At Your Service

Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us to discuss a good or bad experience we’ve had as a customer. In over a decade of waiting tables, I saw a lot of different types of customers, and learned the kind of customer that I wanted to be pretty early. One thing you figure out when you decide to be a good customer is that it’s really difficult to get bad service if you decide you’re going to have a good time. I think that many customers fail to understand the complexity of table service, especially in a nice restaurant that is also busy. That failure to comprehend how the world works leads to unrealistic expectations, which one might assume leads bad customers to exhibit poor behavior elsewhere in life. But that’s not why we’re here today. Today I want to talk about my first job in the restaurant industry, and how it’s led me to become the mental wreck I am today…

I started my career as a restaurant dishwasher. My grandfather had given me an old car a few weeks before for my 16th birthday, and my mother subsequently decided that I’d have to start driving myself to and from school so that she didn’t have to wake up early every morning. To pay for the gas to run the car, I’d have to get a job. To make time for the job, I’d have to quit running track and doing a few after-school activities, and do my homework after I got off of work at 10pm.

I thought it was a pretty shitty deal then, and almost 16 years later, I’m still do. Even though independence is huge, and teenagers should definitely learn the value of hard work, I’m not sold on the idea of forcing a kid to quit playing sports and drop out of school activities just so you don’t have to drive them to and from school any longer. Especially if you (the parent) don’t have a job or do anything constructive with your time, and your kid is an academic overachiever who could really use more experience on the athletic side of things.

But what did I know? And the car did come in handy for makeout sessions and shopping trips, which I’m sure my parents weren’t factoring in when they made me quit the track team.

After six months of washing dishes and helping out in the restaurant kitchen, I moved up to become a server. We were called waitresses then, though. This was was the only “fancy” (meaning no cut-off sleeves) restaurant in town to grab a sit-down dinner, and I’d been eating a couple of meals a week there since I was a baby. I suppose everyone had known that I’d work there one day, even the managers, who still treated me like the little girl who’d always requested a strawberry candy instead of a peppermint when the check came. That mindset didn’t excuse the treatment we all got as employees, though.

The boss was ex-Navy, and it showed in every action. He was a wound-up ball of anger, disguised behind ironed jeans and tucked-in polo shirts. His was by far the cleanest restaurant I ever worked in. Like all servers everywhere, we had a specific roster of tasks that had to be taken care of at opening and closing, but sidework at the restaurant was an AFFAIR. In some ways it was the best possible place to start a career in the service industry, because forever after I felt lucky when I only had a few small tasks to complete outside of waiting on tables. Here, before and after each shift we had so much work that we’d often show up a couple of hours early and stay a couple of hours late. From washing the windows, washing the menus, cutting veggies and prepping the salad bar, refilling condiments, disinfecting tables and chairs, making/storing tea and coffee, wrapping silverware and folding napkins, mopping, vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, dusting light fixtures, scrubbing out the drink coolers and freezer, and about a hundred other small tasks, it was a HUGE responsibility to keep the place running to the boss’s specifications. But it worked. We worked. We were all kids, too, so we didn’t know it was borderline insanity. It was just our job, so we did it.

The one job that I absolutely hated was cleaning out the kitchen’s walk-in cooler. To this day, I’ve never seen a cleaner cooler. The cooks kept everything labeled correctly, and nothing was allowed to go even slightly south of perfect. Wilting was not allowed in the boss’s kitchen…unless you were an employee. We all wilted in private from time to time, mascara running, sobs muffled in the walk-in. It made a great place to cool down after he screamed at you in his office for the umpteenth time about how lazy, inefficient, inept, etc. you were. Towards the end of my employment, as business got worse and he began taking it out on the little girls who worked for him, the boss’s task list grew longer. He assigned cleaning tasks as both chores and punishments, and soon they both started to blend together.

Cleaning the walk-in happened once a week during a mid-week shift, and had to be completed before the kitchen was done for the evening. Since a server had to do the work, that meant that you’d talk to a table, get their drinks, then run back and scrub the cooler while they were looking over the menu. Two minutes, tops, then back to the table to get their order. Deliver order to the table, bring out hushpuppies & butter to the table, check on drinks again, then back to the cooler to scrub. Two minutes of that, then back to the floor to see if you’d gotten a new table and everything was OK, then back to the cooler, then back to the floor, check on the food, see who needs a drink refill, back to the cooler…you get the idea. Oh, and you were scrubbing the cooler with a toothbrush and a bucket of bleach, while wearing black pants, black apron, and black shirt. Any bleach stains would get a demerit. I’m not shitting you.

Eventually, I got tired of getting shouted at and belittled by my boss, and told my mother I wanted to quit. It was my senior year. I was overloaded with AP classes, and after I got home from work at 10 or 11 every night, I’d do my household chores (At the time, we didn’t have a kitchen, and dishes had to be washed in the bathtub. Mum didn’t like to wash dishes. so guess who got to do it instead?) After chores, I’d stay up until 1 or 2 doing my homework, then get up for work at 7 and start all over again.

Just half of the boss’s actions today would be a definite headache for the HR department. Instead of having my back, or even pretending to see my side, Mum told me to stop being lazy, and that I wasn’t allowed to quit. I can only guess it’s because she’s never held down a job in her life, so I think I see the point. I know I’m not a delicate little flower – I’m no more special than any other schmuck who needs a job, and I definitely needed one then since I wasn’t getting to and from school, otherwise.

But I don’t forgive her for forcing my hand. I can’t. That imperative to stay, despite how I was being treated, has stuck with me. It just took me FIVE YEARS to quit a job I hated from Day One. Because of my first job experience, I am unable to handle confrontation, and definitely unable to define that line where it’s time to just go. I don’t know when to physically quit, even when my mind has been disengaged for some time.

Part of learning to lean in will be figuring out the healthiest way to lean back without feeling guilt or remorse for things I can’t change. How to make this happen?

The truth is that I just don’t know, and that I’m scared that when I start saying exactly how I feel, when I feel it, I’m going to burn every bridge I’ve ever built in my life. That’s not exactly reassuring.

But hey, who doesn’t love a clean slate, right? (There’s a laugh there somewhere, I think.)

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