ARE YOU READY TO ORDER?
Before I was eighteen, I found talking very difficult. I was a really shy kid and teenager. I lacked ease, and craved it more than anything. Greetings in particular made me extremely nervous. When I was fourteen, my best friend gave me a dodgeball-style hugging lesson which involved her flinging her arms around me from different directions, so I would stop tensing up when saying hello. I was extremely attracted to people who seemed to glide through the world, who kissed cheeks and touched arms and delivered jokes over their shoulders without stopping. People who had naturally good timing, who didn’t jerk or stutter, seemed miraculous to me—like characters in New York movies who could cross streets without pausing, yell at a taxi driver, and continue a phone conversation all at the same time.
Waitresses seemed to personify this kind of social grace. I admired them the way another kid might have admired Disney channel stars or basketball players. I probably didn’t admit or even realise this admiration at the time. Still, I have really clear memories of watching waitresses in restaurants, my first pre-pubescent crushes. Growing up in Florida, I remember being in Olive Garden or TGI Friday’s or IHOP, and the waitresses being nice to me when I tried to say ‘chicken fingers’ or ‘pancakes’ and suddenly felt a gut-wrenching terror, like I’d never made a noise in my life, let alone anything resembling words. I liked the terms of endearment that seemed as natural and necessary as punctuation to the waitressing language: being called honey, sweetie, or sugar made me feel as if I’d earned these names, and was as much of a reward as getting ice cream. The waitresses always seemed beautiful and unafraid. I admired their jokes as they scuttled past each other, the shout of the chefs from the kitchen countered by their laughter, the little looks that made me think, even as a kid, that they all loved each other.
At eighteen, I moved to London, got my first job in a pub and finally learned how to talk. I learned how to set the pace of a conversation by hurrying along my: ‘What can I get you?’ I learned how a question could be formed from one word alone: ‘Double? Ice?’ I learned gestures for clarity, using my thumb and forefinger to spell out wine sizes. ‘Small? Medium? Large?’ I learned how to time my ‘How is everything?’ so that tourists wouldn’t struggle to swallow a bite of their microwaved steak-and-ale pie. Then, as a restaurant receptionist, I learned how to set a scene for talk to flourish: always seat the corners first; never put a six-top in for less than two hours no matter how fast they promise to be; don’t sit a couple next to kids at brunch. In cafes, I asked, ‘Poached, scrambled or fried?’ so many times that I became very limitedly psychic to egg orders alone. In late-night bars, I learned how to appease drunk people who wanted a fight, how to talk my way away from someone without them realising, how to apologise, and how to tell someone to fuck off. Depending on my mood, I learned how to sound exactly how I was supposed to sound (like a waitress robot) or how to get tables to end up telling me their life story by dessert (like a waitress therapist). And alongside all this, I worked with dozens of colleagues who I spoke to more genuinely than anyone I’ve ever known. I soon learned—and fell in love with—the kind of unpressured chat that accompanies a Tuesday lunch shift, when there is nothing to do except empty the fridges as a team of two, scrubbing out the insides while simultaneously disentangling everything that’s ever happened in your lives.
I hadn’t considered how much waitressing affected my life until I stopped doing it five months ago, and moved home to focus on writing for a while. Apart from some brief pauses and a couple of months during lockdown, it’s the first time in eleven years I haven’t worked in hospitality. Some days I miss waitressing, and some nights I dream of dirty glasses stacked on the bar on a Saturday night and I awake praying I never have to tie another apron around my waist. It’s been very nice to sit in my parents’ house writing in the mornings, but by 11am, I want to talk. My whole working life has been spent talking, following daily, monthly, seasonal cycles of topics. ‘How are you doing?’ ‘You got any gossip?’ ‘September always reminds me of going back to school.’ When I was working full-time, I used to crave silence, and now I long for just one little back-and-forth about the weather. Recently, I’ve found myself hunting for stories and books about restaurants, craving someone to describe the experience to me in a distant way, like looking at photos of an ex online.
I found Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley, where she perfectly encapsulates the sensation of working late-night shifts in pubs, where time becomes almost nonexistent, life a quick-flowing haze interrupted only by regulars detailing the highlights of their future memoirs. I found the short story ‘Fat’ by Raymond Carver, which rolls out one of my favourite ever conversation structures—waitress-to-waitress-about-a-customer—and ends with the best last lines I’ve ever read in a story, lines I’ve heard from co-workers, and in my own brain, dozens of times after a long shift: ‘My life is going to change. I feel it.’ I found The Woman Who Waits by Frances Donovan, a radical and exquisitely intimate book about the life of waitresses in Chicago in 1920. It mainly consists of the overheard gossip, heartache and struggle that Donovan dutifully transcribes directly from the break room.
My favourite is Stewart O’Nan’s novella, Last Night at the Lobster, which follows the staff of a Red Lobster through their final shift before they close for good in the morning. Reading it, l felt a specific ventricle in my heart twitch, the part of me that remembers every last shift I’ve ever worked, the particularity of each of the goodbyes, how elemental they felt at the time, before they were overshadowed by the next a year or so later. In Last Night at the Lobster, there is such a tenderness in the way the characters leave each other, a sadness so familiar it feels like nostalgia. The singularity and complex nature of the friendships that develop in a restaurant designed, down to the singing marlin on the wall, to look exactly the same in every city, makes me cry every time I read it.
Love is built into the architecture of working in service; it’s mostly why people go out to eat. Every night, I felt like an extra in a hundred romantic comedies, all playing at the same time. It felt theatrical when the lights dimmed at five thirty before a dinner shift, the candles carefully lit because spilt wax could take half an hour to chisel from a table, and we began taking out the first dishes, some that had been finished with tweezers and held breath. In the Leone Ross story ‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’, a restaurant and the chef’s lover are twinned in a way that makes perfect, illogical, sense. Both are the pinnacles of the chef’s affection and he is unable to favour one over the other. Eventually, the woman becomes a part of the restaurant itself, her relationship with the chef another facet of the routines and repetitions of service: love made, consumed, forgotten and recreated every night of the week. The descriptions of the dishes, the furnishings, and the woman’s beauty all work to represent the surrounded feeling of falling in love: ‘Love is what it is. She stretched a finger skyward as though making an architectural suggestion.’
Working in restaurants is an excellent place to fall in love or have an unsustainable crush, especially when you are young. Working behind a bar or in a kitchen, there were so many opportunities to be kind to each other, which was a lovely genre of flirting. Being given flowers is nice, maybe, but my first boyfriend remembering to turn off the Guinness for me as I struggled to fling three tonics into glasses was the kind of repeated act, particularly at eighteen, that really made me swoon. There was a forced closeness to the shift patterns that lent itself to a strange excitement: like, okay, we’re together on a Wednesday morning shift and it’s just the two of us on a bar, what are we going to talk about for seven hours straight? There was a cosiness to it, time seemed endless and infinite, it never had to be grabbed for or organised or earned by text. It was decided randomly by rota; the managers, careless matchmakers, like God. If I stood beside someone for long enough at a bar, I ended up having a crush on them just to pass the time, even if it only lasted the length of the shift. It illuminated conversations, made the dullest observations shine. We talked about everything: our mothers, our moon signs, every date we’d ever been on in our lives. And when we were bored of ourselves, we could not look at a phone or computer, so instead we could only watch the diners, the drinkers, and talk about them. Our entire job was to interact with a particular focus group of humanity during all their rituals of intimacy (dates, celebrations, gossip, leaving drinks, hen dos). It’s a beautiful thing to watch and discuss, like a movie you think about for weeks after, remembering all the details.
Most of the time, waitressing made me love people, in all their insecurity, their vulnerability, and in their efforts to be impressive or attractive to the person sitting opposite them. I loved how they mostly tried and failed but kept trying, anyway, over and over, every night of the week. It actually made me feel a bit sick with love, the same kind of nausea as when I watch reality TV shows where people try, with their whole being to sing, and then can’t hold a note in tune. Maybe in my more powerful days as a waitress, I felt like a movie director, or a kid bashing two dolls together to make them kiss, leading couples on with my lines, inflating their egos, advising them on the nice wine, the liqueurs, the lighter dessert they could share. I laughed at their jokes that weren’t really funny, because I appreciated the effort, the way I’d laugh for a friend if they suddenly took up stand-up comedy as a hobby. I was always kind to people who were kind to me. I wanted them to have a nice time.
WHAT DO YOU RECOMMEND?
After six months or so in a place, I enjoyed telling people what to order. Going to restaurants can be expensive and intimidating, and people react rudely when they feel uncomfortable. It was usually easy to remedy this and, if I acted quickly, I could steer a table past the rock of an awkward moment (maybe a daughter made fun of the way her mum held the menu far away from her face to see it, or a dad was too friendly with me and then got embarrassed about it, or a kid got yelled at for looking at their phone, or a date didn’t want to share a starter) and guide them to safer shores.
Recommending wine was my speciality. I have never tasted the difference between wines, really, but I learned from looking at people what adjective they wanted to taste. Mineral, herby, salty, buttery, crisp, big, light. Peppery, smoky, spicy. I looked at a person and picked the word I thought they wanted, and then they got what they wanted, which was the same wines everyone liked on the list. Sometimes they only needed one word, said with a firm thoughtful authority. Other times, I said all the differing words in a kind of drawl until their eyes glazed over, like a trance state, and they’d get whatever wine I suggested and the food that should go with it. This worked out well for my tables, because I’d tasted every dish cold at the end of the night, or picked it off a plate with the kitchen porter at the sink, and I knew which dishes the chefs were excited to make, and which ones they were bored of, and which ones made people’s faces light up like children at McDonald’s. At the Michelin place I worked at, a middle-aged man once broke down in sobs after eating the chef’s version of mashed potatoes.
SORRY, I FORGOT YOUR OLIVES
If sometimes as a waitress I felt like an actor, sometimes a director, there were other times, when I was cleaning a kid’s marshmallow-flecked sick out of a babyccino mug, or when I tripped down the stairs and dropped twenty full flutes of champagne, or when a man in a cocktail bar poked the scar on my shoulder and told me I looked like I’d been raped, that I really, really, felt like shit.
In Last Night at the Lobster, there’s a scene where a child throws up over another customer’s shoes, in the last lunch shift while a blizzard rages outside. As Manny, the manager, scrubs the vomit off the floor, the mother of the child complains that another waitress was laughing at her kid being sick and demands that this waitress be disciplined for it. She will not accept Manny’s placations, with his hands full of cloths stinking of regurgitated ice cream sundae, and wants to speak to an invisible higher-up with the power and willingness to ruin this waitress’s life.
When I worked hard and someone looked at me like I was truly worth nothing, or when I made a mistake and my apology was considered inadequate, I felt a distortion within myself, as though seeing my reflection unload for a second, a flicker in the cinematic matrix of my self-perception. I was entirely insignificant to another human, and their disdain felt confusing, because it was so obviously misled. Their perception was so skewed that it almost made me pity them. I wanted to correct them, to point out my rationally evidenced personhood, my consciousness that was as rare and gorgeous as their own, but soon I learned that trying to prove your existence to someone who refuses to see you is the errand of a fool. As I progressed in my waitressing career, I learned to recognise the challenging tables immediately, their paranoia giving them a twitchy and easily identifiable look, as though they always suspected they were about to be robbed.
I mention these tables not because they affected me particularly beyond the close of service, but because they were psychologically interesting to me, a mystery. Why did tables sometimes act like I personally had ruined their life because a night did not go to plan, because there was unpredictability, spontaneity when there should only have been order? One thing I did notice over a decade in hospitality was an increase in tension when small errors occurred—if extra butter took a few minutes longer than expected, if a bill had to be requested twice. I could feel it in myself, too, a new and uncomfortable irritation when waiting in lines, and constantly wanting to know the time. I found that guests were more used to having their needs met instantly, by way of a familiar mechanical interface, rather than a human being, who was prone to errors and making jokes. As the years progressed and I approached tables with pen-and-pad, phones became a constant, everywhere, these tiny forcefields staining hands and cutlery a faint blue. They were eerie presences, and over the years, the illuminated minutes started to seem more and more accusatory, like countdowns instead of clocks. (‘How long has it been since we ordered?’ ‘Fifteen minutes.’ ‘Fifteen.’). Whenever an order was forgotten, or missed, or messed up, it was always the minutes that were mentioned, a winning card for the argument: ‘We were waiting __ minutes!’
The worst, and most frequent arguments, always revolved around time and the turning of tables. A birthday party arriving five minutes early, blocking a doorway and half-suffocating everyone else with large silver balloons, is dismayed that the table before them is still finishing their cappuccinos. In an identical fashion, the cappuccino sippers will not be herded along until every foam-fleck is consumed, to hell with the allocated booking time they were so concerned about on arrival. Neither table will sacrifice or rush a single minute for the comfort of the other, resulting in staff having to cajole, beg, and finally, remove mugs from clutching hands, to get the first table out. Then the cleaning and resetting of the table will necessarily lend itself to further delay, finally leading to the explosion from the birthday table, tears brewing: ‘I booked a table and it is not ready!’ This happened all the time. In my first restaurant jobs, I apologised, I gave away free drinks, I discounted bills. Then I offered logical explanations, I assured it would only be a few minutes’ delay. Usually this worked, but sometimes, especially in later years, it did not. I was met, not so much with anger, but with disbelief. Emails would be shoved in my face like evidence in a trial. A promise had been made, digitally, and this promise was now being broken, in reality, by me. The pure betrayal on the expressions I was sometimes faced with seemed child-like, uncanny when drawn across the canvas of an adult face, like bad CGI. Nothing I said or did could provide comfort. In the end, I learned to ignore them, in the hope that, like toddlers, they would someday learn that tantrums did not lead to rewards.
Working in service taught me how to protect myself, to worry less about pleasing people. You can’t take things personally. There isn’t time. I learned a bedrock of fearlessness in my first London pub. As I offered ices and slices to bankers, I remember a co-worker telling me, ‘You don’t have to be nice to them, you know. They are the enemy.’ A friend of mine used to enjoy kicking people out at eleven, a manic glint in his eye as he stood on full picnic tables, tap-dancing around pint glasses and howling at a gauzy moon above the Shard until people fled. Men used to flap ten-pound notes across the bar counter to try and get us to serve them first, and my friend would take the cash, pocket it, then serve every girl before them. ‘I thought it was a tip for my hard work!’ my friend would cry. This did once result in a pint glass being thrown at us.
In pubs, there was no time for shyness, and no need to schmooze the customers (as there was no chance of tips). My whole life, I’d had people asking me to repeat myself because I talked too quietly, but by the end of my first Friday night on a bar twenty-deep, I’d learned how to shout, ‘What do you want?’ with such vehemence that I’d unwittingly caused someone else to stutter for the first time. Then, over the next eleven years, I moved along as jobs got old and I got older, manoeuvring from pub to bar to coffee shop to restaurant. And when I needed it, not too often, I remembered the mantra, when dealing with the angry drunks, the waist-grabbers, the tutters, the eye-rollers, the can-I-speak-to-your-managers, the finger-clickers, the head-shakers, the whiners, the whimperers, the screamers and the sobbers: ‘You don’t have to be nice to them, you know.’
MAKING IT UP
Waitressing is a career of invention. It often involves an exaggeration of reality, a quick, charming lie to keep things running smoothly. An old manager of mine once convinced a table that a nail that had fallen into a guest’s grilled fish from a loose shelf in the kitchen was, in fact, just part of a fish hook, leftover from the fisherman’s own line that morning. Another time I forgot to warn a table that the elegant moss upon which their oyster was served was not meant to be eaten, and had to convince them that the dirt they had just consumed was a burnt breadcrumb.
In smaller restaurants, service was a collective performance that required an intense solidarity. I haven’t ever played on a sports team, but from watching sports movies, I imagine it was similar. A menu briefing before service could feel a little like an American football team’s huddle. If someone’s rhythm was off, everyone was fucked. As in sport, the pressure could be psychologically damaging. The team performance came to matter more than the individual’s capacity to work. Because staff shortages were common, I found myself easily talked into working sixty hours a week. As there was often no one else to call in for cover, I knew I would be screwing over everyone I worked with, from kitchen to floor, if I didn’t turn up. Shifts could be panic-inducing. Sometimes I had more tasks running in my mind than I could physically or mentally accomplish. When I was running an outside section on my own and the sun suddenly reared, or I was trying to remember, to the second, when a table had finished their fourth course from a set menu of twelve, or when I looked into a crowd of sweaty faces behind a bar and heard a chorus of shouting so loud and constant, it would all became as unintelligible as white noise.
One of the best representations of the emotional reality of waitressing I’ve seen is in the 1974 film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, with its comically exaggerated ambience of cutlery and demands. I love the scene where Flo takes a sobbing Alice outside for a necessary and elongated cigarette break mid-shift in a toilet cubicle, to philosophise about their life choices and possibilities while absolute chaos ensues inside. Everyone I worked with cried at some point, and again, the response was sports-coach-like: Take five minutes and get your head back in the game. Or, sometimes, it could be more stage-mum-esque: The show must go on, baby! But there was comfort there, too: the chefs would soften, someone would give you a cigarette, a hug, and afterwards make fun of you gently enough that the crying seemed silly, and everyone would agree that whoever, or whatever, had made you cry, was not worth remembering. And it worked, for me, at least—because I remember the comfort much more clearly than any of the times I cried.
Sometimes services went really well. People were lulled into a pleasant tipsiness, and tables would start talking to each other, asking about each other’s food, which led to them asking about each other’s lives. Couples would hold hands, their eyes turning gooey, and they would start giving all the wait staff compliments on our outfits. When people were happy, they were grateful and kind, like people who were slightly stoned. Sometimes running between the kitchen and the floor felt like crossing between two worlds, between the tension in the back where something was on fire, and the front, where I pretended everything was perfect. And sometimes it did feel that way, a loud, noisy, messy version of perfection: a lot of people who liked each other talking at the same time.
DID YOU CLOCK OUT?
Waitressing taught me how to talk, and then it taught me how to write. I spent years before my shifts typing stories that travelled in no direction, circling and circling around the drain of my own anxious thoughts. I could make sentences, but they weren’t interesting, even to myself, and they came out of my own head. I wrote because I wanted to be able to connect with people, to get away from myself and try to understand a larger, more honest, more meaningful and chaotic world. In Last Night at the Lobster, there’s a beautiful scene where Manny sits in his car after locking up, alone after this final shift, and he considers going back in to steal the singing marlin off the wall. For a second, he sees himself, ‘driving away with the beak poking out a window’. It only lasts a second, a moment of unique yearning in an ordinary life. A yearning to hang onto something of the essence of a restaurant and the people he loved there, beyond the wage packet and the complaint cards and the lobsters clawing at each other in the tank. Being a waitress, for me, was an interruption of extraordinary reality everyday, in all its longing and loving, and it reminded me that life and people were weird and funny, and stories should be, too. It was a contradiction, maybe, to feel free at a job where I was completely at the mercy of the whims of others, but that was how it felt. Because sometimes knowing what’s going on backstage can make you feel like you’re the one running the whole show.