The life of an on-again, off-again waitress is full of pratfalls: bad tables, bad tips, bad outfits. I’ve worn waitress outfits ranging from a midriff grazing t-shirt paired with a pony-tail directly on top of my head (Think Pebbles from the Flintstones with a splash of stripper) to a two-sizes-too-big thrift-store tuxedo. I have been harassed, swatted, hit on by men old enough to be my father, then hit on by men old enough to be my grandfather. I’ve carried the heavy plates that bend your wrist the wrong way and whiten the tips of your fingers. I’ve worked for ten hours, sometimes 12 or 13, with only a break long enough to smoke a cigarette and devour a pilfered chunk of stale bread.
Now, as an off-again waitress and an almost daily customer, I’m nice to waitresses to the point that it’s weird (Somewhere, one of them is writing a blog about being hit on by men old enough to be her father, and maybe nervous shiny-foreheaded women her own age). Because being the girl with the steaming tray propped on my shoulder taught me a valuable lesson: Don’t be a bad table. Being a bad table makes you universally awful, disliked by friends and servers, and a target of food, spit, and wrath. If none of that matters, how about this cautionary tale? When I stopped waitressing, I started a new job in a totally non-service related field. At networking events and on business trips, I ran into old customers all the time. And why wouldn’t I? I hadn’t moved, neither had they, and the world is small, so there we were. I had the upperhand since they had no idea who I was out of uniform. But I remembered them: Birdlike woman who stiffed me on a tip when a leaf fell in her water glass, brassy big talker who wrote his hotel room number on the back of his receipt, perpetually drunk guy who once yelled at me for not receiving enough scallops. They were all interested in the organization I worked for, hungry to make connections, to get that sweet, sweet networking on. I wanted nothing to do with them. I saved that sweet, sweet networking for people who hadn’t thrown a scallops-related hissy fit or contributed to my rent being late.
Maybe you’re a delightful customer, the kind everyone looks forward to slipping a free refill. Maybe you’re a hapless customer, committing accidental faux pas left and right. And maybe you are the much-loathed terrible table. But you don’t have to be a terrible table forever. Here are a few facts I’ve learned from legendary screamers, non-tippers, and temporarily unlikeable human beings.
You pay for service: My hourly wage is $2.10. Is this your fault? No. But it’s not my fault either. So if you want to cause a scene and then refuse to tip, do not sit around for another hour and make conversation. I have no reason to refill your water or clear your table or lower my voice when I’m talking about you. You did not pay for service, you paid for drinks. Remember that.
Hop off that high horse: Everything in your dining and retail life teaches you that you’re important. You walk into a store and people flock to you, offering assistance. You walk into a restaurant and someone fills your water and brings you food. Everyone is smiling at you! Everyone is serving you! Your day-to-day life is monotonous, your boss bullies you and your family is tired of hearing your stories, but here you are king. In a restaurant, you are somebody.
You cannot treat people however you want because you deigned to eat at their restaurant. If you’re nice and you treat your server like a person, you will get better service. Guaranteed. Remember: Just because you can have your water refilled all day, it doesn’t make you somebody — it just makes you somebody with water.
I see you: You might think you only see me, that you are the only observer in our hour long relationship. But when you get drunk and yell at your kids in front of me? I see you! When you show up on Tuesday with your girlfriend and Friday with your wife? I see you! And when you blow your nose in your napkin and use it to wipe your mouth? Yeah, I see you. And it’s gross.
I hear you: I took your order. We’ve communicated. Obviously I hear you. You have a comment about my ass? You’re not getting enough water? You need a steak knife? Figure out which of these things are appropriate to say to me and just say them. But don’t act like a petulant 9-year-old and half mumble it while I’m walking away.
I remember everything: I spend all day memorizing multiple, often complicated orders. When I’m in the restaurant, I’m a sponge. So yes, I may forget my dry-cleaning or my grandmother’s birthday, but I sure as hell remember how much you drink, how well you tip, and how much of a jerk you are everytime I see you.
I don’t own the restaurant: People always seem to think their waitress has added additional charges to their bill, as though the waitress profits from what the restaurant sells. Please. Trust this– you are not important enough to warrant the energy it would take for a server to create a false charge and then steal the money you paid from the restaurant. That level of ineffective double-thievery is too much effort for a person whose probably been on her feet for the past ten hours, and needed to pee for at least six of those.
You need to tip: Next time your options are “stay at home with a box of macaroni and cheese” or “go to a restaurant but don’t tip,” stay home. I don’t like you, nor do the many people I pool tips with, from a hostess who won’t take your reservations anymore to a kitchen staff who are no longer interested in getting you your food on time. And then there are servers at other restaurants. Because of our vampire-like schedules, servers spend a lot of time with other servers and chefs from nearby restaurants. Those people are like war buddies, who pay you and later get you drunk for free when you visit them at work. And what are the stories we trade? Bad tables and terrible tippers. So now a neighborhood’s worth of people who handle your food despise you. I’m sure that macaroni and cheese probably sounds delicious right now.