Be a Waitress for a Week

By Linda DeMers Hummel

Be a Waitress for a Week

She holds a tissue to her nose, her eyes still red and damp. She has a

message for me – her new boss – and here it comes. The demands of her job are unmanageable. She’s not making what she’s worth. Deadlines are getting ugly.

Her meltdown started, as many do in our business, during a conference call. When the client made his feelings about her work clear with words like “subpar” and “careless,” she was stunned. She earned magnificent SAT scores and a “Summa” on her diploma. She didn’t see this coming.

I gave her a little time alone in the ladies’ room. While she splashes some cold water on her face, I know that my job will be to come up with suggestions to keep her from having another miserable afternoon like this one. I have my pep talk ready. But it won’t be what I really want to say.

Here’s what I really want to say: Be a waitress for a week.

For one summer during college, I got to see how the world really works at a well-known beach restaurant. Since then, I have over-thanked and over-tipped every server who’s ever put a plate of food in front of me. All I have to hear is, “Hi, I’m ____, and I’ll be taking care of you,” and I picture myself in my snug-fitting red and black uniform, hopeful my customers would be kind to me and always petrified that I’d spill coffee on small children.

At the start of every tourist season, Josie, my boss, had only a few days to get the new crop of college girls up to speed on everything from clearing dishes and refilling water glasses to up-selling. Anyone who got in her way was a potential casualty. She dressed in black. She walked/ran at a pace that made me think the place was on fire every time she passed. And then to fully overwhelm me, Josie gave directions in a German accent so Germanic that I could understand only half of her terrifying message. The rest I got from her body language.

We were trained to turn the diners’ attention to the wall of windows overlooking the ocean, just in case the food was lacking. The food was always lacking. Most times the white sands and surf did the trick. Every once in a while, however, we’d hear an outburst of indignation from a tourist who really liked food. When he didn’t think the fare was up to his standards, and he couldn’t be distracted by a few breakers or whitecaps, he would say, in a voice that made others turn, “I want to speak to the manager!” The manager was always in a good mood, thanks to his end seat at the bar. He’d be happy to comp the meals of the entire party. And that would be that.

My first week as a waitress, a man who was desperately trying to impress his much younger date, called me over with his index finger and said, “I’ll need to speak to the Chef.” Clearly, it was already too late to extend my arm to the windows and remark on the majestic Atlantic Ocean. I suggested the manager.

“Absolutely not,” the man answered, with a deliberate side glance to his date. “Get the Chef out here!”

The reason no one ever saw “the Chef” was that “the Chef” was a series of nerdy college boys, who were spending their summer in a 100-degree kitchen, tossing frozen shrimp into the deep fryer. They used ice cream scoops to fling the coleslaw on the plates.

With what would become my signature sad face, I looked at the ground as if overcome by emotion and said quietly, “I’m so sorry but the Chef just had a death in his family and had to leave immediately. The kitchen is doing its best.” I got so good at it that I considered a career in sales.

There were nights, close to closing, when I was so tired I wanted to cry, and then a table of 12 might come in and be seated in my section. And they’d all be drunk. I would be falling asleep in bed at midnight and still hear the unending loop going around and around, “Are you sure this is decaf?” or “Were these shrimp caught today?”

I had to be my own detective once when a couple skipped out on the bill and had completely changed clothes before I tracked them down in the parking lot. I figured out how to make tables of potential tippers appreciate the wonders of the sea while not noticing that their salads were droopy. I learned how to stay on Josie’s good side, and to say “I’m sorry” when I strayed to her dark place. I learned the customer is always right.

The young editor is slowly gaining back some composure. “How would you feel if I just took the rest of the day off to regroup?” she asks.

Part of me thinks I should let her go home early. But our company’s equivalent of the dinner rush is just starting, so I tell her, “No.” I want her to learn to collect herself after she’s dropped a tray of drinks. And I want her to know how great it feels not to spill the coffee.

About this writer

  • Linda DeMers HummelLinda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore-based writer who has recently completed a memoir, “I Haven’t Got All Day.” She spends a lot of time lately hoping to get good news from her agent.

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One Response to “Be a Waitress for a Week”

  1. Mary Ann says:

    Loved your essay. As a former waitress myself, I use your same formula to buck up my spirits. The diner was a cruel, cruel place with unscrewed salt shaker tops and pennies in coffee cups and a wonderful inspiration to stay in school and get an education.

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