by Dana Norris
Your waitress hates you. She hates your stupid face, your doughy eyes, the fact that you order your iced tea with three lemons, not two lemons, three lemons. The way you ask her to recite the beer list, the wine list, the soup of the day, the salad dressings, the specials, and then order none of those things. The way you talk with your hands. The way when she asks, “Do you know what you’d like to order?” you never do, but then you decide on the fettuccini alfredo the moment she walks away from your table. The way you lie about being allergic to ingredients that you only dislike. The way you tell stories, the longest most boring stories ever told, made even more so by the fact that she only hears them in parts as she brings you yet another iced tea.
“…and, you know, Billy is about…how old is he now? Ten? Twelve? I think it’s ten…”
“…the garage door is always up and I want to just walk across the street and ask them to close it but Helen said don’t…”
“…and it’s actually really interesting because I don’t get cell phone reception in my bedroom, but in the living room it’s clear as a bell.”
The way you question your food when she delivers it to your table. “Are these fajitas? I don’t think these are what fajitas look like. Honey, are these fajitas?” The way you sit at her table like no one has ever sat there before, like a thousand someone elses aren’t going to sit there right after you and act exactly the same way. The way you pay the bill and then continue to sit at the table, her table, and in doing so rob, rob, actually steal money from her because those are precious moments in which some other terrible asshole could be sitting there, paying her money. The way you ask for her to box up your leftovers but then leave the box behind on the table when you go. The way you leave her only 11% and write on the check, “A bigger smile would have meant a bigger tip!”
The way you have no idea what it’s like to be a server. The way, if you were a server, you would be terrible. You wouldn’t tip yourself.
When I turned 18 I became a server at Pizzeria Uno in Indianapolis, IN. I had worked there for two years as a hostess and was very excited for the opportunity to advance my restaurant career. I wanted the extra money, but I also wanted the excitement.
The servers were always making out in the break room, in the bathroom, in dry storage, in cold storage, in the freezer. Then they would go out after work and have actual sex. The male servers would occasionally come up front and flirt with the underage female hostess, inviting us back to dry storage. But if we went they never followed. The male servers asked me about what I was learning in high school, asked me to bring in my poetry for them to read, told me to read Franny & Zooey, wrote “She dies” on the first page my copy of The Awakening when I wasn’t looking. It was all very sexy.
At the end of each dinner shift I watched all of the servers gather in the restaurant’s maroon booths in groups of four or five, shirts untucked, lit cigarettes dangling from their lips. They sat and talked and counted their money, carefully turning the bill so the pictures of Lincoln, Washington, Hamilton and Jackson all faced the same way. Individual piles of presidents grew on the shiny tables in front of them and the servers smiled at the stacks as they leaned back and ashed their cigarettes directly onto the wooden floor.
I thought that serving would be easy since I already knew the menu, the five steps of service (greet the table, drink order, food order, make sure they like the food, deliver the bill) the bus boys, the cooks the hostesses and the managers. But I was a terrible server. I knew the restaurant and my co-workers well, but I didn’t know how to serve.
Customers would ask me questions:
“Can I get that without olives?”
“Can we split this entrée without any extra charge?”
“Can I get four shots of rum?”
“Is your ranch dressing gluten free?”
And I would smile and answer “Yes.”
I was trying to be helpful, but it turns out that the pasta sauce is pre-made with olives already in it, there’s a $5 charge for splitting entrees, it’s illegal to give one lonely man four shots of rum at once, and the ranch dressing contains a shit ton of gluten. So instead of being helpful I was a liar and when my lies were inevitably discovered the customers would become angry with me. This emotion was reflected in my tips.
I started smoking after giving a cook a ride home and discovering that she had left a pack of menthol Marlboro’s in my passenger seat. Smoking was the only way I could escape the restaurant floor and the angry customers for a moment, go to the back, grab an empty plastic pickle jar, turn it upside down in the alcove between the dishwasher and the employee restroom, sit down, light up, and have a moment of peace.
I started going out with the other servers after work. We would go to Applebee’s down the street because Pizzeria Uno closed at 10 p.m. but Applebee’s was open until midnight. I was underage so I wouldn’t order a drink on the first round, but on the second round I’d throw my hand up with everyone else. When I was questioned by the nervous-looking bartender, the older Pizzeria Uno servers would intervene, “Don’t worry about her.” I always got my beer.
I didn’t talk very much at these outings, just practiced my smoking while listening to the other servers, fascinated. They mostly talked about sex; who they wanted to have it with, who they had had it with and how good/bad/unmemorable it had been. I learned phrases like, “Man, this floor’s slicker than my date last night.”
I was careful to limit myself to one beer because I always had to drive home, but the other servers did not impose such limits on themselves. One night Lisa, a beautiful blonde just a year older than me, looked at me through bleary eyes and said with great earnestness, “Dana, I just want you to know…you are my best friend. Do you understand? BEST. FRIEND. You’re going to be a bridesmaid at my wedding, I swear to Christ.” And then she burst into tears. I was confused, but I comforted her while promising that I would absolutely be in her wedding as soon as she was engaged.
I didn’t realize how drunk she was at the time, or really how drunk everyone was all of the time. I also didn’t realize that the daily “safety break” that everyone took just before closing was them just going out back to smoke weed. I didn’t realize that the married couple, Julie and Bill, always worked eight shifts in a row and then disappeared for a month because they were using all of their tip money to feed their growing meth problem. I didn’t realize that half of the servers had a meth problem or a speed problem or a coke problem or, in Ralph’s case, all three. I just thought that they were a bunch of excited people who never could hold on to their money. They were my friends, they bought me beer, and they told me secrets about the world that no one else was telling me. They told me how to use a condom, how to blow smoke rings, how to know if a boy liked me, how to get a boy to call me without ever calling him, how to throw a punch without breaking my thumb, how to have a really, really good time.
Over time I improved as a server, learned to say, “Let me check on that,” instead of “Yes” when a group of backpackers asked if the cooks could fry up the fish they had with them in a cooler underneath the table. I learned to be able to read the customer, to tell who wanted fast service, who wanted to linger a while, who wanted all of my attention and who wanted to be left the hell alone. I learned when the customer was angry enough for me to go get the actual manager, or when Ralph posing as the manager would suffice.
Pizzeria Uno was fun because I was young, in high school and the tips weren’t determining whether or not I was able to pay my rent that month. But then I went off to college in Ohio and serving became my only source of income. For the next four years I worked at a variety of restaurants: The Cooker, Don Pablo’s, TGI Fridays, Bravo. I started to understand the self-destructive behavior of the servers back at Pizzeria Uno. I hadn’t embarked on a drug problem, but I was considering it. My smoking shifted from an occasionally indulgence to a necessity and I began having problems holding on to my money. After every shift I would go out with other servers and spend almost all of the money I had just made serving people jalapeno poppers and margaritas on people serving me jalapeno poppers and margaritas.
There is nothing sadder than a server outside of her restaurant—a girl in a pressed white men’s dress shirt, yellow striped tie, khaki pants and a green ankle-length apron running down a grassy embankment, pausing at the lip of the road, desperate to find a break in traffic so she can cross to the gas station on the other side and buy more cigarettes before her break ends. My income became the way I numbed myself in order to forget the both crushing monotony of my day and the fact that I had to go back tomorrow.
One evening at Don Pablo’s, a Mexican restaurant, a family of four didn’t look at me as I greeted them and took their drink orders. This happened frequently, but on that night I took it personally. When I listed the specials the father dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I went to the kitchen to bring back their obligatory chips and salsa. However, instead of the normal, mild salsa, I filled their bowl with the salsa we called “macho,” the salsa that no one in that Dayton, Ohio restaurant ever ordered due to their fear of its extreme heat. I brought them secret macho salsa and didn’t refill their iced teas for thirty-five minutes.
It’s been ten years since I quit my last waitressing job. Today when I go to a restaurant I am very careful. I look the server in her eye and immediately learn her name. Since I know I will go through them quickly I order two iced teas at a time. I am grateful for however many lemons exist in my iced tea. I order off of the menu the moment the server asks me what I would like. I stack my dirty plates and decrumb the table myself. If there is a problem with the food I am sure to let the server know that I know it is not her fault, she didn’t cook the salmon herself. I tip 25%. I leave the second the bill is paid. And as I walk into the parking lot I am overcome with the feeling that my waitress hates me.
Dana received a Bachelors in Creative Writing and Religion and from Wittenberg University and a Masters in Religious Studies from The University of Chicago. Dana also has a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Chicago and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Northwestern University.
She recently won the AWP Intro Journals Creative Nonfiction prize and will be published in the Tampa Review. She also received a Writers Studio Student Prize from the University of Chicago Graham School, was a finalist for the Guild Complex Nonfiction Prize, is a contributor to Praxis Magazine and was first runner-up at the February & April 2010 Moth StorySLAMs in Chicago. She performs around Chicago with Cafe Cabaret, Essay Fiesta, and Beast Woman.