Thursday, February 01, 2007

Bad Jobs No. 5

In Israel, there is a mandatory 3 year military commitment when you turn 18. Despite the continued urgings of my father, there is no such requirement here in the U.S. I'm not sure I agree with him on that count, but I do think that there should be at least a requirement, to be exercised at any age under 30, stating that all citizens of the U.S. must work as waiters for at least one year.

First of all, everyone should know what goes on in restaurant kitchens. They should know that, to begin, all restaurants have cockroaches. Each and every one. With any luck, none of them, known for their Courtney Love-like resiliance, appears in the dining room. Instead, they should stay behind the scenes, which of course puts them much closer to the food.

Second, unless you're working in a high-end place -- which comes with its own set of challenges -- your kitchen is generally populated with some of the more scary and possibly criminal elements of society. Again, where best to put them? Close to the food.

In California, restaurant kitchens, again, except for the high-end ones, are manned by Spanish-speaking people from South American countries, convicts of all colors, illegal aliens from Europe who are "on holiday." How "on holiday" includes washing dishes in the back of Chili's escapes me.

Third, you should be required to work in restaurants because this is where you will learn that PEOPLE WILL DO ANYTHING. Given the correct set of circumstances, the most pressing personal needs, or the correct combination of mild-altering substances, people will do whatever they need or want to do, with little regard for the consequences of their actions. If that means tipping $3 on a $100 tab, or hosting a party that begins at 1:00 a.m. when you were in a dead sleep at 12:59, so be it.

In late January, 1991, on the heels of a December that began with me having three restaurant jobs and ended, inexplicably, with no jobs and $12 to my name, I rented a car and drove to my parents' house in Orange County. Once again grad school loomed, this time in San Francisco the following September.

Also, I had this new girlfriend. Kind of looked like Sandra Bullock, lived about a half-hour outside of San Francisco. Very organized. Unlikely to ever stab me during an argument.

But the plan, as much as I could formulate an actual plan, was to make a short pit stop in Orange County, then join Noodles' Mom in South Carolina to watch over her while the Rocket Scientist blasted away at bogeys in Iraq.

Upon reaching OC, however, I got word that Noodles' Mom was rocking back and forth in front of her TV, watching CNN and making sure that none of the casualties were slightly nerdy MIT grads who looked a little bit like Troy Aikman. "It's not a good idea to go there," my mother said, followed quickly by, "HAVE YOU GOTTEN A JOB YET?"

Two weeks later, I was climbing the walls of Sandra Bullock's townhouse, 30 miles outside of San Francisco. Each day I took BART into the city, then walked into restaurants and asked if they were "taking applications." Again, for reasons unclear to this day, I felt that my best option was to get another job in a restaurant. I mean, isn't that what writers did?

As a San Francisco neophyte, I didn't yet know that nobody gets jobs at the tourist restaurants. Like any newbie, I figured Fisherman's Wharf was where the big money was. Nobody bothered to tell me that:

1) Europeans like to pretend that they don't understand this crass American concept, what is eet you say, teeping?

2) People from the outlying areas come into San Francisco and, if they know absolutely nothing, dine at chain restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf. They work hard for their money, and they're loathe to give it to you unless you earn it.

3) The worst of stereotypes can often seem true when you have just refilled a Coke for the twenty-third time: large groups of young, blinged-out black men are lousy tippers. Groups of gay men are great tippers. Old people tip 10%, but are usually so nice that you don't mind.

4) Drunk people are the X-factor. They might be feeling good, they might want to save as much as they can so they can maximize their drinking opportunities.

5) Smokers are good tippers, but I'd already learned that the previous year, working in a comedy club in Seattle.

So I got this job at the Fisherman's Wharf branch of Houlihan's, one of those vaguely Irish-themed restaurant/bars with oversized, laminated menus. I was trained by this young guy who I thought was stoned, only to find out later that he was just plain dense. And stoned. Often.

But he'd done well at Houlihan's, so he was in charge of training me. He taught me the proper placement of the garnish kale on each plate, how to make a salad, how to greet customers, and suggested that I buy several white 65/35 dress shirts, which require less ironing than 100% cotton ones.

An aside here -- restaurant workers are generally dirty. This is because we have, tops, two sets of clothes to wear to work. And even then, we have only one tie and one apron. And we generally live in apartments and have to do our laundry in laundromats. And since everyone is basically sleeping with everyone else, nobody really cares who's dirty and who's clean.

As I said, life is different in a restaurant.

It may be different now. Just as I spent my temping days during the glory days of artistic types taking $8.50 temporary clerical jobs to make ends meet, so did I wait tables during a time where everyone seemed to be working on some kind of play, painting, novel or movie. As in "Taxi," nobody was an actual waiter, except Chris Shuler, who went to Columbia, majored in fine arts, didn't mind it if I called her "Shu," and would answer, "I'm a waitress," if anyone asked what she did.

Waiters are the best, or at least were. Even at Houlihan's, which, I would quickly learn, was not just cheesy but was "corporate," making working there like selling out on top of your selling out. We had a rule book, a training manual and had to toe the line, but we were at least interesting.

Nobody at Houlihan's had any pretense, except for me, maybe, of living a normal life. Shortly before I started there, half the staff had gradually died of AIDS, so management was a bit shell-shocked. While I was working there we lost one guy practically overnight, which was especially strange because, frankly, I didn't like him. My very Puckish friend put that one in my face, though, because he was an activist and he thought I needed to know that this is how it happens sometimes.

My Puckish friend ruled Houlihan's. A young, wiry, gay Midwesterner, he'd come to San Francisco several years prior when it became apparent to him that he could not live anywhere else. He wasn't interested in sugar-coating things, and had so much energy that you half-expected him to disappear while you were talking to him, only to reappear perched on a lamppost a few feet away.

I'd been pretty deep into the restaurant life in Seattle, but there was something more intense about the San Francisco genre. Puck introduced me to all of it. For awhile, anytime something weird happened to me, he was there to either shepherd me through it or encourage me to embrace the weirdness, rubbing his hands together with what I can only describe as glee.

He also gave me the unfiltered low-down on the AIDS crisis, seeing as he was neck-deep in it. He was down several friends, boyfriends, roommates. People were coming in and out of his life, so he'd decided to become a fatalist and not let too much of it get to him. These days, he takes it very seriously as the Director of an outfit that finds housing for AIDS patients. No longer Puckish, and in precarious health, I still saw him described as "enthusiastic" a few months ago in the SF Weekly.

Who knew, as they sat down to dinner at their corny Fisherman's Wharf faux-Irish restaurant, that their waiter ("server" in Houlihan's lexicon) had recently performed a one-man show at Josie's Cabaret? Or that he had, a few weeks earlier, showered tourists with the pennies he'd been left as a tip, throwing them out the windows and shouting, "You forgot your change!"

Nobody knew that one of the waiters was a drummer from Memphis, that one of the managers was sleeping with one of the hostesses, who was dating one of the bartenders, or that one of the other managers, only a few years earlier, had been on the same University of Texas baseball team as Roger Clemens. One day, in our white shirts and green ties, he and I played catch in the middle of the Wharf tourists. He could still bring it.

And who could have sensed that, among this cohort of misfits, there were some who were committed to the "company man" ideal, albeit in restaurant terms. Ask me how it feels to be written up for chewing gum on the job because Ann turned me into management, even though her girlfriend Elaine thought it was a cheap shot.

Every so often they'd slip in a law student or biologist, just to stir things up. One guy came in from New Mexico, an old friend of the baseball-playing manager. Prone to wearing bright white tennis shoes and fraternity sweatshirts, he tried to function as if he were still a Sigma Chi, only to lose all credibility by having a very public rendezvous at a party with Puck, who did it only as a political statement, and then, in absolute confusion, taking a swing as one of the hostesses before getting thrown out onto the street by one of the bartenders.

These were the last times in my life that I saw the sun rise with regularity. The parties were great, but the job sucked. I used to walk around telling people that "If Charlie Manson walked through that door with a twenty in his hand, I'd have to wait on him." Puck said I suffered from feeling that the job was "beneath me." Well, sure. There was that.

By now, my two pairs of poly/cotton pants were starting to fall apart, and grad school was about to begin. Restaurant cliques have a very short life span. About a year in, everyone gets restless. Since most people hate the job itself, are treated poorly by management and customers, and can't count on a steady cash flow, they're constantly looking for new jobs. Everyone promises everyone else that they'll bring them along to their new job, but it never happens.

Autumn seemed like a good time to leave. Even more so that night a bunch of people came in from Hayward, joked around with me during the mean, and then left me $5 on an $85 check. Here's the great part of waiting tables: there is absolutely nothing you can do to get them to change, to understand that they've done something wrong, or to make yourself feel better.

I spun away from their table, fuming, looking for a manager. Fortunately, I stopped to talk to Bill, a bartender, an older guy (probably all of 35) who let nothing bother him. "There's nothing you can do, dude," he told me. "Just gotta move on to the next table."

No way, I thought. Not this time. I strode back to the table and confronted the diners. "Was there something wrong with my service?" I said. Reading that sentence today makes me wince.

"No, it was fine," they said.

"Well, you tipped me $5. That works out to about 6 percent.

"Yeah, well, that's what you deserve."

Bright, vibrant colors flashed before my eyes. I mean, I know that's what I deserve, even more so today, but the agreement in the restaurant world is supposed to be "I do my job okay, you tip me at least 15%." We get minimum wage, and they take taxes out based on 8% tips. So every two weeks, I'm getting a paycheck of around $100.

That's what I deserve.

I hit them back with some kind of vehemence appropriate for someone about to begin his second Masters program in Creative Writing, thinking that, somewhere up in the place where they tally who wins and who loses, I was getting some good points for berating these losers. They would crumble under my formidable wit.

So what do you think? Did they slink out of the restaurant? Did they reach into their pockets and lay down a couple more sawbucks? Did they apologize?

None of the above. They laughed at me and made some kind of gay slur, the reasoning being that, since I was a waiter in San Francisco I was gay. And worth $5.

It deteriorated from there. My only recourse was to insult their city of origin. I went for the "you're a bunch of hicks who don't know how to act in the city," angle, which upset them, enough that I looked in all directions upon leaving work that evening. For the rest of the night, I assumed they were trashing my motorcycle, somehow figuring out that it was mine.

And again, let me repeat: there was nothing I could do.

Two weeks later I was out of there. Somewhere along the line, Puck and I got this idea that it would be really cool to be bike messengers. Which is another story entirely.

My last night at Houlihan's was the first night Sandra Bullock and I lived together. It ended in someone's apartment in the Tenderloin, and then running up the middle of Hyde Street at 5 a.m., trying to get home before someone mugged me.

The next afternoon I woke up in my new, very small co-habitation apartment, vowing to never don the apron of the waiter again. Like most of my personal proclamations, this one proved false. I'd be back in the building within three months.

It's like war. You get so close to these people for such a short period of time and then they're gone. Last year Puck had a party to bring a bunch of Houlihan's people together. I went, but I didn't have much to say to anyone. Nor did anyone have much to say to anyone else. The French woman had divorced his husband, who now was gay. The no-nonsense waitress had three kids and was living in Marin. Puck's old roommate was living in Diamond Heights and headlining a Tennessee Williams revival in Oakland. His health seemed pretty good.

And Ann was still bagging on me for chewing gum. Not everyone becomes your best friend.


Anonymous Noodle's Mom said...

Good thing there's no restaurants here; cause I'm never eating in one again.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

two things:

a) being a waitress is the one thing on the list of 'three jobs i'd like to have' that i've actually accomplished. i was a "server" at a family-owned puerto rican restaurant in chicago. being the only white person working there, they all called me "the blonde girl" which might be interesting to those of you who have seen me in real life.

2) another reason the israeli army is a better deal than waiting tables is because along with your semi-automatic weapon they issue you a cell phone and as many condoms as you want, both of which are very helpful considering a) the fact that you are serving with thousands of other people in their early 20's and you can't let a little thing like preserving national security interfere with your social life.

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh wow what an embarrassing comment considering i teach, among other things, writing and the whole a) followed by 2) followed by an a) with no b) makes me look a) clueless and disorganized b) drunk, neither of which i am, just a little strung out from writing report cards, which i am sure gives all the parents from my school who read this blog and see my comment all the confidence in my competence as an educator.

ugh. embarrassing.

okay--i get it. this is my karmic payback for the whole saxOphone thing.

12:09 AM  
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