled over to the restaurant.  They threw me an apron.  No one had time to show me anything other than the layout of the kitchen.  “Just clean the dirty tables,” someone yelled as they whizzed by.  So that is what I did for the next several hours until the Sunday breakfast/lunch shift came winding to a close.  At the end of the shift, the tables were wiped and set, the salt shakers and ketchup bottles were full, and the scent of hash browns and bleach had permeated my skin.  And the waitresses all handed me five dollars from their tips.  I come in that morning a poor, dependent teenager.  I was leaving with fifteen dollars cash.

I was rich.

The owner at the time asked my mom if I could come back next week (The owner never directly talked to the peons).  Mom asked me if I wanted the job.  Fifteen dollars.  I was in. 

The next year of weekends and occassional weekday evenings I put on the black apron with pockets deep enough to hide weapons and became “The Busgirl.”  My purpose in life was to clean off tables.  I would sweep the tips off the tables and ensure they made it into the hands of the waitresses.  I would fill containers that needed filling.  I made thousands of pats o’ butter.  I learned what happens when a ten gallon bucket of bleu cheese dressing spills over in a deep freezer (hint: it’s not pleasant).  Soon I was ready. 

First Customers – A Disaster of Meaty Proportions

The waitresses on shift were going to give me my first table.  They targeted a family of four.  Tourists.  Well dressed and ready for dinner.  The little boy sat by his father, the little girl by her mother.  I read them the specials that night, which happened to be Prime Rib with a side of spaghetti.  Soups, salads and a potato all included.  Each of the four told me what they wanted and I wrote it down the best I could, as I hadn’t developed a “system” yet.  Inside I was freaking out.  This adrenaline fueled my waitressing performance, and I managed to get them their soups and salads in the proper order and to the correct eater.  Finally the cook called my order.  Yay!  My first order!  I carried two plates of prime rib, bathed in an inch of au jus, to the table.  I held one prime rib steady as I placed the other one down…

“Ow!  Mommmmmeeeeee!”

I looked down.  Air raid sirens went off in the soundtrack of my mind.  Au jus and a chunk of prime rib had slid off from my “steady hand” and was now covering the once-white-as-snow lace trimmed sock that the little girl was wearing.  And I was acutely aware that those black shoes were probably leather. 

I have no idea what I said.  I only remember warping to the break room, where I cried into my stupid pockets.  There was no way I was going back out there.  I think the whole west side of the restaurant had witnessed my enormous, awful, meaty gaffe. 

The waitresses on staff came back to attempt to pry me out of the break room, one by one.  Of course each of them had a horror story to share.  Myrna (of course her name was Myrna) told me about the time she accidentally dumped a salad with French dressing down a lady’s fur coat.  Martha (yes) told me about the time she dumped a pot of coffee over a man’s head.  “But that was on purpose,” she recalled.  Still, I wouldn’t budge. 

Then, horror of horrors…the victims family came back to the break room.  I looked up at the dad through puffy red eyes and he was holding out a five dollar bill.  The little girl was standing behind his leg, and appeared to have suffered no permanent damage.  “I can’t take that,” I said.  He shoved it into my lap anyway.  “Don’t give up because of one silly accident,” he said.  Then they left. 

The five dollar bill of guilt remained in my pocket.  I did manage to go back out onto the floor.  But I didn’t try another table of my own for a few days. 

The Regulars

There were/are folks that came into the restaurant three times a day, sometimes just for coffee.  At the time I looked forward to my future, as it would obviously consist of so much leisure time that I would be able to choose my own favorite cafe and frequent it throughout the day.  Now that I am an adult, I wonder what these guys’ problems were.  What the hell are you doing, coming into a place three times a day.  The best I can guess is that the counter was a little bit Cheers-y.  Everybody knew your name. 

No one really liked waiting on the counter for the awesome tips that would result.  These guys paid fifty cents for coffee three times a day and maybe once a week, they’d “forget” a couple of dimes.  I liked waiting on the counter because of the characters that sat there.  There was the cantakerous old man with the glass eye who ordered a poached egg on wheat toast, followed by a slice of apple pie.  I was the only one in the restaurant who liked waiting on him.  And he knew it too, because one day I started getting tips from him.  A whole dollar every time he ordered.  That was unheard of from Cantankerous Man. 

Other counter notables were:

“B”, the guy who pinched you or pulled your apron strings every time you walked by.

“J”, Great voice, cynical, had seizures in the evenings right there on the stool

“P”, Local tow truck guy, super duper guy, always nice and always had something nice to say

“M & D”, the father and son postal workers.  These guys were the best.

There was A, the Pancake guy.  He and his wife came in every Saturday night, sat at the same table, and had pancakes for breakfast.  He would tip me a quarter each of those evenings, and would always impart a bit of advice:  “Save that up for college, and by the time you get done with high school you’ll have the first yaer paid for.”  (I think A had a little bit of a math problem himself, or possibly he was still using 1920 college tuition as a guideline)

There are more stories about people than I could ever type in one post. 

An Angry Man, A Special Milkshake

Everyone has their limits of what is reasonable.  One very busy evening, busy enough that a line was forming out the door and onto the sidewalk, an elderly man and his wife entered the restaurant by rudely squeezing by everyone already waiting in line.  They hovered in the lobby like vultures, and as soon as they spotted a table opening up, they swooped in for the kill.  I quickly walked over and said, “Sir, there are a lot of people in line ahead of you.”

“Can you hurry up and clean this table off, already?” was his reply.

I apologized to the people in the front of the line.  What can a person do, really?  I hadn’t fully developed my confrontational talents by this age.  So I cleaned off their table and got them some menus. 

Of course, Mr. Important asked for a different menu.  His was “dirty.”  Upon closer inspection, I saw that there was indeed a speck of some substance in one tiny corner of the Dinner section.  I replaced his menu with the freshest one I could find. 

Oblivious to all the commotion around him, Mr. Important alerted me to the fact they were ready to order.  He did this when I was taking the order of someone else at a nearby table.  Everyone within hearing distance seemed a little shocked.  I said “I’ll be right there.”  I called in the previous order and returned to The Importants’ table. 

“About time,” he said.  I took a quick look at Mrs. Important.  She didn’t look at me.  She stared ahead and into…what?  Space?  Her look reminded me of the thousand-yard stare made famous by prisoners of war.   

He ordered his dinner.  I asked what they’d like to drink.  I still remember Mrs. Important quietly ordered iced tea.  Mr. Important had a bigger idea in mind.

“I want a strawberry milkshake,” he said.

“We don’t have those,” I said.

Last time I was in here, there was milkshakes on the menu,” he said.  “I want a milkshake.”

“They were never on the menu,” I corrected him (nicely).  “We make them some evenings, but not when we are so busy.”

“I want a strawberry milkshake.”

“We don’t even turn on the machine when it’s this busy,” I said.  “We just can’t.”

“I said, I want a strawberry milkshake.  I had one last time I was in, and I want one tonight.”

I imagine that my face was a deep purple of half embarrassment, half rage.  All I said was, “Okay.”

The fact is, it wasn’t okay.  It was a disaster.  We hardly ever made milkshakes because they were too time-consuming the way we made them.  We used the old fashioned 1950’s style blender.  On a shift like that night, it was out of the question.  The place was loud.  You could barely hear dishes and glasses clanking above the people.  The line was merciless.  We didn’t have good air conditioning.  The staff was melting and everyone was on edge.  Mr. Important didn’t seem to care that in front of his fricking milkshake, I had a vast array of drinks, soups, salads, meals and condiments to provide to others who got there first.  And because of that little problem of not knowing how to deal with difficult people, I wanted to pull my hair and cry.

I must say that I got that milkshake done quite fast, considering the adversity.  And because I didn’t want to hear another word out of Mr. Important, I made a very special one.  I blended it to a perfect drinkable, yet non-melty consistency.  I topped it with a very symmetric dollop of whipped cream.  Then I drizzled the whipped cream with a colorful bit of strawberry syrup.  It was a masterpiece.  Surely this would shut him up.  I zipped it to his table and set it down in front of him with a long spoon, a straw, and the extra shake in the cold metal tin. 

“This cup is dirty,” he said.  “I want a new one.”

“WHERE?” I asked, wind knocked out of me.

“Right here,” he said.  I followed his crusty old finger to the rim of the cup.  A tiny drip of pink milkshake was forming on the side of the rim, pushed over the edge just a bit due to the weight of the whipped cream.

“This needs to go in a new cup.”

“It’s just going to drip a bit,” I said.  “Let me get some extra napkins.”

NO. I want a new cup.”

Some part of my reptilian brain was seizing.  In nature, I would have chomped the man’s jugular vein with my teeth (like Jack Bauer did to that one guy in 24, season 6) leaving him to bleed to death in his stupor. 

But here in the restaurant, I just smiled, and said, “Okay.”

I took that milkshake to the kitchen.  I grabbed a clean cup.  I poured half of the milkshake into the cup.  Right there in front of the cooks and everyone, I summoned a huge spitwad (straight from the heart, really) and placed it into the milkshake.  It landed neatly on top of a strawberry piece (100% real strawberries!)  I poured the rest of the shake in and brought it back to the table.  This time my smile was real. 

“Good,” he said.  “That was faster this time.”

“Sorry about your wait,” I said.  He didn’t answer me. 

I had a renewed energy for the rest of the evening.  Part of the energy may have been fueled by “I sure hope I don’t get in trouble for that” but it hardly mattered.  I wasn’t going to take another word out of Mr. Important.  Also, at that point the only other viable alternative for me would have been stabbing at his eyes with his spaghetti fork.
 
He finished that milkshake.  I checked every time I walked by the Importants’ table.   

***I will also add that this was the only time in five years of food service that I ever did anything like this.

The lesson to be learned here is, you never know what kind of instability you may trigger in another human being.  So matter how much you like your butt kissed, never fuck with the person who brings your food.

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15 Comments

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  1. Miss Virtual Reality / Aug 16 2008 12:51 pm

    I know exactly what that feels like, now I never did such a thing, but people can be horrible about how their food ought to be. This is one reason why, I will never ever work in the food industry.

  2. smalltownsmalltimes / Aug 15 2008 7:51 pm

    I loved this post. You described it so well, I could I felt like I was there.

    I used to waitress as well, and I could relate to all of it. In fact, the night after I read this, I dreamt I was waitressing again.

  3. crisitunity / Aug 11 2008 10:41 am

    Re your reply to glassowater: I found that to be true in the world of pizza delivery as well. The nicer the house, the crummier the tip, nearly always. I thought this was weird, but I came up with a joke explanation: that’s how they *got* rich, by skimping on the little things. I wish people knew how much even one good tip can affect the person you’re tipping, not just in mood but financially – I imagine they’d tip better in general.

  4. romi41 / Aug 10 2008 8:09 pm

    I have so much admiration for anyone who worked in the food-service industry, and at your age, you should’ve gotten a medal! In the absence of a medal, I’m glad you had those big deep pockets to cry into, so you didn’t spill the tears on the floor!! 😉

  5. Greg / Aug 10 2008 1:22 pm

    No. I’m afraid not. I’m just using my daughter’s laptop while she’s at my parent’s house.

  6. Greg / Aug 10 2008 10:34 am

    What a great story. This makes me want to write about the years I spent as a bartender in my twenties and of the years I spent as a deckhand on a party boat in my teens and early twenties. This was such a good read.

    Well thank you. Does this mean your computer works again?

  7. kaylee2 / Aug 9 2008 12:19 am

    I cant stop giggling well its not giggling when you a throat thats all cut up. 😉

  8. bluesuit12 / Aug 8 2008 8:04 am

    HAHAHA!! Oh man, that’s funny. I refuse to work in the food industry b/c of people just like that old guy.

  9. Ian / Aug 7 2008 9:06 pm

    OMG you cracked me up! The only thing better would have been if you’d been nursing a wicked case of strep at the time (but I won’t inquire further).

    Mr. Important, you’ve just been run over by the Karma Bus.

    Yeah, I’d never do that kind of thing today. Today I would have never let him cut in front of the entire line. I think you could probably get sued for that sort of thing today…oh well. I was 15 or 16, what does anyone expect?

  10. morethananelectrician / Aug 7 2008 7:35 pm

    Aside from the occasional “bad guy”, that had to be a very “real” and interesting place to spend your time.

    I remember about the time I was 16 and needed to get out of the house at midnight when “bad things” were happening at the house, there was a small hole in the wall establishment filled with interesting characters that I enjoyed tremdously. As “odd” as they were, they always treated each other with respect as did the wait staff.

    I haven’t thought about that place in years and your stories today took me back there like it was yesterday, only it was over 20 years ago.

    Thanks!

    Anytime. I miss a lot of the crew and some of the staff that used to be there. Its a different place now with a new (better!) owner. But they don’t know how many times the underagers went back to the deep freeze to drink some classy boxed wine…

  11. curlywurlygurly / Aug 7 2008 7:03 pm

    i can’t believe people actually behave like that. i would have lost my mind on that customer. and forget about spit…i would have went with rat poison.

    Yeah, I was weak back then. Had this happened to me today I’d have dumped it in his lap. Old codger.

  12. crisitunity / Aug 7 2008 5:18 pm

    I delivered pizzas for a long time, and then made them for others to deliver for a while. I worked with a lot of different people over that time, and none of them ever spit or did…other things…to the food they were making or delivering unless the person was a really special kind of A-hole. Like the one you described. This is why I’m not afraid to send my food back (infrequently) if it’s cold or if they made it wrong, but I know that it’s always wise to be nice to food servers.

    I tip my hat to you for waiting tables. That’s something I’ve sworn I’ll never do. McDonald’s before waiting tables.

    He was the worst. Even worse than the couple who left me a rock for a tip once. I’ll put up with a lot…but that guy was a piece of work. His poor wife.

  13. glassowater / Aug 7 2008 4:58 pm

    Great post. I used to run restaurants and I have worked every position you can think of in the restaurant biz. But thats a whole other blog.
    On Tipping: Nothing annoys me more than watching Rachel Ray on her $40 A Day show. What a cheap bitch! Do you ever pay attention to what she calls a ‘tip’ on that show? She is lucky she hasn’t caught a contagious disease from any of the servers who see her coming. And the fact that she features on her show a goal dollar amount basically is endorsing the idea of going out there and sticking strictly to the 15% minimum. Although from some of her totals, I would say she was way below that. She was here in Portsmouth NH at a place called the Blue Mermaid. She and her crew took up half the restaurant with their equipment and takes (read: about 10 tables were unavailable thus not producing revenue for the evening) and according to reliable sources, after eating tons of food and martinis, she left a $5 tip…..total! If I was the manager, I would have been pissed! Free publicity is a good thing but chewing up that much of my floor on any night, restricting the earnings of my waitress in that section, taking up hours of our time and then tipping my waitress a measley five bucks? I would have politely asked them not to come back again….

    Any waitress can tell you that (over time and considering averages) rich people are cheap as hell, and the po’ folks tip fairly. The more money a person has, their a$$hole quotient skyrockets. It’s a universal law.

  14. Dead Charming / Aug 7 2008 4:25 pm

    And THAT is exactly why I tip a lot. Always. Eight dollar tab? Five bucks in tip. I haven’t tipped less then five bucks since I graduated high school in the early 90’s. I figure it’s part of “the deal” where I ask someone else to serve me and they pretend to enjoy it.

    I also only tip in round numbers. My ex wife used to “round up” the charge on her debit card by getting close to 15% and then adding some change to the top to make it come out as a whole dollar amount. Tipping $1.42 on a $10.58 tab is just asinine. And petty.

    But above ALL things: smile, be nice, and treat the waitress like a princess in disguise. If she’s really pissed, it won’t be her luggy, it will be from “Greaser” the slimy dishwasher with no teeth.

    Ha! Old geezer could have taken some “tips” from you!

  15. Stacey / Aug 7 2008 4:17 pm

    I refused to ever work in the food service industry because hungry people are angry people.

    I can’t believe you were so patient with Mr. Important. I think after five minutes with him I’d have told him to get the hell out.

    I’d never put up with that kind of thing now. I would have axed him as soon as he tried to cut in front of everyone.

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