Sunday, April 8, 2018

Observations of a Waitress

One of my favorite lines in my new favorite movie, Thelma & Louise, is when the cop is interrogating the cocktail server about Thelma and Louise after the would-be rapist's body is found with a bullet in his chest.

"Those women are not the killing type," the server insists.

"And you're an expert on human nature?" the cop says condescendingly.

"If waiting tables in a bar doesn't make me an expert on human nature, I don't know what would," she says without missing a beat.

I think she's right. I haven't done it long enough to become an expert, but I can see how it would. As I prepare to turn in my apron for what I think will be the final time, I've been reflecting a lot on what I learned as a server.

It never ceases to amaze me how self-entitled some people can be. How they clearly move through the world expecting everything to go according to their every preference. Money does that to you, I guess? And lack of perspective or empathy.

For example, the other night I had three tables at once who all took issue with the most minute elements of their dining experience. "I want something with potatoes and rice," one woman told me.

"We don't have any rice dishes," I responded, "But the Russian salad is made with potatoes." She frowned at the menu.

"What do you have that's vegan?" Her boyfriend asked.

"Let's see, the olives are vegan," I told him. "The fries are vegan if you leave off the spiced mayo. The blistered peppers are vegan, the eskarola is a vegan salad, and you could do the laminas de setas without cheese."

He, too, frowned at the menu. "I want a real meal," he said petulantly. "Something filling. You don't have like rice and beans?"

"Nope," I said lightly. "The only bean dish has mussels in it."

He looked at me with great annoyance. "Well I guess I'll just drink, then," he said. "But she's starving. Can you please get her something?"

I looked back at the woman. "I guess I'll have the Russian salad," she said as if it were a tragedy.

I turned around and grabbed some txakoli from the bar, and carried it to another of my tables.

"These are the wine glasses?" A man at the table asked me with outrage.

"Yes," I explained patiently. "Txakoli is poured high to aerate it and bring out the effervescence. These are the traditional glasses, used to keep it from splashing out when you pour it."

He frowned at his glass of wine.

I walked to another table who looked ready to order. "I'll have the special fish," one started. "I'll get the rabbit," the woman to her left said. "And I want the octopus," the third said. I stifled a sigh. I had already explained to them that Txikito doesn't serve entrees per diner; everything is meant to be shared and is sent out by the kitchen one at a time. We don't even have seat numbers.

I told them again how it works. "Well, can you at least make sure that the fish comes out at the same time as the meat?" The second woman asked. "She doesn't eat meat." She gestured towards her friend.

"I'll do my best," I said brightly, knowing the kitchen staff would be annoyed if I even asked.

And so it goes.

I serve people like this at every shift. None of them are flat-out rude, per se, they just expect the world to operate according to their standards, according to their every whim. Or maybe they're only like that in a restaurant, where they walk in knowing their server is at their service.

I don't really mind being part of the scenery, but I can tell when someone is failing to recognize me as a human operating in a system I largely have no power in. I can also tell when someone is making a point to recognize me as a fellow human: For example, when they look me in the eye and say thank you as I fill their water glass or set a plate of food on their table. Or when they ask my name and use it in a polite way. Very rarely do I get asked my name.

Also, what's the deal with bad tippers? Do they really not understand that tips are my wages? Are they somehow unaware that 18% is a standard tip for acceptable service in a high-end restaurant in New York City? The other day I waited on a guy dining with a friend of the chef. The kitchen sent out not one but TWO complimentary dishes. And yet he tipped less than 10% of the final bill. Why? It can't have been me; I know I did a good job. So somewhere in his brain there is no awareness that tipping less than 10% is totally inappropriate, unless he's a sadist who wanted to insult me for some unfathomable reason? I have learned to not dwell on these things excessively, but they still bother me. It's like getting a bad grade in a class where you know you deserve an A —expect this isn't grades, it's real-life income.

And then there are people who tip grandiosely, and I wonder about that, too. Was it because they once worked in the service industry? Was it to make up for the bad tippers they know are out there? Was it because they were charmed by me? Was it because I looked hungry? Was it because they simply have a lot of money and take pleasure in giving it away whenever possible? I'll never know.

At ACME on Broadway in Nashville, where I worked for only one month, I saw all kinds of bizarre tipping patterns. Someone once tipped $15 on a $11 bill. The same night, someone else tipped $1 on a $16 bill. And once I stood awkwardly in front of a couple who'd handed me a $20 — their bill was $16.75 — and watched them struggle to decide when I asked whether they wanted change. The $3 ceases to matter to you when you have half a dozen other tables needing your attention, but you can't help but puzzle over why the question of $3 was such a difficult one for this couple drinking at a tourist bar in Nashville.

I feel like a sociologist or anthropologist (what's the difference?) watching people in the restaurants I've worked in. I see gender dynamics: Men sometimes order for their female dining partners. Sometimes the woman doesn't even look at me, she just looks at the man as he speaks for both of them. Other men are terrified of inadvertently ordering "girly" drinks: This hasn't happened in Chelsea, but in Nashville I was often asked, "Is it pink?" "Is it fruity?" "What kind of glass does it come in?"

I also puzzle over the psychology behind people's decision-making processes in a restaurant. How they choose their order, how much information they want before deciding. How they decide whether or not they like something, and how they decide what to do if they don't like it.

Now that I've written all this out, I realize I'm nowhere near an expert on human nature. Restaurant work has only made me all the more baffled over human nature.

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