So, today—well, it’s like everyday, but sometimes more connective than others. A small sea of tables wait quietly and orderly in the dining room. Glinting glassware waiting to be filled. Empty tables waiting for me to wait. Every newly seated table is a microcosm, a little world unto itself. Walking up is a quick study’s dream or nightmare. If the notes in the books don’t tell you, someone will, or someone might not, and you have to Dr. Who the situation. What kind of planet is this? Who are the inhabitants? What’s the occasion? Birthday, business meeting, lady friends, divorce, bridal shower, new baby, new job, old lover.
The costumes of suit and tie, business casual, bib-and-brace overalls, dresses or dungarees don’t always give away a station in life or the event unfolding, but the collective mood certainly does. One look at all the faces’ reactions when I greet them, and I know if I’m going to have to sing and tap dance or stay the hell away, deliver the goods, and just bring the check when they give me the stink-eye or the flagging arm. I work harder on the real salty ones; sometimes all a miserable person needs is a warm meal, delivered by a kind person.
There’s a certain distance in the relationship between waitress and guests. I call them guests because, there’s language for business transactions and they get ever more friendly down the chain. Clients go to Morgan Stanley to get rich, customers go to Ace Hardware to get tools, and guests go to restaurants to dine. These are not guests in your home who you necessarily know and like, but you still give them your best food and winning charm, because these guests give you money to pay your rent.
“We’re all windshield psychologists,” I explain, “like bartenders and hairdressers, except people don’t always communicate with us, they just expect miracles.” To mean, there’s a reality screen we look through, a barrier between who we are, the bringer of things, the facilitator of food, and who we “take care” of at the table. They don’t always see us as human. They assume this is just something we do in the meantime of getting a real job or in some cases, a real relationship, because restaurant hours can be odd and difficult and the only people you meet are the ones that sit down at your tables or work the little microcosms alongside you. My day shift companion, Ada, once bemoaned the lonely task of being on the outside of life’s celebrations as the behind the scenes service, “you know, I’m never the bride, I’m not even the bridesmaid, I’m the bride’s waitress!”
Sometimes, I just want to blurt out the obvious. “What do I DO? I bring you your food, motherfucker! Isn’t that good enough? DO you think I can handle that?”
But I give them a pass, and let it go every time, because, really, it’s a compliment. They think me better suited for higher pursuits. Except that I don’t want or need a better suit—I’m already putting on my version of the uniform and while it’s not the corporate noose, it’s like going into battle every day. Every time I tie on that black apron, I think of it like my little kung fu belt. And every battle brings a new or familiar friend or foe.
Then there’s the matter of drawing first blood . . .
When I approach, I always assess who’s in charge, who’s the dominant personality or pocketbook at the table. Whether or not there will be one check, two checks split between two couples, two high-rollers in a check presenter, tug-of-war dick-match of “no no no, I got this,” or seven purple-haired matrons pushing paper bills and pecking at change like pigeons before I get the miscounted pile of crumpled ones that smell faintly of rosewater. Or worse, I very quickly figure out who thinks he is in charge. The finger-snapping asshat, calling me ma’am, or hon, or some other overly familiar term of endearment, pointing and whirling his finger in the air to indicate the rounds of shots he is about to rain down on his often reluctant “guests.” This is when I assert that nothing happens, no food or drink gets negotiated from the kitchen or bar and in fact, I am in charge. And my name is not “darlin’.” Also, here’s some fried cheese and another bread basket to sop up that 40 year old Scotch in the meanwhile, sweetie.
Waitressing is a bit like turning tricks, except I don’t have to get naked. It’s an interesting exchange and while I have the vantage, there’s no need to display the plunging neckline or the high rise skirt to manage the net effect. I just look and speak very directly and very playful and always first. Foreplay. It works on grandmas too. But forming alliances with women in the same age range is kinda tough out here. The play is far more complimentary and charming, delicate and disarming. It’s a minor triumph when a woman isn’t giving you the up and down and cutting you off at the knee highs or dismissing you as an annoying bit of fluff trying to seduce her boyfriend or girlfriend or husband. Among a solid group of catty women, there doesn’t even need to be other men around to establish an unnecessary competition. This is always a game show, honey. Sometimes, I’m the host AND sometimes, the contestant. Cash and prizes.
But more importantly, this is lunch. Turn and burn. Greet ‘em, seat ’em, feed ‘em, and street ‘em.
My first guest is the horse breeder who talks very passionately about this endangered breed called Rocky Mountain. But he describes them wonderfully as this sort of dappled grey Appaloosa-type with a long blondish-silver mane.
“Very rare and beautiful,” he says. “Smooth gait, sure-footed, and able to tolerate harsh winters.”
I look out the window at what looks like snow clouds, wishing I were standing in a meadow with a warm blanket.
He owns one who is about to “foal” which is horse-speak for “give birth.” He sounds like a proud father. I confess that I’ve never been in a saddle, that my only experience with horses were coming across a sadly neglected pair at a southern California stable when I was a young girl. The owner rattled up in a clunker Toyota truck once every week or so, and so I took to using the rotted wooden brushes on them and feeding them carrots and they politely took to me riding them wild and bareback.
This led to an animated discussion about carrot cake and what kind of frostings are appropriate on dessert. We decide heavily on buttercream, french cream, and cream cheese vs. the nasty shortening batters.
“Ahh, to have silver and silky hair like french cream, like a unicorn,” I mused, bringing back the conversation to the impossible, endangered horse.
He then kindly notes my filly figure with, “Well, you appear to keep yourself in shape.”
I do not play coy and pishaw. I say nothing and smile warmly, letting it move slowly across my face like a sunrise before it meets my eyes where I measure him directly, until he averts his eyes, embarrassed. He talks to me nervously then, fumbles through a few quick topics, comments on the cold weather, stuffs his arms clumsily into his coat, and sheepishly backs out the door with a quick wave. Leaving a wad of money on my counter. My work is done here.
Then my buddy Bruce comes in. Bruce of the nice smile, polite conversation about our weekends, and the never-failing $5 tip, which is often the price of his meal. He tells me today that I look well-rested. I tell him it’s a complete lie and an utter facade—that I went down around 4am and rose around 9. I tell him he is mistaking the look of rest for the look of satisfaction. He laughs and says, “that’s why I love you.” I fail to mention how the imagined hours of tortured bliss were spent, but he can—which is why I don’t need to bother. With my guests, I have learned something about the efficiency and economy of language. Say little, and what you do say, be clever, pointed, and concise with it. You only have so much time and so do they. If they want to know more about who you really are behind the windshield, they’ll ask. Bruce often asks.
Bruce is a car mechanic and we make silly comments, astute observations, and totally irrational judgments on what kind of people drive what kind of cars. Total character sketches of the people. I wish all my guests were like Bruce. He never complains, he always has something nice to say, and he tips fat, no matter how far in the weeds or distracted I get. I always come by and put a hand on his shoulder and give him extra everything. We have an understanding and look out for each other. Once, he brought me back a blanket from Mexico because he remembered mine got destroyed in a basement flood. Attention to detail and thoughtful. An irrefutably charming combo.
Then my twin suit guys stride in. I don’t know their names, but I know the one is a constant, and the other rotates. One comes in to see me and brings the random associate every time. He always whispers something to the “Suit of the Day” about me which he thinks I can’t hear but always do. And he always says something nice to me about how sweet I am and how efficiently I anticipate his needs. The food’s always on time and he has a bottomless glass of diet coke with lemon and never has to ask for refills.
He is forever impressed that I remember the five standbys he always orders and that I am able to name them off so he can pick one, including all the specifications of no onions and extra this or that and temperatures. Then I throw in the special, because he invariably asks, “anything new?” and he clearly wants to hear me deliver it like it’s the best thing he’ll ever eat, (which will never be me, no matter how many different and non-subtle approaches he tries) and I only recite the damned thing just to see if I can break his predictability, and I never can. “Turkey Reuben sub fries for salad, no onions with extra Russian Dressing on the side it is.”
“How DO you do it?” he asks, with a layer of chintzy come-on and leering slime.
I feel like a naked magician who just showed him a new “mind-blowing bedroom move” from Cosmopolitan Magazine. The way he says my name makes me want to take a Silkwood shower.
I tell him it’s my special Rain Main trick, my deeply ingrained mnemonic device system that’s too weird to explain how it works, how I code in my mind.
“Besides, you don’t want to know what I call you in my head,” I say and smile a confusing smile that doesn’t meet my eyes. I have never called him by name for a reason. I have my own special nicknames for people I don’t like, and they hint at some offending part of their personality or some crappy interaction we had. He takes this as encouragement. This little morsel is enough to both shut him down momentarily in his own fantasy and to keep him regular twice a week. He’s harmless enough and if nothing else, appreciative. He also knows EXACTLY how my ass looks when I walk away.
Then my chili dog and cheesesteak guy comes in late just before the sleet storm hits. A stocky, well-dressed black man, kind of short, but his stature is not a strike against him by any means. He has amazing hands, delicate and square, with ornate ruby and sapphire rings, amber eyes, and the most beautiful skin, like cocoa burnished mahogany. He always comes in smelling of soft musk, powder, and something slightly citrus. If his aromatic aura had a color it would be like a pale spring green mixed with a grey tint. I had no idea what my problem was with free-association until I read about it. Me, the synesthete, The (Wo)Man Who Tasted Shapes. It’s certainly made my descriptions cross boundaries. Sometimes I smell him first, even with my back turned to the prep station, and it’s always pleasant and so today I finally remark on it and describe it for him just as I did here for you.
“Oooooh girl, you KNOW how put that together,” he says with a wink. And it comes off as nothing but sugar and silk. A coo and a compliment, without a hint of creepy.
He tells me it’s an oil he wears that a little old lady from Africa makes for him, “she just moved to the neighborhood and could use the money,” he says turning the rings between his fingers. I nod, looking at this self-conscious motion, and his custom-tailored suit and know that he not only has the money, he has the heart to give it. He then asks if i like the perfume “Heavenly” from Victoria’s Secret (brought to you by the people who assure you’ll get laid in style).
I admit that I do like the scent, and find it odd that of all the possible perfumes he could pick, or if I could afford to wear one, THAT’S the one I currently like. I had a paper magazine sample that I kept tucked in my bathroom drawer and rubbed all the uses I could out of it. Hit it with the hair dryer just to be sure I melted the last essence of it. I can’t throw down my hard-earned money on expensive toiletries, but I like this idea of customized essential oils.
I look this “Heavenly” up later and I learn that a perfume opens, like eyes, has a heart, and a base. Eyes, to chest, to ass. In that order, the unfortunate and typically female assessment. “Heavenly” is described as “a very American perfume: clear, with a thin bouquet which smells like the clean and warm skin of a woman. The perfume opens with notes of quince, cardamom, ivy, and mandarin. The heart includes lotus, white peony, freesia, iris and violet. The base contains white musk, sandalwood, orchid and vanilla.”
He said if liked “Heavenly,” wait until I try what she concocts for me. He describes her innate ability to craft the perfect scent for the perfect person as a sort of voodoo rite.
“My treat,” he tells me, “I’ll bring some by this week.”
“Yummy!” I clap with excitement. “New animal scent. Jitterbug Perfume.”
He smiles and adds, “for the genius waitress.”
I am proud to be a poem. To be assumed as literate. And to be understood.
On the way home from work I stare out the windshield at the clouds. There’s a band of them, fat, puffy and black-lined, as if drawn by sidewalk chalk, sort of slung sideways in big arcs like ripples in beach sand after a tide, or shark’s gills, or the sound that pulses and hangs in the air after a crossbow is plucked—or the rings under my eyes in the rearview mirror—Jesus Christ Almighty, I need some sleep!
The snow has just begun, the first snow, and not a very impressive one. A gentle November flurry. A minor threat. I’m going to take a shower, and wrap up in the Mexican Blanket and hope it warms me with the hot soup and Kung Fu movie marathon I’m about to tuck into.
Kung Fu, like well-prepared food, is good for the soul. And the fighting response. And translates well to waitressing skills. I can hear a utensil drop at 10 paces, fill water before ice rattles in a swirling glass, carry a dozen wine glasses, in one hand, threaded between my fingers and stacked like spun sugar, and I can balance four to five meals along the rails of my arms. I can see the error on the plate before the mistake goes out to the table. I lift the hot cauldron with my forearms every day and brand the dragon on one side and a tiger on the other. David Carradine would be proud.
Kung Fu, like waiting tables, is graceful and fierce, protective of its village, its master, its honor, and excellent for keeping the mind and the body in balance while spinning plates and polishing butterfly swords. OK . . . steak knives. But it keeps me light on my toes, bright in my heart, and ever hungry for a good fight and a fitful meal afterwards.
Every time I put on that little black waist apron, it is my Gi. And I am well-prepared. Mise en place. Everything in order. I watch the clouds for the direction of the wind and the approaching storm. I watch them through the windshield. I wait for the guests to populate my little arc of planets, every one a microcosm, every one containing friend or foe, and all of them, with a little piece of my livelihood.
They can smell the food; I am safe and familiar. And I know exactly what they like. I know them so well, I can smell them by the door as they arrive.