Waiting (Tables, That Is)

This may be a bit surprising, but I actually have a sister who is twenty-one years older than I am and her name is Sherry. She is technically my half sister and no, we did not grow up together. But I do have some fond memories of her coming over to visit when I was younger. She would take me ice skating and teach me to make spaghetti sauce and garlic bread. Her mom is Italian—maybe that is where I got it from?

One of the earliest memories I have of Sherry and also one of the most vivid, is of her teaching me how to carry three plates at one time. I was five years old, which would have made Sherry about twenty-six. She was working as a server at Black Angus and balancing multiple plates of food was an important part of her job.

I can still see the empty Tupperware plates she held in her hands—a rainbow of orange, green, and gold. She delicately balanced one on her left forearm, the second on her left palm, and the third plate she grasped with her right thumb on top and other fingers tightly gripping the bottom. Of course, the plates were empty and they hardly weighed anything, so I was able to master this balancing act relatively quickly and with few imaginary spills. We proudly sauntered through the hallways, carrying our plates.

When that became too easy, we decided to up the ante by trying to balance them while walking down stairs. This proved to be a bit more challenging, but I loved every minute of it, and it naturally made me want to become a server when I grew up—partially because balancing all those plates was super cool, but even more so because Sherry was a server, and I thought absolutely everything she did was cool.

As I grew more steadily into adolescence, my dream of waiting tables was replaced by various other career ambitions. When I started reading Little House on the Prairie, I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, like Laura Ingles Wilder. Then I wanted to be a hairdresser, an interior decorator, a fashion designer, a columnist for Seventeen magazine, and then a buyer for a major department store. By the time I was fifteen, I had forgotten about serving all together, but was swiftly reminded of it one afternoon while watching an episode of Oprah.

The show was all about tipping. It covered the customary percentage to give in various situations and how many people in America tended to under-tip their servers, hairdressers and taxi drivers. I don’t always love Oprah, but for that show, God bless her. She featured a variety of scenes with people eating out at restaurants around the country, and at the bottom of the screen, the total amount of the bill was highlighted and underneath it was the “expected tip.”

As I was watching, I started to mentally add all of the expected tips until it finally showed a group of about six people eating at a sushi restaurant in L.A. The estimated tip that they were supposed to give their server was seventy-five dollars.

For one table?? I thought to myself.

That was all it took to convince me. I started seeing dollar signs and knew that serving would be the perfect way to put myself through college.

A few years later, I was in college and had just returned from my semester abroad in Italy when my friend told me that his buddy, Ricky, was opening up a bar in Downtown Long Beach. They needed cocktail servers and he thought I should apply.

“I’d love to,” I told him, “but I have to admit that I don’t have much experience outside of working at In-N-Out and Round Table Pizza.”

“So you know how to take orders, handle cash, and give customer service, right?”

“I do!” I said.

This friend of mine was named Ian, but he went by Gents as a means of distinguishing himself—think of it as his own personal branding technique. He could sweet talk his way out of a death sentence and had a born entrepreneurial spirit.

I originally met him when I was living in the dorms at Cal State Long Beach, although Gents didn’t live in the dorms. At the tender age of eighteen, he thought it would be a good idea to start his own shuttle service that safely delivered freshmen girls from their dorm rooms to the frat parties on the other side of town. That way, we could all freely engage in under-age drinking and he would be waiting as our designated driver. He borrowed his parents’ van, and everything.

“See, you’ve got all the skills you need to be a great server already,” Gents said. “Just play up those and I’ll vouch for you on the rest.”

I agreed, and then called Ricky to set up an interview. The interview took place in the upstairs office that was above the bar, but I had to wait below until the owner was ready to see me. As I was waiting for him, a woman walked into the bar and started talking to me.

“Are you here for an interview?” she asked.

I introduced myself and told her I was.

“Ricky’s been complaining about how none of the girls he’s interviewed have been able to name more than one or two brands of vodka,” she said. “Can you name at least five different brands off the top of your head?”

I had just turned twenty-one while I was in Italy and could only think of about two different vodka brands. My first thought was of the Sky advertisement I had seen in a magazine and the next was of an Absolute ad. Other than that, I was drawing a blank.

She saw me struggling and said, “Repeat after me: Absolute, Grey Goose, Belvedere, Stoli, and Sky.”

I repeated the vodka names and the woman smiled.“Okay, now go tell him that when he asks you.”

I did exactly as she said and sailed through my interview.

“It’s about time we got someone in here who knows a thing or two about alcohol,” Ricky had said after my brilliant recitation of vodka brands. I just smiled and played it up like a champ.

After the interview, I went back downstairs to thank that mysterious woman, but she was nowhere to be found. I never saw her again, but sometimes like to think of her as an angel sent to launch my serving career.

And here I am, almost eight years later, still waiting tables in addition to my part-time teaching jobs. Over the years, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with serving, sometimes loving the fast and steady stream of cash, and other times feeling indignant about having to work on holidays and buy my own health insurance.

Now that I’m heading out to New York, I couldn’t be happier about having this profession to fall back on while I write and get settled. I’m already researching restaurants I may want to work at and am finding that in New York City, I better have a resume with me when I show up to my job interviews. Even for a serving position.

I haven’t started writing my serving resume yet, but am in the process of brainstorming things to add to it—like the fact that I mastered the art of carrying three plates down a flight of stairs when I was five years old. That’s not a bad opening line for my cover letter, is it?