Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I really admire people who work as food servers, or as they were called back when I was growing up, waiters and waitresses. I honestly don’t know how they can work at such a hectic pace, deal with the public, be on their feet until bunions pop out, and yet remain cheerful.

There’s one food server in particular, Esther, who’s worked at Theo’s restaurant in Manchester for as long as I’ve been going there – and believe me, that’s a long time. I swear I’ve never seen the woman in a bad mood. She’s always smiling, cracking jokes, and no matter how difficult a customer is, remains pleasant. You could go in there, order a bowl of their chicken-lemon-rice soup and tell her to hold the rice, and she’d smile and say, “Sure, no problem!” Then you’d see her with tweezers, picking every grain of rice out of the soup. The woman seems to genuinely enjoy her job.

I tried working in the restaurant industry back when I was 16, and all I can say is I was the polar opposite of Esther.

The job was at the Red Arrow cafeteria in Manchester’s North End, which was only a block from my house. I practically could roll out of bed and into the front door of the place, which was handy.

Seeing it was a cafeteria, there weren’t any waiters or waitresses, so I was hired to clean up after the diners and also make certain they had everything they needed.

My first day of work was on a Sunday morning at the crack of dawn. Even though I lived so close to the place I practically could read the menu from my bedroom window, I still arrived late.

“The customers are going to come in here in shifts,” Diane, my supervisor, said. “After each Mass at Saint Catherine’s Church a couple blocks from here, large crowds will come in for breakfast. Your job is to keep the tables cleaned and wiped down as soon as someone gets up to leave. I don’t want to look around here and see any dirty tables. You have to keep up with them. If you fall behind, you’re doomed.”

The job sounded simple enough to me, so I was confident I could handle it with no problem. I was given a black apron, a wet dishcloth and a gray plastic tub sitting on a push-cart. I was ready.

The Red Arrow cafeteria was spacious, with two big dining areas and a long counter where people lined up to order their food.

I spent the first hour filling my cart with dirty dishes and pushing it out to the kitchen, where I unloaded the dishes so they could be washed. After my fiftieth trip out to the kitchen, my feet began to feel as if they had swollen to the size of baked hams. I silently wondered how I possibly was going to make it through another six hours.

After the first rush of customers had finished eating and left, and I’d managed to get all of the tables cleaned and sparkling, I decided to sit down for a few minutes and treat myself to one of the delectable-looking brownies I’d seen the cook take out of the oven during one of my many trips out to the kitchen. After all, I reasoned, I needed to keep up my strength. I ordered a brownie and a glass of milk and sat down at a corner table. I swore I could hear my feet breathing sighs of relief and thanking me.

I’d swallowed only one bite of the still-warm brownie when the front double-doors burst open and a fresh batch of church-goers poured in. If I had been someone like Esther, I would have smiled and welcomed them all – by name. But the only impulse I felt at that moment was to slam and lock the doors, and then finish my brownie.

Another thing I hadn’t realized when I took the job was exactly what cleaning tables involved. I’d assumed it meant picking up dishes, silverware and napkins. Little did I know it also meant picking up everything from discarded chicken bones and spilled beverages (enough to fill an aquarium) to such disgusting things as, well...let’s just say one little kid’s scrambled eggs decided to only temporarily visit his stomach.

“Hey, waitress!” one guy shouted at me. “My steak is still mooing! I asked for it well done! What’re you trying to do – give me tapeworms? Take it back and have the cook do it right!”

I tried to force a smile, but my lips felt as if they’d been cemented together. I wanted to tell the guy I wasn’t a waitress, I was a busgirl, and the only thing I was hired to do with his steak was toss it into my cart along with the other trash.
Instead, I took the steak back out to the kitchen and told the cook exactly what the guy had said about it. Then I waited and returned with a well-done steak.

“Well, now it’s cooked too much!” the customer complained, shoving the plate back at me. “Does it come with an axe so I can cut it?”

The way I felt at that moment, it was a good thing I didn’t have an axe, because I would have been tempted to use it on him.

Miraculously, I made it through the three months I’d been hired to work (my summer vacation from school) at the Red Arrow. During that time, I had to endure rowdy football teams, food fights, endless screaming children and crying babies, and a grumpy kitchen employee who complained about everything and everyone, and told me I talked so much, I must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. Even worse, I gained 10 pounds from eating my way through at least five dozen brownies.

There were highlights, too, such as when people gave me tips (probably because they felt sorry for me) or when one cute guy wrote his phone number and “call me” on his napkin – unless he’d meant it for Diane.

But then there was the morning I was forced to spend much longer than I’d intended in the restroom (I didn’t eat much fiber back then), and when I returned to the dining room, it looked as if the town dump had exploded in it.

“Look at all of these dirty tables!” Diane had shouted at me. “You’d better catch up – and fast – if you want to keep your job!”

All I can say is people like Esther should be sainted.

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