Object Dar't

November 19, 2013

The Art of Waitressing

When I was in college, I worked as a waitress. The job title of waitress does NOT have one modicum of power, prestige or even respect. And in the beginning, I didn’t respect what I did either. On days I made no money, I was pissed. I had bills and tuition to pay. On days I made money, I felt relieved because I wouldn’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul. My approach to this “job” was the same as every other waitress. We all strolled in early in the morning with the attitude of “yeah, let’s get this shit over so we can go home.” The basic tenet was that people are assholes. And some of them were. But most of them were just faceless, nameless folks who you hoped would tip you well.

Now, I don’t know about the other waitresses, but in my brain this was a very temporary gig. However, the joke was on me. It turned out to be a gig that I was stuck in for a long time. And man, was I frustrated. I just couldn’t understand it. WTF. I have a big fat brain and all kinds of skills so why didn’t I have a job that utilized those skills and paid me decent money?? My parents weren’t helping matters either. My mother would say with a sneer, you’re just a “waitress” as if it were a 4-letter word. The phrase, “What are we raising waitresses here?” became a pathetic joke within the family. My Dad would constantly pressure me, “just get a job somewhere – ANYWHERE - and work your way up.” Ugh. My guts would scream every time he said that to me. Couldn’t he see I was killing myself trying? Couldn’t he see that I was utterly desperate to have a job I felt was both worthy AND compensated me well? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I seem to do the very basic things that everyone else seems able to do?

At a certain point, my gut started to answer me and I didn’t like the answer I was receiving. There was a lesson in this job for me and until I got the lesson, I was NOT going anywhere.

Previously, when people sat down at a table of mine, like every other waitress I knew, I’d lump them very quickly into “good tipper” or “bad tipper” categories. But then it dawned on me; what a horrible thing that is to do to people. You shouldn’t shove people into little boxes based upon what kind of money you THINK they will give you for the job you do. I didn’t want them lumping me into the little box titled “waitress” so why was I doing similar to them? Maybe the lesson I wasn’t getting actually had something to do with people and not money?  

That was one of those pivotal moments when a single epiphany sends everything spinning. I decided to forget about the money. Screw it – it couldn’t get any worse. So I started focusing on these people. What would happen if instead of just slinging hash at these folks, I instead treated them like human beings? Who was sitting at my table? What was their story? What did I have to learn from these people? And WHY were they in my station?

So it began. Each time someone was seated at one of my tables, I didn’t just walk up and give them the standard monotone, “Hello, my name is Denyse. I’m going to be your server today. The specials are blah blah blah.” I’d said it so many times that it was hollow. I was tired of talking at people. So instead, I’d saunter up, say hi and ask how they were doing as if I were making new friends. And I meant it! And they knew it. And guess what? I discovered that a LOT of these people were seriously amazing. They inspired and interested me. But I also had a job to do. I figured out that if I was going to spend all this time talking with people, I’d better figure out how to be more efficient at the waitressing part because the talking part was sucking up a LOT of time. Talking was not what I was getting paid to do. So instead of going to a table, asking what they needed and running back to get it – I’d hit ALL the tables, make one trip back for all the stuff and then disperse it as I made my chatty rounds. Meanwhile, all the other waitresses were doing the same old routine of one table at a time. Somehow I’d figured out how to do the same job with half the effort. The bonus was that the remaining half time was so enjoyable! I quit strolling into work in the mornings thinking, “yeah let’s get this shit over” and started thinking “OOOOoooo I wonder who I’m going to meet today!”

After a few months, I got pretty damn good at both caring for my customers and waitressing. As a result, my income began to rise. A LOT. Huh? Ok so hold the phone. I’m the same person, working in the same place which means nothing about my income potential had changed. And yet it had. Whatever I was doing, it was making a difference. I wasn’t hating my job and it wasn’t even remotely painful to pay my rent or tuition. Well that just egged me on even further.

Because I was expanding my awareness of other people, I started noticing that many of my customers arrived stressed out and in a bad mood. Now that’s probably the single most bothersome thing for me. At my core, I can’t stand to see people unhappy. I’ve been there and I literally don’t want anyone else to be there. So I started a game with myself. I decided to see every customer who came in contact with me that was in a bad or neutral mood, as a challenge. This may sound Pollyanna but it was my secret mission to turn the frowns upside down. I decided that every person I took care of had to leave with a smile. Holy shit did that blow the doors off everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. It not only turned my entire belief system upside down but proved that people desperately want to be happy. And because it’s so rare for a stranger to give the gift of happiness, boy they never forget you.

One morning, at 6am, a truck driver came in for coffee. He looked pretty chewed up. Being on the road, away from those he loved, driving endlessly through all the road rage – it took a toll on his soul and he clearly had no way to wash that off. This was a man who like me 6 months prior was thinking about his day ahead as, “yeah, let’s get this shit over.” He plunked down in my booth in a withdrawn mood, rubbed his eyes and asked for coffee. I got him coffee. But I also spent 50 cents to buy him the morning newspaper and asked if he’d like to read it. It was a small thing but he looked more shocked than if a second head had just burst out of my belly. As I watched him process it all mentally, I asked him how he was doing. And I meant it. I really wanted to know and I really wanted to help him remove some of whatever was weighing him down. So for a few minutes, I stood there with a pot of coffee in my hand and just talked with him. Mainly, I listened but every now and then I’d steer him toward some sort of “positive” because he wasn’t seeing it on his own. When I knew he was in a neutral place mentally, then I let him enjoy the morning paper as the sun rose and shone through those big windows. Nothing beats greeting the day like that – a warm cup of coffee, the rising sun and the leisure to read. It was a good moment and I knew it because this man, who’d arrived to me in such rough shape, was leaving renewed and SMILING. I said goodbye to him, wished him a great day and went back to work as he went to pay his 69 cent bill. About 5 minutes later, I went back to clean the table and there for a tip was a $20 bill. A $20 tip for a 69 cent bottomless cup of coffee? And then the cash clerk came to me to relay a message. My customer asked for the manager so that he could tell him what an amazing and invaluable employee I was. Wow. Just wow. The man only got a cup of coffee but apparently it was the best cup of coffee he’d ever had.

It wasn’t too long after that, I was at my folks house again. And, like clockwork, my mother made a dig about me “just being a waitress.” And without even thinking, I replied, “I may be just a waitress, but I’m the best damn waitress you ever met. And the proof is in the fact that I make just as much money in 3 days as you do at your shitty job for 5 days after 13 years there. So you keep going on about how I’m “just a waitress” while I laugh my ass all the way to the bank.” She didn’t make another waitress joke ever.  

I have to tell you that I look back on my days as a waitress now with such fondness. I would absolutely do it all over again. If I’d had to live my life as a waitress, I would have done it gladly. It was the first time in my life that I truly felt connected to others. Not a single person thought I was a freak and not one person ever rejected my kindness. In fact, I had a lot of people thank me and express that it was a treat to spend that time with me. What it wound up doing for me on a personal level was that I discovered a work ethic in myself that I didn’t know I possessed. But more than that, I got the lesson and when I no longer cared at all, my life got to move forward. I understood that when we go along being concerned only with our own problems and misery, we’re trapped and go nowhere. As soon as I turned my focus off my own misery and onto to others (even in the smallest of ways), everything started to fall into place; a good place. No a GREAT place because as it turns out; all these things in life are somehow connected. Now instead of just painting a restaurant happy, I get to paint the whole world happy. It’s a wonderful thing!