Monday, December 23, 2013

waitress nightmares

I had one last night. One of those jaggedy dreams where you're the hub around which discontent circles. You know what I'm talking about, right? Your subconscious leaking details like a lace doily whilst your shadow figure whispers fail, fail, fail, into your ear.

My waitress days were confined to my early twenties, and I worked at such grand establishments as Howard Johnson's and Pizza Hut along with several local watering holes.

For a summer, working the counter at Hojo's, I was tortured by a whore named Maxine. Maxine's tips partly depended on my ability to produce flawless chocolate ice-cream sodas which featured a conical scoop of the world's most frozen and unscoopable confection sitting perfectly, like a witch's hat, on the rim of the glass. Maxine was an older gal with a cigarette voice, who wore her HoJo tunic hemmed up to her ass cheeks, and who had several truckdriver boyfriends she juggled with some sort of agreement to use the adjoining hotel after her shifts.

On Thursdays, when Mr. Morris, the skin-diseased manager, posted the upcoming schedules, I made the sign of the cross (this was when I was still a sort of practicing Catholic) that I wasn't working when Maxine was working. I was her bitch. Actually, everyone was her bitch. And I was an ambitionless 19-year-old home from my freshman year at Syracuse, where I had settled into willy-nilly major declaration and would, unbeknownst to me then, find myself paying student loans into my forties.

If Maxine's demands proved Sisyphean that summer, the customers and their collective quirks and abuse afforded myriad opportunities for the development of eye-tics and hives.

Hojo's in Middletown, New York was the typical easy-on-easy-off stopover on the way to the Catskills and vacationers were usually in a hurry. Wednesdays and Fridays were the worst because that was all-you-can-eat fish or clam fry day for like practically-nothing-95. Maxine never worked those days (bad tippers on ayce days), but we had some regular customers who tortured me almost as badly. For instance, a very large cross-dresser who preferred clams to fish, and bellied up to the counter in ill-fitting pumps and cheap wig, demanding that I only serve him the "whole" pieces, rather than the fryer detritus that often found its way onto the little boat-shaped plates.

In between making sure the wafers didn't touch the ice cream for the kosher folks, and preparing all the desserts for the floor staff -- and serving my own randy customer base, in particular a dude named Frank Guarini, a fair-skinned Italian fellow whose goal in life was to acquire the deepest tan possible and hit on me relentlessly until I agreed to take a ride with him in his baby blue El Camino -- I would leave work at ten or eleven, my head swimming with the orders I'd failed to deliver correctly. Once, I rolled a mustard-covered hotdog onto a customer's lap. Another time, a Band-aid from the assorted finger lacerations I acquired in scooping accidents found its way to the bottom of an ice cream sundae glass.

I was a shitty waitress.

So when things pile up, as they so often do around the holidays, I have these rust-colored tunic nightmares.The ghosts of restaurants past. The time I almost crushed my arm in the Pizza Hut dough mixer. The time a knife fight broke out at the pool table next to the bar I tended. Mouse droppings on a maraschino cherry I served at another fine tavern. The horrible divorce-inducing argument I witnessed between an older man and wife during "happy hour" at a retirement village cocktail lounge. The spirit of the service industry has nestled into my gray matter, and plays merrily after lights out, mixing the past with the present (Did I forget to lock the back door? What happened to those two Netflix discs I thought I'd mailed back but apparently didn't?). Though I draw from my imperfect past for material all the time, I can't seem to reach the bottom of the bin. You'd think that eventually waitress dreams would render themselves benign - floating into "fun dream" territory, rather than lingering beyond the midnight hour, into the next day, where the taste is like so much unchanged fryer grease in my mouth.

What's your worst service-industry job story? Should we do an anthology?


  1. Forget anthology, I want you to write a Memoir From Behind The Counter--this was a delicious read!! Seriously, I think you could make a few chapters from the stories here.

    (I do believe my daily need to build anxiety around completing assignments, an anxiousness I've carried throughout my career when there is rarely a need to feel rushed or anxious, is the result of waitresses and constantly rushing to get the next order, refill, check etc. "Now, can I get that now?" Uh, just thinking about it makes my chest all tight.)

  2. Waitressing is the root of all anxiety. Or, most of it anyway.

  3. Anonymous6:28 AM

    Agree with Josey --- you need a book. An anthology? Imagine the submissions for this!

    I'm pretty sure the worst waitressing jobs I had were breakfast-shift jobs. There is nothing more stressful than having to get everything perfect on a breakfast plate and delivered just right, and hot, and in order .... oy, the stress of that.

    Being a hostess wasn't much better. At first this seemed like a step up, but I quickly learned how vicious people can be when you tell them "the wait is about 20 minutes" and it turns out to be 30, or if (gasp!) they think you seated someone before them who they think arrived after them.

    On a related note, our son hated middle and high school and saw no reason to go to college .... until we made him take a job at The Pancake House. For two years. At 5 am every single Saturday and Sunday morning, with lines out the door. As a busboy, hoping the waiters were honest about sharing tips. After that, he could not fill out those college applications fast enough.

    1. Having to wait for breakfast brings out the beast in people. At least with dinner, there's usually a bar or something, where customers can pound down a shot while they wait.

  4. Anonymous4:59 PM

    You don't need my story of three days at Winchell's Donuts. You've got that mustardy hot dog. Holy hell!

    1. Now I have visions of jelly donuts in my head, Averil. Yum!!

  5. Waiting tables remains one of the hardest jobs I've ever done, but I've clearly blocked out the details because I didn't flinch upon reading yours, but rather felt a certain sense of shared conspiracy. The conspiracy to get through that shift without TOO MUCH trouble. I did work at a Cutlery World once. I can't imagine being trusting enough now to work in a place where I worked alone and handed over deadly weapons to all and plenty without a second thought.

    1. Oh Lisa, I wish we'd waited tables together at one of our collective dives/chains.

      One fun activity I neglected to mention was an epic whipped cream fight in the parking lot, where we ran around squirting swear words on one another's windshields. We thought it went undetected (the manager was out that evening), but he had some "spy" installed because someone had been sneaking $ from the till, so we all got in a lot of trouble the next day. Worth every double-secret probation tho.

      Lisa, knives? I can only imagine...

  6. I was a bank teller, which is about as close as I ever came to being in the service industry. But in an office situation, nearly 30 years ago now, I worked briefly for a woman whose smug, I-know-what's-best-for-you attitude still haunts me during my waking hours. I can still hear her voice, questioning everything I do, every choice I make. I thought writing a story about her might exorcise her from my mind, but it hasn't worked. I suppose her voice in my head is the manifestation of some self doubt I have, but if so, I really wish the manifestation would have taken some other form.

    1. Paul: I'm pretty sure that the nagging shadow figure voice is EXACTLY why I'm a writer.

      Thanks for the comment.


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